My Mississippi River Boat / by Jeffrey Penn May

           After two weeks in 1969 floating a scrap wood and oil drum buoyant raft on the rainbow toxic Mississippi and smearing antibiotic cream on skin lesions, I sold the raft at Memphis but wanted New Orleans so I worked hard at part-time jobs and bought a john-boat and welded on iron bars and rigged steering and then rode the receding waters of the 1973 flood all the way to the big easy and my Dad hauled me and my small flat-bottom boat back to St. Louis where I went water skiing north of Alton, my small boat pulled by the ski rope sideways and the 1920-Mark-30 Mercury motor whining like it was about to shear another pin, and the surging wake of a towboat swallowed my boat capsizing, swimming to shore in the turbulent muddy water while gripping the gunwales. After college in 1976, I wanted to sell the boat so I could pay first month’s rent on a run-down suburban apartment near the airport; I was broke and for all I knew so was my Dad but my Dad gave me money because he liked to fish the big river even though we almost crashed into a rich man’s yacht when the steering cable unraveled and I wound it back the wrong way but forgot to tell him and he turned right and the boat went left. We headed upriver toward a line of black clouds over the Our Lady of the Rivers statue at Portage des Sioux and stopped mid-channel, yellow anchor rope stretched tight and our glinting clear fishing lines angling against the heavy current, and we popped open beer while watching the smooth river reflecting blue behind us but upriver black clouds lingering as if we’d never feel the coming rain or catch any fish. We drank while watching the blackness and Dad told me Mom was worried and I only understand now because I have my own kids, and if my son were a college graduate with a low paying part-time restaurant job, I might also be troubled. But everything was under control and I told him so even though I ate peanut butter for dinner and lightning skipped across the dark water crack! and the fish came one after the other – sleek shiny fish – each with a large round lump on its forehead, Dad ripping out hooks and tossing fish behind him and baiting again, reloading and casting back into the mighty river now flexing her muscles with waves slapping in tune with the fish flailing against the bottom of my john-boat and piling around us and my Dad casting madly, white caps rushing toward us, and suddenly the frenzied river calmed… eerily quiet – except for tail fins thumping, the slap slap of dying fish as my Dad whacked them on the head with his knife, then picked one up and carved into its forehead digging the knife into the flesh and carving out cartilage like a skipping stone covered in fish slime and blood, turning it over in his hands and then handing it to me as the temperature plummeted and suddenly warm again as waves attacked our boat with lightning flashing eerily red through dark green clouds. I yanked the motor alive and my Dad sat next to me, fish carcasses levitating at our feet as I steered slamming into whitecaps – Dad must have known this was our last battle on the river together.




Jeffrey Penn May’s creative nonfiction received a Pushcart nomination and his novel was praised in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Please visit his website and Facebook page