Ask any fiction writer and they will likely tell you…
God didn’t give us no lakes in Canard County. Too much downhill, too much push to the water. So when the government decided we could use some help, they dammed up our rivers and they made us lakes. Had us make them. The people I come from were good enough to push the dirt around, to make piles where a man in a white shirt and a government sedan said make piles.
But what do I know about all that? What I know is like scratches on rocks, shards of tales. I barely know who I come from. But I know this: the lakes in Tennessee are bigger. Way bigger. Big shots have houses around them. I know our lakes barely got enough to put a picnic shelter around. A ragged boat dock with a shack at its end where men spit in the same sawed-off two-liter bottle, listen to Bill Monroe, and talk about bodies found on the bottom of the lake and bodies never found. The company owned around our lakes, cause they still might be something worth taking from the mountains thereabouts. I’m sure there is. Orange water feeds our lakes. They are poor affairs.
I know this too: Hubert went to water when he was worried. He put on short pants and he went to water. Hubert had never given up on my mother. He remembered her the way I did, the way she was before my father died. I seen more love in Hubert over the years. He still kept to himself in that building his father built to hang out with his rusty gang of thieves and petty officials. All them gone now, and now Hubert had only me and sometimes Evie and Albert.
When the law took Sidney Coates’s money and everybody said my mother informed on him, we figured Hubert would plan a picnic, have us all go to the lake. Cause it was picnic season, plus that is what Hubert did.
“I could use a picnic,” Evie said. “Things is too tight around here.”
Hubert grumbled something none of us caught, ended on the words “ice cream.” So we figured a picnic was what was fixing to happen. But it wasn’t.
We were sitting in that building Thursday afternoon, all of us on stumpy chunks of oak save Albert who sat on the back seat of an LTD. It was about two in the afternoon on the day after Belinda come to Momma’s hollering at June about how she was gonna kill Momma.
Evie and Albert argued as usual, about something stupid like whether fish or birds was smarter. Hubert stood up said, “Let’s go,” and headed towards the barn door. We give him a head start. Hubert opened the passenger door of the Continental told Albert to drive. Me and Evie got in back and Hubert told Albert to head out towards the lake, but when we got to the picnic place, the shelters by the hauled-in beach, Hubert told Albert to keep going. Albert did, on up into what Evie called Yesterdayland, where folks kept bees, everybody played music, and nobody counted on the law to settle things.
Hubert’s daddy was Green Jewell, and Green’s mother was from up that way. Her people still had a place, still had land up there. But it was way far away from the Trail so hadn’t none of us been out there much, so we was leaning on Hubert to tell us where to go, show us how to be.
Hubert said, “Turn in here.”
We crossed a wood bridge. An old woman walked towards us with a dead snake hung over the blade of her hoe. Albert stopped the vehicle and she stood at Hubert’s window.
Hubert said, “That’s a nice one.”
The woman said, “Never cared for snakes.”
Hubert said, “How you doing, Peck?”
The woman said, “Hubert, I been worse.”
Hubert said, “How’s your garden?”
“Pitiful.” Peck leaned down and looked at us. Stood back up, said “Who you got?”
Hubert pointed at me and Albert. “Him and her is Delbert’s.” He jerked his thumb at Evie. “She’s a Bright.”
Peck leaned down again, looked at Evie, said “My daddy courted a Bright. She run off with a gravel man in here building the dam.”
Albert said, “Your daddy’s better off.”
Evie popped Albert on back of the head.
Hubert said, “We’re going up to the falls, Peck. Why don’t you come with us?”
Peck looked out over the place like an Indian in one of those paintings by a white man, one of them ones where the Indian looks all noble peering out over a canyon full of buffalo, noble even though he’s in the middle of getting assfucked by a bunch of cowboys.
“Can’t,” she said. “Waiting on Shasta to bring me them babies. Untelling when she’ll get here.”
Hubert said, “Good to see you, Peck.”
Peck said, “Good to see you too, Hubert.” She probably would have said tell so-and-so hello, but Hubert didn’t have nobody around him anymore and so Peck just stood there.
