Downriver

Trailers, crumbling ramblers.  Flood plane green with cotton and the sky blue except in the afternoon, when thunderheads roll in and hell comes down.  I didn’t see any white people.  Just black faces and long flat fields and through it the river, heavy and constant.

I crossed from Tennessee into Mississippi soon after turning onto 61.  To my right the river had its own gravity, pulling me ever closer to its banks as I traced its course.  Heavy and massive, able to draw tides: the river was the most powerful and constant thing in the world.  A green field panorama graced the horizon as the sun began to set.  It dipped below the green fields and as it passed beyond sight the sky went the color blood.

Darkness was screwed in tight when I saw the sign for Tunica.  Feathers of light tickled the sky as I passed Mississippi’s casino Mecca.  I paid it no heed, pressing further south and leaving the light behind.  Further south the highway curved inland, toward Clarksdale, leaving the river behind.  I followed 61 for a time before choosing an artery that headed west and back toward the river.  It was a winding thoroughfare, knifing through overhanging trees.  At one point I had to take evasive action as a deer bolted across the road.  I was tense after that, fearing another crossing.  After a few more miles the trees opened up and I saw the river again, now out in front of me, laboring its way downstream.  I bent south and came parallel with the river’s course.  A dim glow appeared on the horizon.  Vicksburg.  It had arguably been the Confederacy’s most valuable holding.  The guns of Vicksburg controlled passage of the Mississippi river deep into the war.  Grant laid siege to the place, claiming the high ground after one-hundred sixty days.

The afternoon had given way to night.  I pressed on toward Natchez, the cradle of Parchman Prison.  Natchez is a historic landmark, sporting plantations and classic southern architecture.  I wondered how my father had come to Natchez, some forty years before, preparing to taunt Clyde King.

I found a phone booth and assaulted the yellow pages with the hunger of a starved man.  I scoured the government listings, searching both “Parchman” and “Penitentiary”.  Nothing.  I resolved to resume my search in the morning, bright and early.  I checked into the Motel 6 and was asleep within minutes of receiving my key.

I woke up eighteen hours later with the sun headed towards the western horizon.  Somehow I had wasted the day.  I stumbled around the room at first, naked, before fixing on the telephone.  I tried the front desk, inquiring into the whereabouts of Parchman Prison.

‘Is it within walking distance?’

‘I lived here for five years,’ the voice on the other end said, ‘and I never heard of the place.’

I hung up.  I wasn’t even sure why I wanted to find Parchman Prison.  I had no idea what I would do were I to locate it.  In one of my nobler fantasies I imagined burning the prison down, somehow avenging Clyde King forty years after his death, but I knew I didn’t have the guts to add arson to my growing list of transgressions.  I looked at my watch and knew my chances of finding answers this late into the p.m. were slim.    Instead I turned to my knapsack, rifled through the contents.  There was a sweatshirt and a tattered copy of All the King’s Men (which I set on the bed stand).  I found pencils and paper and scraps of garbage.  My pipe was there, along with an eighth of weed in a sandwich bag.  There was a picture of Helen which I set on the bed stand.  From the bottom of the knapsack I pulled another baggie, this one full of stems and spores.  Monty had given me the bag a week before.

‘I know you’ve never done shrooms,’ he said.  ‘But just in case you want to—here you go.’

‘Where’d you get them?’

‘Jeff the Dealer.’

‘I’m not all that interested.’

‘No, I insist,’ Monty said.  He forced them on me.  I knew he wouldn’t back down.  I took the bag.  ‘There are three rules, though, about the first time you trip,’ he said.  He held up his hand and began counting them out on his fingers.  ‘One, you have to do them during the day.  Two, you have to do them with friends.  Three, you have to do them on a day when you have something fun planned for the next day.’

‘I don’t understand the third rule.’

‘Because otherwise you’ll get all worried about what you have to do the next day and it will be a bad trip.’  I nodded.  I didn’t know why he was giving them to me if I was supposed to do them with friends.  I only had two friends who used mushrooms, and he was one of them.

