The river was all he wanted.
Francis had never driven on a levee before so he hadn’t known what to expect. With so few trees, cotton must have been growing on the eastern side, unlike on the west where they billowed high as clouds in continuous blackness, with no path to the river he stubbornly sought.
A cow turned her groggy eyes as he drove by.
A distant fence running east and west of the road marked itself in silhouette. He slowed but not enough, and his Nissan Frontier bucked over the cattle guard. He flicked the cab light on to read his watch in the yellow light and then flicked it off again. Sometimes he wished he’d brought his phone. It was four o’clock. He was dying and had lost his way.
It could have been thirty minutes or fifteen minutes or an hour later when lights of an eighteen wheeler streaked eastward in the distance, apparently on a highway that intersected the levee. Where in the Mississippi Delta exactly was he? Somewhere hot as shit and far removed from Johnson County, Kansas, for sure. Francis stopped and flipped on his dome light to read his map. Apparently, he’d reached Highway 49 to Helena, Arkansas. But exiting on the byway and driving westward to see the river wouldn’t be possible. An enormous orange placard hung on a steel gate that blocked the road. He switched the dome off and followed the detour that swooped down on the east and squeezed through a concrete viaduct that resembled a catacomb.
As he approached the viaduct and lit it, he saw on the ground, inside it, what looked like someone lying crumpled-over dead, face-planted, humped up into a heap. He slowed and shifted down, and overhead a car drove by on 49. He rolled closer and could see the dead man was a dead man indeed and his legs were bare and woven with two others.
Francis halted to calculate that, and the man’s head popped up and looked into the light. He didn’t know what to do so he did nothing but watch. He watched the man leap to his feet and draw up his jeans, while the other, a girl, closed her legs and gingerly shaded her eyes from the headlight glare with her hands. The man held onto his unfastened pants as he ran toward the truck, blond hair flapping at his shirtless shoulders. His skinny ribbed chest made him look stray.
As the man neared the truck window, Francis saw this was no man at all — seventeen at best.
“Hey,” the boy said, “mind giving us a ride?”
Francis had never picked up a hitchhiker. What was he afraid of anymore? And he wasn’t really in a hurry. “Why not?” he said.
The boy held up a strikingly long finger, like a drumstick. “Wait one minute, just one minute, all right?” He ran over to the girl, dropped his pants, and crawled back on top of her.
“My God.” Francis believed he’d never seen such a thing. His only thought was to cut the lights off to give them a little privacy. But he and his first girlfriend had done it that way, in a way, one weekend night behind the bushes of a pharmacy near her house, then behind a real estate office next to the rink where they should have been skating, and then the last time, public or private, in a pocket of woods bordering a theater showing Ghost. His ex-wife never would have out in nature, on the fly. Jayhawkers just weren’t Jayhawkers anymore. He’d forgotten lovers loved. They loved wherever they were.
As the boy had promised, the passenger door opened a minute later and the dome flicked on.
“Slide on in,” the boy said, and without looking Francis’s way, the girl slid on in. Her stringy hair was exactly the same length and same pale shade of blonde as her boyfriend’s. She wore matching terry cloth shorts and top, dirtied white and trimmed in pink. She clutched a denim drawstring purse on her lap. The boy now wore a short-sleeved shirt but hadn’t buttoned it.
“Goddamn it, we sure preciate this shit.” He slammed the door.
“That’s all right,” Francis said, but he felt uneasy sitting in the dark with them. “Excuse me,” he said, touching the girl’s leg as he shifted into first.
“Go slow,” the boy said, cranking the window down. He pointed at the viaduct. “See that? See there, that’s us.” Spray-painted next to a skull and cross bones were what looked like two big red breasts bearing the names T-Bone and Babycakes. “Did you see it?”
“I saw them,” Francis said.
“Did you see the heart was upside down?”
“Yeah, I noticed something like that.”
“That was my idea. Cause she turned my whole world upside down. Didn’t you, Babycakes?”
