by TAD BARTLETT
It’s a Saturday in January, late morning, as Joe Alsobrook slides down the gully side into the creek bottom and hikes far up the creek by himself, a second-hand coat keeping him warm, and a hat that smells like camphor.
It’s 1983, a new year, and Joe is eleven years old and lives with his mother and father and two older sisters in their small town in a small house with dirty green shag carpets, peeling linoleum in the kitchen, and an ever-present smell of dog piss. But the house is a good house because it sits next to the gully with the hardwood bottomland and the creek running through it.
The gully is a gash through the landscape of the town, but the woods in it are like a forest, and the creek swims with minnows and tadpoles and small snakes and, in the deeper holes, Joe imagines there might be large bream and carp. Last spring, warm fronts invaded the Alabama winter cold with tornadoes and torrential downpours. The river backed into the creek and it swelled until it filled the gully. At night Joe heard the bellow of alligators, and the snakes crawled up into his backyard, and all the world was an adventure, a possibility of danger and wilderness and lost control.
In the summer, when the big waters drained away and the creek burbled through beds of soapstone and fine sand, Joe and his friends built dams from rocks and fallen logs, and imagined they were explorers and pioneers settling a newfound land. They found arrowheads and tied them to sticks and chased imaginary redcoats through the woods, and sometimes rebs, too. Sometimes Joe’s friends were the rebs and chased Joe and his cadre of Sherman’s troops through the gully, splashing through shallow water, leaping across muddy bogs in the low places, yelling their rebel yells, with dirt streaked on their faces and cockleburrs carpeting their socks and stuck in the fine boyhood hairs on their legs.
In the fall the snakes grew fat. On cooler weekend mornings before the Alabama football games came on TV, Joe spied plumped snakes sunning on broad rocks beside the creek. Large leaves of sycamore and hickory and smaller leaves of oak fell and carpeted the bottom with a crunching cover that Joe piled together and buried himself in before he climbed the steep gully wall and came home with grubs and ants and twigs working into his jeans and his shirt and his underwear.
Now the creek barely trickles, the summer’s dams busted, and the trees are skeletons and the leaves are damp and beaten and even the mud bogs are frozen. Joe shuffles along the bank, past the summer swimming hole, past the tree that juts out from the small dirt cliff, through the soapstone canyon, and even past the railroad trestle far upstream to where the cow pasture comes down to the water.
Joe sits on his haunches by the creek bank just outside the falling down barbwire fence and thinks of girls, like Cindy, on whose desk he leaves wildflowers that he picks on his bike ride to school, and he thinks of Ms. Smythe, the exotic British math teacher who just moved to town to teach his fifth grade class, and he wonders if they would like the creek bottom. He skitters stones across the thin ice at the edge of the creek, and occasionally looks over his shoulder to make sure the bull of the herd keeps its distance. Joe’s friend Gerald told him once how his cousin got cornered by the bull and how it took three ambulance crews to pull him out of the pasture while fending off the bull’s charges. Joe is never sure whether to believe Gerald, but he figures why take chances.
After the sun crawls past noon, Joe’s belly gnaws with hunger. He leaves the cow pasture and retraces his route, past the trestle, through the canyon, past the jutting tree and the swimming hole, and back up the gully wall to his house. By the time he gets home, the sun is lower in the western sky. His absence should be notable. He should be in trouble, but he suspects he won’t be. He walks through the back door, letting it slam.
His mom is yelling at his oldest sister, Delilah, down the hallway toward the bedrooms. Yelling at each other is all they seem to do now that Delilah is in her senior year of high school. His other sister, Ruth, sixteen and quiet, sits on the floor behind an easy chair in the den, headphones plugged into the family stereo, a stack of 45s strewn on the carpet beside her, her head bobbing, her eyes tight shut. His dad snores on the sofa, John Wayne on the television. His mom strides from the hallway, through the living room, on her way to the kitchen. She barely looks at Joe—“Your lunch is on the table”—before she’s in the kitchen and pots are clanging. Joe sits down at the dining room table and chews a baloney sandwich and wonders what life would be like if maybe his parents were dead. He imagines it might not be too different.
