I hadn't seen the boy for several years. We'd grown up together in that Alabama town on the river, and the river had been a large part of that growing up. It was the Tennessee River flowing right through the Heart of Dixie, and that muddy current washed away a lot of hopes and dreams, along with some blues and bruises.
One summer we took an old skimpy fishing boat with a little motor on it and shoved it underneath a raft we built. That raft was so crudely homemade that Huck Finn would have turned his nose up at it, but it suited our purposes just fine. We'd dock it at an abandoned tannery on the river, underneath some brush, and when we arrived in the middle of the River on a Sunday afternoon, it was like the Sex Pistols playing a full-blown Baptist wedding for the mayor's daughter.
Usually, it was me and J.B. and Burle. We built the raft and we built it for those who weren't in need of creature comforts. There was wood to sit on, a little motor to incrementally charge the waters, and you could bring your own beer. If you showed up with a lawn chair, you were branded a pussy and usually thrown overboard as soon as we were in deep enough water to make drowning a dramatic possibility.
But now it was several years later and Burle was a CPA in Atlanta. I was in Management School for a big outfit housed there and we'd made plans to spend my last weekend on his sailboat up on Lake Sidney Lanier about an hour north of town.
As soon as I was out of my month-long training marathon that warm Friday afternoon, he was there at the front gates to pick me up in his brand new sports car. The boy who grew up in a house with half a dozen siblings and not a pot to piss in was driving a shiny new, red Datsun Z-car. And he was driving me to Lake Lanier where he had a damn fine sailboat in a slip just waiting on us.
I doubt if God has ever created a more beautiful lake that this clear blue patch in Georgia. You could tread water out in the middle of the lake and count every little piggy on your feet. I was in heaven out there, rehashing old times with an old friend and tossing back beers at exactly the midday pace good ol' boys were born to recognize. And that's when I heard about the girlfriend.
Jimmy (Burle's real name . . . funny, we couldn't even remember how he got that nick) had always been a bit funny when it came to the girls. He never had a steady back then when we were doing the river rafting, even after the rest of us started dating. We never wondered much about it; we just figured he hadn't found the one he wanted. But now he was telling me that his girlfriend was driving up and he needed to tack his way to the dock to pick her up. The weekend had been fun until then.
Have you ever been introduced to an awful choice for a companion by a friend of yours as his girlfriend? It's hard, isn't it, to keep your mouth shut and not say anything except, "Nice to meet you"? The evil mojoe was sparking off this girl like a manhole cover being rolled down Peachtree Street. Her little dark eyes were darting hither and yon like a captured bait minnow, even when you'd just innocently ask her if she wanted another drink.
I tried to forget about her. Another couple of old friends pulled up to join us in a motorboat, and the rest of the afternoon went smoothly: Until I was left alone with Jimmy and his new girlfriend. She looked nervous as she cooked the shrimp down in the mess while Burle and I sat above deck, now neck-deep into the brown wine. He had a look in his eye I'd never seen before. He was still being hospitable to me, but there was a twitching, a nervous sideways glancing that was new.
She seemed nervous when she served dinner, too. "Is this alright, honey," she asked as she shoved the shrimp on his plate.
"Well, if a fucking idiot had cooked it, I guess it'd be alright. I told you not to put that fuckin' crab boil in there, didn't I?"
Life on that little piece of floating real estate got very strange at this point, and didn't get normal again until my feet hit land and I managed to get my happy ass as far from these folks as quickly as I could, given the limitations of human transportational devices. Prior to my happy escape, I had to endure a full evening and most of another day with this most unhappy couple.
That night, I slept in the forward bunk and they were in the aft quarters, just a piece of plywood away from me. As her head hit the sides of the cabin walls and he screamed, "You fucking whore! You like it like that, don't you?!?" and her very real pleas for mercy as well as love floated up into the night sky above that vessel floating with anchor in the middle of one of the most beautiful lakes on earth. I tried to think of the things in life for which I was thankful. I thought about the girls I'd known in the years since I first met Jimmy, and I couldn't think of one I hated enough to treat in this manner. In fact, I couldn't even think of one upon whom I'd wish any harm at all.
The next day, it seemed as if all three of us were trying to pretend that nothing had happened. She had combed her shoulder length hair over the black eye and Jimmy was sitting in the deck chair drinking coffee with a relaxed smile. It almost seemed as if he was proud of something unspoken. My disgust was reaching a boiling point, but I was in the middle of a lake on his boat, having been driven there by way of his automobile, and this was long before cell phones.
I tried to make small talk again. Things were starting to even out when the girl came up on deck and made her stand. As she stood there, with such a tenuous defiance that it was laughable, arms on hips, she said in a squeaky voice: "I'm not going to be treated like this any more, Jimmy! You have got to start treating me better!"
Burle looked her up and down, as if to take the measure of this affront full in, and assumed a sickeningly paternal tone. "Oh, baby, are you hot about this? Really? I didn't know I had made you so mad. Why don't you take a little swim and cool off and we'll talk about it when you've calmed down?" The girl took him seriously. I couldn't believe it as I saw her strip down to her bathing suit and flash a smile as she dove overboard.
He threw her a life preserver and cupped his hands around his mouth: "I'll be back to get your fucking ass when I'm ready to go home." And he sailed off to leave her there for a couple of hours.
I tried to talk to him about the subject that was so far out in the open now that it could not be ignored. It didn't take long to realize that he was just a misogynic madman. The more I'd try to reason with him about his behavior, the prouder he became of that same behavior. It became clear that the girl might die out there if I didn't just shut up and wait him out.
When we picked her up, finally, and sailed back to shore, she got into her car and drove off and I got back into that sports car and drove back to Atlanta with Jimmy. We didn't have much to say at this point. And I've never spoken to him again since.
I got in the nearest shower to wash up before the trip back home. The walls of the shower started moving around me and I felt as if I was in the middle of an earthquake. It took me quite a while to realize I was experiencing the phenomenon of sea legs. I'd been on that boat so long that my body wasn't used to the stability of land. I wondered if this was how Jimmy must feel about relationships with the opposite sex. Was he always off balance and awkward?
No matter how dysfunctional you are, sexually, there is no good reason to treat another human being in a degrading manner. Especially when they care for you. And even more especially if you're trying to prove a point to someone who really doesn't give a shit about the way your pitiful, seemingly successful life turned out.