Paddlefish Sky
Hollis Drew

Those who know the most about the people of the River aren't the ones who pilot the boats.

This is my last day to drive a school bus. I usually wake early, but today a fat rain sweetens my sleep until a foghorn way off on the Mississippi River roots through a rich, moody clabber to bait me from my dreams. In the early spring the River can be mulish and unforgiving; its swollen waters pulls along giant trees, loose barges, even dead people, so bloated and dark and sexless it takes weeks to identify them, in its hungry prowl towards New Orleans. Hundreds of tiny islands along this stretch of the River clog its waters. Sandbars and currents are tricky through here. A tug pilot blinks at dark visions from inside the dim, green light of his wheelhouse and prays his tow won't bugger some careless fisherman who nods off in his skiff. Even with million-dollar radar, the older pilots still only trust their eyes.

The River changed its course long ago, which supports my daddy's notion that only three rules in life are certain: "Time will tell. Shit will smell. And water will seek its own level." The State of Tennessee claims most of the islands, even though they now snuggle up against our side of the River. My daddy probably heard when it happened, but I didn't ask him before he died. Even if my daddy didn't know, I'm sure my granddaddy knew the history of the River.

I was young when my granddaddy died. I'm not sure now if I remember him or just the stories my uncles tell. His name was Tyrece and his people came from Virginia. He was a hostler, a main man. He was also a tiny man, but unafraid of the meanest mule in the lot. He dipped Garrett snuff and quoted scriptures from memory all day. He played a piano by ear; and if he heard a song played once on his old battery-run radio, he could play it forever, banging proudly upon a tinny-sounding upright, with his fingers hammering it out like little black hammers. He chopped cotton for more than eighty years and died at one hundred three. He outlived five wives and was buried beside them in a grove of yellow catalpa trees.

He told wonderful stories from his youth: of the time when his mother and two aunts, left alone and hungry during a spring flood, paddled out in a boat left tied to the second story bedroom window to slit the throat of a doe swimming through the tops of a flooded corn field; and of a black panther that clawed into the attic of their cabin one night to give birth, safe from the hotly baying hounds; and of a groggy rattler seeking heat that crawled into his bed when he was five, which he kicked three times with a heavy thud out into the floor before his puzzled mother came to investigate; and of winter mornings so cold his father's moustache was caked with ice from his steamy breath. He remembered when an ancient forest covered this land and six men clasping hands couldn't reach around its huge hardwood trees. My grandfather would have known all about the River changing its course if asked, but a man only thinks of such things when it's too late.

I live next to a dogleg in the levee just outside the small town of Lazich, Arkansas, with the same wife, and in the same house I did as a kid. I can brag on it some because I can count on one hand folks who can say the same. Stella and me are still here. No doubt, we've been pretty lucky.

Stella is spooned around a pillow on her side of the bed; her breath hitches upon itself like something fancy, and I know she will live forever. She cruises through her dreams. I am comforted by her sighs. She makes me laugh and feel cozy. Some mornings she rolls over, only partly awake, and mumbles in a deep rubbery whisper, `You still lovin' me?' But this morning the rain also holds her under. She won't wake up for another hour. I'll be gone to the bus garage by then. After a cup of black coffee, though, she'll air dry and be good as new.

Stella has made a good wife; if it is true, as my daddy said, that all good marriages begin and end with a steady woman, then I have been blessed, but he was still disappointed we married as we did. It had nothing to do with Stella -- she is humble as a parable and he loved her from the start -- but we were just fifteen. He wanted me to finish school; but I thought I was old enough and smart enough I didn't need his permission. I came in one day to say this is what Stella and me was going to do.

"Okay, Mister!" he said. "Now, I'll tell you what you gon' do: Come Monday, you gon' give your books to your cousin to take back to school. Then you gon' grab a hoe and join me in the fields." That was all he ever said about it. But he was hurt. None of his children had finished school. He had it worked out in his mind I would be the first. Even though I finally earned my diploma through the Army, it wasn't the same. He lived to be eighty-two; and he held it against me until Robert, my firstborn, finished school. Then it was okay between us. His intentions were good, but he just didn't know Stella.

