“You finding everything all right, Gerald?” Vivian asked. She got in the water across from me and stretched her legs out until our toes nearly touched. I wished that I remembered her from two-to-three decades earlier. Vivian wore khaki shorts and a tee-shirt. She’d brought with her two towels and two terrycloth robes, plus an old school kerosene lantern, and set them down on a piece of cut limestone placed at the edge of the water. She said, “Your momma called ahead to let me know you were coming. I can’t believe you don’t remember me.”
I looked down, wondering if minnows lived here. I didn’t remember seeing any kind of spring life twenty to thirty years earlier. I remembered birds staring down from above, but not much else. I said, “I might’ve been a little bit self-absorbed back when my parents brought me here. That, and I felt like there was nothing to do. That, and I probably felt embarrassed to be stuck with my parents for two weeks every summer. That, and my parents taught me Stranger Danger long before it became a thing.”
Vivian said, “I remember you. You liked raspberry sno-cones. You liked Milk Duds.”
She performed some kind of frogman maneuver with her legs. She looked to be twenty years old, at the most.
I said, “Well.”
Vivian plunged her head beneath the water. When she re-surfaced she looked like an actress I’d seen in a movie I’d forgotten, the wet t‑shirt actress, except Vivian owned raven-black hair. “So your momma says you’re a photographer now.”
I didn’t reveal the truth about my situation. I said, “Yeah.” I said, “I’m sorry about your parents.”
“Oh, they’re not dead. They just got tired and handed over the place to me. They thought I might be able to meet a man if I got out of my rut. Or a woman. I think my parents just didn’t want to see me alone, that’s all they cared about.”
This woman looked like a true-to-life mermaid. How could I not have been enthralled with her back when I was a teenager? I said, “Have you been working the concession stand all these years?”
Vivian laughed. She tilted her head back and laughed so open-mouthed that I noticed her uvula. She shook her head sideways quickly, almost to the point where I thought she suffered a seizure. “No, no, no,” she said. “I taught high school, and kind of overdid it, down in Lake City. English. School newspaper. Cheerleader coach. Head of the yearbook. Coach for the forensics team. I left for school at seven-thirty, and rarely got back home before eight. And then there was grading. I did it for thirteen years. Glee Club.”
I said, “Huh,” but could only think that Vivian’s chances of meeting a possible partner here couldn’t be any better than her old routine. I said, “Head of the yearbook?” and got out of the water. I said, “I brought along some bourbon.”
It might be a medical miracle that I don’t have weekly chiropractor visits. I spent my entire childhood with a father who insisted I look to the ground, a mother who urged me to consider the nighttime sky. It’s not like they worked as geologist and astronomer. My father wasn’t a landscaper, my mother a meteorologist. They weren’t star-struck lovers, one of them a herpetologist, the other a birder. I guess I could go on and on, person allergic to ground-dwelling yellow jackets/air traffic controller, person who read the legend of Thales/believer in God. My father, to prove his point, walked around with his pockets filled with arrowheads and silver dollars—tossing them off nonchalantly, subtly, imperceptibly—then pointing down and saying, “Look, Gerald. See? You have to keep your eyes down. If you kept looking to the earth, you, too, might be finding treasures.” Similarly, my mother would point up toward clouds and say, “See that lightning coming this way? If you don’t pay attention, you’ll get struck. What’re you going to do with your head on fire, Gerald?”
I’m surprised that, by the time I went off to college, I’d not earned the nickname of Bobblehead. If anyone asked me a Yes or No question it became impossible to shake my head sideways. I looked as though I suffered early-onset narcolepsy, or that I might have been born without C1 through C7 vertebrae. Look at the ground, look at the sky, look at the ground, look at the sky: The sole thing this seemed to be good for, if you ask me, is getting my hair fully-rinsed in the shower.
Neither of my parents—both alive, still married to each other—found any pride in what I ended up in life, a man with a degree in studio art who couldn’t cut it, a man who stooped to taking photographs for various middle and high school yearbooks, a man who said, “Look straight ahead” a few hundred times a day, from August until November, for a third-tier yearbook outfit fighting against Jostens. When the season finished, I worked part-time at a frame shop where, more often than not, I told people how best to hang their work at eye-level.
