I’d been thinking about that swimming hole for nearly half a year, since the middle of winter. I first saw it in a photo on Hunter’s dorm room bulletin board. The 4 x 6 had lanky Hunter poised midair, his arms and legs flung about dramatically, his mouth open in what I imagined to be a scratchy, warrior cry. Above him was a wooded cliff, below him a murky-water cove. Hunter explained that the swimming hole was on the Black River, in Johnson Shut Ins State Park.
‘Shut Ins’ is a Midwest term for a section of a river that is impassable by boat. Over millions of years, the riverbed of that half-mile section of the Black River fissured, cracked, and rearranged itself. Now, large jagged rocks jut over the water line. The river rushes through that rocky maze, taking the form of rapids, waterfalls, and rock slides. In the summer months, hordes flock to the area. They clamber over the slippery rocks for the thrill of exploring a strange landscape, or for the reward of finding their own private little whirlpool to relax in for a while.
Hunter said that once the weather warmed up, we should definitely go. I was pumped. It seemed like an experience that could solidify my new friendship with Hunter and his two best friends from high school, who were also freshmen at the University of Missouri. After a couple of lonely years, I was finally starting to feel like I had some friends.
I’d moved from Manhattan to St. Louis for my senior year of high school. My mom had sent me to live with my dad after her filmmaking career had picked up. You may have seen some of her more successful projects, which mostly center around middle-aged divorcées lusting after young men. It was lucky that none of these films had been released by that first year of college.
Outside of a slight accent, I didn’t broadcast New York City. I was a pretty average-seeming kid, slightly overweight and unfashionable. In private, during my lonely senior year of high school, I was given to spending long lapses in my room, smoking pot and watching 70s-era sexploitation films, wondering vaguely whether I had an interest in directing movies myself, or if I lacked the ambition required for such a non-conventional life. It turned out to be the latter situation, although I have been trying my hand at writing lately.
I applied to the University of Missouri because everyone else did and because with my SAT scores and fancy NYC high school resume, I was a shoo-in. I didn’t expect to make good friends there, especially so early on, during the overly planned and babying orientation weekend the summer before freshman year.
I noticed Hunter because he was kind of an asshole, causing regular mild interruptions in the form of existential questions about the purposes of the icebreaker games.
“Excuse me,” I remember him saying. “During this exercise where we search for things we have in common with others, might we be a bit liberal with the format?”
“Um, what do you mean?” replied the perky sophomore leading the activity.
“Well I was thinking that these categories are a tad boring. Instead of asking others what their favorite soft drink is, I propose we stare into each other’s eyes and try to guess the other person’s deepest fear. And if it’s clear we have the same one, then we write that down.”
“Why don’t we just do the exercise,” she said.
At that point Hunter started in on a pedantic monologue about the meaning of connection. Finally the girl interrupted him and said, “Okay, do whatever you want!” When she finally buzzed the Bop-It toy, signaling the start of the exercise, Hunter made a bee-line for me.
“So, Lee,” he said looking down at my name tag, “What’s your favorite soft drink?” He smiled, a sort of friendly criminality written on his face. I stared into his eyes in mock terror.
Our friendship outlasted orientation weekend, due in no small part to our being placed on the same dorm floor. I soon met Stephen and Shawn, Hunter’s friends from high school. Stephen was bespectacled, quiet, and even taller than Hunter. When he did speak, it was sly, intelligent, and frequently hilarious. Shawn was the jock of the group—quick-witted, redheaded, and a talented graffiti artist. He and Hunter would leave the dorms early on Saturdays to tag a deserted area of town. Coming across one of their tags by chance was like almost tripping over a rare orchid growing out of a sidewalk crack. Not only was it a surprise burst of beauty, but you felt somehow involved. Or maybe implicated.
I’d never felt so adventurous or brave as I did that year. Thanks to Shawn’s car, we’d spend our weekends exploring, making loud, naive noise in the sleepy southern towns surrounding campus. In the spring, we’d load up the car with kayaks and beer and pass an afternoon meandering through the rivers that run through Missouri like veins, shaded by the short fluffy oaks of this area of the country. No spindly, straitlaced pines like they have in the real south, nor hearty spruces like they have in the north. Just sturdy, bushy white oaks and dogwoods.
