Tuesday, March 28, 2017

SOUTH OF THE POTOMAC by Peter Nolan Smith


My St. Patrick's Day of 2011 ended at Frank's Lounge on Fulton Street. Everyone at the bar knew my name and well they should, because I was the token white just like that Paul Benedict's character in nearly all-black TV show THE JEFFERSONS.

Audience laughed hard whenever Mr. Jefferson slammed the door in the kindly Englishman's face. Harry Bentley never showed any rancor and neither do I at Frank's Lounge.

Since Day One I haven't heard any of the regulars speaking badly behind my back, for they have the courage to speak their mind to my face.

Around 8pm I bought a round for the bar. It was the right thing to do.

"I knew Old Irish would show up here on St. Patrick's Day," Homer crowed in his thick Delta accent.

"This is my home away from home." My apartment was only two blocks distant from my favorite stool. I wasn't working the next day and I told Homer about traveling to Virginia in the morning to visit a sick friend. "Ms. Carolina lives on the Northern neck of Virginia."

"Where's that at?" Homer hailed from Philadelphia, Mississippi. He left that town after the police telling his momma that they wanted to speak to him. The year of that midnight departure was 1953. I was one year old at the time.

"Someplace east of I-95." My geography of that region was limited to a teenage trip to Virginia Beach with my parents in 1966. "The Tidewater."

"Cracker and peckerwood territory." Homer shook his head. He swore that he had no trouble with white folks in the Delta, but said, "You be careful how you speak. They don't have the same ideas as you do."

Two white boys had been murdered with James Chaney, a black man from Meridian, Mississippi in 1964.

It wasn't far from Philadelphia.

"Thanks for the warning." I lifted my hand and ordered another round.

I got home at midnight and set the alarm for 7AM.

A southbound bus was leaving from Chinatown at 8. My bag was already packed with two days of clothing and I fell into bed like a bag of mashed potatoes. It had been a good St. Padraic's Day and I slept like the dead.

But not for long.

6:54AM I opened my eyes. It was dark outside my window. Dawn was another hour away. Sweet sleep beckoned from the softness of my pillows. I resisted the siren call and left the house within minutes.

I made the 8AM bus with enough time to buy a bacon sandwich from the Chinese bakery. The bus departed on time for Washington DC, the nation's capitol.

We arrived on time.

I rented a car at Ronald Reagan Airport. The drive to North Cape Point was 120 miles. The speed limit was 55. The traffic inched along the highway. I was stuck in the belly of the Fairfax County traffic monster.

Once off 95 there were no stoplights. I visited the Fredericksburg battlefield for a half-hour. The day was getting late. I had been on the road almost ten hours. I drove a little over the limit. County troopers manned speed traps. They weren't catching me for nothing.

North Point Cape was 20 miles from the main road. Fallow fields were blue with ragweed. Winter weed was a thick carpet of green. The land dropped under my wheels and I entered the tidewater.

A land of marshy inlets and crooked tidal flows.

My phone service died two miles from my destination. Ms. Carolina and her husband waited at the door. She was as blonde as the first night I met her in New York. If I took off my glasses, she would be as young too. Her husband was a tall gentleman for whom looks had never been a problem even at 80. Ms. Carolina and Hal had been together 35 years. It showed with their every gesture.

Dinner was on the table.

My last food had been that Chinese croissant.

Hal put a drink in my hand.

>Dewar's Scotch.

Ms. Carolina served a plate of corned beef and cabbage.

"I know it isn't St Patrick's day, but who's counting."

Not me."

The meal was delicious. Hal and I conversed about hitchhiking, fathers, the death of our brothers, and his career as a gynecologist in the Bible Belt.

"Two people I can't stand are Catholics and Jehovah Witnesses. Both are idiots when it comes to the matter of birth control and a woman's health."

"I'm a Catholic and I agree with you too." My faith had been abandoned in my teens.

After dinner we walked onto the dock extending a hundred feet into the river. The air was soft as summer. No mosquitoes buzzed in our ears. Ms. Carolina hadn't spoken much during the evening. Hal had dominated the conversation. She seemed to favor her right side. I blamed it on her last chemo session.

"That's the last of winter, I think." I was forever optimistic. "If it's this warm tomorrow I'll jump into the river."

"Crazy-ass Northerner." Ms. Carolina's husband had met a caravan of his wife's friends. Most were a little eccentric. I was rumored to be the most of the lot. She and I had traveled the world; Maine, Peru, Guatemala, and the Far West. People said we were lovers. They knew nothing. Friends for the road. Ms. Carolina was a good companion on the road.

'Only in a good way. My people fought at St. Mary's Heights." The battle lasted most of the winter afternoon. 20,000 Union soldiers had been killed during the assault on a fortified ridge. Pure suicide. "I stood there today. They were lucky crazy ass-Northerners."

"Not like Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg." The Civil War was far from over in the South.

"No, the 20th Maine stopped the Texas and Alabama from taking Little Big Rock." My recollection of that fateful day's history depended on a faulty memory. "Joshua Chamberlain ordered a "right-wheel forward" maneuver. The ensuing bayonet charge saved the day and the Union."

Hal muttered a curse under his breath. He was a serious church-goer. A doctor for women too. He supported a woman's right for choice and birth control. A man of contradictions. I liked him fine. He was a true Man of the South.

I believed in no god. Ms. Carolina was in the hands of fate. I could tell by the way that she favored her right side.

On the walk back to the river house Ms. Carolina told me the worst. She had six months to a year to live.

It was something that I didn't want to believe.

Back on the unlit porch Hal, Ms. Carolina, and I watched the rising of the moon over the Potomac River. A silver disc spread a scalloped path of light into heaven. We retired into the house for a last drink or two. Hal and I discussed our president. He used the n-word more than an entire CD-rack of ghetto rap hits.

