Cooper twins, Tiffany and Dawn, prepared weeks in advance for their
sister-bonding raft trip down the Mississippi by spending long hours
watching Huckleberry Hound reruns and amassing a large, protective
arsenal of beauty products. Luckily, the products were free because
Tiffany, the beautiful twin, was a New York-based supermodel who
had somehow managed to convince Cosmopolitan magazine to
sponsor the trip in exchange for a first-person, Gonzo-style article
on the adventure. As her new agent barked into his cell phone time
and time again, "Tiffany has already capitalized on the natural
beauty she was born with, but she's done with that, finito, through.
Now it's time to show that her mind is a little hottie, too."
Tiffany originally wanted to title the article, "The Mississippi's
Beautiful and So Am I" but her editor preferred his own suggestion,
"Stories of the Storied River: Tales from the Perspective of
Tiffany, and Cozmo, had hired
a guide to take them down river, a tall, muscular, and hunky young
man who claimed to be descended from cane-pickin' Louisiana slaves,
but who was really a foreign exchange graduate student from a small,
wealthy African nation on the Ivory Coast. He'd taken the job because
he, too, planned to write an article on the adventure, a sociological
treatise on the legacy of gender and race relations in the American
South, tentatively titled, "Still Jim after All these Years."
"Whoa," he said when he
first got an eyeful of the beauty that is Tiffany, "I sure
be likin' yo hair like yellow yarn, and yo devil-blue eyes, Miss
"Please, Jim," Tiffany said,
giggling, "for this trip, I'm just plain ole Tiff."
"You couldn't never be plain
to my eyes," he answered.
"And this is my twin sister,
Dawn," Tiffany said and pushed Dawn forward like a show poodle.
Jim made his eyes bug out like he
saw the slaves do in "Gone With the Wind," a movie he
watched at least 50 times--for research purposes only--during his
studies of the antebellum South.
"Are you sure you two is sisters?"
"We're fraternal," Tiffany
said, "but don't you think Dawn's pretty too?"
Jim shook his head because Dawn was
no Tiffany. Where Tiffany had golden tresses streaming down her
shoulders like sunlight itself, Dawn had a greasy dishwater mop-top.
Tiffany was a Grecian statute; Venus at the moment she morphed into
Aphrodite, on the cusp of Rome, straddling both myth and marble.
She stored fat cells in gravity-defying grandeur, collecting and
distributing them as if by will, siphoning them into her full breasts
like bouncy water balloons and her firm buttocks. Dawn, on the other
hand, was short and stumpy, like a troll, and her fat collected
in her spare-tire stomach and the backs of her wrinkly thighs.
"Is Jim your real name?"
Dawn asked politely, extending her Pillsbury dough-boy hand.
"No, ma'am," Jim replied,
puffing out his chest and abs, which were sculpted as if from the
hardest, smoothest onyx, "I'm James Earl King Washington, the
third. At your service."
"Nice to meet you, James,"
Jim was dressed in full costume for
his role as minstrel, river raft captain-tattered chinos with the
pants legs cut into triangles, a dirty, tuxedo-style shirt unbuttoned
to the navel, and a too-small straw hat perched like a bird's nest
on top of his trim, tight afro. Hidden in his pants pocket were
a miniature tape-recorder, a wallet stuffed with emergency hundred-dollar
bills, and a driver's license bearing his real name, Chitu Okoli.
After staring at maps and calculating
costs, the trio decided to start the raft trip in Memphis, and ignore
the Minnesota origins of the river, because Minnesota was just too
far, and plus, the cooler, drier weather up north is bad for the
skin and hair. At Graceland, they met up with the fourth member
of their crew, a freelance fashion photographer hired by Cozmo
to take black and white photos of Tiffany trickling her hand on
top of the muddy water, and sunbathing on the quaintly primitive
"You can call me Stefan,"
the photographer said, "if you call me anything at all. But
I prefer to keep in the background, and let the click of the shutter
be my voice. To speak with me is to break the spell and the magic
"How come I haven't worked with
you before?" Tiffany asked.
"I've been working strictly on
my artistic images for the past few years," Stefan sniffed.
"My primary goal now is to hang exclusively in galleries."
But Stefan was lying. For the past
few years, he'd been photographing sausages and cheese for a mail-order
catalogue. During the 80's, he was an up and comer in the fashion
world, but his love of cocaine transformed him from a demanding
but supportive photographer, to a controlling tyrant. He was finally
blacklisted in 1989 when he made Christie Brinkley, during a shoot
for Cover Girl, cry by telling her that she was so bland even her
pussy needed mascara.
