The Black Warrior
…in which Kelly Rogers takes a dive.
Someone watching from the distant riverbank could have sworn she slipped.
A light shower started only minutes before the green Beetle noisily appeared and bounced along the bumpy crossties.
Mist fell so lightly the Volkswagen didn’t even use its wipers.
When Kelly opened her door, the odors of rain and creosote flooded the tattered black interior of her faithful old car.
She climbed out. Long black hair whipped her face. The gusting wind seemed determined to strip away her long black dress and slip it on over its own phantasmal body.
In such buffeting, a witness could have sworn Kelly slipped.
She didn’t slip.
Will and Mary pushed you!
She heard her demon actually shout it, and give a horrible cackle.
An image flashed to mind, lurid, bright as neon – four little white hands shoving, roughly, out into space, into the Alabama darkness.
Elmore stood by lifting not one finger, those cold blue accusing eyes unblinking.
Kelly tumbled through blackness.
She remembered, absurdly, a trivial thing, a ridiculous epiphany.
In the year she attended the big college in Tuscaloosa, James Dickey came to campus. People told Kelly he was a great poet.
She didn’t like him. He used vulgarity. He leered. He stared straight at her from the podium during his poetry reading. He glanced up from the page with the yellow reading lamp under-lighting his face, and it scared her, the way a jack-o’-lantern scared her.
He looked… hungry.
Imagine yourself virgin… nevermore. Nevermore, quoth the ravenous poet. Imagine your body next to mine…
Kelly couldn’t tell if the line came from his poem or his dirty mind.
Still, James Dickey read one poem that night that Kelly never got out of her head.
He orated a long verse about a stewardess sucked out of a jet high in the night sky. The poet described the woman’s ecstatic thoughts as she tumbled 30,000 feet from heaven to Kansas.
What utter bullshit, Kelly thought that night in Tuscaloosa.
Now… she herself tumbled through the dark.
She fell with eyes open.
One instant, diamond stars shone in a black river of sky. The next instant, diamond stars shone in a black river of water.
Places inside, her stomach and lower… that living secret place… tingled with the crescendo thrill of gravity, the way a plunging roller coaster made her feel.
Kelly’s black hair streamed up from her pretty face.
Someone watching from the shoreline might have sworn she became a black arrow. One of the constellations had drawn a brilliant starry bow and shot her straight down from infinity into the Black Warrior.
Kelly Bellisle Rogers marveled. Scenes of her own life unfolded.
How did Dickey know? How far had he fallen?
Those days, Kelly wore black bangs cut straight across her forehead. She sat with a Barbie lunchbox by the door to the cafeteria, eating a fresh peach. The warm Alabama sun made the fruit smell wonderful.
A boy on a stick horse galloped by, wild and fast, screeching a yell. Elmore wore a white T-shirt with dripped fudgesicle stains. He looked like he cut his own hair. In class, he and Kelly sat on the same row, and they belonged to the Redbirds, the best reading group.
Elmore turned to Kelly and spoke, the first words he ever said to her directly: You ain’t as smart as you think.
Then, another schoolmate, Danny, that freckle-faced boy, galloped up on another broom handle.
Come on, Elmore! Them by-god Yankees are burning the train depot!
And off the boys thundered in a cloud of stick dust.
They left twin smoking furrows in the bare playground.
The director had chosen Kelly to sing a solo – “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” – during the Lafayette Street Methodist church Sunday night service. The preacher’s brother, Mr. Carmichael, owned the radio station, and he broadcast the Methodist evening worship service to any flock in Lafayette that tuned the dial to 1320 AM.
Nothing had ever frightened Kelly this much. Tears trickled her young face, and her nose ran. While her mother bustled ahead into the sanctuary to get good seats in a front pew, Kelly’s daddy soothed her in the Honda.
Sweetie, just pretend you’re singing to Catfish. He snuggled her to his side with a strong arm. Singing on the radio’s not one bit different from singing to Catfish.
Kelly took heart.
Catfish was the Bellisles’ weird little orange mama cat. Kelly had made up a lot of songs for Catfish after a litter of orange-and-white kittens came unexpectedly. They tumbled all over each other and ran wild in the house. And then they grew up.
The very practical, very sensible Bellisles gave all the kittens away. Catfish seemed so sad, except when Kelly sang to her. She purred loudly every time.
Kelly straightened her very best dress, bright yellow… canary yellow, her mom insisted, so you’ll sing like one! She took a deep breath, only shuddering a little. She blew her nose on a special handkerchief her mom insisted she carry so she could daintily touch it to her lips like an opera singer between verses as the organist played interludes.
Kelly could sing to Catfish. She could do it.
“Trust and Obey,” the choir sang that night. And the choir also sang “On Jordan’s Stormy Banks.” And Brother Carmichael preached about how the game of life was a lot like football, the coach’s whistle waiting to blow at the end of this earthly practice.
The big game would kick off in the Great Beyond.
Time came at last when the deacons, serious men, rose all as one from their special place in the second pew to pass big brass offering plates. This was Kelly’s cue, and she nervously took her place at the pulpit. The big intimidating microphone smelled peculiar, like metal and old breath.
