Can we ever hope to fathom the driving forces of earth and the heavens or how they bewitch us with their alliance? Are we completely under a spell? To believe we have dominion in our puny lives; time and again, to vest – to endeavor – to love. A whisper in the tempest – a fading ember in a storm. It must be enchantment that sways us.
And what of the night, the hypnotic lunar whim that swells the tides then bids them to recede. We are but mortals yielding to an echo, an infinite ebb and flow. How could we help but be persuaded?
Franny and I lay pondering these Gordian knots down by the lake behind my parent’s house. We’re sprawled out on the cypress dock, drinking sweet tea from tall glasses and trying to catch a breeze. The heat is sweltering. It’s dark already, well past eight; but in August, in Florida, even the nights are hot as brimstone. Our shorts and halters are soaked through with sweat. They feel more like latex than cotton. The humidity is so thick it even makes our ice cubes sticky.
We’re stretched out long across the wood planks. Franny’s legs are bent halfway and I’m propped up against them. Across the dark water, nothing is moving. I’ve been trying to make out where the edge of the lake turns into sky but it’s too hazy.
Franny jiggles her leg a bit to nudge me.
“Hey,” she says, breaking the muggy silence, “I’ve been thinking…”
I let my head drop back slightly so it lolls across her knees. “Uh-huh,” I say, looking into the night canopy. Franny takes in a breath.
“I’ve been sitting here, weighing one thing against the other, and do you know what I’ve come up with?”
Her words are slow and thick, wilted almost, like the camellias drooping in my mom’s flowerbed. Even so, there’s a dull tickle that grazes my ear.
“No, Fran. No idea.”
“Well,” she says, “this might sound strange…”
“Okay. Go on.”
“Well, the thing is… I think I might be – I think I might be a vampire.”
Franny’s way of working things out can catch a person off guard.
“A vampire, huh?” I consider, bending my neck back further so my head drops over Franny’s kneecaps and I can see the top of her face. Upside down my eyebrows must look like two smiles.
Franny is staring up at the stars like that’s where she’s getting her information.
“Yessir, that’s a fact!” She drops her eyes down to meet mine and gives me a nod. “Now that I’ve said it out loud I know for sure. I am just an old redneck vampire.”
She cracks me up.
“Really,” I say, shaking my head. “Tell me, Franny girl. How exactly did you arrive at that?”
Franny lets her hand fall over the edge of the dock so she can touch the water and drag her fingertips across the wet surface, little furrows rippling out.
“Well, the thing is,” her voice sidles down low as a hush, “there’s this power deep inside me.”
She pulls her fingers back towards her end of the dock. More ripples spread out and bump against the others.
“This power builds up inside and then, once the moon comes out, it takes me over -completely. It seems like I can be good all day long.”
She whispers, like the words themselves live in the shadows.
“But, once night comes along…”
She sighs, pushing her tongue against her front teeth making a hiss, like steam from a kettle.
“...once it’s night, I’m inclined to look for trouble.”
Franny smacks the water with a sudden hard slap. A silver wet ribbon rifts into a crescent. It arcs high into the air and then spills down again, sluicing cold water full across my bare midriff.
I arch my spine and squeal, pushing away from her and scrambling over to the dock’s edge. I sit with my feet dangling over the side and reach down scooping up as much water as the cup of my hand will hold, and throwing it to land square on the flat of Fran’s belly. It spreads down from her ribs, soaking her shorts clear through. Franny is on her feet in a flash. Ever allegiant to a creed of preemptory escalation, she gives me a hard shove and pushes me straight into the lake.
“You’re such a bitch,” I shout, pivoting my head from side to side and splashing my way back toward the dock. “There are gators in here you know…and snakes.”
