Six months after Katrina, you jump head-first into shallow bayou water and break your fool neck. I’m not there when it happens, but Jean is, shooting at raccoons. He fishes you out and pulls you onto the slimy bank. You aren’t moving your limbs any, but Jean can see your chest heaving: in, out, in.
Jean calls me, saying, Sister, you better come quick, so I speed over in that bad truck, winding down those half-flooded marsh roads, and pick you both up. I haul your body into the back seat, your head on Jean’s lap, Jean crying and slobbering everywhere. We rush straight out to the Arcadian Emergency. Jean wants to take you home, put you to bed, call a traiteur and get you healed up with spices and herbs and some hoodoo bullshit. I say, “No way. What he needs is good Christian healing.”
But the antiseptic Christian healing of that hospital doesn’t do too much, and within a couple of hours the doctors tell us that what we have here’s a real couch potato. Ha-ha. What we have here is a paraplegic.
It’s a word Jean’s never heard before. He says, “Like what helps lawyers?”
I say, “That’s paralegal,” and slap him on the ear.
Jean’s still wearing his hunting clothes here in the hospital, still wearing his dirty orange cap, and I want to strangle him. He’s going to make us look like trash, Papa, and you—you’re staring at the tiled ceiling with your dry, still eyes.
I leave the hospital and go to the bar on Jean Lafitte, that slung-low building with the sunken parking lot full of floating cans. All those dead boats tied to docks across the road. I get the most expensive whiskey they carry but I don’t drink it. I have FEMA money to waste.
I’m so mad I could spit. I want to tell you, I always thought it’d be the snakes what got you. I want to say: I warned you, fool. I warned you that you shouldn’t jump. That you’d only sink to the bottom, that you wouldn’t come up.
You’ve always been made out of stone, you old man. What did you think would happen?
Some hours later, X arrives and sits next to me with his electrician’s hands on the bar. X moved here some years ago to work in construction, wiring those new cracker-box houses that have sprung up all over Houma, and far as I can tell, I’m the only one in town he ever talks to. He has full lips and triangle-shaped eyes that slant down at the outside corners, casting his face sad, even when he’s smiling. I can see the burns on all his knuckles. I can see the pale pale freckles on his pale pale arms.
“Here what occurred,” X says very careful, like I’m an alligator he’s trying to feed. “It’s a real shame. A real shame. Your father was a very good swimmer. He’s a very good man. He’s lucky he’s alive and I’m glad he’s lucky.” He doesn’t mean this and I’m grateful. I nod and study the rough patches on his skin.
Listen: I’ve seen this man frame a wall in two hours flat. I’ve seen him pull the wires from the burnished brass throat of a lamp, twist and spark them, feed them back along, coax the broken light to life. This man isn’t from here. He’s a foreigner whose God-given name I can’t pronounce so I don’t try. A German by birth. A goddamned dirty communist. Nobody likes him.
“Thank you,” is all I say.
“Is there anything I can do?” X adds on. I’m looking at him now, I see him trying to make me talk, and I want to shut him up, to take a handful of that dirty bayou water and wrap those slimy weeds around him, to press those lips to quietness.
At the hospital, I sit for four hours, eight sitcoms, staring at you staring at the television. I put it on Wheel of Fortune. You hate Wheel of Fortune. A fat lady wins a scooter.
I keep staring, keep my eyes glued up, as the nurse comes in and starts the routine: the massaging of muscles to keep you limber, keep you human, as though you’ll ever flex your arms again. She pulls the covers down, talks to you soft in a way that we’ve never spoken. She mumbles words I can’t hear, though I recognize the melody of comfort. The sound is familiar and distant and puts a hollow in my gut, like watching Christmas through the living room windows of a strange family, while you stand outside in the clean cold snow, shuffling your feet, breathing on numb hands.
She straightens your legs and begins: kneading the muscles of your calf, your thigh, bending your body at the knee, working the flesh so that it won’t atrophy. I try not to look. Your stiff limbs, dead and pale and bloated like the trunk of a tree. They make me shudder. They make my skin crawl. She works each leg, and then your arms, turns your head from side to side and shifts your body to keep you from getting bedsores. It takes a long time, a long time. As she leaves, I see her glance at me.
“What?” I say sharp as a gunshot.
She jumps and smiles nervous, shakes her head and hurries out. I don’t move once she’s left. I don’t rise to come to you, to hold your hand, to stroke your cheek. I haven’t touched you since the truck.
