Max didn’t even have to ring the doorbell. I came out as the van pulled up. I suppose I shouldn’t have been so eager for the visit but it didn’t occur to me hang back, to be cool, not yet at least.
It was late summer, just before the start of eighth grade. I was still 13. It was also the summer my father was off in rehab. My mother had begun to worry about my emotional development—too much time alone in the heavy air conditioning while she was at work, something like that. She said you need more friend time. She spoke of them like other parents spoke of taking vitamins. She started arranging visits from friends in that way only she could arrange things—with a kind of chilling efficiency that she also let you know was a burden.
Max was in my grade at school, and we had hung out a couple of times at his house by that point. But by then he’d never been over to my house for longer than the time it took to pick me up for something. He bounded up the walk to where I was waiting at the front door. He was smaller than me, runty, with brown hair that hung down in his eyes. He looked two years younger but talked four years older. He had an older sister. Sometimes that made all the difference.
We waved off his mother and went inside. The house was all mine in those long hot days, and I began to give him the tour. Showed him the spare fridge that only had Cokes and beer in it, the TVs in each room, how we had the good cable that had Showtime and Skinemax. I showed him the spare bedroom that my father had converted to his cave and which I’d subsequently converted to my own. This mainly consisted of me hanging my Pearl Jam poster that I’d bought in New Orleans and various snacks I’d squandered around the couch. It also had its own minifridge. I’d taken out all the beer and other stuff and filled it up with Coke. I was proud of my work. I was thumbing through channels on the remote control, looking for my favorite mid-morning game show, asking him what he wanted to watch when he said, “Dude, you live near the river. Let’s go.”
“The river? What river?”
“The Pearl. Like 10 seconds away.”
“It’s right there,” he said, pointing to the wall. I didn’t know how to respond. This information seemed both unknown and irrelevant. “Let’s go!”
“Okay, I guess. Sure. We have to be back by four though. Because Mom.”
“That’s hours from now. Let’s motor.”
We went to the garage. There was my new bike, a mountain bike my father had bought at the local cycling shop last spring. It was an 18 speed, though it was a little tall for me. Your father thinks you’ll grow into everything, my mother had said. The other bike was my old bike, not bad, but smaller, a kid’s dirt bike, which I’d left out in the rain twice. I never did it a third time after my father lost his shit.
“That’s fine. I can ride that,” Max said. I raised the garage door and he began to gently kick the mud clods off it. I couldn’t quite get onto my bike. I kept feeling like I was about to cut my pecker off on the bar. “Use the wall,” Max said. “Put your hand on the wall.” I went over and gave it a try and that got me up and semi-steady. “And we’re off!” he said, down the driveway before I could start pedaling. “Andale, andale, arriba, arriba!”
Back then before high school we lived in a good neighborhood, older, established. Big oak trees and small white Beamers. It was a landscape of hills. The gears were supposed to help, but when I tried to trigger them, the bike just made a horrible clicking noise, and the chain jolted like I’d stuck a stick in it. So I just quickly flicked it back and pedaled harder.
Max was off to the races. Down the first hill, up the next, down into a cul-de-sac. By the time he’d figured out it was a cul-de-sac and turned around (he lived way out in Ridgeland), I was peaking the hill and about to finally catch up. Then he was gone again. I had to dismount the bike and get it turned around like a child, and then walk it up to level ground to get back on. There was no wall to hold myself steady and it took a couple of minutes. I listened for him. Nothing but the sound of sunshine and birds. After a moment I heard a whoop and so I took a left and coasted, scanning ahead like I was trying to find a runaway dog.
I found him three blocks away at a dead end between two houses.
“There you are,” he said. “Right through here.”
“There. Right through there.”
“Do we have to go through their yard?”
“You know ‘em?”
“Ain’t no other way. It’s muddy. It’ll be better to walk.”
I hesitated at the edge of the wet grass. I peered at each house. From what I could tell there were no glaring eyes in the windows. “Isn’t there another way?” But he was already halfway into the yard, delicately leading my old bike, which looked terribly small, even for him. “I have to be back by 3!” I said. He kept going.
