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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Life Stories

The Other Side of the River
Bill Hedman

Willie James wasn't a big guy in the way that some guys are scary big, he was just big. Caldwell was scary big. An altercation in the locker room after football practice touched the flash point when Willie said, "Cal'wel, watch yo sef, dynamite come in small packages!"

Willie flew like a medicine ball across a bench whanging into a row of lockers, sounding like a car crashing into a dumpster, Caldwell shouting, "Blow up the fuck up, motha' fucka'!"

From time to time Coach would let me on the field. This happened on the occasions when the Bulldogs were miles ahead or miles behind and I couldn't do any damage, except to myself. Willie played center and Caldwell's position was right guard. Frequently we used a quarterback sneak, the two guards and the center would try to blast a hole through the line of scrimmage allowing the ball carrier to run through for a short-yard gain. When I was on the field Coach called this play, "The Middle of the Oreo Cookie".
I wish I had Bertha blocking for me.

Bertha was bigger than Caldwell and Willie glued together. She sat at her assigned desk on my first day at my new school wearing a new pair of size 15 Converse All Stars. Bertha had two pairs, low tops and high tops. Both pairs were white with blue stripes. Sometimes she'd wear one low on the left and a high on the right. Or whatever. Nobody had the heart or the balls to point it out to her. Her knees wouldn't fit under her desk so her legs encircled the desk in front. There was a pleasant musky smell about her. The class thought she was as harmless as a lab puppy and dumb as an Indian River grapefruit. She fell in love at the age of 18.

In Junior high school life was surfing, fishing rock and roll and lots of drugs. Our older brothers would buy beer for us if we gave them the money and half of the beer. We lived on the beach side of the Indian River and could ride our bikes or walk to school. Now we took the bus until we were old enough to drive and had saved enough cash for a car. The Brevard County School Board didn't allow students or parents a choice of school, we were bussed to Melbourne High School, a maelstrom of rednecks from West Melbourne and blacks from South Melbourne; sort of a breeding ground for inmates of a correctional institute. Armed Brevard County deputy sheriffs would patrol the halls of Mel-High. We would skip showers after PE and never went to the bathroom between classes or during lunch hour. It was simply too dangerous, especially for the blonde beach girls who were not only slapped around, but often left the bathroom with new, much shorter hairstyles. If possible we never walked anywhere at school in less than groups of four.

Every morning in homeroom my desk was bordered by a huge pair of legs wearing a pair of white and blue All Stars belonging to a grinning, friendly giant with a heart the size of Canada and minor learning disabilities. Bertha was, as my grandfather would say, "Dumb like a fox". We had two classes together, homeroom and Black Studies*, which was after lunch and before PE. PE was best to have as your last class because it was easy to skip out after role call and hitch a ride back to the beach with one of the seniors and go surfing. Bertha soon sat behind me in both classrooms.

My classmate would move her lips when she read, knew rudimentary arithmetic and was still a sophomore having failed to pass the 10th grade twice and 9th grade once. The rest of the class as well as the teachers treated her as a large piece of oversized ambulatory furniture, a walking wardrobe. My friends and I started helping her with her homework every day. She started saving our white asses from getting kicked every day.

Bertha had a serene disposition, there wasn't a malicious cell in her massive body* except when she saw a friend in peril or she wanted revenge. My big friend could floor a 240 pound over testosteroned athlete with one backhand swipe of an arm and would shoulder into an unequal and often bloody fight like a tugboat into heavy surf to rescue a pair of skinny scared sophomores caught in a bad place. One primordial bellow from Bertha, "Yo leave those boys alone", still wakes some of us in a shudder.
We had a six foot six 300 pound sister on our team.

Revenge is a dish best eaten cold. In our junior year Bertha and I were fast friends to the hilarity and sometime consternation of both of our families and neighborhoods. At school, tensions had reduced to a simmer, riots were monthly and not daily. I had a second hand car, was on the Junior Varsity football team and Bertha's grade point average had increased to a "C". Dinners at their house in South Melbourne prepared by Bertha and her mother were amazing. Fried mullet with grits, hog jowls with collard greens, green tomato pie, fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cream gravy, BBQ Boston butt, fresh grouper steamed in pink grapefruit juice, green beans with bacon; I was a regular at their table and accepted without comment.

