by Charles R. Stieren
Backwoods of Mississippi, Present Day
The ice-maker dumped ice into the tray and woke me. I’d fallen asleep on the couch. As I stumbled through the darkness to my bedroom I heard teenage boys loudly whispering in my backyard. I grabbed my twenty-two, opened the backdoor and flicked on the floodlights.
Two teenage boys held my canoe, one at each end.
“What you peckerwoods doing with my canoe?” I asked holding up my rifle.
The boy farthest from me dropped it and nervously looked to his buddy.
“Goin’ fishing,” the boy up front said as if I’d asked about the weather.
“With my canoe?” I said, glancing about my backyard for others. “Planning on returning it?”
“No,” the boy said. He was at least sixteen, built like he’d done plenty of work on a farm.
“No?” I asked shaking my rifle tip at him. His brutal honesty left me desperate for understanding. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Like the McCarty’s up the river?”
“You all keep pretty much to yourselves,” I lied, knowing his dad was a loud drunk but I didn’t want to provoke the boy, though his indifferent candor I couldn’t grasp. “Never known you all to be thieves.”
“Ain’t no thief and I ain’t stealing. Just borrowing.” The boy pulled a folded letter from his pocket and shook it open. “I was gonna leave this letter where you could pick it up. The river drops off in Littleton. That is where your canoe will be in a day in a half.”
“Have you lost your mind, boy?”
The boy dropped the letter, walked to the other end of the canoe and dragged it to the water.
I shot two rounds in the top side of the canoe next to his hand.
The boy stopped but he didn’t let go of the canoe.
“Who do you think you are, Huck Finn?” I yelled, still baffled by his brashness.
“Who?” Doug asked, turning.
The other boy suddenly moved and I put my sights on his chest. He crossed his arms over his stomach to keep from getting sick. When I lowered my gun he puked.
Doug dropped the canoe, went to his buddy’s side and rubbed his back.
“You won’t let us borrow your canoe but you’d shoot it to pieces instead?”
“Mine to shoot,” I said, the smell of burnt gunpowder in the air.
Doug looked out to the river and then the canoe as if measuring the distance between the two. I imagined he also weighed the risk of being shot. “I seen your boy once,” Doug said.
“And?” I replied.
“I was in elementary and we had a field trip to the high school so we could get a feel for it. They was between classes and two boys ran down the hall. One smacked your boy’s girlfriend in the ass and the other groped a feel of her tit. He chased them both down and did a number on ‘em. Took three teachers to pull him off. I remember the look in his eyes. At first I thought he was crazy but later I realized it was the look of pure grit. Like no one could stop him, not even himself. I reckon that is why he made it into the Special Forces.” Doug paused. “Rumor is he even made Delta Force?”
I nodded as I looked out to the river. I remembered that day. All three boys were given a ten-day suspension. Didn’t make no sense. The other two boys did wrong and my boy did right. The new principal called me into her office. She stood over me and my son and said, “There is absolutely no excuse for fighting and anyone who does so in my school gets a ten-day suspension, regardless of reason.” She paused for added effect. “There is zero tolerance for fighting. Understood?”
I replied slowly and deliberately. “You can kiss my ass and my son’s you liberal idiot.”
Both the principal and Scottie looked at me like I’d sworn at Jesus himself. My son had never heard me use words like that before.
I stood, glared at the principal and walked out. Scottie followed. He was silent the entire ride home and from that day forward he didn’t question me much. He even started saying yes sir and no sir.
Doug walked beyond the light but I could still make out his shadow. He picked up a bag, pulled out a shirt and returned to his buddy’s side. “It’s all good,” Doug said, handing him the shirt so he could clean himself up.
Doug turned to me. “I’m going to Littleton regardless.” He paused, his smugness faltered slightly. “Maybe you’d let me borrow your canoe?”
My wife and her friends had gone on a ladies retreat. A weekend at a fancy hotel, massages, gourmet food and a swimming pool bigger than most ponds. Again, I looked out to the river. That’s the beauty of living on moving water. It’s like live TV, never know what will come downstream or better yet up.
“You don’t talk and carry yourself like a boy your age,” I said.
“Got my reasons.”
“That why you leaving town?” I asked.
“Gonna join the military?” I asked.
“Or move to Australia,” Doug replied. “You gonna let me borrow your canoe or not?”
“Only if I get to come with.”
“Mr. Olsen, I ain’t taking you with me.”
It was the first time he’d called me by name. Shown any respect. “I don’t want to go to Australia. But I am going to Littleton with you so I can get my canoe back.”
Fair enough, I thought. Like he was doing me a favor. The little bastard. I’m letting him borrow my canoe and I got to row it back and he’s saying fair enough? The boy had either been through hell on earth or was mentally ill. Either way he was growing on me.