We drove past the place where I reckon Peck stayed given they was a garden on the side big as a grocery store parking lot with string-run beans and corn thigh-high and tomatoes already ganging on the vine. Then we went by a long house with white siding and storm windows and a two-vehicle carport. It was a nice house, a good liver’s house, built solid, but it didn’t look like nobody lived in it, nor had in a while— shingles blown off the roof, downspout come loose, sheets against the front windows.
Evie said, “Whose is that?”
Hubert said, “That’s where my papaw lived.”
Albert said, “Snatch?”
Hubert said, “What they called him.”
Me and Albert had heard about Snatch, our father’s grandfather. He was a union man. We grew up on tales of him shooting gun thugs from the woods above the road to mines on strike, tales of him tying scabs to the railroad track. The scabs’ screams when the train cut them to pieces woke me many a night, even though the killings was long before I was born, back in the thirties. Hubert and Daddy had showed us the road where the company drug Snatch by a chain behind a truck to the state line, threw him over a hill into a den of snakes, left him for dead.
I remember Snatch in a hospital bed in the front room of Green’s house, hooked up to oxygen cause of black lung, face grey as pipe. I come in crying one time when I was five. Albert’d run over one of my frogs on his Big Wheel and there was nobody home to cry to, only Snatch. Snatch opened his dinosaur eyes, raised up on his bed, tubes in his nose, stuck the broke-off stump of his right first finger at me said, “You better dry it up, Little Missy,” said it to me like I was grown. It stayed with me from that day on. I was grown. Got that from Snatch.
“They called him Snatch cause it was what he loved the best,” Albert grinned, his teeth like hominy. “Aint that right, Hubert?”
“Pull off here,” Hubert said, pointing at a wide spot off the road. We was back in the woods by then, Highhead Mountain rising up above us like a preacher had the goods on us and fixing to lay us low. The pull-off spot was robed around with laurel and when we got out we had to duck and dodge through it.
Hubert got a red canvas bag out of the trunk of the Continental. Bag had a strap where you could sling it over your shoulder. Hubert headed up through a gap in the laurel, which closed up behind him. Albert scrambled after Hubert, fell, and then he was gone through the laurel.
Evie said, “What’s he doing?”
I said nothing to Evie who once had been dear to me, now just part of my problem, part of everybody’s problem. I didn’t have a friend now and that was Evie’s fault. Fault of them pills.
It was near-dark in the laurel. I could barely see the horned ghost of Albert’s white wifebeater floating up the path, but I saw enough to follow, grabbing hold of roots and tree trunks, rocks and mud, til the path leveled off, skirted the hillside, and hooked right beside a creek running flat, past overhangs and rock towers, hiding places and lookouts enough for a hundred Indians and outlaws.
Hubert got going good once he got out in the woods, and I never did catch him and Albert, but little goat Evie caught me. She had trouble keeping pace, so she didn’t say much, and we moved huffing and puffing through that church of woods til we got to where the trail swung up in our faces and we could hear the sound of the falls.
When we caught up to Hubert and Albert, Hubert’s shorts dropped from his waist and naked Hubert stepped down into a pool eddying off the creek thirty feet below where the water crashed from a rock ledge seventy feet above. The waterfall landed in a rainbow spray and made the ferns and bushes and tree limbs in its sway shiver. Hubert’s mouth made a little “o” as he slipped into the chill water up to his chest. Albert crouched above him on the trunk of a fallen tree, a monkey henchman floating in the summer sparkle.
Evie said, “What are you doing?”
Hubert’s eyes were closed. He said, “I need y’all to pass through the water.”
Evie said, “Do what?”
Hubert lay his arms out flat on the surface of the pool. “I need you to go through the falls and bring me back something.”
Albert said, “All of us?”
Evie said, “Why we gonna do that?”
Hubert’s eyes opened. He lay back in the pool, wetting the back of his head. “It’s money,” he said. Hubert floated and turned. “Lots and lots of money.”
Albert come off his perch and rockscrambled towards the fall. Evie caught him before he reached the spray.
Hubert said, “You go too, Dawn,” his eyes closed again. “Don’t leave it to them two.”
At the top of the waterfall, drops of water jumped free of the rest of the fall, but by the time the drops hit the rocks below, they were all in the same place. I followed Evie and Albert behind the sheet of water.
