by Adam Strong
Congaree River. Canoe. You are the power man in front. Patrick is steering. The whole expanse of trees over the two of you. Your sense of rhythm is off, so he paddles. Then there’s the space where you are supposed to paddle. In the space of time where you should paddle, where the current or time hereafter tells you to paddle, you wait an extra beat. Both of you are now paddling at the same time. Your timing is off from the pot you had earlier. Already there are calluses on your hand from paddling and paddling.
The whole not paddling-when-you-are-supposed-to thing, it isn’t there by accident. Sure there’s the pot, but the thing about Patrick is that he is like a brother to you, but not in the best friend brother- you-never-had kind of way. Sure you are close friends, and you’ve never had a brother, but he is more rival to you than brother. You do things to piss him off. You interrupt him. You don’t laugh at the punch lines of his jokes. You take your time doing what he wants you to do, like paddling when you are supposed to.
But he’s got a keen eye for adventure, and each time you come out with him: camping, hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, you get the sense that life is something, a line that has to be reached out to get, and if you sit back and don’t grab it, like you’ve been doing, then it won’t ever come to you.
You are out here to see an honest-to-god Confederate-era shipwreck and to escape this feeling of doing nothing with your life, months of days off spent with a bong and a computer, maybe three or four movies, cigarettes, and music amped up to twelve.
You are here for a ship sunk on this river, around the time of the Civil War, and even though time has been unkind to its preservation, there’s still a hope that it will be worth it, and seeing this thing, This Hunley, might just get rid of the sick feeling that comes over you when you’re not living up to the person you always thought you could be. This Hunley might just be the line you need to grab onto to jump into the next phase of your life.
Here you are, in your mid- twenties, and you still haven’t grabbed the line. Whenever you do think of reaching out for the line, it’s been easier for you to fire up another bong load, turn up the music and lose another day. Maybe stand outside on the top steps and have a smoke. Maybe look down at the other people not that much older than you that already have what you don’t have: a job a wife, and a home.
Well you’ve got a job at least, a good job, a fun job, it doesn’t pay shit, but you get to work with cameras. You get to go out on the road. You get to help produce documentaries.
Once you even you worked in a little control room in the back of the South Carolina Statehouse. You had your finger on the remote joystick, zooming in the remote control cameras on snoozing senators. You zoomed in on old guys who looked like they were trying to figure out what to order for lunch. There you were getting a front row seat to politics, wages, unions, even the debate on taking down the fucking confederate flag. Everything in that room was frozen in time: the senate chambers with elegant woodwork and page boys and girls and the whole lazy pageantry to the whole thing. You watched things get talked about to death, the whole good old boy system.
The overhang of trees and this river, with its looping drip sounds of paddle and water, flashes of bird noises. Time outside is time slowed down for you, and seconds become moments you replay in your head, moments where what you were doing did not reflect the good person you know you can become.
You are not proud of yourself when you get kicked out of your favorite bar, watching a great band with the wrong kind of bottle. You sneak beer into a bar. You park the car out back. You walk in through the back with your own beer, a cold six pack. You stash it in the back behind some bushes. Then you go get a new bottle when you need one. But these bottles are stubbies and tonight the bar only serves longnecks. You think you have it all figured out. You don’t know shit. You walk in there with your stubbie fucking bottle and the bartender notices you and yells get the fuck out of my bar. You say ‘I’m really sorry’. You leave.
You are not pleased with yourself when you then drive to a grocery store to get in a little late-night drunk shopping. You buy junk food, sourdough white flour everything. You don’t give a shit about what is healthy. You spend one hundred and fifty dollars on pre-made pasta dishes, cold cuts and frozen pizza. You buy a twelve pack of more fucking stubbies. Walking out you don’t see families, only people just getting off of work. They see you, they see your junk food, they judge you the way you judge yourself. Maybe they can tell you are drunk.
