A Sojourner’s Guide to the Black Warrior River Bottoms (and Beyond)

1. The Ghost Bells Tavern off Highway Seven is our first stop on our last night in the river bottoms. We watch the men and women when they’re happy and think of our fathers because surely they were happy once too. It’s impossible to imagine a life, a real life and think that a person couldn’t have been happy at least a few times. Maybe they liked to come here. Maybe they liked to drink and dance and slap the tight-jeaned women on the ass. Maybe they rang the ghost bells at midnight.

They say the bells summon spirits of the dead, and if you ring them on a clear night, you can not only see the faces of the departed but hear their moans, faint echoes rippling out over the bottoms.

We drink our fill at the bar, but before leaving, linger outside, watching as some drunk fool clangs the bells. When we turn to the river, there is nothing but warm wind and silence.  Then we hear it. Faint, like a whisper carried by the wind, it sounds like the echoes of life, not death, too soon for that.

2. We end up down at Julie’s on the River. Ghost Bells is great if you like singing and dancing and tight-jeaned ass slapping and listening to bells echo back from the river, but no place beats Julie’s for getting trashed. We don’t know who Julie is. Some folks say she was a prostitute who turned tricks in the back of the dark shack, blowjobs for ten dollars, a fuck for twenty. More than likely, she’s the dead wife of the man who runs the place, Jimmy Cain. Jimmy doesn’t have teeth, so it’s hard to tell if he’s smiling at us when we come in. He pulls three Dixie cups, fills them from his bottles and tells us it’ll be nine dollars. We don’t blink. For the drunk we’ll be getting, it’s the best price in the county. We need to be drunk where we’re heading.

3. Not staggering though, not yet. Drunk enough to get buckwild, drunk enough to feel no pain. Drunk enough to settle a score. Next stop is Charlie and Keith’s hunting and fishing cabin.  Charlie and Keith won’t be there. They’ve rented it out to some ex-friends of ours, some guys who did some bad things a few weeks back to a girl we know. They’ll be in there, drunk by now, drunker than us, so the element of surprise will be on our side. We levitate out of Julie’s and hike downriver to the boat. Casting off in silence, we lift the shovels and hoes we’ve stowed away for this moment. Standing, the boat rocks as we practice cutting them through the night. Ahead, downstream, the moon is fat and heavy, sunk into the river, pale fire, and it feels like we are sailing to another world, that we are explorers who have reached the edge of the flat world at last, and now we must drop off and fall into the vast chasm that awaits us. But something must be on the other side, right? Something is always there, and this is our comfort in the end, as our hands squeeze the warm wood of the shovels, the hoes, the tiller, as the moon grows so big it almost seems a shame to ruin this last night, but ruin it we must.

4. Kneeling down, outside the shack, the tools in our fists, the hot shine still glowing in our bellies. We take hits from a flask we’ve saved. Courage. Liquid. What would we be without it?From jumping off Bubba’s Leap for the first time, to asking out those pretty girls on those first dates so long ago, we know no other kind, but suspect we’ll have reason to find some in the coming days. On three somebody mouths, and we nod and wait, and listen. There are crickets and riverfrogs. There is lapping against the bank, a steady kind of sound we’ll think of again perhaps from the other side of the world. Perhaps in the silence of a desert and a sky bigger and wider than this.  One…


5. The tools make a mess of the hunting shack, its occupants. We said no knives, no guns, just pain, fuck them up, leave them drooling in their own piss and blood and shit. Give them scars the way they gave her scars and memories she’d never be able to shed. We said it wouldn’t matter because they were nobodies, and we were nobodies. So it was nothing, inconsequential, another river bottom incident, over in a single heartbeat. The three of them laid out on the floor, furniture overturned, pieces of flesh and hair matted on the wall, a line of blood drying on the white couch. One of them gasped. He groaned for us to help him. We did.