I mute the television and you keep staring, you with your blank and idiot face. I’m thinking if it bothers you when the nurse brushes your teeth. When she shaves your graying stubble. I’m thinking, if I were lying there all day like a stuck pig, I’d want somebody to put a pillow over my face and send me off to play touch football with the Good Lord.
Or else I’m thinking: that’s what you’d say. The beeps from the heart machine are too loud; outside the live oaks knock and knock against the windows. Past the oaks, a long narrow road winds past the low fishing shacks and the cheap clapboard houses squatting on sour southern grass.
A commercial for Mardi Gras World comes on and I remember the last Carnival before the Storm, before those winds blew us all away: you, masked bright in a suit of confetti, laughing with the other drunks in the courir. You were knee-deep in mud, chasing a hen, falling over, yelling in a way that made Jean and I flinch, accustomed to an old fear. I hung back on the road with the others who wouldn’t call themselves Cajun, who shook their head and whispered, coon-ass. Redneck. You were happy to have that crowd watching you, all lit up; you thought it was a good kind of laugh. Me—I kept my eyes on the bottle on your hand, the bulge of your belly, your bad teeth in a slack mouth, you swooping all over the road on weak knees. Saying under my breath, “Je ne serai jamais comme ça. Jamais, jamais, jamais.”
But then, I don’t talk like that no more.
Seeing your easy joy made me smile that holiday, even though I didn’t want to. The next week you were back out on the rig in the Gulf, squinting into the empty horizon, gutting the ocean floor, miles away and never thinking of us. Not once. But for a minute, down there in the mud, you were exactly where you wanted to be.
X and I are trying to play darts but we’re lousy. I take aim at his face, laugh, spin in a circle, throw the dart across the room just so I can chase after it and skip back again. He’s bought us both a beer—German beer, he says. The kind of beer he drank where he grew up, in East Berlin. I ask him to tell me about it.
I want to hear about European museums and fine cafés and elegant ladies in long silk dresses. I want to hear about symphonies that let out after dark, and beautiful couples who walk down grand staircases, white teeth flashing in the lamplight, and up above the vast and downy European sky.
Instead, he tells me about meat on sticks sold from carts, and Turkish apartments crowded with children. He tells me about bad cars that poison the air, and skinny boys shot to death on top of cement walls. I shake my head from these things. I ask him, why’d he ever want to come to southern Louisiana? Why’d he ever want to come to this trash heap, to Terrebonne Parish, to an ugly little swamp in the nowhere?
“After Katrina”—and so many stories begin this way, now—“there was so much call for the building. I was in Georgia, American Georgia, in Atlanta, but I wanted to come help build. And it’s easy to find jobs, here, now. I was in New Orleans at first, but I like it down here. It reminds me of Berlin, of my old home, when I was small.”
I laugh and call him full of shit and we knock our bottles back.
You told me and Jean a story years back, Papa; it was a story about a hunter friend of yours. This hunter was out on the Atchaflaya, picking off nutria as easy targets, searching for oversized water-rats and looking for the gleam of big yellow teeth. Eventually, this hunter tied his boat up to a crooked cypress and he went onto dry land, stamping through the orchids.
This hunter walked along, poking through the underbrush, nosing aside the weeds with the mouth of his rifle. He came to a clearing, and lying there was a dead black bear. The hunter started fiercely. He cried out.
Black bear are rare enough in the swamps, understand, but this bear. This bear had gotten into a bushel of dehydrated apples, the kind that expand and juice up when you add water. This bear had split open, throat to groin, the apples swelled inside him and bursting out. His guts and the fruit and the mud all mixed together, rotting and stinking there on the boggy ground, the bright peels and the snaking intestines. The hunter didn’t know what to make of it. This great and savage animal, cut down by dried-up snacks. That bear must have died slow, agonized, bewildered.
“Imagine that,” you’d always say at the end of the story, looking more at the wall than at us. “Imagine thinking that you’re getting a fine meal, that everything’s bon, and then, whamm-o! Your bellyache pops you right open.”
And then you’d slap us on the tummy, hard, smiling.
In the bar, X and I are in too deep. I’m telling him about my first arrest. How the jailer took my fingerprints. How the jailer held my hand: I show X: thumbing the palm gently and rocking the index back and forth on the pad of ink, how you have to let your whole hand go limp, how you have to surrender. I’m trying to explain this feeling, of a mean-eyed stranger taking your hand and turning it very careful. This action repeated for every digit. How gentle the jailer was. The strangeness of it.
X nods and smiles in his sad way and tells me the jailers in Berlin, the policemen where he grew up—“They were not so gentle.” He taps a scar that slices across his eyebrow, but he doesn’t explain.
