Last week was my grand-nephew Austin’s birthday. He would have been 19 years old. This is a story about him that was originally published in Issue 10 of the print magazine GRIST.
When Austin was four years old, we went swimming in Florida’s Ocala National Forest, not far from the springs where the early black-and-white Tarzan films were made, the ones that starred Johnny Weissmuller. Austin’s mother, my niece Theresa, wanted us to go to a place called The Run, which at that time was unregulated, but that meant another ten miles of driving, and I was tired, hot, and able to pay the entrance fee to the Juniper Springs State Park. We parked the car and walked down the shaded path to the spring, under live oaks draped with Spanish moss and resurrection fern, past palmetto thickets. Austin went barefoot on the path’s cool sand, and so did I.
As soon as the water came into view, Austin ran straight to the edge of the limestone rocks and dove in head first. I followed him in a panic because I didn’t know he could already swim. The water was so clear then, the underground cave where the spring rushed forth was visible, and so was Austin, his little stick legs snapping straight and then drawing up in right angles like a frog’s. He was headed down, down, down toward the source, and I held my breath with him as Theresa caught up with us, chatting with two bikers who had walked up the path behind us. Why didn’t I dive in after him? He looked so sure of himself, I suppose, but my lungs were fit to burst when he surfaced and shot over to another ledge. He climbed up onto an outcropping, his limbs shining with water, his little toes grabbing the rough stone, and then he dove back in again, as if the only world that mattered to him was the one below the surface.
“I been to Indiana,” I heard Theresa saying to the bikers, “but it was too damn cold for my blood.” She had called me once from Indiana to tell me someone had taken off with the car I’d given her, a little Saturn sedan with almost 200,000 miles on it that had taken me from Boston to Savannah to North Florida year after year. When Theresa lost custody of Austin for the first time, she was living in the Ocala National Forest, not far from this spring, and the boyfriend who had been driving her around was dead, his guts blown away by an angry man with a shotgun while Austin looked on. That shooting put Austin into foster care, and it put Theresa on the path of trying to get him back. I knew transportation was critical for a teenage woman who was trying to work and trying to stay straight and trying to get her son back. I was getting a new vehicle, and the Saturn was a four-door that would easily accommodate a car seat. It was the right thing to do, but the car didn’t last her very long.
Austin kept diving down toward the mouth of the cave. He was a beautiful child with his mother’s thick blond hair, and the long, slim frame he shared with her that pops up only occasionally in my family. Most of us are compact, built for the long haul on short fuel. I dove into the spring; the water infused my skin with its fresh chill, and I paddled around with Austin, grateful for his squeals of delight when I splashed him, and squealing myself when he pretended to be a shark sneaking up on me. Without asking, it was impossible to know whether he remembered the shooting. He had been at the age when some memories stick forever and others are easily rinsed away. I hoped his memories of days like this, of swimming in the clear water, would drown out the blood and screaming.
A year later, I went to pick Austin up outside of Savannah in Garden City, at a house Theresa was staying in. I had two other young kids with me, Austin’s cousins, and the plan was for them to spend the weekend together. The house had once been a single family bungalow, but it had morphed into a rooming house. The neighborhood was just off of Route 80, a short walk from the restaurant where Theresa had just started as a waitress. Theresa had one room for herself and Austin. Her father, my brother James, had another room, but the three or four remaining rooms were taken by people I didn’t know. The place made me skittish as soon as I walked inside. A bittersweet, burnt odor permeated the house, something I recognized but could not at first identify.
“Okay, Austin,” I said, after giving him and Theresa a hug, “pack up your stuff.” I expected him to be prompt and competent, maybe because I remembered his adult demeanor at the spring, or maybe because I had an idea of him being older than his years, but he whined for his momma to help him, and she did, with a motherly air that seemed out of place in this room where the windows were covered with sheets.
“Smells like crack in here, Theresa,” I said, “like it’s in the walls.” The walls were papered in a style that looked left over from the 1940’s: palm leaves and hibiscus on a beige background. At the ceiling and at the edges, the paper curled and rusted.
Theresa pulled herself up to her full height and arched her back. “What you mean by that, Aunt Michele?”
“I mean it smells like crack in here,” I said, just as someone began tapping on the front door.
A man in a nearby room yelled, “Do not let that motherfucker in the house!” More tapping. Another, louder, “Do not let that motherfucker in the house.” It kept up, like a call and response, the tapping and the cursing.
The kids and I stood in the hallway outside of Theresa’s room. A white man who looked to be in his fifties, wearing a dingy t-shirt, jeans, and flip flops ran past us. Spinning like a sprayed roach, he made a circuit around the kitchen and the hallways, doing his part in the call and response, varying the emphasis on each word. “Do NOT let that motherfucker in the house” shifting to “Do not LET that motherfucker in the house,” shifting to “DO not let that motherfucker in the house.”
“Don’t pay any attention to him,” said Theresa. “He’s just crazy.” She finished packing Austin’s bag. I grabbed it, and herded the kids toward the front door.
Through a window, I saw a handsome young black man on the porch. He wore a Chicago Bulls t-shirt over long shorts, and his neck was hung with gold chains. He was the person who had been tapping on the door. He was the motherfucker. I saw him tap again and lean in as if listening. I scooted the kids behind me and opened the door. The man smiled big and cheesy at me.
“How you doin’?” he asked.
“I’m good,” I said to him.
“No, really,” he said. “How you doin’?”