We own a country grocery and bait shop that Stella runs. Nothing fancy. We have a little meat counter in the back of the store where we sell bologna and souse and slab bacon, sticky meat bought by the slice and wrapped in white butcher paper. (Poor people can't afford stuff that's low-fat or organic.) We don't carry many fruits or vegetables. Fruits spoil too quickly in this humidity. And most people around here tend a small garden; squash and tomatoes and okra grow like weeds. So, we don't sell many vegetables anyway. Some folks still make cornbread in black iron skillets. Stella will buy a hundred pound sack of potatoes each week off the produce truck from Osceola. But now most people seem to prefer such stuff in a box.

Stella sells sack lunches for the cotton choppers. Stuff that won't spoil; mayonnaise will kill you quicker than a moccasin in summer. The farmers pay for the choppers' lunches and even pay social security on the choppers now. Like the man says on TV, "And so it is..."

A gravel road passes by out front and crosses over the levee onto Island 35. We sell bait and beer to the local fishermen. And I have a large tank where I sell fresh fish and soft-shelled turtles bought off the fishermen on the River. But only the old folks buy turtles from me now; they just scoff at the high-minded talk in the paper about the danger of chemicals. They speak, instead, in their high feverish voices of haunts and swampdevils and croup, which worry them much more than the poisons that rain down from the bellies of those swooping yellow planes.

Children slip inside the store to dangle over the tank and watch the turtles. They jump and giggle at their fear when the turtles scrape their claws against the sides of the tank. The children are suspicious and hopeful, and I tell them stories from my youth, when giant alligator turtles crunched dainties from the bodies floating down the River -- before the oily poisons softened their dough-colored eggs and tainted the turtles' sweet meat. Sometimes one of the brave ones will reach down into the tank and poke the soft leathery skin of a turtle with a finger, but not many do. I admire the brave child who thinks she risks a finger.

Mister Feeny, the druggist, comes in each day at noon from his shop on the town square to pray inside the walk-in freezer at the back of our store. Three years ago he moved to Lazich to set up business in an empty clothing store. People say he has a family somewhere back up north, but they didn't move down here with him.

Feeny is a short man with thinning hair; he sprays his scalp with black dye, so he resembles one of those round Russian dolls that looks like a metal bowling pin. And his teeth and fingers are bronze from the rolled cigarettes he smokes. He has a steel plate in his skull, a confusing reminder of Vietnam, like the yellow crazies that chase him in his dreams. So, the war, and Lazich, and the jungle prison camps sometime get all tangled up in his mind.

I sometimes spy on him through the small square glass window in the freezer door kneeling under the cold numbness of the light bulb. It is safe to spy; his eyes are closed; so he can't see me. Feeny often speaks in unknown Tongues. I can hear his muffled words through the thick freezer door.

His skin is blue when he leaves, and his teeth chatter. Maybe he purifies the children of Lazich with ice. When he leaves, he often mumbles, "No matter what you do, it ain't enough!"

Stella shakes her head; he makes her nervous. "People want what they can't have," she says.

But Feeny means no harm. He just don't have much chrome on him.

I don't know what he does at noon on Sundays; we usually close the store until one. If it is our freezer that moves him, on Sunday he's out of luck.

I have mixed feelings about retiring. I just heard on the Memphis evening news they have put security cameras on school buses over in Tennessee to catch kids carrying guns and knives. But I'll miss it mostly. I have been getting up at four for too many years not to miss it. A man can't walk away from forty years of driving a school bus and not feel something. Still, I'll be seventy-two this fall. It's time.

In 1952 I walked to the white school in Lazich and asked the Superintendent if I could have a job driving a school bus, since he was in charge of hiring. That was the first year our black children would have their own buses. Before that, some black children had walked up to five miles to the school we had built for them out on the edge of Lazich.

His secretary made me wait outside the school under the shade of some chinaberry trees. The berries crunched wetly under my feet. He came out after about two hours and hired me on the spot. He also gave me a job as a custodian. He was impressed that I had been in the War. He wasn't, but he had lost a son in Belgium. Stella had said before I left the house that morning, "Don't you beg him for nothin'!" I waved her away. I knew how to handle him.