It was finally warm enough to swim and we were heading toward the Shut Ins. I was in the back with Stephen. We were passing around a joint I had rolled earlier, having wanted to show off my improving skills. I remember Shawn was in the middle of saying something I think about from time to time when my brain is tired and skipping like a scratched record. It’s stupid teenage boy idiocy, but it stuck.
“Potijuana,” he said. We looked at him confused.
“Pot. Marijuana. Potirowana. I mean Potijuana. It’s hard to say, try to say it,” he said. We did. It was hard.
As we laughed, driving along that rural two-lane highway, the sun streaming in and feeling so good on my face, we came across a sight that made us groan and spit out the window. On the front porch of a small but well-kept house was a huge Confederate battle flag, flapping proudly in the summer breeze. Its seemingly freshly laundered red and blue appeared harsh against the muted colors of this pollen-dusted landscape. Being from New York City, this was my first time seeing one of these in person.
I should mention at this point that all four of us are white and so, while the flag made us groan and even shudder, it didn’t, at least to my knowledge, beset us with any sort of fear for our own well-being. I decided to try to shake off the experience by reasoning that these symbols are pretty common around here, set in the culture like a virus, and that maybe I was making too much of it. But then I saw what was under the flag.
It was a dark-skinned figurine, about a foot or so high, with hunched over posture and grotesquely exaggerated features: a short, wide face, big candy red lips, and a huge smile. One hand on the hips, the other hand outstretched, holding a large lantern.
Then we had passed it. The images disappeared from my retina, but echoed in my brain.
“Jesus,” Stephen said. “It’s like those people actually want slavery to come back.” This struck me as true and as a sort of terminal prognosis for the human condition of these folks. Why else would they have this statue, if they didn’t fetishize that subjugation?
“We should steal it. On the way back,” Hunter said.
“Hell yeah,” said Shawn. “Let’s steal it and fucking burn it. The flag. We’ll smash up the statue or something.”
Stephen was nodding.
“They might replace them,” I said.
“Yeah, maybe. But maybe they won’t,” Shawn said.
“Even if they do,” Stephen said, “don’t the objects themselves deserve to be eradicated from the earth?”
I could feel a separation starting between myself and the other guys. I felt soft. The thought of stealing something ten feet away from a redneck’s front porch scared the shit out of me. I began to imagine the worst case scenario: shotguns, being dragged to a basement, tortured.
I tried to stifle this little boy fear.
“You’re right. Let’s do it,” I said. “On the way back.”
“Sweet,” Hunter said and turned up the Grateful Dead tape.
We didn’t sit there and dwell in the horror of it. We moved on. Back then, things like the flag and the statue were seen as relics. The world seemed to be moving on from all that. To casually liberal-minded young white folks like us, affirmative action seemed to promise a land of green pastures and racial harmony. At first at least, stealing the objects just felt like another merry-prankster, graffiti-kid thing to do. I tried to put it out of my mind.
Arriving at the Shut Ins, the thought struck me that perhaps the riverbed was laid bare by the Earth almost as a temptation to man. I imagined a universe in which the Earth evolved much more quickly, more on the timeline of an island bird species. That way, it could respond to environmental constraints through protective adaptations, but only through great effort and force, given all the physics involved. In this universe, the Shut Ins would have been an effort by the earth to protect itself from pollution and general calamity brought by the river vessels of man. I imagined a feminine cartoon Earth, slowly getting more and more fed up with all the stupid boats. She’d begin dreaming of sharp crevasses, strong rapids, rough gravel river beds. Then she’d flex, squeezing all her muscles, changing her nature by force. Finally, she’d be exhausted.
She’d consider the Shut Ins a proud accomplishment. No more boats would appear for a while. But then, slowly, she’d begin to feel thousands of grubby feet and hands, walking over her, recklessly destroying the moss and ecosystems she harbored.
