On his last day of school Dan drew while his classmates wrote an essay. He sketched his bedroom: a poster of a victory ship on one wall, a poster of a tank on the other. His bed on one side, his older sister’s on the other. All of his friends had two more weeks of school, but his family was moving away.
Dan glanced at his best friend, James, who was squinting and clenching one fist. James’s writing covered half a sheet.
“Hey, James,” Dan whispered.
James looked up. When Dan held up the picture, James nodded. James’s room looked the same as Dan’s, except James’s had two other beds—for his older brother and older sister. Dan drew a black puppy on one of the beds and showed the sketch to James again. James grinned. The boys had found the puppy together and were hiding it from their parents.
“Dan,” his teacher said. “Why haven’t you started, young man?”
“Aw, Miss Parks,” he said. “I don’t remember nothing about California.”
They were supposed to be writing about how they ended up in Vanport City, their town north of Portland on the Columbia River. It had sprung up as a makeshift town for shipyard workers during World War II. James’s family had moved from Alabama, Dan’s from California.
“Nothing at all?” Miss Parks asked.
“There was some oranges on trees, I think. Only apples around here.”
A couple kids snickered.
“What’s the first thing you remember here?” Miss Parks asked.
“My house,” Dan said. “School. Meeting James.”
“Describe your house then,” Miss Parks said. “Write about how you met James.” She picked up his sketch and took it to her desk. “You may be leaving, Daniel, but remember, I’m still giving you your grade.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
James grinned at him again. He knew Dan was in love with Miss Parks. She was a light-skinned lady with large, expressive eyes and long hair. Dan blushed whenever she praised him.
“You can’t go after one of our women,” James told Dan once, when they sat on James’s bedroom floor. Dan was sketching a picture of their teacher.
“She’s closer to my color than yours,” Dan had said.
“What you talking about?” James said. “You’re whiter than a ghost.”
For weeks they’d played a game, one trying to get his skin close to hers while the other judged if he were close to her color. They volunteered to collect papers so they could hand them to her; they volunteered to be line leader so they could stand by her.
“Your skin next to Miss Parks’ looks like our white tablecloth next to that hot cocoa you spilled on it,” James said.
“Your skin next to hers is like a muddy puddle next to gold sand,” Dan said.
“Our sand ain’t gold,” James said. “It’s brown.”
“You next to Miss Parks is like my white kite next to the sky at night,” James said.
“No. That’s me next to you.”
They both laughed.
Dan wrote a few sentences about meeting James. Dan had forgotten his lunch on the first day of first grade, and James had shared some blackberries with him. After school James took him by a slough where they grew wild. Bright, almost fluorescent green bushes, full of thorns but also berries sweeter than any candy he’d ever tasted. When Dan came home with purple smears across his new white shirt, his sister scolded and his mom almost whipped him. His dad would’ve whipped him, but that was the year before he returned from the war.
After essay writing, they had a reading time. Dan took out Tom Sawyer. James pulled out a storybook about a boy who saved his city from a flood by putting his finger in a hole in the dike. It had been Dan’s favorite, too, back in second grade. He and James used to go to the dike on the Columbia River and imagine sticking their finger in a hole and saving all of Vanport City. Now Dan wanted a more realistic story. James insisted the dike story could happen, but Dan doubted it.
At home, Dan’s mom was washing dishes. She had her sleeves rolled up high, and her thick arm muscles tightened and relaxed. She was a welder, and had helped build ships off which his dad or other Navy men had fought.
On the other side of the kitchen his dad folded together old cardboard boxes and reinforced the corners with duct tape.
“You should start packing,” his mom told him.
“We ain’t moving till Tuesday,” Dan said.
“Do as your mother says,” Dan’s dad said, handing him a box.
“Can I have a roll of duct tape, Dad?”
“Oh, James and I need it for lots of things—”
Dan’s mom clicked her tongue. She’d never approved of Dan and James’s friendship but was gone from home so much that she couldn’t stop them from playing.
“I think I could spare a roll,” his dad said.
“Why don’t you give it to James as a goodbye present?” his mom asked.
