Dec 17, 2009

Short Story: "The Levee"

        

You would hardly know a snaky muddy river flows behind the levee in front of my house, but it does. I live on the Mississippi River. So did Mark Twain. But he lived further up north in Missouri where the river’s clean. Down here it’s like somebody threw up in it. It’s not like the old days though when they sold cotton and had slaves. It’s like it runs through everyone’s mind like a sewer, which isn’t so bad because we’re not that different from Paris — they’ve got great sewers. The school bus passes along the levee zillions of times and I hardly take notice that the Mississippi is right there, flowing and churning. Is it true that oak trees are swept underneath its current and that no man has ever swum across the river alive? That’s what I heard. A guy fell off the ferry once and nobody ever saw him again. I’ve been on that ferry. It takes off with a gush of brown water spewing at the back. Kind of like when I am under the water in the bathtub and push the water out with my mouth, making monstrous bubbles.
I’ve ridden the ferry a couple of times with Sidney when he would take me to Algiers. It doesn’t cost any money so it’s kinda fun to get on when you’ve got nothing else to do. Sidney told me if you notice good enough you can spot spikes, like nails, in the crevices where pigeons like to roost. Up on top where the pilot sits. The spikes keep ‘em away so there are no pigeons on the ferry, at least none that I’ve seen, and the water looks so scary from up on the balcony; I think of the oak trees floating at the bottom – or maybe a dead body, thrown into the river from a dock downstream, careening, now, through the Mississippi, like a bullet. I saw this movie once about this British lady and she like kills herself in the river and they show her body whizzing by like a submarine. It was really weird. So, it made me think that maybe they got cars down there lodged in the mud and dead bodies and stuff. Or living creatures. You never know. It's really freaky. When I was like nine, Sidney would pick me up when we were on the ferry and I could look down from the banister and see all the yellow and gray swirls and trails of rainbow-colored gas coming from the ships and stuff.
Sidney and me look at the city. He points to the places he knows. The spire of the cathedral, he points out to me. He writes down stuff in a black leather notebook he keeps in his pocket. Even though he’s a schoolteacher he tells me he’s a poet. And I believe him. We gotta squint our eyes really good because the city’s like beneath the waves and the steeples on the churches seem to barely peek out from the green hills. And I know Sidney’s a poet because he can see into my eyes and look out with me and see the same things I see on the horizon. We both see things. Like an owl fly past the car on the River Road at night. Sidney says it was a Bard owl; you can tell it by its cry, who hoots for you? it says. And we both saw it.
When I was really young my mom and dad split up. I thought my dad was going to kill my mom when he came to our house one night yelling at the doorway, yelling to come in. Mom let him in and Dad stopped shouting and started crying. I saw Dad in Mom’s arm like a child being comforted after falling off a bike or somethin’. All I heard was Mom singing like “It’s over” and Dad just cried and cried until I thought he would never stop crying. I didn’t even know my dad could cry like that.
Dad moved into a trailer and sold his truck for a Monte Carlo. I was embarrassed when he dropped me off at school on Monday after spending a weekend with him. All the cars were new and shiny. Dad’s car was flaking and the exhaust spewed out plumes of hot smoke when it idled. And the car was so long that you could see it all the way from the playground.  When he finally got a better car, my brother and I volunteered to smash the Monte Carlo up with a jackhammer, but Dad wouldn't let us. In a way, I admired my dad’s love of old, huge cars, because it seemed to be genuine and I liked that. I liked that he bought a car that he could tinker with on weekends. Like I would tinker with my bike. I felt Dad and I had something in common.
