Five Portraits of Beauty from Five Southern Men
Author: Travis Vick
“I put him on the grass, as beads of water were rolling from his face to the ground. I was quiet.
It was quiet.
Everywhere, was this quiet that was so quiet it felt like an unending, sympathetic smile. He’s dead, I finally said. Just those words, ripped and ringing like a gunshot. His body was beautiful. So still and little, too little, to say body.
I sat down beside him. Ran my hand along his chest. Then he coughed. And water began draining from the corners of his mouth.
A long cry came from his open mouth, making my body clench so tightly onto itself that I thought I’d never move again, and just sat there watching him cry for—for I don’t know how long. That smile, the one the quiet had held, broke into sarcastic laughter.”
“It was when the bible came to me. I was twenty-four, married, and had two girls already; and hell, I don’t know why, but I hated it all. Then this May storm blew in while I was driving to work at the factory, where I was pulling twelve-hour night shifts—six to six. I didn’t think much of it then, except that I hadn’t fixed the roof for leaks and I’d be getting it good when I got home— which made me hate it all even more as I walked into the factory and got to work.
Then, at four or so the next morning, while still at work, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette, and saw how the rain was still coming. I mean, it was really pouring. And, by the look of the water flooding the parking lot, it seemed like it’d hadn’t broken at all since yesterday evening.
I stood there smoking, just watching it. Then only hearing it.
Soon I only smelt it: that odor the rain puts off once it’s firmly mixed itself with concrete, or with the rubber from truck tires, or after sliding off long slates of metal roofing; or all of them together: that good odor of God, I guess, coming back to us, and the things we’ve made.
Then I only felt it, as the water rose to the step where I was standing. And it came over to me take the water in, all at once, in every which way I knew myself capable, so that, without thinking, I dropped to my knees, moved my mouth down to the water, and slurped it up.
And it was all over me. In me. And was me.
So much so, that, suddenly, I couldn’t handle myself anymore. Like I said, I really hated it all then, and had been for so long at that point, that as I both took and became that water, and knew—not like it was coming to me for the first time, but like I was remembering it—that I couldn’t hate anymore, that I just couldn’t: the realization knocking a piece of myself from me, a piece of me that’d been serving, for so long, as my core—propping and allowing every other part of me—so that in losing it, I couldn’t be myself anymore.
But before I could even think any of that through, I was running through the parking lot, where the was water was damn near to my knees, then jumped into my truck, rolled down the windows—I don’t know why—and hauled ass to get home, to my wife and girls.
The water was everywhere, but I’m telling you, I believed then that I was the water, or that it was only me, moving everywhere, at every moment, wherever I moved; so even though I couldn’t see a thing through my windshield, I don’t remember ever being scared.
Then I was just a little under a mile from home, when a rush of water, which I’d later learn had flooded from the Red River, hit me: popping into the side of my truck and shoving it, with me inside, into the ditch. Still—I’m telling you, I was crazy with this conviction that the water and I were just extensions of each other—I wouldn’t stop. Climbing through my open window, I decided to swim what remained of the way.
And I swear to you, I made it.
Granted, it turned out I didn’t have to swim the whole way, or even far at all; our house being, then, on a pretty steep hill, and myself already a good ways into the rise when my truck got swamped, that I only swam a hundred yards at most, when the ground beneath me rose high enough for my feet to find footing, and allowed me to manage a steady run.
Then I was there, home.
My wife, who must have been up watching the storm and then seen me running into the yard like a maniac, had come out onto the porch, and was just standing there, watching me as I just stood there too. Water mumbled past my waist, while I looked straight into the sky, seeing, at that moment I swear to you, Heaven’s Window wide open again; and the Bow—the one that God had told Noah he’d tucked away in the clouds—brought out once more, and stretched back so tight, it looked a big, stupid grin.”
“I was just driving to the courthouse—heading to pay the fine I owed after pleading guilty to the public intoxication I’d been charged with after having gotten drunk one night, a few months back, outside both myself and home: the cops found me walking down a usually deserted road outside town: I’m divorced and live alone, walking and talking to myself like I don’t know myself, on some nights, is just what I do—when I saw this young Mennonite woman crossing the street, fighting a strong south wind, and corralling two tiny boys, one beneath each of her hands, all at the same time.
A couple thick strands of auburn hair had fallen out from her prayercovering. And I swear, if her hair reached her nose, it reached her ass.
The wind was blowing her skirt and blouse flat against her body, revealing so fully its shape and tenderness that I doubt I could’ve seen it better if she were to have walked past me naked; and she was holding her hands over those boys’ necks with such love in her eyes, looking up and down the street for oncoming cars, that I had to pull my truck over, finally letting all the little good moments of my own marriage—the one I’d let crumble and blow away to nothing, right at my feet, without doing nothing—come rushing back to me, so that, suddenly, I was crying for the first time since I was little boy, just like those two she had, not caring who might have seen me.
That was on a Saturday, and believe it or not, after paying my fines, I went home and got drunk again. A real heavy drunk, which kept me up all night, and carried me into the next morning, where I set out walking again, but, this time, instead of just walking nowhere, as I usually do, so I can feel like I’m nowhere, and nothing, by my own choice; I walked right into this Assembly of God, a few miles from my home, and sat down in the front pew.
