Mud Flat Press
The Backside of Nowhere
by Alec Clayton

Chapter One
 

Water, Water

David Lawrence’s many fans were surprised when he began performing his monologue, Water, Water, which ran six months Off Broadway before becoming a surprise hit on DVD. It showed that the popular actor had a subtle and sardonic genius and a depth of feeling that few fans and even fewer critics suspected. In his monologue, David Lawrence rants, “You know what I love about being a movie star? The money.” And then, after a wink and a dramatic pause, “You know what I hate about it? Just about every damn thing else.”

The audience laughs. On cue or spontaneously, it’s hard to tell. Or is it canned laughter? The camera zooms in for a close-up. David runs his hand across his closely-cropped hair and says with a strong Southern accent (just a trace of Cajun), “Jesus, man. If y’all think you’d like to be a movie star, let me tell you, it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.” And he winks wickedly at the camera while projected behind him are films of David with his girlfriend, the actress Jasmine Jones. The obvious implication is that if making it with Jasmine Jones is a fringe benefit of being a movie star, then being a movie star is the greatest gig on earth, his protestations to the contrary not withstanding.

The montage quickly flashes a love scene from their film The Witness, followed by a photo of them speeding along an Oceanside highway in his Jaguar and a blurred shot of them skinny-dipping in the surf. David and Jasmine met on his first picture, and the gossip rags have dogged their every move since. They’re hot in the tabloids. They’re together, they’re not together, she’s moving in with him, she wants to have his baby, they split up, he’s seen with another hot young movie star, now they’re back together.

David has three smash hit movies to his credit, The Witness, Travlin’ Light and Cold Justice. In all three films he is the lovable but somewhat bumbling Southern lawyer Raymond Moon, who wins his cases by sheer good luck and gets the girl in the end. Teenage girls idolize David for his rugged looks and older women for his quiet manner. David says he doesn’t like Hollywood parties, and he doesn’t like going on talk shows, and he doesn’t like reporters and photographers. But most of all he hates that the roles he plays are not the roles he envisioned when he studied acting in college. He wanted to do serious drama on Broadway. So far he hasn’t been able to realize that dream, but he feels he has come close with his monologue.

In the monologue he talks a little bit about his life as a movie star, but mostly it’s his story of growing up in the little town of Freedom in the bayou country near the Gulf of Mexico. As soon as the DVD hit the stores, David’s mother bought a copy. (He had told her he would send her an advance copy, but he never did, and she wasn’t willing to wait. “That boy would forget his own wedding if he ever had one,” she liked to tell anyone who would listen, “and God knows I wish he would—have a wedding, that is, not forget it.”) Shelly Lawrence didn’t like the idea of her only son living in sin, although even she would be the first to admit that concept was old fashioned.

The whole Lawrence family plus David’s old high school sweetheart, Sue Ellen Patterson, gather together to watch the DVD of Water, Water. There’s David’s father, Earl Ray, called Pop by almost everyone. Seventy years old and still strong, but nothing like in his youth when he lifted barrels of beer and loaded them on a flatbed truck, Pop is a magisterial figure with waves of silver hair and a neatly-trimmed goatee. He stretches his six-foot-six frame in an old recliner in front of the TV. Seated next to him is his wife, David’s mother, Shelly, who at five-foot-four looks like a child next to Earl Ray. Seated on the couch and sharing a bowl of popcorn are David’s beautiful sister Melissa and his not-quite-as-beautiful sister Mary, with Sue Ellen between them with the popcorn bowl perched on her lap. The three of them look enough alike that people often mistake them for sisters. All three are tall and statuesque with voluptuous figures and regal manners. Melissa is by far the most striking, but she works at it, always looking her best, even when relaxing with family. Her hair is thick and brushed to a lustrous sheen. Even now she’s wearing lipstick and mascara, diamonds around her neck and on her fingers, gray cotton hip huggers that cling to her ass, and a little white tank top. When she gets up to go into the kitchen for a drink tantalizing bits of a colorful tattoo can be seen on the small of her back, and when she sits back down more hints of skin art peek out from her deep cleavage.
Sue Ellen’s style is more conventional business casual, looking like she’s just come from a board meeting but has shed her jacket. Her hair is shoulder length and she wears glasses. A loose blouse hides much of a figure that in the right clothes could rival Melissa’s.

Of the three, Mary is the most casual. Dressed in ripped jeans and a simple plaid blouse, just as she was while cleaning house and cooking dinner that afternoon, she obviously feels no need to impress anyone.

Sprawled on an easy chair with his legs thrown across the arm is Mary’s no-count husband, Buddy Boudreau. (It’s Mary herself who insists on referring to him as no-count, usually following up with variations on the refrain: “but I love him nevertheless. He’s like a bad puppy that’s always piddling on the floor but he’s so damn cute you can’t stay mad at him. Ya know what I mean?”)
Perched on the rug on their bellies with feet kicking in air and chins cupped in hands are Mary and Buddy’s pre-teen daughters who are the envy of every kid at school because they are David Lawrence’s nieces. Of course that envy is somewhat baseless because Patricia and Rhonda have never even met their famous uncle.

David opens the monologue with a quote from Rime of the Ancient Mariner:
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
The very deep did rot: O Christ!
That ever this should be!
Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs
Upon the slimy sea.

The girls go “Eeeych!”