The times we got along alright is when we went hunting up in Tensas Parish. You had to be real quiet or you didn’t catch anything. When I killed my first deer I was eleven years old. Dad’s voice, “You gotta learn to shoot that rifle good now” and he wouldn’t leave me alone about it until they had told him to lay off of me. “Why are you so hard on your kid?” Uncle John asked. Dad and Uncle John smeared me with that doe’s blood. Sidney said it was something like a William Faulkner novel and I told him what are you talking about? But he just said don't worry about it. I told Sidney I didn’t like the blood stuff but I knew it made me and Dad close. But I didn't like that I had to be so quiet in the deer blind because I wanted to talk and Dad would say shut up. Uncle John cut up the meat and I took some of it home and Mom and Larry made sausages. They were really good. Sidney even ate some even though he’s a vegetarian. I told him he didn’t have to but he ate one anyway. He said it tasted like the woods. I told him the whole story of killing the deer. I know he doesn’t like me hunting, but I think he minded me telling him about it. But I don't go hunting anymore because it's no fun because you can't say anything and I'd rather do stuff than just sit there all day.
When I get up in the morning Mom is really loud and she pulls the covers off my bed.  I go and turn the shower on really hot and go back to bed.  Mom comes upstairs and sees that I am still in bed and the shower is running really hot. She yells again and I yell back. Anger is the only thing that gets me up. I yell and scream and she tells me I’m too young to have a temper tantrum. I would never do that with my dad, she says. She’s right. Dad makes me say, “Yes sir. No sir.” Mom doesn’t make me say that but I wonder sometimes if she really loves me. I know she does, though.
I walk to the bus stop at like six thirty in the morning. On the levee they don’t pick you up in front of your house. The bus never veers off the route on River Road. Redeemer Middle School is in Destrehan five miles away but it’s still on the River Road. I hate school because people make fun of me. And it’s so boring too. Why do I need to know all this stuff anyway? And when I go to sit down at lunch I can never find a place to sit. They say you’re supposed to learn from your mistakes, but I didn’t do anything wrong. I looked on a map and River Road goes for hundreds of miles. All the way to Baton Rouge. I think they call it the Great River Road. And you can hardly see the river. You gotta climb up the levee and look out. You can see big ships with Russian written on the side in big letters and Greek written on the sides. In Kenner I went with Sidney and you can see where some pirate landed and we ate sandwiches there, once. We had walked all the way from our house and mom had to come and pick us up.
But, on our bus, I sit at the very first seat, my head cocked sideways on the windowpane, the visceral bumps shocking through my scrunched legs, propped against Miss Thibodeaux’s driver’s seat, her weight balancing my scrawny, elementary frame so she barely notices. Clay and Sparrow sit behind me, swapping MAD magazines. We like to find the funniest pictures so we can try to imitate ‘em and send in an idea of our own one day. I don’t draw but Clay does. Sparrow has ideas and so do I but Clay’s really good at putting it down in words.
Usually we all get off at Clay’s stop.
The bus lurches to a halt at the corner of Leander and River Road and all three of us climb out like children coming home from the crusades. With the stop sign still blinking red on Miss Thibodeaux’s Yellow Bird, we walk in front and I wave. Throwing our stuff down on the green grass we’ll roll down the levee to the soft mud at the bottom. We’re finally free.
***
The river looks calm on the shore. Like you can step in it and nothin’ll happen. But we know better. We’re not that stupid.
I really don’t like rolling down the levee, though. Once I laid on my back and Sparrow and I rolled down together like two fighting cats. He held on to me so tight that I thought his ribs were going to rip into my chest.
“I feel like I’m going to throw up, Sparrow,” I said clutching my belly after we had rolled down. My body felt like a spun top and I couldn’t see straight.
“Then, throw up stupid, I’m not going to stop ya.”
Clay laughed.
“It’s not funny.”
“Yes it is.”
“Shut up.”
“You.”
“You first.”
“If you don’t shut up I’m gonna throw up on ya right now. I mean it.”
I tried to walk up the levee but it was so steep and I felt so drunk I didn’t think I’d make it but I was so angry at Sparrow that I forced myself up the hill and threw up Monday’s macaroni when I got to the top.”
“Jesus, Lane, that’s disgusting.”

