Yellow Creek

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Up the River. I sit on the top porch of the McNair “cabin” at Yellow Creek in north Tuscaloosa County, Alabama. I would not have recognized it had I not known where it was geographically. I would not have recognized much of the Alabama I have found on my homecoming, not much of the buildings towns and cities that is, so much has changed…not the heart of it though, not the land. The woods and water look and sound exactly like the place that I left and still love, the place where I met God. Not in the pews of the church but in the luscious green cathedrals of hardwoods and pines that cradle endless lakes, rivers and streams. Pristine and beautiful waterways which, for all the years I lived here, washed away my sins of care and worry and woe, allowing me, for at least brief respites to float, carefree and unaware of the worries drawn out of me into the cool waters and downstream into another world completely unknown to me. Just as they always have, the cicadas sing their peculiar song and the frogs and crickets chime in with their appreciation of the hot, wet climate as my deep slow breath draws me into their chorus.
Lynne and Kirk McNair, after selling Bama Magazine, have spent more than they should have (according to Lynne) making improvements to a place that holds a lot of history for me. I think every penny they spent is a fine investment, given that what was once a perfectly lovely place to escape to is now a virtual paradise. What I wouldn’t give for a month here to relax and write and swim in the quiet water. The few houses scattered along this tributary to the Warrior River seem well tended but vacant, at least on this hot Monday afternoon. Around here, if you’ve spent your whole life living in, or at least regularly visiting one of these writer’s dreams, but your family before you had not been here for at least a couple of generations, you are seen as a virtual newcomer and, as Kirk put it, are still in a “probationary period.” Last night as we rode the pontoon boat “Up the River,” which I had always thought was the actual name of the joint where we went to buy gas. Lynne reminded me that this place still has a very “rural” mentality so her idea to turn the fishing camp which is for sale just up Yellow Creek a bit into a gay bed and breakfast or my idea to make this a getaway for the artistic minded, may not fly. (I interrupt my writing briefly to go inside and ask Lynne what the real name of “Up the River” is.) It is now called “The Point,” and may have been back when I was a regular around these parts for all I know. I have often had the experience of visiting places sober for the first time that I had always visited drunk and found them to be very different than they are in my foggy memories. The Point, no, no, I still can’t call it that…Up the River is one of these places. As I made a remark indicating this last night, Lynne told me that no, it is different now. It has been bought by younger people and caters to a different crowd. The place as I remember it was just exactly what you’d imagine of a backwater Alabama drinking spot. The few beat up old pickups let me know that there is a way to get there by land but I always arrived aboard the same pontoon craft that took us there last night. In my memory it is dark and I would say not as clean as it was last night but that would imply that its former “dirtiness” was in some way bad and it certainly was not. It was not the sort of place that you would give a second thought walking into with wet or muddy shoes. The couple of faded pool tables are lit by plastic “stained glass” beer lamps that look like they could have lit the pool tables at the Parthenon if there had been any. I wonder how long it would take for weak light bulbs to fade green felt but they have…or maybe it’s just age and the fact that they have been put to very good use. I wonder how many trailer home payments have been won just in the nick of time to avoid repossession or how many redneck marriages have ended because the meager amount scrimpt and saved in a mason jar by the wife had been lost there.
I imagine his coming home in the predawn hours, broke and broken and reeking to high hell of Shlitz Malt Liquor to find his confused and exasperated bride, dressed and ready to make the drive to the Sunday morning church services at the Possum Hollar First Freewill Primitive Baptist Church as soon as the truck made it home. The gas tank on the truck and the mason jar, now placed without its lid, at the center of the tiny Formica kitchenette are both empty…so are his eyes; the eyes where she had once found hope, hope of an escape from the alcoholic nightmare that had been her father’s home which now, in her memory was beginning to look a lot like the home of her adult life. “Adult” wouldn’t have resonated with her even though she was now nearing thirty. She still she felt, most of the time like the stringy haired teenager who cowered beneath a similar table in the kitchen of her Mamma, praying for but never receiving a way to save Mamma from the blows of her insanely drunk father. On the day she had married, she had never noticed the physical similarities between the two men. She only had seen that day, standing in front of the preacher in freshly ironed overalls, the black eyed savior from her misery. Now the similarities, physical and otherwise were all too apparent.
Today, sitting on this porch thinking back on those many previous trips Up the River, I wonder how many stories I intuited on those alcohol infused pilgrimages. But I cared little to know their stories back then. Perhaps what I saw in those people scared me too much by reminding me from whence I came and of what I had become. All I needed back then was the constant reassurance that when I finished one drink, another would be available and enough quarters to keep the jukebox playing “Sweet Home Alabama” or some old Hank Williams tune, or on occasion, if I dared, to play C-16, Patsy Cline’s “Walking After Midnight” and silently sing along and pretend that I were she. My singular salvation as a stumbled and swayed around the joint, trying not to meet eyes or to be drawn into any conversations about how worthless “niggers” are or anything else that might have gotten me killed, was that I knew that I was different from these folk. They were backwoods redneck drunks from a long line of backwoods redneck drunks. I was too for that matter…but I had my intellect, I had my dreams…and ever so often and to my horrified regret, I would catch the eye of another lost soul and see the painful truth that they too had fading dreams and maybe they were not as stupid as they seemed. So as the early morning wore on and my dangerous friend in that dark liquid steered me closer and closer to that which I so deeply craved, the bottom of the bottle and the dark, quiet annihilation of my vicious and relentless thoughts, the battle waged on inside my mind. I am not like these people. My story is there’s. We are so different. We are the same. A battle more frightening and violent than any I had ever known, ‘till finally my friend betrayed me and stopped me just short of oblivion. Left there to face the horrible truth that there was not one single iota of difference between me and these people or the legions more that had lost or were loosing this battle with self, I ultimately had to face my grim reality. I was Up the River without a Battle.


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