Their death needn’t be too violent or awful or protracted. A car wreck, maybe, but not their fault. They don’t deserve to be punished or in pain. Maybe a drunk driver when they’re on their way home from one of their few nights out for dinner. “They didn’t feel a thing, son,” the cop would say, standing on their front porch, stooped down, a hand resting on Joe’s shoulder, the babysitter in shock behind him. “Died on impact.” Of course, the drunk driver would need to die, too, in the accident, or else everyone would expect Joe to feel some sense of anger and revenge, and that would get in the way of the receipt of the uncomplicated sympathies of girls. Could there be something cooler than being an orphan? Joe wasn’t so sure.
But then, of course, his grandparents might insist he move to their house in West Virginia. Or maybe it wouldn’t be enough that Delilah had just turned eighteen, and the government might not let him live at home.
But if they did, Joe could build a new house on the property. Maybe there was some inheritance his parents hadn’t let on about. Maybe they didn’t have to live like they did after all, thrifty with coupons and clothes from the second-hand store, and the one chicken that his mom stretched to feed the family for a week. Maybe there was something stashed away from his other grandparents, the dead ones, his dad’s parents. He could take that and tear down the smelly one-story house and build a three-story palace like the ones on the western edge of town. It would perch on the lip of the gully, balconies looking into the trees, huge windows, and slides and rope ladders to get down into the bottomland, a deck suspended over the hillside, trees growing right through it. And maybe Cindy and her friends, Lisa and Tanya, would come over to bring him cookies because he was an orphan, and he would be listening to his sisters’ cool albums on the stereo and playing pinball on a new pinball machine, and then they would go out on the deck and Cindy would say, “It’s like living on a mountain, Joe,” all breathless, and Tanya would say, “You poor thing,” and Lisa would kiss his cheek and look away.
Joe finishes his sandwich and takes his plate into the kitchen and puts it in the sink. His mother looks up from the stove and says, “Did you have fun in the woods today, Joey?”
“Sure, mom.” So she had noticed. He goes out the back door and sits in the grass by the chain link fence overlooking the gully. The trees in the bottom start maybe forty feet below the level of his backyard, but they soar straight up and tower over the roof of his house. Maybe it wouldn’t be so good if his parents died, not at all. But still, Joe wishes he could escape above everything as easily as the trees did. He would build a series of platforms in the branches of the tallest tree, laddering up until he, too, could walk high above his house and his town. He would look down on everything and everyone. And in the neighboring trees he and his friends would build more platforms, and there would be rope swings and zip lines running from one to the other, large, thick ropes that would never fail, and trampoline nets stretched from one tree to another so that in case anyone fell they would bounce right back up onto a platform. But the nets would only catch him and his friends and their guests. Any intruders who fell would hit the spikes buried beneath the leaves below.
As the weather warmed, they would build thatched roofs over each platform, and string hammocks up in the canopy. They would live there, all together, Joe and his friends, and they would make dye from tree bark to darken their faces and hands so no one would see them as they moved through the woods. They would distill invisible ink from the juice of berries growing in the brambles on the forest floor, and weave paper from the grasses that lined the gully, and would send messages through the trees by affixing notes to the legs of doves. At night, their lanterns and elevated campfires would decorate the forest like an eternal Christmas, and their drums would tell stories and send warnings and make music. They would dance, up in the trees, and owls would shake their heads in disapproval.
Joe would be king, or president, or leader. His friends would present him with a pipe, and they would stuff it with oak leaves and smoke together while he told stories and legends of the constellations above their forest home. Tonight Joe would read a book of those stories and legends that he saw on the family bookshelf, and tomorrow he’d start building, or at least draw up the plans. There would be windmills in the treetops, and water wheels in the creek, to power their record players and turn their grinding wheels and their sharpening stones. Grain would need to be ground and blades sharpened, to make food and tools and weapons.
