Lake Exploring / Sheffield Leithart

Deep South

This is a short story I wrote when I was living in Atlanta in 2011, working as the tour photographer for Zac Brown Band. I spent a lot of time on the bus looking out the window at the passing woods. This kept coming into my head, so I wrote it down.

I've always liked the South. I'm not sure why.

Driving on the interstate, looking out the window at the tangled greenery of a seemingly perpetual summer always wells a deep sense of nostalgia in me. Every house I pass looks familiar, even if I've never set foot within 100 miles of the place. Every tree, every porch, every tire swing has a feeling of forgotten history.

If I look long enough, I begin to recall memories of experiences I never had, of a childhood I never lived. Scents linger in my nose, smells I must have smelled before, but I don't know when, or where, or what they are.

There is a kitchen, my mother's kitchen, that opens into a dining room; the ceilings are high, from the height of a ten-year-old. Twelve steps is all it takes for me to cross it and get through the screen door. Everyone complains about the heat, but I don't care. I'm too young to sweat, or at least to notice.

I have one friend, her name is Eva, and she smiles at me even when I don't tell jokes. I spent all week building a raft while she was at school. Today is my day, because today is the day I show it to her.

I run the path to the lake, headlong down the hill, staying on the mown grass, leaping the termite mounds. Even before I get there, I can see her sitting on the end of the dock, her feet stirring the striders on the water. I don't slow down, because I don't care if she knows how excited I am. I pull her to the shore before she can get her shoes on. "You won't need them," I say. I leave her standing in the wet clay and drag the raft from its hiding place. Before I can straighten up, she is helping me; we drag it across the grass to the edge of the lake and tip it in. It's crudely built, but I'm proud of it. I float it to the dock. Eva wants to be the first one to try it out, and I don't disagree; I built it for her. She looks at me, barely hesitates, and jumps into the middle of the raft. I trust it, and I trust her, and it holds, and she smiles at me. I have splinters in my hands from the branches and ropes, but I don't care. I built a raft for her, and it works. I would build ten more. Now it's my turn. I hesitate longer than she did, but I jump and land. We tense and balance, but Eva's raft still holds. I forgot paddles, so we use our hands, venturing into the middle of the lake, further from shore than a pair of children should on a homemade raft. Gingerly, we lie back and watch the sky and clouds and trees and let the sun warm our faces and the tops of our knees. Finally, we hand-paddle to the dock. I decide I am a gentleman and let Eva crawl off first. Then it is my turn, and God and physics conspire against me; I step to the edge, and the raft flips. Before I have time to flail and sputter, she is in the water, helping me to safety. This time, she plays the gentleman, and I am on the dock first. I empty my stomach and refill my lungs and watch her swim to the raft and pull it to shore. She joins me at the end of the dock. I roll to my back and squint at the sky and let my feet fall into the water. I can already feel the sun drying out my clothes. She sits next to me and lies back. I turn my head, watch her watching the clouds and hold her hand. I say nothing, and she smiles.

A semi rushing past jolts me back to my life. I steal one last sidelong glance at a creek overgrown with imaginary adventures and resign myself to the self-inflicted purgatory of steel and leather, where rubber meets the endless asphalt of routine.