by Joshua Michael Johnson
“The last romantic notion died in 1962 and we’ve been running on fumes ever since,” the man said on the radio, his voice bleeding into Lynda’s favorite country station. A hair-breadth’s adjustment to the tuner and the man’s voice disappeared. The suspension of Lynda’s LeSabre popped and groaned as the aged car dipped through the underpass where East Main suddenly dove under a railroad bridge. The underpass was where Lynda always started to wonder if she was doing the right thing. But the feeling will pass, Lynda thought, as she adjusted the rear-view mirror so she could see the baby boy sleeping on the back seat. She wondered what had happened in 1962.
It’d be quicker to take the freeway to New Hope, but Lynda didn’t want to take any risks so she took back roads over the foot of Lookout Mountain and on out to Nickajack. A warm breeze gusted off the river and through the car’s open windows. Lynda smiled, and started to feel better. She brushed her hair out of her face as the road wove along the river’s edge. She’d always felt close to the river, like the river spoke to her, but more like there was something the river always wanted to say but never did. A mile or so later the road began to peel itself away from the river and Lynda pulled off and alongside the faded peach wall of the abandoned motel she always went to when she stole children—the Scenic City Motor Lodge.
Lynda gathered the little boy from the backseat and took him to cabin twenty-four. A “J” was embroidered on his blanket so Lynda decided to call the boy Baby-J for the next couple of hours. I never thought to name one before, Lynda thought, and the newness of the idea made her smile. Baby-J lay on the bed and stretched his neck out like a sleeping cat, and for a while she forgot she’d stolen the child.
On the porch, Lynda sat in a rocking chair to think as a blue jay snatched a bug off the stairs between the porch and the dock. Ricky would be along in a couple of hours and then Lynda would go back to her section-eight duplex on Holly where car stereos boomed through the night. The idea of growing old in that house was unbearable, but Ricky said they’d be going away together soon. Live in the valley, raise a child or two of their own, build a cabin on the riverbank, have a big porch. And rocking chairs, Lynda had added. And rocking chairs, Ricky said, of course we’ll have rocking chairs. Sometimes the thought of it was loud enough to drown out the stereos when Lynda was trying to go to sleep. Those were the good nights.
Ricky said most people didn’t deserve children. Children are special, a gift from God, and someone had to look out for them. We’re rescuers, he said, liberators—saints doing the Lord’s work. Children deserved better than what they got and there were more than enough devoted couples in the valley to love them and raise them to fear the Lord. Ricky’s exaggerated smile always widened when he said things like this, and his voice softened. We’re rescuing the children of God, he’d tell her, and Lynda would let his words comfort her. She hated how she could believe what he said as long as they were together, but as soon as he left, her mind would fill with doubt again—and fear. She’d never known what it was like to know God like Ricky, but she often wished she could see things the way he did. It had to be incredible to know you’re doing the world good, she thought.
Baby-J woke up from his nap and began to fuss. Lynda got the bottle out of the LeSabre’s trunk. Just a little won’t hurt them, Ricky had told her when he placed it in the trunk, and they couldn’t have the neighbors hearing. Baby-J’s feet and arms kicked and squirmed beneath his blanket as Lynda opened the bottle, but she couldn’t make herself do it. Lynda set the bottle on the dresser and lifted Baby-J into her arms. She hugged him to her chest and returned to the rocking chair, and as she rocked, Baby-J soon fell back to sleep. Lynda continued to rock as the sky darkened. She knew Ricky would be there soon.
After a while Lynda noticed a large black snake coiled in the porch rafters looking down on her and the baby.
“How long you been up there watchin’ me?” Lynda asked. Snakes had never troubled her much, but Ricky always became irrational when he saw them. He believed them to be a bad omen.
The snake’s tongue flicked in and out of its mouth.
“That long, huh?” Lynda leaned back in the rocker, Baby-J still asleep in her arms. “Ricky’s late today. Sun’s already goin’ down.”
The snake hissed overhead. Its tail slipped off the rafter and whipped back and forth. Lynda realized Ricky would probably react badly if the snake were still there when he came to get the boy. She held Baby-J tightly in her arms. Ricky wouldn’t like this snake one bit and he would take it to be a sign from God warning him that there was something evil about the boy. The Lord wills it, he would say before doing something excessive—something awful.
Lynda took the boy inside, away from the snake. She sat on the bed with him and wound Baby-J’s blanket tightly around his body. She lay down and curled her body around the boy. She could feel his warmth.
She knew she had to save him.
Lynda searched the cabin and found a plastic tub of old gaskets and hoses in a closet. She dumped it out on the floor and placed a blanket inside. Outside, the snake had begun to wind its way down a post. Lynda thought she heard the crunch of gravel in the drive as she carried the tub and Baby-J down to the end of the dock. She glanced back at the cabin. The snake was on the stairs already and she could hear someone calling her name. Baby-J was still asleep beneath his blanket as Lynda placed him in the tub and eased him into the water. Lynda pushed the tub out into the current and watched as it floated down river through the rippling reflection of the setting sun.
When she returned to the porch the snake was gone and she was alone. She sat in the rocking chair for a while longer and wondered where the river would take the boy—if it would be kind to him. Soon the sun set, but Ricky never came.
That night Lynda lay awake listening to the steady parade of car stereos until the pounding was slowly replaced by the distant rumble of thunder. As the storm swept through the city, Lynda thought about Ricky and what she’d say the next time they were together. Ricky would know what she’d done—he always knew. He’d cry as he told her she needed to ask God’s forgiveness for going against His will and, because she knew her place so well, she would do it. Lynda only hoped Ricky wouldn’t abandon her for what she’d done. The first time they’d met, Lynda was just a girl in a cotton dress spending time with her aunt and uncle who were in town for a visit. The family had spent the long summer evening talking and playing cards on the porch of cabin twenty-four, and as the sun set, Lynda had gone down to the dock to dip her feet in the water. And that’s where she met him. Ricky said many things to her that first night, lovely things, things she no longer believed.
Joshua Michael Johnson teaches at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga and his work has been published in SNReview, Static Movement, and Product 26. He has also been awarded the Ken Smith Award for Creative Nonfiction in 2008 and 2009 by the Meacham Writers’ Workshop. He is a native of Tennessee and finds much of his inspiration in the culture and places he experiences in the little southern city by the river he calls home.