He’s 7 years old when he first sees the two teenage figures slouching back into the bottoms of Mud Creek in Wannville, Alabama. He shivers and watches them through the window of his Uncle Wood and Aunt Clora’s house. The window fogs with his breath as they approach the tree line, ducking to miss branches. He thinks about them circling through the woods and appearing on the porch behind him. Maybe they’ll kill Uncle Wood and Aunt Clora and steal all their food. Or maybe they’re gonna drag him into the woods and eat him.
Goosebumps work their way up his spindly arms. The wood stove pops, and he jumps a little. He sure hopes they just keep going and don’t look back his way.
It’s 1951, and his father has just died.
Many years later, he will be your grandfather on your dad’s side. His name is Robert Louis Phillips, but everyone has already taken to calling him Sob or Sobby.
When you were 12, his momma told you, “that little squirt would squall and scream and beg me not to put him on the school bus. Everybody started calling him that and I reckon it just stuck.”
Right after his momma told you about how he got his name, she died in her sleep.
She laid down for a nap and never woke up. “Such a peaceful way to go,” people would say. “If you have to leave this Earth, that’s about the best way.” You want to tell them none of that makes two goddamns to rub together. She’s still dead either way.
That was still, perhaps, the worst day of your life. You cried all night, but you never saw Sob shed a tear.
You don’t know if that’s progress or not.
The teenagers are in the woods now, but Sob can still see them. They look dirty and are not dressed warmly enough. Their breath crawls in front of them; swirling and combining into a single white cloud before they walk through it. The air dissipates, giving their red faces and noses a brief, warm respite from the freezing air.
He’ll see them walk in and out of the Bottoms many times, usually carrying supplies they will take back to their tent on an island down the Tennessee River.
He calls it Starkey Island when he tells you about it in 2015.
It’ll come to be called that many years later in honor of a hunter who is not born yet, but who will spend many days on it blowing a duck call and drinking beer and laughing before he dies one night in Scottsboro.
That was in 1986.
Your father tells you that William David Starkey was in his late 20s (he was 29) when it happened. The rumor is Starkey ran into his former fiancée and her new boyfriend at a bar on a cold November night. Maybe Starkey was going hunting the next day. It would have been near the beginning of the season.
When you were a child all your father’s hunting buddies would converge on your house the days before duck season; a warm up to Santa Claus’s visit just a month later. They would camp out at the Shooting Area, near the River, for days. They didn’t want to lose their spot in line and hoped to get in the best cluster of trees on opening morning. Your father would scout for weeks to see which spots the ducks used in pre-dawn.
You and your mother would take the men breakfast in the days leading up to the season. They would always be asleep in their trucks, boats in tow, and in line with other hunters also waiting for midnight of opening day—when the game warden would come and open the gate to the flooded fields.
The excitement of a new season surged through you; daydreaming at school of being in the boat before the sun comes up. You’d think about getting a fleeting glance of ducks in the dark, of hearing them chirp at each other.
Maybe that feeling never went away for Starkey.
The best your father can remember from everyone’s account, Starkey, his former fiancée, and a man who was her new love interest crossed paths at a place called The Filling Station. Starkey left, maybe because his heart was too full and aching.
He went to a place called The Hunter. Your father tells you it was in a hotel lobby in Scottsboro. The man and Starkey’s ex followed shortly after, but your father says there was not a confrontation. Starkey went outside, and the man followed. A few minutes later the man reappeared, finished his drink, then went back outside. When he came back through the door of The Hunter, he told someone inside to call an ambulance.
Everyone said Starkey was shot while he was bent over looking into the trunk of a car. A 9-millimeter pistol bullet to the back of the head. It went out Starkey’s face. The man is out of prison when your father tells you about this in 2015.
He says Starkey always joked about death. He told your father and their hunting buddies when he died, he wanted them to wrap his casket in chicken wire and cover it with branches and leaves—like the duck blinds your father spent so many hours making in the days leading up to the season.
Starkey told them to lay his duck calls on top of the covered casket, to load it in a boat, and to take his body for a lap around the duck pond.
“So I can say ‘goodbye’ one last time.”
The teenagers live on the island with their father, and Sob will eventually come to know them as Johnny and Roy Arrick. Not long after Sob’s father died, so did Pop Arrick. Sob tells you that Roy, the eldest of the two boys, sat up for seven straight days and nights as pneumonia wrapped its grip around Pop’s lungs.
When he died, the boys put his body on their boat. Mud Creek was flooded, so they were able to bring him right up to the highway for the hearse. Uncle Wood went to make sure the boys didn’t have to load their daddy up, even though they’d already had to put him in the boat.