6. We imagined leaving there in a flurry of laughter, excitement, joy even. But instead we exit the shack, single file, our bloody tools burning our hands so hot, we can’t wait to toss them in the river, watch them float away, off the face of the earth, into the light of that big moon. After, we linger, listening to the silence—no crickets, no riverfrogs, nothing—and think about the coming days. They seem unreal, inconsequential like our fathers, yet they lurk inside the corners of our minds, sneaky and wild and full of heartache incalculable.

7. The violence sobers us, and we find ourselves headed closer to the moon, the edge of the world, downstream toward Momma’s. At Momma’s we can drink a little whiskey, buy any kind of drug, get with a girl.

We have girlfriends or did have them, all three of us. But they are distant now, abandoned without even goodbyes, as we prepare our hearts and minds to leave this place, and we agree that on this last night, we have no ties, not to family, not to love, not even to the earth itself.

Momma sits on the dock, her walking stick braced against her lawnchair. We’ve heard the stories about it being a gun, how she shot a man’s head clean off his shoulders, how she liked to pull the trigger when you least expected it, never firing without intent to kill.  We are afraid of Momma, not just of her walking stick that may be a gun or her sudden and violent temper, but of what she represents: a life gone to seed, a woman lost in the current of the Black Warrior.  She wears no makeup, no shoes, nothing but an old housecoat and slippers.  Her hair is long and unkempt, and her palms are moist with the grease of bills clutched and traded and dug loose from other palms. Is this why we’ve chosen to go? Or is that we secretly crave the unconsidered moments of violence? What is the point of it all, we would ask if we were one voice, one consciousness, but we don’t know such things are possible, so we ask the individual kind of questions, the fearful kind, the kind that want to be strong, but do not know the words:

How much for a trip to the shed? How much for thirty minutes? How much? How much?

8. There are six sheds standing shoulder to shoulder. On an average night, Laney and her mother Justina fill them all with men like us, make rounds. Thirty minutes is what you get. Most men finish in ten, which is fine with Laney and Justina. They tell you to clean up. Take those sheets inside to Momma if they judge them too stained. Between visits, they smoke cigarettes, bored. Then they hit the next shed, and if it’s you waiting inside, if you’re the man who has lost the battle that night and given in to gravity that sinks us all like treasure buried deep in the muddy bottoms, then you try not to think about where they’ve been, and instead let the moment be the moment. Sometimes that’s the only way to live in the river bottoms.

9. After, we’re listless, anxious, afraid to speak or do. We sit in the boat, ride around a little.  There is talk of going out to Fern Bridge. Sometimes the high school kids party there. We are not long past high school in years, but it seems an ancient, barely remembered thing. Yet its delights are undeniable: the girls still fresh, pretty and hopeful, the boys confident and athletic, sure that they’ll find a way out of the mud here and if they don’t, well then there’s always the war. We want to kick their asses for not knowing better, for being young and foolish and for believing. But we’re spent, resigned to our fate, our journey to the horizon. We laugh at stupid high school boys even though it’s not funny and ride down to Leroy’s little store on the riverbank. We buy three six packs, one for each of us, and spend the last moments of this last night drinking the beer, lying in the bottom of the boat, feeling the river, looking at the stars.

10. We arrive at the bus station at a quarter till five, not having slept a wink. The stars and giant moon are still flares in our field of vision, lights which will linger for most of the trip, bursts of film showing the clipped images of violence, the hurried sex, the ass-slapping at Ghost Bells, but mostly what will linger are the small moments when we felt confused or nostalgic or afraid. We will think of our fathers often as we move through the desert, ghosts of men, reaching for the concrete world and touching it with fists, only briefly. When at last we fall off the side of the earth into the bright horizon will we miss home? Will we hear bells? Will we think, again, of the river and our fathers and understand their long unwinding was not so different than ours?

We shiver, all of us, when we realize we might just.

About the Author

John Mantooth

John Mantooth is the award-winning author of The Year of the Storm (Berkley), Broken Branch (Penguin), and Shoebox Train Wreck (Chizine).  He lives in Alabama with his wife, Becky, and two children.



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