David says, “Can you picture it? Dying of thirst with water all around, but you can’t drink it because it’s salt water. It’s a metaphor I guess. That’s what it was like growing up in Freedom. Both metaphorically and literally. There was water all around. Bayous, bays and creeks. And no one could tell the difference between the bayous and the bays or the creeks and the rivers or the gulf and the sound. It was just water, water, water—one body of water flowing ceaselessly into another. There was salt water, brackish water, fast-running water and stagnant water, mosquito- and snake-infested water, the chlorinated water of the swimming pool that seared my eyes like sausage in a pan. And there was so much rain. Flash floods, electrical storms, hurricanes. Thank God or Grandpa Lawrence, we lived on top of the only high spot in town. It was a manmade hill on the precipice of a manmade cliff on the banks of Little Bay. Granted, our hilltop fortress was not exactly the Matterhorn. We were like maybe fifteen feet above the water, but we were sort of kings of the mountain in our neck of the woods. The broad sunroom on the back of our house overlooked the water. If the house had been ten feet closer to the edge of the cliff, I could have done a swan dive off the back porch and into the bay.

“I lived through two hurricanes and I don’t know how many flash floods. The last one they said was the wrath of God. People down there really believed that. Like God spends all day sitting around thinking what he can do to mess with a bunch of rednecks and Cajuns. I’m sure that at least seventy or eighty percent of the people down there believed that last big storm, the one when I was in high school, was God’s punishment for our sinful ways.”

Melissa says, “You tell ’em, David.”

“He’s right, you know,” Sue Ellen pipes in. “He’s got us pegged. And I remember that storm. Boy, do I ever! People thought it was the end of the world.”

“Don’t I know it.” Mary puts her two cents in. “And I swear to God old Brother Fox down at Redemption Baptist, he still regrets that we survived that flood, and he just can’t wait for whatever God’s gonna throw our way next.”

After enjoying a good laugh at the fundamentalists, they turn their attention back to the TV. David says, “If God was punishing us for our sins, it was the sin of hypocrisy, the sin of self-righteousness. Those are the real sins. But what the hypocrites down there thought of as sin was sex outside the bounds of holy matrimony (as if they weren’t all doing it) and race mixing—mongrelization they call it—and homosexuality. There ain’t nothing so devilish as a hairdresser. So sex, or shall we say unconventional sex, that’s the big one, the numero uno sin. Murder? Nah, that’s not really so bad, not if you have a good enough reason, anyway. Let someone screw with your wife or break into your home and you’ve got every reason to blast his lights out. But start screwing around with the wrong gender or the wrong race, and you bring on the big winds and high water. Sooner or later God’s gonna get you for that crap.”

He pauses. Takes a big sip of water from a glass.

“Floods and hurricanes, they kept life interesting. Hell, I lost my virginity in a hurricane. The big moment—you know, the big O—it came just when the wind lifted the roof right off the house where we were doing the deed.”
“Oh my God,” Sue Ellen moans, “I can’t believe he’s saying that.”

“My oh my,” Melissa chuckles, and Mary says, “Well it’s true, isn’t it?”


“Y’all did it in a hurricane just like he said.”

“I mean it’s not right that … oh shit. Never mind.”

“What?” the girls both ask.

“Nothing.”

Shelly is glaring at them and Mary’s daughters are waiting in anticipation of something deliciously dirty. Mary is silently praying that they don’t ask her to explain what the big O is.

Melissa says, “She means it’s not true that that’s when he lost his virginity. That happened long before, didn’t it?”
The three of them mock fight on the couch and spill a lot of popcorn. Sue Ellen blushes and won’t say any more, and Shelly says, “That’s quite enough. You girls are acting like you’re ten years old.” They’re in their forties. Patricia and Rhonda are behaving more maturely, but are thrilled to see their mother and their aunts misbehave.

On the DVD, David has dropped the subject of losing his virginity in a hurricane but is still talking about stormy weather. He says, “Then there were the everyday summer squalls that were so regular you could set your watches by them. Every day in the summertime about three or four in the afternoon. First the humidity would start to come to a boiling point, temperature and humidity both pushing a hundred. Then you’d see a cloud coming at you pouring rain over an area about the size of a football field. It’d be a ten-minute cloudburst followed by blinding sunlight. Everything washed clean.

“Almost half the year it was hot enough to go swimming. I’m talking right up till almost Halloween and starting again around Easter. We were practically amphibian. There was hardly a day I wasn’t on the water or in the water, swimming or fishing or skiing. My father taught me to swim when I was one year old. You know how? By throwing me in the water. Sink or swim, that was his idea. And I swam. You better believe it. Yeah, I know, there’s a million apocryphal stories about fathers throwing sons into the drink to teach them to swim. It’s a popular myth down in Dixieland. But mine really did. You would have thought it would scar me for life. I don’t know, maybe it did, maybe that was when I first started hating the old man.”

“He oughta be thanking me, the little ingrate,” Pop bellows. It’s his first comment of the evening. He’s been quietly sipping his highball and smoking his hand rolled Prince Albert tobacco. The room reeks of cigarette smoke, but nobody seems to notice.
David continues, “But I don’t remember it; it was just something Pop boasted about later. It never kept me from my love of swimming. I was on the high school swim team, and I used to have almost daily races with Randy Moss. That’s Randy Moss Jr., the sheriff’s son. Now he’s the sheriff. That’s the way it goes down there, every boy becomes his father. Except for me. There was no way I was going to take after my old man.”

“See! See what I tell you. The little ingrate.” Earl Ray hacks into his handkerchief, grabs the remote and stops the video. When his coughing subsides he hands his empty glass to Shelly and says, “Refill us.”

She gets up and shuffles into the kitchen to get them another drink, her fluffy pink slippers going swish-swish-swish across the hardwood floor.