“I always thought you’d be an archeologist,” my father said to me every Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday, and Father’s Day.
“You have perfect eye sight,” my mom said on Christmas, Thanksgiving, her birthday, and Mother’s Day. “You could’ve been a pilot. You could’ve been an astronaut if you’d’ve taken my advice a long time ago and applied to the Air Force Academy.”
“I read an article the other day about an archeologist up in Manitoba who found a complete wooly mammoth, melted out of an old iceberg or glacial ridge. Can you imagine finding something like that?” my father said. “Goddamn that would be exciting.” I never knew if there’s actually a mammoth found quarterly, but it was always an article he “just read.”
“There’s a popular TV show on now all about UFOs,” my mother told me. “You could’ve been a TV personality if you’d’ve applied to one of the larger universities that has physics departments, and mythology departments. Maybe a minor about ancient aliens.”
At each of these occasions—well, for Christmas, birthdays, and Mother’s/Father’s Day, I handed out wrapped presents. My father usually received a framed black and white photograph I’d taken of, oh, an interesting pothole. For my mother it was a bird of prey, carrying off an unfortunate and struggling rodent in its talons.
He was cross-eyed. You don’t see many cross-eyed kids anymore. I think the medical community successfully discovered that a patch over the good eye makes the bad eye turn forward. This guy, though—a kid, an eleventh grader named Granger Talbot—had both eyes pointed straight at the tip of his nose, not just one. I wondered if ophthalmologists bandaged one eye to get the other looking straight, then tried the second eye, only to have the first one ease back wrong sideways, back and forth, kind of like rowing a canoe. Maybe I shouldn’t’ve said, “Look straight ahead at me.” Maybe I should’ve said, “Man, that’s a nice bow tie you’re wearing,” which happened to be a goddamn confederate flag. I won’t purport to laying claims, but every male who wore a bow tie, I’d learned, came from a daddy who wore a bow tie, and that daddy usually worked in either the law or financial sector and supported politicians I didn’t cotton to.
“Hey, Granger, look this way, straight ahead,” I said. It happened to be Veterans Day, in November, and I’ll never forget it. Airy High held some kind of anti-Veterans Day celebration, because of the town getting burned down in the Civil War. Between my yearbook photos, they had a makeshift parade in the parking lot, and a bake sale to raise money for the school’s marching band.
Granger jerked his neck left-to-right in a way I’d never been able to do, his bangs flinging off there on the Airy High School theatre stage where I’d set up my two softbox lights and blue-and-gold muslin backdrop, the school’s colors. Airy High! Home of the Eagles! Named after a local famous Confederate near-general who purportedly died when a Minie ball ricocheted off a cypress knob and caught him in the eye at the Battle of Whatever, Who Cares? as Sherman burned the area down.
“I am looking straight ahead at you,” Granger said. He said, “Are you making fun of me?” and swished his hair a few more times. “Don’t make fun of me. You’re a loser, man.”
I couldn’t argue with that, really. I said, “Do you have your Senior quote ready? Do y’all do that? Beneath your picture, is there going to be some kind of quote you picked out?”
I know, I know, I know—I tried to veer the situation. I wanted out of there. Typically, it’s about three minutes tops for each photo, but sometimes they come off as endless. When I’m photographing in poorer areas, much like Airy, I come across boys and girls with bad acne. You don’t see acne-riddled faces much anymore, much like cross-eyed people. I guess there’s a competent drug out there. Anyway, at least I’d been good about not mentioning how these students might be disappointed at a pixilated photo, et cetera.
“Just snap the fucking photo,” Granger said, looking east and west wrongly. He said, “Do you know who I am? Do you know who I am?”