I was embarrassed but didn’t want to show it. I felt for my schoolbag and flung it on my shoulders.

“Yeah you look like you puked your whole lunch on the ground. Did ya bring a pooper scooper?”

They continued talking about it and I continued to ignore them.
I didn’t say anything and walked ahead of ‘em. “Come on don’t be mad.” Clay hollered out.
Back on our street, we went through Clay’s backyard gate. Watching his cherry faced sister jump up and down on the trampoline, we laughed and tried to join her but all of us couldn’t fit; but I imagined while I jumped peeping over the fences, seeing into other peoples’ backyards, like jumping on the river, if it were elastic, jumping really high so that I could see the whole city. If I could jump high enough I might be able to see Lake Pontchartrain. Clay’s dog Brutus came barking and running from behind the shed. Slobber hung from the bitch’s lips. She looked like a sick version of Juliet and I wasn’t planning on being her Romeo. If I ran fast enough I might be able to escape Clay’s rabid dog. I was really afraid of it; the creature ate my fear, nipped at my pants, scared me too death.
“Lane, he won’t hurt you,” Sherry called out from the top of a cloud. “He’s really nice but dogs sense fear.”
“Yeah, he won’t hurt you,” Clay told me as the dog was running right for me. I was shorter than the mutt’s head. Instinct told me to run. I ran for the back door and slammed it shut. By the time Clay and Sparrow were both inside, his stupid dog barking viciously and Sherry still jumping, they looked as scared as I was. “God, I hate your dog, Clay.”
It’s like when I was like six. The coach told us to be aggressive and I never forgot the word. Aggressive. I had an inchoate idea of what the word meant: mean, rough, not reading a book. He had us in a huddle, "You guys gotta be more aggressive!" I felt like he was looking straight at me: the one who preferred to pick through the crimson clover patch by the goal post. Our soccer shorts were like two lollipop colored paper bags filled with air, strung around our puny legs. We bared our chests through our V-neck cotton t-shirts, about as much bravado as you can get from a pack of prepubescent boys. A fury of boys. And me. Furious in my own way; Dad yelling at games, "Keep your eye on the ball!" and Grandma not minding if I read to her entries from my dictionary, as long as the team was on the other side of the field. I couldn't understand the point of the useless fumbling, so I kept on reading. After a game we were standing around the merry-go-around.
This one kid, Clarence, kept on making fun of me and he didn’t let me sit down where I wanted to sit. Sidney tells me to ignore him but it’s impossible.
We were standing around the merry-go-round. The dust in the air swirling around in nonsensical motes. A bigger kid and Clarence appeared from nowhere. “Lemme see that book.” It was a comic book version of Moby Dick. “No,” I said. “Come on,” he said and took my book. “No,” I said, “Give it back. It’s mine.” “I’m just gonna look at it. Geez. Get a grip. pussy.” Johnny, the bigger kid, with thicker legs than mine, interjected, “Yeah, fuck face, just let him look at it; he ain’t gonna hurt it.” I eased up and said sure; I wanted the book back, though. He read from my book. But not the real words. “And Lane sucks dick. Says so here. And eats his momma’s pussy and Lane is an ass wipe. Man. This is good shit.” Hahhhahhhh. Thay all laughed. Spat on the floor; looked like blood clots on the concrete. And just like that the bigger kid tore the book in shreds and deposited the pieces, like confetti, over the playground, the husk of the book sprawled on the ground like an emasculated man; its flesh swirling in the dust. “Don’t like your book, sorry,” and he laughed. And they were gone.
I gathered up the pieces I could find, sat down, and tried to put the pages back together. My hands shaking, I tried to calm down. The eye of the whale looked at me from its torn pages. The other children in the playground comforted me after the bigger kid and Clarence had left. Sitting cross-legged, a boy my age told me not to worry about it; I could get another book. By this time, ten or twelve other kids had gathered around me to see what was wrong – why was Lane so sad? – I had gained some composure, got up, as if nothing had happened, stuffed pieces of the book into my pockets (maybe I could save a few words) and to no one in particular, I said thank you. We played in the crimson clover patch until it was time to go home.
So, one day I just got fed up with him.
At lunch, we were standing in line and he was behind me; he said something to me about being a fag so I turned around and pushed him down with all my might. I couldn’t believe that I had just done that. I saw the blurred faces of the kids around me; I saw Clarence on the cafeteria floor. I was so nervous, energy was spewing out of me, like a fire hydrant had exploded and I ran for the hallway. I ran into the bathrooms and found a stall to sit in until I calmed down, until I could muster up enough strength to go back outside. I kicked the stall door and the noise sounded like shotgun backfire. I know it sounds stupid but I didn’t know my own strength when I pushed that kid down. I thought everyone was going to make fun of me. I thought I was going to get in trouble and get suspended. I thought Clarence was going to come looking for me and beat me up.
I must have stayed in that bathroom for no more than five minutes but it felt like years. I heard the door close and a familiar voice calling my name. It was Ms. Lavern, the lunch lady calling my name. I came out of the stall, still shaking like a thumped violin.
“What are you doing in the girl’s bathroom, Lane?”
“I don’t know. Is Clarence okay?”