Of course the Shut Ins were made long before boats or even humans existed. But sometimes I am comforted by the idea of a more reactive Earth. One that lives on our timeline, not the terrifying timeline of millions of years.
The other guys scrambled easily over the slippery rock. I lagged behind, smoking a cigarette that I tried with great effort to keep dry. After making it through, we swam across a wide pond and there it was, the cliff I’d seen in the picture. To be there with them, finally, felt vindicating. I was inside of that photo that had for months represented the ideal of companionship and adventure. We were a band of boys, trekking through the wilderness on a grand mission, to explore and to conquer and to be revered. I felt like a kid again, but with all the power and freedom of adulthood.
We climbed out of the river onto a mossy ledge. There was a pathway along the cliff’s edge up to the jumping off point, but otherwise the hill was wooded. At the bottom of the hill a sign read, “Restricted, forbidden to cross. Fines of $200 or more.” I paused, but decided to not say anything. Then my mouth opened. “So, is that sign for real?”
“You ask too many questions,” Shawn said in a New York accent. The others laughed. “Seriously, Lee,” Shawn said. “We’ve done this so many times and have never been busted. You can ignore the sign.”
“Okay. Sweet,” I said, but still felt uneasy.
When we reached the top of the hill, I was scared to jump but decided I couldn’t risk another open display of cowardice. I went second after Shawn. The impact with the water shocked me and when I resurfaced I shouted, rejoicing at how alive I felt. Stephen went after me, then Hunter, his Tarzan scream muffled only at the point of impact.
The four of us headed back up the hill together to make a second go of it. As we neared the top, two figures emerged from the woods nearby. One was accompanied by a German Shepherd. The other was shorter and scrawnier. We froze. I could see now that the two guys sported the full police officer getup—pepper spray, gun, and handcuffs included.
“Oh fuck,” Shawn said and began running down the hill. Before the rest of us could think to follow him, German Shepherd Cop yelled in a threatening voice, “Hey! Do you want to get arrested?”
At this, Shawn, now about halfway down the hill, slowed and came to a stop. “Shit,” he said. “No, I do not.”
“Well maybe you won’t then,” German Shepherd Cop said. Then, having caught up to Shawn, he handcuffed him. He walked him back up the hill and told all of us to sit down. Skinny Cop shook his head at Shawn, as if disappointed in him.
The cops walked a few feet away so that German Shepherd Cop could speak on his walkie-talkie out of earshot of us. The actual German Shepherd eyed us, but did not appear to harbor any animosity. Skinny Cop had his hands on his hips and was looking up at the other cop, awaiting instruction.
“This is such bullshit,” Hunter said quietly, next to me. There was a cool, early summer breeze and our nipples began to harden. I looked out at the cove below. There were maybe ten people or so watching us. A few teenagers were there, laughing. A middle-aged couple, off to the side, shook their heads and spoke occasionally to a family nearby. I felt a mixture of pride and shame at being watched like this.
“Dude, we’re not gonna get arrested,” Hunter said. “You’re not flipping out are you?” “No man, I’m fine. This is so stupid,” I said.
After a few minutes, German Shepherd Cop said something quietly to Skinny Cop and Skinny Cop walked over to Shawn and removed his handcuffs. Shawn’s shoulders relaxed.
Then German Shepherd Cop approached us, swaggering.
“Let me ask you something boys. What does that sign at the bottom of the hill say?” he said in a country accent. He stood in a wide stance, leaning hard on one hip, his thumbs hooked in his belt. He gazed off into the forest, as if he had somewhere better to be.
We didn’t answer.
“Huh, excuse me?” Skinny Cop said.
“Um, I think it says restricted,” Hunter replied, with an obviously fake innocence.
“That’s right,” German Shepherd Cop said. We sat in silence for a minute.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, finally looking at us. “I could arrest you, sir, right now, for Resisting Arrest,” he continued, pointing at Shawn. I saw Shawn’s jaw tighten. “And I could fine you all $300. Does that sound good?”
I couldn’t look him in the eye. No one said anything for a moment.