Well of course I didn’t. I traveled to Airy earlier in the morning, from sixty miles away. I checked in with the principal’s secretary, and she took me to the theatre so I could set up. At eight-thirty someone came on the loudspeaker and requested that all tenth grade students, last names A through E, show up to get their pictures taken. I had a sign up sheet, to keep everything in order, just in case two people looked alike. Oddly enough, in Airy, a lot of people looked alike, males and females, except for Granger Talbot.
“I don’t know who you are,” I said. I said, “Look straight ahead,” and got my eye back down to the tri-podded viewfinder.
He gave me the finger as I snapped and snapped and snapped. I thought, This isn’t my problem. I thought, His parents should’ve told him to look either up or down all the time, not sideways.
It ended up, the cross-eyed kid’s daddy was the Deputy State Agriculture Commissioner. You wouldn’t think that position held so much clout, but evidently the father had only to tell the Commissioner, who might’ve told, I don’t know, the Lieutenant Governor, who told the Governor, whose office called the owner of Give It Another Yearbooks, Simon Mayes. Granger Talbot contended that I made him feel uncomfortable, and he got another twenty Airy High graduates-to-be to sign some kind of petition against me, both boys and girls. I don’t think the attorney general ever got in on this chain, or it would’ve been worse. My boss called me in to the office Give It Another Yearbook kept in Orangeburg, which meant in a cement block outbuilding Simon Mayes kept on his property, which his parents and grandparents had farmed. I don’t lean toward conspiracy theories much, but something told me that “farming” and “Deputy State Agriculture Commissioner” didn’t take much of a straight line.
“Is it true that you snapped some pictures right when the girls got seated down, so it went up they crotches?” Simon Mayes asked me.
“No,” I said. “What? No, I’d never do that. You mean like some kind of up-skirt I’ve read about on the internet?”
Simon Mayes still carried the air of a misunderstood, wistful, pock-marked, defeated, balding, southern aristocrat. He stood slumped, and wore what looked like second-hand smoking jackets whenever I dealt with him.“Did you make fun of a boy for his cowlick, and another for cross eyes, and another for owning,” Simon pulled out a document from the side pocket of his paisley coat, unfolded it, squinted, and said, “‘a baseball mustache’ because there weren’t but nine players on both sides of his lip?”
Fuck, I thought. I had said that to some country boy with the weakest facial hair of all time. At least I didn’t add, “A football team’s offensive line on your chin,” which was true. I said to my boss, “Well.”
“We won’t be needing you from here on out,” Simon said. He said, “What a screw-up. Do you know how easy it is to find photographers for a high school annual? I might hire out my blind cousin.”
Simon Mayes knew all about my part-time work at It’s a Frame Up! frame shop, so I probably shouldn’t have said, “Was that blindness caused by the incest? Do you have any conjoined twins on your family tree out here?” I might’ve continued. I’m pretty good at blocking most things out. I might’ve said, “Do you not have an indention in your upper lip because of fetal alcohol syndrome? Is your big sister your mommy? Hey, you live on this big farm with nothing growing or grazing? Is your middle name ‘Fallow’?”
Anyway, he called up my boss there at the frame shop—who went by Ribba, for some reason, I think because she had a younger sibling who couldn’t say “Reba” or “River”— and she thought it necessary to find ways for me to never frame prints that matched people’s couches, here in town.
Ribba. When three people called her name one after another it sounded like a chorus of frogs, or people at a barbecue joint ordering the mainstays of a skewered pig.
The Airy High School Incident, as I will call it forever, occurred, like I mentioned, in early November. Poorer school districts always hire us out toward the end of the season—I don’t know how they even put out an annual. A typical yearbook costs, I don’t know—they never told me—something like fifty bucks a book, per student, and there are a whole lot of students whose parents can’t afford it, seeing as they need fifty dollars for, oh, food and extermination. I think my old company was cheaper than Jostens, mostly because we didn’t offer larger pictures for the seniors, and we didn’t offer color photos, and we didn’t really care about Staff photos, like for janitors, cafeteria people, and the cop standing at the front door. Hell, we didn’t include shop teachers, the drivers ed guy, or the home ec lady. (I’m not being sexist, goddamn it—maybe I’ve taken pictures, over the years, at a few hundred schools? Not one female drivers ed teacher, not one male home ec teacher. It’s not my fault. If you’re incensed, write the goddamn Deputy State Agriculture Commissioner, who might write the State Ag Commissioner, who might write the lieutenant governor, who might write the governor, who might contact the attorney general, who might get in touch with some kind of Title IX representative, who might get in touch with a PTA president, who might at least contact an HR person jonesing for a high-exposure case.)
