Post Road Magazine #13

Alabama

Murray Dunlap

Heather was born in Alabama. So was I. This is something I like to say. In Alabama, shrimp and oysters taste a little like champagne and the crab trap haul is fifteen pounds, pulled up hand over hand, the rope stained brown and slick with algae. Blue crabs snap three-inch claws in the air. I know how to reach around from behind and scoop them up without getting pinched. I know how to pick the white meat from the shell and throw out the dirty gills. They call them Dead Man’s Fingers. Heather and I know these things. We were born here. I’m going to ask Heather to marry me, and I’ve got a ring in my pocket to prove it.

Another thing about Alabama: you can slip a kayak into Dog River at six in the morning and paddle out into Mobile Bay, passing under the concrete bridge, skirting the south side of the peninsula, and land on Goat Island for a rest before noon. I bring along a sandwich, and if no one is looking, I stash a six-pack of beer between the flares and emergency rope. Sea gulls flutter over the water before landing on the sandy beach. The gulls don’t get many visitors, so they hop around and squawk as if you’re not there. Heather likes to take her bathing suit off and lie naked in the sun. She does it without even grinning. I can hardly stand it.

We have parties on the water. Someone will make a few calls and the whole mess of us shows up at the Bay with an ice chest. We bring mountain dew, mellow yellow, sprite, and three bags of ice. We’ll pour in two fifths of vodka, two fifths of gin, and two fifths of grain alcohol. Our buddy Sandman will mix it all together with a wooden paddle. He’ll stand on top of the ping-pong table and swing the paddle over his head. His hips swivel and his butt sticks out. He’ll say, Get Green! Get Green! We’ll shout and cheer. One cup of Green is enough, but on a dare, we drink five. That same night, David Letterman announces that we have the highest teenage drinking rate in the country. He carts a keg out to center stage and pours a beer from the tap. He raises the plastic cup and says: Mobile, Alabama, this Bud’s for you! We’re green to the gills when he says it, and the party erupts. We’re not sure, but we think we’ve won something.

Some parties, Heather and I sneak out the screen door and make a quiet left onto the beach. Half the crowd is in the house and half is out on the dock. We get 50 feet away and take all our clothes off. We step out into the warm coppery water, so still and smooth and shallow, and ease under the neighbor’sdock. We’ll hide in the shadows and watch the party. We reach up and grab hold of the low support beams. We have acrobatic sex, half above, half below the water, our bodies suspended and feet swirling above the sandy bottom. When we return to the party, Sandman points to our dripping hair and says; Green and Wet! Wet and Green! Everyone knows where we’ve been. It’s like that in Alabama.

But later, in college, Sandman choked on his own vomit at a frat party. His mother started an anti-hazing campaign. They put his face on a billboard between Mobile and the beach. We’re not sure how to feel about it. The first time I drove by, I cried. The next time, I punched the dashboard. These days I just give Sandman a wave and think about him swinging that paddle over his head. Heather will play with the radio when we get close. That, or she’ll climb into the back seat for a coke. Not everything in Alabama is like it used to be.

Another one of the gang, let’s call him Polk, was walking downtown from one bar to another when a guy stopped and asked for money. Polk tried to give him a five-dollar bill. He took it out of his wallet and everything. But the guy pulled out a pistol and shot him. He still had the money in his hand when the ambulance found his body. Since Polk was white and the guy was black, the police decided it must have been a gang initiation. They said it happens that way. We don’t know if that’s true, and I don’t imagine we ever will. Either way, we miss Polk real bad. Polk and Sandman both.

Heather’s parents live down the street from mine. If I stand on Mom’s balcony, I can hit Heather’s house with a tennis ball. So sometimes I lob one over. When the ball hits her roof or mailbox or window, I feel that much more connected. Even if glass breaks, it’s worth it.

When it snows in Mobile, the whole town shuts down. The joy of running out to the yard and rolling around in the first snowfall in seven years is like heated sex. Your face turns red and you can’t feel your feet. And when you spot the kids across the street seeing snow for the first time in their lives, it’s that much better.

