continued . . .and I‘m having trouble believing this is writing itself into multiple parts. I have more memories of that time of my life than I thought.
You couldn’t hunt on a Sunday in the Commonwealth in those days. Besides having a legal obstacle to spending time in the woods, Brad and I had something quite a bit more ominous to deal with. Namely, if we’d ventured out for some reason on a journey to soothe our souls in backwater calm, we’d have no end of it from parents and prospective girlfriends.
Sunday was for church and sitting in hard chairs. With or without ties. Period.
I suppose we suffered it as a penance to sitting in a far different cathedral of a morning, with limbs of pine needles above and hardscrabble bushes below, a pink horizon the alter of our communion and a pulpit made of the curved juniper on a fishing boat. We suffered separately, he in a country Baptist church and me a more urban place, but for 24 hours we paid homage to God and civilization and men in vestments, women in choirs.
But nobody said there couldn’t be a little plotting going on. He made a rare call to me late Sunday afternoon, and I could hear a twinge of something foreign in his voice.
“We’re really gonna skip school tomorrow? To help Billy? Man, I wish you hadn’t volunteered us for this. I dunno if this is such a great idea, you know?”
I tried to reassure him. “Shoot, if I hadn’t volunteered you would have. You know you would’ve. And it’s your cousin after all. What’s one day, huh?”
He was quiet, and I could just about read his mind through many miles of telephone wire. Brad was borderline in a lot of classes, missing a day would call attention to that. Where I would scribble volumes of half-learned essays and juke my way through government class based solely on memory, he tried to base his learning on what he had studied that morning, over a fried egg and a cup of coffee at the kitchen table. Maybe his was the more honest way, as opposed to my educated slight of hand, but it was the only way he knew.
“All right, slip by the house at 6 and we’ll take my truck from there. Hope this turns out alright, there’ll be hell to pay if it don’t.”
I laughed. “Hell, it’ll be fine. Maybe Billy will even pay us, right?”
“Yeah, mebbe so. Reckon we’ll find out.”
I don’t know quite how we managed to slip the confines of the normal Monday-off-to-school habits observed by parents who seldom missed anything, but we were standing on the dock at Finny’s Marina by 6:30 in the morning with Billy Sawyer, coffee in large mugs all around and a first of the day smoldering pipe for Billy.
“Y’all looking a little out of sorts this morning,” he observed with just a hint of a smirk. “Little too early for ye? Here, might want to put these on” and handed over two sets of rubber hip waders. “Get’s a bit slippery with the menhaden, you know.” Except he pronounced it “menhaad“, rolling the word around like a glass of good country wine.
It was a picture out of one of those tourist brochures that Swampville was semi-famous for, a glassy sound on the land side of the bay, water nearly black save for the golden lapping tips from a searing golden ball rising to our faces, a February stillness. A stray Labrador wandered the dock, collarless and damp, an orphan of the marsh with feet splayed as wide as those of the mallards he might splash after from time to time.
It could have been something from 100 years ago save for the low droning of a diesel engine at low idle, the heart of a fish worthy Tidewater commercial boat coming up the narrow gut with a pronounced rise on the bow. A shadow spun a wheel from inside the low rise cabin and a practiced maneuver had the vessel gliding against some ancient tires strung along the side of the pier.
A dour man poked out from the door of the 35 foot boat, jerking his head toward the stern and tossing lines without comment as the three of us looked on. Billy splashed the last of his coffee into the water and grunted, “Best be getting on with it, boys.”
The menhaden, as all menhaden seem to be, were of a size that Brad and I would have scoffed to catch in open water, most smaller than my hand and destined for oily fish meal or cat food on a budget. Hardly the fleshy bass which would splash into our eager hands when the gods were of a mood to smile on us. And Billy’s idea of “getting on with it” turned out to be the transport of thousands of bony “menhaad” from A, to B and subsequently, C.
We scooped and slung and toted fish, we stepped on them and made instant oil slicks. Billy had dozens of rough crates at the ready (turns out he made them himself) and would bang lids on the iced down full ones with 4 brisk nailings, stacking them chest high and ready for the long trip up the pier on an ancient dolly. From there we loaded them on muddy pickups and trailers.