“See?” I say, too loud. “Berlin and Houma—opposite ends of the earth.”
“Not so, non, nein.” He tells me. “If you grew up there, you would understand. Both of these places, they have a—how do you say—angry? A furious brightness that is under a pile of stones. Do you understand?”
I shake my head; I smirk. “No. Not even a little. I think you English ain’t so good.” I laugh at my own words.
He smiles and tells me, “It is about—the people who work all day, who toil for something that really, deep down, they want to fight. And then, after dark, they go angry and wild. Try to understand. It is like that big stone Jesus statue your brother, Jean, carries around in the trunk of his car.” I stare; I don’t know how he knows this. “It is some kind of double faith, see. Your brother believes in this Jesus, because he has been told to, always, because he has been raised this way and knows no other. But at night, Jesus is locked up in the dark of the car trunk. He can’t see inside the bars and the dirty clubs, where there are drink and jukeboxes and pool tables and girls with little jean shorts.” He winks. “And Jean, he has faith in the bars and the girls, too, at the very same time. So it was in Germany. We believed in the stone eyes that watched us. But they made us afraid. And so we had a secret wildness, also. Bright graffiti under bridges. Loud and thumping music, going oonst oonst oonst. And the little sequined skirts.” He spreads his hands and shrugs. “So, you see, it is not so different. Only, here”—he raises his glass and clinks mine—“here, you people drink this trash, this papierkorb, this whiskey, instead of the vodka with the good clean burning.” And I grin and punch him on the shoulder. Outside an old engine turns over, somebody hollers and speeds off.
Then X leans in and tells me that he knows this is difficult, this losing-a-parent, this going away of a known thing. He tells me about when his mother died in a Berlin hospital—lung cancer out of nowhere. He tells me about how he moved to Louisiana right afterward, a young man, and shed so much weight sweating out the summers his pants fell down, and here I laugh. He tells me about how she was his only family. He tells me about the apartment they shared, how he grew up in that small room, about the oscillating fan that blew cool air on him all night long, and how it was still there when he woke up in the morning.
I lean in and kiss him, and his mouth is cold and sweet from drink. I run my fingers along his jaw, his scalp, the back of his neck. I press the edge of vertebrae I feel back there. I bite his lip and see how hard I can bite before he says, Stop. He’s dark dark eyes in a pale face, a deer’s face, tastes like spent ash and old whiskey, the way church should feel. Outside the tide is coming in, the crabs are blue in the moon, someone raises a fiddle to play. I put my lips on X and pull.
I think of the story you told often, Papa. When I visit, now, walking in on you every few weeks at the Lafayette Hospice, I ask you to tell it. But you don’t say a thing. You roll your goggled eyes and chew your cheek; you swallow. I do all the talking, or else we sit in silence.
You’ll never dance in the mud again. You won’t run the courir, you won’t mask in the spring before Lent, you’ll never jump from the rig of the platform and dive into the warm Gulf water scaled with gleaming southern sun, surrounded by the greasy friends you work with, swimming along with your strong arms, the ones I swung from when I was small, Papa, the sinewy muscles lifting me above the surface of the earth, how they used to be the strongest arms in the world and now they are only objects. They sit there. Like dice. Like cinderblocks.
But that story, about the bear and the apples. I think of it all the time. I imagine that hunter, bewildered, afraid, sweating his way back through the woods, searching for the skiff he left. Thinking that at any moment, he could be next. He could be the next victim of this vicious new strain of apple tree, the one that grows inside of you and eats its way out. That even at that very moment, some malicious fruit was unfurling in his belly.
I imagine it’s you out there, Papa, pere, pushing aside the branches. I imagine you, walking on sore feet, miraculously restored. I think of you shaking, fearing the stony eyes that follow. Wondering all along what terrible thing could be within you, reaching its sapling twigs up to your throat. What terrible thing, what bruised and secret wildness, long clamped down in a knot in our bodies, could finally be blooming up, bursting and branching from inside.
Delaney Nolan’s work has appeared in Ecotone, Guernica, Oxford American, The Indiana Review, The South Carolina Review, Tin House online, NPR’s Snap Judgment,and elsewhere. She is the current Bulgaria-Greece Fulbright Joint Research Awardee. A recipient of a Bread Loaf work-study scholarship, a Sozopol fiction fellowship, and two Academy of American Poets prizes, her work has been nominated for a Pushcart, chosen as a notable for Best American Essays, and translated into Arabic, Italian, Bulgarian and Polish. She recently completed her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Photo credit: nazka2002, morguefile.com