The organist pumped the pedals and swelled the introduction to “Count Your Blessings.” In the congregation, fifty people, many gray and hard of hearing, leaned forward to catch the words of the lovely young woman holding the open hymnbook.
Kelly’s mom and dad nodded and smiled reassuringly.
Kelly visualized Catfish, her sweet best friend.
The organ music reached the verse.
Kelly took a deep breath.
Then, she spotted a young man, far in back. He wore a dark suit he had mostly outgrown. Skinny so his cheek bones showed. Unruly hair fell down into his ice-blue eyes, and he looked uncomfortable in the hard wooden pew, ready to jump on a stick horse or maybe a motorcycle and get the hell out of church.
Kelly opened her mouth… but she didn’t sing to Catfish.
She sang to Elmore.
Behind the Skating Rink
She had no words. She had never heard the sound of human fists striking meat, the savage animal snarls of young men in mortal combat.
Under weak electric lights that flickered on and off behind the Bob-A-Lu, a ring of cheering, jeering onlookers closed in around two combatants like the iris of an eye. The crowd caught Kelly up, jostled her forward.
Two sweating young bucks separated, shirtless. Both bled. Both cursed. They squared off, then they charged at one another again.
Get ’im, Danny!
That yell came from a skinny country boy Kelly didn’t know. He didn’t wear a shirt, and one eye strayed, and his lank black hair dangled down in back like a mud flap.
Go, Elmore! Go, boy!
This encouragement came from a kid in a sleeveless T-shirt beside Kelly. He displayed a badly colored tattoo on the hard muscle of his upper arm – an ornate letter L. L for Lafayette.
The two fighters grappled, delivered wild swinging pushing growling clenched blows. When they parted, fresh blood and new purple knots showed, and both boys struggled loudly for breath.
Kelly felt… sick.
Why was this happening? How did things suddenly shift so fast from skating in the Moonwalk… to naked violence, a fistfight in the back lot?
Kelly still wore her white high-top roller skates with the lavender tassels. For some reason, she held a boy’s shirt in her hand. Which boy? How did she get a shirt?
It all happened so fast…
Why are they fighting?
Kelly practically screamed this. Her cry, though, went unheard among loud oaths and urgings of the mob. Now, the onlookers crowded even closer as the high-schoolers went whirling to the ground clenched in a hard knot of headlocks and scissor-holds.
Why are they fighting?
Kelly yelled it again, looking helplessly for an answer.
Daisy Kane Pugh, poor, overweight, unattractive, badly named Daisy Kane Pugh, spun to face Kelly.
Why are they fighting? she hissed. They’re fighting over YOU, you stupid cow!
Dan Neeley met Kelly at the door. He wore big smile, and a white tuxedo with white shoes. He presented Kelly with a red rose corsage. The scarlet of the petals made his flaming red hair, for once, look pallid.
Kelly noticed Dan’s face under the front porch light. His strong features.
Under a spatter of brown freckles stood a handsome youngster with clear, intelligent eyes and ruddy cheeks and twin dimples like parentheses. A great smile. He looked very much like the Irish kid he played at being sometimes, especially around St. Patrick’s Day.
Most girls at Lafayette High found Danny Boy irresistible.
So did Kelly, for a while.
Her dad and mom appeared in the doorway.
“Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Bellisle,” greeted Dan, a perfect young gentleman. “Thank you for letting Kelly come to the prom with me.”
Kelly’s dad craned his neck, looking past the young man.
“You’re not driving a lime-green Gremlin, are you, son? The last kid that came here pulled up in a lime-green Gremlin. Kelly wouldn’t get in the car with him.”
“Oh, Daddy!” Kelly turned and swatted at her father. “That’s not true!”
Dan Neeley spoke up. Kelly liked that he didn’t seem shy.
“I’m in my Silverado, sir. Nothing but the finest for Miss Bellisle.”
Kelly’s dad kissed her on the forehead, and her mother turned her by the shoulders and appraised her, eyes up, eyes down, beaming with pride. Kelly wore a floor-length gown the color of pink azaleas, with a slightly lighter-pink embedded fleur-de-lis pattern. The gown had spaghetti straps and billowy short sleeves and a womanly neckline, though Kelly’s bosom was carefully veiled with feather-pink chiffon that cascaded off her bare shoulders. She and her mom had picked the dress out together.
“You look beautiful, Kelly.”
Why, Dan Neeley! So bold! Kelly blushed in front of her parents.
Dan may have been smooth, but he needed help pinning on Kelly’s corsage. His fingers shook, and he jabbed himself. Mrs. Bellisle stepped in.
“There, sweetie,” she approved, her breath smelling of mints. “Go have fun now.”
“Back at… let’s say… midnight?” Mr. Bellisle used his man-to-man voice now with Dan Neeley.
Danny Neeley didn’t even try to contain his enthusiasm. All week, he’d imagined slowly driving back up the Bellisle driveway with his date at 10 p.m., latest. An extra two hours with Kelly? Dan thought of a song by Hank, old Alabama Hank: Tonight we’re settin’ the woods on fire!