Heather and I made a snowman in the field at the local college. When you’ve only got an inch to work with, you need as much surface area as you can find. The snowman turned out all brown and splotchy from the dirt on the ground. We used a cigar for a nose and a banana for the mouth. We didn’t have buttons for eyes, so we used oyster shells from the driveway. We named him Santino. The kids who showed up loved him. They invented a dance and twirled around him like a maypole. Santino stood for three days. When the college kids got back from Christmas break, they made like pro wrestlers and body-slammed him flat.

All summer, thunderstorms march in like clockwork. Three o’clock in the afternoon and the sun disappears. The rumbling begins and the air tastes like you put a penny on your tongue. If you’re lucky enough to be on the dock, you can climb in a hammock and watch the storm move across the Bay. Funnel clouds spin up from the water and lightning drops down fast and hard. By four o’clock they’ve packed up and gone. Mom is afraid of the storms. She was born in Montana.

But Mom is as much a part of my Alabama as anything. She made me learn to swim when I was three. There’s a lot of water in Alabama. I was terrified. Coach Hanks picked me up and threw me in. I flailed my arms and kicked like crazy. Look, he said, the boy is swimming now. And I was. Ask anyone in Mobile how they learned to swim and this is what they’ll say: Coach Hanks picked me up and threw me in.

Mom read that blueberries improve memory, so she stocked up. Four plastic containers a week. On cereal, on ice cream, in cobbler, plain, whatever. When I came home for Thanksgiving, I asked about it. Mom looked up from her cereal. Don’t you love them? Delicious! Yes, I agreed, but why so many? Well, I read something about them. Oh, I don’t know. Eat up!

That was after Mom locked the combination to her safe in her safe. She didn’t realize what happened until she couldn’t find her pearls. Then she couldn’t open the safe. The locksmith laughed and said it happens all the time. Really, he said, I get this everyday. When it was open, Mom looked inside and couldn’t find the pearls. For a week she argued with her husband about who lost them. About who stole them. About the cleaning lady, Rose, and the yard man, Moses. Then she noticed a false bottom inside the safe. Pearls. She went straight out and bought blueberries. Heather thinks this is the funniest story in the world. She asks me to tell it at parties. Heather’s laugh is the Fourth of July to me. So I tell the story.

Right now I’m driving on Government Street and dropping down into the Bankhead Tunnel. I hold my breath. We all do. It’s a ritual. You try to hold your breath until the car has made it underneath the Mobile River and come up on the other side. It started ages ago when locals noticed that car fumes collect in the tunnel. They say if you have an accident in the middle and try to walk out, you’ll never make it. They say the carbon monoxide will kill you before you reach the end. They also like to scare first-timers by saying that if just one tile comes loose, if just one tile in the ceiling begins to leak, it will all come crashing down. It’s a myth, of course, but we hold our breath just the same.

In the summer of 1941, Congressman Bankhead built and named the tunnel in honor of his daughter, the actress Tallulah Bankhead. She had just divorced and the gesture was intended to lift her spirits. The Congressman, so moved by love and pride, is said to have cried at the ribbon cutting.

All right. I’ll admit that’s not true. The tunnel was named after the drunkard Congressman by a circle of stiff-necked suits in the cold rain. Tallulah was busy making movies, sniffing cocaine, and recovering from advanced gonorrhea. She did not attend. Now don’t you like my story better?

My cousin is also named Tallulah. She shares the name with her mother and grandmother and great grandmother. This is something we do. But when the youngest Tallulah names her first born daughter Anastasia, the adults hold their tongues. But not us kids. We smile big as moons.

I’m on my way to the eastern shore of Mobile Bay. That’s where we have our parties on the water. It’s also where we have a thing called a Jubilee. Only one other place in the world has them. It’s somewhere in the Middle East. But here, when the moon and wind and tide are just right, the oxygen levels in the water change. The flounder and shrimp and crab come right up to the shore to breathe. At least, that’s the theory. No one really knows for sure why it happens. But that’s a jubilee. If you’re out late at night, and you see the shoreline dotted with crabs, cup your hands around your mouth and shout, Jubilee! Then we’ll all know. We pull out gigs and nets and buckets and lanterns and get knee deep in the water. Sometimes the catch is so great we give it away.

Stingrays and catfish swim in the shallows too, and once I got a dorsal fin through the arch of my foot. It had to be surgically removed. But danger makes it more exciting. At least for me.

