I’m taking the long way to Austin, leaving Houston on I-10 and cutting northwest up 71, a highway so beautiful there’s a whole song about it, laced with slide guitar and a man’s warbly voice. I have no idea what the song’s about, but I love to drive up and down 71 blasting it, getting the words all wrong and singing along with the guitar instead, making dramatic shapes with my mouth to mimic the sound of shouting into an oscillating fan. I pass through the spot in Bastrop where the wildfire jumped over the highway in 2011, during those months when the whole state was burning. Nine years later and the pine trees are still charred as far as you can see in either direction, crispy brown tips sticking up like thorns into the horizon. Back then, I’d just left home for my first semester of college and the A/C in my Jeep was out. As I drove around Central Texas to visit Allie and Blake in their dorm rooms, the smell of faraway smoke blew in through my windows. I thought it was just a farmer burning up his trash. The TVs on campus glowed orange for weeks. We spent all September watching our blue skies darken right over our heads.
Today I’m taking 71 because I had to drop my mom off at Granny and Papa’s house, which was quieter than usual, due to being minus one Papa. The exit to 71 is twenty minutes west from their house in Sealy, just past Columbus on I-10. One of Papa’s stories takes place here, decades ago. The way Granny tells it: “I took one look at the car coming up the driveway and couldn’t tell you how it was running.” The way Papa tells it: He was in this big hurry to get to a six o’clock meeting because of a damn hog that had to be butchered earlier that day, which always takes longer than anyone wants. After butchering the damn hog, he showered, made himself a frozen margarita, and tore west down I-10 in a doomed Toyota Corolla, margarita sloshing in his lap. The barricade in the road around Columbus came out of nowhere. That’s when “all hell broke loose.” The Corolla swerved and then rolled. Papa and the margarita rolled with it. The hand of God placed them upright on the grass median where my grandpa shook his head free of glass and drove back home, covered with frozen limeade and shattered windshield, sparkling in the sunset. Granny saw the car wobbling up the driveway on bent axles and screamed at the dishes she was washing. Papa took a second shower, hopped in his truck and, by his account, made it to the six o’clock meeting on time and unscratched.
Today, all the Interstate lanes are open and there are no barricades at Columbus, and Papa isn’t slurping frozen margarita but breathing through tubes in a hospital bed somewhere outside of Houston, losing too much weight and drowning slowly from the inside out via mysterious fluid that won’t stop filling up his lungs.
The first Facetime call came in last night. The nurse (a man, which a former Papa would have made cracks about) pressed the buttons and then handed the phone to Papa, who propped it on his chest so all we could see were tubes and his blue face mask and, just barely, the swollen slits of his eyes. He’d repeatedly tested negative for coronavirus, but because of the way it continues snaking through our air like a plague, none of us can be in the hospital with him.
My mom and I held him up in front of us on her phone screen, taking notes on what the nurse said and listening to Papa’s heart making rhythmic beeps. I didn’t know how to be useful or what to say so I just held my mom’s new Boxer puppy up in front of the camera for Papa to see. Papa recently developed an uncanny softness toward the puppy, which is sweet, but also feels like a death knell. Don’t they say this about big, tough men? They go gentle, right at the end? Last time we visited Granny and Papa’s house — somehow, only a month ago — I watched Papa bend over in his recliner and pull the wiggling puppy up to sit in his lap, where the dog looked instantly tinier against the grand scale of my grandpa. He’s always been the largest presence in any room.
I’ve had this trip to Austin planned for months, and nearly canceled it to stay at Granny’s quiet house with her and my mom while they wait for more dispatches from the hospital. But they encouraged me on, sending me down the highway in the direction of life. In Austin are Allie and Blake and, just outside the city, a swimming hole. Our phone calls all summer long have been laced with fear — over the plague in the air, Papa’s lungs, and Blake’s dad, who’s in another hospital somewhere outside of Houston, where his body is going haywire in its own way. We’ve become used to seeing bodies in bags, to thinking of organs as machines that fail, but not when it comes to our formerly gigantic men. That the plague didn’t extinguish all other death feels like a special cruelty. Allie and Blake have been making trips up and down 71, taking the prettier way home to hear cancer specialists quote varying amounts of how much time, watching Blake’s dad get smaller and smaller all the while. Up until March, when in-person services had to stop, Blake’s shrinking dad was still working Sundays at the church where we all grew up, leading people to their pews and taking up offerings for a God who’s closing in on him.
