It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.
That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.
First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”
He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”
Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”
“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”
Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”
Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”
Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”
“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.
I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.
Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”
We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.
Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.
We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.
We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.
Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.
“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.
I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”
“You two want to see The Bottom?”
Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”
Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”
I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”
Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.
We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.
Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.
“Look out for that,” he said.
Tommy rolled his eyes.