Jim and I are at a party. It’s a warm Florida evening in 1989. I’m about to develop a lifelong fascination for a skillset Jim has that I will never attain.
We are with a dozen friends in an oak grove near the Suwannee River. The canopy is tinged by the light of a camp fire lit to keep mosquitos at bay. In the middle of the grove a cold spring flows into a white sandy bottom creek. Barefoot groups of twos and threes quietly wander to the clear water edge. Sitting there with Jim, our feet soak in the water.
Jim is holding the can of beer he’s been holding for more than an hour. I’m holding my fifth. I’m depressed. Ingrid Christensen has set a new world record for 5,000 meters. It’s almost two minutes faster than anything I’ve done. I shake my head.
Me: “Had to be a short track. No way a chick runs 5k that fast. No way. Remember Michael Hamilton’s 4:15 at Chiefland? Everyone said that track was short. You wheel measure that track and I bet you dollars to doughnuts it comes up short. No way Hamilton runs a 4:15 mile. No way.”
Jim says nothing. He knows Michael Hamilton. Even back then he would cubbyhole his friends. Hamilton was in the cubbyhole marked “high school cross-country and track meets.” Two Southern boys from opposing schools, they would wave from across the infield and casually approach, sizing each other up along the way. There to win the same races, after 10 maybe 15 minutes they are reacquainted, comfortable and finishing each other’s sentences. Like brothers.
Jim and I watch a red crawfish march across the white sandy bottom. He’s big enough to eat and I bet a baited pot could catch more like him but I want Jim’s attention focused on the Christensen/Hamilton issue. I’m not the only one who believes the Chiefland track is short. I want something like closure on this.
Jim however is on the sly, watching Sherry O’Donnell lower herself slowly past waist deep into the ever so cool spring water. She barely wears a bathing suit. Brown skin, black hair, blue eyes, she is tall, slender and stunning. Her mother, equally stunning, said something to my father once in Publix and he nearly swallowed his tongue. They are Seminoles and most of their people are gone, death marched with the rest of the Southern tribes to Oklahoma for the sake of big cotton. If there is a hell, Andrew Jackson is certainly burning in it.
Sherry is wild, fearless. She could take her clothes off at any second. As kids we played neighborhood football together. She was never picked last. Tough. In trouble with the law. Thrown out of school for fighting. Even burnt her parents’ river house down one summer.
But boy is she beautiful. Eighteen. It’s hard not to look.
My head is turned but I strain to see from the corner of my eye. The water is just above her hips. She looks down at it, hands outstretched, swaying gently, fingertips play with an imaginary hula hoop, and slowly she stops all of it. A wry smile. She lifts her head just enough and then her eyes to Jim. Her smile grows. It is only for him.
I look at Jim urgently.
Me: “Brother, this is not really… This is really not a good idea.”
Jim: “Mind your own business right now, please.”
Jim and I are at a party. It’s a warm Florida evening but this time eight months later. Jim has won the Florida state road championships earlier in the day. The party was scheduled weeks in advance but now it honors him.
There are maybe 30 people at the O’Donnell river house. It’s about a one hour drive from the race course, Sugar Loaf. A drought stricken orange grove that caught fire two years previous, it is an otherworldly sight: uniform rows of lifeless charred trees protruding from gray sandy soil stretch miles in all directions. The hills are steep here. The longest is almost a kilometer. Jim beat Rich Fries in an uphill two-man sprint. A hot day, defending champion Fries upon crossing the line leaned his bike against a car, marched through the sand, found the perfect rock and vomited on it.
I am inside the river house with Mrs. O’Donnell. Sitting at the bar in the vast living room she mixes my fourth g-and-t of the evening. I take a gulp. I did not finish the race today. Jim picked me up off the side of the road in the VW van. He looked at the dried sweat caked on my collar and said I should have diluted my Gatorade more.
Mrs. O’Donnell asks how the race went. I am ready to talk about anything else. High above me I notice a grouping of sturdy but blackened oak ceiling beams. I point.
Me: “Nice you could save some money there.”
Mrs. O’Donnell: “Oh please. Saving money was not the objective.”
Me: “What was?”
Mrs. O’Donnell: “A reminder to my daughter not to play with matches.”
Outside, the deck hums with happy times. It overlooks a row of dunes, a bonfire, some lawn chairs, people sit and beyond them the St. Johns River where during the Civil War Capt. J.J. Dickinson, the Florida Swamp Fox, became the only American Army officer to sink a battleship. It’s Florida lore. A Confederate sentinel spotted the USS Columbine steaming north loaded with cargo and Negro soldiers. He raced ahead by horse to Palatka to tell Dickinson of what he saw.
Dickinson looped around south to a point called Horse Landing with artillery, hid in the tall pines and waited. When the ship returned he sunk her. The white officers surrendered to Dickinson on the near shore. The black soldiers jumped into the St. Johns. Twenty-nine drown. They knew of Dickinson’s reputation. He routinely hung or shot Negros outside the custody of whites. Dickinson’s law was, unassigned property will be destroyed so as not to become contraband. I wonder if he was soulless before the war or if it made him that way.
On the deck Mrs. O’Donnell gazes down intently at her daughter Sherry seated by the bonfire calmly at Jim’s feet. The mother takes a deep breath. It’s as if she has passed a milestone. She has mentioned that Jim is good for Sherry and that he did what she could not: tame her.
I look at Mrs. O’Donnell. In this early part of my life, she is more attractive to me than her daughter could ever be. I understand now why my father was tongue tied.
But I am disturbed.
Me: “Doesn’t it bother you that Sherry has to confer with Jim on anything other than the most simplest of decisions?”
Mrs. O’Donnell: “Nope.”
She states it flatly but I will not let the issue drop.
Me: “I mean, aren’t you worried about her development as a person? Aren’t you afraid that one day, after Jim’s gone, she won’t be able to think for herself?”
Mrs. O’Donnell: “Lord have mercy, son. We stopped hoping Sherry would break the glass ceiling years ago. We just want her to be happy, hold down a job and stay out of trouble. Hell, even two out of three of those would suit us… Goodness. What did you expect? Harvard?”
I look at Jim. State road champion. He beat Fries. There’s talk of him racing in Spain next year with the Mapei exchange program. I look at Sherry. Out of trouble, gainfully employed (delivering newspapers) and, well, she did look happy. I begin see it now. They can make a life together as a couple. Husband and wife even. Maybe in Spain. It’s against my nature but I grow hopeful. I am hopeful. Hopeful for them.
Much later in the evening I am up off the couch looking for a toilet. It is dark. Stumbling, I find myself in the master bath of the master suite. I’ve left the light off for some reason. I think I’m pissing in the toilet but it sounds more like a garbage can. I move left but that isn’t it either. About halfway through, a familiar sound. I’ve found the target. As I trail off I hear voices in the bed room. I peak through the door ajar. There on the deck I can see Jim embrace his lover. My eyes squint. In the moonlight I see it is Jim and Mrs. O’Donnell.