“Do I have to go?” the other boy finally spoke.
“No,” Doug said.
“Yes,” I replied. “If I got to row that canoe back, you two are rowing it there.” I looked them both over. “What’s your name?”
“Garret. Garret Goldstein.”
I thought for a minute. “I know your dad. Works in the city, right? He’s a good man. You come from a good family. What you doing this for?”
“Sounded like fun,” he replied.
“Not so much,” he said.
“Well get your stuff loaded. I got to get some things from inside.”
I went in and watched them through my bedroom window without the light on. They whispered to one another for a few minutes, looked up to the house and then eased the canoe into the water before loading their gear. I grabbed a few hundred dollars, my rod and reel and my hunting backpack. When I returned they were holding the canoe alongside the dock so that I could sit center.
“Why’d you bring the rifle Mr. Olsen?” Garret asked.
“In case one of you boys get’s to bugging me I can just shoot you in the head and roll you over the side.”
Garrets back was to me and he started to tremble. He was quietly crying.
“Calm down son,” I whispered. “I ain’t gonna do nothing of the sorts. Just funning with you. If it makes you feel any better you can put the rifle up front with you.”
“No sir,” Garret said. He turned around and looked at me. “Just don’t point it at me no more.”
It took Garret several minutes to get into sync with Doug’s oaring. The boys paddled quietly for the next hour or so until we entered into the open waters of the lower Mississippi. Bats dived towards the water swooping up last second to snatch insects near the surface. When the boys looked to the side I could see in their faces they enjoyed the spectacle. A few fish splashed the surface and toads moaned along the shore. Garret’s breathing returned to normal and twice I turned to look at Doug but he seemed unfazed by my attention. He just kept oaring, keeping an eye on everything around him. Not in a nervous way but cautious.
“They still do the pledge of allegiance at school?” I asked to either boy, my voice louder than I had anticipated on the open water in the middle of the night.
“Yes, sir,” Garret replied.
“Do they sing the anthem before the Friday night football game?”
“Yes, sir,” Garret replied.
“Good.” I said. “Any scheduled stops on this journey?”
“Few hours this afternoon,” Doug said.
“What’s the rush?”
“Garret told his parents he was camping out with me and we’d be back Sunday evening. My parents won’t sober up until Monday morning.”
“Sounds like a good plan,” I eventually said. A gentle breeze rippled over the water and kept the mosquitoes at bay.
The boys paddled throughout the night and well into the next day saying little while snacking on granola bars and beef jerky.
“So what you going to do in Australia?” I asked Doug.
“Herd sheep,” he quickly replied.
He’d practiced the reply. I imagined he practiced all of them but I laughed and didn’t challenge his response hoping to put him at ease. “Going to enlist?”
“Why you wanna know? You gonna say something?”
I turned and stared him in the eyes. “I’ll make you one promise and only one. This canoe trip is our secret. I won’t tell no one. Not the cops. Not your parents. Nothing. You understand me?”
He stopped paddling for a bit and looked to the shore. He didn’t say anything, instead he let the canoe drift as he glanced over the banks at nothing in particular. For a moment he was just a boy. However, once he realized he was enjoying himself he dug his oar deep in the water and we surged forward.
When the afternoon heat finally began to ease we pulled the canoe ashore. Garret went to building a fire and Doug and me waded through the shallows fishing. After an hour I caught two bass and Doug one. I tied them off on a line and linked it around my belt.
“Don’t go to moving too fast,” Doug yelled.
“What?” I asked looking up after tying the last bass on the line. A gator was swimming towards me. Not at great speed but his intentions were clear. I was too far out into the river to make it back to land and there were no Cyprus trees close enough. Doug dug out a large top water lure from his floating tackle box and quickly tied it on.
“What the hell you doing?” I yelled.
“Don’t move. Just stay there,” he yelled back.
I worked to untie the knot on my belt. If I tossed the fish to the gator before he got to me I was certain he’d leave me untouched. He wanted the bass not me. The knot however had dug deeper in on itself with the constant tug of the fish and was too tight. I undid my belt and began to pull it out when Doug’s top water lure landed feet between me and the gator.
“What the hell you doing?” I hollered. “Piss him off even more?”
“Shut up,” Doug said. The gator swam past the lure and Doug hastily reeled in back in. Doug’s eyes widened and his mouth opened. He was full of fear yet he wasn’t in any danger. The gator was no more than five yards away from me at this time and my belt was almost off. Doug’s second cast landed right in front of the gator. Doug twitched the lure once and the gator opened its massive jaws and swallowed it. Doug set the hook hard. The gator yanked against the force and water soaked me. All I could see were the gators tail and head thrashing in the water.