Her father was a Reverend in a Baptist Church (no beer in the house, her brothers, Leon and Jason and I drank on the back porch, joined frequently by the Reverend), her mother worked at the hospital and the brothers ran a commercial fishing boat. Bertha's family had a few concerns, though. This white guy that was friends with their daughter was gonna get hurt some day just by being in the wrong part of town and their daughter was going to be hurt because this was a friendship that was going to remain just that. Bertha had no romantic interest in anyone but this white guy that she went to school with who certainly had no romantic interest in her whatsoever. Bertha was just, well, Bertha and I just, well, genuinely liked her.

It happened quick. There were four of them and a baseball bat. I was leaving the house and unlocking the door to my car. The street lights were out as usual. I came to in the hospital to the sound of the Reverend's reverberations. He and his wife were there along with Leon, Jason, Bertha, Willie, Caldwell, Coach, my mom and dad and my own brothers, Mark and Jason. Full house, nothing broken. A few bruises, some stitches in the back of the head, overnight in case there's a concussion and he's home in the morning. Should be back to school in a 'coupla days or so. A deputy sheriff stopped by and announced that they had apprehended the perpetrators, 4 brothers, and they were being held in the Sheriff's office and did my parents want to press charges. Dad said no, leave it. Kid's stuff. The 4 boys lived with their father in a trailer and weren't worth a civil suit. No money in it. Shake hands later and no hard feelings. Put it down to the times.

A few months later, Willie, Caldwell, Bertha and I were heading out to the cow-fields west of Cocoa on a Magic Mushroom Mission. We met for breakfast well before dawn on Saturday at a restaurant in Melbourne called Sambo's*, a bit of an inside joke, and then piled in the car to go pick mushrooms.

*A word or two on Magic Mushrooms: Magic mushrooms must be gathered in the early morning before the sun wilts them. Magic mushrooms contain psilocybin and psilocin which are safer than LSD as they are organic. We really believed that. Magic mushrooms are identifiable by a thin bluish purplish band on the spindly stem under the small cap. Magic mushrooms are free but you must be willing to risk being gored by a bull, bit by a rattlesnake or shot by a redneck rancher for being the wrong color, in the wrong place or being around same. I take that back.. Florida rednecks aren't biased. They'll shoot anyone on their land regardless of race, color or creed and answer questions later if asked. Magic mushrooms are illegal in the United States and we could be arrested for possession of a controlled substance. Trespassing on private property is illegal for which we could be arrested and then convicted of possession of a controlled substance as well as trespassing on private property in possession of a controlled substance. In addition, Bertha could be tried as an adult for contributing to the delinquency of minors for all the above charges multiplied by a factor of three minors. Magic mushrooms can be used for cooking. A favorite recipe was spaghetti and magic mushroom sauce with grated cheese. Magic mushrooms grow in cow shit. An evening high on magic mushrooms is a lot of fun.

We parked the car on a side road off a local highway just before sunup, crawled through the barbed wire fence, no easy feat for Bertha, and made our way carefully and quietly through the fog filled palmettos and pine forest to the edge of the cow-field. Aside from the northbound traffic on I-95 there was nobody around, the cows hadn't been let out yet or were in another field and it was too early for snakes to be active. There was plenty of evidence of cows and loads of mushrooms, though. Each cow patty looked like a mutant porcupine.

In 30 minutes the sun was up and we were headed back to the car carrying a Hefty garbage bag stuffed with mushrooms when Caldwell stepped on an indigo snake.

**A word about the indigo snake: They are purplish black and have a dark blue, fading to white belly. A beautiful, fast and powerful killing machine, indigos are not poisonous, however they are very very nasty and a bite from one of any size is excruciatingly painful. An Indigo snake will kill its prey by gripping the hapless creature in its fangs and dashing it repeatedly against an ungiving object such as a tree or a log, an enrapturing spectacle to watch, but not to participate in. The largest indigo ever captured was just shy of 10 feet long.

