by Benjamin Soileau
At first Rey thought Gabriel was blowing on her neck, but that was impossible since he was unconscious in the backseat, or worse. “Hold on, Gabe, babe,” she said, reaching back to slap at the mound of her husband. “We almost home, babe. Stay with me.”
The tickling traveled around her neck, and when Rey put her fingers there to investigate, she brought back a cockroach that traipsed the valleys and hills of her knuckles. She shrieked and flailed her arms, slapping at her face like someone taken by the Holy Spirit. The car made a swift exit from the road at fifty miles an hour, rode a divot into the air and disappeared into a dense curtain of honeysuckle that bordered Route 70. It happened in a few seconds and the car came to an abrupt stop against a red oak fifteen feet into the swamp. If you had driven past on a joyride, you wouldn’t have noticed a thing; except the shivering of honeysuckle as it closed back in on itself, and most likely you would have dismissed it as a spooked deer bounding from the road. You would have thought you were all alone, flying through the ghost town of Bayou Corne on a blistering hot Sunday morning in Assumption Parish.
When Rey blinked herself back into the day and saw Gabriel squeezing himself through the narrow space between the front seats, she said, “Gabe, babe. Is this heaven?”
“Hell no,” he said, settling into the passenger seat. “Why did you crash us into a tree?”
She felt his face. “Oh, honey.”
Gabriel waved her hand away, pinched his nose shut. “Jesus,” he whined in a Willie Nelson wail. “It stinks. The car’s leaking must be.”
Rey was still trying to pet Gabriel’s cheeks, her hands trembling. “I brought you back home, babe. I swore for true you was gone.”
“We going to be, yeah, if we don’t get the hell out this car. Smells like it’s going to blow up.” Gabriel pushed himself out the door and went around to the driver’s side. The hood was an accordion of twisted, corkscrewed metal, billowing black and gray smoke that obscured the woods around them. “Come on, girl. Let’s get.”
Rey wiggled in the seat, but couldn’t seem to pry herself out of it.
“Hurry up,” he said, flagging her out.
As Rey grabbed the steering wheel to get leverage for a good push, she saw the cockroach tracking across the dashboard. She shot out the car then, but dropped to the soggy ground like a bag of hammers.
“Oh, damn,” said Gabriel when he saw her bare foot, cocked at an impossible angle away from her swollen ankle. He crouched down beside her and gathered her onto his back.
“Gabe, babe,” she said over his shoulder. “We need the suitcase.”
Gabriel swiveled, opened the back door, plucked the suitcase off the seat, and galloped from the car at a clip.
They emerged from the same spot where the car had entered the woods, Rey riding Gabriel’s back as if they were carefree children playing a game. Gabriel piggy-backed his wife under the green sign, pockmarked with quail shot that read Bayou Corne. The screaming cicadas all around them might just as easily have been the static crackling of the sun frying the landscape.
The air smelled just as strongly of rotten eggs as it had when the governor issued his mandatory evacuation order for their small community nearly two years before, when the sinkhole had formed. Everybody was scrambling to get out. Nobody knew what poison they were breathing, or whether at any moment a pocket of gas might ignite under their house and blow it sky high. Since then, Gabriel and Rey had been living in a motel in Baton Rouge, courtesy of the oil company that caused the disaster in the first place. Considering the coldness of the city, and their drab concrete surroundings, they may as well have been evacuated to the moon.
It wasn’t long before Gabriel stood hunched at the end of their driveway, Rey rising and falling atop his back in cadence with his panting. They were both struck dumb by the vision before them. Only the name, Fontenot, could be seen through the twining weeds and ivy that choked out their mailbox. The azaleas that hugged the house were gone wild and the grass stood thigh high.
“Shit,” said Gabriel.
“Mais, we got some work to do, yeah,” said Rey.
The door was unlocked and the smell of atrophy hung heavy. The furniture was as they’d left it. Gabriel deposited his wife and the suitcase on the sofa and collapsed into the La-Z-Boy.
“Poo-wee, it stinks up in here,” said Gabriel.
“It just needs some TLC,” said Rey, pulling her foot up by the pant leg and setting it atop a pillow on the coffee table. It was twice its original size, the rich eggplant-violet bruise fully bloomed.
“Aye ha,” said Gabriel. “How you not screaming in pain with that thing?”
“It don’t even hurt,” said Rey. “How you so on the go, babe? It was a bad one you had this morning.”
“How come you didn’t take me to the hospital then?”
“Doctor Leo said you couldn’t take another one, and I couldn’t let you be passing on in no damn Red Roof Inn. I had that maintenance man help me get you in the car. I thought-”
“I think them pills got you mixed up,” said Gabriel. “But it’s mighty good to be home, yeah.”
Just as Gabriel pulled the lever on his chair to stretch out his legs the house quaked. A decorative plate featuring a brown pelican perched on a post fell from the mantle and cracked into a dozen pieces. In the distance, trees popped like crackling embers in a campfire as they buckled and sunk into the roiling bayou.
“Lord, Jesus!” Gabriel gathered the fabric on his armrests in his fists. “That thing’s still eating?”
