You and your old friend, a friend of thirty years’ standing, get in the car and open the windows and put on the music –Etta, Nina, Tina– and drive to the primeval river seeking its wide brown waters and everything held within and without: the cypress rising like sentries on either side, the sweet gum trees, the scrubby pines.
Your friend had spent the weekend hoping to see an alligator, something he’d never seen in the wild, and his hope became yours too. It had been a weekend of adventuring up and down the unmarked sandy offshoots of the river, finding the fish camps into which, if you were a person who wanted to disappear from the world, you could haul the shell of an old camper or school bus and put it up on cinder blocks and do just that.
You’d seen pods of pelicans and pods of dolphins in the ocean and, here by the river, either an eagle or a hawk trying to scare another eagle out of its high, silent orbit. You’d seen snakes in the water and the skeletons of unknown animals littering the banks of the river. As the sky grew light at dawn you’d looked out the window and seen the elegant droop of a sleeping peacock on the high branch of a high tree across the road.
The day before you had rambled through an old campground in search of the two-headed palm that was said to grow there, and you saw that too. Your friend had brought two fine cigars down with him and you stood at the entrance to the campground and smoked them and took photos of each other smoking them.
Now you were back in the car and traversing the byways, seeking out boat landings and fish camps and the denizens of the river, both animal and human.
* * *
“If I write you into the story, do you want me to use your real name or your nickname?” you say to your friend.
“If you write me into the story you may refer to me as Absalom,” he says.
* * *
You and Absalom are sitting on the concrete piling of a boat landing at Howard’s Landing. The sun beats down. The river is wide here, dark and placid, bending its way around a far curve lined with sweetgum trees, dotted with the occasional rowboat.
You watch the two closest to you. Each holds a fisherwoman wearing the kind of hat that you used to see on the heads of field workers in China. They are calling to each other, a slow, lazy conversation that winds and curves like the river.
“Every mornin I praise the man in Jesus,” says one.
“As Jesus is in the man, I praise him too,” says the other.
“I’m not phrasin it right–”
“–I know what you mean.”
“Sing it,” says one. “Sing that song about the road.”
“That road song.”
“I don’t know it.”
“You know it,” says the first, and begins to sing: On the road again. . .
“Oh yeah. I know it. Skinny long ponytail down the back man.”
“Tha’s right. Sing it.”
“Y’all got any wuthwhile crickets over there?”
“They’s some crickets here but they’s not too lively.”
“I got to bail this river out of my boat then I’ll be over.”
* * *
Back in the car, windows open, Gear Daddies singing about a summer kind of sad. Dusty, sand-rutted road lined with pines. Why are none of these landings marked? Never mind, you know why. Places people go to disappear aren’t usually well-marked.
A car approaches from around a bend. You frown and glance over at Absalom. He’s also frowning. You know exactly what’s on his mind.
“Look at that car,” he says.
“It’s not right.”
“I know,” you say again. “We should be the only car on the road.”
“It doesn’t take long, does it, Absalom?”
“You mean to get used to being away from everything?” Absalom says. “To being the only car on the road? To the silence and the solitude and the slowness?”
“Yeah,” you say.
“No,” he says. “It doesn’t take long at all. It’s surprising just how little time it takes.”
* * *