The money we found in the darkness behind the falls was duct taped inside two garbage bags. We followed Hubert down the creek to a wide place where the water flowed slow and the creek bed looked smooth shiny and hard as the floor in the courthouse lobby. We took the money out of the garbage bags. It had mold on it. Some of it you couldn’t tell what it was.
Evie said, “This money is nasty.”
Albert said, “I think something shit on it.”
“Money’s money,” Hubert said. “It don’t go bad.”
We’d all asked Hubert over and over where it come from, and every time he acted like he hadn’t heard us. I stopped asking him.
Evie said, “Do we have to wash every bill?”
Hubert said, “You don’t have to wash none of it.”
Evie said, “Shoo.”
Evie and Albert settled into cussing and picking at each other. They dipped the bills into the creek, their hands flat under the water, rubbing the presidents’ faces back to life. Hubert moved from one tree to another, his hand against the trunks, bad leg dragging, grimacing.
Hubert leaned into my ear, grumbled, “So much racket.”
I said, “That creek is so clean.”
Hubert looked at the creek. His throat rattled like a stick drug across a metal grate. “Your mother,” he said, walking away from the creek into the boulders, talking where I couldn’t hear him.
Evie said to Albert, “You splash me one more time and I drown you. I ain’t even kidding.”
I said to Hubert library low, “Do what?” and followed him into the boulders, followed him back where it could be just me and him. I came around one boulder and he was sitting on another, his hands in moss, breathing hard.
I said, “You’re hurting, aren’t you?”
He drew his lips tight, said, “I don’t know your mother’s worth the investment.”
I sat down beside him. I wanted to lean on him. I didn’t.
I said, “Does old money stay good?”
“It does,” Hubert said. “Legal tender.”
The tops of the trees rustled. The light sprinkled down like sugar.
“If Momma wasn’t in trouble,” I said, “what would you do with that money?”
Hubert sniffed. He wasn’t crying, but his eyes were watery. “Nothing,” he said. “It aint out here for using.”
I didn’t ask no more.
I said, “You don’t smell like you’re taking care of yourself.”
Hubert coughed but nothing come up.
I said, “You getting enough to drink?”
Hubert said, “I reckon.”
I said, “Smells like it.”
Hubert looked at me sideways, said, “Why don’t you go help your brother?”
I said, “Who else knows about this?”
Hubert didn’t look up, said “I don’t know. Too many lost years. Too many nights.”
I leaned forward, my elbows on my knees. I stayed talking low, said, “What are you talking about?”
Hubert said, “Too many years in the wilderness.”
“Hubert,” I said. “You need to think about getting married.”
Hubert turned his head to me, said, “You proposing?”
I said, “You’re going to seed. You don’t make no sense.”
“I don’t know who all I told,” Hubert said. “They was years when I didn’t care who knew what.” Hubert stood up.
“Well,” I said, “you couldn’t of told too many. It’s still here.”
Hubert turned in his spot like a dog with arthritis winding up to sit down. “Don’t care who knows,” he said.
I wished Hubert would sit back down, but he went back and watched Evie and Albert wash money and before long Hubert told them to forget it, and we stuffed the money in the red canvas bag, and we trooped back down the creek.
When we got back to Hubert’s place, June’s little red Honda car was there.
When June seen Evie she said, “Missed you in class this week.”
Evie said, “I know what we’re supposed to do. I found out. We’re supposed to write a paper. And I got me a topic now.”
Hubert said, “I want you to take this back with you, June.”
June looked at the red bag. We all did.
Story Hubert told was this: Cinderella had called Hubert said Sidney Coates hired a man in Stickerbush to make my mother disappear. Hubert called Sidney said what if Hubert put back the money Sidney had lost. Sidney said it’d be a start. People was scared of Hubert, but it don’t pay to have that much money in the house, not when you had a June who could take it and make it safe.
“All right,” she said.
We followed June in the Continental to the Virginia line. When June’s car slipped down the hill, Albert pulled in behind a coal truck idling at the top of the hill. Hubert got out of the Continental and smoked a cigarette. And then we went back to the Trail.