From over my shoulder I heard a burst of gunshots. I glanced back to see Garret with my twenty-two pointed at the gator. I was certain Garret didn’t hit the gator once, I doubted he even hit the damn river, but he unloaded the gun regardless.
The gator was no longer at the surface which was even more unsettling because I could no longer see him, but Doug’s fishing pole was still bent and he was fighting him. Doug pulled hard against the gator and the more he did the more it seemed the gator swam away from us. It suddenly dawned on me what Doug had done. He never intended to reel in the gator. He knew the gator wouldn’t allow itself to be pulled in.
“Three hundred and fifty yards away,” Doug hollered, staring at his lineless reel.
I knew what he meant. He had three hundred fifty yards of line on his spool. The line was all gone so the gator was even farther away from us now.
“Pull up your pants old man,” Doug laughed aloud. It was a childlike laugh. That of a boy enjoying life, lost in the excitement of the moment.
In all the madness I’d forgotten I’d undone my belt and my pants were now around my ankles, the bass puling harder than ever against my belt. I couldn’t help but laugh. My white naked legs exposed to the world. My wet boxers hanging off my nonexistent ass.
Doug’s laugh disappeared but a smile remained as he watched me straighten myself up.
“Thanks,” I nodded to Doug. We both knew the magnitude of what he’d done. I looked up to the shore and thanked Garret too. He smiled big, looking at the gun like he’d just discovered his inner Rambo.
That night I cleaned the bass and draped them over a few green sticks alongside the fire so they could cook. Garret lay on his side staring into the fire while Doug swam in the river close to the shore.
“Not sure how he can be swimming out there after today,” Garret said.
“How long you known him?”
“Since kindergarten. He picked on me all the time. One day I just couldn’t take it anymore so I just started punching him as hard as I could. He ended up atop me but I keep punching until everything went black.” Garret looked at me for several seconds without saying anything. “We’ve been best friends ever since.” Garret picked up a few twigs, spun them in his finger and tossed them into the fire. “Weird, right?”
“No,” I said. “You’re a brave kid. A horrible shot and a bad fighter, but a brave kid.”
He looked at me and smiled. He twisted a few more twigs and threw them in the fire.
That night as the boys slept I couldn’t help but watch them. My boy and me made this trip dozens of times. It’s the one thing he enjoyed doing with me even as a teen. I rolled onto my back and gazed up to the sky. The clouds eased beneath the stars while the critters of the dark called out to one another as if to remind themselves they weren’t alone.
“Sorry you lost him,” Doug said.
I thought he was asleep. My boy had been killed two months ago. The day Scottie made Delta Team years ago he called us and said, “I love you both and know if anything ever happens to me, I died doing what I loved. And that’s the only way to.” The Army never offered us specifics as to how and where he was killed. Classified.
I replayed that phone conversation in my head several times before I rolled over and looked at Doug. “You’re going to enlist, aren’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” Doug paused. “Do you miss him?”
A horribly stupid question I thought. Of course I missed him, but it revealed so much. How little Doug believed his family loved him. How lonely he must be in this world. Why he was so determined to leave and make a name for himself.
“Everyday. Sometimes every hour and minute.” I whispered.
Doug stared into the slow burning fire for a good while. “I’m going Marines Recon. Marry a beautiful woman, have three boys, one girl.” He paused for a good moment. “I’ll never drink or beat my kids.” Doug looked up from the fire and I imagined he did so to see if I believed him. “They’ll go to school every day and get good grades.”
A momentary silence.
“Were you proud of him?” Doug asked.
“Every second,” I replied. I couldn’t return his stare. Memories of Scottie consumed me. Doug needed reassurance and for me to say something, but I couldn’t. It took everything I had not to break down and cry.
Doug retrieved some wood and piled it onto the fire. It popped and snapped, and ashes rose and sparkled above us.
Doug’s determination reminded me so much of Scottie, but he wasn’t. My boy was gone forever and I would never be able to recapture those days. We would make no more memories together. I would have to live off the old ones.
“You’ll make a fine soldier one day, Doug” I eventually got that out and meant it. “And be a great husband and dad.”
I rolled away from Doug and closed my eyes.
. . .
The following morning, before the sun even rose, Garret was up. He’d dug several clams from the shore and cooked them along the fire. Smoke slowly rose and the smell of burning wood filled the air. I propped myself up on an elbow and watched.
“What you want to be when you grow up?” I whispered, Doug still asleep.
He shrugged and turned the clams with two sticks so they didn’t scorch in the heat.
“You gonna join the military with Doug?” I asked.
“I’d like too, but my dad wants me to take over his accounting business.”
“What do you want?”
“Not sure,” he said and I believed him. He swatted away mosquitoes that landed on his face.
“You like clams?” I asked.
“Not particularly,” he replied.