"You think Obama is a Muslim?" I had voted for the president twice in 2008. Once in the East Village and another time on an absentee ballot from Thailand, following the venerable Tammany Hall adage, "Vote early, vote often.'

"100%." Hal was a die-hard GOP supporter.

"And he is a member of Al-Quada."

"I don't know about that."

"Well, what if he change his first name to Al for Al-Quada."

"And why would he do that?" Ms. Carolina fell for my trap.

"Because then he would be Alobama and the state of Alabama would vote for him."

"He won enough southern states thanks to the black vote." Hal conceded 2008 without a recount. The contest for 2012 was still in the air.

"You know what Ford's agricultural secretary gave as the reason for why Lincoln's party didn't get the black vote?"

"Earl Butz?" asked Hal.

Yes, he came from Indiana. The Hoosiers backed the KKK big in the 1920s and Earl said, "I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. I understood the comments about sex and the outhouse, but he lost me on the loose shoes."

"Me too." Hal and I had more than Ms. Carolina in common. He was only 80. I was 58. The generation gap meant less now than it did in 1975. "Still like his saying about the Pope's opposition to contraception."

""He no playa the game, he no maka the rules." Hal proved his memory was as good as mine. We toasted the past and bid each other goodnight. Ms. Carolina went to her first-floor room. Hal had his room on the other side of the house.

"Hal snores like an out-of-control jack hammer."

"I'm like a truck stuck on ice." I took after my dearly departed father.

"The you two will snore in harmony."

Only the living room separated us.

"Sleep well, dream better." Ms. Carolina smiled with warmth. She was with her husband and an old traveling companion. Not many people came this far off the track to see her. Hal and I sat up watching NCAA basketball. I switched to wine and killed half a bottle. At 10 we called it a night.

"Thanks for coming down. She can use some cheering up." Hal intoned that he didn't want to discuss her health and I respected his feelings on that matter. We retreated to our bedrooms. It was very quiet and remained that way for the rest of the night

My telephone was out of range. My computer had no signal. This was the end of the world. All roads to somewhere other than here and I lay on the mattress with a heavy head. Ms. Carolina looked okay. Fenway's mom knew that I was in the hicks or ban-nok as the Thais called the boondocks. I read two pages of A SAVAGE CITY.

A history of racist courts, police corruption, and black power revolution on the late-60s. The true explanation of the Summer of Love. My reincarnated youth existed for a couple of minutes. The full moon burned through my curtains. I felt like the Wolfman without a demon inside me. The book fell on my chest. Sleep was my paradise and I drifted into the clouds. There was no other place to go at this time of night in North Point Cape.

The morning started late. I woke and went back to sleep. Everyone else in the house was on a similar wavelength. I finally got out of bed and walked to the end of the dock. The warmth had departed from the wind. The temperature was below 50. Hal joined me with his dog.

"Cruiser's bigger than I recall."

"A cross between a wolf-hound and a mastiff."

"Nice puppy." I recounted the tale of my taking care of a crackhouse Airedale in Palm Beach. Pom Pom had weighed 95 pounds. She was on the hit list for bad dogs. I cured her insanity with beer on her Kibbles. Drunk dogs don't pick fights. Hal wasn't impressed with my story and asked, "You still thinking about going in the Potomac?"

"Not this instant."

"Thought so."

Ms. Carolina called us to the table.

Blueberry pancakes and bacon.

Corn syrup instead of maple.

I said nothing.

North Point was 600 miles from Vermont.

After breakfast Hal drove us on a tour of the area. Beaches, houses, fields for hunting, new forests, a cousin's estate on the shore, the burial ground of Lee's family, he never stopped talking. Manny liked to say that he had never met anyone who could speak more than me, but I had to admit Hal had me beat.

I heard about his Navy career in Key West and Norfolk, playing sports during high school, his father's work as a car dealer.

"He had no cars. Only a book. People would come to his office and order a new car. A week later it was there. Daddy worked hard."

Hal had read a book on mine. NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD. A tale about a New York hustler forced into a contract hit by two dirty cops. He fakes the murder and escapes into Death Valley with two lesbians making a movie about the last man of Earth. I thought that novel was going to make me famous.

"Porno. That's what I remember about that book."

"I gave the book to an agent. Her husband read it in a day. They had sex three times in a row. "Great." I said, but the agent told me that she was divorcing her husband. End of NORTH NORTH HOLLYWOOD."

Ms. Carolina promoted my writing. I'm beyond that task. After a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches I looked at the dock.

"If not now, never."

"You are going in the river?"

"In three minutes." I changed into my shorts and white tee-shirt. I met Hal and Ms. Carolina on the dock. The wind was stiff from the north. The water looked cold. There was only one way of doing this and I handed my camera to Ms. Carolina.

"Record this."

After several words I leaped off the dock. A ten-foot drop into the river. It wasn't cold. It was freezing. I swam to the ladder like a survivor from the Titanic. The distance was only twenty feet. My feet lost feeling. My fingers grew numb. Ms. Carolina waited at the top of the steps with a towel.

"You are one crazy ass northerner." Hal shook his head.

"That is right."

Ms. Carolina laughter and her laughter was tonic to my ears, for laughter is the magic of life. Back in the house she reminded me about the doctor's prognosis.

"Six months." She lifted her shirt. The cancer had erupted on her skin. Tumors covered the right side of her chest. She dropped the shirt and I gave her a soft hug.

"You will always be beautiful to me."

Hal stood in the doorway.

"And me too." He was playing it tough.

Both of us were.

Tears were for a year away from now.

"Let's have a drink."

Whiskey and wine.

A good talk about life.

We were friends.

Until the end.

And for friends there was no place else to go on the North Point that evening.

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