Place Where You Live:

Memphis, Tennessee

River Boats

Maps of the Mississippi, 1950-1996

At first signs of a flood, my grandfather rose from bed in the middle of the night with all the able-bodied men. He stayed out until morning stacking sandbags along the river. He came back the color of mud, caked in sweat. The flood came anyway.

Fresh from high school, my aunt Daisy is working as a DJ at KWAM. During the spring floods of 1973, she rows out to the station in a canoe. Daisy works alone, changing the records, flirting with her lips brushing the microphone. At the end of Daisy’s show, the DJ working the next shift is supposed to meet her with the canoe and row her back to shore. Daisy leaves the station, walks out into the silent night. No canoe. Forgotten, she waits, suspended between the black river and sky. Lapping water. Sliver of snakes.

My mother, barely twenty years old, drives out to the sandbars on Arkansas’ side of the river. She and her friends hand-launch bottle rockets into total darkness, toward the river they can’t see but can feel, like gravity, and just as alien and as intimate.

For the second grade boat race, I made a Viking ship out of Tupperware. The boats raced the length of the model Mississippi River on Mud Island—a relief map, about five blocks long, cast to scale in concrete. We ran alongside the tiny, winding river and its needle-width tributaries, cheering our boats along their convoluted journey. The race ended at the model Gulf of Mexico, the size of a large duck pond, where couples thumped by in rented paddle boats. My boat nearly won, but was sabotaged by a boy who dumped a handful of water into its belly.

After the race we sat on the observation deck, watching the real river in its relentless hurl south, its brown surface smooth and slow, masking a tangle of undertows and currents. While the model river followed a path set in concrete, the actual river rolled wildly past us, its currents spilling over new ground. This was my earliest memory of the river. Sitting on the metal benches of the observation deck, sticky with kid-sweat and sunscreen, I watched the river trail off shining into the horizon. The only thing I knew about the river, then, was to stay out of it.