Once Upon A Suwannee Night
A Tallahassee novelist learns that a forgotten photo, which captured a poignant time, is worth more than a thousand words.
There are some memories so vivid they remain etched in your being forever. The Suwannee River is mine. Or, rather, a cabin that sat on the mouth of the river.
As a Southerner, I grew up fishing from the banks of that river. I use the term “fishing” lightly. Mostly, I would lie on the boat floor in a Dramamine stupor among earthworms, fishhooks, and rolling beer cans.
I would do just about anything to spend time with my daddy, a small-town doctor in Lake City, Florida. That poor man deserved to sire boys. But, as luck had it, he got three little girls. He tried to make the best of it, he really did. On many a Friday afternoon—when he didn’t have to be on call—he’d pile us in his car for the hour-and-a-half drive to his river cabin. My mother shunned his man-cave, and the river. She seldom, well…never came along with us. In her defense, she couldn’t swim a lick, and the black water would scare the fearless.
On the drive from Lake City we’d stop in Old Town, Florida, for supplies: Cokes, bread, peanut butter, Vienna sausages, lima beans, shrimp, worms, tackle, gear, and Schlitz beer.
The owners of the Bait and Tackle were happy to see us, I suspect for two reasons. First, daddy was their doctor, and, second, he gave us liberty to buy anything we wanted. And we did. He would buy us new cane fishing poles. The ones we’d used on previous visits were too tangled for his patience, time and temperament. I won’t talk about his rods and reels.
Our greedy selves would pull as much junk off the reachable shelves as our hands could hold and pile it on top of the counter. Daddy never made us put any of it back. He’d just hand them $100. One big bill.
“Keep the change,” he always said.
“Thanks so much, Dr. Landrum,” the couple said in unison, smiling big.
He didn’t care about Red Dye No. 2, additives or sugar. It was long before somebody named sugar the culprit of everything wrong with everyone everywhere.
We left that bait shop giggling, carrying our bags. We’d pile back into his car, seatbelt-free. He would bend his tall, lanky body, maneuver into the driver’s seat, crank the ignition, light his cigarette, tell us to sit back, and pull back onto the highway. The hot summer breeze slapped our faces as we sped on with all the windows rolled down.
I would chomp my mouthful of candy, yelling between chews, “How far, daddy?”
“Don’t ask me that again, Prissy!” And I wouldn’t. Until I would.
Finally, we would arrive, scrambling from inside the smoke-laced car, racing toward the two-bedroom cabin. Daddy unlocked the door, and the second it swung open, a lingering scent of stale cigarettes blasted our inhaling lungs.
The cabin was built smack dab on the mouth of the river. A cypress dock, two steps down from the door, ran to the river’s edge. There were no railings between us and the coffee-colored water below.
Inside, there was one tiny air-conditioner for the whole cabin, encased in daddy’s bedroom window. He’d turn the thermostat igloo-cold and keep his bedroom door shut, awaiting his nightly slumber.
Our room was hot, humid and smelled like mildew. I would sneak into his room, drag a chair over and plant my snotty nose against the A/C blower, one eye fixed on the doorknob. I watched for the turning of that knob, too hot to care about disobeying any of his rules.
“Get down, Prissy, I told you to stay out of here!” He would find me every single time.
The dock attracted me. I would go out there and lie on my stomach with my chest hanging over the water. I’d reach, struggling to snare a catfish with my bare hands. There was no life jacket or adult in sight. I’m weak in the knees tapping that memory.
I loved every square foot of the worn, overused, under-decorated haven. The paraphernalia inside the cabin was masculine, filled with fishing rods, poles, playing cards, poker chips, and pictures of dogs sitting at a poker table smoking cigarettes.
What with my seasickness, I was a bit of a pain in the ass. When they all went fishing, I was too young to be left alone in the cabin. Consequently, I was dragged along with the rest of them. Hence, Dramamine. The hot Florida sun beamed UVA rays on my virgin skin while I inhaled the mingled scent of the bait fish, shrimp, and Oscar Meyer bologna in the cooler, the one stained with fish gizzard blood.
The boat idled as the wild, unspoiled current gently pulled us along, daddy steering with one hand and casting his pole with the other; a Salem cigarette—which ultimately killed him—hung loosely from his lips.
Deborah, my older sister, and Gina, my younger, were luckier than me. I lay curled beneath them in a fetal position as they perched above on the boat’s bench seats. They enjoyed whiffs of breeze, threading worms on brand-new poles, their 20 toes dangling above my green face. Every tug on their poles from a hungry fish would warrant their squeals. I would try to open my eyes and see life above the boat’s floor, but my lids were too heavy. I would fall back to sleep again.
