Finalist : Terrain.org 10th Annual Contest in Fiction
Mornings here have their own harsh stillness. Blue herons, oil-soaked tangerine sunrises, fewer mosquitoes in the morning, the wet blanket air, the liquid purr of a fishing boat sneaking through the dawn. A wet dew on everything. There are smaller birds, too. And some ugly-ass ducks, and the magnificent frigatebird, which I haven’t seen, but have heard of, and the mangiest squirrel you’ve ever seen. The whole world is sweating.
When I visited this place before moving out here from New Orleans it was mid-afternoon, which gave me only a glimpse into my new life. The swamp shifts throughout the day, and even beyond that. Some days the water’s all the way up to the dock’s edge. Other times I can see a mud patch out in the water. There’s a neighborhood dog that I only see in the afternoon, between one and two. And the heat. Beginnings and endings are my favorite, when the air is least hellacious. Sunrise and sunset.
It’s not unusual to hear a knock early in the morning like this. One thing I’ve learned since moving out here is people show up and knock. My phone almost never rings unless it’s my mom or dad or other family or a friend from the city. “Hey, Holly, how’s it been? When are you visiting again? I’ve been meaning to come down. I know I’ve been saying that for months. As long as months don’t become years, I think we’re good.” I only catch up. I’ve been looking for ways to solve the catch up.
Sometimes Jerome calls, too, asking when I’m moving back to the city and am I really going to live out in the country like this. I tell him, “Yes, Jerome. This is where I live now,” and he groans and hangs up and calls back a week later.
Out here, you wouldn’t know anyone had a past. No one talks about it. When I noticed that conversations here sit in the present, I began to resent these catch-up phone calls. It’s also not unusual to hear the phone ring early in the morning like this, right when someone comes knocking.
It’s not the first time. I used to run to the door with the phone, ask whoever it was at the door to wait and then have a quick conversation with the phone, say I’d call back, and proceed with the knocker. Now I just let the phone ring.
Today June’s at the door.
“You gonna get that?”
“That’s what the answering machine’s for.”
“You still have an answering machine?”
She was right. I’d been really bad about that since moving here. I’d use words that had been retired in city life but I imagined lived on in the country. Turns out half the population here knows more about computers than I do.
Take Fish, for instance, who lives in a trailer and has a scrap metal yard and a big tractor trailer that he hauls up to Belle Chasse to sell scrap he collects from around here. After visiting with him for a couple of weeks he welcomed me inside for a beer as it got dark and the mosquitoes swarmed. At the far end of the trailer, where a little sofa and television might be, there’s instead like twelve computer monitors, with radars and digital readouts and a printer spewing tractor feed paper into a stack five feet off the ground.
“What’s all this, Fish?”
“Oh, I do some work for the government on the side. Earthen tremors, atmospherical fluctuations. It’s a lot of monitoring. Sometime I have to log in to a sister site to compare data, but mostly I just make sure it’s running smoothly and mail out my reports.”
“Oh, no, that’s vestigial. I’ve got hard drives. Four, five, six terabytes.”
“Well then, what’s with the paper?”
“If the paper’s going like that right now, 99.97 percent chance no problems. Plus I just like the way it looks.”
On the side.
“Been doing stuff like this since the late 70s. It’s not hard. Software’s always getting updated from somewhere in California, and every now and then they’ll send new hardware. Sometimes I drive up to Baton Rouge for meetings.”
Fish grabs a couple more Michelob Ultras from the fridge, which is covered in magnets and photos and newspaper clippings. There’s one magnet that says One Big Ass Mistake America, next to a photo of Obama, and another that says Trump 2016, Kicking Ass, Not Kissing It, subtle reminders of the fundamental worldviews that root here.
“Flew to D.C. once, too. Place is like a bad dream. Fuck it. I told them on my way home that fuck that place and if they don’t find someone else for next time I’ll fill this station with nitro and let it burn.”
“Where would you live?”
“Don’t you know? I got this house boat I keep docked over at Sal’s. I could soup that thing up real quick and be living large on the water.”
“It’s just sitting there?”
“Sometimes. Other times it moves around when I rent it out for the weekend.”
In the back of my mind I wonder if the person I’m talking to is racist.
“Good morning, Holly.”
“Come on in, June.”
My big Maine coon Lydia stares at me from across the kitchen. She doesn’t let me get away with anything. She’s missing an eye. I tell people she can see more with the one eye than she used to see with both. I say that the surviving eye absorbed the power of the lost eye, leaving her with one superpowered eye. People either think I’m joking, or they receive it like it’s common knowledge. No one takes it as seriously as I do. Lydia leaps on the table.
“What’s up, June?”
“Will there be more people around this weekend?”
“There are a few coming.”
I run a little nature retreat out here, which was part of my reason for moving. I call it a retreat. It’s more like a cross between summer camp and a bed and breakfast. But people pay, and, being from the city, I can act as a liaison between them and the rest of the land and its people. It was great for the first little while, but lately I’ve felt an idling dread as the weekend approaches and another group shows up to use my house and land and look at Fish when he comes over and then leave. I’m investigating alternatives and telling myself I used the retreat to get myself here, and nothing more. Now that I’m here, I don’t need it.
“They’ll be here at six on Friday.”
“Feel free to send them down to my place for a meal if you’d like.”
I’m shocked. I don’t know June like this. I’ve never been inside June’s house. She always comes here. She must be up to something.
“Well, sure, I’ll put it on the itinerary.” I look around for something to write on. “That’s quite kind of you, June.”
