Through the Trees, On a River

Fiction by Scott Gates

His mama had told him it was too hot to be outside after ten, to come on inside, but the heat didn’t bother him. He had nice spot on a little rise near the pond, and he watched the still water from between two of the five trees on their property.

“Wally! You’re still sitting down there? It’s too hot!” He could hear Mama was upset when she called out from the concrete steps of their home. The thin storm door banged behind her as she crunched out across the gravel to the car. “Wally. Baby Boy?”

He turned and waved, squinting under the haze of the white sky.

“Wally, I’m going to work. Come on in. Your brothers are inside. I made lunch.”

“Bye, Mama. I love you.” He turned back to stare out to the pond over his knobby knees.

“Love you too, Baby Boy.”

The yellow Datsun made a few light grinding sounds starting up. A high-pitched whine announced its backing down the drive. Mama would usually roll down the window and give a wave before pulling out onto the road, but he didn’t turn to see.

He looked toward the front door and knew his brothers were in there watching TV. He was getting hungry but didn’t want to go in just yet.

A single ripple appeared out on the pond, its source mysterious. Sometimes they would appear like that in a series of three or four. Something from under the water? Something like a water skeeter on top? He hadn’t figured it out.

Wally walked down to the pond and picked a stick out from the thick grass that rimmed the water’s edge. He squatted in the grass and stirred the mud a bit about a foot out. As the murkiness settled, all manner of little worms went thrashing to get back under cover. There were some tadpoles a few feet over. He dipped the stick in among them and watched them scatter. As much as he wanted them to, they never took notice of the mud worms. They never seemed to eat anything at all — just opened and closed their little mouths, darting about nervously among the submerged grassroots and weeds.

Some kind of winged insect throttled past loudly and ended an erratic flight path with a light splash out in the deep part of the pond. It lay still for a moment on the smooth top of the water before the surface broke to catch its oversized wings. The creature thrashed softly against the force but could not pull itself back into the air.

Wally watched it intently. But again, no action from below the surface. It was too hot for the brim and crappie to take notice.

It was lunchtime, and he was hungry, so he jabbed his stick in the mud and wiped his hands on his shorts. Before he crossed the stretch of grass between the pond and the trailer, he paused again near the two trees and turned to stare back over the water. From the right spot, if he focused straight ahead, the trunks framed out his view, leaving the full breadth of the pond to question. If someone were to sit right down in that spot, not knowing otherwise, that little pond could very well be a river.

#

His family didn’t often go to town. The school bus stuck to back roads until it reached the flat concrete buildings of Wilson County Elementary. If they got in the car, it was usually just the 25 minutes to Walmart, where Mama worked, and the other shops around there near the big highway exit — a few gas stations, a Dollar Store, a Subway. McDonalds. Most anything they’d need. But every so often they would keep on driving past Walmart and head into town.

On that drive, there was a wide bridge with concrete posts sticking up every so often, and a place for people to walk next to where the cars went. Wally never saw anyone walking there, but imagined doing so himself. He would stop and lean against one of those posts and look out at all that water going by. There would be boats, some paddled and some with motors, going who knows where. Maybe as far out as the sound. Could be as far out as the ocean. They could do it. On the map it showed they could. On that river, they could get pretty much anywhere, he figured.

He pushed the button on the handle to the storm door and stepped inside — his mama had left the inside door open. Sure enough, his brothers were there watching whatever was on midday during the week. At the moment, it was a gameshow with lit up squares, numbered and flashing. A lady covered her mouth and jumped up and down and the squares went all different colors.

Jim, the oldest, looked up. He was in the recliner, a leg draped over the armrest. “What in the hell are you doing out there, Wally? It’s too hot. Mama told you to come inside.”

“Well I am inside.” Wally stared at the TV. “What are you watching?”

“Some gameshow,” his other brother, Jacob, said from the couch. He always claimed that spot, right under the window unit that kept the living room and kitchen cool.

“Any cartoons on?”

“You know there’s no cartoons until the weekend. It’s Tuesday,” Jacob said.

“Oh. Yeah.”

Wally watched a little longer and then walked into the kitchen. There was a piece of counter that jutted out where they could sit and eat, and his mama had left a plate on it with a cheese sandwich and a bag of chips. There was an orange, too, but he didn’t know how to peel it right. A fly lighted on the plate, and he shooed it off before getting a cup out of the cabinet for some juice. There was only a little left in the fridge, so he finished it. It filled about half of his cup, the line hitting just below Superman’s cape.

The fly was back on his plate, nearer the edge of the sandwich where the crust had been cut off. He shooed it again and took the plate, chips and drink down to the floor where the cool linoleum met the carpet, a thin metal ridge between them. There was a neglected piece of pretzel down there with him. And a shallow cardboard tray of blue-green pellets pushed into a corner. He leaned against the cabinet and watched his brothers as he ate.

