I don't know what was worse – the fear I had as a boy, driving past the spot where daddy took the notion to pack us all into the Grenada for a trip to Carson Branch because they had an outdoor store that sold the stuff he needed for reloading his shotgun shells, or realizing as an adult that all of the stories about Shoeshine Drop were impossibly and without a doubt true. Well, almost all of them.
Every town, especially the small ones like Waterman, Georgia where I was raised, has at least a legend or two about a tragedy that has somehow grown into lore and rides through time on the tongues of the locals. They're usually harmless, but sometimes they can be portent of more tragedy, mostly for the overly curious or the overly drunk. And the older the yarn, the more outlandish it gets. Think about the game of telephone we all played when we were kids. That's the one that starts with a few simple, easy to remember words, but over the course of the game, whispered from ear to ear and accompanied by childish frivolity, becomes a comical mess of words that make little sense by the end.
The more distance the legend travels, the more dangerous it gets too, because it ought to go without saying that courage and booze do not make good bed fellows.
Waterman has its own nugget of lore. It's not the usual worn out stuff, either. There's no rickety, retired bridge at the end of a long, forgotten road where, under a full moon and if they listen closely, the more courageous adventurer might hear the cry of a small child or see the apparition of a woman in white – it's always long and flowing and white – searching for the baby she lost over the side many years ago. I know where there's one of those bridges over the state line in South Carolina. I used to pass it on my way home from work in the middle of the night when I worked a job on the third shift and I'm not ashamed to say I couldn't make myself look at that old, rusty relic in the distance. Crybaby Bridge they call it. I think every town that has a similar legend calls it that. And it's not lost on me that our biggest ghost story feels close to something like that coming off the lips, but I always thought ours has more flair – better butter after the churnin', as my Nana used to say when she thought her idea was stronger than yours.
It became a thing in Waterman forty years ago and it hasn't been bashful about growing into something of a problem. My name's Marty Reese and the last ten of those years have seen me as Waterman's sheriff. I don't mind admitting that even after I had a badge and a car, I made an effort to keep my patrols an impressive piece away from that place. It isn't exactly the same as not looking over at that bridge in Carolina, though. I'd only heard about that one from a lady friend that grew up there and told me to look for it on my way by.
Shoeshine Drop is different. There's been death there - too much of it.
I was never one of the curious kind, foolish enough to go there and stop – to actually stop. These days though, kids are stupid and I don't think they ever really grow out of it. I don't like to think about how many close calls there must've been – how many times I was one curious cat's bad idea away from having to knock on their mother's door.
Once, when I was a young boy, Durm Cooley instructed me during a game of Truth Or Dare to go over to Judy Moore and sneak a grab somewhere she wouldn't have wanted me to. Of course I refused, because even as a brain challenged teenager, I knew there were lines you didn't cross, not if you wanted to be decent. Durm said as a punishment, I had to step out to the edge of Shoeshine drop and see if I felt anything. Unlike me, Durm didn't have a grasp yet on the lines a person ought not to cross and after taking a hard wallop in the face by Judy Moore and getting the scare of a lifetime from her daddy, he ended up grounded that afternoon and for a good, long time. After that, we forgot all about my punishment and went on to other things boys get into that were doubtlessly just as dumb. Who knows what would have happened if I'd have been foolish enough to take Durm's punishment? I'm glad I didn't get to find out.
There are always those who claim to have gone out there and then come back with their own versions of the story. That just fuels the fire. Then there are those who try it and come back with nothing to tell. And there have been few who learned the hard way what my own daddy told me about gambling. The house always wins.
If I'm going to write all this down – for what? Posterity? For a little P.S. at the end of my eulogy? But wait, there's more! – I guess I'd do well to grind out the legend for you first, so the rest of it makes sense. And, I suppose, to hopefully convince you to stay away from there. Now that we've come to it, I guess that's exactly what this is – a warning and a dire one.
I was four years old when the wreck happened.