When we reached the back end of the yards, there was a short field of cypress knees and we squelched our way through. My shoes became heavy anvils of mud, and the bike wheels got thick and chocolatey. There was nowhere to go, just raw Mississippi wilderness, pine trees listing overhead. Palmetto bushes and a slightly sandy soil were all that indicated water nearby. We weren’t currently standing on snakes but I knew it was just a matter of time.
“I should have brought my machete,” I said. As if I’d ever had a machete.
“That a-way,” he said, and turned and mounted his bike and started to pedal down a narrow dry mud path, like a trail a goat would make. I used a cypress knee to get myself back on the bike and followed Max. What else was I supposed to do?
The trail was so rough we had to stand on the pedals so we wouldn’t get racked in the nuts. We kept going down, down, seemingly forever, until suddenly there it was. Max was off the bike, threw it down at his feet, and ran to a hillock of sand below which curled the river.
The handle bars machine gunned in my hands until I skidded to a stop near his bike. My bike. Whatever. It was a small pebbly beach jutting out into a bend in the river.
“Told you,” Max said.
At that time, I’d only been at the new middle school a year. I didn’t really have a best friend, though Max was in the running. I had had been to his house to spend the night twice. Both times we gorged ourselves on Nintendo and kept picking up the phone to listen to the conversations his older sister was having. Every time, she heard us, shouted Damnit, Maxwell! And came into his room and frogged him on the arm three good times. “She’s not punching you because you’re a guest,” he said.
“Come on, dude,” he said. He began shedding his clothes, kicking off shoes and pulling off his shirt simultaneously, molting into his white skin.
“What are you doing?”
“Swimming, duh,” he said. Then he was naked. He was so small, hardly any ass at all, more like a cartoon drawing of a boy than a real boy, just bare skin and hair and dirty feet running into the water. “Come on, dude, it’s bliss.” He was floating on his back, his toes poking up out of the water, the sun sparkling in his newly wet hair.
“Summer’ll be over by the time you get here,” he said.
I sat down to take off my shoes. I should have shucked my clothes standing, like Max, but I had to do everything the hard way first. I stuffed my socks into the shoes, slide my shorts off, and then finally, took off my shirt. I ran as fast as I could to the water, trying to ignore the uncanny sensation of being naked outside in the middle of the day. The water was hot, then cold, then hot, then weirdly mixed, thankfully dark brown so that my body was obscured underneath.
“This water’s weird,” I said.
“Cool pockets,” said Max. “Oooh, there’s one now.”
Sure enough, a moment later I floated into it, like an underwater cloud of coldness, too brief to be uncomfortable.
It was the last week of July. In two weeks we would be back in school, the last year before we had to move campuses.
“This is my first beach of the summer,” I said.
“Really? I thought y’all went to Orange Beach every summer.”
“Used to. Didn’t go this year. Couldn’t go.”
“Dunno. Mom’s too busy with work now, I guess.”
I felt a welling inside me, a sudden desire to confess to Max. It came out before I had really thought of it. Looking back, that’s how all of my confessions came out—with no real strategy. I just broke forth, like a wet grocery sack. Suddenly everything I’d been barely keeping in was on the floor.
“Can I tell you something?” I asked.
“You’re not gonna tell me you’re gay, are you? I didn’t sign up for that.”
“No, no. It’s not that. Something else.”
“Okay, what is it?”
“It’s about my dad.”
“What about him?”
“He’s not like dead though, right?”
“No, he’s not dead.”
“He’ll be back, right?”
“Okay, well that’s good. Where’d he go?”
“He went away. To a place. Some kind of treatment facility.”
“I think in Georgia.”
“Not that far.”
“What’s he being treated for?”
“Alcoholism and additional substance abuse issues,” I said. The phrase had been pulsing in my head all summer, like one of those street lights that glows on and off, on and off, to warn drivers.
“Whoa. That’s some heavy shit.”
I briefly stopped floating and let my toes touch the sandy riverbed below me. Another cloud of coldness swept through our area, briefly engulfing my genitals.
“My mom seems to think that my father has a drinking problem,” I said.
“Oh, well, yeah, dude. I mean, everybody knew that.”
“Yeah, I mean, it was kind of obvious.”
“Did you know? Did you think he had a drinking problem?”
Max pulled back slightly, softened himself a little. He flipped his wet hair so that it flopped back further up on his head.
“Yeah, I always knew your pops had a drinking problem.”
“How did you know?”
