Bright Lights, Big City (Ch. 6)
When I arrived back at the cabin that night, the question of whether or not to join up with Sheila and her crew still bouncing around in my mind, Charlie was sitting at the little table inside drinking iced tea. If he remembered the events of the night before, his placid smile and bland greeting hid it completely. I said hi, wondering what else I could say. Then I saw a letter on the table, addressed to me in my dad’s handwriting. I grabbed it, relieved to have something to focus on besides my thoughts. The letter and its contents made all my questions and worries irrelevant
I ripped open the envelope and a check dropped out on the table. “Hot damn!” I whooped, picking it up. “A hundred dollars! Let’s go to Lexington!” Scanning the brief letter, I confirmed my suspicion that the money was from the sale of the red electric Yamaha guitar and a little Fender amp I had been trying to sell before I left my parents’ house. Daddy had sold them and sent me the money. His way of letting me know we were okay, I guess.
“I’m ready!” Charlie said with more enthusiasm than I’d heard from him in days. “I need some bright lights and painted women to soothe my troubled brow,” he said, leaning back, eyes closed, the smile broadening. I stood looking at him like that, remembering the horrors of the knife, and wondered why I didn’t just bash him in the face right now. Then I realized, as he continued smiling, it really wasn’t him last night, it was some other – thing, some thing in his head. More than likely, he doesn’t even know what happened. Strangely, I felt a renewed solidarity with Charlie. Besides, the check and the prospects of moving on were making me feel expansive.
“Let’s go party with the locals tonight!” I said suddenly. “Tomorrow we can hit the road!”
“Far out!” Charlie said, laughing.
“Maybe Juli and Robin will go with us,” I added.
“Cool and groovy!” Charlie downed his iced tea, then made a face. “I need some beer. This ‘ahs-tee’ is getting to me! Don’t know why your Southern Baptists are so down on beer drinking, anyway. All the damned ice tea they drink is what makes them so wired up and mean. At least beer makes you nice and mellow.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but all I could do was gulp and shake my head, my mouth moving wordlessly. I wanted to say, ‘yeah, like last night, nice and mellow.’ But what I said was, “You don’t know the same rednecks I do! Ever had a drunk redneck draw back a busted beer mug on you? Not so fuckin’ mellow!” I shook my head again and walked off before I said more than I wanted to. No use dragging it all out now. Only make things worse. He’s fine, relaxed, happy, doesn’t seem to be avoiding the subject, probably doesn’t remember. We’ll be on the road again and everything will be okay.
“Everybody want a smoothie?” Juli asked, popping the cap on an amber plastic medicine bottle and waggling it at us. “Daddy’s twenties!” She said, smiling and clowning as she made a show of furtively flashing the label – Valium 20mg – to the group. She glanced around the pizza parlor, emptied the pills into her hand, and began dropping one in each person’s beer glass. “Drink it quick – it tastes nasty if you don’t have much beer.”
I gulped mine down, wondering if Juli had a hidden motive in her choice of drugs for the evening. I noticed that she watched to be sure Charlie drank his, and then she poured more beer all around. “Cool, Juli!” I said, smiling at her and playfully pretending to stroke her head. “We should all get pretty ‘smooth’ now! Did you just make up the name?”
“Yeah, fits don’t you think?” She smiled and tossed her head in mock pride.
We finished our pizza and beer, then headed for our favorite local dance hall. On the way, I began to feel really trashed. “I think my knees are drunk,” I yelled from the back seat. It felt like I was slowly revolving backwards, my knees going over my head. I was glad Robin was driving. Not much fazed him. We arrived at the club on the outskirts of Waynesville, bumping into the parking lot.
“Oh, nice!” Charlie said, his voice like fingernails on a blackboard. He was gazing in horror at the drab building and dirt parking lot. “This is just really nice! “ he continued derisively as we all piled out. “This must be the world famous Bud Pabst Schlitz Club I’ve heard so much about!”
We all laughed, if a bit too loudly. The only signs on the building were three neon beer signs, which glowed on our faces as we stumbled to the door, and Robin said, “Yeah, this is the original. There’s a whole string ‘a franchises down the road!” We roared.
