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Crossing the Swamp No one spoke inside the car; the only sound was the road telling us to go back. My sister’s car drove north, a three-year-old late fifties coupe plowing through the level marshland of the Florida panhandle. Around us the swamp meandered south toward the Gulf, oozing out a pattern of streams and canals that dumped into the Blackwater River and then on into Pensacola Bay. The road was razor straight, and the summer heat buckled the road in an evenly measured pattern. When the tires banged over the buckle humps, it made a clack-clack sound. As I listened the sound changed into words, “Back-back.” “Back-back. Back-back. Back-back.” On it went, repeating its unceasing cadence to go back, and we heeded its call as we drove north. The view from the back seat window revealed green marsh grass blending into the blue horizon—a view distorted faintly by the dust patterns dried onto the unwashed glass. It was late summer, and we were driving from my sister’s home in Pensacola to my home just north of the Florida line in lower Alabama . . . where my Father waited. At the end of this journey, I hoped to see my Father sober for the first time in my life. The four of us sat in silence in the car. The growl of the coupe’s engine throbbed in counterpoint with the rhythmic instructions coming from the road. My sister, fifteen years older than me, sat in the front passenger seat. When I turned my head her way, I could see her face in profile, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail that fluttered wildly in the wind coming into the car through her open window. Her pursed lips barely controlled the quarrel that erupted out from them at about 15 minute intervals. One was due to arrive any minute now, and the rest of us waited for it in silence. Bob, her new husband, drove with the scent of his Aqua Velva aftershave mixing with the cloying smoke from his cigarette. I didn’t need to see his face to know his jaw muscles hammered a constant tattoo—a sign of his poorly controlled Vesuvian temper. In contrast to my sister, his red hair—plastered back by about a metric ton of Brylcreem—remained unmoved by the wind blowing into the open driver’s window My mother sat next to me in the backseat, wringing her hands in the folds of her pale house shift. She exuded worry like it was a strong odor, and no one in the car was untouched by its reek. 61

Spring 2014 Volume 2, Issue 1

I sat and looked at my hands—they were dirty. My fingernails were cracked and uneven, and dirt was ground under my nails and in the cracks in my nails; scars and scabs from playing in the yard scored my hands. They were the small, dirty hands of an unkempt ten-year-old boy. Why weren’t my hands clean? Who was I to know to wash my hands? I was a kid. My Mother made most of my clothes and she made the shirt I wore from cloth dyed in a rope-and-knots pattern on a blue background. The material was better suited for curtains on a sailboat than for a boy’s shirt. I liked it though . . . that is until the other kids teased me about it, calling me Popeye the Sailor Man. I liked that my Mom made it for me, but I never wore it again after being ridiculed for wearing it. Sweating in the late August heat, I fell into a daze and started day-dreaming about the road ahead. Built into the road were a series of bridges that crossed the winding bogs; some bridges were short, some were long. When the car passed over one of these bridges, the rhythmic “back-back” caught its breath for the few seconds we were on the bridge. Could the bridges be dots and dashes? I wondered if these bridges were a Morse code message. What would the message be if I deciphered the dots and dashes? What was the road telling me? What was God telling me? My Mother’s question broke through my stupor, “Isn’t there some way we can get Mike into school in Pensacola?” She wasn’t asking anyone in particular. “Nope, not gonna happen,” Bob said, and flicked his butt out the window with a flourish to punctuate the point. “The boy needs to go home and start school back in Alabama. That’s where he belongs.” He punched the cigarette lighter to heat it up for his next smoke. I reached over and patted my Mother’s hand, “Momma, it’ll be okay. Daddy’s sober. We talked to him last night. He hasn’t had a drink since we left him in May.” She said nothing, but glanced my way and then sighed before looking back at her hands as they lay fidgeting in her lap. Her silence could fill an encyclopedia about the gullibility of youth and the treachery of men, subjects to which she had earned an advanced degree. “Mom, if things get bad again, just phone us like you did in May. Bob and I can be there in three hours,” my sister said without turning around. Snatching the lighter from its holder on the dash, Bob looked at her and blew a plume of smoke out of

Profile for FLAR

FLR the Anthology 2013 - 2014  

A compilation of the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Volumes 1 and 2 (2013-2014)

FLR the Anthology 2013 - 2014  

A compilation of the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Volumes 1 and 2 (2013-2014)

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