Lost my shape
Trying to act casual!
I might end up in the hospital
I feel like an accident
-Cross-Eyed and Painless, Talking Heads
As older teens of the 1970s, one of the great pastimes for a weekend night would begin with a big ole round-robin lie of each island boy telling his parents he was staying at so-and-so’s house (never at my house, nobody ever spent the night there, it would be too easily ratted out as a lie). Then we’d load up someone’s skiff with beer, a couple of gas cans, headlights, and whatever number of hits of acid for everyone. We’d head up highway 58 towards Maysville, about twenty miles inland, launching the skiff into a tributary of the White Oak River. Somebody would have to drive the truck back to the island, usually someone’s girlfriend or sister who had no interest in spending half the night on a river with a bunch of tripping boys.
The voyage back would be something akin to a scene from the movie Apocalypse Now, only better and without a war. In a few miles, the acid would kick in, and every noise — the croaks of startled Night Herons, the lit-up eyes of a Barred Owl working the river’s edges would become a haunting, rapturous experience. Long stretches would be spent in silence lest the hum of the outboard motor, each of us staring out into the swaying Spanish moss-covered branches and long-arm shadows cutting across the coffee-colored water. Vast silvery schools of finger mullets would erupt on the water’s surface, making it appear to boil before our eyes. Descending the whole long winding tunnel of that river, and as it widened into becoming Bogue Sound, the trees would give way to a blanket of stars so thick they seemed to sit right next to your head.
Each section of the journey seemed a chapter, filled with its own sensory experiences of different smells and temperatures; the warm mustiness of the thick-treed river, followed by the cooler air carrying the whiff of rotting
marsh mud pushed along by the ocean’s breeze. Those with a brain for details might have brought a sweatshirt; otherwise, you’d hunker down on the floor of the skiff to dodge the wind. We’d drink a couple cases of Stroh’s beer between us just to stay hydrated. It would go down like water, leveling out the jitteriness of the acid. At some point, you’d have to take a turn pissing off the skiff’s stern, hoping not to fall in the water. The ride home in wet clothes would make you shiver uncontrollably.
It was times like those, and many more, even stone-cold sober, you’d be wrapped up by this place. The smells of the tide. The darkness bounding the space around the boat to the distance of the headlight’s beam. The hum of the 15-horse Mercury pushing us through the dark water, vibrating the skiff’s floor, shaking whatever sense we started with loose and fragile. Sometimes someone would spontaneously burst into tears as we pulled up to dock the boat, their raw emotions unwilling to accept the journey’s end. Somebody’d hug him, tell him it would be
alright, and then we’d all find someplace to come down. We’d try and sleep it off the best we could, maybe around a fire of pinecones and cedar branches if the matches weren’t lost and still dry. Somewhere off in the woods on the island’s backside, at one of the many secluded camps we’d built over the years. You couldn’t go home yet, not still high; the enclosed space would strangle your psyche, and worse, you’d have to talk to somebody.
The next day, well after sunrise, we’d all walk down the island’s roads to our separate homes, stiffened up from lying on the cool sand. A sad parade of hollowed-out zombies — wood-smoked, stinky-breathed, bare-footed, and bedraggled.
“What do you want to do later,” somebody’d ask.
“Let’s go fishing at the Point,” would usually come as the response.
“Sounds cool. Can your mom drive us?” We’d ask Ronnie.
“Yeah, she ain’t working. It’s Sunday,” he’d reply, the rest of us nodding as if we all had to think about what day it was.
“I’m hungry as a motherfucker,” someone would add, and a round of me toos would follow.
I’d try to sneak into my own house unnoticed to see if there was any food around. My mom stocked the usual essentials: Bisquick, peanut butter, loaves of white bread in the freezer, packs of dried grits, maybe some eggs and milk if my brother and sister hadn’t eaten it up. If you were lucky, there might be a ripe tomato from my grandparent’s garden on the counter or a pack of bacon in the fridge for a BLT sandwich, minus the lettuce.
It would be hard to say what we were after out on that river stoned out of our gourds. The simple answer might have been the sheer closeness we shared in such moments, relying on our altered wits to keep it together in that little boat. We all loved this place, even when you couldn’t say it out loud, but those nights you could feel it coming in through the pores of your skin. Your brain firing so fast that a good look might replace any real need for words. And all those creatures along that riverbank you’d stare at pie-eyed, they just crawled right back inside of you, croaking and splashing and worming their way into your body, into your veins. Your eyes were theirs, and that river looked very different, more immense but somehow more understandable, and more beautiful.
Michael Loderstedt is Professor Emeritus at Kent State University, where he taught printmaking and photography. His manuscript entitled The Yellowhammer’s Cross received a 2020 Ohio Arts Council Fellowship in Non-Fiction Literature. His work has been published in Muleskinner Journal, and the NC Literary Review (receiving the 2021 James Applewhite Prize for Poetry).
MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #65
* This will be the author’s first essay to appear in print. *
* This is the author's first literary award for an essay. *
NOVEMBER 25, 2022 / MUSEPAPER ESSAY PRIZE #65 / "MORE BEAUTIFUL" © 2022 MICHAEL LODERSTEDT