After five hours on the boat, despite layers of Sea & Ski, we sizzled to a salmon color. By the end of the weekend, we were caramel.
We spent our entire childhoods, into our twenties, even thirties, enjoying that cabin. I even shortened my two-week honeymoon at The Cloister hotel in Sea Island, Georgia, offering my husband the chance to spend the second week at our cabin, fishing. We joined my dad and Gina. Boone, my brand-new husband, thought I walked on water after that.
But this is where my story takes a twist and becomes more than a childhood memory. Recently, we were invited to a private viewing of the 89th Academy Awards given by the College of Motion Picture Arts at Florida State University. It was a celebration for alumnus Barry Jenkins, honoring his movie Moonlight, which had received eight Oscar nominations.
We were late to the event. The lights were dim. Everyone was seated in black chairs at black-draped tables, wearing mostly black. The only light in the room came from the gargantuan television hanging in the front of the room. It was muted as celebrities strutted the red carpet in fantabulous gowns, wearing gems and grins.
I tried not to trip in the dark as I spotted a sofa and a few chairs. We tiptoed over and claimed two seats on the sofa.
I knew nobody as I looked around…table to table, stranger to stranger, half-listening to the speaker at the podium. I sent Dale, my second husband, off for wine and pretended to be looking for something in my purse.
A man walked in front of me and blocked my view as I gazed at the screen. He looked familiar. I realized he was the man I had sleuthed on Facebook earlier in the day. Well, not him, per se. I had wanted to see if I knew the event’s co-host, so I’d entered his name into the search bar.
The man sat down on the other end of the couch. I watched him laugh at something the speaker said that wasn’t funny. After a few minutes, I slid over toward him, then next to him.
“Hi, I’m Prissy Elrod. I just wanted to thank you for inviting us.” I stuck my hand out for a shake. He smiled as he shook, with—I could tell—no idea who I was.
Then I did what I do when I visit the Florida State campus: name drop. I know. Shameful.
“I was Prissy Kuersteiner before,” I said, beaming like he cared. I mentioned my previous last name so I could throw out my first late father-in-law, Dr. Karl Otto Kuersteiner. He was Dean of the School of Music and had a building on campus named after him. Mr. Facebook smiled.
“Wait, you’re Prissy Kuersteiner. That’s you? Are you kidding me! My gosh, I’ve been talking about you for years.”
My heart skipped a beat. It’s not like I had a criminal record or something. What in the world was he saying about me, and wait…did he say years?
I needed a glass of wine from my absent husband. Where was he?
The man kept talking and sharing. “You and I worked together years ago.” He had me mixed up. I didn’t even know this man. Well, except on Facebook.
“You had a picture on your desk. You were wearing this orange and yellow bikini.”
He laughed through his sentence. I almost choked on my saliva. I mean, seriously, who has a picture of themselves in a bathing suit on their work desk?
“I don’t think that was me. You must have me mixed up with someone else.”
“Prissy, you haven’t changed that much. I think it was a family shot. You were standing between two men and holding this fish. There were a few who would go in your office when you were gone, look at you in that bikini. I probably shouldn’t tell you that, right?” He started laughing more. I saw my husband walking toward me—way too slowly—balancing two glasses of wine.
“Hurry up!” I hollered crassly.
Facebook man continued. “One day I was standing over your desk, and you were typing. I lifted the picture to wipe a smear off the glass but it wouldn’t come off. I asked you about that smear and you know what you said?”
“No, what did I say?” I still had no idea who this man was talking about, but I remained polite.
“I’m quoting you…They’re lip marks from kisses. And you didn’t crack a smile, never even looked up at me, just kept typing. I’ve been telling that story for twenty years, just ask my wife, Winnie.”
Finally, my wine and husband arrived and Mr. Facebook retold the whole story…again. It would take two glasses of wine—mine and Dale’s—before I remembered the picture he described. It came from deep within the crevices of my brain. It was taken during the honeymoon of my first marriage, after we vacated that spectacular five-star luxury hotel for the week at the cabin. I wore my honeymoon bikini while standing between the two men I loved most in the world. Both no longer living, gone from my life. My father lost to those nasty menthols; my husband snatched by a fatal brain tumor.
When you lose a person you love, there’s a deep yearning to see them again—if only for a moment. Standing in front of Mr. Facebook, in one of those brief moments, I had a mental reel as real as my own life. I could see my late husband and father standing next to me, alive. I felt the summer breeze and smelled daddy’s Salem cigarette. I was standing on that cypress dock once again, surrounded by gear, grit and gratitude. There are no words to describe such a gift. It was a night of twofold winnings. Moonlight won three Oscars. But I was the big winner. When Mr. Facebook happened upon me that night, I had a God wink. You don’t need a trophy for that.