Off they went, the fashion photographer
dressed in fashionable black, the supermodel, her ugly twin, and
the duplicitous guide. There was much fanfare when they shoved off
from the Pyramid in downtown Memphis. A high-school brass band played
"Take Me to the River" and the local media covered the
event. It was headline news for The Memphis Star Tribune,
squeezing out a report of genocide in some unpronounceable country
located, ironically, next to Jim's small and prosperous homeland.
After the christening and shove-off,
the thatched-together wooden raft floated calmly down the border
between Tennessee and Arkansas. Tiffany reclined on a chaise lounge,
in a Tommy Hilfiger swimsuit, pen in hand, and a brand-new notebook
open in her lap. Stefan ran around her taking pictures silently
while Jim sat in the back, his knees drawn up to his chest, tape
"What should I write, Dawn?"
"Why don't you describe the color
of the water," Dawn said from her perch near the edge of the
raft, "or speculate on what kinds of fish are down there? Or
maybe comment on the odd juxtaposition between the lush vegetation
and the factories along the banks? You know, sort of, the Mississippi
of the rural past versus the industrial present."
Dawn pointed one of her stubby fingers
to a plastics plant a half-mile down river. A thick column of gray
smoke spewed from a smokestack that looked to Stefan like Auschwitz
and that smelled like the farts of tires. An eternal flame burned
high above the factory, its orange glow licking the sky like an
Olympian torch from hell.
Tiffany snapped her fingers. "Say,"
she said, "I've got it! See that flame over there?"
"We all sees it, Miss Tiff,"
"That flame is the flame of America!
It's like the torch of the Statue of Liberty--think about it--we
wouldn't have alpha-hydroxy without that beautiful burning fire!
And alpha-hydroxy keeps you young. There's my angle. My article
will be a catalogue of the factories along the river and all the
wonderful products that result from them. Stefan, get me a picture
of that flame."
"Excuse me for saying this, Miss
Tiff," Jim said, rising from his seat near the rudder, "but
Jim must needs begs to differ. My folks've been from roun' dis way
for one hundred or more year, and we seen the death of the great
"Yes, yes," Tiffany said,
scribbling in her notebook, "this kind of folktale is exactly
what I needÖ"
"We simple folk don' like the
great monster dat eats the air," Jim continued, settling into
his character. "It's stinky and liable to make duh young'uns
Tiffany nodded and wrote furiously,
then shook her head with joy and disbelief. She looked over at Dawn
and winked. This Jim was from another era, a relic of a time long
past. The raft started running faster down the holy river.
"Yessuh," Jim continued.
"It's not lak back in de days uh duh plantation when duh United
States was new, and everything was like the tropics and good tuh
Then they crossed the state line into
Mississippi, and the raft hit a strong cross current, turned 180
degrees and got stuck on top of an eddy, rocking back and forth.
"Jim!" Tiffany yelled, getting
down on her hands and knees for balance. "Do something!"
Jim brought out orange life-preservers for everyone.
"Here dey is!" he announced.
"Now put 'em on and pray."
A whirlpool formed around the pathetic
little raft, forcing it to spin in semi-circles, making it unable
to move down the length of the river, and twisting it furiously
in no direction at all. Then a large rusty barge came into view,
booking down river, hauling wasted petro-chemicals long banned in
"That barge is coming straight
for us!" Tiffany yelled, and jumped up and down, waving her
pen and notebook in the air, hoping that the barge captain would
see her long, glistening hair in the darkening sky and stop. But
the monster kept on coming straight for them, a bomb.
"This is bullshit!" Tiffany
yelled. "Jim, get us over to the bank!"
"I don't know how, Miss Tiff,"
he said. "I'm jus' a po' ignorant black man."
"But you're supposed to be wise!"
The barge was so close now that the
raft passengers could see the rust holes all over it and the vegetation
that clung to the sides underwater and the skull and crossbone cancer
warnings on deck.
"Jump!" Dawn yelled and
all four dove into the coldest, muddiest, dankest and greatest of
American rivers, seconds before the large barge barged straight
into their raft, splintering it into a multitude. It took three
full minutes for the barge, from the hole-filled, mouth-like tip
to the brown and rusty ass, to pass during which nothing could be
heard but the loud clanging and creaking of the ghostly ship, and
the groaning of the river as it parted for it.
When the barge was down river and
the wake it left banged itself out on the shore, four heads bobbed
like Styrofoam in the sudden calm.
"The light! The light!"
Dawn yelled. "Head for the light!"
Tiffany lifted her hand above her
head and made the thumbs-up sign and each bobbing figure swam alone
towards the crooked finger of the chemical flame.