“You’re invited, too.”
I’m stressed about this now. I didn’t come out here to be stressed out about people, and here I am stressed out about people. What is June planning? What will her house be like? I’d like to see it in advance for my own sake. I don’t like surprises. I’ve been infected. The incoming group—people I’ve never met—are going to be trouble. And it’s my job to lead them in a journey of quiet spiritual awakening. The kids usually bring drugs.
Most people take it seriously. I’ve had groups that treat it like a vacation. I think I actually like them more. It’s less work for me and they pay the same. It’s the serious folks that are real trouble. The ones with questions, expectations, assumptions. I’d rather people assume they can do something than assume they know something. Guess that’s why I like the party kids. I discourage drinking. Except the first night. I encourage heavy drinking the first night. Spiritual awakening is easier when you’re hungover.
The group coming this weekend is, as far as I know, four 20-somethings from New Orleans.
“Say, can I use your bathroom?”
“Sure, it’s just past the phone on the right.”
They arrive in two cars, and it’s actually six of them, not four, but the main girl, Lily, small and cute and really sweet, starts talking about the magnolia tree outside my house and spots a hawk about a mile away, which just steals my heart. She promises to pay extra if I’ll let them stay and informs me that they’ll be the best guests. I look at the two cars full of people, see them all laughing with each other and say fuck it, you’re good, let’s get you settled.
One thing I love about being a business owner is being able to say fuck it whenever I want. There really are no rules.
“So this is it.”
“Bunk room is on the main floor, my room is upstairs. Bathroom’s over here. Help yourself to anything.”
I catch the rest of their names all at once and forget them right away, but there’s a tall tan boy in jorts and a shorter pale boy wearing a Hawaiian shirt, both mid-20s. Then there’s the girl with the thick curly hair and glasses, and the two girls that are both wearing something like a dress. Collectively they’re just youths and I leave it at that with myself.
“It’s not much to look at, but that’s what the outside’s for.”
“No! We love it. Is this cypress?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Did y’all have anything specific you wanted to do while you were here?”
“Look at the stars. Sip some. Oh, we heard about a house boat rental. Do you know anything about that?”
“Yeah, that’s my friend Fish. He’s got one he rents out now and then. I can ask him for you.”
“Sure, no worries, though. We’re mainly just happy to be here.”
“If you’d like, one of my neighbors invited us all for dinner.”
June’s house is a lot like a chamber of gathered objects, findings from her travels.
“Where did you get this mask, June?”
“Kidding. There’s a place up the highway that sells these things.”
“Is all of this from there?”
“Oh, no. I’ve collected from different spots.”
“I really haven’t traveled much.”
The masks and folksy paintings are dreams and wishes, faraway places June wishes she could go, or had gone. Invisible cities nestled in her mind. I can relate. It’s not much different from the life I’m living here. A dream of the country. I should feel sympathetic towards her, but I’m repulsed. I don’t want to be here. June’s house is voyeurism, exoticism.
Jerome and I always sought out opportunities for exhibitionism. In a glass window we’d see ourselves fucking for some geezer with a hearing aid or a chocolate ice cream-stained adolescent to ogle at. We loved to be ogled. We’d stage fights. He’d call me the biggest slut he’d ever known. I’d tell him I would cut off his sorry excuse for a cock and eat it, boiled up with some shrimp. He’d find things to throw and storm off while mothers escorted their children to safety. Other people would stare and look away when we looked back. We’d fight all the way to the car and then laugh and fuck.
“I don’t understand. You’re young, attractive, intelligent. Why do you have trouble finding a man?”
“June, please. It’s easy to find a man. It’s getting rid of him that’s hard.”
“You’re lucky that’s the case.”
June can suck it.
After dinner I take my crew back and do a group listen. We sit outside and listen to all the sounds in silence. Collectively, we hear more than if one of us was just listening alone. They’re amazed. One of the dress girls tells me she thinks these sounds are always around, but she never notices them. Wind shaking leaves and branches of the cypress trees. Mosquito bites. Crickets. Bullfrogs belching to each other, complaining about the smell.
People tend to have orgies when they come out here. I guess they feel open and adventurous in the environment, like a license to experiment kind of thing. Girls gone wild. I just tell them not to break anything, though I always hope for a bit of disaster. I like fixing up the place and it brings everyone closer together.
Whether they realize it or not, these retreats are meant to give people access to conscious destruction.
That night I dream that I’m at the house back in the city and all my friends are there. We’re naked, all of us, and everyone is smiling at each other, sweating in the summer heat. Jerome’s not there and I don’t miss him and it’s a dream I don’t want to wake up from. I haven’t seen or heard from them in years, but I know nothing’s changed, and that scene could be real at any moment, all of us, piled, happy, sweating, naked.
When I wake up an orange glow fills my room. I go outside and see an orange curtain rising over the cypress. The horizon is on fire. Fish is there.
“Should we be worried?”
“Nah. Bobby’s got it under control.”
“Fire chief. He called me with the heads up. It’s routine.”
I grab some beers from inside.
“Hey,” he says, “you see that?”
In the fire’s light you can make out a bird flying just over the water’s surface.
“That’s a magnificent friggin’ bird, Holly.”
“A magnificent frigatebird?”
“What’s it doing out at night?”
“Same thing as you and me, I suppose.”
The swamp is right there, on fire, with heat coming right off it. I’m sweating. I go back inside and go to bed. The kids sleep through it all.
Header photo by James Mayo, courtesy Shutterstock.com.