79. The South

We live in the south, where, one day, the river rose like a terrible dream of drowning, as it did every year. We took grandmother down from her house in the orange chair she loves and put her seated and telling stories about rivers in the old days onto Onesimo’s flatbed that groaned as it struggled through the mud and the rising water and struggled still more as it went up the hill to the community center where everyone had gone to wait for the rains to stop and the river to subside into its course.

In the south we suffer long hot days and watch the containers go by on the great cargo ships that pass on to those places the young dream for in their late morning sleeps. Where grandmother came from, grandmother said with the atavistic longing only the very old can express. The young ones gathered round her on the playing court and she told them about men with long beards and underground trains and the smell of smelting iron and how the smoke pillared out of the chimneys row on row to the horizon, the cities were so big.

“She never tells them where she really came from,” mother said, who was grandmother’s legal daughter. “Here, just like all of us, she was. Everyone here, including you is from here. No one comes, no one goes. And every year the river rises and every year the old people wait for the young people to carry them to high ground and when the water goes down, the young ones take them and put their chairs back with the old ones seated on them, creaking on about distances and lost things, smoke stacks and sophisticated ways.”

She spoke bitterly. Which is the way we speak in the south because no one stops here and no one ever leaves and every year the rains come and the river rises and every season the rains disperse and the river slowly reverses itself and becomes the river everyone remembers. It’s true.

One day a man came to town, whom no one had ever seen. The river had fallen, leaving silver sheets of fish on the banks. The air was filled with the smell of things normal for water but that rot under open sun. He came in a small car. He parked in town and took a suitcase into the bank. We watched him from the windows, transacting, tapping the toe of his shoe at the teller’s desk.

When done, he came out and tipped his hat to us, placed his suitcase into the back seat, got into his car and drove just a little ways up the street to grandmother’s house. We stood back and watched. The man knocked on grandmother’s door and when grandmother opened the door she hugged the man and they went inside and she closed the door. We waited. Billy took out a sandwich and ate it. Sara, a chocolate bar. Then the man and grandmother came out of the house. He assisted her down the steps and into his little car.

Inside the car grandmother tapped the dashboard. We saw her yank down on her belt and clip it. The man closed the passenger door and walked around to his side and tipped his hat to us. He got in and started the car and he and grandmother made a U-turn in the road and they drove together out of town and out of our lives forever.

Word got out about the man. Mother and father dashed to grandmother’s house and searched. They went to the bank and when they emerged they stood on the street and looked up at the sun and looked down the street as if they might see where the world was going. At dinner, we asked.

“You’re not to bring any of this up,” father said, angrily. Mother said nothing. She wouldn’t look at our father, as if in doing so she’d sort him as a liar, as if, somehow, sometime, he might depart as well, taking some secret with him, and she didn’t want to look at him because something about him at that very moment, something about the way he held his fork, about the way he looked at his plate, indicated or suggested some mysterious and latent spontaneity or potential, a decision still some ways off but affected nonetheless.

“We’re not to speak of this again,” father said. But he wouldn’t look at us. And we wouldn’t look at him.

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