Anyhow, that's how this school bus driving got started.

We are still a big school district, and my bus run is sixty-four miles long. So I must get to the bus lot early. I'm always the first bus to leave. I have a key to the gate and let myself in. Still, I cut it close because I want the bus children to sleep as long as possible. See, I have a rule, `You wait on the bus 'cause the bus don't wait on you.' They know I mean it, too.

I run into patchy fog down along the bayou. It stretches across the land like an old man's cataracts. Slows me down some this morning. Funny -- let two flakes of snow hit the road and we close school for a week. But let thick fog slip in off the River and the buses still roll.

I usually push the bus hard on the straight stretches. The governor is set at sixty-two miles per hour. But not today, because of the fog and planting. Farmers hog the road and run their equipment blind. I keep my window open so I can listen for their equipment on the road.

My first stop is seven miles out of town. Little Doc Odom gets on. His daddy is named Doc Odom. When Little Doc was born, Doc had them put on his certificate, "Little Doc." So it's pretty official. I don't know what cologne Little Doc wears, but he prefers it to bathing. Must cost one dollar a gallon up at Wal-Mart.

Little Doc seldom speaks. He grunts once in awhile. He always sits down right behind me. First window seat on the driver's side. It's a good place to see everything. One morning we saw a duck divebomb into ditch water beside the road. "Mister bus driver," Little Doc said, his voice suddenly tainted by emotion, "That duck just committed suicide!" That's been his seat for since kindergarten; he's been stuck for three years in fifth grade.

Little Doc's momma died of cancer last year. He climbed on the bus one morning and said, "Momma died!" I didn't even know his momma was sick. She rode my bus once, too; her name was Judy. We talked about it some. How he felt. How sadness eats at you when your momma dies.

I start my run toward Polk Island after crossing the railroad tracks. It is a seventeen mile run to the far side of Polk Island. Few children live along this road now. Used to be a house was perched on every forty acres. So many children lived out here, it took three buses to collect them all. Even then the children who climbed on last had to stand in the aisle. Now then the world stops at the end of this road.

I stop to pick up two brothers who live in a rusty yellow house trailer beside a shallow ditch. The trailer squats in heavy weeds under a peeling sycamore tree. Their high-butted mother stands barefooted in the dusty yard cursing them for some slight, but her angry words bounce off their wide backs like harmless grit. They climb aboard scowling darkly, unable to look me in the eye.

I am most happy on those days when these two stay at home. They are much older than the others, too grown to be in school. They are also mean and cannot be trusted. Last year they messed with the young girls in first and second grade. Running hands where they shouldn't. The courts put them on probation and sentenced them to finish school. They don't like me for it, but I make them sit up front in the "angel seat" across from Little Doc, where I can watch what they do.

My grandchildren once gave me a wooden plaque for Christmas that reads, "The man with all his problems behind him drives a school bus."

The engine groans or hums to tell me what to do: I down-shift through a curve, then brake to a quick stop at three shotgun houses slumped together near a tractor shed. Flowers bloom at the edges of their ragged, sloping porches; and in the yards the forsythia's long rooster tails salute us with their bright yellow bells.

Seven panting children climb aboard smelling of sausage, jelly, and buttered biscuits; there is something healing about fresh hot biscuits. They rush from their kitchen table when they see my school bus coming. In the winter, they smell of clinging wood smoke and Vicks salve.

A light wind sweeps the fog from the ditches into soft layers that hover some twenty feet above the road where I run safely under it. At the end of pavement, I turn onto a hard gravel road that winds through a freshly plowed cotton field toward Polk Island.

The children stir when we turn onto the island at the end of the causeway. Deer, quick as rabbits, sometime sprint from the cover of the hedge and into a field, then spin upon their hind legs, like dancing bears, and dash back into the hedge when they spot our yellow bus. Come summer, Mink and otter will feed on the pale muscadine grapes draped in the hedges.

Once we clattered, like a swarm of angry locusts, upon a drowsy alligator sunning in the middle of the causeway; the Fish and Game Commission had brought them up from Louisiana to clean the ditches of beavers. It was young, about four feet long, and it ran heavily before us, then dove into the scummy water with a loud splash. The children were too paralyzed to speak. The Island is stringy and primitive, something untamed and lovely, and makes the children solemn, as if we have quietly entered an ancient cathedral.