You see their run-down camper at the curve in the road at J.B. Worley’s place.
You’re 7 years old, and you watch the shed pass from vision out the window of your father’s old Chevrolet pick-up y’all use for hunting trips.
You think, How can them two guys live like that? Ain’t they cold in the winter? Do they got food to eat? Where is their families?
You only know them as Johnny and Roy, and you’ve never seen them, just their beat-up camper on the edge of the Mud Creek Bottoms. You don’t know they’re brothers. You just assume they’re two old wanderers who have crossed paths and pooled their collective bad luck into this shack on the side of the road. They’re a threat to you and your sister.
You’ve been told, “If you cain’t keep your room no cleaner than that, we’ll just take you down to Johnny and Roy’s and you can live with them.”
You wonder what Johnny and Roy look like, but also hope you never see them.
Do they stink? Do they have that hangdog look cartoon hobos have? Does anybody love ‘em?
It’s dusk and late summer when you and your father drive by, so the windows of the truck are rolled down. College football is playing on the radio.
“How do Johnny and Roy take baths?”
“I reckon they go down to the Creek and scrub off.”
“What about when it’s cold though?”
“I reckon they do without.”
The questions keep you up at night.
You’re driving around with friends the summer after your 10th grade year in your 1991 Toyota Camry.
The car has a busted headlight and a dented hood where a man backed into your mother a few years before. The man promised he’d pay to fix the headlight if your mother wouldn’t call the Law. He was in a company truck and didn’t want to get into trouble.
They exchanged information, but nothing more than a runaround ever came from it. It would cost a decent amount of money to fix, so your father spent his first off day in weeks to fix it the best he could. A hammer and some bungee cables mostly did the trick. When you started driving, the Toyota Camry with a busted headlight and a messed-up hood became yours.
“The hell is that?” one of your friends asks as you round the curve in the road at J.B.’s place.
“Does somebody live there? I seen lights.”
“Yeah. Two old bums.”
You say it without thinking, but your friends laugh.
It’s 2012, and you work at a television station in Huntsville.
You get a press release from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office. About 40 percent of the time it’s a mug shot of one of your former classmates or friends, so you open it. Instead, it is a death investigation; an old man’s body found in the slew that runs behind Mud Creek Restaurant.
You grew up fishing in those waters.
Your sister is about to be born and even though your mother is in the most miserable stage of pregnancy in peak Alabama humidity, she takes you fishing for hours in that slew. She doesn’t have a license, so she ties a Mason jar lid on the end of your Mickey Mouse fishing pole. You won’t catch anything, but you don’t care. You’re fishing. Just like Daddy and Papa Sob and Papa Jessie.
Upon retelling this story to someone else, they reply, “You could have actually put a bait on there for him. That ain’t against the law.”
“Well, if he caught a fish, he wasn’t big enough get the hook out of it, and I definitely didn’t want to mess with it.”
When your dad gets home he takes you and your pregnant momma, your little sister in her stomach, to dinner at “The Restrunt” as y’all all call it. He pays for dinner and talks to the old man behind the counter, but all you can pay attention to are the Life Savers suckers sitting next to the register.
You reckon you could have one of them? The man gives you one sometimes. They’re creamy and fruity.
He probably sees you eyeballing the display, and hands you one. Strawberry.
“Boy, when you get big, you’re gonna be the greatest outdoorsman the Creek’s ever seen. You got too much of your daddy’s and his daddy’s blood in you not to be.”
The man’s name is Bill Carver and he runs The Restrunt. His family founded it in 1946. When you’re a teenager, you’ll park your Camry with the busted headlight between The Restrunt and the slew to make out with girls and to tell them about Bill Carver and his Life Savers suckers.
When you read the press release about the body, you call your mother.
“That was bad about Roy, wasn’t it?” she asks.
“Yeah, who was that? Said his last name was Arrick. I don’t reckon I know him.”
“Yeah, you do! That was Roy…like Johnny and Roy.”
It stings to hear. You wouldn’t know the man if he were standing across from you, but it takes your breath when you hear about his death.
“Was him and Johnny still living in the camper over at the curve in the road?”
“Son, Johnny died.”
“Three…four years ago. When you was away at college.”
An enigma, tossed into the Creek. It floats to the River, and eventually out to the Gulf. The questions always swirling around in your head like an eddy in the Creek.
“Nanny says Papa’s going to the funeral. It’s tomorrow afternoon.”
“So he knew ‘em?”
“I reckon so.”
Your grandmother asked Sob to go to the funeral, “to represent our family.”