“Oh yeah. He’s okay. Done sized him up, all’s I could tell. But you shouldn’t be in the girl’s bathroom, sweetie. Somebody might mistake you for a peeping tom.”
Ms. Lavern brought me to Principle Sloon’s office. Mrs. Sloon asked if I was okay. “Did I want to go home?” “No?” “Okay.” “Well, then go back to class.”
I was still petrified that everyone would make fun of me. I still thought I had done something horrible. Something irredeemable. The banner in the fourth grade hallway read, “Forgive 7 X 700 times”. Ms. Cinder’s room was 131. I opened the door to my classroom. When everybody saw me they clapped and cried, “woohooh. You made Clarence go home! How did you do it? He told the teacher he wasn’t feeling good and his grandma came and brought him home!”
And you know what? I never knew why they were clapping for me even with all of their explanations. I was utterly stunned and sat down at my seat. And Clarence Lotts never teased me again.
The only other time I fought a bully was at Jeremy Accuri's house. We were playing in the empty lot next to his house – filled with cans, nails, rotted pieces of wood. On the edge of the Mississippi. The River Road humming. His little sister tagging along. The neighbor too. Josh. I forget his last name. He was skinny and punctuated by a raggedy set of dress, torn holes in his torso and thigh. Suffering from a cold, he coughed at us as we played, snot pasted to his cleft. I don’t know what triggered inside of me my soccer coach’s mantra to be aggressive, but in the middle of hide-and-go-seek, I hurled a rusty, empty can of USDA peaches right at him; hit him square in the forehead. Blood was everywhere. Jeremy couldn’t believe it; ran to tell his mom. His sister screamed. Josh stood still for a minute. I thought he was going to topple over, dead. But he lunged towards me, angry. When he caught me in a grapple he couldn’t do anything except bear hug me to the ground; I pushed him off and we both walked to the house, both of us sniffling. In shock, not believing my own aggression, I was horrified that I had hurt him so badly. Blood was smeared on his head. Jeremy’s mom saw I was upset and told me everything was going to be all right. “Do you need a hug?” she asked me and I said, “Yeah, I think so.” And I tipped toed to clutch her broadly for a second then let go naturally. I was relieved that the adults seemed nonplussed. Josh went to the hospital. Got stitches. They didn’t call my mother. I never saw Josh again, on purpose. If I saw him on the playground, I avoided him. I didn’t even go back to Jeremy’s house after that. I was afraid of seeing them again; fearful they would remember the day I broke open a kid’s head.
Back at home, I can relax for a little bit. I have French homework to do and Sidney, when he comes to visit, will help me a little bit. Last week I had to memorize the days of the week in French. I don’t know why I took French. I just wanted to. But I am going to take French again next year. When I am in the shower I recite the numbers out loud so I can remember them. I told Sidney not to talk to me when I am in the shower. Because I can’t hear him. He tries to have a conversation but I am like, “I can’t hear you Sidney!” but it doesn’t stop him. He just goes on and on. So I just say the stuff I know in French and if I forget something, I can poke my head out of the shower, and say, “Sidney, what’s Thursday in French?” And he’ll say it if he’s still around. Usually he’s gone by then, grading papers. Or whatever.
Standing by the car on Sunday night, we went riding out to Ruddock. There are two bridges in Ruddock, side by side where the interstate cuts through the swamp, (the Mississippi River a faint treacle of music) trailed by the railroad, intersected by the Bonnet Carré spillway, where one hump lies, a measly device made from pre-stressed concrete, hardly a limp over the bog, standing next to the integrated freeway, carrying its burden, finesse — (cutting, slicing, bifurcating, dividing) we don’t even notice the smaller bridge until we come down the ramp to meet it and Sidney expounds on the merits of democracy, and I mention that you only have to whisper to this little brother, listing to the side, an experiment in contrast and from here, at the bayou’s edge, the watery pass, drenched with sweat, blood filled frogs, dragonflies, rotten fish bait on the side of the service road; you can notice the smudge of water, at this more introspective level, the whirr of transit on the freeway above, seemingly distant, the one, two, three car salute on the smaller bridge, thumping along — the transition of life, squirming, unconscious, almost, impervious, almost, to the apparent arrogance of the freeway above, looming almost, carrying its burden of trucks and eighteen wheelers, little foxes and patrols, sharing secrets — see, you can go a quarter of a mile, cross over Maurepas Pass, and come back over the yellowing trestle, and then go back again onto the Eisenhower Freeway Interchange, in an agreeable neverending circuit; back again, back to the bogs, and the suspended water minnows, a secret every time even though there are some secrets that can never be told, for they are too much to hold, too much of a burden, if i can call it that; these are the secrets that i save for later. We both feel complete, satisfied almost, even if a little relieved, and in the quiet space of an afternoon, the stench of that morning’s fishing still in the air, after throwing pebbles at the wasp husks underneath the John J. Mayer interchange, the water the color of chickory, brown as the coffee I drink from the Mississippi, we take a nap in the car, our secrets, for now, floating like the dragon flies whizzing through the air and I think I am so lucky, the luckiest guy in the world.

Greig Roselli  @ 2009