You are not pleased with yourself when you go out and other guys meet women or men and you drive home alone, drunk. Driving home and Tom Waits is singing please call me baby wherever you are. You alone again, dry cold in your blazer and T-shirt and hat that makes you look like one of those old time movie directors. You light a smoke and with the Tom Waits on the stereo you are a hobo poet living in New York City. You stop at a light at there’s a couple walking over the bridge and you see the river below. You see the rocks and the lights reflecting off of the big buildings downtown on the other side of the bridge.
You think I could do this, go down to the river, I could do something to define myself that doesn’t mean getting stoned or drunk. In this moment of clarity you hatch a plan, a way to get out of yourself, a way to take back from your mind what has been erased. What has been taken in and ingested, smoked and blown back into the air: Too many cigarettes, too much booze, too much poetry and pot, not enough healthy thoughts or coitus.
You will go down to a river, you will take the offer your friend Patrick made, to see an honest to god Civil War era shipwreck.
You work in Public Television. You aid in the production of television programs that educate. You got your start in the marketing department. You got your foot in the door.
Patrick has just finished his degree, also in Television Production, just like you did a few years ago.
One day there is an opening. Floor Crew position. You ditch the shirt and tie and credit card expiration dates. You say goodbye to all the times you had to say, one moment please, or she’ll be right with you. Goodbye to each time you said oh no, I’m not the manager, I’m just the secretary.
You trade your dress shirt and tie for T-shirt and jeans. Floor Crew position. You put sets together. You run camera. You create on-air graphics. Occasionally there are night shoots.
You go home and have a dinner break, usually fast food. You go home and have a nap and you think of how a bong hit might be nice. One or two bong hits before work, but not right before call time, not before 4pm for a 7pm show, not when it’s you doing the switching, running the graphics. Not when spelling and punctuation is not your strong suit.
You show up still a little glassy from the pot, but caffeinated enough to not make too much of a difference. That opening credit moment though, when you had to bounce between three different titles for three different people, and you did this, while high, all those people out there watching, they had no idea. The people right next to you in the studio, the control room, the director and all of those assistants, they had no idea. You have this special power, this thing where outside it looks you have your shit together, but inside of you the walls are covered in green shag carpeting.
This isn’t the first time you’ve gotten high before work. The first time in Public Television maybe, the last place you worked at before, the ABC affiliate, you relished in it, you worked the red eye shift named for more than one reason by you. Mostly you worked alone, ten pm to six am.
You before shift, a big fat bong hit that went beyond your lungs into the capillaries or whatever in your veins. This pot lodged in the back of your brain and didn’t let up until you got off your shift. You did it all again before going to sleep. Most people were just waking up.
Then the next day you came to work all bonged up and ready for the fucking ten o’ clock news. Your only real coworker was a switcher, a big complicated panel with rows of lights and sliders, and knobs at the top. Your job was to switch from commercial to broadcast, maybe a package tape about some adopted fucking dog that was found in an empty house.
You at work. You and the switcher. There was a moment each night, right before you hit the button that cuts to CAMERA ONE for the wide shot, and the bright technicolor suits and newborn smiles of the news anchors makes you sick to your stomach.
There’s a headset you have to wear, there’s a director, a screaming director on the other end of that headset. He is a spoiled brat frat boy asshole who is probably on cocaine. You are stoned and he is on cocaine, and the sports guy spits the end of his cigars on the floor and you have to clean them up.
One night you wander through the offices. The station is on autopilot, run by a robotic arm that grabs tapes. Goes by the name of Odetics. There’s a sleeping bag on the floor of the lobby. When you walk by you recognize the face of an editor and he’s sleeping on the floor. Maybe his wife kicked him out. Maybe he’s on coke too and there’s hookers and prostitutes and his wife said no more and now he sleeps on the floor of the TV station in a sleeping bag, hoping to god that new night master control operator, that new kid fresh out of college who has seen more than one Fellini film, might somehow see him.
You quit before you are ahead, and on the last night you get riotously stoned. That night the director screams at someone else. By this point your movements are ghosted, played back from muscle memory. Over the headset the director utters the words ‘good job master control’. It was your best work it was your legacy. Totally fucking baked.