Inside it was old home night. “God-damn! Every country hippie in a hundred miles must be here tonight!” I shouted above the band’s jangling wail. We waded through the crowd and the spilled beer and I felt like I was turning back somersaults. Old scenes washed over me in waves and my mind disconnected from where and when. I could be anywhere, any time: smacked out in the Thai bar Alice Buford always called Pulley’s Cultural Center or puking in the grass on River Street in old Savannah; groovin’ to the ‘mighty-mighty Tams’ at Myrtle Beach where everybody seemed to know each other in every bar I went into, drinking in a Bangkok disco, or listening to a Thai band singing “Yell-ow Ree-ver” in an O-club somewhere. It’s all the same trip and it’s all happening at the same time, I thought. It’s all happening right now. I looked around in wonder, smiling to myself. I didn’t know where I was, but I was having fun and it was alright.
Robin made it to the bar first and ordered beers for us all, passing them back through our straggled out group. We gathered loosely together, feeling out of place in the crowd. The music was too loud for talk, so we slugged our long-necks and looked at each other. On impulse, I grabbed Juli’s arm, shouted “Let’s dance!” and began pulling her toward the dance floor. She was laughing, shaking her head no the whole way but following me into the writhing crowd. Abruptly the music stopped and she turned to go back. I caught her hand. “Don’t go back. Let’s dance the next one, okay?” The crowd began to thin.
“Okay,” she agreed reluctantly, still laughing. We deposited our bottles on a nearby table and took the center of the floor. The band tinked at their guitars, tuning, tapping microphones; then they crashed off into Creedence – “Bad Moon Risin’” – and we began to dance. As we warmed up, we got wilder, reveling in the space on the nearly cleared floor. I didn’t remember ever dancing with Juli before, but we were in synch now. Even as couples began to return to the floor, they were leaving space for us, and people were gathering at the edges to watch, clapping along.
The song ended and we collapsed together, breathless, laughing. The crowd applauded. We left the floor holding hands, but when I looked up and saw Robin and Charlie, I dropped her hand. “That was fun,” I said to Juli. “Thanks!”
“Yeah, neat!” As we came up to the others, she sang out, “Hey, y’all! John can boogey! Didn’t think he could still do it!”
“Hey! I’m not thirty yet!” I protested, laughing. We laughed together, and then the music started up again.
Charlie led the way up to the door of the house in a quietly wealthy Lexington neighborhood. I felt scraggly and increasingly uncomfortable as we neared the house. Wish I had at least worn socks, I thought. The grass was too green in the deep shade of the big pecans… the house so… tasteful, a low wandering ranch with modern long cool grey windows, old brick and heavy shake roof. I looked closely at the dark, solid wood grain as Charlie knocked on the door.
“Maybe you should try the bell,” I said, after half a minute went by with no answer.
“I don’t use doorbells,” Charlie said, knocking harder.
“Oh.” I looked around the yard at the old oaks and pecans. I tried to shake off the feeling that I was an interloper, a vendor, itinerant tradesman, or beggar… something wrong, out of place. Charlie looked so confident, smiling serenely despite his greasy hair and drab tee-shirt.
Finally there were stirrings behind the door, latches unbolted, and the door opened a few inches. “Yes?” a woman said. “Can I help you boys?”
“Hi! We’re friends of Judson’s,” Charlie said brightly, cocking his head and smiling. “I’m Charles Breckinridge…”
“Breckinridge? … Breck… Myra and Thomas’s… boy!” Her voice slid from suspicious to incredulous and only recovered just enough to avoid a squeak at the end. She took the safety chain loose and opened the door another few inches.
“Yes, ma’am!” Charlie piped. “How are you Mrs. Latham?”
“Fine, fine… but Charles, I’m afraid Judson is not here. Was he expecting you? He’s working at the power plant; he’s in Maysville and I don’t know when he might be home again. He didn’t… “ She looked at me and tried to smile and her voice trailed off. The door didn’t open any further despite the conversation. I had a sudden sick feeling and a sense that this had all happened before – or was going to happen again, I couldn’t tell which.
“I just talked to him a few weeks ago.” Charlie’s voice was warm and familiar, reassuring. “He said come up anytime and if he wasn’t around, you could tell us how to get in touch with him. Maybe we could just call and find out what’s going on?” He put his hand on the doorknob as he spoke.