He wants us to beg, I realized. He wants us to fucking beg.
We looked at each other. Who would be the beggar? Barely a beat passed.
“Please, sir. We won’t do it again,” I said, sincere as a house boat.
“Alright,” he said after a pause. “But you’re done for the day boys. And if I ever catch you doing this again, you’re banned. Permanently.”
“Yes, sir,” I said and was surprised by the rest of the boys’ stony silence. The cop described the route we were to follow out of the park, a backway that bypassed the area where we had set down our stuff. I began to panic. I told the cop, or maybe even whined to him, that all our stuff, including our car keys, was back along the normal path.
“Well maybe y’all just need to make a little parking lot friend to go back and get it for you, because you all are banned,” German Shepherd Cop said, smiling, either because he was joking or because he enjoyed seeing us squirm.
“What?” I said. “Really?” My heart started pounding faster as I imagined the four of us stuck in the parking lot of a state park three hours from Columbia, where we lived. Hungry, wet, and shivering, the sky getting darker and the owls starting to hoot as we begged perplexed strangers to hike a mile back into the park to look for our stuff, the exact location of which would be impossible to describe.
“What? Really?” Skinny Cop mocked in a butchered New York accent. “Where are you even from boy?”
“New York City,” I said, finally a little defiant.
“Who the heck would want to live there?” German Shepherd Cop said, as if I, barely nineteen, had chosen where to be from. The two cops laughed.
“Don’t worry, Mr. New York City,” said German Shepherd Cop. “Johnson here will walk you back the other way to get your stuff.”
I looked at the others. They appeared relieved. I told them I’d meet them at the car.
The walk back with Skinny Cop was strange, as he warmed up to me quickly. He told me about his cousin who had moved to New York and asked me questions like: “Have you seen the Empire State Building?”, “Do you like hot dogs?”, “Central Park?”
Upon reaching the parking lot I saw the others waiting by the car, smoking cigarettes and joking. They were experiencing something together, the three of them. I could tell in the way they mimicked each other’s postures, the little expressions they gave each other, communicating, communicating, communicating.
I remember being a little afraid as I approached the car. I thought they might look at me differently, since this was my first run in with the law and I hadn’t behaved quite as bravely nor defiantly as they had. I was relieved to find that they appeared pleased with me.
“You got our stuff!” Shawn said, taking his things.
“Good job, Lee Daniels!” Hunter said, using his nickname for me, Lee Daniels, a name whose origins were obscured to me. My actual last name is Durkin.
We put T-shirts on and piled into the car. The leather seats were so hot they burned, so I had to sit leaning forward, making sure my trunks, which were mostly dry by now, protected my legs. I felt uneasy, like I had an enlarged heart. The air was thick, damp, reeked of pot smoke.
“Do you think that when he fucks his wife he thinks ‘I’m a goddamn State Trooper bitch!’” said Shawn.
“Yes, yes, I really think he does,” said Hunter.
I laughed along with them, tried to think of something to say. But I couldn’t. Because I remembered at that moment that in about twenty minutes, we were going to pass by the house with the flag and the statue.
As we approached the house, rolling at a leisurely 25 mph, I looked around for signs of sane, nice people. I saw one lady mowing her lawn. She looked to be in her forties. She was strong-armed and slightly overweight. Maybe a little sad, but there was sanity in her eyes. Another house had a skinny old man sitting on his front porch and holding a cigarette. He watched us as we passed, moving only his eyes. The sun was just barely on the descent. The clouds moved quickly, creating a disorienting dappled effect.
“There it is,” said Hunter. I wrenched my gaze around to face the house. There it sat, same as before, with the giant Confederate flag and the wretched statue underneath it. The sight was even more sickening at a second look. I imagined the people inside, who might very well be armed, sitting there holding their guns, red slits instead of pupils.
Then we were being tossed around as Shawn pulled the car off into a ditch on the side of the road opposite the house.
“Dude, are we going to be able to get out of this ditch?” Stephen said, once we came to a stop.