“Uh-huh,” Babycakes said.
The road completed its detour and was again on the crest of the levee. Francis’ ex-wife had turned his world upside down. He’d left the best side of Memphis to live on the worst side of Kansas City. Life had been a drive then. A long-distance web of it. He walked only in places, Whole Foods and Pottery Barn, sometimes the Plaza, of course in his classroom and in his office between the desk and the door, but never to places.
“So where exactly you headed?” T-Bone asked.
“South and more south,” Francis said. “What about y’all?”
“Same, I reckon. Deep as you can take us. You reckon that, don’t you, Babycakes?”
“Say,” T-Bone said, “you even know where you’s at?”
“Not exactly,” Francis said.
“This here’s federal property. We shouldn’t be on it. It’s leased to these farmers around here to keep the land grazed. That’s where you is.”
Francis nodded in the dark, and a horse suddenly galloped through his headlights. Then another, amorphous, swift as birds. He pumped his brakes, and yet another appeared, and this time Francis had to stop completely.
“See?” T-Bone said. “They don’t like it.”
The horse crossed in the most casual gait — not a walk. It lazed, if not actually shuffled. A chestnut with black legs, mane, and tail, wagging its head as though to shake away an insect and stepping down ever so patiently into darkness.
About nine miles south of the viaduct a paved road crossed the levee and trailed west into the trees. Francis slowed, thinking he might follow the road and finally greet the Mississippi, but T-Bone said he couldn’t go up in there. He said it went to grain elevators on the river’s bank and the area was fenced off.
“Ain’t you never seen the river before?”
“Of course,” Francis said.
“Positive.” Francis had waded drunk in the edges with a long-ago ex after a Bob Dylan concert on Mud Island. He tried but couldn’t remember her name.
“You Northern?” asked T-Bone.
“No,” Francis said. “Fuck no! I’m from here.”
“You ain’t from Friars Point,” T-Bone said. “Is he?”
“Nuh-uh,” Babycakes said.
“Is this Friars Point?” Francis asked.
T-Bone stretched an arm across Babycakes and pointed to the east. Francis squinted and saw the outlines of a home or church and a telephone pole. “Conway Twitty from here,” said T-Bone, “but you ain’t.”
“I meant I was from Mississippi,” Francis said. “Well, my parents are, I mean. I’m from Memphis, or used to be.”
“Oh, we misunderstood, didn’t we, Babycakes?”
“Uh-huh,” she said.
“Tell him we sorry.”
“We sorry,” she said.
“Ain’t she just the sweetest thing?”
“She’s a charmer,” Francis said. He turned and caught a moonshine glimpse of her lips stretched thin over bared teeth. “Yep,” he said.
T-Bone pulled the girl to him and kissed her. “Now you see why I calls her Babycakes.”
“Sure, sure,” Francis said. His ex-wife had sometimes blandly called him Honey. When they believed they were thick with happiness, then she’d say it, even after the pregnancy she couldn’t bear to carry full term, until dying himself turned him sour and thin to their endless want. The cloth napkins, the tennis lessons, the rolling air miles. It was a lighter life then, by construction, because when it wasn’t light, she moped, speaking endlessly in her pajamas about the weight of memory, calling memory a bane, a blight, a burden, and then in a jealous rage he couldn’t fathom she’d eradicate everything from the house that predated her. The antique mahogany pineapple poster bed his mother had bought for him, of course the mattresses from Sears, pictures not even of ex-girlfriends but of dogs he still loved, even keepsakes like the shuffleboard trophy he’d won on a Caribbean cruise with his family since she’d lost all of her more special ones in an unfortunate tornado. He should have called her Puff Bear.
“So, Babycakes,” Francis said, “how did you choose the name T-Bone?”
After a pause T-Bone said, “Go on, tell him.”
“He got a birthmark on his pecker.”
Francis laughed before he could stop himself. “Didn’t know that was possible.”