When everything was built and order created, they would allow girls in, to see it all. Maybe Ms. Smythe could come teach them class there, be their tutor, so enamored with the world they had built that she would leave the school. And if robbers came to their forest, or Russians, they would protect Ms. Smythe. They would have spears and arrows and large battering logs poised on ropes ready to swing down and obliterate four-wheelers or tanks or columns of troops. And if any of Joe’s friends turned into spies, he would know it, because he is smarter than all of them, and he would cut down the rope ladders and zip lines and live with Ms. Smythe in the tallest treetop, protecting her for all his days, and maybe one day, when it was hot, and they were both brown from the sun, she would kiss him, and maybe her blouse would slip off one shoulder, and she would say, “I love you, Joe Alsobrook. You’ve always been my best student. Kiss me again.”
“Joe!” shouts his dad, bellowing and sleepy. He’s at the back door. “I’ve been calling you.”
“Hey, Dad. Didn’t hear you.” Joe gets up from the grass by the chain link fence and wonders what chore he’s forgotten, what test has just been unearthed from his backpack, what he’s done wrong this time.
His dad smiles. “You’ve got a friend at the front door. A girl. Says her name’s Cindy.”
Joe is unsure how to respond to the sudden panic in his chest, but his dad steps away from the doorway and into the house. Joe walks in and through the dining room and kitchen and sees his mom talking to Cindy in the front hallway.
“Here he is, dear,” his mom says with that smile she saves for people outside the family.
“Hey, Joe,” Cindy says.
“Oh, hey,” and Joe looks at his mom and wonders when she’ll go back to whatever she was doing.
“Want to do something?” Cindy asks. “My folks told me to go out and ride my bike, but Lisa’s not home, and I’m not allowed to ride as far as the next neighborhood so I can’t go see what Tanya’s up to. You want to ride bikes?”
Joe thinks of his bike in the side yard, tires both flat since the summer, despite three months of reminding his dad that they need to be pumped up. “Nah,” he says, “I don’t want to ride anywhere.” He toes the dirty welcome mat on the front porch, thinking of some way to keep Cindy from riding away on her pink Schwinn. “You want to go down to the creek?”
“Sure,” Cindy says.
Joe tells his mom, who was still standing just behind him, “bye,” and leaps off the front porch and leads Cindy around the edge of the house. They half run, half fall through the muddy mat of leaves down the gully wall until they stand at the bottom surrounded by tree trunks.
“My folks never let me come down here,” Cindy says.
“I come down here all the time.” Joe feels a little taller. He doesn’t feel as nervous around Cindy down here in the woods as he does when they’re in school. He’d never even told her that the flowers at her desk were from him. She always paused to look at them, then swept them into her backpack. Joe wonders if they all collect there, compacted by books, melding together in the dark. “It can be kind of muddy and wet down here sometimes,” Joe says, gesturing to the woods around them, “but I don’t care.”
“I don’t either,” Cindy says. Joe drops his eyes and fidgets his feet in the leaves.
“Want to go see the big bull in the cow field?” he asks.
“Way up past the railroad bridge?”
“Uh-huh. It’s awesome. That bull rammed into Gerald’s cousin once. Took six ambulance crews to rescue him.”
“You sure it’ll be all right?”
“Sure I’m sure. I know how to handle him. I was just up there this morning.”
The light falls through the bare tree limbs in late afternoon gold. “Do we have time to go that far?” Cindy asks.
Joe thinks for a second, looking up at the sky. “We can cut straight through the woods, instead of following the creek. It’s a straight line that way, so it’s quicker.”
They stay close to the bottom of the gully wall. Where the creek swings away from them in time-eating undulations, they stay straight, the backyards of the neighborhood rising beside them. A knocking sounds somewhere above and Cindy grabs Joe’s sleeve. He looks back at her and she points into a tree. Joe follows the line of her finger and sees a woodpecker, the bright red feathers on its head flashing as it works through the bark, seeking bugs for dinner.