I could understand his worry. About thirty feet ahead, there was a crossroad. At that point the ditch became a small pipe that went underneath the road. We wouldn’t have much room to gather the speed needed to climb out of the ditch.
“Yeah man, this car can take anything. And this way they don’t see our plates or nothin,” Shawn replied. I found the prospect of the car being able to ‘take anything’ dubious, but I trusted
Shawn that the car would be able to make it out.
“So,” I said, worried that we would would exit the car without having a proper plan.
“I can get the flag,” said Stephen. “I’m the tallest.” “Okay,” said Hunter. “Lee, you get the statue, okay?” I nodded my head.
“I’ll distract them if they come out,” said Hunter.
“I’ll stay here, keep the car running,” Shawn said.
We exited the car and began walking toward the house. At this point, adrenaline, or maybe testosterone, must have been kicking in, because I began to feel angry. I began to think of Josh, a black kid I was best friends with as a kid. I’m embarrassed to admit that I felt like a sort of warrior at that moment, a protector of Josh and other black people I knew. At lightning speed, my brain reviewed the list in my head of the important black people in my life, a ludicrous list I didn’t know existed: classmates, teachers, my old nanny, the guy at the bodega near our house, then on to black celebrities. The whole thing is embarrassing. What were we thinking? The act itself may have had its own merit, but the savior feelings I had at that moment are repulsive enough to make the whole thing immoral.
After we crossed the road we stood there for a moment, listening for noises from inside the house. Silence. The door was painted a friendly red. A wreath hung on it, a cheesy spring-themed thing with ersatz flowers and a placard that read, “Happy to be born again.” There was a cotton bunny looped in there too. The touch of a feminine presence, I thought. Maybe they’ll be kind once they catch us.
It was as if we were waiting for a signal. Then the sun went behind a dark cloud and the day went in a moment from bright sun to dark overcast. It was time.
Stephen went up the steps, grabbed hold of the flag, and tugged. There was a metallic sound, like the flag had been stuck in there for years and didn’t want to be released. I took a sharp breath in and tried to keep my mind on my task. I crept forward, crouching under Stephen who was still noisily struggling with the flag. I extracted the statue from its muddy footprints.
I imagined it glowed hot in my hands. It was a representation of a monster, created in the mind of a scared bully with a fungus in his brain. That fungus-brained bully had taken the idea of a black man and unleashed complicated processes of distortion on it. This statue was a byproduct of those processes. It wasn’t the statue that scared me, it was the fact that it existed, that someone had painstakingly carved it, presumably thinking nasty, fearful thoughts the whole time.
Stephen, above me, had made some progress. He was having to twist the flag out of its holster, but it was almost out. There was one last high pitched “gra-ihhhhhh” as he finally removed it. Then I heard a sound that haunts me even to this day, that shows up in my dreams and makes them nightmares. The sound was a heavy banging, slow at first. As soon as I realized that the banging was steps, echoing loudly in this old ramshackle house, the sound increased in tempo. Someone was running fast toward the front of the house. Shawn lightly honked the horn.
“Move. Move move move move move,” said Hunter.
All my bravado left me. I was rooted there to my spot and felt sure I couldn’t move a muscle. Hunter and I locked eyes and then I could move. I ran across the road and jumped down into the ditch. Right as I did this I could hear the screen door open. I peeked out of the ditch. Stephen had stowed himself behind a tree and was clutching the flag. On the front porch was a man, maybe in his sixties, with a full head of white hair and some well-manicured white scruff. He had on an aging white collared shirt and some long dark jean shorts. He did not have shoes on. This made him look, momentarily, fragile. He reminded me a bit of my grandfather, a former lumberjack in upstate Vermont. A gentle soul. But then he spoke and his voice was thundering, reaching all the way across to road to me.
“What the hell are you doing? Where is my flag?” He spoke slowly, his voice turning over on itself, becoming surprisingly high at the end of the sentence.
I realized he hadn’t noticed the statue yet and this was stupidly reassuring.
“Hey sir! How are you doing today?” said Hunter. “We … are just here to check on your flag, because we want to make sure that all the Confederate flags are being treated real good and …” as he spoke he kept slowly backing up. “And it looks like we need to take yours away for a cleaning so we’ll be right back.”
