This is the first few pages of a short story I started a couple years ago. I just revised this section, which was weird, looking back on such old words. The people and places in it are real (except for the car), and the situations are loosely based on things that sometimes happened. I guess that's what some folks call creative non-fiction. I call it a fun way to bullshit. I don't know where it's going, but I really wanted to capture some of Maryland in a story, along with everything that makes it so perfect in my memory.
I wrapped my hand in the tail of my tank top before I reached for the car door handle. The sun beat at a near ninety degree angle, and the air was at least that hot. The door handle, I knew, was much hotter. I gripped firmly and pushed in the old fashioned button, popping the door. It skreeked open and I perched on the edge of the seat, careful to avoid butt burns, and kicked at the gravel driveway while I waited for the car to air out. And for my sister to get her ass outside so we could leave already. I gazed around at the fluffy green treetops and squinted at the sun until it hurt. Then I shut my eyes tight, savoring the scent of my car’s super-heated vinyl mixed with the gas and grass clipping smelled that floated on the breeze. It smelled like a classic summer day.
Blea emerged from the house wearing one of her godawful swimsuits with the tassels and fringes and sequins or some shit. I am sure there was leopard print involved. The dark orangey tones of the suit matched her tan skin; she was as dark as any Indian girl who’s never seen a tube of sunblock. She wore cutoffs on her ample bottom and a loose eighties looking string of a tank to cover her not-so-ample top. On her feet were, as usual, white high tops with no socks. Oh to be as fashionably care free as her. Although I was wearing Jesus sandals and hemp shorts that were three sizes too big over my lime green bikini, so we were a perfect fashion match except for our tans. Mine started dark brown at the top and got progressively whiter as it went down my body, until my ghastly, ghostly pale legs could be found sticking out of olive drab, oversized shorts. Yes, we were beautiful.
“Took you long enough. Did you fall in?”
“Shut up and drive, slave.”
Blea jumped in the passenger side and whacked me in the shoulder for punishment as her butt got a taste of the stinging seat covers. It was my fault because I was the one who had to have an old car. I loved my Mustang – it was a ’70. My favorite year for cars and lots of other things. I wouldn’t get rid of it to save my sister’s ass from an occasional burn, nor would I indulge in animal print seat covers. She would like that too much.
By the way I call my sister Blea because her name is Deborah Lea, in the Southern tradition of having two first names. If you say "Deborah Lea" really fast it becomes "D'Blea." Drop the D and you’ve got Blea. A name like no other. But it suits her. She is a fully grown brat. I had been lucky enough to be given only one first name, and despite the obvious humor in being named Robyn Byrd, no one ever noticed. My mom always told me she put in all the Ys (the middle name's got it too) so I could sign big loopy autographs someday. Maybe. Maybe not.
So we were off, me driving as always. Blea hates to drive and I love to as long as I can look cool while doing it. And we definitely looked cool that day. The open windows thoroughly cooled the rest of the car’s interior as we rolled down Maryland 28, giving the obligatory one-finger-off-the-wheel-wave to passing muscle cars of note. The roads there really do roll. I sped up over the “tickle bumps” as we called them when we were kids. Our hair blew around like crazy and I knew mine would be a rat’s nest by the time we got to the creek. Didn’t matter ‘cause I looked so good getting there.
“Put something on the radio!” I called over the wind. Blea picked classic rock, which wasn’t much of a choice for her since that’s all I kept on my presets. Well, and one hip hop station in case I got bored and felt like raising the roof. But I preferred playing the steering wheel guitar. I was in luck: Boston was on, singing “More than a Feeling.” This was going to be the perfect classic summer day! Over the music and road noise played our game of calling out the funny road names as soon as we saw the sign. I got “Zittlestown,” but Blea won with “Mousetown” and “Elmer Derr.” I was too busy trying to hit the high note in the last “See my Mary Ann walkin’ awaaaaaaaayyyyy!” before my steering wheel solo.
Half an hour later, which was much too soon, we turned into the dirt lot in front of Poole's General Store, where we saw my cousin’s truck parked. We had come to Seneca Creek to put in for a long ride down to the river on inner tubes of dubious seaworthiness. The ride was a free one, (B.Y.O.T.B.- bring your own tube and beer) organized by some local “tubers.” You put in at one end, and some people (probably drunk people) in pickup trucks pick you up at the other end and haul you back to your ride. We find out about such events through our cousin Lee Michael, who hangs out with such desirable people as would transport living cargo in the bed of their truck while a dwindling thirty -pack of High Life scoots around on the hot floor of the cab.
“Let’s go find Mike,” I said as an aside to Blea. I wasn’t ready to mingle with the thirty-something scantily clad element that thronged around the parking lot. Mike was our bridge to hanging out with these oldies. Plus he had the beer and lemonade.
Lee Michael is thirty-four and he lives with his mom. He drunk-tubes in the summer, races motorcycles (hopefully sober) in spring and fall, and runs his snowmobile over helpless creatures in the winter (probably a little buzzed). I guess that’s what a single guy with no expenses does with himself in a mid-Atlantic state. Anyhow, he’s fun and he always gets me to do crazy things that I would never try without persuasive arguments from a male who is large enough to carry my battered corpse out of the river or woods or wherever if I didn’t make it.