I smiled, knowing he’d dug them up for us. “How’d you manage to wake so early?”
“Drank lots of water before bed. The American Indians did it so they could wake in the early hours and sneak up and kill the white men as they slept. They only did it after the treaties failed though.”
I nodded. I didn’t know what to say. He was a smart kid and I imagined there was a logical reason to almost everything he did.
Doug rolled over rubbing his eyes. “Smells good.”
“Clams and smoked fish,” I said. “Courtesy of Chief Garret.”
Doug sat up and stared at the fire for a few moments while Garret handed Doug and me his cooking sticks so we could pluck out the clams.
We said little as we ate, packed up our gear, and headed out. A thick mist hung over the river that morning. It soothed me like a warm blanket. I didn’t want to know how far we’d gone or where we were at. Even Garret and Doug seemed at peace as we allowed the current to take us. A single ant scampered along the side of the canoe and instead of squashing him I watched. He reached out over the side, his hind legs holding him steady as his front legs reached for the shore. He did this several times until he disappeared beneath my seat and I pondered if my decision to let him live would cost me later.
“Why is there basic training?” Garret asked me. “How come you just can’t join, learn your job and just do it?”
“Can’t say for certain,” I said. I had an idea but wasn’t sure.
“It’s a ritual,” Doug quickly answered. “Rite of passage.”
Garret mulled over Doug’s reply for a moment then nodded in agreement.
On occasion a boat passed us, its wake forcing us to cling to the side of the canoe. I recognized a sharp bend in the river and knew we’d soon enter the Mississippi. One, maybe two hours, and Doug would depart.
“Anything I can say or do?” I asked them both. Sixty-plus years of experience I wanted to share. Not as a wind-bag, but to ease some of their burdens, answer their questions, prove my worth.
“No, sir,” they both said.
The fact they both replied “sir” and in unison made me smile. I was not with boys but amongst men. They would both do fine.
They remained quiet for the rest of the trip both searching the shores and the waters.
“There,” Doug suddenly pointed. “That’s the place. Backs up to town.”
The boys paddled up to a warehouse raised high on stilts and twenty feet back from the water and Doug got out. I followed him and pulled out three hundred dollars from my pocket.
“Thank you,” Doug said. He didn’t argue. I could see in his eyes, even though it was against his very nature to accept anything, he was grateful for it, damn near relieved. What else could I say or do for a boy so confident yet so bruised?
I shook his hand, but truth be told, I wanted to give him a hug. Promise him everything would be okay, but we both knew that wasn’t how it worked. We both knew that was shit.
There was no theatrical departure.
Garret and I watched Doug disappear around the warehouse. He didn’t look back. He didn’t waive. He went on his way like we’d see him tomorrow.
I sat at the rear of the canoe and Garret remained up front. We said little on the ride back. We peed over the side when we needed to and jumped into the river when we needed to cool off. On several occasions we stopped paddling to watch a ferry pass or a train crossing a bridge above. I imagined Garret processed the trip much like I did, albeit through the eyes of a young man and me as a father.
We stopped only once for a few hours to sleep and then pushed off. A few hours later, when we passed my house, Garret turned to me, confused.
“You need to make town so your parents don’t find out,” I said.
He smiled and paddled harder. Thirty minutes later we reached town.
“Thank you,” he said, gathering his gear.
“My pleasure,” I replied.
He nudged the canoe to make certain I didn’t get tangled in the weeds. I looked back once and unlike Doug he stood there waiving.
I nodded and smiled.
My wife beat me home from her girl’s vacation. She watched me through the kitchen window as I pulled the canoe up. She came out and greeted me with a beer and a kiss. We both sat quietly on lawn chairs, holding hands, and watching the river. It was like she knew I needed her silent support.
That night as I lay in bed she turned to me.
“What happened?” she finally asked.
I started to cry and she wiped tears from my cheeks. “I got to say hello again,” I paused. “And goodbye.”
. . .
Twenty-one months later I received a postcard from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Hey, peckerwood. Fractured my pelvis and right leg in 7 different places in Ranger School. Chute didn’t fully deploy. I’m to be medically discharged next week. I read up on that Huck Finn fellow. I want to follow his path down the Mississippi after I’m discharged in your canoe. Don’t worry, I’ll leave a note.
Also, I learned why there’s basic training. It’s to break you down so they can rebuild you stronger. Get rid of all the previous shit you’ve been called, miss taught and had beaten into you. Garret graduated top of his Ranger Sniper class. I smile every time I think of him shooting at that gator. He’s always been the badest fucker I’ve known.
P.S. Maybe you’d be willing to do the Mississippi with me?
About the Author:
Charles R. Stieren lives in Orlando, where he works as a Nurse Case Manager. His short stories have appeared in Thorny Locust and The Avalon Literary Review.