Hunter looked toward Stephen and at once they began sprinting toward the car.
“You ain’t takin’ it away for a cleaning,” the old man said to himself as they were running away. He was processing one thing at a time. “You’re a bunch of dirty hoodlums. You give me back my flag right now!” he yelled over at us after a moment, as the other boys were reaching the car. I stood up and got in the right side of the backseat, the side away from the road. “Jesus,” I said once inside the car.
On the other side of the backseat, Stephen was struggling to get the flag with its long pole inside the car. Finally, with Shawn’s help, he wedged the bottom end between the driver’s seat and the driver’s side door. The top end of the pole was perched on the back seat left headrest.
This made it so that for our rear left window, we basically had a Confederate flag curtain.
We heard the gunshot as Stephen reached under the flag and closed the door. I strained to see out the windshield, but I could only see the ditch.
“Go, go, go, go!” we all yelled at Shawn.
“Okay!” he yelled and gunned it. The car started to go up the hill but then rolled back. He quickly reversed the car in order to give us more room to gather speed. Then the guy was there, about ten feet in front of the car, but up on the road, looking down at us. He didn’t look so fragile anymore. He had a shotgun and an angry red face. His muscles were tensed and he looked strong, like an old, evil bull with grizzled meat. He shot the gun into the air again. We all screamed, real terror screams, no expletives or words, just terror.
“I oughta shoot your tires out, you stop right there!” he yelled, muffled through the window.
Shawn began to roll down the window.
“Man, what are you doing?” said Hunter.
“I’m gonna talk to him,” said Shawn.
“Mister,” Shawn yelled over to him. “Look. We’re sorry.” As he spoke he locked the doors. The guy lowered his gun, stepped down into the ditch and started moving toward the car.
“Oh I bet you are,” he said.
“We are. Look, this was just a joke, just a little prank. If you put down your gun, we’ll give you the flag and the statue.”
By now the guy was face to face with Shawn. He was looking penetratingly into the car.
The rest of us were in shock. I couldn’t figure out what Shawn was going to do. A small part of me even wondered if he meant to run this guy over somehow.
“You boys are sure out of line here,” the man said and set down his gun in the grass.
“Uh, Stephen,” Shawn said. “Open your door and give him the flag.” Stephen breathed in. He was going to go along with the plan. He reached for the door and pulled the handle. He couldn’t open it; it was locked.
“Yeah right, fuck you douchebag!” Shawn yelled and slammed on the gas. The car barreled forward, down the bumpy, uneven ditch. Shawn made a sharp turn and we climbed miraculously up the hill. Then we sped off, shouting cries of joy and yelling insults.
I sat there, heart pumping, gazing at the sad scary toy in my lap.
“What are we gonna do with this shit?” I said, suddenly realizing that I was in a car of four young white boys, with a giant Confederate flag and a racist statue.
“We’re gonna destroy it,” Stephen said.
On the highway and during a stop for gas, we got our shares of both horrified looks and cheers. We tried our best to ignore everyone. When we got back to the dorms, we put the two artifacts in a giant black bag. We decided we would go camping soon and burn the stuff then. The bag stayed in a corner of Hunter and Shawn’s room, which was our main hangout spot. For weeks, whenever we were there, I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it.
I began dreaming about the two objects. Sometimes the statue was large, foreboding, made even more grotesque in its largeness. It wanted to destroy me. I’d dream it was fighting me, but it wouldn’t move. It was all anticipation. I’d dive in order to escape one of its giant blows, but then I’d look back on it and it wouldn’t have budged from its position. I wouldn’t dream of the racist guy himself, but his footsteps provided the soundtrack to these nightmares.
A few times after a dream like this, I’d go over to their room first thing in the morning and demand that we get rid of the wretched objects soon.
“We’re gonna do it,” one of them would say. “Just wait. Next weekend isn’t good.”