“Don’t get too excited, babe,” said Rey. After the rumbling subsided, they sat in silence for a while, waiting for another disturbance, and when none came, they eventually drifted off. Being under their roof once again had a powerfully calming effect, and in no time, they were snoring like they’d never left. Their dreams were peaceful and unburdened for the first time in two years. Gabriel was checking his daily trot lines, slurping Community Coffee from his thermos while he glided gently over the still bayou in his bateau. Rey was right back in the kitchen peeling shrimp, the magic promise of roux wafting from the cast iron and soaking into every corner of the house. They drifted through the ether in carefree bliss, and it was as if the oil company had never invaded their bayou like some giant insidious mosquito made of steel and iron, jabbing its endless needle beak into the ground and sucking the swamp dry. In their unfettered sleep the salt dome had never collapsed, creating the sinkhole that grew daily: that Bermuda triangle of bayou, gobbling whole trees, runaway boats, traps, gators and fish, anything that neared the pull and suck of its ever-widening mouth.
Gabriel woke to the shucking of latches. Rey was peering into the open suitcase that sat beside her on the couch.
“Gabe, babe,” said Rey, seeing him stir. “Let’s fix it up in here.”
The suitcase contained the bare essentials. Rey removed a framed picture of their only son, Garrett, who’d leapt from a fiery platform to his warm grave in the Gulf many years before. Gabriel hung it on the nail where it had always been.
“Down on the left a little, babe,” Rey said from the couch.
Gabriel hung the other pictures Rey handed him, all family photos spanning a century, until the wall of their living room was once again right. Rey closed the lid on the remaining documents, licenses, money and medicine in the suitcase: Gabriel’s heart tablets, a dozen plastic vials of anti-depressants, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping aids.
“Now that’s better,” she said, and it was.
“Hey, you hungry?” Gabriel asked her, and shuffled into the kitchen.
“I could eat a horse, me,” she called out.
Gabriel rifled through the cans in the pantry. He thought Rey could use some ice for her foot, and he opened up the freezer door and stared into the roaring silence there. He walked over to the stove and turned the knobs to nothing. He came back into the living room and stood before his wife. “Let’s get us some supper.”
Outside, Gabriel navigated the jungle of his yard, retrieved the old wheelbarrow from behind his shed, and steered it back under the porch. He plucked all the pillows from the sofa and lined the wheelbarrow with them. Rey let herself be scooped up by her husband and carried across the threshold of their back door the same way she had forty-five years before at the hotel in New Orleans where they’d honeymooned. Gabriel set her down in the wheelbarrow and moved behind it to grab the wooden handles. He tested it out.
“How’s that?” he asked.
“I feel like the queen of Sheba,” she said, the prow of the wheelbarrow a fat purple figurehead of foot.
Gabriel pushed her down to the deck in the backyard, which jutted out over the water. He went back to the shed and returned with a cane pole, a bag of stink bait and a burner. He molded one of the foul baits around the hook. “I’m thinking this here bait smells better than it does outside,” he said.
“Shoot,” said Rey, swinging the cane pole out over the water. “You don’t need that burner. Just flick a match and you’ll have all the fire you can stand.” She lobbed the bait out near a cypress knee, where many years before they’d sunk an old tire.
“I’m gonna go round us up some provisions,” Gabriel said.
“Don’t go too far, no,” said Rey. “I don’t want you having one of your spells.”
Me neither, Gabriel thought as he moved off toward the abandoned homes of his neighbors. They hurt like hell in the brief moment before he’d lose consciousness, his heart rattling in its cage like a pebble sucked into a lawnmower. And he always had a knot on his head waiting for him when he woke up. It was true his doctor warned that he couldn’t survive many more attacks, and Gabriel pressed his palm to his chest to reassure himself that it was still pumping in there.
In Claude Romero’s back yard, Gabriel found a Red Flyer wagon and three full propane tanks. He couldn’t help but remember the week of the evacuation. Claude and Marie Romero had their trailer full and ready to go, just like everybody else, when they said their goodbyes. Claude carried a cypress sapling in a bucket, and had claimed he was bringing a piece of Louisiana with him to Missouri.
As he shuffled from one empty carport to another, Gabriel wished his neighbors happiness. Most of them agreed to the buyout, and had gone someplace second rate to grow old. He hoped they hadn’t suffered the same as he and Rey. They’d been healthy as horses until they moved to Baton Rouge, which is when his episodes began. It seemed that along with their relocation, they’d been given new identities, complete with debilitating depression, anxiety and heart sickness thrown in for good measure.
Gabriel refused to sell when the oil company contacted him, opting instead to ride it out with the weekly checks they sent him. He and Rey had earned their little piece of paradise on the bayou, and he’d be damned if some suits chased them out. Their ancestors were driven from Nova Scotia to end up in Louisiana, and now they were having to flee again. Shit.
With a loaded Red Flyer, while making his way back, Gabriel realized he was holding his breath in anticipation of another yowling from the sinkhole, one that might come any minute and gobble them into the earth for good. With a trembling hand held over his heart, he exhaled, and let it come galloping swiftly back to him.