“Why’d your folks tell you to go out of the house?” Joe asks as they keep hiking.
“They probably wanted to fight about something. They don’t like each other very much. Sometimes I come in and they’re screaming at each other.” Cindy sounds remarkably calm.
“That stinks,” Joe says. “My parents don’t do that. Seems they never talk to each other at all.”
“Your parents are sweet, Joe.”
“Whatever. They don’t even notice when I’m not there.” Joe feels wrong saying it, but right then he wants it to be true, wants Cindy to see him as tough.
“How can you know that,” Cindy says, “if you’re not there?” She sounds irritated, but when he peeks behind at her, she’s smiling.
Ahead through the trees, Joe sees the beams that support the train trestle. “Almost there,” he says. It’s seemed to take no time at all, though he wants this walk with Cindy to never end. Out of the undergrowth between them and the trestle, tumbled down by vines, rusted corrugated metal walls and fencing rise up, a riot of barricades.
“What’s all this?” Cindy asks, pointing to the pieces of metal and poles jutting haphazardly and blocking their way.
“The Andersons used to have a horse shed down here, probably years ago,” Joe says. “Collapsed in one of the floods or something. I bet I could put it back together, though, and keep my own horses down here.”
“That would be great, Joe, and we could give all the kids in the neighborhood horseback lessons and go riding through the forest.” Cindy throws her arms out wide and begins to spin in circles, blonde hair flying out behind her.
Joe is excited that Cindy sees the possibility of the old horse shed, and by the way the sunlight throws Cindy’s swirling hair into a blur. “And we
could use them to go all the way up to find where the creek begins,” he says, his voice catching high and fast. “I bet it goes all the way up to Tennessee or something.”
Cindy stops spinning and looks at Joe, rebuke on her face. “That’s like a thousand miles away. A creek can’t go that far.”
Joe deflates. “Well, I don’t have any horses anyway,” he says. “Maybe I could just raise the walls back up and have a fort, or even use some ropes or something and lift the walls into the trees and build a tree house. Nothing big.”
“So we should go around this to get to the bull?” Cindy asks. The trees and vines are thick to one side, and the gully wall is steep up the other side of the wrecked horse shed.
“It’s getting late. We could just go through it.” Joe steps over a low fence post covered in winter-deadened honeysuckle vine and past a sheet of corrugated tin, its ragged edge catching for a moment on his coat, then ripping free, leaving a hole and frayed threads. He grunts and looks back at Cindy. She looks unsure. He shrugs his shoulders, then turns and walks up a sloping piece of metal. At the top of the slope, where the metal ends, there’s a five-foot drop off the sharp edge of the piece of tin he’s just walked up, into what once was probably a little pen in front of the shed. Around the pen, now a clearing piled with leaves and strewn with limbs and torn up pieces of tire, sheets of metal and fence posts and old barbwire haphazardly rise in all directions, tangled with little trash trees and an impenetrable mesh of vines, leaving the pen as a clearing almost completely surrounded by these brambled walls. Across from where he stands atop the sloped piece of tin is a gap in the mess, and through it Joe spies the trestle only fifty yards further.
“Come on,” he calls back to Cindy. He jumps down into the clear space, leaves flying in all directions where he lands. His knees buckle beneath him and he rolls a few feet and back up into a standing position. Cindy’s footsteps echo on metal as she clambers up the ramped piece he’s just jumped from, but then Joe hears her stop and gasp.
“Don’t move, Joe!” she says. Joe turns his head and sees Cindy looking at the ground around him, her eyes big. He looks down. The pieces of tire and sticks that had been scattered around slowly move in sinews through the leaves, mottled spots of menace on their backs, poisonous triangles of snakes’ heads at their fronts, forked tongues darting in and out, tasting the air that carries the smell of him.