I’d seen both living along the edges of the lake’s brackish water, though my father would have told you otherwise. Early each spring he’d come down to the dock with a cooler full of sodas and ham sandwiches and his revolver. My dad would settle out here for a full day, squinting off into the bog, hunting moccasins. My sisters and I would press together on the back porch watching my dad perched on the edge of a mesh lounge chair, muttering I don’t know what, maybe talking to those snakes trying to coax them his way. In time, he’d open up the cooler, take out a sandwich and peel back the wax paper. While he ate, he’d let bits of meat and crust sprinkle down into the lake like bate. All the while he kept his gaze steady – vigilant - scanning the lake for those snakes. Every so often he’d set down his sandwich, raise his gun up level and look hard down the barrel. Once we’d spy him taking aim, my sister’s and I would tear back into the house before he could get the round off. The couch just inside the sliding doors was home base. We’d scramble over the sides and stuff our heads under the cushions to muffle the grim crack of the shot.
My dad generally managed to kill three or four snakes before the sun would go down. Then he’d pack up the cooler, tuck his gun into his belt and haul his catch back up to the house to show us. It was the same every year; he’d call us out to the back yard and hold up a clump of dead cottonmouths. We’d huddle together, looking wide-eyed at the horrible snakes dangling limply two or three feet long beneath his fist. He’d raise them up victoriously, like he’d gotten every last snake out, and proclaim the lake safe for the coming season. Then he’d look at us expectantly, like he thought we might run right up to our rooms and put on our swimsuits for a quick dip before dinner.
“I know there are snakes out here,” Franny calls back from the dock. “Big ones,” she adds, her mouth curling up in a wicked smile. Her eyes shine black with villainy.
Franny has heard all about my father’s hunting exploits.
“And I know those moccasins mainly come out at night ‘cuz that’s when they feed. And they get real mean when it’s hot, especially when there’s a lot of noise and splashing going on. It really pisses them off.”
Franny takes two steps back on the dock and runs toward the water. When she gets to the edge she jumps high and tucks her legs up tight like a cannonball. Great sprays of water shoot into the air when she hits the lake. I scream with delight then dive under before the spray from great geyser clears. I swim down low, gliding through the inky deep like a predatory fish. I find where the water swirls and work out Fran’s outline bobbing in the moonlight above me then I slip my hands up through the raven water and tickle the bottoms of her feet. She screams and kicks away hard like she’s shaking off a nest of eels. When I come up to the surface, a walloped spray of water slaps me right across the face. After that we trade sprays back and forth, treading water and pounding at the lake with the flats of our hands. Then we swim for a while, taking turns diving down to see how close we can get to the bottom. After a while we fall quiet and float, listening to the cicadas and the sound of faint music fading in and out from somewhere across the lake. We float till our fingers start to pucker then swim around to the side of the dock where three slats are nailed to the end-post to make a ladder.
On the dock, I wring out my hair and pull it back in a clip. Franny combs through her hair with her fingers and spreads out a beach towel for us to sit on. The towel is navy blue with a gold Hang Ten logo printed across the front and the words HANG LOOSE fanning out above the logo. Fran kneels down on the edge of the towel and rummages through her bag. She pulls out her tin stash box, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter and places them on top of one another, in a tower, as if stacking stones to make a totem; then settles down next to me on the towel and wipes her hands to make sure they are good and dry. Franny lights a cigarette and passes it over then repositions herself cross-legged so she can roll a joint.
“You know, I get you,” I say, “about vampires, I mean.”
I lean back against the dock post with the cigarette.
“I’m exactly the same way. In the mornings I have such good intentions. I make lists for Christ’s sake.”
Franny rolls her eyes.
“I even manage to get some of the stuff done.”
I pause to take a drag from the cigarette, thinking about the list I’d made in the morning left practically unchecked on the top of my desk. I puff the smoke out in little grey O’s. They dissolve at once in the steamy heat.
“But at night the lists just seem tedious…and endless. I want to cut loose, you know? Have a little fun.”
Franny twists both ends of the rice paper and wets the seal.
“Yup, that’s the vampire in you alright,” she says, shaking her head.
She smiles at the workmanship of her joint for a moment, then lights it and takes a deep hit.
“That craving that comes on at night,” she speaks from way back in her throat so as not to let out the smoke from her lungs. “That’s the devil in you.”
