Masses of Swamp Iris
The first thing I spy is beer cans my dad threw out alongside the dirt road so that my mother won’t know from the garbage that he’s been drinking again. Silver and blue cans, repeated every so many yards—bent cans, as though crushing them might hide the signs more. When riding home from jawing with the men down on the bluff, he throws the cans from his truck along the way. He is always drinking when he leaves them. They do it for hours. Those wealthy new home owners with their fancy docks and new, white, twin-motor fishing boats. Just drink and talk. And Herschel, my dad, the crabber and fisherman who supplies them and others with crab by the baskets full and flounder and other fish, tosses those beer cans out on the way back to our sad old trailer.
Crabbing and fishing aren’t our only means of income. My mom finally got a job at McDonald’s, so we now have regular money coming in. That’s good, cause Hershel not only drinks but drugs and buys and sells supplies of weed, Oxycontin, whatever. I don’t think the men on the bluff buy from him, but other folks do.
Hershel has another sideline: telling me that I need to get rid of Brad. Brad is my boyfriend, the first I’ve had since starting Georgia Pines High School. I like having him in my life. Actually, he’s in my bed and around the trailer as much as he can be. My dad wants him gone from the house during the day, though, and he hopes he’ll be gone for good soon. I don’t want him gone. Even if he is kinda messy, and he doesn’t seem to have regular way of making a living, that’s okay. We still manage to have food and gas for my car.
But Brad has been ugly to me, slapping me when no one’s at home. That’s not too often, cause I have to watch my little sister when Mom’s working. But sometimes it happens. Just before he wants to get rough in bed. I call it plain old mean, cause he’s not tender at those times. He hurts me. He can be sweet when he wants to, and that’s a lot of the time. But the slapping sex makes me mad. He seems to like that.
He also gets antsy that he doesn’t have any money. I know what he did for money once. Used a gun, too. Got him in the slammer at Reidsville prison for a while. He told me. It’s not a secret. But he says he won’t do that again. The way he looks when he says it, I believe him.
He’s been ugly to me, but I still like having him as a boyfriend. Not all the girls at school have a boyfriend, so they look at me different now. They used to just say, your dad’s a good-for-nothin and stuff like that. I think it’s cause some of their daddies sell drugs, too, on the side, and they don’t like the competition.
My life doesn’t look real good, if I count on school opening any doors for me. I’m not good at studying. There’s too much else going on—with my family, or on TV. So, if Brad and I get it going over the long term, then I’ll be with him and do whatever he wants to do.
There’s a lot to think about now it’s April and there’s a chance I’ll graduate. When I get to thinking too much, I come out here on this vacant land where nobody wants to live, the land on the way to those nice docks and houses on the bluff. I like to walk deep into the south side that’s away from the river, on hammocks of land that rise just a little bit above the marshes where salt water changes to fresh. Far away from all those tossed beer cans.
Back here it used to be dark from all the pines that were here. Last summer, logging trucks yanked a couple hundred acres worth of pine trees out. There’s a fresh water marsh back here, and before the logging, no light shone. Now there’s something different back here. I can peek around the sweet gum, pine, and oak trees that remain on the property right next to the timbered land. Through the trees, I can see the sunlight for the first time.
And in the sun: masses of swamp iris. Pale purple blooms riding in waves above green stalks. It’s like clouds of green, and these soft orchid-like spears are perched on em. There must be a hundred flowers blooming.
The time Hershel tells me he wants Brad gone, he and I are having a real good time on his boat checking the crab traps. It’s not legally the season yet, but my dad goes out anyway. I’m real good at landing the traps. Hershel doesn’t have to tell me how to do anything. I can haul that line up from the bottom like no tomorrow, heave that heavy cage over the side of the boat, not worry about getting wet and muddy because of the soil from the murky bottom. Daddy can just steer and steady the boat, and I pull the trap up, upend the trap and shake it mighty hard over the plastic barrels so crab fall, grabbing each other for safety, bracing against the wire of the trap so as to escape. My gloved hands grab for flounder, toss them in Momma’s bin so she can sell them and have some money of her own. If I can see other stuff on top of the barrel—not pretty, cause crab have eaten em—I throw em back in the river. Then I put in some more frozen fish in the bait trap, snap the bungee cord to hold the bait door shut, and toss the trap back in where it was. Gotta make sure the openings lay parallel to the river bank. Crabs will scoot on in there super-easy.
After I help Daddy do that most of Saturday morning, we’re heading back in, the boat pounding the water powerfully as we cross the miles, bouncing my ass sharply against the fiberglass seat. It’s a working fisherman’s boat, not one of those sleek white jobs. Daddy stands the whole way, a big smile on his face. He was born to do this. The water shines across wide blankets of diamonds stretched over the water. I love being here and I love my daddy. My eyes water a little bit.
Daddy’s grin disappears when he lays it on me about Brad needing to find somewhere else to live. His eyes are behind aviator sunglasses, but I know he’s looking at me hard.
“Baby girl, you need to tell him he’s gotta move on,” he said. “I told im. Now you tell im. It’s not right he’s livin with us and not paying rent. Plus, he shore enough doesn’t have a reglar job or a way of marryin you. And we go to church. We don’t do it the other way.”