“Tell him the shape of it.”
“It’s red as a store-bought apple.”
“The shape of it, Babycakes.”
“Like a T, right?” Francis said.
“No,” T-Bone said, “tell him.”
“Looks like a pear, like a red pear with a big old stem.”
“Tell him how you can’t eat em.”
“Pears make me break out,” she said. “Persimmons too, but pears is worse. Throat will swell near closed and my face gets splotchy-like.”
“Tell him how the name come to you.”
“Well,” she said, “since I can’t eat pears — persimmons neither — I thought, Why don’t I call him what I can eat? Why don’t I call him what I like to eat best of all? You know, on special occasions.”
“Good idea, huh?” T-Bone said.
“Yeah,” Francis said, “she’s charming and clever.”
“There you go,” T-Bone said. “Now you see why I’m aiming to marry this thing. I’ll be honest with you. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Nuh-uh,” she said.
“Not you,” T-Bone said.
“No, I don’t mind,” Francis said.
“I’ll tell you then. I fell in love with her the first time I seen her naked.”
Francis shuddered from old anticipation, as if he thought or was afraid or maybe hoped Babycakes, an apparition of an ex, might begin to undress. “Is that so?”
“I didn’t think nothing about her,” T-Bone said, “until I walked in on her. We was heading down to the swimming hole in just a bit. It was pure accident. We looked at each other, up and down, and didn’t shy away none at all. We just soaked each other up. Didn’t even bother to cover up my pecker. Didn’t think about it. It was like it was meant for us to be there that way, like God was saying to us, Go ahead. Go for it, buddy. She’s yours. You ready now. It’s okay. No law against it. And we did it. First time for both us. And we knew it was right, right then, perfect as we fit together. Am I lying, Babycakes?”
“Telling God’s gospel.”
“We can’t help it we brother and sister.”
Francis felt the slap before he heard it, a high note from Babycakes’s hand making contact against T-Bone’s bare chest.
“Oh, I think we can trust him,” T-Bone said. “Say, what’s your name, buddy?”
“Damn, you named after a saint or something?”
Francis’ parents had simply wanted another F-word to go with Frederick, his elder brother by five years, his one and only sibling. Francis couldn’t imagine ever wanting to do him.
“What’s your middle name?” T-Bone asked.
“Double-damn there, buddy.”
“That one’s a Greek king’s name,” Francis said.
“Another sign,” T-Bone said.
“I knew I had God’s blessing,” T-Bone said. “So let me tell you how I fell shit-deep in love. Buddy, when I seen her lay down on Mama and Daddy’s bed and I was walking toward her, God spoke to me. No shit, God said, Love unconditioned. Swear to God. Love unconditioned was what He said. Had to be Him cause Babycakes here didn’t say nothing. And I didn’t say it. Hell, I didn’t know what it meant. Unconditioned? So I asked our preacher about it and he agreed it was something the Good Lord would say. So I asked him if there was any law against brothers and sisters dating. I told him I thought God told me there wasn’t no law against it, but something snapped in him that time. He grabbed my arms and shook me and began spouting verses, and that’s when I first learned about this fella Amner and his sister Tomorra. They got it on and Amner was punished, but, buddy, let me tell you something, Amner was punished cause he was a son of a bitch. His brother Abslom killed the fucker cause he raped their sister, not cause he loved his sister. You don’t rape nobody you love. Now, what if Tomorra and him had loved each other? Ever read Ten Commandments?”
“Yeah,” Francis said, “and saw the movie, too.”
“And they don’t say nothing about brothers or sisters not loving one nother, do they?”
“Not that I recall.”
“Now, the preacher said it was some kind of unnatural evil worse than murder, but how could God and Moses leave a thing like that out of the law if it’s really that bad?”
“Abraham married his half-sister,” Francis said. “That didn’t stop God from making a covenant with him.” He turned to T-Bone and then to Babycakes and watched them consult each other in silence. Francis still liked to teach. He missed teaching. It was all he’d ever done with his life, but he hadn’t had anything to teach for a long time.