“They was always just so freehearted,” she says.
“There’s more people there than you’d’uv thunk,” Sobby tells you, leaning forward in his chair.
“Mailman and his wife was even there. I mean, shit, there’s a ton of people there.”
As Sob tells you about their history, you can see everything that’s wonderful and terrible about the way you and your father tell stories. His hands move through the air, not flailing, but always in motion. He orchestrates a symphony that, to an untrained listener, doesn’t always appear to be organized. There are digressions. There are long, dramatic pauses. There is no such thing as a stand-alone piece. But the maestro knows where this is going and that’s all that really matters. The less you question him and just let him take you on a journey, the better.
“Hell, I knowed them my whole life more or less.”
He talks about first seeing them as the shadowy figures going in and out of the Bottoms—heading back to Starkey Island with their father. He can’t remember how he actually got to know them. That was a long time ago. The three Arricks moved to a spot at Mud Creek called Cheese Hill. It’s near the entrance to the River, and you can see it from the slew where Roy died. You spent plenty of days there hunting for duck and squirrel. They lived near the white oak tree, “the one with the limbs that run straight out,” Sob says and hold his arms outstretched to illustrate it to you. “I might have showed it you one time.”
This is the way he describes everything, like he’d know if there was a single
branch or a speck of the red clay out of place in the Bottoms.
He wants you to see what he sees.
That’s where the Arricks lived, in a tent, when their father died. After that, the boys moved to the River bank and bought what Sob describes as something like “an old ice cream truck.” Sob says they lived there “for ever and ever and ever” until TVA intervened.
“The law delivered them a letter. I read it to ‘em. Couldn’t either one of ‘em read.”
They had 10 days to move or TVA was going to bulldoze their home, so they moved to Lee Garner’s place, not too far from the Creek. By that time Sob was a teenager. He took your grandmother there “when we was going together.” She’s sitting next to him and making sure his tall tales don’t get too out of hand. They tell you all the teenagers wanted to go to Johnny and Roy’s. It was by the water and they were always cooking fish. There was also never a shortage of beer.
“Shit, it ain’t nothing to brag about,” Sob says, “but we used to go down there and get as drunk as hoot owls.”
Johnny would get sloshed and put on his Marine uniform. He fought in Korea to the best of anyone’s knowledge. Sob says he would stay drunk for three or four months at a time.
“Wonder he wasn’t dead before he was.”
Sob tells you he never saw Roy have a drop.
Sobby says Johnny and Roy’s place was where everyone in Jackson County wanted to be back then. Laughter rattled the bottoms. Camping. Teenagers. Music. Fishing. Fried catfish with taters and onions. Your grandmother insists that she never ate down there, but “it didn’t matter if there was two or a dozen, they’d make you feel welcome.” They cooked on a little Coleman stove that you had to pour fuel into and pump in order to start. Sometimes there would be as many as four or five other campers down around their place, with kids running around and playing.
Your father was one of them.
That’s where he learned to shoot skeet, he tells you. Sobby would toss them for him over the River just before dusk.
“They thought the world of your daddy,” your grandmother says.
“They was interesting fellas,” your father says. “You would have liked ‘em.”
Johnny and Roy fished, hunted, trapped, and musseled for money and food. People would come all the way from Chattanooga and Huntsville to buy from them, and they made enough money to survive.
“They knocked around. Made money here and there. Never needed too much.”
When they moved to J.B. Worley’s place at the curve in the road, J.B.’s wife made sure they had electricity. It was the first time they ever had it. That’s where they lived when Johnny died. Roy told your grandfather that he heard Johnny grunt. When he went into the room, Johnny was dead. They don’t know what killed him, but the years of hard drinking certainly didn’t help.
Johnny did not get a military funeral.
It’s 2001, and it’s an especially cold morning because the sky is clear. It’s also late in duck season, so the appeal is starting to wear off. You and your father decide to walk in and hunt on the bank, because it’s much less of a production than taking the boat.
The moon is so bright that your 12-year-old body has a shadow. You’re wearing good Damart insulated underwear and a decent pair of waders, but the cold is already seeping through. The air stings your face. Your father walks in front of you toting a bag of decoys in one hand and his shotgun in the other. He has a camouflage bag draped over his shoulder and across his body. He’s not wearing gloves, because his hands “don’t get cold no more.”
All you have is your shotgun cradled in your arms.
“You need to keep your hands warm, boy. Keep in your pockets.”
Y’all are going to one of the slews of Mud Creek. Somewhere not far from where Johnny and Roy are or have been.