When Gabriel came trudging back to Rey, dragging the wagon full of loot, Rey put her hand to her face and waved to him. “Thank God,” she called out. “I started getting worried.”
“You won’t believe what all they left behind,” he said, sidling up beside her. “Well, look at the great fisherman.”
On the deck beside the wheelbarrow, still with the bait in its mouth, lay a slick blue catfish. Its sides ballooned with each breath.
“What all you get?” asked Rey.
Gabriel named off what he’d found from each neighbor. Water jugs from the Couvillions. Vegetable oil from the Melancons. Gabriel held up an old boom box. “Look what I found in Mister Prejean’s garage.”
“You got batteries for that thing?”
Gabriel pushed play and Fats Domino found his thrill.
Gabriel set the radio back on the wagon. “We got everything we need, and there’s plenty more where this came from.” Gabriel grabbed a half pint bottle of Wild Turkey and jiggled it in the air.
“Where’d you get that?” asked Rey.
“In the live well of Hayden Leget’s boat.”
“You know you can’t be having that.”
“My heart is just fine.” He hooked his thumb in the front of his pants and did a little jig. Rey held her hand out and he took it, two-stepping around the wheelbarrow while Fats moaned. The catfish flicked its tail and coughed out the hook, bait and all.
“That’s good luck, there,” said Gabriel.
As the sun began to sink behind the trees Gabriel filleted the catfish. When he turned the knob on the propane tank, and struck a match, both he and Rey held their breath, their shoulders relaxing when there was no explosion. Once he got the burner going, Gabriel dropped the fillets into a Ziploc bag full of cornmeal and shook it up.
“I wonder how Claude’s cypress tree is growing up in Branson,” he said.
“I hope it’s coming up strong,” said Rey. “But it ain’t the same.”
“No, I reckon not.”
When the oil was hot, Gabriel dropped the fillets in and the crackling commenced. The scent of frying fish overtook the chemical smell in the air. Gabriel sat in a plastic lawn chair next to his wife and tended to the fish.
They hadn’t realized how hungry they were and they ate the catfish right from their laps. When they were done, Gabriel scooted his chair closer to Rey and they watched the sunset like they always had. Gabriel scattered a handful of cornmeal into the oil, a potpourri to keep the good smells stirring.
He filled Dixie cups with Wild Turkey and they settled back to watch the show. The sun dipped behind the trees across the bayou, leaving in its wake a pastel yellow sky, that changed to orange, then deepened still to fire red. Egrets flew in one by one and alighted in the cypress trees for the night. In the moments before the sun slipped to the other side of the world, the Spanish moss that hung motionless from the branches reflected the impossible color above, and it was as if each hair of moss were fiber optic, pulsing delicious neon pink, and sizzling softly in the brief moment before all light was gone.
There were no porch lights snaking on the surface of the water, no chatter or laughter from their neighbors carrying over to them. It was the blackest night Gabriel and Rey had ever seen, and before long they couldn’t even spot the egrets in the trees, could only hear their squabbling as they jockeyed for position in the dark nooks of branch. The great guttural bellows of gators and bullfrogs sounded off in a cacophony of swamp symphony tuning up for the night.
After a while, Rey said, “I think we the only coonasses left out here.”
“I’ll go take a walk tomorrow, see who I can find. Bound to be somebody stayed.” As Gabriel blinked in the night, he thought that Rey was right. He’d seen no sign of life when he’d gathered supplies, just the relics of their good times waiting to be resurrected. “I don’t think I ever seen so many stars in the sky,” he said, trying to steer the subject. He patted the side of the wheelbarrow until he found Rey’s hand, and covered it with his own. “Looks like spider eyes,” he said.
“What you saying?” said Rey.
“That’s what my daddy used to tell me,” said Gabriel. “Spider eyes, twinkling, watching me.”
“Your daddy would say that,” she said. “I never seen nothing like this. It’s sad to think them stars are all dead up there.”
“How you mean?”
“I mean, the light just takes a long time to get down to us, but back out in heaven, the star already died.”
“Ain’t nothing dead about it. I’m looking right at it now.”
“For true,” said Rey. “I saw it on the TV.”
“Well, shit.” Gabriel topped their cups with whiskey. “Best be enjoying it while it lasts then.”
They marveled at the great scattering of stars. Suddenly there was another terrific rumbling of earth, the wheelbarrow and chair quaked. Branches and trunks snapped and water boiled as the sinkhole yawned in a copse of cypress trees. Gabriel and Rey squinted to see the commotion, but could only see shadow wavering in darkness, the way one might see a burglar creeping through a pitch black bedroom.
After the sinkhole had eaten its fill, it belched forth a great cloud of gas and swamp bile, sending ripples speeding outward across the water in determined rings. And then it was quiet. The animals all held their breath. Thin lines of lime green phosphorescence wavered between the trees like alien dancers.
Gabriel tossed another handful of cornmeal into the oil and settled back into his chair, found his wife’s hand in the dark.
“Such a pretty night,” said Rey.
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Gabriel.
They held onto one another in the dark, knowing they were where they belonged, even as the waves arrived, lapping hungrily against the bulkhead at their feet.