I never heard a word of that sermon, though, crying as much as I was.”
“My older boy had broken his neck. He’d dove into my sister’s pool, where it was too shallow to have done so—just like he knew not to, just like I’d told him a dozen times not to.
My brother-in-law, who was by the pool, digging around in his tomato garden; heard the sudden quiet fall, like a wet towel, over the yard: the kind of quiet that you should never hope to hear while children are around; then looked to the pool, seeing, as he says, ‘just the back end of some little ripples, rolling on out to the end of themselves, and Brett’s boy nowhere to be seen;’ then jumped into the pool—as he says, ‘in my garden clothes and all,’—and pulled him from the water, as he says, ‘unconscious, his little body limp as a dead linnet.’
By the time they’d called me at my work, and I’d driven quick as I could to the hospital, the doctor wouldn’t even see us anymore, and Chet, my boy, couldn’t move one damn part of himself past the top of his chest.
We live in a small town, in Texas. When Chet broke his neck, it was mid-September—a few weeks from his twelfth birthday— and he’d been playing running back for our town’s peewee football team, the Cardinals, which had already, with Chet included—who was also their best player, but isn’t saying much, considering how sorry the whole team was—only the bare minimum of players required by the league to play.
And since I knew Chet loved that team, and since I had my other boy, Cody, who was only nine, which was still too young to play, but who was stout enough, and had gone with Chet to all his practices, so seemed to know the better half of both the team’s and football’s concepts; I talked to the coach of the Cardinals, telling him my other boy, Cody, could play—just to fill out the roster, and let the other boys continue to play.
Then, because I already had the coming Saturday off from work, having intended to watch Chet play, and because Chet’s mother, my first wife, was spending the day with him at the hospital—and I didn’t want to chance a fight with her around Chet, who was still in that low mood he was stuck in for a while after his accident—I went ahead to the game, to watch Cody, who I didn’t expect to play or anything, but figured it’d be a good thing to show him some attention in that moment.
When I got there it was already a few minutes into the third quarter—I’d went, regardless of my ex-wife, to sit with Chet for a while anyway, I couldn’t help myself. The Cardinals were already down four touchdowns. Mike, the man I sat down by, told me of how the running back who’d taken Chet’s place had twisted his ankle on his second run of the game, and then the boy, who replaced the boy who replaced Chet, got popped pretty hard right before half-time, then, once in the locker-room—a little shed behind the concession stand—wouldn’t stop crying, had thrown his helmet and shoulder pads to the ground, then refused to leave the locker room, even once his father went in there, calling him a pussy and every other name that I’m sure his own father had called him in his time too.
So, because the coach, I guess, didn’t know what else to do, or had nothing else to do, he sent Cody in there to play running back.
On the first two plays, the quarterback kept it himself, trying his best to skirt around the edge of the line as soon as he felt the ball meet his hands, but it all added up to nothing, to more than nothing, really, to negative five yards.
So, since there wasn’t a chance in hell of wining, or of even getting a first down, on the next play the quarterback pitched the ball to Cody, unbelievably slow and with such visible remorse that it seemed he figured he might as well have been tossing it directly to the other team.
The ball hit Cody square in his chest, right between the numbers, two and one, on the front of his jersey, popping off his shoulder pads and falling to the ground. Now, our team’s line was shit, too little and too untalented to do much of anything against the boys from the other team; so there were about five of them already running free towards Cody as he was still looking on the ground for the ball.
I was standing up now, trying to shout at the refs to just blow the damn whistle or something, but couldn’t get a sound out before Cody had found and whipped the ball up from the ground, just in time for the other’s team’s boys to rush, full speed, into him.
But he didn’t fall. He shoved himself back from them with his free arm, putting him eight yards behind the line of scrimmage, then came sprinting towards the sideline, where I was standing, and I thought he was going to run right into the bleachers with me, which I hoped he would. I wanted to get a hold of him and take him home.
But then he turned up field, toward the end zone, running, all of a sudden, faster than I’d ever seen Chet, or any boy his age, run, leaving every other player on the field at least ten yards behind. By then, the crowd had gotten on its feet, screaming and clapping; and even the other running back, who’d refused to leave that little shed, had quit crying, and was watching from the doorway of the shed.
My mouth was still locked open, still trying to pull the shout from myself that I’d committed to just a moment earlier, so that when I did shout, it seemed to come with effort, without thought: the words that pushed, like water, from my mouth, ‘The Lord giveth.’”
The things I saw and felt when I still felt all of me: brushing against my father’s waist in the kitchen, as he carried, in each hand, a smoking pan to the kitchen table; stepping in and out of the shade, feeling the length of my body heat up or cool own, guiding it, as I did, through both the yard and house, in and out of bed; assuaging restlessness; falling down; falling to the water, the last I was ever fully myself; this image, I can’t place, of a grown man crying in his pickup, as a ball of sunlight, fighting through the windshield, fell onto him.”
Author Travis Vick's poetry and fiction have appeared in Booth, Burningword, Gone Lawn, Out of Our, S F & D, Sand, Thunderclap Press, Tigertrain, and others. He currently works in a diaper factory, volunteers teaching adults how to read (mostly using as material the poetry of Roethke, J. Wright, and Oppen;) and lives alone in Texas.