Celebrating our '50 States' Adventure, I'm writing 50 short stories that take place in each state. Below is another post, which will be in the ebook, '50 Short Stories in 50 States', available after the conclusion of our tour. Enjoy.
I learned that life isn't fair in 1959 on the Mississippi River. My dad, in a
wonderful and unexpected show of being human, allowed me to use the rowboat that summer.
"Bobby, you're going to be an adult soon," he said, "so you need to enjoy
yourself this summer. Marcia is old enough to take care of herself, so you can get out a bit. Probably won't get a chance like this again."
Incredulous and afraid he'd change his mind, I asked him how far I could take it.
"As far as you like. Upriver or down. But be home on time for dinner or I'll
warm your butt."
I knew the threat to be real.
Upriver it would be, and the next morning I set out with Johnny Ray, but we were Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. We made an agreement that I (Huck) would row upstream and he would take us back. Since he was two years younger than me, it seemed fair. That year 'Oh, Donna' sung by Ritchie Valens made the top of the hits. I must have played that song a thousand times on the record player. Mom had a couple of records, Pat Boone and Bing Crosby. Dad hated my music, so I had to play it when he was at work. My favorite song was 'Mack the Knife' by Bobby Darin. It stuck in my head as we headed out the first day with a sack of peanut butter sandwiches and two Cokes that Tom stole from his dad. Neither one of us lived on the river, so we carried the boat between old man Crenshaw's house and the Boysen twins' place, older girls who never knew we existed. Crenshaw caught us and asked us what we were doing. After we told him, he said we could keep the boat at his dock.
Our simple life just got simpler.
I held the boat for Johnny as he climbed in.
"So how long can you stay out?"
"My dad don't care if I ever come back."
I put the oars in the oarlocks. "Wow. So you can be Huck Finn and I'll be Tom Sawyer."
I rowed out a bit and we embarked on a three month adventure into the river, the forests, and life full of adventures and heartbreak.
I rowed upstream and Johnny-this is, Huck-held onto both sides as we glided past the park, under the railroad trestle and up to Earel Camp Road. The sun beat down and I took my shirt and shoes off. Twice Johnnie and I jumped in the water after beaching the boat. I couldn't take my eyes off it for fear I'd lose it and worse yet, lose the precious freedom my father granted to me.
The sun beat down relentlessly as we ate our lunch that first day, entirely too early. We sat in a clearing with mud dried to our ankles from the gooey mess that ran from the river to firmer ground. This year the river ran low from the drought.
"Tomorrow we bring fishing poles."
Johnny swallowed a huge gob of sandwich. "Don't got one."
"I got two." I'd borrow Marcia's. She never used it. Being eleven, she steered toward dolls. I scanned the area. "We need to find a good tree. Bring a rope and make a really big rope swing. Bigger than Danny Arlens'."
"Think we can?"
Johnny rowed back as I fretted about the time. The first day and I better not be late. We tied the boat at Crenshaw's dock and I ran home. I crashed through the back door with Johnny in my wake. Mom stood at the oven with a mitt on and pulled out a fresh batch of cookies.
"What time is it?"
She set the sheet down and looked at her watch "Almost 1:30. Would you like a cookie?"
Johnny said, "Sure." We sat at the table and I smacked my forehead.
We arrived four and a half hours early.
Each day we got better. I rowed farther, Johnny rowed upstream some, and we packed 'provisions,' including the rope, fishing poles, my b.b. gun, matches, knives, butter, more and more food, and tackle. We caught fish and fried them for lunch. Our expeditions got bigger too as we ventured to the Iowa side of the river, avoiding the huge barges that slid by. But mostly we stuck to the Illinois side and discovered more territory upstream, Lewis and Clark searching out the forests and fields. We built a huge rope swing. The attachment to the tree took courage, as I crawled out the massive branch and kept going as it got thinner. Three times I fell off into the water and the third time it knocked the wind out of me and I struggled to the beach and flopped on my back, gasping for air.
"Maybe we should try a smaller tree. Not so far up."
I struggled to my feet. "No way. This is the tree." I climbed again and got it tied.