That day I was setting sail on an inner tube that was mostly made out of duct tape, and my sister was doing the same, only her tube had the added caveat of half a stem still sticking out of it. My dad had cut it off with pliers the night before and made an attempt to use more duct tape to secure the remaining, possibly lethal, metal stem to the inside of the tube. He always brought home old tires and inner tubes from work and expected us to use them for everything from buoyancy in snow and water, to planters for the front yard, to a great way to roll down a big hill and kill ourselves. Being the first born, I guess I was spared this deluxe sawed-off stem feature on my sticky grey tube.
Unsure of what to leave in the Mustang and what to take aboard the tube for my journey, I figured that traveling light is always the best option. Then I would be comfortable, and have one hand for beer and another for swimming in the likely event of a capsized tube. I took off my pants and shirt and winced as the rough clothes scraped over my burnt red-brown shoulders. It was a good kind of pain though. I always like to be reminded of the power of the sun, how it gets held in your skin and makes you smell like the beach for days. I kept the Jesus sandals for the trip. I hate touching river bottoms in bare feet. You never know what’s down there.
The shouts and laughs and general carousing ended abruptly, as every one of us on the water must have seen the view at the same instant. We had reached the end of the Shenandoah River, where it pours its clear mountain waters into the Potomac (only to become polluted beyond recognition about twenty miles downriver). Rocky Appalachian mounds surround the mighty confluence, and the remains of hundreds of years of bridges, forts and train trestles drape the valley in an aura of history. We floated into the shallow warm water just as the sun slanted over the treetops and made everything sparkle around us. I thought about the plaques by the riverbanks that talked about Thomas Jefferson first setting eyes on this place, and how visiting Harper’s Ferry is like “taking a trip to the past.” Cheesy stuff.
It was beautiful though – one of those views that always hits me in the gut and makes me want to move back east or wonder why I ever left. Sometimes a scene or a smell can hit me just right and I feel like I should just stay there against anyone’s better judgement, simply send for my things in stale, flat Illinois and never offer any explanation for my rashness. Sometimes a field is so green, or the smell of tar by the railroad is so strong, or a town square is so damn quaint that I just want to burst with homesickness. That’s how I felt when we looked at Harper’s Ferry, at “Jefferson’s View.”
This is where we had to get off. I grabbed Blea’s inner tube by the stem and wriggled one of my legs inside my tube. I stuck my safely sandaled foot into the river and guided us, avoiding the polished but possibly sharp glass shards I could see glinting on the bottom. We bumbled and bobbed over to one of the naked stone pillars that no longer supported a bridge. The water was always extra warm and ripply around them, and it gave us a place to rest and get used to not moving before we got out of the water. To jump right out onto solid land was to invite a motion sickness like no other; you add near sun stroke and six beers to the picture and the river seems like a safe place to “set” for awhile.
Soon we were in the pickup bed of a new acquaintance, breezing down West Virginia roads and drying out our bodies and our brains. I enjoyed the wind and last bits of sun while I could. Once across the Maryland state line we would have to lie down so our chauffer would not get a ticket. We Marylanders are civilized.
Next morning a train woke me up out of a dead sleep, and I twisted around under the covers trying to straighten my slippery night gown. At grandma’s house we always had to wear night gowns. She would pull them out of a musty old chest by one of the twin beds in her parlor that functioned as a guest room (there was no door, only an arched eight foot wide opening into which every visiting neighbor or cousin could peer). She insisted we sleep clothed, even in the second week of August. We were obedient, but left the windows wide open and the rickety metal fan on high all night. It was no special morning to have a train wake me up. Grandma’s house is three doors down from the only tracks I know of that have neither a crossing gate nor pavement over the ties and tracks, and twenty engines a day haul iron ore and limestone past her neighborhood. The water tastes like both.
Edit: 1/8/10 I added some more about our names since I never remember to give my first person characters names (and it would help if the reader knew the "I" was really me without being told). Also changed some first mentions of Mike's name to his proper double-name for more Southern flair.
I realized that the most untrue thing about this story is that I never lived in Maryland as an adult. I suppose it could be a long vacation I'm on. All my grown-up but youthful adventures happened in California and Arizona. I think I write things like this (there are more) because I wish I could have experienced my "motherland" this way. There's something about writing on motherlands that courses through a writer, that's not in our control. My accounts of Arizona and California can be very visual, grounded, complete-sounding. But they are constructed out of perceptual and sensory experiences, as recounted by an adult who had most of them as an adult. Maryland is not like that -- it's got a mythos for me, and a spirit that sticks with me. In fact, my physical descriptions of it are sometimes hazy, based on memories from very early teenhood, or from as far back as three or four years old. But I'm usually semi-satisfied with the "feel" of it, or how I clumsily manage to impart it.
I don't think about these things when I write, or even when I revise. Only afterwards. To do otherwise would probably be counterproductive.