A minute later, freshened drink in hand, Pop restarts the DVD. The camera pans to the wall behind David where there is a relief map of the bayou country, and then back down to David, who says, “We’d race across Little Bayou. It was about a mile to the other shore, maybe two. Or at least we always judged it to be about that far; I don’t guess either of us ever knew for sure. There was a floating platform in the bay out behind Randy’s house with a homemade springboard. It was made of planks and floated on empty barrels. My sister Mary would count down. She’d say, ‘Get ready, get set, go!’ And we’d dive together like twin rockets slicing the water, sucking air right before we went under, holding our breath until we thought our lungs would burst, pulling water with scooped hands. That son of a bitch could hold his breath for what seemed forever, but Ha!—I could hold mine forever plus a minute.”

David is pacing on stage as he recites this tale, swinging his arms in mimicry of swimming. He sticks his face right into the camera lens and puffs out his cheeks froglike and strokes imaginary water. Rhonda and Patricia swing their little arms with him. Mary says, “He’s lying now. Randy always won those races.”

“But David could hold his breath longer,” Sue Ellen says.

David says, “I stayed right with him, glancing to the side under the murky water to see when he would give up and break the surface. I knew he’d give up. He always gave up. That’s the way Randy was, all show and no go. He was stronger, but I could hold my breath longer. (Sue Ellen says, ‘See!’) We’d always make it way out from shore underwater. Fifty yards maybe. Seemed like half a fucking mile, finally spouting like whales when we breached the surface.”

The older of Mary’s girls says, “He said fucking,” and Mary says, “Remember? We talked about when it’s appropriate to use adult language and when it’s not.” She had a pretty liberal policy about cursing. It’s okay for grownups, and it’s okay at home when there’s just the family, but she taught her girls to respect the sensitivity of other people who may be offended by coarse language. It was a source of constant conflict between Mary and her husband who, she thought, was too uptight about it.
The monologue continues. “In the swimming pool I’d get them to time me. The longest I ever held my breath was seven minutes and thirteen seconds. I heard the world record is over fifteen minutes. Wow! I can’t fucking believe it.”

“He said it again,” the girls say.

Buddy says, “Okay, that’s enough. Somebody should have warned us this was a R-rated movie. I don’t know if I want the girls watching this.”


Shelly pauses the DVD. Mary says, “Oh, don’t be such a prude.”
“Well it’s not right.”

“Oh geeze, you’re such a hypocrite.”

The girls giggle. Shelly says, “Do you girls even know what that word means?”

“Hypocrite?”

“No, the other word.”

“Yes ma’am,” the older girl says. “It’s a slang expression for sex.”

“Does it embarrass you to hear your uncle talk like that?”

“No ma’am. Aunt Melissa uses that word all the time.”

“And so does Daddy,” Rhonda puts in, “When he thinks we aren’t listening. So I don’t know what he’s getting all in a huff about.”

Buddy says, “All right. I guess I overreacted.”

They revisit the discussion about when and where it may be appropriate to curse, and why. Mary tells the girls that how words are used is more important than what the words are. “I’m much more concerned with words that are hurtful. Like you should never call people stupid or fat or ugly.”

The girls seem to fully understand and take their mother’s intention very seriously. And they say their daddy is just being silly. He confesses that they’re probably right. Then he says, “Hey, come on, girls, let’s go get some ice cream while we got the movie paused.”

After everyone has gotten snacks and made bathroom runs they restart the film. David takes a sip of his water and starts talking about another incident they all remember. “On the cliffside behind our house there were wooden steps that were dug right into the earth and ran down to the dock. Off to the side was a hard packed dirt trail that we could slide down after a rain or roll down in tractor inner tubes. I kind of ran and hopped and slid down to the dock barefooted. All I had on was a pair of cutoff jeans. One of those like, you know, with the pockets hanging out below where they’re cut and your package showing if you don’t watch out. You should have seen me. Tanned a deep bronze, long buttery blond hair bleached from the sun (with a little help from a bottle of Peroxide, something all the kids did back then). I walked out to the end of the dock. The boards under my feet were like hot coals, but hey, I could take it. I was one tough kid. I stood on the end of the dock and unsnapped and unzipped and stepped right out of my shorts. And my Jockey briefs. I stood there naked as the day I was born posing like some Greek athlete in the original Olympics, imagining who might or might not pass by in a boat and catch sight of me. Daring ’em, saying here I am, world! I thought I was pretty freakin’ hot, if you must know. Plus, the risk of being caught out there in my altogether made it kind of thrilling. Randy’s house was across the bay. It was far enough across that if Randy or his folks happened to be standing on their dock, which they weren’t, they probably couldn’t even tell I was naked, but somebody might come by in a boat. Maybe some girl from school. Maybe Mary Ann Wilson. She had the hots for me anyway. We’d already made out pretty good in the swimming pool and would have gone all the way if we’d had some place to be alone. Okay, maybe not. I couldn’t tell for sure if she wanted what she acted like she wanted that day in the pool, but even if she had we couldn’t have done anything because it was broad daylight and there was a whole bunch of us together in the pool. I was still a virgin. We were just horsing around. She reached underwaterand cupped my cock with her hand. Jesus. Shocked the everloving shit out of me. I’d never had a girl touch me like that.”

Sue Ellen says, “Son of a bitch. He never told me about that.”

“He could be making it up,” Melissa notes.

David continues: “Maybe she wasn’t really coming on to me after all. She had a whole troop of brothers, and maybe they played around like that. Maybe she was just playing gotcha. We were sitting together in the shallow end of the pool. She grabbed me first, so then I slipped a finger under the edge of her bikini. She let me rub her for about a minute, and she still had a hold of me. She wasn’t just playing gotcha. I could see it in her eyes. Her face was all flushed, and the way she squirmed and rubbed on me… ooh whee. Damn. I was so flustered I didn’t know whether to shit or go blind. But then she squirmed out of my grasp and kicked off with a laugh and started swimming to the deep end.