Mrs. Latham looked at him and then back into the house. “Ah, I don’t… Well, let me just ask Daddy what… I’ll be right back, boys.” Head nodding, eyelashes fluttering, she disappeared. We stood silently, looking around the yard, peeking around the half-open door, kicking at the bricks. Four heavy rockers sat arm to arm on the narrow porch, looking vacantly out onto the yard. After several minutes, Mrs. Latham returned.
“Come on in,” she said, beginning to open the door. Then she looked down at our feet and quickly stepped into the door again. “Ah, maybe you’d like to just come around to the kitchen door, it’s just on the side here… this carpet…” She trailed off lamely, smiling a sheepish smile. “I’ll just meet you around on the side,” she said firmly, smiling and nodding her head and pointing around the house.
We backed off the porch smiling back at her. “Sure, sure, Mrs. Latham.” We shuffled across the grass, looking down at our feet. Do we look that bad, I wondered. Don’t see any mud.
In the kitchen, a large woman in a white uniform let us in. “Miz Latham say wipe yo’ feet, she be here in a minute with the number. Phone over there.” We obliged, scraping and wiping, and stood by the phone in silence.
Soon Mrs. Latham bustled in with phone number and instructions: “Clara! Ice-tea for these men! – Here you go, Charles! I hope he’s home!” She glanced at the clock. “He should be home from work by now – you know he works so hard, I just worry about him! But of course, it is a good job, and I know Mr. Billy takes care of him – you do know, he got this great job because Mr. Billy – Caroline’s daddy – he’s a foreman at that new plant they’re building… you know, the one across the river?” Charlie was dialing the phone, listening now. She looked at me. “Caroline is Judson’s girlfriend,” she said sweetly. “She’s a real nice girl, that Caroline…” She went on filling the silence as I smiled and nodded. When Charlie said, “Judson! It’s Charlie!” she paused, looked at me again and began asking me about my ancestry.
I tried to seem interested, answering her barrage of questions: “No ma’am, I don’t think any of my family is from Kentucky… My grandmother was in the DAR, but I never paid much attention to that stuff… I think my ancestors were mostly Brits and Scots… No ma’am, I never met the Breckinridges; Charlie and I just met… Yes ma’am, the British are so genteel… No ma’am, I didn’t know his parents were English… No ma’am, I don’t know when he talked to them last.”
I was grateful when Charlie finally hung up the phone and she turned back to him. “Well, how is Judson? Didn’t he want to speak to his mother?” she asked briskly.
“Yes, ma’am, he does, and he said tell you he’ll be here in about two hours,” Charlie said graciously and smiled at her. “He said he could take Friday off and come for the weekend. He’s borrowing ‘Mr. Billy’s’ truck.”
“Oh,” she said, nonplussed.
Speechless at last, I thought. Guess she’s not too hot on entertaining us for two hours. Guess we’re out the door.
But I had underestimated this woman. With barely a moment’s hesitation, she looked briskly back and forth between us and asked, “Well, you boys had supper?”
“No ma’am,” Charlie replied. “We just got here from Waynesville.”
“Waynesville! My, that’s quite a day’s drive! Well, you boys just make yourselves comfortable. Sit down here and drink your ice-tea and Clara will whip you up some supper.”
“Yes ma’am, thank you ma’am! We are pretty hungry.” Charlie was at his most polite. “We’ve been camping out and trying to feed ourselves.”
“Oh my, that won’t do! Men just need a woman to take care of them, don’t they? I just despise camping, don’t you? It seems such a silly idea… When there are perfectly good hotels, why on earth anyone would want to sleep in a tent is beyond me! I just never…”
“Really!” Charlie effused. “I hate it! I don’t know how anyone exists without ice cubes.”
“Ice cubes,” Mrs. Latham laughed. “True, true! Certainly one of the necessities of civilized life in the South.”
I took a swallow of my tea and looked out the kitchen window.
“Ice cubes and English gin are the only way white people have survived in this climate,” Charlie said. He was on a roll, and Mrs. Latham was eating it up. She nodded, enthusiastically agreeing. I saw Clara, across the kitchen, look up sharply, then quickly drop her head back to her work at the counter.
“No! You’re kidding me!” Charlie said.
“I shit you not,” Judson replied with a big smile. “Allen Toussaint himself. We went to his apartment, did some numbers, he read some of my stuff, kept a couple of songs to look at – I’m thinking of going back down there in the fall instead of going back to school. UK’s a drag. Ole Carl’s down in Nashville picking up gigs, trying to break in. Caroline’s in Memphis. I could get into New Orleans, easy!”