I held the baggie up to the light.  The mushrooms were dry and crumbling.  I pondered the three rules.  Monty was not one for rules, so if he was administering them then they should be obeyed.  Still, I didn’t have anything else to do just then.  Jefferson’s Airplane came to mind.  Free your heaaaaaaaaad!

I got dressed—white t-shirt and jeans.  I tucked the baggie into my back pocket and hit the road, leaving the knapsack in the hotel room.  I’d be back.  I drove south a ways, getting off Highway 61 about two miles outside of town to take a winding dirt road down to the river.  I parked beside the Mississippi as the sun began to dip, with the butt end of the truck pointed toward the river.  I dropped the tailgate as a seat, watching the river’s diaphanous flow, bulging and heaving and belching but never in a hurry.  New Orleans downriver, crowded with drunks and fornicators on the way to the sea; Memphis and Mud City upriver.  Further upriver and you could pick a stream, any stream; follow it to its source and end up anywhere on this side of the continental divide.

I pulled out the baggie.  The mushrooms were dark and broken into pieces of varying sizes.  I remembered Monty’s instruction.  You don’t want to take all of them at once.  This is a quarter and you’ll trip way too hard on a quarter.  Take half of them for starters.

I put the first cap in my mouth.  It was dry and I couldn’t imagine eating it, but I did.  It tasted dirty.  I followed with more caps, eating in rapid succession.  I wanted to get through them as quick as possible.  I followed the caps with stems.  They tasted even worse—brittle and dry.  I had a quart of water in the truck and used it to wash them down.  The river rolled by at a good clip.  I ate as many spores and stems as I could handle—half the bag—then washed them down.  And waited.  I’d heard it took at least a half hour.

Without anything better to do I walked downriver.  The sun was still setting   I looked west, across the river, and the sky had begun to turn red.  The river was brown and the sky began to darken.  I didn’t notice the man until I was on top of him.  He sat by the river, on a rock.  He had a little boy with him—his son.  They’d been fishing.  The man held a cucumber in his hand, cutting slices with a buck knife, letting them fall on his knee.

‘Hello,’ he said to me, not looking up from the cucumber.  I could feel something now.  My senses raced up on me, seizing control of my mind.

‘Hello,’ he said a second time.  I looked at him now, focusing on the cucumber.  His son was there more as decoration, with wide eyes that didn’t reveal intelligence.

‘Here you go,’ the man said, reaching up, holding a slice of cucumber.  I took it from him, bringing it before my eyes.  The seeds were ripe and bizarre.  The green skin seemed contagious.

‘You from around here?’ the man asked.  The sun was setting and still the green skin of the cucumber was bright.  I shook my head no.  I could feel the mushrooms now, overwhelming my vision.  I looked at the man.  He was light skinned with blond hair.  He wore two days worth of stubble.  When he looked at me his eyes were intense and angry.  I stepped back from him.

‘There something wrong with you?’  My mouth was full of raisins and I couldn’t speak.  I grappled for a response and started to laugh.  Raisins began to rain from my mouth.  I wasn’t sure why I was laughing but then the man looked at me with increased intensity.  What are you laughing at? I pondered this question and the more I thought about it, the more humorous it seemed.  My laughing accelerated, tumbling over and over like boulders in a flash flood.  I felt something wet on my cheek and now I was weeping with laughter.  The man was on his feet, shaking me by the shoulders.  Get a hold of yourself!  Get a hold of yourself! I couldn’t get a hold.  I saw the little boy sitting on a rock by the river and realized for the first time that there was something on his face, creeping over him, dark and ominous.  I heard someone speak and knew it was me but didn’t recall opening my mouth.  What’s wrong with his face! The man had stopped shaking me.  He took a step back.  What’s wrong with you? I heard the voice like it had come from above.  I gazed up at the sky, still weeping and laughing.  The sky was a darkening blue and crowded with cotton candy clouds in the setting sun.  Jesus Christ what’s wrong with you?! I let out one loud cackle, punctuating my outburst.  The sky was darkening and I heard another voice joining the stranger in his question.  Jesus what’s wrong with you?  Jesus…what’s wrong with you.  Jesus…