This is all to say, this happened. And then I showed up at my parents’ house for Thanksgiving. I’d not seen them since, I don’t know, Father’s Day, back in June. We lived a hundred miles away from each other, them up toward the middle of the state where I grew up, me down fifty miles from the coast. You’d think that they’d come down on their way to the beach, but they never did. My parents didn’t drive well. If my father drove, he stared at his gas pedal; my mother seemed to be enamored with the flip-down sun visor. Back when I was a kid, oddly, we drove down to Florida every June, but never to Disney World, Key West, St. Augustine, Cypress Gardens, Sanibel Island, Sea World, Fort Meyers, Marineland, Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute, Miami, Panama City, Cocoa Beach, Weeki Wachee, or Clearwater Beach. We always ended up in the dead center of the state—one of my parents drove west on I‑20 until it merged with I‑75, and the other drove south straight on until the parking lot of Hoffman’s Suwannee Springs Campground, maybe twenty miles south of the Georgia border. The Suwannee Springs—I might be wrong on this, but I think there were five or six of them—held, supposedly, rejuvenative and healing powers. My parents and I went yearly between my ages of about six and sixteen. The place smelled like someone burned packs of matches, over and over, what with the sulphur in the water. We pitched two tents—a little two-person pup tent for me, a more expansive four-person tent for my parents, side by side, in front of the rock-lined fire pit, maybe a hundred yards from a concrete block bath house. In the day time, we hiked and sat in those malodorous waters, usually amid lame, obese, or sickly optimists. Maybe I’d blocked it out of my memory, but I didn’t ever remember seeing a child my age in attendance. It could’ve been because my father always asked me to look down for interesting stones in the water, my mother urging me to gather in the roosted wake of vultures above.
And I don’t know if my parents’ yearly pilgrimage to Suwannee Springs was supposed to rejuvenate their love life—thus why I had a separate tent, which, these days, would be cause for child abuse or abandonment. Maybe my father had gout, or childhood polio, what with his looking downward constantly.
Anyway, I came to visit my parents fully unemployed, and before I got two steps into my childhood home I went ahead and blurted out, “Well, I might need to move into the basement. I don’t have a job anymore.”
I expected my parents to run down the reasons why I should’ve kept looking down or up. I thought they might say something about how, if I’d ever gotten married, maybe my spouse could take up some slack.
Instead, my parents looked at each other, smiled, and said, simultaneously, “I know what can cure you, Gerald,” as if they’d practiced for this moment.
My father said, “We’ve been waiting for the day.” He looked at my mother and said, “You owe me. I told you.”
She said, “We bought you a tent the same size as ours. It’s a dome tent, though, but it’s bigger than your old pup tent.”
I could smell turkey in the oven. I smelled ham. I delineated oyster stuffing, yams, maybe a squash casserole. I knew that my mother’d made cranberry bread, just as she’d baked every other day between Thanksgiving and Christmas for forty years. Perhaps the conjunction of memories and smells hit me in ways that nostalgia can only hit. I said—my parents didn’t keep mirrors on the wall, but I bet if I saw my image I’d’ve been overly-excited looking—“Is Suwannee Springs still open? Is it open this time of year?”
My father pulled at his crotch in much the same way a professional baseball player might, in between misguided swings at a curve ball. He said, “Ronnie and Juanita’s daughter’s now running the place, and she’s doing a great job. You remember her, right? She used to work the concession stand, Vivian. We just got a post card from her, offering a special deal until the end of the year, but for one tent only!”
