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Down by the River

There was a small house on the bank of the Suwannee that slanted down towards the root-beer-colored water. The house was one room, the side wall a sliding glass door overlooking the sturgeons that belly-flopped downstream. The carpet was tattered and torn; the pullout couch was moldy and musty. The Frigidaire dripped because the mice chewed through the wire. Sometimes the plug would pop. The bathroom was an afterthought. A single-stalled, wooden outhouse that, in classic fashion, had a crescent moon cutout in the door. If nature called, it was 20 yards of knee-high grass, mosquitos, and chiggers before reaching the moon. You hoped nature wouldn’t call.

The river house—that’s what we called it—was my favorite summer palace. I’d spend my days splashing around in the soft waves that lapped up the beach. I wasn’t allowed to leave the beach. The current was too strong and I’d float away. The few times that happened, I yelled until someone got me. I never made it very far.

My parents would race on their jet skis. Dad usually won. My brother got to ride with them. On the dock, Nana would lounge with a book in hand. The rim of her sun hat would tip back in forth in the breeze before Pop snatched it off her head. He’d play as if he was going to throw her hat right in the water.

“I need a new hat anyways,” is all she’d ever say.

He almost did throw the hat once. They were on the dock; she was reading and he was goofing. My brother, a chubby-cheeked baby, was bobbing in the water. No one was watching him until Pop glanced over. Good timing, too. He reached down and plucked my brother out of the river. A Cottonmouth had swum up behind him, slithering on the surface of the water like a twisted version of Christ. At least, that’s how Pop tells it. I wasn’t there yet.

Nighttime at the house was my favorite. We’d have fires on the red brick patio. The Cicadas sang all around us as the fire crackled: a symphony of summertime. Mom would bring out the banana popsicles for us to suck on. She’d give us napkins. They were supposed to keep us from getting sticky. They didn’t work. Mom—sometimes Dad, but mostly Mom—would tuck my brother and I into bed. Our skin was sticky from sweat and popsicle juice, our hair smelled like smoke, the springs in the pullout were uneven, and the mattress was old and hard, but we never slept better.

Akins was the diner up the road where we usually had dinner. The food there was better than anyone would think and the people were always pleasant. Nothing fancy, just comfortable. At least once a week they had an “all-you-can-eat” something. We always had to sit in the back room because the front room was too crowded to fit all of us. Mom, Dad, Pop, Nana, me and my brother all smooshed at the splintered table. Pop placed me in the high chair and airplaned me my dinner. From what I remember, he was good at that.

Akins is where I had Jell-O for the first time. It was after dinner one night and Pop had ordered a wobbling glob of strawberry, with a perfectly swirled whipped-cream hat. Jell-O was his favorite river house dessert; we don’t know why. He slid a chunk over to me, sure to include enough whipped-cream. According to him, the Jell-O popped right back out of my mouth, clean as the day it’s born! I still don’t like Jell-O.

Sometimes, we’d see Riverdog and his friend. Riverdog was a stray that had been around longer than I had. He was scared of everything that moved. You’ve never seen so many fleas and ticks in your life. I think one of his ears was ripped. His friend seemed to like us, though. He’d come around us, sniffing and watching. I think Riverdog’s friend was a Beagle. Riverdog was a mutt.

Mom got it into her head that she was going to save them. She packed the truck with treats and crates. Riverdog’s friend came easy. She said he hopped right onto the bed and into the crate. Riverdog was harder. She tried for hours to give him treats but he never got close enough to grab. The whole drive up the dirt road to the highway Mom said Riverdog ran next to the car, barking at her. When she stopped, he’d take off. When she started, he was back at the door, hollering. Once she hit the highway, she had to leave Riverdog behind. She cried the whole way to the shelter. She wanted to adopt his friend, if no one else would. Mom called the shelter every day.

“If he’s still there Monday,” she’d tell my father, “we’re getting him.” I don’t remember if he said okay. She cried on Monday.

The last time we went was after Pop died. Nana didn’t go. My brother and I found the box of trash bags and cut holes for our arms and heads. We ran circles around the one room the whole night. My brother took the lead hopping from the floor to the sofa. I followed. I spun to make the bottom of the plastic dress spin, but the bag stuck to my legs. I kept spinning anyways. Mom played, too. Dad sat in the chair watching us, but I don’t think he was really there.

After that, we only took day trips. It sat empty, slowly falling apart. Dad and Mom would go over to cut the grass or fix a window. My brother and I would play on the rope swings until it was time to go. When Dad sold the house, he didn’t get very much. He didn’t want to, he just wanted it gone. I still think about my summer palace. I dream about going back when Dad becomes Pop and the place feels whole again. You need a Pop at the river. I think Dad’ll do pretty good.

Harper Warner is a student at the University of North Florida. She works on school’s literary journal, The Talon Review. She has also interned at Trio House Press, a national poetry publication based in Jacksonville. This is her first publication.