“For the rest of the afternoon we played around with the other kids. You know, the usual stuff. The girls would sit on the guys’ shoulders and wrestle with each other, or the boys would make slings out of cupped-together hands and the girls would stand in our hands and we’d toss them in the air. All the boys and girls were flirting with each other, and the boys were copping feels whenever they could. One of the boys even tried to cop a feel from me, but I won’t say who that was. And I never got another chance with Mary Ann. For the rest of the afternoon she darted away whenever I got close to her. We didn’t even kiss or anything, and it never happened again. I never dated her. I should have asked her to go out with me that very night while she was still hot to trot, but I was so flustered I couldn’t think what to do. I didn’t exactly see myself as God’s gift to women back then. Sure, I knew I was kind of good looking. After all, it wasn’t like we didn’t have mirrors in the house. And I had a muscular body. I worked out a lot. But I wasn’t real sure of myself in those days.

“Bullshit,” Melissa laughs. “He thought he was the cock of the walk. ’Sides, didn’t he just brag about how good looking he was?”
On the big screen David says: “So while I was standing there buckass naked on the dock I had this brief little fantasy about Mary Ann coming by in a boat and seeing me, and I don’t know how I imagined we’d get from her passing by in a boat to us wallowing naked in a bed of sea grass, but that’s what I pictured. Of course her coming by in a boat wasn’t likely to happen. And if she did, it would probably be in a boat with her parents, and I sure as hell wouldn’t want them to see me naked. But then that possibility was kind of a thrill too, you know what I mean? In a weird sort of way.

“But the one girl that might actually see me was Sue Ellen Jamison, because she was my sister Mary’s best friend, and she might well drop by the house. She did, quite often. And Sue Ellen was a lot sexier than Mary Ann to boot.”

“Ah ha! Now it’s getting interesting,” Sue Ellen says.

The monologue continues. “She might not have been as pretty as Mary Ann Wilson. She had straw colored hair and kind of splotchy skin and a slight crook in her nose. But she had a better body. Bigger boobs, anyway. All the boys called her Knockers.
“I imagined Sue Ellen seeing me in all my bronzed naked glory. I imagined her coming down to the dock, rubbing her hands up my side. Next thing you know we’re wallowing in the sea grass. My dick was overpowering my brain. I was on the verge of drifting off into a neverending fantasy fuck. So I told myself to cut it out and dive in the fucking bayou. I inhaled deeply and dove out into the bay. I sliced the water like a knife cutting into a watermelon. I propelled myself underwater like a submarine, picturing in my mind Johnny Weissmuller in an old Tarzan film. Finally breaking the surface a good twenty yards out like a missile fired from a submarine. Wait a second, let me see if I can think of ten more similes. (The audience laughs, so do Mary and Sue Ellen.) I took half a dozen hard strokes then turned on my back and floated lazily, looking back toward home. The sun was scorching hot, but there was a nice breeze and off to the southwest I saw black rain clouds spilling a cascade of silvery rain. It was the usual afternoon squall. It would sweep across the water and onto shore and pass over our house like a curtain in the wind, and then travel north to play itself out over the pine forests.

“I turned back over and started toward the opposite shore with a smooth crawl stroke, turning my head side to side with a gulp of air every other stroke. As I reached the lily pads and grasses over near Randy’s dock I slowed down and dog paddled. Toes touched the ooze of the bottom. I slipped underwater and imagined myself as a fish gliding between the blades of grass. I felt along the silty bottom. I opened my eyes but could see only a few inches ahead. The water stung my eyes. I eased my butt into the bottom. It felt gritty on my skin. Grasses grazing my side felt like cold leather. Here the water was just deep enough for me to sit on the bottom with my shoulders and head sticking out. Minnows nibbled at my legs and toes. I tried to scoop them up in my hand but they darted away too quickly. I could see that the rain squall in the distance was getting closer, and it looked like it had grown larger. It was starting to look more ominous than the usual squall. It was now a solid wall of water, and the sky was darkening all around as if someone were gradually dimming the lights. I figured I’d barely have time to swim back before I got caught in the storm. Not that it mattered so much if I got rained on. After all, I was already wet. But if the wind and waves picked up it would be harder to swim. But the main thing was the challenge to beat the storm. Challenge was what life was all about—how far could I dive? Swim underwater? How long could I hold my breath? Could I go skinny dipping in broad daylight without getting caught? And could I swim faster than a storm that was hurling my way like a cliff of water?

“It looked like a much bigger storm than any we’d had for a while. Already the water around me was churning up in the wind. I pushed off with my toes digging in the slimy bottom and started swimming for home as hard as I could. My lungs felt tight. There was a cross current pushing me northward. If I couldn’t beat it I’d hit shore a good ten or twenty yards past our pier where it would be hard to climb out on the slippery bank. Halfway across, my arms and legs began to grow heavy. I looked over my shoulder and saw the storm was closer. I wasn’t going to make it. I had to make it. It was me or it. What the hell? It was just a summer rain storm, but it was fun to imagine it was life threatening. I pushed myself harder, harder, counting the strokes: one, two, three, four…

“The wind shifted. It felt cold against my face. The storm was about thirty yards behind me and catching up. Our dock was about thirty yards ahead. I had to make it. I had to, I had to. I stroked within twenty-five yards, twenty, ten, five. Three more strokes…

“I reached the dock and pulled myself up, flopping over the end of the dock like a reeled-in fish and scratching my belly in the process. Rain was peppering the water right behind me. I looked to the house, and guess what. Sue Ellen Jamison was there just like I’d imagined. She and Mary were standing in the back yard jumping up and down in excitement and shouting for me to hurry. Damn. She saw me naked after all. I didn’t really want her to. Or did I? The idea was thrilling but the reality was sort of embarrassing. I grabbed up my shorts and pulled them up and started running, zipping and snapping as I ran, rain like machinegun fire at my heels, taking the steps two at a time, imagining I was a warrior attacking an enemy stronghold at the top of the hill, gunfire zipping overhead. I reached the back porch and leaped up to safety. Mary and Sue Ellen shouted ‘Yeah, David!’ and stepped out into the rain and spun around on the slick grass a couple of times before tumbling back onto the porch and falling into each other’s arms in exhausted laughter.