I was getting pretty bored with all this. I sucked on a beer and listened to the two friends catch up. The music on the jukebox was crap. Everybody in the place was over 50 and acted half dead. But there was nowhere to go.
“So what are you writing about these days, welder’s blues?” Charlie teased.
“I don’t even get to do any welding,” Judson said. “I just carry steel – and run errands for Billy and sit around. I feel kinda shitty building a power plant anyway.”
“Fuck that,” Charlie said emphatically. “Everybody has to eat. And I need electricity to make ice cubes.”
“Yeah, but they’re nasty things, fuck up the air and stuff.”
“No, shit-head! Power plants!”
“Something’s going to kill us anyway. Who cares about all that stuff. We might as well enjoy what’s left.”
“God, that’s depressing! You’re in great shape!” Judson laughed. “So did you really shoot a cop, or what? How come you’re on probation?”
I got up and walked into a room full of pool tables on the other side of the bar. I didn’t want to hear that story again. I felt nauseated, and not from the beers. I sat in a chair against the wall and watched a large man with long slicked-back hair and a brown leather jacket run the table while two younger men in tee-shirts and ball caps leaned on their sticks and tried to look unconcerned. The shooter sank the last two balls in one shot, walked to the end of the table and picked up the thin stack of bills under a chalk cube. When he spoke to the other two, I realized with a start that ‘he’ was a woman.
I got up and moved down the line of tables, feeling morose. I sat down in another empty chair and lit a cigarette. I’m supposed to be having fun now, I thought. ‘Bright lights, big city, took my baby’s head…’ God, now I’m in a Jimmy Reed funk. This is bad. Be drinking whiskey next. I pulled at the warm beer, then set it down on the floor and took a long, deep drag of the cigarette. I sighed as I blew out the smoke, staring at the floor. I remembered the conversation with Sheila two days ago and wondered what she and the box crew boys were up to.
Angry voices, hurled epithets from up the line woke me from my mean reverie. As I looked up, one of the tee-shirted boys was shouting at the mannish hustler and shoving her. She staggered back against the wall and suddenly a pool cue was in her hand and swinging at the boy. He put up his arm and ducked, and the heavy end of the stick cracked into his elbow. He doubled over, grabbing his arm. The return stroke of the cue caught him square on top of the head and he crumpled to the floor.
The pool room was silent for a split second, then the other tee-shirted man shouted and ran to his friend. The room erupted in noise and motion, and bouncers came running. I sat stunned, immobilized, staring at the backs of the crowd around the man on the floor. Suddenly the crowd parted as several men came in from the other room, shouting for space. As the crowd moved away, I caught a glimpse of the boy lying as he had fallen, blood soaking his hair and pooling on the floor.
I leaned over the side of the chair and puked, took a breath and puked again, barely maintaining consciousness. I leaned back heavily in the chair, head against the wall, eyes closed, breathing in ragged gasps. When I was able to sit up again and wipe my face, the room was nearly empty. A streetlight shining in the slightly-open door of the emergency exit made a long blue streak across the smoky room. The bartender was wiping the small bar at the end of the room and two men stood talking to him. A small group stood near the door leading to the rest of the club, where life went on.
I stood unsteadily, then walked to the bar. “Could I have a cup of water?”
“Sure. Dollar twenty-five,” the bartender said as he reached for a plastic cup.
“Forget it,” I said, and headed for the open emergency exit.
Outside, I found myself on a dark and deserted side street. I headed aimlessly toward a brightly-lit street. All I could think of was getting a drink of water. I went into a small café, sat down and began looking at the menu. When the waiter brought water, I drank it quickly, and said, “I need a little time here…” continuing to peruse the menu. As soon as the waiter got busy with another order, I got up and left, leaving a quarter on the table.
As I walked out, I realized I was sweating and my hands were trembling. I’d make a lousy criminal, I thought. Can’t even steal water without getting nervous. I wandered several blocks down the street, looking in windows and watching the occasional passing cars. A slumped figure in a doorway ahead prompted me to cross the street in the middle of the block, and as I did I realized I wasn’t sure where I was or where the bar I had left was.