One does not have to drive west on I‑20 from my childhood home, then south on I‑75 to reach Suwannee Springs in north-central Florida. No, one can drive south on back roads all the way to Airy High School, then take highway 17 until it almost crosses into Georgia, avoid I‑95, zig, zag, and finally get on 129 in south Georgia straight on down until the Suwannee Springs Campground. It takes almost twice as long, especially if one stops by Airy High School with a half-dozen cans of Krylon snagged from the shed of one’s father, et cetera, and goes to work the exterior bricks uninterrupted, what with the Friday after Thanksgiving being a school holiday.
I’d already packed up the brand-new tent, borrowed a Coleman camp stove of my parents, and decided to swing back by my own house for a sleeping bag I used more often than not on the couch. My parents offered extra money should I need it, and urged me to use the time to consider options. They left before I did, with a cooler of leftovers, on their way to an outdoor lecture concerning virgin southern bottomland hardwoods at the Congaree Swamp. They were up to something. They’d been up to something all my life. I tried not to think about it, but I felt sure that if I ever got online and looked up groups or clubs of senior swingers, my parents might appear, maybe wearing appropriate costumes.
“Ask her lots of questions about her interests,” my mother said from her open car window. “Keep nodding up and down so she knows you’re interested.”
I nodded my head up and down.
“Maybe if y’all get along, Vivian can find you a job at the Springs, you know, like as a handyman. Don’t forget to ask about jobs in the area,” my father said, leaning into the passenger side to speak across my mother.
“Be spontaneous!” they said together, then my father put his car in reverse, backed out of the driveway, and yelled out, “We’re on our way to hard wood!” like that, like some kind of pervert. I thought about going back inside to rifle through the medicine cabinet, but knew that if I found those erectile dysfunction pills I’d be scarred and tempted.
I drove home. I got what I needed. I remembered to be spontaneous. And I don’t want to say that somehow I’d improved, blossomed, and flourished but there—right in the daylight, an hour later—I spray painted Airy High in ways that would make Banksy proud. That’s right, Banksy—I might not have continued in a studio-art-kind-of-way lifewise, but when I visited high schools in the Carolinas and Georgia I made a point to eat my lunchtime tuna fish sandwiches in the art rooms, and read whatever material a good teacher kept handy. I knew graffiti art.
It’s not so difficult to spray out cross-eyed visages with “Granger Tolbert Was Here” above it. It takes only a basic understanding of Pointillism to achieve acne-ridden faces on all available windows. It took extra time, but I’d done research on Granger Talbot’s Deputy Secretary of Agriculture daddy’s picture—white guy, comb-over, fake smile, orange tie with a tiger paw—and used the windowless side of the Airy High gymnasium to portray him having his way with a heifer, pants around ankles, both cow and bureaucrat looking over their shoulders straight back at any viewer, tongues hanging out.
It takes only the capital letter T to make it Thigh School, and an H to make it Hairy Thigh School.
“I probably need to tell you that Athena and Zack called me up separately, giving me a head’s up, I guess. It wasn’t just your mom. And it seemed like they must’ve called six times apiece,” Vivian Hoffman said. “Are they suffering from any kind of dementia, like maybe they forget that they’ve already called?” Athena and Zack are my swinging-probable parents. Sometimes at backyard barbecues I remember their referring to themselves as “You can get anything you want, from A to Z.” Vivian said, “I don’t want to be nosey.”
I said, “I wish I’d’ve brought one of my better cameras down here. And a flash. Maybe my softbox light. Do you have an extension cord around here that would reach all the way back to an outlet?” Sure, I got nervous. I wanted to know what Vivian might be holding back. I said, “I’m a good painter. You need anything painted out here? I don’t have anything else to do for a while. I guess they told you I got fired.”
The only thing to paint, really, was the bath house, and the one cabin where Vivian’s parents—and I assume, now, Vivian—lived. That wouldn’t take a few days’ work. She said, “No. They just told me you quit. Nothing about getting fired.”
She held out her hand for one of the plastic Solo cups I’d brought back from my tent. I unscrewed the metal cap on some Cooper’s, tipped the bottle, and said, “Say when.”