“I grabbed the back of a chair and held on while trying to catch my breath. The porch boards wavered like heat waves. For a second I thought I was going to throw up. God, how embarrassing that would have been in front of Sue Ellen.”

Rhonda and Patricia are mesmerized, as are the adults who cease interjecting comments and hang on to David’s every word. He’s telling a story they all lived through; they all know what’s going to happen next, but they want to see how his retelling of the tale matches their memories. David talks slower now: “I was sweating and chilled at the same time. Mary and Sue Ellen ran inside and jumped onto the old couch by the back window where they could look out at the storm. Wearing shorts and T-shirts they perched on their knees on the couch and pressed their faces to the window to watch the storm. As soon as I was able to catch my breath a bit I went in and joined them. I pushed in between them on the couch. The hairs on my arm stood up in electric shock when my arm brushed against Sue Ellen’s. She felt it too. We smiled at each other.

“We were in what we called the sun room. It was a long narrow room behind the kitchen with windows that ran the whole width of the house and a door in the middle that opened onto the back porch. The whole family used to love sitting on that porch after supper, watching the sun set over the bayou and then later after the water became placid watching the moon on the water as it undulated like a luminous milky disc floating on the surface of the bayou. Often in the summertime I slept out on that couch with the windows wide open and the perpetual breeze from the bay keeping me cool. I didn’t like air conditioning. It got too damn cold.

“Mama came in with tall glasses of ice tea on a platter. We thanked her, took the glasses and continued to look out the window at the raging storm. Raindrops lashed the path up from the bayou. Splatters bounced mud drops froglike a good foot off the ground. The downpour was so heavy that we could no longer see the dock. The screen door on the porch kept banging open. Normally leaving that door open for even a few minutes would result in a swarm of mosquitoes. They said the mosquitoes on the bayou could pick up a full grown hound and carry him off, but they only came out for a short time around sunset, and we wouldn’t have to worry about them as long as the wind was up. A tin sheet that had been propped against the back porch lifted like a giant square Frisbee and sailed out of sight.

“We heard the front door slam open, banging against the wall the way it did when someone opened it too quickly (how many times had Pop said he was going to put a doorstop there?). It was Pop coming in. We heard his heavy boots. He was running. I’d never in my life known him to run. He loped on long legs through the kitchen and out to the sun room and shouted, ‘The store! We’ve got to save the store. It’s flooding.’

“We all jumped off the couch not knowing what to do next. Pop said, ‘David come with me. Sue Ellen, you too. Mary, stay here and help your mother. If the water gets any higher it’ll be in the house. So ya’ll just try to get as much stuff as you can up high.’

“He turned and started running back through the house shouting, ‘Let’s go! Let’s go!’

“It was exciting. I loved it. Sue Ellen and I followed the old man. I was still barefoot and wearing my cutoff jeans and nothing else. Her shorts were brushed denim. Her T-shirt was emblazoned with Hot Chick across her namesake knockers. Plastic flip-flops flopped on her feet. She couldn’t run in them very well so she kicked them off and left them where they flopped near the doorway, and we both ran barefoot into the storm. She slipped on the grass and fell flat on her face. I helped her up. ‘You okay?’ I asked, and she said ‘Yeah, I’m fine,’ and we ran on across the street, rain blowing into our faces like thousands of needles.

“The water was already ankle deep in the road. As common as flash floods were, I’d never seen it get so deep so quick. Our house was pretty damn high considering the whole town was pretty much at or below sea level. We’d never had any flood damage, but it looked like we were about to. I knew Sue Ellen was worried because her house sat in a bowl up past Little Don’s on the far north end of the island where it flooded with just normal rainfall.

“The store was right across the street from our house. It was a wooden building made of whitewashed wood slats on a foundation one step up from street level with a broad front porch shaded by a red-and-white striped awning. When I say there was a porch, I don’t mean it was up off the ground. It was just wooden slats laid across two-by-six boards on a flat concrete slab. The store was a lot closer to sea level than the house. Out front stood three gas pumps. Neon signs in the windows advertising Jax beer and Coca-Cola. Faded paper ads for Libby’s Vienna Sausage, Moon Pies, Aunt Jemima corn meal mix. We knew Buddy would be there already. At least we knew he was supposed to be there. You never knew about Buddy. Sometimes he was where he was supposed to be and sometimes he wasn’t. I’m talking about Buddy Boudreau, Mary’s boyfriend at the time, now her no-count husband. He was a Cajun from down below New Orleans. We all liked Buddy, but he wasn’t the most responsible person in the world. Sometimes he simply wouldn’t show up for work and we’d have to scramble to find someone to fill in for him. The funny thing was, Pop didn’t seem to mind. He’d never let any of the rest of us get away with that kind of shit, but when it came to Buddy he’d say, ‘Well, he’s kind of funny that way. Where he comes from they don’t keep regular hours.’

“I knew Freight Train would probably be there too. Freight Train didn’t keep regular hours either, but he wasn’t supposed to. He didn’t work for us. He just dropped in to help out whenever he didn’t have anything else to do, which in the summertime was most of the time. I’m talking about Murabbi ‘Freight Train’ Taylor. Y’all probably know him as the all-pro linebacker for the Raiders. He went to school with me. He was kind of a local sports hero and a gentle giant who, even in high school, could practically lift all the appliances in the store by himself if he had to.