It was exhausting stuff with Billy setting a frantic pace using silent gestures and snatching crates as if they were the morning paper, and more than once I caught Brad giving me the “And we thought school was a bother” look. The air reeked of fish, our clothes a slimy mess and the only being on the dock who was truly having fun was the lone Labrador, who dodged running feet to make a stab at every stray silvery flash.
At length, and well past our school regimented lunch hour the last truck was loaded and Billy was busy onboard the boat with the dour man, who had spoke not so much as a word the entire time. Brad and I sat on the edge of the pier, fish slime dripping off hip waders, sipping longneck beer and to this day, there may have never been a sweeter one than that beer held in a slippery hand and drained as if it were high summer already.
Billy at last heaved a last hand truck worth of crates up the pier, which was curious since I was sure we had cleaned out the hold of every last fish, but I was too tired to make much of a stir about it. We scrubbed the worst of the gunk from ourselves with water dipped right from the sound in a plastic bucket, tossed the hip waders and shrugged back into dry coats.
“Y’all did pretty good boys,” Billy said as the last box was lashed off and nameless black men appeared to start motors and take trucks down the crushed oyster shell lane and out to the state road. I was not so tired that I couldn’t appreciate the sort of backwoods engineering involved, the amount of people and machinery and timing that he had put together without a single phone call, letter or paper of any sort. There was little conversation, doing what needed to be done was a foregone conclusion for men who worked land, woods and water.
Billy reached deep into his bib pocket and extracted a sizable roll of bills, peeling off two fifties and thrusting them to Brad and myself. $50 was, in that gentler time, a major league deal for 6 hours work, and all the more so for two high school kids.
"I appreciate your time, fellas,” from Billy, and it was like a pronouncement of knighthood for us. “Badly, you say hello to your Mom and your sister for me. I got to get this load on down the road, here.”
Brad held out a hand to shake. “They’ll be asking me when your gonna get up to church next, man,” he said with a smile. “What you say?”
There was that slow pause from Billy, that same long look over the water I’d seen before, a wistful sort of look that crinkled brown skin from too many hours in the wind and sun. “Maybe come Christmas there, cousin. Always did like church on Christmas. Seemed like the right place to be.” He turned to shake my hand as well. “You lads drive very careful.”
He turned to hop into his truck and keyed it to life. “Come on down to the house one afternoon and we’ll do a little bird hunting over Blue!”, he called over the engine. And he was gone, without naming a date for the afternoon, if indeed a date needed to be named, or a time placed on what was a timeless thing.
There would always be a Pointer named Blue hunting on soybean fields full of quail. You could drive off the edge of a map and find backwater cabins that seemed to float on a field of leaves and pine straw, a 55 gallon drum rigged with a stovepipe and seeping the devil’s own barbeque in the yard. Or a quiet marina with fish leaving the water in an orderly way and no one to question why.
I wouldn’t have guessed it that day but it was the last time I ever saw Billy. Spring came beautiful that year, the year I left high school in a flurry of activity, there were girls to hold close and classes and tests filling the black holes while the woods and water waited, much as they always had.
Brad and I drifted without that connection. He found the girl who he could not figure out, who entranced and enslaved, and he was lost from the land for a good while. I went through the motions of preparing for college, there was some mention of a scholarship or two. But it laid there, as much as anything the victim of something larger, the work of my hands, the spell of corn cut in September with flights of speedy dove and wing shots. Or a forgotten pier in the middle of a swamp where the catfish gathered. The look of a truck with a large dent in the fender. Things seemingly silly to the urban folk who prodded me, and wanted to know why I felt the need to go traipsing in woods.
25 years slipped by, the fishing and hunting were there at times, never were they far from mind. The hands were busy with things of wood and the mind wanting things to be simple and right and clean. The clean that I felt that first fall day, sitting on a log with a Mossburg and waiting for life, or a squirrel, to walk by.
I suppose the whole thing might have gone quietly to bed, and things that boys of 17 set aside neatly at last, but for a chance encounter some 5 years ago. Sitting in a bar with my good wife and recognizing, just barely, a fellow who lived back out in the swamp, a fellow who drifted in and out of my life at odd times such as this.