On that last morning you drive back home. You get high again. You call your manager who is just starting his shift at seven am. you thank him for the opportunity, ‘I’ve got a new job’, you say, not yet but I will soon.
Out here on the river, a little high from earlier, because why not, why change everything right now? Can’t you just have a soft landing, a part of you that can relax and not worry about all the things you are doing wrong?
You are always doing something wrong. A few years ago, you were helping your father, and even when you were driving a nail with a hammer, he couldn’t just sit and watch you do it the wrong way. He had to jump right in, he had to say, you always do it wrong. It was the same with Math tests, or sailing lines, or anything really. You were always a little bit of too little or too late. You, always with a shaky hand because there was always something you were doing wrong. And now you can’t manage a day without a bong rip and loud music to get lost in.
“There it is,” Patrick says. “Our Hunley.” He’s behind you steering.
You are not a captain, but you are a good power forward. You can propel the boat with great speed. The burn in your bicep feels like you are doing something besides letting life happen to you.
There’s a series of wood planks up ahead. Planks up and out of the water. There’s a darker shadow that hugs the shore of the river on the other side. Patrick backs into the shadow in the water. He looks the part: his beard, his sunglasses, his hat. He is doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing.
Patrick steers and you power the boat sideways till you are right next to The Hunley.
You pull your canoe up to shore, you get out, pull the canoe up on shore, the soft slide sound of boat on sand.
“This ship goes back to the civil war,” Patrick says.
“It doesn’t look like it, it looks 1920s, but it was revived once, but when it sunk the second time they just abandoned it.”
Then there’s that look, his jaw not sure if it is supposed to be hung from his face, just looking at you. Putting out something wrong in the middle of all of this.
“Beers?” Patrick says.
The beer tastes good even when warm and the sky opens up to let a little sun in, just enough to heat your back. That ship with rows of planks poking out of the water, the hull of the boat stretched out like a smile below it, and also stretched out like a smile is the even spaced letters that say ”The Hunley” in black stencil.
This is not from the Civil War. The Hunley is a submarine moored in Charleston. This is an impostor. This is some kind of joke, like the idea of getting straight is a joke. Here you are after all these years, still drinking beer, still waking up from the one-thought-behind-the-other feeling of the pot.
You and Patrick sit on the shore. You slap mosquitoes and talk about how he makes electronic music when he’s drunk late at night. How his roommate brings home women who are married, women with kids. How one night he even saw a kid playing Gameboy in his living room. The kid’s mom was in there with his roommate. Patrick came out of his room. Patrick put a blanket on him, asleep on the couch.
Patrick said to the kid. ”I’ll be in the next room if you need anything.”
“So here’s the deal” Patrick says. His jaw hung all wrong. That jaw of his does a little bump. You can’t see his eyes from the sunglasses.
“Things at work, are about to get bad.” Patrick says.
He’s not even looking at you. He still has his sunglasses on. He stares down the hole of his open beer can. Maybe it’s the pot that makes him sound monotone.
He says, “You know that position you were recommending me for, but you weren’t sure there was an opening, the floor crew?”
He says, “Well there is now, and it’s your job.”
He says they were going to fire you anyway.
He says he just took what they offered.
He says you deserved it.
This boat, this thing, the stencil letters, it’s not the Civil War. This Hunley is a test. He took you out here to see how much you cared about getting the rug pulled out from under you. To see if you did anything in this world that you cared about. He did this to shake you out of your sealed stoner coffin.
The whole they-were-gonna-fire-you-anyway thing. It wasn’t the pot. It was your half assed attempt at everything. They could tell your heart wasn’t in it.
You were supposed to love working in Television.
You were supposed to want to learn things and move on.
You spent your time just getting comfortable.
You just sat there.
You told yourself that you wanted to be a director, but each time you tried to step up and grab it, you were either high, or you felt the stiffness in your body from everyone judging you. The life line was held out a long time ago, you just never grabbed it.