But we’re sealing off this one weekend from all of that, so I have to do my crying now, get it over with on the drive. I queue up some emotional fuel on my iPhone; first that beautiful song about this beautiful highway, and then a Waxahatchee song I’ve been listening to since March. I play it on repeat, turning it up until the windows shake. I come mercifully undone. Tears and snot stream down my cheeks and right into my mouth, wide open and shouting along: “AND IF THE DEAD JUST GO ON LIVING / WELL THERE’S NOTHING LEFT TO FEEEEAR!” Last night, I had a nightmare with this terrible, obvious scene where the world tilts off its axis and bounces away into space, thrown out of whack by the removal of some crucial weight. Every time I try to picture Papa in a casket, I feel the ground wobble.
An incoming call from Allie interrupts the music and the song abruptly stops, leaving me yelling at the steering wheel in silence like a maniac. She and Blake can’t wait to see me, she says, and is there anything they need to pick up from the store? I bend my mouth into a smile, swallowing my salty blend of tears and snot. “I can’t wait to see you, either. And yeah, grab a couple six packs of Lonestar. For the swimming hole tomorrow.”
The swimming hole is an hour west from Allie and Blake’s house in Austin, off Farm Road 1623, at a spot on the Blanco right before a concrete dam that slows the river down so much that you could float without a branch as an anchor. It belongs to Rachel and Andrew because they told us about it. “About the intersection of Farm Road 1623 and West Dam Ln,” were our directions, along with instructions to bring a cooler of beers.
I drive me, Allie, and Blake in my car, winding us over a tangle of overpasses that arch toward the sky, and eventually through walls of limestone cliffs. We weave our way through memories of high school parties and hungover mornings together in church. None of us go anymore but the architecture of belief is still there. We reserve space for the possibility of Heaven, if only to have somewhere nice to imagine our shrinking men sitting along a pew together, bathed in light. The closest we get to talking about it is this one moment where Blake’s voice from the backseat slips accidentally into past tense, referring to the way his dad lived his life as perfect, divine. “My dad had it exactly right, I think,” he says, and I keep driving forward.
Rachel and Andrew are already set up on the riverbank by the time we pull up, Andrew sitting on top of a cooler filled with Lonestar and grapes with seeds. The five of us pop the tops of our first beers and spit grape seeds at the dirt like missiles, pew pew pew. We sit on the bank until we’re too hot to stand it anymore and then jump in the cool, still water, hoping to maximize the feel-good effect. You only get to jump in for the first time once. We swim out to a plastic grate attached to the dam with arms thrust in the air, holding our beers up like trophies in one hand and dog paddling with the other. We’re having a sunburn day: sitting for too long on our grate, losing count of our Lonestars, trying out indulgent conversations about art on one another. A man with swim trunks that reach the middle of his shins balance-beam walks down the dam past us like an apparition, letting us know that they just dredged this spot and now it’s so deep you can dive all the way in, and isn’t that lucky? Someone turned the dial up on the sky and the only clouds overhead are what happen when you pull apart a cotton ball. We’re having the sort of day Richard Linklater makes movies about. We’re having the sort of day where we talk about Richard Linklater movies. Andrew’s whistling his S sounds in a charming, West Texas way. We only leave our grate to take turns plopping our bottoms into the water and clear out bladder real estate. I realize it’s one of those perfect days a younger me would’ve tried to recreate over and over with no success, dragging carfuls of friends out here with the fervor of an evangelist, trying to pump into them this singular feeling. Now I’m just soaking it all up. Blake looks like the pictures of pale, brunette Jesus we admired in kid church, dragging the ends of his long hair through the river and holding a joint delicately in his mouth. No one’s shared anything by mouth in months but today is hermetically sealed against anything bad; we pass the joint around, taking long puffs until we’re all floating above the river.
Rachel tells us about a story she just finished writing, a semi-autobiographical piece about a group of women who work together at the body farm 45 minutes down the road from our spot on the river. She worked there for years in college, holding various jobs that none of us can believe. The strangest one was mostly paperwork. People would walk into the body farm office to fill out legal forms, sometimes making requests about certain locations where they’d like to rest. Months later, they’d return as bodies, ready to disintegrate into the farm so students at the university could study the slow process of decay. The whole time she’s talking, I picture them all clothed in their Easter Sunday outfits, grinning a little and piously holding bouquets of tulips over their round bellies. I tell Rachel. “Oh, I love you for thinking that, but they’re definitely not clothed,” she says back. Now I put in their place a bunch of Papas, wearing his old glasses and his suit with chocolate in the pockets, evaporating into the sky like the morning dew.