“Water was already lapping the front stoop when we got there. The door was standing wide open and Pop was shouting for everybody to do what they were already doing, which was grabbing everything that could be water damaged off the lower shelves. Freight Train had half a dozen bags of dog food in his arms and was carrying them toward the back of the store where there was a storeroom with lots of high shelves. A couple of neighbors had shown up to help out. That wasn’t unusual. The Lawrence store was the town store, even though there was an A&P and a Piggly Wiggly in town. People went to the chain stores for their major shopping but came to our store if all they needed was a quart of milk or a loaf of bread. If a customer wanted to buy something and Buddy or my mom or whoever was running the store happened to be busy, one of the regulars would just step behind the counter and ring them up. It was that kind of place. There were even a couple of easy chairs and a love seat by a pot belly stove where friends would gather and smoke and shoot the breeze. Cigarette butts gathered in an empty coffee can. Somebody had propped the door open with a gallon water jug so they wouldn’t have to keep opening it. Buddy was down on his knees in the aisle lifting boxes and bags and piling them into waiting arms as they formed a kind of bucket brigade. Pop said, ‘Let’s start another line.’
“I took up position on the floor on the next aisle ready to pile stuff into Pop and Sue Ellen’s waiting arms. The first things I grabbed, thoughtlessly, were plastic jugs. The old man shouted, ‘Not the plastic, you fucking idiot!’

“I shouted right back, ‘You want my goddamn help or not?’ And he said, ‘Don’t you sass me, boy!’

“I shut up. I scooted down the aisle a ways and started loading cereal boxes. I wanted to kill him. If I’d been big enough and strong enough I’d a drowned him, held his freakin’ big head under water right there where it was backing up on Liberty Street. But geeze, the old man was big. He intimidated the crap out of me. He had lorded it over me all my life, and I had this mental picture of him as bigger and stronger even than he really was, you know, as if six-foot-six wasn’t big enough. I wanted so much to just bust him in the chops. He had no right to talk to me like that, especially not in front of everybody and not when I was trying to help him save his precious groceries. Like he really needed the damn store. Like he couldn’t replace a few sacks of groceries. The store had never been a source of income for the family, but I guess it held sentimental value. It had been handed down from his father and grandfather. Pop liked to hang out in the store and shoot the breeze with his cronies. During the days leading up to elections the store became the unofficial precinct headquarters and Pop the unofficial party chairman. In the summertime he set up a target out back and archers practiced, and all year long hunters and fishermen swapped tales of big ones bagged or escaped to be caught another day.”

By this point in his monologue David is berating his father pretty good. In front of the TV, Pop slouches further down in his beatup old recliner and crosses his arm in a pout. Everybody looks at him to see how he’s taking this. It’s no secret in the family that Pop and David have never gotten along. In the twenty some years since David left home the only thing he’s ever said to Pop over the telephone has been “Let me talk to Mama.”

David continues his tale. “Within a few minutes the water was inside the store. I was sitting in it. It was an inch or two above the bottom shelves. Only a few boxes were soaked. Dry foods that we’d have to throw out. But we’d cleared most of the bottom shelves. Pop said, ‘Let the stuff already wet go and start working on the next shelves up.’

“More neighbors came in and offered a hand. It was a regular party. The water reached almost to the second shelves and lapped our legs below knee level. It sat and swirled for a while. Dirty, murky brown water. A water moccasin swam in the front door and went shopping. Pop casually grabbed it behind its head and sloshed to the door and slung it out into the endless lake that was Freedom. Moccasins are deadly, but Pop handled it like it was a child’s toy he was tossing out.

“Little by little the rain slacked off and then quit altogether. We kept moving stuff. We were wet up to our knees from the flood and our hair and faces were soaked with sweat. Dog tired. After a while Pop said, ‘I think we’re done here. Y’all go on over to the house and see if they need any help over there.’ To the neighbors who had come by to help he said, ‘Ya’ll been a big help but you get on home and check on your own stuff now.’

“Sue Ellen said, ‘I need to check on my mother if I can get there.’ I could see in her eyes that she was scared.
“Pop said, ‘Sure, honey. You go right on ahead. David, you best take her. Might best take the skiff. I don’t think you can get there afoot.’ ”

There’s a long pause. David walks to the edge of the stage and sits down with his legs hanging over. The camera pans to the audience and then back to David. He says, “Going out in the boat with Sue Ellen after the rain stopped was so weird. It was the peacefulness of it all that lent a dreamlike quality to the world we had thought we knew. The clouds were gone like there had never been any to start with, and the sun was blazing. Our whole town had been washed with dirty water. The banks of the bayou just never stopped. Boats floating in open water were held by lines that dipped underwater like fishing lines; what was not visible was that the ropes that vanished under the water were tied to submerged piers. Eddies and swirls of brown water carried debris in all directions. The water was anything but placid. We took Pop’s old homemade wooden skiff, a fourteen-footer with a square bow and flat bottom propelled by an Evenrude trolling motor. Sue Ellen sat up front. I sat on the back seat and operated the motor.

“I told her to keep a close watch for stuff that might be just under the surface of the water that could ram us and bust a hole in the boat.

“ ‘Okay,’ she said. She leaned forward to peer into the water, gripping the gunnels right and left, her shoulder blades angular and arms tense.

“We hit little whirlpools and cross currents that carried the little boat sideways. The engine was barely powerful enough to keep us heading in a northerly direction. There were other boats on the bayou and in the town, many of them piled high with stuff salvaged from flooded homes, and off to our left people were wading waist high, and in places even chest high, with boxes and bags held aloft. At the peak of Freedom Loop we headed into what passed for downtown. Here the water was maybe three or four feet deep judging by how high it came on waders. Everyone in town seemed to be outside, either in boats or on foot. I turned the motor off and tipped the shaft up, thinking it might catch bottom in some of the shallower areas. ‘Grab a paddle,’ I said.
“We drifted slowly, using the paddles to steer more than to propel the boat. We turned left onto Coffee Lane, stopping at the stop sign and looking both ways as if we were actually driving on the road. Simultaneously we realized what we were doing, and we both burst into laughter.

