A journal of narrative writing.
American Bottoms

Although it’s late November and the creek was just this morning glassed over with a layer of ice, Jamie stands barefoot now in the shallow water, the cuffs of his jeans rolled to just below his knees. Caroline stands atop a pile of rocks at the base of the bluffs and shouts down at her brother, “Get out of there! You want to make yourself sick?” Jamie keeps his legs as still as two great trees growing from the center of a river.

I was much younger the last time we visited the home of Jamie and Caroline and their parents. Now Caroline and I are both fourteen, and Jamie’s eighteen. The things we used to play with—the big treehouse with the tornado slide, the plastic battery-powered jeep that we’d drive around the yard—those things are gone. But we used to come a lot when I was really little, before the baby was born. We’d spend the fourth of July barbecuing pork steaks out in their back yard, and at night we’d drive into town to a hill at the top of an old graveyard to watch the fireworks. I still clearly remember the smoke and the smell of sulfur hanging thick in the air over the cemetery. I remember playing in this creek on hot days, pretending that it was the Mississippi. I’d hold the bottom of my skirt above the water and root my legs down into the creek bed just like Jamie’s doing now. I’d imagine that I was God.

Jamie’s lips are blue and his teeth clack together like one of those wind-up denture toys. He walks stiffly through the water to the bank of the creek. I offer him my hand and help him climb out. He sits down on the dead grass, then takes off his coat and wraps it around his lower legs. “You cold?” I ask.

“Not at all.”

Caroline climbs down from her pile of rocks and hops over the creek to where Jamie and I sit. She pulls the drawstrings of her hood tight so it cinches up around her face. “You’re an idiot, Jamie,” she says. “You’re going to give yourself pneumonia. And maybe die. And how will that make everyone else feel, do you think? A sick baby in there—” she glances at me, “and you’re out here acting like life’s a joke.” She jams her hands into her pockets and strides off toward the house. I stay with Jamie and crunch the crispy brown grass beneath my gloved hands.

When my ears begin to ache from cold, I go up to the house, through the back door and into the kitchen. Aunt Alice and Grandma Peg sit at the table. They stop talking when they see me.

I unwind the scarf from around my neck. “Where’s my mom?” I ask.

Aunt Alice sits stooped over a trashcan, peeling apples. “I’m not sure, Avery,” she says. She drags the peeler down the curve of an apple and drops a curl of green skin into the trash. “I think she’s with your sister.”

Across the table from her, Grandma cubes potatoes. “Check the living room, honey,” she tells me, not looking up.

I find my mother in a wooden rocker in the living room, the baby sitting sideways on her lap. Meredith’s cheek rests on Mom’s chest. They rock slowly. They’re fitted perfectly together almost like it’s just one person sitting there.


She touches her index finger to her lips. “Shhhh.” She points to Meredith. “The baby.”

I kneel down on the floor beside the rocker and whisper, “When will Daddy be here?”

Mom doesn’t look at me. She tips her head back and looks at the ceiling as she rocks. “Tomorrow. Before dinner.”

“Why not tonight?”

She looks down at me and lets out a sigh; her breath stirs Meredith’s hair. “Avery. He has to work today. You know this. He’ll be tired tonight. He’ll come down before dinner tomorrow.”

I lean back on my hands. Daddy works hard, and I know he does it for us. But I miss him, and I sometimes think that he chooses not to be home when he could. I’m not sure what he wants to get away from. Mom? The sick baby? No, it can’t be the baby, because the first time she got really sick was just a day or two after my dad moved out a year ago. He and Mom had spent the evening in their room, their heated words muffled by the closed bedroom door. I’d heard banging, lots of shouting, and then Dad had emerged with a suitcase. He’d come into my room and kissed my forehead. There were tears in his eyes. “I’ll see you soon, Avery,” he’d said. He’d left, then. I don’t know where he went—to a motel, maybe, or to stay with a friend. But soon Meredith’s seizures started, and the nonstop vomiting, and she was admitted to the hospital. When all that happened, he moved back in. I’d never thought about it before, but Meredith often has an episode—that’s what Dad calls them—shortly after my parents have been fighting.

I go back to the kitchen to find my coat and scarf. Grandma Peg and Aunt Alice have moved to the counter, where they roll out piecrusts. My navy coat is dusted with flour. I slip out the back door and walk around to the big porch at the front of the house.

Across the road, the fields, deep brown and empty now, stretch all the way to the levee, and on the other side of that is some marshy land, and then the river. I can see all the way to the bluffs on the Missouri side. They rise up on the horizon like mountains; the sun drips down toward them now as the day nears its end and the temperature drops. A line of blackbirds flies from north to south as far as I can see, a river of black in the sky. I’ve seen this before, in the winter and fall. There must be thousands of them.

Gravel crunches behind me at the side of the house. “Avery.” I turn to see Jamie walking toward the porch, the cuffs of his pants folded down, his lips no longer blue.

“Hey,” I say, my breath steaming up the air just in front of my mouth.

“You want to go for a drive?” he says.

I shrug. “Okay.”

We climb into Uncle Ray’s old Chevy pickup and Jamie says, “How old are you now?”

“Fourteen,” I say.

“Want to drive?”

I fiddle with the tail of my braid. “Um. No, I don’t think so. But thanks.”

Jamie backs out of the driveway and turns south onto Bluff Road. It’s nearly dark now. I keep my eyes on the Missouri bluffs as we drive past field after field.

I watch a deer leap across the land to my right, the bouncing white of its tail the only thing making it visible against the brown of the field. “So why’d you stand in the creek like that today?” I ask him. “Seems like a kid your age would know better.”

He laughs. He reaches toward the glove box and pulls out a pack of his dad’s cigarettes. “Just to piss my sister off,” he says.

“I figured.”