In this garden of sorrows I stumble and fall and get up again. As I go along the path two black boys watch me walk with my head in my hands.
Which way is the river? I ask one of them.
They run. And in shimmering heat their figures dissolve crazily. I look round for a landmark as I wheel away down the narrow, sandy street like the derelict I have become. Dark figures rocking in the shade of the porches watching me incuriously. Figures sepulchral, purgatorial, wizening. Only a few urchins wide eyes and ebonfaced watch me walk among them. Blocks of hovels cut through by no street but goatpaths where dogs slink and cower among old gray, chalky dog turds. I wander into an alleyway and fall to my hands and knees and vomit. Nothing comes out but green bile and then nothing, my stomach contracting in vicious spasms that wrack me and leave me sweaty and shivering and weak.
I go out over open lots carefully, my thin shoes negotiating hidden glass and nails. I pause and rest, my hands on my knees. I have sweated through my shirt and it stinks horrendously. I go down alleys and across fences. A man calls out behind me but I don’t look back. Finally I reach the goat path that leads to the river. I go into my tent in the woods and get clean clothes and jump in the river with my dirty ones on. I peel them off and sling them onto the shore and soap up and clean until I think I have gotten all the stink off. A dog comes upstream on the shore in a listless trot, tongue lolling from the heat. I whistle at it and it looks at me and goes on. I get out and dry myself and put on the clean clothes.
Walking on downstream to the landing where a biblecamp bus has parked. People in their clothes foundering in the river. I go down the grassy bank among the watchers and sit down. A preacher in shirtsleeves stands waist deep in water holding a teenage girl by the nose. He finishes canting and tilts her over backward into the river and holds her there a moment and brings her up again streaming and embarrassed and blinking water out of her eyes. The preacher grins. An old man leers at me. I walk to where the preacher is standing.
Hi, I say to the preacher.
Hidy, he says to me.
The girl has nothing on beneath her thin dress and her nipples on appleshaped breasts are standing from the cold.
You saved? Says the preacher.
Say you aint?
The preacher points to another within two arms’ lengths. Thar’s another aint been saved, he says. Says so hisself.
That one? I say.
I’ve been sprinkled on the head, I say.
That’s no good. It wont take ‘less you get total nursin. That sprinkling business wont get it brother. It aint salvation just to get in the water. Gotta accept Jesus. Get in the water if ye want to be saved.
Do I take my shoes off?
Don’t matter, shod or not. Don’t have a little drink on ye, do ye?
Go on then. Get down in that river.
I dust off my pants. A fat lady with enormous breasts is spread-eagled on the ground. An infant is fastened to her nipple.
Y’aint fixin to leave are ye? The preacher says to me.
I sure as shit am.
Ye better get in that river is where ye better get to.
But I know this river well so I turn my back and leave these people behind.