“Well, he drank all the time, basically.”
“He didn’t drink all the time.”
“He drank at the baseball games.”
“But other dads drank at the baseball games.”
“Not every game. Not the whole game.”
“Okay, but he didn’t do anything.”
“No. That’s true. He just drank at them.”
“And that’s how you knew he had a problem?”
“Sort of. Yeah. It was just a feeling I had.”
“How come I didn’t know?”
“I don’t know. He’s not my old man.”
“Your old man doesn’t even have a drinking problem. He doesn’t even drink.”
“I know. That’s what I’m saying.”
I searched his face for some glint of irony, some indication that Max was pulling a move on me. But it wasn’t there. He was speaking carefully, for Max. I didn’t know what was in his face. It was strange. He seemed actually to be listening to me. But if he knew all of this already, then why hadn’t he told me?
Perhaps I would have asked him if the voices hadn’t arrived. We heard them before we saw them. There should have been more time between the sound and their arrival, but there wasn’t. Perhaps Max saw them long before I heard them, saw them over my shoulder, saw their arrival behind me, and said nothing. When I heard the voices, I thrashed in the water, lunging toward the shore. Max said, “There’s no use running now.”
The voices belonged to girls, instantly recognizable, girls from our school: Sally Wilsheim, Stacey Trollope, Maggie Deets. A handful of others. I turned to the voices, and there was the junior high dance squad, most of them, cruising around a bend in the river on canoes. Coach Nelson was bringing up the rear, wearing a sun visor and jewelry, hollering, “Don’t get too far ahead, Sally.”
“We know you,” Sally crowed. ”Hey, everybody, it’s Neil and Max.”
“Nuh-uh,” someone said behind her. The canoes were moving toward us surprisingly fast.
“In the flesh,” she said. My feet went firmly into the sandy muck below, rooting myself down. Max just kept on floating, his toes occasionally pointing up through the brown water, a too narrow band of water covering the rest of his body. I was suddenly aware that my nipples were above the water, and they caught the breeze and froze in apprehension. Sally stabbed her paddle into the water, making a wooshing backfilling sound.
She was wearing a bathing suit. They all were. But they also wore orange life preservers, the kind that wrapped around your neck and hung down on either side of your chest and was secured by a plastic clasp. They were more insulated and protected than normal.
“What are y’all doing out here?”
“What’s it look like?” Max said.
“What are y’all doing out here?” said Maggie Deets suddenly caught even with Sally but quickly cruising by too fast. Everyone ignored her.
“What are y’all doing out here?” I asked.
“What’s it look like?” Sally said. “It’s an annual thing. It’s like a bonding exercise.”
“Does the dance team need a bonding exercise?” Max asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “They didn’t ask me.”
“How long y’all been out here?” I asked.
“I don’t know. All morning it feels like. How’d did y’all get out here? Where’s your canoe?”
“We biked,” Max said. “Neil lives back over there.” He lifted a wet finger out of the water and pointed.
“Off of Hawthorne,” I said, stupidly.
“Oh, no shit? I live just around the corner, off of Roosevelt.”
“I knew that,” I said, again stupidly.
“Language, Sally,” snapped Coach Nelson. She had finally caught up. The other girls were moving more slowly. They were irregularly circling us, like sharks.
“What are you boys doing out here?” asked Coach Nelson.
“Just swimming, Coach,” I said.
“Not trying to crash our retreat?”
“No, ma’am, I said. “We didn’t know y’all would even be out here. We were just out biking and thought we’d cool off for a bit.”
I always instinctively got more country when talking to authority figures. You sound like a redneck, just like your father, my mom would say.
“Then where are your bikes then?”
“Up there,” I said, pointing up the beach to where the bikes lay crashed on their sides, conspicuously near the modest scattered pilings of our clothes. Everyone stared in their direction.
Sally was brown skinned with brown eyes and brown hair, with curls that got excited and went frizzy in the deep summer humidity. She had her hair pulled back, and her face glistened, and her forehead was rimmed in the delicate fuzz of her hair.
“You really should be wearing a hat,” I said.
“I know, I know. Coach has been on my case all morning. I forgot it.”
“Y’all better get going,” Coach said. “We saw a couple of water moccasins about a quarter of a mile upstream. No telling what you’re standing in. I’d best be getting up and biking back to safety super quick.”