The swing, being so long, took a long time and a lot of pushing and swinging to reach its arc, but after numerous times I could fly. Then at full arc, I'd jump into the river. Johnny wouldn't get it swinging much. I tried to push him higher, but it wasn't enough. He would have to pump too but would have nothing of it. Even teasing him about being a chicken had no results.
Each day we went farther, creating places for different activities. Past the
Earel Camp Road, we set up a fort and played cowboys and Indians. Upstream a bit, we found an eddy where the fishing was good. Two hundred yards further, we discovered a meadow where we cleared out a spot for lunch. Maybe a half mile more and we found a beach where we brought our Tonka truck and loader (both mine, he didn't have any) and we built roads, cities, and pools that fed from the river.
A few days longer and a few spots upriver we-that is, I-discovered Sandra
Thompsen. Bored with the trucks, I suggested we go up a bit more. Johnny climbed in and sat on the front of the boat, his legs hanging into the water. I rowed upstream easily as the boat and us learned the ways of the water together. I paddled close to the shore looking for snakes or frogs when we hit a clearing with a house. I spotted her on the deck in a chaise lounge chair. Sandra.
The clouds parted and the sun shone on her straight blond hair, and the music came up. None of that happened, but it might as well have. She was at an angle and reclined on the chair, wearing shorts and a T-shirt. The shorts were purest white and her shirt red. The sun bleached her hair to a bright blond. I stopped rowing and stared. Sandra was two grades ahead of me and in high school. I hadn't seen her in two years. Those years had been good to her. She developed curves and shapes that transformed her from a gawky girl into a goddess.
I turned the boat around and hoped she didn't see me. Johnny sat up with the changing motion.
"What's going on?" he looked around.
"Nothing. Just going back down a bit," I whispered.
"I thought we were going up to Bay Drive."
"Okay. Let's go back and play trucks."
I kept my voice low. "Naw, I don't want to do that." Hopefully, she didn't hear our conversation.
"Cowboys and Indians in the inlet then."
I just wanted to think about Sandra.
I rowed to her place alone. Tied the boat to her dock and sauntered up to her deck. Today, fully prepared, I wore a white shirt untucked with the top button unbuttoned. Sandra laid on the chaise lounge, sleeping. She wore the same outfit, white shorts and red top. Her arms were tanning nicely.
She sat up, startled. "Bobby." She brushed her beautiful golden locks away from her face.
"Mind if I sit down?"
She patted the flat part of the chair beside her.
I sat, really close. She smelled like lilacs. "I saw you row past the other
She nodded and closed her blue eyes for a second. "I've been thinking about you ever since."
"I have too. I've bee-"
She kissed me. She put her long, slender fingers behind my head and pulled it to her face.
That's the scene I rehearsed in my mind, every day, a thousand times, that
summer. The red and white outfit. The hair, brushed back. The kiss. A thousand times. Maybe more.
We didn't mean to take the boat out every day that summer, Johnny and I. Lots of times we'd play hopscotch or find other kids and played tag or Red Rover, but the sun would get up in the sky and beat down on us. We'd take off, and the other kids would beg us to bring them along. But their parents forbid it. Johnny and I would launch as the big men in the neighborhood, and by the time we floated past Sandra's house, we were little boys.
After the first chance meeting, I made sure we rowed past her house, every day. Most days she didn't appear, the star of the stage leaving the hungry crowd of one wanting more. But once in awhile, she would appear as we cleared the trees, sunning, watering flowers, or lying in the hammock. That was the worst, as I could barely see her.
Today, we glided past and Sandra played croquet with her mother. She bent over the ball, the mallet in her hands and her backside to us. An amazing view. She wore polka dotted shorts, blue on white, and her tan legs accented that outfit in an amazing display of beauty. Her mom said something and she laughed a high, carefree, lilting laugh that changed me. If I could make her laugh like that with me, it would be a time of blissful peace and harmony. We would both laugh together.
"Hey man, row," Johnny said.
The boat drifted toward their dock. I back paddled hard while trying to be
quiet. Imagine if we crashed into her dock. Then I'd look idiotic. I steered the boat downstream and let him row.