I had had no thought of Charlie and Judson when I left, nor had they even crossed my mind as I wandered. Now I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, looking back, trying to remember which way I had come and where the bar might be. I began walking back the way I thought I had come, looking down side streets for familiar signs. How long had I been walking? Somewhere between fifteen minutes and an hour, I guess, but I’m not sure.
Several blocks further on, I turned around again and went back to a side street that had looked vaguely familiar, but it yielded nothing. I walked a long block, then turned again, thinking to walk in widening circles. After several confusing turns, I saw flashing lights and a cluster of police cars ahead. I started to veer off, but some impulse kept me headed for these signs of life, any certainty ahead preferable to the unknown. As I neared the scene, I saw a smallish figure being ducked into a cruiser. Was it Charlie? Oh shit! That’ll do it! Then I saw Judson in the small group near the car, face twisted in anger and fear. He was looking at the window as the police car pulled away.
I pushed through the onlookers to Judson, calling his name.
“They busted him, man!” he said as I reached him. “Where the hell have you been?” His anguish poured out on me, seeking someone to blame.
“What happened? What did he do now?” I croaked. Guilt clamped my throat. “Is he okay?”
“Yeah, I guess he is, man… but he ‘bout got ’imself killed! Crazy fucker! I couldn’t believe it! He’s such a sweet guy, you know! He’s a poet, man, they shouldn’t take poets to jail…” Judson was crying now. He staggered and looked at me, eyes bleary. “What’d he haf’ to do such a stupid fuckin’ thing for? Huh?”
“Hey, man, calm down, it’s okay. It’ll be okay. What happened? What’d he do?”
“Ah, shit, he went at some guy with a bottle!” Judson was shaking. “Took three of us to hold him back. He’uz real drunk.”
“Oh shit!” I said. “Why’d he do that?”
“I don-know! He threw a drink in some old man’s face… they were just talking… arguing some… then he threw his drink in the guy’s face and the guy shoved him off the barstool and… shit! I don’t know! It was all crazy.” He was crying again.
“We’ve got to get him out, Judson! We’ve got to get him! They’ll send him back to Florida and he’ll be in a world of shit. We’ve got to find him before they figure out who he is.”
“No, man, it’s okay. He told ’em he was somebody else. When the cops came, I heard him, he told ’em his name was Dylan Thomas.”
“Yeah, they’ll believe that. What about his license?”
“He’s not carrying it, man. He told me tonight. He’s on probation so he never carries ID.”
“Well, that’s good. That’s something anyway. Anybody pressing charges?”
“Who knows?… Shit!”
“Hey, John, wake up! Wake up! We gotta go get Charlie!”
I sat up groggily as the muffled words penetrated my sleeping mind. It was Judson, banging on the back window of the van. God, I wish those windows would open, I thought. My mouth was dry and my head hammered. I was soaked with sweat. The sun was bright and the van was steaming. I looked at my watch: nearly one o’clock. Shit! I flipped up the lock and Judson opened the door.
“He called from the police station. You want to go with me?”
“Sure. Love to.” I slipped out of the van into the hot sun. My knees almost buckled as I stood. I caught myself on the door and ran a hand through my tangled damp hair. I looked at Judson. With his blonde hair wet and combed behind his ears, he looked like a high school kid.
“He said they were holding him on a vagrancy charge, but they’d release him if somebody picked him up.”
“Let’s go,” I said, grabbing my shoes from beneath the sleeping platform. I wondered if the knife was still behind the mattress. Good thing he didn’t have that last night.
The highway ran between limestone walls, dropping into the Ohio valley slowly, hill after hill. I watched the infinite variety of travertine patterns roll by, enjoying the expanse of forested hills, glad for the wild relief from the fenced-in, well-trimmed bluegrass that had dominated the landscape for the first half of the trip. Rolling through the hills northeast of Lexington on US 68, I had gotten sick of green and white in a hurry. I thought about the places and signs we’d passed. What is it with these people? Bourbon County, Paris, Mount Olympus. Goddamn royalty complex! And Versailles, – Of course, they call it ‘Ver-sales’ – the little town over to the west of Lexington. Versailles! Right here in the heartland of America! The heart of pioneer country at that. Americans pride themselves on being democratic, but they’d love a goddamn king! Keep going, they’re gonna get one.
We were following Judson to his house in Maysville. He said it was about an hour’s drive. “Pretty country, huh?” I looked at Charlie quickly.
“Sure,” he said, looking up from his book. “If you like rocks.”