“We’ll wrap it up here shortly,” Max said.
“Wrap it up, huh,” said Coach Nelson. She paused mid-stream, pivoting in the current. It was ambiguous out there, the amount of authority she had over us.
“Coach Nelson, which way do we go?” asked Maggie, who was had managed to turn around and was quickly making her way back to us. “Are we turning back?” she said.
“Why would we be turning back? No, no. Downstream. Keep going downstream. The canoe trip goes down stream. The canoe trip always goes down—”
“Well which way is downstream?”
We all froze in routine boredom at Maggie’s stupidity, and awaited Coach Nelson to rectify the situation. She paddled a little way to guide her. “There, there, it’s that way. You just keep going in the direction you’ve been going.”
Once she’d gotten slightly away from us, Sally said, “Maybe you’ve got a hat I can borrow? Up there, Neil?” she said, gesturing toward the beach.
“Nah,” I said.
“Are you sure?” she said, blinking at me.
“I’m afraid I forgot to wear a hat today, too,” I said.
“Uh huh. I see. Forget anything else?” she said.
Max giggled, whistled, dunked himself, and came up spitting a stream of water.
“Come on, Sally. Catch up. We’re going, Sally. Bring up the rear. You boys watch out for snakes.”
The girls, some wearing hats, the rest wearing pony tails, were making their way downstream. Coach Nelson was angled across the current pointing upstream toward us, hollering.
“Well you heard the lady. I better return to the team. Neil, you enjoy your, uh, swim. Maybe I’ll see you around the neighborhood.”
“Have a nice day,” I said, stupidly. I couldn’t think of anything else to say, and Max was steady giggling. But for some reason Sally smiled at me, and didn’t stick her paddle back in the water. It remained balanced across her soft wet brown lovely knees.
“I mean it, Sally.”
“Oh, okay. Jesus Christ,” she said.
She slid the paddle back into the water and started working. “Bye, Neil.” She began paddling off. I watched her slowly catch up to Coach Nelson. She wasn’t paddling as fast as she was able. I could tell somehow. She was wearing a one piece, and the bare field of her back was exposed all the way down to the hem of her PE-issued athletic shorts. You could see the slight ripple of her spine and the working of her shoulder blades, the synchronicity of her arms, moving her through time and space. A thick stream of warm spit water landed on my check, and I heard Max laughing.
We must’ve swum for another half hour. When we got out, the warmth of the sun felt good against our wet skin, the Mississippi heat for a moment just right, and we walked slowly, sand caking our feet. I felt almost dry when I put on my clothes, but they immediately stuck to my skin anyway.
“When does he get out?” Max asked.
“I mean, when does he get back?”
“He should be home by Labor Day,” I said.
“You’re almost there.”
“Hey, don’t tell anybody, okay? About what I said.”
But then, if he already knew, did that mean everybody knew? Was it that obvious? Or was I just the stupidest kid on the planet? Or did he just know things?
“Hey, no worries. What am I, some kind of cheer leader?”
“Thanks, Max. You know, I really wasn’t expecting that. I really wasn’t ready for that. The dance team.”
“Yeah, well, you know,” he said. His shirt stuck to his small wet chest, like a crooked decal stuck onto a childhood toy, misaligned and waiting to dry. “Sometimes stuff like that happens out here.”
“I guess it’s a good thing this damn river’s so brown.”
“I don’t know,” he said. He had a smile tucked inside his mouth, hidden like a piece of candy. “I guess we got lucky.”
I craned my leg over my new bike, delicately, like a gondolier positioning his rail into the water.
“No, no, look, when you’re going back, it’s just easier to walk it up. This way. Follow me. I’ll show you.”
I fell in line behind Max as he guided my small old bike up the smoothest part of the dried-up hill, and we made our way back from the secret river into my well-known neighborhood and my comprehensible house and the beginning of eighth grade.
A year later we went to separate high schools and only saw each other occasionally. I haven’t heard anything about him in years and years. Every now and then I am filled with the urge to look him up on Facebook, track him down somehow, but I resist. It’s not like he’s an ex-girlfriend. I doubt he would even recognize me, middle aged, with two kids of my own, a career, a divorce, my own saga. But I wonder about him. I could use a Max right about now.