Now I saw.  I was Jesus.  Why had it taken me so long to realize?  There was no longer any question.  I addressed the man, the stranger.  I looked long at this man and could see he was a nonbeliever.  I am the true vine. The stranger stared at me.  I recognized him.  Father? The man took another step back.  He reached out to his boy and pulled him close.  The half-sliced cucumber lay on the rocks below.  When he reached for the boy I felt the most intense hatred.  At the stranger; at his boy.  How dare you.  Don’t you recognize your own son? The stranger took another step back, pulling the boy with him.  The boy’s face was blackened now by the creeping fungus.  I saw, by their touching, that the stranger was also blackened.  I began to laugh again.  Lepers.

‘What did you say?’  This from the stranger.  I was lucid for a moment before laughter overcame me.  Again.  Lepers Lepers Lepers Leopards Leopards. I turned to the river and saw it, darkening.  It might rise, engulf me, a flood.  I raised my arms to the river and as I did I saw the crowds.  I opened my mouth, teaching them.  Blessed are those who mourn.  They will be comforted.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  They shall be satisfied.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake.  Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. I pointed at the sky and saw it was black and let out an awful scream.  Oh but I see darkness where there was light, alone and forever.  I didn’t notice but it had grown very dark and I was really really out of my mind. I couldn’t see the river but could feel it looming.  Without vision I felt encumbered, immured by my own mind.  I peered across the river, hoping to see lights on the transpontine side, but there was darkness.  The stranger was gone.  I turned to go and fell, bloodying my hands.  I stood, scrambled up the bank, tripping and falling again.  My knee cried out as it hit a rock.  I tried to catch myself with my hands but they gave way and it was flesh on stone.  The stone was cold on my cheek.  People think they will be heard for their many words.  Do not be like that.  Your father knows what you need before you ask him. I pushed myself up and scrambled up the bank on all fours, small rocks slicing into my hands and knees.  I saw a trail of blood behind me, thick and thorough.  I wondered if I would die on these rocks, bled to death.

At the top of the bank I climbed to my feet and began to run further downriver.  I began calling to the stranger.  Come back, Father.  Come back. I ran for a long time in darkness until a light winked at me from the opposite side of the river.  I stopped running, screamed to the light.  There was no answer.   I ran again.  When my toe hit the snag I fell, hard, still screaming.  I landed with impact in the mud, not rock.  I rolled in it.  I could feel the cool mud coating my wounded hands and knees.  I wanted to feel more.  I peeled off my white t-shirt, my shoes, my socks and jeans and everything else to roll in the mud.  In the moments before I faded out, relegated to nightmares, I lay on my back, naked.  I shivered, hugging my chest with my arms, muttered to myself, over and over, as I writhed in the mud, abandoned, wondering where my father had gone to with his other son.  I’m the One.  I’m the One.  I’m the One. I was filthy, writhing on the ground when the sky opened up like a heavy velvet curtain.  With a sense of falling I began to see flickering images—old silent movies—but this movie was happening now and it wasn’t a movie at all but reality, a vision cast from across great distance.  I saw a man wasted in drink on a smelly couch, eyeing an antique revolver.  The door slipped open and I couldn’t see who pressed inside as he moved through the shadows until in an instant the intruder was on the man and strangling, fingers gripping tight around a white throat so as to leave a mark.  The man tried to scream but his neck was constricted tight and from under the scene came a blast of light and in the moment before the light enveloped everything I saw the man, revealed for my father.  Gabe’s dainty hands wrapped vicious around his neck; my father’s eyes—still wet—bulged as he again tried to scream.

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