I was 16 years old, and I’d had enough. I was sick of chores. I was sick of curfews. Sick of all the questions about what I was doing and where I’d been. I was ready to cut ties and live the free life.
I was self-sufficient. I had a car and money from my job helping a local contractor build wharves and jetties and bulkheads. It was summer, and I could sleep under the stars and be fine.
Saturday morning I was standing in the driveway beside my car when Mom came outside to get the newspaper.
“I’m running away, ” I told her.
She picked up the paper and stopped to raise her eyebrows at me. “You are?” she asked.
“That’s right, ” I replied, savoring the bravery of my decision.
“When are you leaving?” she asked.
“Right now. I’ve got a tent in my trunk, and I’m going to live on Fish River.”
I watched her while she looked at my car and then back at me again.
“Well, that sure does sound like fun, ” she said. “What kinds of things will you eat?”
“I’ll catch fish, ” I said. “And I’ve got my own money to buy groceries.”
“Is anybody coming to live with you?”
“Maybe, ” I said, like it was none of her business. “I’ve told some people I’m going to be out there.”
“Do you want me to cook you something and bring it to you?”
“No, Mom. I don’t want you to bring me any food. I’m running away.”
“OK. I understand. Gosh, I wish I could come. It sounds like so much fun.”
She really doesn’t believe me at all, I thought.
“So, I’m leaving now.”
“OK, ” she said, turning back to the house. “Have fun and let me know if you need anything.”
I watched her walk inside and shut the door. I got into my car and backed out of the driveway, more full of angst and determination than ever.
“They’ll see, ” I fumed. “They’ll be begging me to come home after I’ve been gone a few days.”
I pitched the tent on the riverbank of a wooded lot my father owned. My friend, Archie, came over that afternoon. He wasn’t claiming to be a runaway, but he was always up for a campout. We swam in the river and talked about girls and music and cars and freedom. Late that afternoon, we caught some small bream and made a campfire and cooked them. As we were picking the last of the fish meat off the bones, a Chevrolet Suburban pulled up.
“Is that your mom?” Archie said.
“Geez, ” I said.
Mom got out of the car holding a paper sack and her purse.
“Hi, Mrs. Key, ” Archie said.
“Hello, Archie, ” she said. “You boys sure have got things looking good out here.”
I frowned and didn’t respond. She held out the sack.
“I brought some sandwiches just in case you want them.”
“We’ve already eaten, ” I said. “We caught fish.”
She set the sack down. Then she took her camera out of her purse and began taking pictures of the tent and us by the fire and our paper plate of fish bones.
“The rest of the family wants to come visit you tomorrow after church, ” she said. “Your brothers can’t wait to see your new home.”
I just couldn’t take it any more. I stood up.
“Mom, I’m running away. You can’t come out here and take pictures of me and bring me food. And I don’t want everybody coming to see me. This is serious.”
“But it just looks like so much fun. Living out here on your own and catching fish and hanging out with your friends.”
“It is fun. That’s why I’m doing it.”
“Just stand over there by the tent and let me get one more.”
“No, Mom. Can’t you just leave me alone already?”
“Oh, OK. We’re having steak tonight if you get hungry.”
“I’ve got plenty to eat.”
That night, some more of my friends came by, and we made the campfire bigger and turned up the car radio and drank a few beers and watched the sparks rise into the pine boughs. Life was good.
The next morning, Archie had to go back to Bay Minette for church. I piddled about the campsite, picking up cans and re-stringing my clothesline that somebody had pulled down. Then I sat beneath a pine tree and ate a can of cold Vienna sausages. When the cicadas began buzzing I stripped to my underwear and went to sit in the river. I sat there, trying to dredge up the passion for independence I’d had the day before, but I just couldn’t get to it. Then I thought about how hot it was getting. And it was Sunday and nobody was coming by to visit.
I can’t go back now.
I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d been mad about. But there had been something.
I showed them.
Text by Watt Key