Last summer, one foot on a little gravel island near the edge of the creek and another on the bank, straddling a fast-flowing course of water he was about to dam off with the large rock in his hand, he had watched as a copperhead like these dislodged itself from an overhanging root upstream and splashed into the water, smoothly racing down the current with its head just above the surface, floating and swimming up to him and then between his legs and on down the creek. He’d felt so calm, when it was just one of them, but this must be ten, bigger, fatter. Joe feels far less calm, but knows he can’t show fear around the snakes or around Cindy.
“Fuck, Cindy, what should I do?” he asks, almost in a whisper, invoking the holy grail of tough words to mask his fear. Cindy’s eyes narrow again, and she takes small steps backwards, trying to stay quiet.
She whispers back, nothing more than a loud rasp, “I’m going to run back and get your dad.” Before Joe can protest, she disappears.
The snakes slow their movements. The closest one is about five feet away from where Joe stands still, trying not to lock his knees and pass out, and the rest are in a rough circle around him, waiting. Joe wonders if they’re coordinating their attack, sending signals and thoughts to one another, calculating which one should sneak from behind when Joe’s head is turned, what sort of distraction to create, or spell to cast to finish their job. Or maybe he’s only momentarily aroused them from winter hibernation and they’re going back to sleep.
The snakes don’t move closer. Joe begins to breathe slower. He looks up to the sun, low on his left shoulder, and into the trees. Joe wishes he had wings. If he had wings, he would unfurl them now, stretch them slowly to their full spread so as not to alarm the snakes, and he would gently flap them and rise straight up out of the snake pit, until he could alight on a branch above. If his tree house village were in place, he could swing from one tree to another on the ropes until he could zip-line down onto the balcony of his house overlooking the gully. Except his parents are still alive and there is no balcony on a house overlooking the gully, just a dog-piss rank little ranch house with a yard and a chain link fence. But it’s a good house, and a good yard, and in the summer at night the whole gully lights with fireflies flying from the forest ground to the tops of the trees, and he can see it all from that backyard, standing at that fence.
Joe wishes it were summer now, and not winter surrounded by snakes. He wonders if Cindy has made it back to his house, if his dad is on his way yet. He wonders what his dad will do when he gets here. Will he have his hoe with him? He used it to chop the head off a small copperhead during the spring floods, one that had slithered up onto the stoop by the back door. Maybe he’d have the hoe in one hand and an axe through his belt loop. He would wield the hoe to chop off the heads of the snakes on one side, and toss the axe to Joe to chop off the heads of the snakes on the other side, and they would, the two of them, be slinging blades, metal catching the rays of the setting sun, a blinding orange blur as Cindy watched, until they were tired, their arms spent from the swinging, and one large copperhead remained, its head still on, coiling and slithering toward Joe, ready to strike, and just as it prepared to strike, Joe’s dad would pull his old Army service revolver from a pocket, take aim, and shoot. The copperhead would go flying, headless, blood spurting a fountain across the leaves and corrugated metal, and they would cheer, Joe and his dad and Cindy, and then march triumphantly off to see the bull. Together.
But Joe has no wings, the snakes keep their circle around Joe, and the woods are quiet. Even the woodpecker is silent. Late afternoon threatens to be dusk. Joe wonders if the snakes are sleeping again, returning to their state of hibernation, except every now and then he sees a tongue flick, imagines he sees an eyelid blink. He wonders if he’ll have to sleep here, too, hibernate with the snakes. He wonders if he’ll wake up as one of them, cold-blooded and venomous and slithering, when spring comes. He wonders if his parents will miss him. Did Cindy get his dad? He bets she just ran home, scared.
But then he hears footsteps, running, leaves crackling under feet.
“Where was he?” his dad’s voice asks.
“Not much farther,” Cindy says. “The Andersons’ old horse shed. Just past that big oak. See the metal?”
“I see it, I see it.”
“Tiptoe up that sloped piece, Mr. Alsobrook. He’s right past it, and there’s snakes all around him.”