“No, really,” I said. “I’m good. I got some kids here, and we’re about to leave.”
The man looked behind me at the kids and then stepped back. He wore enormous red and white sneakers, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Austin and my other nephew appraising them.
“Thank you,” I said to the man. “C’mon, y’all.”
The kids filed out the door in front of me, and I heard the man yell into the house, “How y’all doin’ in there?” as he walked inside. One more “Do not let that motherfucker in the HOUSE” followed us out to the car.
We drove to a water park out by Statesboro, and I splashed around with the kids, wondering all day how I could bear to bring Austin back to that house. Luckily, I had time to think because the plan had been that he’d stay overnight with me and his cousins. As night fell, we drove back east through Savannah on Bay Street, and headed toward my Uncle Charles’ house on Wilmington Island. At a traffic light, Austin crowed from the back seat, pointing to his left. “That’s the way to River Street!” He was right, even though he’d only been there once. Like a lot of us, he was born with a compass in his head that told him when he had arrived somewhere he’d been before.
The next day, I went to the restaurant where Theresa was working to tell her I wasn’t bringing Austin back to the Garden City house. It wasn’t fair to confront her at a job she’d just gotten; the management would have no attachment to keeping her on, so she probably wouldn’t make a scene. From my own waitressing experience, I knew business would be slow at about 3:00 pm, and that Theresa would be doing her sidework, cleaning out coffee pots and filling salt and pepper shakers and ketchup bottles for the dinner crowd. I knew she’d be able to talk to me, but not for too long.
We sat at a table in the back of the restaurant where she was rolling silverware into napkins. The silverware was fresh out of the dishwasher, and still warm. “Honey,” I said, “that house is not a safe place for a kid. We’re keeping Austin until you find a better place to live.” Using the royal “we,” as in our whole family, was unfair, too. She looked at me blankly. She’s drained out, is what I thought. I bent over to hug her, and she didn’t get up out of her chair.
But that night, Theresa came looking for her son. She had lost her afternoon flatness, and she was adamant. “He’s what I live for,” she said. When he ran into her arms, how could I stand between them? I couldn’t. Neither could anyone else.
A month or two later, the house in Garden City spun into a chaos even Theresa couldn’t live with. She had a new man, and when that man beat her, my brother James stabbed him through the left kidney. It is a testament to that man’s reputation for violence that my brother was never charged with the stabbing, and only questioned briefly by the police. Theresa brought Austin back to the Ocala National Forest, where he had been born, where we had swum in Juniper Springs.
The Forest is deep and diverse, colored in every possible shade of green. It contains four National Wilderness areas and is home to otters, armadillos, black bears, white-tailed deer, bobcats, cottonmouths, and alligators. People live there, too, mostly in trailers on rented land. There is plenty of privacy, as most of the land is inaccessible by roads, and there is a long tradition of large-scale marijuana cultivation in The Forest. In the 1970’s and ‘80’s, several of my brothers worked for people who ran pot farms. Later, The Forest became home to people importing cocaine, heroin, pharmaceuticals, and finally to meth labs. In and around the Forest, fifty-seven meetings of Narcotics Anonymous are held per week. In the nearest towns of any size, Silver Springs and Ocala, you can attend meetings of Narcotic Anonymous morning, noon, and night.
About a year later, Austin was removed from Theresa’s care again, after a man she was staying with shot himself in the head. Austin witnessed that, too, and soon after, his father, who’d had little to do with Austin, was murdered in prison. The father’s parents were heartbroken. Austin was all they had left of their only son, and they begged Theresa to let Austin come live with them on their spread in rural central Florida. Eventually, they also talked her into letting them adopt him. “They’re good people,” Theresa told me, “and they can do more for him. He’s in private school. He’s playing football. They live on fifty acres with four-wheelers and everything.”
I saw the photos of him wearing a polo shirt with the school’s logo emblazoned on a pocket, and of him wearing his football uniform, holding his helmet, and another of him with his arms looped around the shoulders of two other boys. In all of the photos, he is smiling broadly, the resilient child who has bounced into a stable living situation.
Theresa stayed in touch with Austin, but mostly what she had left of motherhood was her love for him and his name tattooed on her neck. I was sorry to see another of our family’s children given up, but I also breathed a sigh of relief. Austin was prone to happiness and affection. He would, I was certain, thrive in a steady-state environment. He would be safe.
Whenever someone from my family calls, my gut drops because it’s so often bad news. Five years after Austin moved in with his grandparents, I was on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine, getting ready to attend a meeting of people interested in environmental issues. When my phone rang, I took the call, although I don’t always do that. It was my sister. There had been an accident. Austin had been visiting relatives with his grandparents in Colorado. There had been a dirt road, a four-wheeler. Head first. A broken neck.
He was fourteen.
He’s been dead for almost two years now. I’ll be with Theresa soon because I’m back in Florida, making another new life for myself in another new job. Like her, I find the North too cold for my blood.
Today I kayaked down Juniper Run through one of the Forest’s National Wilderness areas. Afterward, I walked down to the spring to rinse the sweat from my skin. The path is broader but still shaded by the live oaks, which are lush with resurrection fern because it’s been a rainy summer. The spring looks changed; the state has built a concrete enclosure around the waters, creating a tame, circular swimming pool. The rough edges of the limestone have been smoothed, but the water is as I recall it: clear and cool and infused with the presence of Austin. I can still see him kicking down toward the mouth of the cave.