1981. Brazoria County, Texas.
He comes up out of the water, ropeswing dangling a wet knot overhead, comes up from the cold, dirty water and smoke mists off his skin. The water’s so cold, skin so hot, makes steam even in the warm spring. Steamsmoke licking away, but just for awhile, until the water is gone, the skin chilled down closer to the water’s temperature, then it just becomes plain old skin. His older brother told him it was on account of all the chemicals poured into the river by the plant where Mom worked, but his brother was born stupid and mean.
Today he climbs up the tree holding the rope swing, watches all the others swing off the platform below made out of four-by-fours by the old guy who owns the land. Some said that if the old man ever caught any kids there he’d shoot first and ask questions if he ever felt like knowing. But Martin is smarter than that. He doesn’t worry about old men with shotguns anymore than he worries about his older brother or chemical plants or girls or owning a car some day or making the football team. He reaches inside his baseball cap and pulls out a joint he has stolen from his older brother, who is now off in the woods with Nancy trying to get himself a screw.
He lights the joint with matches made damp from his wet fingers, snorting smoke off the end through his nose. This makes him look like a pro. Girls get off on guys who smoke a lot of dope. He has been practicing.
Couple of the girls have brought pint bottles of Peach Schnapps, God-awful stuff, but it takes the edge off like it should. They’re passing the bottles down from the bank to the boys in the water and the boys drag on them, then toss them back up. The squat, hairy boy who races cars a lot says that they should all get naked and they all tease each other, saying they will, saying they aren’t scared, but of course nobody gets naked. Pussies.
Martin lets them all go off by themselves, back in the trucks, back up Camp Road by the pipeline, stays by himself. Joint is all gone now. Horizon turns grey and when he moves his eyes from side to side, the greygreen tree-line bucks up on the ends, just enough to force him to blink it back in place. Time gets down real slow, till his head clears up a bit. Then he puts on his hat, takes the rope and swings out over the water, not dropping in, just swinging out over it. He doesn’t lean into the swing, just lets it rock smaller and smaller till he’s barely circling at all, more from the slow breeze than anything else. He stays like that with his face on the damp, coarse rope till the sun is going down, or rather, until he notices the sun is almost gone, till he’s almost fallen asleep and the dope is done making the horizon buck.
He dips down in the water trying to make no splash at all. He had heard once that the Indians who lived on this river long ago could do that. They could jump in the river and not make a splash. But he can’t do it.
Swims across to the other side, climbs out of the mud, tennies digging in sloppy, and walks across the thick grass watching the smoke come off his skin.
Barely light out then. Enough to see a good distance, but not enough to last, and by the time he walks the whole four miles back to the house it’s dark—Texas summer dark, as inviting as home. Fireflies are stretching and yawning in quick circles along the pipeline a ways from the gravel road. He watches them as best he can, trying to bring back the stoned feeling, but he can’t do it.
Around the sharp curve, he comes up on the tank farm. Last stretch home. The big white elephant tanks squat on the ground, behind the fire-walls—round ring humps of dirt circling the great white beasts. Behind the tank farm, flares from the petroleum waste lick out little blue feathers against a darker blue sky. He is sober now. He is walking the gravel road home in muddy shoes, wet cut-off jean shorts cooling in the twilight. Sober thoughts come to his mind:
I am bigger than those tanks. Bigger than this road. I will not die in this Goddamn town. Just a few years from now I’ll be gone. They will not remember me and I will not remember them. This road will make me cry one day, remembering it, one day when I’m gone, when I’m in a city or a foreign country. A foreign place that will seem like home.