“Well, I hope you had enough of city lights for a while.”
“City Lights…” he sighed. “I’ll never get enough… ‘the long street which is the longest street in all the world…’ maybe we should go to San Francisco. Didn’t you say you knew some chickies in old San Fran?”
“Yeah, maybe. This one girl I know from Arizona is in one of those Sans, somewhere on the Bay, I think. She’s the one that wrote me in Orlando. But I don’t know if I should make that scene. She wants to get serious or something.” I didn’t want to admit I’d been thinking about going to California ever since I got the letter.
“Pppfffftt!” Charlie hissed. “That doesn’t mean you have to get serious. We just need somewhere to crash for a few days when we get there.”
“Yeah, that’s cool. I’d love to see the Golden Gate again.” I remembered walking the streets of San Francisco for two days before I shipped out to SEA, trying to find the guts to skip the flight, disappear into the night. I still wasn’t sure why I hadn’t. “Right now, I’m real happy just to be out of that damn city and out of all that controlled lushness in the Bluegrass, out here in the real world.”
“Keep on truckin’, Mr. Natural!” Charlie taunted. “You’ll be ready for some neon soon.”
“Maybe so,” I mused. “I just know I need to be out in the natural world a lot or I get crazy and depressed and want to break things.” I remembered the glass I had heaved in the direction of a large plate glass window somewhere in the suburbs two days ago.
“Well. – Maybe I spent too much time out in the ‘natural world’… with people trying to kill me. It doesn’t seem so friendly to me.” His tone was so serious, so bitter really, that I turned and stared at him. Amazing, I thought. He actually said something, though an indirect, veiled reference, about the war, about his experience there. I was afraid to even respond.
“Lights and music and people laughing and ice cubes tinkling – they make me feel safe,” he continued, looking straight out at the highway. I held my silence, and Charlie lit a cigarette.
“What is that huge wall of dirt at the end of the road?” I asked.
“The levee,” Judson said. “Keeps the Ohio out of our yard.”
“Nice view. Nice yard.” Charlie said. They all looked at the four-foot growth of grass and weeds around the house.
“I don’t spend much time here.” Judson looked sheepish and gave the yard a glance and a wave of dismissal. “I have to be at work at six, and I don’t usually get home ‘til six or after. I’ve been going somewhere every weekend, usually cut out Thursday night, or as soon as I get my forty hours in. Billy doesn’t want me working any overtime.”
We carried our bags into the little square clapboard house. As we came into the kitchen, a young Black Lab came wagging up to the back door whining and yelping in excitement. Judson called out, “Hello, Lorca! How’s tricks, girlie!” He let the pup into the house and began to pet and nuzzle her soft face with his cheek. “Meet Lorca,” he said to us.
We paid our respects and got licked in reply. I walked to the door and said, “Okay if I go have a look at the river?”
“Sure, help yourself,” Judson said. “Not much to see.”
I leaped off the little concrete stoop and strode down the road toward the big dike. It was an easy climb, grassy and sloped, with a small road along the top. Looking out at the big river, I felt a familiar lightheaded rush as I breathed in the expanse. It wasn’t nearly as wide as the Mississippi, but it was a big river. The far shore was a low, dark green smudge. On the near shore, the river was out of it’s banks slightly, lapping passively at the base of the levee. I traversed down the steeper, river side of the earthen dam, and looked at the shallow water playing around the trunks of little trees on the bank.
On an impulse, I took off my shoes and waded in the edge of the cool water. I walked along for several hundred yards in the ankle-deep water, carrying my shoes and feeling refreshed and restored. In contact, I thought. As I walked along, I noticed debris and trash in the water, and thought how careless of people to spoil the beauty of the river. Then I saw, half buried in the mud, an armless, eyeless child’s doll, its blonde tresses tangled with trash – a plastic six-pack ring and a snarl of blue nylon line. The deathly image filled me with loathing and a strange sense of foreboding. I hastily scrambled up the levee feeling soiled and disjointed.
The next morning, I woke up early, twisting in my sleeping bag. At first I thought it was the heat that had awakened me. As I came fully awake, I realized my feet were itching fiercely. I sat up and extracted my feet from the sleeping bag. They were covered with an angry red rash speckled with clear blisters. The rash ringed my ankles – right up to where the river water had come on my wading venture in the great outdoors of Ohio.