“Henry!” I exclaimed and I was a little drunk, the beer went down very easily that night. “Let me buy you one, how you been?” He sat at my left elbow and gratefully dipped long on his mug.
“They bought me out, Outfoxed. Lived down there all my life and the wife is telling me it’s time. Got me a pot full of money from it, outta be enough left to buy a new truck once the tax man gets his hand off my ass.” I laughed along with him, a little sadly. The folks from the swamp never did have much use for taxes.
“Ain’t much left of anything down there, buddy. I tell ye Henry, I drive past places now that I hunted, wasn’t nothing but woods and farms for as far as you could see, and now it’s a bunch of vinyl and concrete. Damn shame.” It was a common enough lament, anyone who had lived for long in Swampville knew it for what it was.
Henry nodded, and that aura that hangs over the people of rural land was with him. The slow answer, the taste of the cold beer. “Reckon you heard Finny’s Point is a bunch of condominiums now, eh?”
I hadn’t, and was dull to the passing of one more place of my dreams. But I was lucid enough to ask something of Henry that had never occurred to me before.
“Hey Henry, ever run into a guy around Finny’s named Billy Sawyer?”
Henry looked quickly at me, a little startled. “You knew Billy? Jesus that’s been, what . . . 20 years or more since I last heard that name. Billy Sawyer,” he mused.
“Yeah, I only met him a couple of times but he was the kind of guy you didn’t forget. Good friend of mine was his cousin, we had some times back then.”
He cupped a chin into a hand, an elbow bent to the bar and the beer bubbling endlessly in a cold mug, with the chatter of a bar on a Friday night surrounding us. He twirled the mug slowly then drained it with one quick move. “Another please, Miss.”
It was taking him a good while to work up to something, and I could feel the way of the woods coming to me, the calm behind the eyes that wasn’t calm at all. He waited until Cori brought him his second one, had a frothy sip, and looked me in the eye.
“Billy Sawyer was a legend, Outfoxed. He was one of a kind, and he got killed for it. Or at least I think he did.”
I was getting sober in a hurry. “Killed? How?”
Henry hesitated. “You say you knew his kin?”, and I nodded. “Well I reckon it don’t matter anyhow, it’s been so long. He disappeared one night, most folks said he got shot out by his old cabin there, something about seeing the coroners car hangin’ around all one day or some such. I don’t know.” Henry paused for another draw at his beer.
“Shot? Why would anybody want to shoot Billy?”
“Why, the drugs, man. The man was runnin’ drugs all over the Swamp back in the day. Hell, I don’t think he even ever tried anything himself, he was just poor as dirt, ‘bought like all the rest of us. Used to bring in dope on fishing boats, so I hear, bring in fish and sell it at market but there was some bad shit in there, too. Sounds too crazy for Billy, though. He was always a straight up guy with me.”
I stared at a napkin and said nothing, seeing Billy walking those last crates of fish up to his truck and hoisting them in with effortless swings of large bronzed forearms.
“Anyway, there wasn’t ever a funeral, none of his kin had anything to say about it except that they hadn’t seen of heard from him in a while. And so far as I know, they never did again. He was always a bit of a loner, anyway. Livin’ out there in the middle of nowhere like he did. Best I ever saw with a gun, or a dog. Pretty fair country carpenter, too. Man could build anything with wood.”
Yes, he could. Or I imagine he could. I didn’t have it in me to suggest to Henry that, in a roundabout way, it was Billy and Brad who had saved me from certain death in college by just doing what they always did, and living life by their own hands, and making me a part of that life.
Saying it would have cheapened it. Billy knew things like that.
I have a feeling too. One that Henry gave me, and probably shared, without coming right out and saying it. If Billy had died, he had enough kin in the area that there damn sure would have been words said, or a place prepared in the woods. Saying they hadn’t heard from him was as good as saying he was alive, and somewhere else. Carolina, say. Georgia, with a low country so much like our own. Or what we used to have.
And I’d cheerfully live again the days I had out there, where the trees thicken and the water turns dark. Where the feel of life ran in the cold, streaming over damp ground and hands went to pockets for a feel of warmth on a February dusk.
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