I found it difficult to look her straight in the face, of course. I looked into the water, which wasn’t steaming as much as I remembered as a child. Up toward the sky it looked like spider webs, what with the trees no longer holding leaves. It still smelled, though. This particular hot spring didn’t deal with dilution or entropy. Off in the distance, bog gasses conjured a murky purple fog. Two owls called to each other. Someone in the campground—I’d only noticed one other car, an old woody station wagon—started singing that song about drunken sailors. I wondered if Hoffman’s Suwannee Springs Campground happened to be a stopping spot on the Irish Travelers routes up and down the east coast, fake-fixing asphalt driveways. Peripherally—and I almost wanted to be cross-eyed at the moment—I could see her in what little light we had from the kerosene lamp. I’m no expert, of course, but she had to measure about a 34 D up top, unless she stuffed water wings into her shirt. How would I know such things?
I thought about how I should’ve eaten something before coming down to the springs. I tried my best to erase any images of my parents, post-bottomland hardwood lecture, mingling with other swamp-loving diplomats. Then I got to imagining the future, how maybe Vivian and I would fall in love and comment, daily, how lucky we felt to have held off with other possible spouses, over all these years. How come Vivian didn’t work the check-in booth when I arrived? Was I getting a free stay here? Was that part of everyone’s plan?
Vivian said, “When,” about two inches from the rim, which meant just about half the bottle gone. She said, “Actually, it’s 32 double D. I’m like a top-heavy bobblehead. You don’t need to stare.”
Mind reader. I said, “Sorry I didn’t bring any ice.” Here’s the truth: I didn’t look at her breasts. No, I became enamored with those perfect eyebrows—not plucked and waxed like I witnessed daily. Vivian’s eyebrows looked like perfect Jungian mandala quarter-circles drawn by a Spirograph.
Vivian cupped her hand, dipped it in the spring, then tilted over a handful of water into the bourbon. She said, “Don’t look at me like I’m crazy.” She said, “I’ve been drinking this water all my life. I hope you don’t have a problem with that.”
What could I say? Even as we sat there, our legs dangling, she looked even younger than when we first took the short walk in. I said, “It must be good for the memory, too, because, you’re right, I do love raspberry sno-cones.”
Vivian said, “Tomorrow I have to gather firewood for the campsites. It’s part of the deal.”
I said, “They say that a giraffe has the longest neck in the animal kingdom, but I argue it’s the python.”
The man kept singing about that drunken sailor. He’d found a trash can lid to bang on, too. I hoped he wasn’t staying more than a night. Vivian said, “Did I mention Glee Club? I did that, too. I sponsored the Glee Club.”
I nodded. I couldn’t tell if she could see me. Vivian looked upward, then down. She looked upward and down in the same way I did most of my life. I told her I’d taken photos of Glee Clubs over the years, and she didn’t seem as cheery as those people. I said, “No offense, but you don’t act like you’ve had a lobotomy.”
“Little entitled rich pissants,” Vivian said. “Your parents told me all about that one kid making stuff up. I bet if you talked to my parents, they’d tell a similar story. My student’s father had something to do with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. I’m just waiting for him to come up here and inspect this place, or do whatever they do at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.” Then Vivian got up, set her drink down on a rock, and walked a few steps to the towels and robes. I couldn’t see every movement clearly, but I assumed, from the sound, that she reached in, pulled out a pistol, and shot into the water, then up into the sky. “Hope I didn’t hit a turtle or duck,” she said. “We’re out of season, you know.”
I was alarmed, of course. I thought to say something like, Hey, why don’t we put that gun away? Maybe my mentioning a python set her off. Maybe Vivian thought it was some kind of sexual innuendo. Then, somehow, I got stuck remembering every school Glee Club I’d ever shot, and how everyone looked straight ahead, half of them with their mouths open, in fake mid-excitement, unable to foresee how the rest of their lives might swerve toward such things as vandalism or remorse, how no one understood the importance of timing and portents.
George Singleton has published nine collections of stories and two novels. He lives in South Carolina.