The terrain of the Delta never seemed to change. More cropland to the east, forested swampland to the west.
“Are y’all planning to have any kids?” Francis asked.
“Not right off, I don’t guess,” T-Bone said. “Was you, Babycakes?”
“Why you ask?”
“Well,” Francis said, “I think it’s fine and dandy you two are in love. But I feel obligated to warn you there are diseases that occur more frequently in inbred offspring. Even from impossibly distant ones.” He thumbed the steering wheel twice as if to drum a tune but quit. “You might want to consider that before you reach Mexico.”
“Mexico? Who said anything about Mexico?”
“Not me,” Babycakes said.
“Wherever you’re headed,” Francis said. “I don’t care. I just picked a place.”
“Well, we ain’t going to no Mexico,” T-Bone said, “so don’t be spreading no gossip of such.”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Francis said.
“Anyway, I don’t see how our kids could come out worse than how we done.”
A paved road intersecting the levee came into view and Francis let his foot off the gas.
“Will this take us to the river?”
“No, that’s Desoda Trail,” T-Bone said. “Leads through to Desoda Lake.”
Francis accelerated over the asphalt when he thought to ask T-Bone why the lake and the trail were named after De Soto.
“Cause he come through here. There’s a sign all about it up at the lake.”
Francis stopped, said, “Excuse me, Babycakes,” shifted the stick deep into her thigh, and the truck whined in reverse.
“Caught the biggest bass of my life in that lake, didn’t I, Babycakes?”
“Uh-huh, but it weren’t bigger than my twelve-pound catfish last summer though, was it?”
“You right there, Babycakes. You right there.”
The trail cut through the trees for nearly a mile before it rose and fell over a second levee and wound for another mile to the lake. Francis parked by the boat landing and turned on his brights to illuminate the gold lettering of the green marker. The siblings stayed seated while Francis stepped out and leaned against the hood of his truck. On May 8, 1541, De Soto’s expedition marched into the villages of the Quiz-Quiz, and after capturing the tribe’s chief to insure their safety and assist them on their quest for gold, Hernando De Soto saw for the first time, on this site, what the Indians called Messippi, or Father of Waters. What was then the river was now merely a horseshoe — a drop in the bucket that the Father had gradually, over four and half centuries, forgotten. The lake tapering westward on the far left and right like bull horns.
Francis pushed himself forward and walked to the landing’s edge where gray met black. He kneeled down and dipped his splayed hands into the quiet, cool water and watched the stars on the water’s face stretch into ribbons. This may not be a river, thought Francis, but this is of the river and so is the river still.
He sat back on the landing to strip off his boots and tube socks, then rolled up his jeans to the calves and leapt to his feet and stepped in ankle-deep. He cupped the water, bringing it to his face. When it emptied he brought more up, then more, faster, and buried his face among the stars. He thought of a black theater screen and the star-white credits scrolling.
The water trailed down his neck, and he inched forward until the lake rose to his makeshift cuffs. Reflexively, he turned to the truck, thinking that T-Bone and Babycakes could take off right now and leave him here, but he discovered he didn’t care. He needed his medication in the glove compartment, in fact he’d need his daily dosage of colchicine soon to keep the inflammation and fever in check, but there was nothing else he had to have.
His tender feet picked up rocks as he stepped toward the truck. He opened the passenger door.
“What’s up, buddy?” T-Bone said. “You want we should get out?”
“Yes,” he said.
T-Bone and Babycakes climbed down and stood a few feet away as Francis stuffed his pockets with his medicine and his map.
“It’ll just be a minute,” he told them and crawled in the back of the truck. In the dark he found the one book he wished to keep. He knew it by the cracked leather binding on front, smooth on back. He held it between his teeth as he rolled up the quilt his grandmother had sewn as a wedding gift seven years ago, then slung the roll across his shoulder and jumped to the gravel. He shrieked and dropped the book out of his mouth and doubled over, clutching his feet.