Joe hears stealthy steps up the metal, the tin groaning under the weight of an adult. He looks down at the snakes. Aside from their tongues, they don’t move. His dad appears at the top of the ramped metal wall. He has no hoe in his hand, no axe through his belt loop, no gun in his pocket. It’s just him.
“You see him, Mr. Alsobrook? Is he still there?” Cindy asks.
“Yes, Cindy. He’s OK.” His dad assesses the situation, looking from Joe to the ground around him.
“Dad? What are you going to do?”
“Just stay calm, Joe. You’re doing fine.” Joe’s dad lowers himself until he’s sitting on the edge of the piece of tin. He’s wearing the big steel-toed work boots he wears to his job at the mill during the week, and that he never wears on the weekends. Joe’s dad slips off the edge of the ramped metal and lands with a shush of leaves in the clearing.
“Dad, no, we’ll both be trapped.”
“They don’t want you, Joe. Not more than I do,” his dad says, calmly. Steadily, he walks toward Joe. With each step, whatever snake is nearest to him slithers away to stay out of range of his boots. Without a further word, Joe’s dad stands beside him and the snakes are in a wider, looser circle. He lifts Joe and cradles him against his body. Joe feels small again, and protected, smelling his dad’s aftershave and cigarettes on his skin, feeling the roughness of his chin.
His dad turns and walks back the way he came in. At the wall he sets Joe on the edge of the ramped piece of tin. Joe looks at the clearing. The copperheads stay in their circle, and he feels them watching him, feels their disappointment.
“Go back down and wait with Cindy,” his dad says. “That’s too high for me to get up on. I’m going to go out through that opening on the other side.”
“But, Dad …”
“Just go down and wait with her,” he says again, firmly. “She’s worried about you. I’m not coming back out until you’re down there with her.” Joe turns and sees Cindy, hugging herself at the bottom of the ramp. He takes a step toward her, then turns his head to see his dad, already walking back toward the snakes to get to the opening in the walls on the other side.
“Go on, Joe,” his dad says, without turning around.
Joe walks down the corrugated wall until he’s standing with Cindy.
“You all right, Joe?” she asks.
“Yeah. It was nothing,” he says. He tries to wear a look of annoyance. “Stupid snakes.”
“It’s all right,” Cindy says. She touches his arm, lightly, but Joe doesn’t notice.
“Thanks for getting my dad,” he says. It’s taking his dad longer than he thinks it should to come back around. His heart beats. Cindy’s hand stays on his arm. A breeze starts in the tops of the trees. The woodpecker begins again, tapping on the tree. Slowly, first in his hands, then up his arms and down his legs, and finally, in his gut, Joe starts to shiver.
“It’s cold,” he says, “the sun’s going down.”
“It’s all right,” Cindy says. Joe hears footfalls in the leaves, a stick break. He holds his breath. His dad pushes through the tangle of vines around the edge of the wrecked horse shed.
“Let’s go home,” his dad says, looking at the two of them and walking past. “Get these damn boots off.”
Cindy drops her hand from Joe’s arm and follows behind his dad. Joe watches for a moment, knowing already that Cindy will still not talk to him much when they’re in school, that he may still leave flowers on her desk anyway, from time to time. He hurries his step to catch up and fall in line. Nobody talks. As they near the base of the gully wall adjacent to his house, quicker and closer than he imagined, it is already dusk in the creek bottom, farther from the sun than the houses up on the gully’s lip. Joe looks up and sees the reddened light of sunset reflecting off the windows on the side of his house. It’s a good house, with supper and sisters inside, and with parents who are neither dead nor yelling at each other yet, and when the gully fills with floodwaters or the trees groan with ice or the mud bogs freeze, the house will be there.
Tad Bartlett’s fiction is also found in Euphony Journal, The Rapphannock Review, and Bird’s Thumb; his essays have been published in the online Oxford American; and his poetry can be found in the Double Dealer. He will receive his MFA in fiction from the Creative Writing Workshop at the University of New Orleans in May 2015. Tad is a founding member of the Peauxdunque Writers Alliance.