Herschel looks at me serious, then he smiles a little, grabs my shoulder and pulls me to his side there at the wheel.
Just this moment I feel a pain in my chest. My body is top-heavy, like I’m toting a great bag of oysters the watermen gather. The thought of not being with Brad makes me sad. I see the beauty of the water and forever marsh around me, the even rise of the now-green salt grass that edges both sides of the river the whole way home. I feel the hardness of my life in this water-graced land God fenced off for Himself. A few tears wind their way down my wind-whipped cheeks.
I think of the one job Brad had. Our neighbor lived on a piece of riverfront land that didn’t have many houses; he wanted to build a long dock to reach from the high ground of the hammock to the water—lots of marsh stood between the high ground and the river. Brad worked for Mr. McMichael helping build the dock. Hauling those pilings—they’re extra heavy telephone poles—was what Brad did. Brad had worked out a lot at Reidsville and he’d carry those big ole poles out there without the cart they used. I saw him handling those giant former trees from my back yard.
But the neighbor accused Brad of stealing his small pistol from his work truck. Brad got really mad. McMichael called my cell phone and told Brad he wanted to meet him at the local gas station. When we pulled up, my neighbor told him he wanted the pistol and Brad got all fired up, yelling that he didn’t have his pistol. Brad stripped off his shirt, jumped into a fighting stance.
“You want a piece a me, you come get me,” he yelled. When McMichael said he was calling the cops, Brad pushed me into my car and we sped away.
I guess that job didn’t work out, but McMichael used Brad’s back for that ungodly heavy work. Got pilings drilled a good ways over the marsh, about half way to the water. Let the old man build his own dock.
Things get better between Brad and me over spring break. The weather is great, and our sex is better than ever. Brad’s being real sweet to me. But then Herschel says the move out words again.
Brad leaves my dad’s house. And I go with him. It’s such a thrill driving away, with enough money to buy gas for my car and food for a while. We drive not too far way, just to Hinesville.
We’re staying on the couch of Brad’s friend James. It’s large couch, but it sure isn’t the best situation.
The house is small and near the base with lots of people coming and going. I can’t understand em sometimes. Mostly guys. They talk in this garbled kind of street talk and I’m sure what they’re saying. The men are black and white and Hispanic. The women? Trash. I’m sorry. They just look that way—shorts up to here and low-cut halter tops. And it’s not even summer. They give me the eye like I don’t belong here.
Brad scares me when he wakes me up, coming in at two in the morning. He says he’d had to do something with a friend—for James, for letting us stay with him. All I know is, he stinks with sweat.
“You’ve got to take a shower or wash off or somethin,” I tell him. “I can’t sleep like this.”
“Honey, you’ll have to get used to it. Now go to sleep.”
That doesn’t sit well.
“Hey, we’re gonna stink up the couch, and then James will be mad.”
He makes an exasperated noise and gets up in the dark. I get up too and looked for a fresh sheet to lay on top of the one we were wrapped in. James had told us to help ourselves to a stack in the hall closet.
I stumble into the hall and opened the door to get a sheet. I look down and there is a safe on the floor of the closet. It comes up to about my knee. It’s not open, but it had scarring on the sides and top, like white paint. Bits of sheetrock dusted the safe top and the floor.
How could that be? It wasn’t there when I took out the sheet and pillow case the night before.
Then I see my car in the back yard. It’s a hunk of blue trash. The fenders hang off the chassis like weird wings on a crazy-ass bird. Brad’s friends used my car to ram a gas station and break in to take the safe. My little blue car is smashed, with wrinkles on the hood traveling almost to the steering wheel. How they got it home, I’ll never know. My mind’s awhirl with pictures of my future with Brad. In jail as an accomplice. Or following in my mom’s footsteps, a kind of punching bag for my dad until she gave Daddy some of his own medicine and he stopped. As my eyes try to piece together the car and what it’s going to take to fix it, I knew I would be calling my daddy and asking him to come get me.
And I do. I call Hershel.
There are some advantages to Daddy not working a regular job. I know he’ll come get me, even if he is out on the river pulling crab traps. Unlike Momma, he won’t give me holy hell, just a little hell. We won’t ever have to worry about having enough to eat, cause we can just go get it, and sell some flounder for good money and mullet for the locals for some not so good money. I can hold my head high at school cause I have had a boyfriend.
And I can walk the dirt roads and the swamp iris will still be blooming.
Estelle Ford-Williamson reported for UPI in Atlanta and later wrote and edited for non-profit agencies. She became a management trainer and career advisor in several corporations before using those skills on herself to transition to novel writing. Abbeville Farewell: A Novel of Early Atlanta and North Georgia was nominated for the Townsend Fiction Prize. She wrote Seed of South Sudan: Memoir of a ‘Lost Boy’ Refugee with Majok Marier about his experiences fleeing war in east Africa. She arrived in South Carolina with Hurricane Matthew, joined SCWA, and is seeking a publisher for a novel, Rising Fawn.