Meredith stuck her red head out of the bedroom. “You act like we’re moving far away, Mom. It’s just Portland. I bet we could get back here in thirty minutes.”
Her head was gone before his mom started talking. “How often do we go into Portland now, Meredith?” she asked.
Not very often, Dan thought. On holidays and on some Sundays in the summer, Dan’s dad’s cousins picked them up and drove them into Portland, to their place, for supper. Sometimes afterward they’d walk around the cousin’s tree-lined neighborhood. Once in a while they’d walk all the way into downtown and look at all the tall buildings.
“Once we move to Portland,” his dad said, “our life will revolve around the city.”
“Thank God,” his mom said. “This house feels like it’s going to topple over. Has since the beginning.”
“I like our house,” Dan said.
“Most sane people have moved away,” his mom said. “Mainly niggers around here now.”
Dan dismissed his mom’s tone and took the box to his room. He didn’t have much stuff. A small coin collection. A handful of books. His baseball and mitt. Some agates he and James had found by the river. He found a hammer and used its claw to pull the nails out of his posters.
“I’m going to paint my new room,” Meredith said. She was taking her clothes off hangers and folding them. “Yellow maybe. Or red. I haven’t decided.”
Dan wondered what it would be like to have his own room. Nice, he guessed. A little scary, maybe. He liked waking up at night and hearing Meredith breathing.
“You should get some new posters,” Meredith said. “The war’s over.”
Dan carefully rolled up the posters, cinched a string around each one, and sat on his bed. “The war’s over” was what his mom had been saying for more than two years. “Why isn’t your father back yet?” she’d said at first. “The war’s over.” After his father returned, she’d say: “Why are we still living here? The war’s over.” Dan looked out the window. The river was really high, as it had been for a month or so. He and James liked to gather strange objects floating into their slough or washed up on the riverbanks. Just yesterday they’d found a canoe paddle and a mattress.
“Where we going to school in Portland?” Dan asked.
“I don’t know,” Meredith said. “Whatever school’s closest to our new house.”
Dan slipped off the bed and set his posters next to the boxes.
“Since when did you like school so much?” Meredith asked.
Dan couldn’t tell if the sky had started drizzling or was just its usual gray. He pushed his forehead against the window, his eyes followed a stick, swirling in the brown river water, before it disappeared.
After supper, Dan starting running the second his feet stepped out the door. “Don’t you catch cold, now,” his mom yelled after him. His feet slapped against the wet pavement as he ran. Mist settled in his hair. If they didn’t play outside in the rain, they wouldn’t play outside until late June, and half the year would be gone already.
James was drying and putting away supper dishes when Dan arrived. Dan went into James’s room and played with the puppy. It could fit in Dan’s cupped hands. John, James’s older brother, lay on his bed reading comic books. He was in on the secret, too.
“He was whining last night,” John said. “James let him sleep in his bed. Ma’s gonna come in here and find him. I know it.”
“She can keep it a secret, too,” Dan said.
“Nah,” John said. “She don’t hide nothing from Pa. And Pa don’t want more mouths to feed. Why don’t you take it to the city?”
“Maybe I will,” Dan said. He let the puppy lick him one more time and set him back in his deep crate. He liked the feel of the coarse tongue on his palm.
“Now, don’t you two catch cold out there,” James’s mom said as James put on his slick green jacket. Then both their feet were slapping against the pavement, running past uniform square houses in uniform square blocks. Many of the houses were deserted and had broken windows. The mist had stopped.
To make their fort they’d cut a hole in a patch of blackberry bushes. The opening faced a slough, a marshy land of grass and water and islands formed from river inlets. They’d dragged the mattress inside the fort so it could dry out under cover, and stuck the canoe paddle, handle into the ground, out in front.
The mattress was still wet. James said it would take a couple of days to dry. Neither wanted to say Dan wouldn’t be around in couple of days, but they both thought it.
They squatted by the river, throwing back sticks or garbage or other stuff that had washed in. A baby’s yellow shirt, a milk bottle, a tennis shoe. James pulled out a pack of bubblegum from his pocket, and held it out to Dan, who took a piece. Each tried to blow bigger bubbles than the other. Water dripped from leaf to leaf overhead.