I read a story once called “Mississippi.” The guy who wrote it says this: Our crickets are trained to sing prettier and more convincing and purely than nature should allow. Mississippi is a special place. Some days I like to go out in the tall grass and roll around like a dog.

So I say this: Our crickets have not been trained; they perform by the power of instinct. When green tree frogs join in with the voice of bells, the music, so sweet in timbre, has been known to heal the sick. Alabama is more than special; it is mythic. Some days I like to jump headfirst into the Bay and swim the bottom like a catfish. I’m lean and fast. I was born here.

In Mississippi, gambling is legal so long as the building sits out over water. Biloxi and Tunica are famous for floating casinos. Gambling is illegal in Alabama, but in my lifetime we’ve elected a governor who never went to college. Now that’s risk.

 

Mardi Gras started in Mobile Alabama. This is something I like to say. Mobile, in 1703. Not New Orleans. Go look it up. Mardi Gras is like heated sex. Your face turns red and your feet go numb. When the kids come out to Bienville Square and see it for the first time, it’s that much better. Parade floats in tongue-biting colors turn down St. Francis Street and costumed revelers throw candy and strings of beads at the crowd. You’ll drop a bare knee into spit, spilled beer, and muddy gravel just to snatch up a Moon Pie worth less than a nickel. You’ll risk your life, diving between muscled bikers for the bigger, longer beads. The ones that almost look like something. You’ll hoist them over your lover’s head and say how sexy they look. Heather loves the beads. I leap above the crowd like Flipper and pick them from the air.

A secret society called the Mystics of Time puts on my favorite parade. They send serpentine dragons through the city streets. Masked men ride the dragon’s back and smoke pours from its mouth. When the dragon stops in front of the square, we all jump up and down, waving our arms and shouting the names of masked men we think we might know. Heather likes to say they single her out. That of the hundreds of blurry faces in the square, a drunken man behind a sweaty mask throws a single string of beads, just for her. She doesn’t even lift up her shirt, and I believe every word.

In Alabama, you can find clothes in the trees. I pulled a tweed sport jacket from a low limb of an old oak right in the middle of town. It was just hanging there. I put it on. It fit. Weeks later I found a dry-clean slip in the breast pocket. The name on it was Sherwood McBroom. I know him, of course. Alabama is like that. Hey Woody, I have your jacket. I’m wearingit now. Don’t I look great?

 

When I get to the Eastern Shore, I follow Old 98 through a tunnel of oak trees. Then I’ll make a right down Heather’s driveway in a little town called Fairhope. It’s her grandparent’s house, a little white cottage on the red bluff overlooking the water. The story we tell about Fairhope goes like this: the first colonists took a look around and said this place has a fair hope of success. There’s no record to prove it, but we tell the story again and again. The Eastern Shore has their own Mardi Gras. We come over for aparade by the Knights of Ecor Rouge. A few years back, the parade was named A Knight at the Movies. Heather’s father dressed up as Darth Vader and rode a float made to look like the Death Star. When I stopped to pick up Heather earlier that day, he answered the door in full costume. I was a little drunk. His costume included platform shoes. I said don’t hit me before realizing it was okay to laugh.

There are no parades today. This is summer. And when I get to the door, I look straight through the glass, down the hall, and out the back to where Heather sits on the sleeping porch. Instead of knocking, I ease around the side of the house and army crawl behind a row of azaleas. I pull the ring from my pocket and ready myself. Heather is less than 10 feet away. My hands shake. I watch her through the screen and think about all the years I’ve been coming here. I think about all that coppery water slapping the shoreline behind me. I think about Sandman and Polk and I wonder what they would say. I bet Sandman would make fun of me. I bet Polk would pretend not to cry. Hey fellas, I’m going to do it now. I’m going to marry that girl from Alabama. This isn’t a dare. I’m really going to ask her. Just watch me.

Murray Dunlap, a native of Alabama, received his terminal degree in creative writing at the University of California, Davis. His fiction has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, New Delta Review, Night Train, Red Mountain Review, The Greenbelt Review, and others. One story received a nomination to Best New American Voices. Dunlap's first book, Alabama, was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in fiction.

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