Your father stops, and you almost bump into him because you’re more or less sleepwalking.
His body is tensed up, and you snap awake.
You look around him to see why he froze. It looks like a pile of garbage to you—there are empty containers of household cleaning supplies and garden hoses. There’s a propane tank and a gas can, too.
He silently examines it, then the woods in front of you.
He stays quiet for about 30 seconds as he scans the Bottoms. Finally, when you think you might start to cry, his body begins to relax.
He points to the junk on the ground, and steps around it.
“Don’t get near that.”
It’s 2015, and you ask him if he remembers that.
“I was alone and walked in someone doin’ that mess one evening down in the Bottoms, near Town Creek. I just kinda eased back out ‘cause I didn’t want them to see me.”
His hands move through the air just like Sobby when he tells you this, but he’s not as theatrical. His pauses are not as long, not as dramatic. He doesn’t take as much pleasure in orchestrating the tale, but the blood running through his hands is stronger than his will.
Just like J.B.’s wife made sure Johnny and Roy had electricity, she also helped Roy sign up for a Social Security check. Johnny drew a check from the military before his death.
Roy’s government assistance check wasn’t much, but it was enough. “Dope heads” as Sobby calls them started to linger around the old man. By that point, he’d moved across the street from The Restrunt in a different camper. The dope heads borrowed some of Johnny’s old guns and never brought them back. They told Roy they wanted to go hunting but needed shotguns and rifles. Sobby says he and Dale Venable, a man who works at the Marina next to The Restrunt, know who took the guns, but he doesn’t tell you and you don’t ask.
“Hell, they’d carry him up to the bank, go inside with him, and tell him to withdraw money.” Sob’s eyes are wide as they look directly into yours. “And what was the teller gonna do about it? He was standing right there.”
“They was just so freehearted,” your grandmother says again, shaking her head.
Dale Venable found out what was going on, so he went to the bank to end it, and took care of Roy in those final few years.
It’s 2012, and a man and woman go into The Restrunt to eat. You don’t know who they are. It’s a hot August day, but it’s clear, and the Creek looks golden in the sunlight. They watch the sparkling water and decide to take a walk. When they pay, there are no Life Savers suckers or Bill Carver.
The man and woman stroll down the bank of the slew out of the harsh sunlight, but the water reflects on their faces. They see something floating. It looks like a green and white flannel shirt.
“He never learned how to swim. All those years living on the water, and he didn’t know how to,” your mother tells you later that afternoon.
“I just hated to hear about it,” your grandmother says. Her voice softens in the way it did when she comforted you as a child. “And thinking about him down in that water, you know?”
Her voice trails off.
Dale fished Roy’s flat brimmed cap out of the water and hung up in The Marina. He also took care of Roy’s funeral arrangements. Johnny, Roy, and Pop Arrick are all buried in Scottsboro at Goose Pond, near where Sob worked for 35 years at an aluminum production plant.
“I don’t reckon I ever saw either one of them,” you say when Sobby starts to wind down. It’s been almost an hour since you asked, “What can you tell me about Johnny and Roy?”
“You sure you didn’t never see them?” His eyes narrow. His brow furrows.
“If I did, I didn’t know it.”
“I bet you did. You had to have seen ‘um. They was always around.”
There’s a long pause.
Sobby says, “I don’t got no idey of how to explain ‘em to ya, Bones. Just, what we wanted, they didn’t care fer.”
It’s 1996, and you and your daddy drive by the old camper on your way back from dove hunting.
You think as y’all roll by, Ain’t they sad?
You can’t hear anything but football, and the wind as it whooshes through the window.
Johnny and Roy Arrick walk back into the River Bottoms. They cut up and make loud jokes, unaware someone’s watching them. When they exhale, it produces big, hot clouds of breath in front of them. They’re not dressed warmly enough, but they’ll have a fire and warm plates of food waiting on them when they get back to the island.
It’s a feast they caught or trapped or killed.
For all Sobby knows, they were created, not born—built from the dust of the North Alabama red clay and breathed to life by the fish-scented air of the Creek.
As they evaporate into the woods, they become harder for Sobby to see. But their laughter and tall tales fill the Bottoms, and echo through the oaks and pines and hickories.
by Tyler Phillips
Tyler Phillips is an emerging author from Stevenson, Alabama, who now lives in Austin, Texas. His writing is heavily influenced by the dialect, people, and geography of the Tennessee Valley, which will forever be his home. He is currently working on his first novel about a small church in north Alabama and the power struggles within those four walls. In his free time he enjoys Auburn football, producing films for his friends, and visiting new states. This is his first publication.