I started to get paranoid we’d never be rid of them. I told Shawn he should stash his car at his parents’ house. I was afraid the guy would find us. Shawn ignored me. Before long, I couldn’t sleep through the night. I’d wake with my muscles clenching.
“It’s kind of funny,” said Hunter one night as just he and I were drinking in his room. “The statue I mean.”
“What? How is it funny?” I said.
“The statue, man. It’s so ridiculous.”
I didn’t know what to say. I think I just sat there drinking my beer. After a minute I said, “It’s fucking sad, man. I want to get rid of it.”
“Yeah,” said Hunter, “we will.”
Then it was the end of the semester. I was to go back to St. Louis to work construction with my dad’s business. Stephen was staying at school to be a research assistant to a geology professor. Hunter and Shawn were going to live in Colorado and work at a whitewater rafting company. They said they would take the objects to Colorado and destroy them there. I believed them. That summer, I let the long days working in the dusty heat burn the experience out of me. I started to dream about the statue less and less.
The four of us had requested to live in the same dorm for our sophomore year, but over the summer I decided to request a change. I’d figured out what I wanted to study—social work—and I wanted to focus on getting a good internship. I’d also had enough law breaking for a while.
I saw the other three, though usually just Hunter and Shawn, occasionally during the rest of our college years. I heard that Stephen got serious about his studies and decided to go for a Ph.D. When I’d see the guys at a party, we’d hang out. There were no hard feelings. I don’t think it was a surprise to them that I wasn’t committed to the foursome anymore. It all began to seem very freshman-year anyway, an awkward grouping formed more out of convenience than logic.
That was more than twenty years ago now. I live in New York again, but a few days ago, I went back to St. Louis for the wedding of a former girlfriend. Shawn was there. I wasn’t really thinking about this incident when I saw him, to be honest. I think I had put it out of my mind.
There were good times to remember too and I tend to recall those more easily.
Shawn lives in L.A. now and works as a movie producer. His swagger has matured with him and it now seems less of an aggressive performance and more a calm, self-aware confidence. He wore his auburn hair slicked back that day and a khaki suit with a lime belt. It felt good to see him. We started to reminisce about the old days and he mentioned Hunter.
“What’s he up to now?” I said. “Is he around here?”
Shawn paused, nodded, seemingly trying to find the right words. “He is,” Shawn said. “You know Hunter, he’s been involved in a lot of different things. For the last few years he’s been pretty heavy into this artist/off-the-grid kind of life out in East St. Louis. He’s got his own place out there actually. I think he got it for like nothing, you know, being where it is.”
I didn’t say anything, just nodded, taking this information in.
Shawn gestured, sort of pointing at me.
“I’m actually going out there to see him tomorrow. You should come with me.”
I thought about it and decided I would go. It could be fun to get some of the old gang together again.
The next day Shawn picked me up at my hotel in St. Louis’ half-dead downtown area (my dad had moved back east to take care of his ailing mom, so I didn’t have family to stay with). He showed up in a fancy rental car, some sort of luxury model, with fancy leather seats, large windows and a good stereo system. As we drove across the McKinley Bridge, a bridge I once learned was slightly radioactive from all the post-war nuclear waste kept underneath it, and into the Illinois side of the city, an industrial wasteland that was slowly turning back into a river plain, I was charmed once again by this strange, conflicted place.
I could see why Hunter would want to live out here. It struck me as a real place, with real human struggles. If you weren’t dirt-poor, you still ran the risk of radioactive chemicals leaching into your groundwater. Next to all that industrial stuff you have the ancient flow of the mighty Mississippi and its floods, the short, bushy forests, the croaking insects, the large swaths of unused land. The air occasionally feels beachy for some reason I’ve never figured out. The humidity obviously contributes to this feeling, but the salt in the air is more mysterious.
After a twenty minute drive, we entered a sparse residential area. Many of the houses were abandoned. Then, at the end of a long road, we came across an old wood-paneled house, flanked by a greenhouse and, on the other side, a shed and a barn. Impressive mosaic designs snaked and spiraled across the outside of the barn. I guessed it was Hunter’s art studio.