“So, I guess maybe we are vampires,” I nod. “Only we feed on kicks – not blood. Having to find blood would just be one more thing to add to that fucking list …not to mention that it would be disgusting.”
“Redneck vampires,” Franny agrees. She reaches for the cigarette and hands me the joint in exchange. “And, who can blame us? I mean, goddamn, every day there are like a hundred and fifty stupid things we have to do just to stay alive.”
“And, school sucks,” I add.
“And our family lives are, you know, unsatisfactory.”
We’re laughing it all off but it comes out half-sad anyway.
“I do try,” she says in earnest.
I glance over at Franny. She’s staring across the lake and sitting so board straight it looks like she’s the one that’s leaned up against the dock post. Her jaw is set so a little muscle twitches in her cheek; but when her eyelids flutter closed its soft as a prayer.
“I know you do, Fran,” I say, leaning towards her.
“Every morning I think today will be different - today I’ll keep it together.”
She balls her hands up into small, hard fists.
“But, by the time the sun goes down every one of my goddamn dreams grows goddamn teeth.”
Her hands fall open and drop limply into her lap. We look at one another across the towel the way you look into a mirror, searching the reflection for reassurance. Maybe it’s the heat that’s stirred up our melancholy; but more likely it’s doubt. Doubt runs deep inside us both.
“We need more, that’s all there is to it,” Franny finally says with a resolute shrug. She flips her wet hair back between two fingers. “I ask you - is it so wrong to want a little action?”
“No,” I say shaking my head. I flick ash from the cigarette and hear it sizzle on the wet dock. “Absolutely not.”
A tiny piece of the moon sneaks out and shows the outline of black clouds in the overcast sky.
“Maybe dangerous,” I add with a wink, “but certainly not wrong.”
“Exactly,” Franny says, jumping to her feet in a single bounce. She throws her hands up high into the air above her head.
“Dangerous,” she shrieks. “That’s me!”
She closes her eyes her and drops back her head. Her black hair entwines her shoulders like lengths of beach seaweed. Franny opens her mouth and her lips round into an O, like my smoke rings, and she lets spill out a long, sweet howl. It dissolves into the night sky. I lay my head back and join in, both of us baying like coyote at that little sliver of moon.
When the greedy clouds steal back the moonlight, Franny stretches her arms out higher and splays her fingers wide like she might pull the clouds back at the seams. I take a long toke from the joint and hold it in.
“Franny D. Jackman…” Fran shouts out at the night; then, spinning around like a dervish, she bends her knees and stoops down low, an inch from my face. She puts her hands on her thighs and looks me dead in the eye.
“…the D stands for danger.”
“Oh brother,” I laugh. It starts me to coughing. “I thought D stood for Dai, after your grandmother.” I cough more and pat my chest to clear out the smoke.
“Nope,” she says, pouring more ice tea into my glass and handing it to me. I drink it down trying to soothe the cough from my throat.
“I’ve changed it,” Franny tells me. “Now ‘Danger’ is my middle name.”
“Great,” I say with a nod. “That sounds promising.”
“You’re damn right,” she says, eyes lit up bright.
She squats to the side and picks up her glass. She drinks a little and wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
“You want to find some rum or something to put in this tea?”
“I’m way ahead of you,” I say, already shuffling through my bag. I pull out a silver and black flask filled with vodka.
“Mother’s milk,” I say, pouring a heavy shot into each glass. She divvies up what’s left of the tea and we mix it around with our fingers. Franny proposes a toast.
“To us,” Fran tilts her glass slightly toward mine, “creatures of the night.”
“To us,” I agree. “Hot blooded, maybe slightly troubled, redneck vampires.”
We tap our glasses together in a muted clink.
When I think about it now I wonder if, one way or another, we might all be vampires - scrambling for whatever gives us a bump, hoping for just a little more. We try to be good; but goddamn it seems like no matter how hard we try, there are always going to be more snakes. So we crave a little action before that last moon rises. Is that so wrong?