“How do you stand to be outside, Wally?” Jim asked. “I get sweating too much.”

“Yeah, but you need to mow before Mama gets home,” Jacob said. “I did it last time.”

Of the two acres, they only kept the front half of the property mowed, around the pond and driveway and to just behind the trailer. The back half had gone to tall weeds, brambles and scrub bush since their daddy left. There were ticks and poison ivy in the summer. One time his brothers had put Wally out there under an overturned shopping cart with a cinder block on top for most of an afternoon. They were playing jail. They said not to move or the snakes would smell him. He hadn’t seen any snakes, and he didn’t cry, but it scared him.

“I’ll mow it,” Jim said. “After supper, though. It’s too hot out there now.”

Wally considered the complaint as he chewed a bite of sandwich. “I like how hot it is. It reminds me of the beach.”

“Ha!” Jacob sat up to get his little brother in his line of sight. “You don’t know anything about the beach. When’s the last time you went?”

“Summer before last.”

“And you were how old then?”

“Almost five.”

“You don’t even remember when Daddy took us up to Virginia — there’s no way you remember that beach trip.”

“I do too. There was a horseshoe crab washed up.”

“You just saw pictures,” Jim contributed without taking his eyes off the TV. Credits were rolling — the lady must have won the big prize. “I’d like to go to the beach, though. We should have Granny take us.”

“I’d like that,” Wally said. He had finished the sandwich and opened the bag of chips. “I’d like to see some pelicans.”

“I’d do some fishing,” Jacob said. “Tommy was out there last month and said his daddy caught a dog shark off the pier.”

“That’s bull,” Jim said. “I heard him talking about that, but his dad didn’t catch any shark.”

Jim flipped channels and a quiet theme song played as spindly helicopters looking like goldfish bowls landed in the dust. Men rushed up to them all crouched.

“MASH is on.”

His brothers liked MASH, so that meant it was time to be quiet.

Wally ate most of the chips and put the bag in the trash and his plate and cup in the sink. He went to the bathroom back near the bedroom he shared with Jacob and then walked back past the TV, out through the flimsy glass door, closing it lightly behind him.

“It’s too hot out there, Wally. Come on back.” But he was already gone, and Jim didn’t bother coming out after him.

#

Wally heard his mama come in late. The front door stuck in its frame during the summer, and her shove to open it always shook the front wall of the trailer. He had been asleep, but the sound woke him. He was listening for it.

He laid there staring up at the ceiling. Over the noise of the box fan, he could hear bullfrogs out front around the edges of the pond, so quiet during the day and so loud once the sun went down. His brothers were still up watching a movie, one that was too adult for him, so he had gone to bed. He’d looked at a book about planets and then turned out the light.

His brothers were talking to her, voices muffled by the thin walls between them. He thought about that book. The Saturn page was his favorite.

Within a few minutes, the door creaked open and a narrow strip of light stretched the length of his bed. He peeked over the sheet and saw his mama’s form, watching quietly.

He cleared his throat a little. “Mama?” he whispered.

The door opened wider. “Hey, Baby Boy,” she whispered back.

“How was work?”

She came in and sat on the bed next to him and leaned over to nuzzle the top of his head. “It was good.” She smelled nice, and he could tell she was smiling. “You’re sweet to ask. How was your day?”

“Good.”

“Your brothers said you were sitting outside most of the afternoon. I’m worried about you being out there like that when it’s so hot.”

“It’s okay, Mama.”

“What are you doing out there, anyway?”

“Looking at the water, mostly.”

“You like that little pond?”

He nodded.

“You sleepy?”

He nodded again.

She kissed his forehead and gave his belly a little rub through the sheet. “Goodnight sweet baby. I love you.”

“Goodnight, Mama.” He sighed and rolled over to a cool part of the pillow as she quietly closed the door behind her.

His brothers had turned up the volume, or it was a loud part. It sounded like there was shooting or some kind of action going on. They would finish it and maybe watch a little more TV before finally going to bed. And then wake up tomorrow and do the same thing. That’s how it went during summers. And that was fine. They seemed content with it. Sometimes a friend would come over, or they’d go to a friend’s, or take a walk down the road if it was cooler. They’d ride their bikes sometimes when Mama was home and they could leave Wally.

They did fine in that little trailer by the pond.

But Wally, when he was sitting right in that spot between those two trees, he was miles away. There was no trailer, no TV. No overturned shopping carts or poison ivy. He was on a river. And on a river, you could get pretty much anywhere.

<strong>Scott Gates</strong>
Scott Gates

Scott Gates is the author of Hard Road South, historical fiction from Blue Ink Press. His second novel is due to be released next year. He is a magazine editor and second-generation communicator for rural electric cooperatives. Scott grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and currently lives in North Carolina with his wife and three kids, where he enjoys a slower pace of life and reliable barbecue options. He and his brother share perspectives on Southern culture at incidentalist.com

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