Tributaries: "It Begins With The River"

By Courtney L. Sexton

“There goes Courtney floating down the Delaware/chewing on her underwear/can’t afford another pair/ten days later eaten by a polar bear/and that was the end of her!” I cringe even now when I sing the song in my head, the song that my brother tormented me with, the one that I heard swirling through the cattails as we darted after each other in the park overlooking the river. We lived in those years on the edge of the town in a small house that was built on a street behind the old estates that stood high on a bluff above the Delaware, ones you can see now from the highway overpass; the houses want to be beautiful and grand but the centuries since the Revolution have rotted the wood and made the roofs sag.

The park ran in front of the houses, small and not well taken care of – the gravel path was always littered with broken bottles; shards of shiny green Heinekens glinted among the pebbles. The forest-green paint on the metal rail that guarded visitors from tumbling down the steep hill and onto the sandbar (during low tides, otherwise straight into the river) was chipped and peeled in several places, exposing old iron. But the vista was magnificent. The Lenape Indians thought so. They snaked their canoes through Black’s Creek, and then early settlers came, stumbling on a small Eden, and, later, Josef Bonaparte, in whose vestigial rock garden I learned how to scale, finding cubby holes for hands and feet, testing to make sure the shale wouldn’t fall away beneath the weight of my body. Though it would have been our front yard had we had one, we were not allowed to go to the hilltop park without telling someone, even when all of the boys had gathered all of their guns and were playing war against each other and the ghosts of Hessian soldiers rumored to haunt the riverbanks. We were not allowed to go there when it was dark.

I don’t know the origin of the song, or how polar bears would have gotten to the Delaware, unless it was long ago when the continents were joined and the world was much colder and they decided to amble across the Canadian provinces and down the Hudson and over into Jersey. I also don’t know why the song irked me so. It does provide a stunning visual, and I suppose it may have been that I could see myself all too clearly, bobbing inside a black inner-tube, clad in nothing but a tie-dyed t-shirt, and with a deranged look in my eye, hopelessly gnawing at the waistband of my Disney princess underwear. I think, though, that really the insult must have been the indignity of it all, of not being able afford another pair.

Courtney Sexton is a New Jersey native who grew up between the Delaware River and the sandy Pine Barrens. She wouldn’t know how to live where she couldn’t hear the water. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, has been awarded a residency at the Vermont Studio Center, and is the co-founder of Washington, D.C.’s The Inner Loop Literary Reading Series.