Blaine Ely

River Baby

Her toenails are still painted when we find her. Their fluorescent pink glowing on the ends of pale toes, electric against the river’s edge. I’m walking ahead and see her first, then Trevor—him pushing me away for a better look. Her just lying there, a roadkill stare.

The buzzards—a whole storm of them. They’ve already found her. Some trace lazy circles through the sky’s gray, signaling. Others surround the body, circling her with their ritual.

We try and get closer, try and scare them away. Howling at them like animals, hurling rocks the size of baseballs. We’re doing all this but still can’t remember if she ever told us her name. If she even had one.

“It starts with a K,” Trevor finally says, stomping a foot toward one of the birds—its wings spread, retreating with the rest of them to the closest dock. “K- or maybe M. Maybe it’s Maggie, like Buck’s old pointer.”

“It ain’t Maggie,” I say.

But neither of us know. Dad had only ever called her Baby when she’d stay at the house. Her bloodred Pontiac crooked in the driveway when we’d get off the bus from school. Baby, fetch me them cigarettes. Baby, beer’s in the fridge. Back when she’d fry eggs in bacon grease and slide them straight from the skillet onto paper plates. Crush lipsticked cigarettes into the table’s wood with her skeleton fingers. Baby, them boys can take care of themselves.

Trevor walks the bank now with his arm babycradling rocks, collecting the ones with some weight to them. The ones that feel good in his hand. “Dad probably didn’t know it either,” he says.

I step closer and kneel down and turn my head to see her better, imagining her mouth not half-open in the mud and her hair not dried in ropes to her cheek. I imagine her skin not rusted and her eyes not just holes in her skull. I imagine all this and her bending, reaching for a Budweiser can in our fridge. Jean shorts she had cut herself, frayed and a little uneven, pinching and showing the bottom of each cheek. Trevor would catch me looking and ask: “You thinkin’ about hittin’ that?” and laughing like I didn’t know what he meant.

Trevor’s pitching rocks now from the windup like Catfish Hunter. His perfect sliders pounding the dock in gunshot echoes. The birds hissing like leaking gas.

I reach out, touching her. Finger pressing against the skin. Dried mud spiderweb cracking around the flesh of her thigh. I feel the fray of her shorts, trace the curve of stained denim.

“We’ll call her Baby,” I say.

“Baby, Baby, Baby,” Trevor says, another rock leaving his hand.

I stand and look over her. Admire her twisted shape. Think: I’ll remember her in black and white—or with eyes, at least.

The swarm of greasy birds is growing now, lining the crooked dock. They watch from its rails like perfect gargoyles, hearing me clear my throat. Reach for my deepest voice.

“Sorry, Baby,” I say.

Blaine Ely graduated from Western Kentucky University in May of 2014. He is currently a second-year MA student in creative writing at Auburn University, where he teaches composition and works as an assistant editor for Southern Humanities Review.