The young man in the white tux gently took Kelly’s hand as he escorted her to the truck. Mr. and Mrs. Bellisle gently closed their front door behind them.
“I can’t wait,” he said in a stage whisper.
“Me, either, Danny.” She squeezed his hand gently.
The class senior opened the door of the gleaming Silverado. He started the motor. U2 filled the cab. “With or Without You.”
One hour later, Neeley and Kelly lay naked and flushed in the flatbed of the pickup truck under a pavilion of stars that gleamed over Lake Nicole.
On one side of an inflatable mattress, Kelly’s pink prom gown looked like the shed skin of some fantastic nymph just emerged into the light of the world. On the other side, Dan Neeley’s white tux lay scattered in many pieces, and three sticky condoms wilted against the side of the truck.
Danny held Kelly desperately, his pale freckled arm across her breasts. She snuggled to feel his smooth chest.
They would officially be late arriving at the prom.
Kelly wasn’t that kind of girl.
Except this night.
She hit the river hard.
The water cracked like concrete. Impact broke Kelly into bubbles … a billion black bubbles, swirling and whirling and noiseless.
The night had been black, but where Kelly landed it was blacker still.
Did she live?
The curious question crossed Kelly’s mind. But she reasoned that if her mind asked such a question, she must live…
Kelly somehow remained conscious. No breath in her lungs. No bubbles to rise as she opened her mouth, fishlike, limbs paralyzed by shock after slamming down onto water from one hundred feet high.
At first, it seemed like the ultimate stillness.
But then Kelly grew aware of the river’s current. Its life.
Her hands felt inky current slipping through them. She felt a river in her fingers. She moved her right hand, and digits responded, haltingly at first. Then she moved her left hand. It did what her mind asked.
One foot obeyed. Kelly could move it, a circle, stirring.
Her awareness grew. She could feel the wet dress bunched uncomfortably at her waist now, a nuisance suddenly. She wished she were home. The river water around her flowed cold and warm at the same time.
Kelly did not breathe. She could not breathe. She did not know if she would ever need to breathe again.
She grew aware of sounds. Burbles and grumbles and squeaks and whispers. The whines of boat motors and haunted wailings of twin children. Old animals with fins and scales and shells. She heard a splash somewhere, muffled. The river spoke a language she heard but couldn’t understand.
Kelly remembered reading somewhere about the recovery of river drownings in the days of steamboats. To jar a victim from mud and muck, a boat pilot cruised over the drowning site firing a powder-loaded cannon. Boom! The report of the weapon shivered timbers, vibrated the waters. Boom! After a few minutes, some member of the search party on the foredeck of the steamer would point a long finger toward an object floating to the surface.
There! There she is!
Kelly might have let out a sigh, but nothing remained inside to sigh out. No breath of air.
The deep black water of the river didn’t feel so very different from the deep black water of sleep.
Then, a hand touched her.
A human hand.
It grabbed her thick hair.
A swirl of pale bubbles streamed onto her face, and she felt a strong jerk, and her body moved through the water involuntarily.
Had she been able, Kelly’s scream would have split the sky.
She did scream. In terror.
But nothing came from her mouth. No sound. Not even bubbles.
The hand dragged her, its powerful force towing her sharply deeper. Down. Down.
It would be the Devil. Kelly knew with all her heart. She deserved it, feared it. She should have been a different Kelly. She should have found a way to be better. She should have adored her children, god knows she did adore them, god knows she tried not to…
The towing force abruptly changed direction, kicked upward. It moved her with urgent, spasmodic surges. Kelly fought. She made her fingers move… no more than a wave, like waving goodbye. She moved the foot that obeyed her will.
The Devil dragged her, kicking giant dark legs, booming its way somewhere…
To the surface. To the air.
Kelly heard the swimmer break the surface and give a barking gasp, almost painful.
She felt her own body gasp too, her mouth opening and inhaling, ayyyy! ayyyy!, breaths so starved and enormous they gobbled stars and clouds and moon and… the trestle overhead, the wooden ties and steel tracks, the single light on the power pole at one end, the undercarriage of her green VW overhead in plain sight…
The Devil still roughly clutched her hair, knotted in a huge fist. Its leg kicks and one-armed strokes pulled Kelly against the current. She saw the bridge slowly change position over her, and now she drowned on air, not water.
The splashing changed, echoing. She approached some structure. Lapping waves met resistance.
The Devil heaved forward – Kelly made out a silhouette that seemed big as a whale – and all at once her head bumped terrifically hard against the wooden hull of a johnboat. The loud hollow thump echoed clearly back from the river bank.
This blow to her head stunned Kelly worse than her fall. She gave up trying to make her legs kick. She gave up every effort.
Now, Kelly could dimly make out the big dripping head of a person gripped fast to a thick hemp rope. The rope dangled off the nose of the little wooden launch.
The enormous human head lifted, breathed deeply, turned to look at her.
Even in the dark, even seeing stars from her banged head, Kelly recognized him.
It was Jess Turnipseed.
“Ms. Rogers,” gasped Dan Neeley’s deputy. “This ain’t no way to have fun.”