As soon as we parked Hunter exited the house. His lankiness now came across as wiry.
His face appeared slightly sunken and his floppy hair had grayed.
“In-dus-tri-al-i-zay-shun, In-dus-tri-al-i-zay-shun, In-dus-tri-al-i-zay-shun, In-dus-tri-al-i-zay-shun,” he sang a song as he approached us, conducting us with his hands. “We like to build things, make things, and then leave them,” he finished, going very low at the end. I think my mouth hung open. Shawn smiled. Hunter guffawed.
“Holy shit, it’s you two!” he said. He hugged Shawn first, fiercely. Then he turned to me, put his hands on my shoulders.
“Lee Daniels,” he said, reviving my old nickname. I was filled with warmth. It felt good to be seen by Hunter.
“You’ve aged well. You look like a freaking professor. C’mere bud.” Then he hugged me just as he had Shawn—deeply, sincerely.
We followed Hunter up to his porch and sat down in some wicker chairs. He extracted some beers from an outdoor mini-fridge.
Hunter began asking me about my life. When I finally got a turn to reverse the interview, Hunter said, “Well, why don’t we take a look around? You can see for yourself ‘what I’m up to these days.’”
We got up and began following Hunter around, keeping to the gravel path that went from the shed to the garden area, which I hadn’t noticed before, then to the barn/art studio. The vegetable garden was impressive, back a ways behind the house. There were two more structures back here I hadn’t noticed before: a smaller barn, where squashes were stored and some herbs were hung up to dry, and a tiny house, quaint and charming.
Before long, we started on the path to his art studio. As we turned, I caught sight of something that immediately rooted me to my spot. My blood pressure shot up and my stomach turned. On the left side of the barn, the side away from the street, a Confederate battle flag hung, its four corners attached to the barn with nails. And underneath it, I could barely make myself believe, was a small statue.
“Hahahaha,” he said. “You see the flag and the statue! I was wondering what you’d think about it!”
When I didn’t say anything, he said, “You’re too serious man! It’s just a ridiculous weird piece of art!” I stared at him.
“Yeah okay,” he added, “A kind of a racist piece of art, but still. It reminds me of that day, you know. That day was epic.”
I said, “Are you serious man?”
That’s when he went into a long-winded explanation about how he kept the objects out of pure irony, to remind himself that “that kind of racism doesn’t go away even though we pretend like it’s all about subtle racism these days, ‘implicit bias’ and stuff.”
This just didn’t make sense to me. Why was it so important for him to be reminded of the fact that the more blatant type of racism exists? Isn’t that obvious? He lives in East St. Louis for God’s sake, a city that’s ninety-eight percent Black.
It seemed disingenuous. Especially because there was the way that, when he noticed I had stopped cold and was staring at it, he had laughed at me, all amused and teasing. I remember looking over at Shawn at some point and he was laughing too, shaking his head as if lightheartedly chastising Hunter.
I went through the rest of the visit in shock. As we entered the art studio I expected to see racist themes in Hunter’s art, but it was mostly geometric shapes and patterns. Totally innocuous and really, pretty interesting. I filed the images of the statue and flag to be processed for later. I couldn’t believe that neither Hunter nor Shawn saw any irony in all this. Hunter had become a man with racist memorabilia in his yard.
On the car ride back I asked Shawn, “Don’t you think it’s weird that Hunter has that shit in his yard? I thought you guys were going to destroy it anyway.”
“Yeah, I kind of forgot about it I guess. That was a crazy summer.” Then he fell silent, his expression inscrutable.
“I mean don’t you think it’s kind of fucked up?” I said.
“I guess so,” Shawn said, shrugging his shoulders. “But that’s Hunter for you man, he’s a weirdo.”
Mary T. Miller attends Boston University’s MFA in Fiction program. Her nonfiction story, “Stories from the End,” was recently published in the Fall 2018 edition of the Matador Review. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Washington University in St. Louis and a BA from NYU. Originally from Atlanta, she now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with her husband, Albert, and her dog, Brooklyn. Outside of writing, she likes to make music under the moniker Dezmediah.