“The Jamison’s house sat near the southern end of Coffee Lane close to where it met up with Liberty Street near Little Don’s Diner. It was a ranch style, white shingle house. It sat in a deep dip in the road. The whole house right up to the edge of their roof was under water. Mrs. Jamison was straddling the peak of the roof. She was wearing a denim skirt and she looked like a cowgirl in a saddle. She waved when she saw us coming. Sue Ellen stood up in the boat to wave back, almost tipping us over. We paddled up close and turned the boat sideways. I was an expert paddler. I could maneuver a boat in close quarters even in the strongest of currents, but the current next to the house was as powerful as any I’d ever experienced. I could barely hold us steady. It took all the strength I had. ‘Grab that line and toss it to your mother,’ I told Sue Ellen.

“She picked up a length of nylon rope that was coiled in the bottom of the boat and threw the end. Mrs. Jamison reached to catch it, but missed. Sue Ellen pulled the rope in and tried again, and again. On the third try, Mrs. Jamison caught the rope. ‘Okay, now tie it to the pipe,’ I shouted.

“She looped it around a stove pipe at the peak of the roof and tied up her end, and Sue Ellen pulled it tight where her end wrapped around the bow cleat. Now at least the front end of the boat was secured. Then we had to do the same thing again with another length of rope in the back of the boat. Sue Ellen had to practically sit in my lap to throw the second rope, and when she did, all hell broke loose. The boat rocked violently, and Sue Ellen fell out, slamming against the side of the house and into the water. She grabbed the boat and hung on.”

“I’ve still got a scar on my shoulder from that,” Sue Ellen says.

David continues: “At the same time, Mrs. Jamison reached for the rope and slipped, and she came tumbling down with a huge splash. She scraped her leg up pretty good and got a big bruise on her hip, but we couldn’t see that then. All we could see was that she was in the water and flailing her arms wildly. She screamed, and within a second or two she was swept away by the current, and Sue Ellen shouted at me, ‘She can’t swim!’

“Without thinking, I dove into the water and went after her. She was splashing like a fish on a line. It took no time at all to catch up with her, but then I had to get her back to the boat. I don’t know how I managed to grab her and swim against the current with her added weight, but somehow I did it. I think she must have had the good sense to quit flailing about and maybe even help me swim by kicking her feet, even though she didn’t know how to swim. I think it must be kind of instinctual. Anyway, we somehow got back to the boat. Sue Ellen was still hanging on to the side. I got in first, and then helped them both climb in, and we took the shorter route home—right down Liberty to Freedom Loop.

“While we were motoring back home, somebody stopped by our house and told Pop that there were looters robbing stores in town. We had not seen any evidence of looters, and knowing our neighbors and all, we couldn’t really believe it. For the most part, we were proud of the folks in Freedom. All around town citizens were chipping in to help their neighbors, boating people to higher ground and helping to salvage personal belongings. But I guess not everybody was helpful. We heard that the looters hit the Piggly Wiggly first. The store was closed and sandbagged, water lapping three feet deep against the front windows. Looters broke the windows and grabbed armloads of groceries. One young man grabbed a cash register and loaded it into a boat. Looters also ransacked Ramsey’s Electronics taking TVs and stereos. Word spread pretty quickly because just about everybody had CB radios and walkie talkies. The regular phone lines were out but that didn’t stop the good ol’ boys from calling each other. They were saying ten-four good buddy all over the place. This was back when that was all the rage, or maybe a few years after the fad died out. I’m talking about after the Carter years. Of course the first place people called was the sheriff’s office, but that was useless. Sheriff Moss was vacationing in Hawaii.

“Pop called the sheriff’s office and demanded they get someone down to his store to guard against prowlers. ‘We’ll git somebody down there soon’s we can,’ a deputy said, ‘but right now we’re awful short handed. I’m down here all by my lonesome and Sheriff Moss is out of the country.’

“ ‘Well looka here, you redneck bumpkin,’ Pop blasted back, ‘You got a duty to protect the citizens of Freedom whether the sheriff’s here or not. And just for your information, I happen to know that Randy Moss is lying on a beach in Hawaii right about now, and in case you didn’t know it, that ain’t out of the fucking country. It’s part of the U.S. of A.’

“ ‘Well I’m just as sorry as I can be, Earl Ray, but they weren’t no way he coulda knowed it was gonna flood. Now I’m gonna git somebody down there just as soon as I can, and that’s the best I can do.’

“So Pop and everybody at home went back across the street and waited in the store by the front door ready to fend off looters any way they could. Pop went into the back room and came back with a .22 rifle and a pistol. He handed the pistol to Freight Train.

“ ‘Hey, I can’t use this,’ he said.

“ ‘What? You ain’t never shot a pistol before?’

“ ‘Sure I shot a pistol, but not at people.’

“ ‘Well I ain’t asking you to shoot nobody. Just scare ’em off.’

“A little aluminum boat approached, coming right down the middle of Liberty Street. Two men stood up in the boat using large poles to propel the boat through the water. Between them was a large Sony TV box obviously stolen from Ramsey’s. Pop and Shelly and Freight Train watched them approach. ‘That’un up front’s got a gun stuck in his belt,’ Freight Train said.

“ ‘Might be, but I betcha he ain’t got the balls to use it. You can bet your bottom dollar on that.’