“Let’s ride the mattress down river,” Dan said. “Like a raft.”
James nodded, then shook his head. “It’s too fast now. In the summer maybe.”
“It’s almost summer,” Dan said.
“Yeah,” James said.
Dan had forgotten he had chalk in his pocket. He held it up.
“Stole it from school,” he said. “Ain’t nothing better to steal.”
James wanted to write a name for their cave on the canoe paddle.
“Vanport Robber’s Hideout,” Dan said, thinking of Tom Sawyer.
“All right.” James wrote it in all caps. The rainwater smeared the chalk a little but Dan liked the look of it. “Now we just need some reason to hide.” James grinned.
“Hey!” Dan yelled as James rinsed his hands in the slough.
“What?” James looked at Dan over his shoulder.
“I should hide here. So I don’t have to move.”
James’s eyes widened. “I could get you food and stuff.”
“The puppy could live with me.”
“We have to plan,” Dan said. He grasped Tom Sawyer and waved it in the air.
The rest of the evening, the boys walked along the river. Dan’s hands moved in circles as he told his ideas. They’d prop the mattress up, like a lean-to, just in case water dripped through the tree canopy and blackberry bush’s cover. He’d steal some food from his family, so James wouldn’t have to take too much from his. Soon it would be strawberry season, then cherry season, then plum season, then blackberry season, then apple season. Dan could mainly eat off the land for the summer.
For weeks Dan had fallen asleep while trying to envision their new house, a place he’d never seen and didn’t want to know. That night he fell asleep thinking about their hideout, and where he’d stick his posters and his coin collection.
Memorial Day dawned very sunny. Dan’s mom wished they could move today instead of tomorrow.
“When we have our own car, we can do anything anytime,” Dan’s dad said.
“When we gonna get a car?” Meredith asked.
“Soon enough,” her dad said. “This time next year we’ll have one, I bet.”
“Can we go see that big waterfall up the river?” Meredith asked.
“Sure we can,” her dad said. “We can go to the beach, too.”
Once, when Dan’s dad was still at war, his dad’s brother’s family had taken them to the beach. Dan made a sandcastle in the wet sand and watched the large, cold waves come take it away. He didn’t like how, when you sat on the beach, everyone could see you. Near the slough, only a couple yards of sand split the water and dense forest. He and James could mess around on the sand when alone and go play in the woods if other people came around.
By early afternoon, almost all of their boxes and crates sat in the living room, by the front door. Dan had wrapped a couple rocks in a sheet and placed them in each of his boxes. His real possessions he’d put in the hideout.
“Did you hear the sirens again?” his mom said. She was packing the silverware.
“I’m sure everything’s fine,” his dad said. “Just a little overflow in parts of the river.”
“They need to stop crying wolf then,” his mom said.
“Can I go get a soda with Ellen?” Meredith asked.
“You stay here and help me,” his mom said.
“Why can’t Dan?”
“You have a softer touch with my jewelry,” his mom said. “If you pack it now, you can go see Ellen before supper.”
Dan didn’t wait to hear anything else. His mom didn’t want him underfoot. James was supposed to meet him at the hideout with the puppy.
He passed only a handful of people on the streets. Many had gone into the city or to the coast for the holiday.
He heard the river before he saw it. Loud gurgling and whooshing noises. Both the river and slough’s waters were higher than he’d ever seen. He stared until he heard James’s laughter. Dan peeked inside the hideout. James and the puppy were playing tug of war over a book.
“Hey,” Dan said. “Don’t let him rip that.” It was Tom Sawyer.
James yanked it away. “You seen the river?”
“You listen to the radio?”
Dan squatted and shook his head. He pulled on the puppy’s loose, black skin.
“It said to stay in the house,” James said. “Pa said I can’t stay out long.”
The boys discussed tomorrow’s plans: how Dan would slip away while his parents packed the car, how James would deny seeing him if Dan’s parents asked, how James would drop by the hideout after supper with food. They had to raise their voices over the sound of the river.
Dan started to duct tape holes in the mattress. The puppy batted like a cat at the tape strips. James lay on the grass, dozing, but sat up when the puppy kept running to the fort’s entrance and yapping.
