Murray Dunlap

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.