He steered the boat to Pirate's Island, which wasn't an island, but had a bit of a sandy beach. Johnny got a scarf and tied it on his head. He looked silly.
I decided I would go up to Sandra's place tomorrow. Alone.
Because I couldn't think of a good reason to tell Johnny he couldn't come, I
just took off early by myself. I packed a lunch and some bait. And I brought a white shirt.
Pirate's Island appeared out of the morning mist. I stopped there and practiced. "Hello Sandra. I've been rowing past your house this summer..."
No. "Hi Sandra. I couldn't help but see you."
No. "Sandra. Would you like to go for a ride in my boat?"
Better. Then I would be offering her something.
I wrote her name in the sand with a stick while practicing my lines and carved our initials in a tree, with a heart surrounding them. I tried to practice holding her hand, but holding your own doesn't work. Finally, working up my courage, I got in the boat and paddled to her house. Right as the trees would clear to her yard, I turned back. Repeated the same routine. Wrote her name. Carved another set of initials in another tree. Rehearsed the lines. Paddled to her house.
I couldn't just walk up to the house and knock on her back door. She must be in the back yard for the plan to work. I rowed back to Pirate's Island, the white shirt stuck to my back, soaked with sweat.
Okay. I took off the shirt and hung it on a tree. Swam in the river a bit. Got to get the sweat off. Cursed myself for failing to think of bringing deodorant. Put the shirt back on and once again headed to Sandra's house. I set my will. If she's there, I will get out and talk to her. I rowed slow and easy, but the sweat trickled down the center of my back.
As I rowed closer to her house, I could hear her muffled voice. Then I heard the most beautiful, sound, her lilting laugh as it skipped across the water. I moved the oars slowly though the water to savor the moment and conserve sweat. She spoke again, her voice low. Swiveling my head to find her, I saw her sitting on the dock, just a few feet away.
With Andy Messman, a football player.
What to do? Now I was in their view, rowing upstream. Turning now would look idiotic, so I rowed onward, and they came into full view, seated side by side on the dock with their feet in the water, holding hands. Sandra smiled and waved at me. I stopped rowing with one hand and waved back, then fumbled for the oar. The boat turned toward the shore, so I rowed hard to straighten it.
No way I'm going back by her yard. I bore down on the left oar and made a long arcing turn through the middle of the river and soon I could see the two of them on the dock.
Then Andy kissed her. Right on the mouth. I saw him do it, centered over the stern of the boat. Then he pulled away and smiled at me, with a look that said, 'I got her. You don't.'
He may has well of stabbed me in the heart.
I rowed back home, the song in my head.
I had a girl
And Donna was her name.
Since she left me
I've never been the same.
Cause I love my girl
Donna, where can you be?
I stopped at Pirate's Island and dug the initials out of the trees. Wadded up
the shirt and threw it in the river. As it settled into the depths while moving downstream, I realized my mother would kill me when she found out I lost it.
I rowed home.
Crenshaw wasn't around so I swam a bit to cool off, the sun now bearing down and the humid air still as death. Wandering home, I stole from place to place, surveying the landscape to avoid Johnny and his wrath. Mom met me at the kitchen and gave me an iced tea, dripping with cold droplets on the glass. Mom had the radio on and I sat on the couch with my feet on the coffee table. Perry Como sang. After his song the announcer said, "And now, the Poni Tails." No, please. Not this song. Numerous women harmonized and stabbed my heart with the words.
Born too late for you to notice me
To you, I'm just a kid that you won't date
Why was I born too late?
Mom walked in and said, "Are you okay, honey?"
I wiped my eyes and nodded. "This is a sad song."
"It sure is." She sat beside me and I leaned into her. "You want to talk about it?"
I shook my head and stood.
"Think I'll go find Johnny. Head out to the river."
I walked out of the room and the Poni Tails continued their assault,
I see you walk with another
I wish it could be me
I long to hold and kiss you
But know it never can be.
We'll go upriver and play trucks, pirates, Huck Finn and Tom games. Do some fishing and fry them up. Maybe Johnny could let go of the rope swing today.
But I'll never go by Sandra's house again.