The reaction of any biped, regardless of sex, color, race, creed or nationality – except for maybe one well missed Aussie bloke - stepping on a huge black reptile with the girth of Bordeaux bottle is always the same. The stepper screams in an ancient tongue heard since the beginning of humanoid articulation starting with "AAAA", near the middle there is a noticeable change in timbre to the "HHHH" sound and at the end of this unfortunate but transfixing monologue switches to a more modern utterance presumably from a precursor to middle German that sounds like "Fuk!" The indigo, having no capacity for vocalization except for "SSSS", and not happy with his impromptu appointment as steppee, responded by hissing, writhing, coiling and striking; actions performed with amazing acrobatics and in less than a second had plunged its fangs into the crotch of Caldwell's Levis shaking its head from side to side, provoking another louder recital of the above. The snake's head was the size of a garden trowel.
Must have hurt like a motha' fucka' and I think I just borrowed something from Tim Cahill.

Caldwell screamed again. Willie and I froze. Bertha dropped the trash bag full of mushrooms, grabbed the snake just behind the head, squeezed it on either side of the jaws and gently weaned it off Caldwell's dick whereupon it wrapped itself around her upper arm, neck and torso. She said in a calm voice with a hint of a smile, "Blue belly. Indigo snake. Ain't poison. Big guy, tho'. You boys gimme another few a them plastic bags. You be okay Caldwell."
Then she chuckled and inclined her head in my direction " Sheit, nigga, you 'bout the same colah as whitey heah."

Bertha's Spaghetti and Magic Mushroom Sauce

Serves 5
2 pounds ground meat; pork, beef or roadkill
2 _ pounds of magic mushrooms rinsed and chopped
Oil or margarine
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp onion powder
2 quarts of canned tomatoes
1 pound dry Spaghetti noodles
1 very large pissed off indigo snake stuffed in an old handbag. Don't hurt it! It is innocent.Method:
Fry the meat and mushrooms in the oil or margarine in a big pot for 4-5 minutes and then add the
onion and garlic powder. Fry for a further 2 – 3 minutes. Add the tomatoes and some salt and pepper if desired. Stir and simmer for 40 minutes or so. It's not really that important for the flavor, it simply concentrates the active ingredients of the mushrooms to psychotic levels. Chop and throw in a few more mushrooms if desired.
Cook the spaghetti 5 minutes longer than the package directions specify, drain, cut into 1 inch long segments and glop together with the meat, mushrooms and tomatoes a la Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Give it a final stir and deliver it as promised to your new friends living in the trailer to further cement your new relationship.

Sit down for a quick but friendly chat about shooting rats at the county dump or other topics.. Don't stay for dinner.
Psilocybin and psilocin, being organic, leave few traces. There is no discernible half life to these natural drugs. The effects of a single mushroom consumed on an empty stomach will start to be felt after around ten minutes and the "high" will peak at 30 minutes, similar to a wave breaking onshore and then slowly receding. During the peak, sounds and colors become a little bit distorted, everything is laugh out loud funny and mild hallucinations may occur. The after effects can last for 3 – 5 hours and are mildly euphoric. Mushrooms can be fun and nobody gets hurt.

In larger quantities of, let's say a half a pound per person, the psilocybin and psilocin interact rather riotously with each other and a further member of the cast, a neurotransmitter called tryptamine, will now enter stage left in a major role instead of staying in the orchestra pit. It's kinda like glugging a gallon of gasoline onto a burning BBQ. The trio attack the senses and psyche as a triple tag-team, rapidly pummeling the nerve centers into a quivering mass of reactive protoplasm, producing distortions of time, distance, speed, as well as causing acute paranoia, loss of sensation in extremities, chills, violent nausea and amazingly turbulent vivid hallucinations. This called a "Really Bad Trip".
The good news is that, in normal circumstances, there are no after effects. Lucidity returns in a day or so. Stay away from stressful circumstances and keep away from knives and guns..

The bad news is that someone left a handbag in your trailer and your phone is ringing.
Caldwell went to a university in Washington on a football scholarship, played for the Washington Redskins, is now an attorney for the ACLU, and lives in Seattle.
Willie is a Reverend with a flock of about 2000. We meet up every few years and drink beer on his back porch with his two sons, Caldwell and William. No beer is allowed in the house.
Bertha's size was too much for her heart and it let her down not too long ago. She's now with her mom and dad, probably cooking something.
One day I hope she'll block for us.

© Bill Hedman September 2009

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