“ ‘That’s Malcolm Ashton,’ Freight Train said. Now you have to remember this was long before Freight Train became a big pro football player. He was my age, still in high school at the time. He went to school with me. So did those boys in the boat. So Freight Train says, ‘I know him. Shit, he ain’t a bad guy. He’s just a poor boy that’s gone nuts on account of the flood and all. Seen himself a opportunity to cop some stuff he never could afford.’

“ ‘Well he’s gonna be dead if he comes much closer,’ Pop said.

Mama said, ‘Don’t be too hasty, Earl Ray.’

“ ‘You keep out of this, woman.’

“ ‘I will not,’ she said in no uncertain terms. Mama could be a feisty little broad. She might have been the only person within the confines of Freedom who had the nerve to stand up to Pop.

“Freight Train was trembling. Mama said, ‘I know Malcolm Ashton’s mama. She finds out what he’s been up to she’ll tan his hide, and whatever he steals, she’ll just make him march right down and return it the next day, and she’ll make him apologize too.’
“ ‘Don’t you think he knows that?’ Pop said. ‘He ain’t likely to take anything home for his mama to see. He’ll hide his loot and sell it next week or next month. That boy’s clean beyond his mama’s control.’

“The boat had come closer. The two boys were within shouting distance. Pop hollered at them, ‘Don’t y’all come any closer. I got a gun and I’ll use it.’

“We came up behind them, putting along under the power of the little trolling engine. I killed the engine and let the boat drift up alongside the looters’ boat. Pop shouted, ‘Ram ’em, David. Hit ’em with your paddle!’

“I couldn’t believe he’d say that. The boy in the front of the boat put down his pole and turned to his companion and said, ‘Let’s turn around.’

“ ‘Are you kidding, man? We got a gun, and they ain’t nothing but a old man and a woman.’

“ ‘And Freight Train Taylor,’ the other one said.

“I couldn’t help but laugh at that. The whole thing was turning comical. I couldn’t believe we were having an armed standoff with Sonny Staples and Malcolm Ashton. They were students at Booker T Washington. I could see that Malcolm was scared. Going up against Freight Train should have scared the bejesus out of both of them, but Sonny didn’t have the sense God gave a billy goat. He was too boneheaded to be scared. He said, ‘You yellow bellied chicken shit,’ and he threw his pole down and lumbered up toward the front of the boat, rocking the boat like crazy, and he grabbed the gun out from his buddy’s waistband and held it up with both hands trying to hold it steady against the wild rocking of the boat, and he pulled the trigger and the sound of the shot reverberated over the water and we saw the splash where the bullet hit the water a good ten feet off to the right of Pop’s boat.

“ ‘What the hell!’ I shouted at Sonny. ‘You’re shooting at my daddy.’

“Pop lifted his rifle to his shoulder, and just as slow and calm as you please he took aim and shot a hole in their boat near the bow and right under the water line. Malcolm jumped in the water and started wading back in the direction from which they had come, holding his hands up and shouting, ‘Don’t shoot!’ And Sonny fell to his knees in the bottom of the boat and threw his hands up too, and he starting begging for mercy.

“Their boat was slowly sinking. Pop shouted, ‘Stand up, boy!’ And Sonny stood up wobbly in the sinking rowboat, still holding his hands in the air. Pop pointed his gun right at him and said, ‘Git naked.’

“ ‘What?!’ Sonny shouted back incredulously. I could see him take to shaking. Pop said it again, ‘Git naked.’ And Sonny took off all his clothes, and stood trembling. He put one hand over his little prick and kept the other one raised. His skin was sickly white with festering pimples all over his chest and back, and you could see where he’d blistered and peeled across his shoulders. Pop said, ‘Now git out of the boat and follow your buddy there that’s wading away.’

“Sonny climbed over the side and started after his companion. I tied onto their boat. I hollered at their backs, ‘I’m going to tell your mothers,’ and then I shoved off and cranked my motor again, and towed the sinking boat with its treasure of a brand new television to the store, where Freight Train lifted it out and carried it to the back of the store where the water had finally begun to recede. He said he’d return it to Ramsey’s the next day.

“Pop still had some shouting left in him, and he turned it on me. He said, ‘What kind of pussy are you? Why didn’t you ram them like I told you to?’

“Mama came to my rescue. She said, ‘Because I taught him to be a decent person, not some kind of caveman like his father.’ She was seething with anger at Pop. She said, ‘Not everything can be settled with brute force, you know, and this little show of macho bullying was sickening. You’re a better man than that, Earl Ray. Those are not bad boys. They just made a mistake, that’s all. A little understanding will do them a lot more good than any amount of violence.’

“Pop shot back, ‘It’s just exactly because of wimpy attitudes like that that younguns turn to crime. This world is going straight to hell because people are not willing to stand up for what’s right.’ ”

*
David’s monologue goes on for almost two hours. He rambles on about life in the little town of Freedom, a town that was founded by former slaves with historic connections to old time rum runners, bootleggers, gamblers. “I don’t know who all had their hands in who’s pockets, and I never really wanted to know. But I know my family was pretty deep in the cesspool. That’s why I got the hell out of Freedom a long time ago and never looked back. I know my grandfather on my mother’s side was a crooked politician and my daddy had all kinds of connections with Mafia types.”

The monologue seems directionless toward the end. He talks about having a blowup with his father when he was in college because he wanted to study acting and the old man wanted him to study something more practical like business. “I guess I showed them a thing or two,” he bleats in a so-there tone that his family watching his monologue at home does not find particularly funny.
Pop says, “To hell with him. I don’t care if it’s another twenty-some years before he ever comes back home. If I’m lucky I won’t live that long.”

“You don’t mean that, Earl Ray,” Shelly says.

“Which part?” Sue Ellen asks of Mary, and Mary shrugs her shoulders.

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