Polk Island is a magical place. Osage oranges the size of softballs grow beside the hard gravel road. Old people still call them deer apples, and, in the fall, I stop the bus to let the children gather one or two for their science classes.

Only one family lives out on the Island now. Ever so often, in the early spring, after a heavy snowmelt up North among the spruce, firs, and tall pines, the River crawls out of its bank, and the Martinez family moves over the levee to safety, or remains on the Island, if the water doesn't rise too high. If they can stay, they bring David over to the levee and wait in a fifteen foot aluminum boat for my school bus to arrive at 7:05.

I don't envy David. He is a loner, an only child. I've asked him if he likes the Island and he says so; but it has changed him. Their house is built upon a Nodena ceremonial mound and rides high-and-dry most years, but it is bad luck and brings on visions to build on hallowed ground. I believe David has seen their ancient spirits. He wears a small dream catcher on multi-colored beads around his neck.

I hunted rabbits out here when I was David's age: I struggled through heavy snow along the River, following the rabbits' soft tracks to their tunnels under the thick rimy grasses, then broke their necks with a sharp blow from a club. Then I ran a wire through the leaders on their back legs and carried so many of them slung across my back the sagging wire cut into the cords on my neck; it was easy to find them quivering under the snow.

Then, when the sun would break through the gray, rolling clouds to sparkle off the water and snow, I'd be snow-blinded by the light -- eyes bright red and burning like rubies, like the rabbits' eyes -- but happy, too, because I had enough fresh meat to last my family for a month.

At night the tugs on the Mississippi spray their searchlights across the sky. The air feels damp then, like the wind blowing against a fog. The Island is a spooky place, deathly still, with owls mumbling inside the pale willow thickets crowding the riverbank. I've fished for eel and suckers and drum in the chutes by the achingly-white light of a gas lantern. At two in the morning, the hissing lantern sucks up bugs and snapping things which flutter against the tops of the trees, obscure things you feel more than you see, like the restless Indian spirits who visit David in his dreams.

People have been killed out here, falling out over a round-heeled woman or strong brown whiskey or a drug debt gone unpaid; at night it is not a good place to get excited or careless.

Stella and I will come out here to fish now that I'm retiring. We will find more time together. We will close the store on Mondays. We will buy an aluminum boat and drift down the chutes that hug the islands. I will teach her how to wait patiently on the fish.

And I will show her the thick pink and white walls of wild rose mallows growing in soggy places and the cheerful blooms of the buttery tickseed and the bright orange trumpet-creepers. Come July we will pick the wild blackberries, as fragrant as new money, from the prickly vines drooped heavily over the water until our fingers and lips turn purple; and we will suck at their bitter seeds stuck between our teeth and spit our crystal froth like offering upon the water.

We will drift among the dried, cupped leaves and place our trotlines in the winding chutes, then listen to the beaver slap the water with his tail to ward off our dominion, and watch clouds of white egrets as they skim across the early, blushing sky.

When a hot afternoon boils up lazy clouds into yellow, then beige, then green and, finally, dark blue demons, we will tie up to a bank and stretch our tarpaulin over us. We will wait below the fragrant, rustling hedge, and watch the dainty waterstriders skate across the water, and listen to the distant dogs idly barking at only dogs know what.

After the rain has passed, we will wait patiently at the mouth of the chutes to snag the giant paddlefish that enters the shallows in search of food drug by the strong undertow along the slippery bottom. We will slice open her huge belly and dip up the warm dark eggs with our fingers. It will feel good out under the cool shade of the giant trees.

We still have things to learn, just like when we were young and couldn't keep our hands off each other.

But now we need not hurry.

Hollis Drew ( lives in Jackson, Mississippi, where he is gainfully unemployed.

InterText stories written by Hollis Drew: "Shooting Stars" (v6n5), "Paddlefish Sky" (v7n3), "Ox-Plum Road" (v8n1).

InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 7, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1997 Hollis Drew.