“Stop it, little guy,” James said. He put his foot under the puppy’s belly, lifted him up, and sat him back down.
The puppy whined. He didn’t turn away from the entrance.
“There a deer out there or something?” Dan asked.
James shrugged and crawled to the entrance.
“Shit,” James yelled. “Flood!”
Dan stuck out his head out and water pushed him back. He toppled onto the mattress. He rolled over and felt James next to him. He tried to sit up but his head knocked against the ceiling of blackberry bushes. The water was raising the mattress, pushing his body against the thorns.
James clawed open the bushes, moving his hands as though he were deep underwater and wanted out. Dan followed his lead. Scratches and blood covered their hands. The puppy paddled in the rising water at the fort’s entrance. Dan stretched his arms toward it, but the water sucked it through the entrance and out of sight. The boys looked at the entrance and at each other and then continued to pull back branches.
Suddenly they were above the fort. Dan pushed his fists into holes in the mattress. The interior fluff stuck to the warm blood on his fingers. James grabbed a strap on the side of the mattress with one hand and a button on the top with the other. Vanport City spread out beyond them. Dozens of cars drove toward the outskirts of town, away from the wave on which their mattress rode. People ran along the sidewalks, carrying packages or children. Dan and James thought of nothing but holding on.
One morning in early September James and his older brother John walked together to their new school, a one-story brick building encircled by pines. The flood had turned Vanport City into one large slough; all the former residents had moved to Portland. When James asked his parents if Dan would be at his new school, his dad had said no. His mom said that the schools in Portland were for either white children or Negro children, same as in Alabama.
Once in his classroom, he found a desk with his nametag. His new teacher had written her name, Mrs. Johnson, in cursive on the blackboard. A short and fat light-skinned lady, she pointed out the pencil sharpener, the multiplication table, and the reading corner. She gave them their first assignment: to write about something interesting that had happened that summer. “It doesn’t have to be long—a paragraph or two. Write in cursive, if you can.”
James ran his new, sharp pencil across the green lines of his piece of paper. He looked around him. The girl to his right had long pigtails, the boy to his left wore new black shoes. He looked at his own shoes, ones he’d bought a couple days after the flood. He thought about the puppy bobbing up and down, the scratches that had scarred his arms, the large man who had dragged him and Dan to safety after their mattress capsized. He thought about cars and houses floating on the water like rubber duckies in a bathtub. The next day, when his family was safe and dry and sitting around a friend in Portland’s supper table, Pa had excused himself, crying because he’d lost his whole life’s collection of tools. James’s book about the boy who held back the dike had been washed away, but James didn’t care. That story was dumb anyway, he thought. No one person could stop a dike from breaking. No one could save a whole city with one finger.
Miss Parks had told them not to exaggerate or be dramatic when writing true stories, that life wasn’t like a comic book. “Write down small details,” she’d said. “Tell me a story no one experienced but you.”
James thought about how, after the man had saved them, he hadn’t seen Dan until two weeks ago, when his friend had showed up, grinning, at his front door. “I followed you from Burnside,” Dan said. “Around here you stick out like a black spot on a Dalmatian.” James shoved him off the porch and they wrestled on the lawn until James’s ma came out and ran them off. Together, they bummed a ride to Sauvie’s Island.
This summer, me and my friend Dan picked blackberries on Sauvie’s Island, James wrote. Dan is from California. I’m from Alabama. We was there hours and hours. We talked about our puppy who died in the Vanport City flood. We ate lots of blackberries, and took none home. Our hands, tongues, lips, and faces was purple.
This story was inspired by my research into Vanport City and by a blackberry-bush fort my brother and I built in a vacant lot behind our childhood home. While I wrote I wondered: What would it be like to grow up in an integrated school nearby segregated schools? What if you had to move from one to the other?
Rachel King is a writer and editor who lives in her hometown, Portland, Oregon. Most recently her stories and poems have appeared in Concho River Review, Ashland Creek Press’ Among Animals 2 anthology, the Blue Collar Review, and Offcourse. www.booksrachelking.com.