Papa, I am about to Sail
Some people swore that the house was haunted. They would see lights flickering just as the river sun set.
Dog River swells with warm coppery water. The current almost imperceptible. My father, who has lived on the river his entire life, acts as if the Tigris and Euphrates met in his backyard; that all life on Earth might have begun there. Some nights he swims the river. He recites legal precedents while breast-stroking up against the current. Then, 500 yards north of the house, he’ll dive 20 feet to the bottom, grab handfuls of mud and silt, and push off hard, launching his muscled body upward. At the surface, gold flashes of sunset will dance with his silhouette. He backstrokes home reciting lines of poetry. He’ll time Shakespearean sonnets to his stroke. Afterward, he’ll stand straight-backed at the end of the dock, closed fists on his hips, and give a passerby the illusion he has performed an act of heroism. Perhaps he apprehended a boat thief single-handed. Perhaps he rescued a drowning child from the depths of the river.
His parents built the house, both of whom are now dead. I feel certain he half expects me to move in any day. To walk barefoot down the wide hardwood planks through the long Alabama summers, to sit by him and his fire in the brief nearly forgotten winter. My nick-name, Copper, is entirely river derived. I am an only child. I will never move back home.
The property was my great grandfathers first. Mr. Clarence Sparrow. Which makes my name Copper Sparrow. Funny. Oh Alabama. So my great grandfather bought the land following the wartime shipping boom in the 40’s. His once small tugboat company quadrupled in size. The cottage he built was modest, and the only extravagance he allowed himself was digging out a pond behind the house. My grandmother made an awkward plea as a child for aquatic flowers. And so, the pond was born. Mr. Sparrow was easily swayed by my grandmother. And to put the final touches on the pond, he had a tiny island of soil left in the pond’s center for water lilies … My grandmother’s name was Lily. He even built an arching bridge to the island so that Lily could plant the lilies herself.
I left home at eighteen. As did everyone else. I traveled to the University of Georgia in Athens for college. I spent the minimum amount of time on my studies to keep my grades up, but far more time was spent in cafes and bars. I learned that stopping to sing “Me and Bobby McGee” with street performers both embarrassed and attracted a variety of girls. Some girls pleaded with me to stop, but others joined in. My father would not approve of any of them. In the end, I wore hippie clothing, drank red wine, smoked baggies of pot, and got on with my studies without even trying. I had inherited enough IQ that it was possible. I began attempting to grow a beard and calling my father by his first name.
“Clarence,” I said. “I would like to clean up the guest cottage on the lake to stay in when I am home.”
“The last hurricane ripped the duct work from the bottom,” he said, “and my name is Dad or Daddy to you. Not Clarence.” And with that, Clarence flicked the lights on and off repeatedly fast.
“Oh Clarence, live a little. Who cares what I call you?” I said in response to the light flickering.
“I care.” Clarence shuffled his feet. “And don’t you dare tell me to live a little. You need to live less Copper.”
“OK Dad. You fix the ductwork. I’m not staying in your house, ever again.”
“We’ll see about that.” Clarence rubbed his chin. “And keep those grades up. Stop dressing like a hippie.”
So I never shaved the beard. I never moved home.
Nothing was ever the same again after that, and the haunting appeared to be of our own making … our own squabbles, our own fugues, our desire to be better than we were. Never again would I sail.
Murray Dunlap is the author of Bastard Blue, Alabama, and What Doesn’t Kill You, an anthology of survivor stories. His work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals. Alabama was a finalist for the Maurice Prize in Fiction.