People come and go and we watch them from our grate. Some bikers with girls hugging their waists growl to a halt off the road and strip down to their skivvies to swim around and cool off. The women are in brightly colored bras and the men are in clingy boxer briefs. Their backs are pink from hours ripping across the state. Close to the bank, a family wades in a shallow pocket of limestone. A mom’s floating on her back and her daughter is holding her up underneath with one finger. I remember the first time I held my whole mom up like that in our backyard swimming pool at night, blue light glowing up around her edges and illuminating both our faces. Her body went completely weightless in my hand like an angel I dreamed up, watching me from somewhere halfway between the earth and the clouds. Suspended, safe.
Between beers, Andrew peeks his head over the dam and asks what we think about the shallow part on the other side. “You think I could dive into that?” We think and then say, “Probably not deep enough.” He’s checking it out. Down the dam he slides, a pale smear against the stained concrete. At the deepest part, we can still see his pink kneecaps above the water. The rest of us take turns telling our versions of the story where a kid dove into the shallow end of the local pool, how we watched the red puff of blood dilute itself into the chlorine, all the warbled memory sounds of chaos. Even from our grate in the middle of our swimming hole, the proximity to death we’ve been living in all year has us constantly on edge. Andrew counts the number of concrete supports down the dam from where he’s standing, measuring for a jump he’ll never take. He climbs back up and Rachel asks with relief if he feels inspired to dive because of a movie they just watched, and he whistles his S in yessir, popping open a fresh beer.
I swim back to the bank for sunscreen, dipping under and out of the river on my way, dizzying myself with the sudden switches between dark and light. Underneath, everything goes silent. I pop up to a miracle each time: everything just as I left it. From the bank, I can see how the light’s changed since we went out to our grate and now everyone’s got a halo, or maybe it’s the beer, or the sunscreen sliding into my eyes. The day feels impossible: a piece of thin, blown glass cradled in my hands; my mom, weightless, frozen on the tip of my finger. The four heads of my beautiful friends bob back to me. Our toes have gone to raisins, and there’s a burger place up the road we need to see about. Andrew looks out over the swimming hole and says, “I gotta say, this is a nice little slice of Texas.” I commit it to memory immediately at the risk of convincing myself later that I made this up. Four heads nod, shaking around fuzzy brains.
We follow Rachel and Andrew’s truck down another farm road. White cardboard signs urging for four more years of our current, violent leader disrupt the green blur of pasture outside but we’re ignoring all that today, just another plague. Blake and I take turns queuing up songs we love. I pick the Waxahatchee song and roll the windows down, letting the lyrics soar out over the grass. Everyone in the car goes quiet, as if in prayer. From behind me in the backseat, Blake says quietly, “This is like an exercise in restraint.” The singer’s voice bends and weaves, brushing up against something divine. “I guess the dead just go on living / At the darkest edge of space.”
We’re driving in and out of cell service. My phone shoots me texts from the world outside the car. A few are from my mom; they drained the fluid from Papa’s lungs, he’s back on dry land, expected back for more testing next week. I press a button to make the screen go black and look ahead at Rachel and Andrew’s truck bouncing forward, pulling us along. I keep trying to picture him gone but can’t. The world wobbles teasingly on its axis. When we were growing up, he was the only baritone in the church choir. They used to sing from a loft up above the pews and I could always pick out his voice, floating in the air above my head like something I could reach up and grab, put in my pocket, keep. In quiet moments I can still hear it.
The burger place has closed early for the day by the time we pull into its gravel parking lot, kicking up dust. We caucus around Rachel and Andrew’s truck bed, the boys hiccupping and taking pulls of corn whiskey. Days like this always hit a breaking point but we’re in the mood to push it, squeezing it ’til we’re down to pulp. The sun’s still got hours left in its tank, and we’re hungry.
Hannah Smothers is a writer and journalist whose work has been published in VICE and Cosmopolitan. She lives in an old house in San Marcos, Texas, where she’s currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at Texas State University.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/mlhradio/
Love this. Vivid and heartfelt.