“What’s wrong?” Babycakes asked.
T-Bone laughed. “He’s all right. Just got a bad case of city feet.”
Francis rose feebly and held out his hand. T-Bone couldn’t see it in the dark of the tree-covered cove. “Here, I have something for you,” Francis said, giving him the keys.
“What — want me to drive?”
“De Soto marched on foot through Mississippi, and that was when it was virgin. So, you know, why couldn’t I? I mean, maybe I should.”
In perfect unison, T-Bone’s and Babycakes’ eyebrows became swollen ridges.
“You need a chance. So take it,” Francis said. “I want you to have it. The truck’s yours.”
Babycakes screamed and leaped at Francis, wrapping her arms around his neck and her spindly legs around his back. She laughed in shrill shrieks and kissed his cheeks. Then she pressed her mouth to his ear, “Now we can get to Mexico,” she whispered. She pulled away and kissed him flush on the mouth, gagging him with her long smooth tongue, quick as a catfish.
“Okay, okay,” T-Bone said, “that’s enough.” Without touching ground, Babycakes de-plunged, climbed from Francis to T-Bone, and rode him piggyback to the truck.
“Thanks!” T-Bone sat behind the wheel, his teeth gleaming. “You better to us than our own mama and daddy.”
“Uh-huh,” Babycakes said.
“What you gonna do out here anyway?” T-Bone asked.
Francis shrugged. “Hum some Memphis Minnie. Swim awhile. Read some. Walk when I get ready.”
“We ain’t in no hurry. We can wait.”
Francis shook his head.
“A bus station in Clarksdale if you decide you need it.”
Francis nodded, deciding he liked his predicament. “I’ll be all right,” he said.
“Well, all right,” T-Bone said. He shifted the truck in reverse and backed up, and Babycakes waved from the other side. The tires Francis had bought back in Kansas when he believed he’d live forever, and what was dead would never haunt, skipped rocks and spun away.
Just before the truck disappeared beyond the darkness of the trees, T-Bone trumpeted the melody of “Shave and a haircut, six bits.”
Francis had never met his grandfather. He grew up seeing his grandfather’s cane mounted on his parents’ bedroom wall. His mother had mounted it on a board she’d covered with aquamarine velvet, even though she’d never met him either — a soldier weakened by mustard gas in the First World War, then a barber in the Delta during the Depression. A man with a razor strap his father had feared, and from fear had learned to stutter. His grandfather had died a very long time ago. His father, within the last year. Within months, weeks, Francis would be dead, too. His liver and kidneys calcified into stones. But not before this swim.
He removed his remaining clothes and gazed at the waiting water. The air closing around his buttocks could have been red velvet from the seats at the old Park Theatre when he was ten and had just seen Raiders of the Lost Ark with his family. They sat hushed and still, as if in church, letting the crowded aisles thin and staring ahead, and then there it appeared among the credits — their last name scrolling upward easy-like. Because he’d never seen it outside the private confines of his family, always on mail or homework, Francis felt proud as though he’d unearthed it and caused it to float. He pointed it out, saying with urgency, “Bailey! Bailey!”
Frederick scoffed, but his parents agreed, there it was, and calmly watched it rise, sliding away as if on ice, and disappear, and then his mother spotted her middle name. “Look!” she said, and then his father shouted his first name. Suddenly, for some inexplicable reason, a family reunion of names was on full display — his brother’s name, the names of aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents and great grandparents, everyone’s childhood friend, even his dad’s boss, whom he hated. All four of them belly-laughed at the miracle of such chance, at the miracle of what they had discovered and could keep because no one else could fathom the value.
That was how the game got started. Whenever they went to the movies, they stayed for the credits and called out the names they knew, and then in the car ride home they would reminisce about the people they remembered.about the author