The Flood

The sun blazed hot through my eyelids.  I opened my eyes and saw I was filthy with mud and sweat.  Somehow I’d gotten back into my clothes.  I lay in the bed of the truck, the sun climbing toward its noon apex.  I remembered shivering through the night but it was in the same way you remember something that happened to you a long time before.  I looked at my hands.  They were scraped and tender, blackened with blood and grime.

I couldn’t find my keys at first.  The truck was unlocked so I checked inside, in the ignition, in the ashtray.  I scouted each of the wheel-wells.  Nothing.  I began searching the ground around the truck, unwinding a tight spiral.  I found them embedded in mud, in the direction of the river.  I descended to the river to wash the keys, sinking them into the quick-moving water.  While I was at it I did my best to wash my wounded hands but they wouldn’t come clean.

I started back toward town, my brain yawning for air as it struggled to recover from the hallucinogens.  The town began to spring up along the road.  Natchez had its history.  Long before it was a prison town it was a historic promontory, perched two-hundred feet above the Mississippi as the oldest settlement on the river.  It borrowed its name from the Natchez Indians, who lived there before the Europeans moved in.  It was once the capital of the Mississippi Territory; later it became the first capital of Mississippi.  During the Civil War Natchez somehow escaped Sherman’s March on Atlanta.  Natchez under the Hill, as it’s called, has some of the oldest buildings in the state—vestiges of an older south.

After a shower and a change of clothes I ended up in one of these vestiges, a bar with creaky uneven floors and dripping ceilings and walls that split with mildew.  The place was called Sam’s and was a miracle of longevity.  Every item of furniture in the bar seemed older than the town itself, as if brought off some seafaring vessel that had already traveled the world.  Prehistoric plants hung from the rafters, vines drooping to the floor, dripping.  Outside the Mississippi purred (witness to a thousand mushroom trips).  I sipped on a pint of local drool that sprang from a tap in the wall. The place attracted an older crowd; I was youngest by ten years.  They were all men, all leaning over bottles.  I could feel their stares on me.  Outsider.

Wheels screeched on pavement.  I turned to the door, which was propped open at all times, and looked out on the dilapidated porch.  Through the doorway I saw a red LeBaron convertible—identical to my mother’s.  The driver, however, looked nothing like Dorothy Calvert.  He climbed over the driver-side door and scampered up the porch steps and I saw he wasn’t much taller than three feet.  I heard voices outside and the doorway framed the newcomer, backlighting him.  I couldn’t see his face but I imagined a diminutive Clint Eastwood, the way he occupied space, bow-legged with his hands at his sides, ready to draw.  A general call went out from the brooding men inside.

‘J.D.!’

J.D. smiled, sauntered.  As he moved into the light I saw he bore long, thinning hair and a round face and a graying handlebar mustache.

JD made a round of the bar.  He knew everyone.  I hoped he wouldn’t talk to me; my brain was fried from the mushrooms.  I hadn’t strung more than five words together all day and I wasn’t ready to start now.   JD must have sensed my leave-me-alone vibe, because he paused before engaging me.  He closed his left eye and peered at me with his right.

‘Can I help you with something?’ I said with some effort.

‘Guess yer age fer a beer.’  JD spoke with the alto of a high-pitched Mississippi accordion.

‘Sure,’ I said.  ‘Go for it.’

JD covered first his right eye and then his left with his small hand.  He examined me from the barstool up to my disheveled hair, testing every angle.  After circling the barstool twice he planted both feet wide apart and put his fists on his hips.

‘Twenty-six.’  He announced it to the whole bar like some kind of carnie sideshow.

‘Off by two years.  Twenty-four.’  JD smiled, climbing onto the neighboring stool.  The bartender began to draw a pilsner for my short companion.

‘Where you from?’  JD’s voice rose above the tenor of the other men at the bar, joining in a dissonant chord.

‘California,’ I said.

‘Been there once.  Long time ago.’

‘Whereabouts?’

‘Disneyland!’

‘I’m from north of there.  San Francisco area.’

JD nodded.  ‘Never been there.  Doubt I ever will.’  The bartender set down the pilsner and JD took it to his lips in one constant motion, like the tossing of a ball from one hand to the other.

‘How long you lived in Natchez?’

‘Whole life.  And then some.’

‘Then maybe you can answer a question I have.’  My head was screaming and I couldn’t track from one sentence to the next.  I paused.

‘What might that be?’ he said.

‘Sorry.’  I shook my head, hoping to break free the cobwebs, but the pounding only increased.  ‘Is there still a prison around here?’

JD frowned.

‘Prison?  Fraid I don’t know what you mean.’

‘Parchman Prison.  It was here in the sixties.  I was just wondering if it was still here.’

‘Ah yeah—that prison.’  JD twisted his mustache with two fingers.  ‘They moved it a while back.  Up north.  No more prison in Natchez.’

‘They moved it?’  I shook my head.  I’d never heard of a prison being moved but then my mental archives weren’t working too well that afternoon.  ‘So what does that mean—the building is gone?’

‘Why you care so much?’  JD pushed his face toward mine and I saw his lips were chapped.

‘I’m a history buff.’

‘Tell you what…’  JD took a long drink on his beer and set it down with an air of seriousness.  He moved close to me, about to confide a secret.  I could smell his mustache; he had prepared it with a reeking petroleum product.  ‘No one here much cares what you read in your books, Yankee.  All those stories made to give this place a bad name.  You want to ask those sorts of questions, you best get out of town.’

‘So what do you do?’ I hoped to find a more peaceful tangent.

‘Well…’  JD grinned.  ‘Nowadays I work down at one of the mills, doing security.  But it’s funny you should mention Parchman.  Used to be a guard there.’  He raised his eyes to mine and stared me down.  I looked at my beer.

‘How long did you work there?’  This was too much of a coincidence.  I pushed back the vision of this midget kicking fallen inmates in the ribs.

‘A decade.’  I looked up again and he was still staring at me.  At that moment I lumped JD in with my father and grandfather and everyone else who had conspired to kill Clyde King.

‘Why you so curious about it, anyway?’  He leaned toward me close enough that I could smell his reeking breath: a mouthful of onions washed with a taint of pilsner.

‘Nevermind.’  I almost wished JD would punish me by dumping his pilsner over my head; anything to ease my poisoned brain.

‘What you hope to find up at Parchman anyway?’

‘I don’t know—just curious.  Let’s forget it ever happened.’  I changed the subject.  ‘Nice rig you’ve got.’

JD looked out the door at the red LeBaron.  ‘That piece?  Looking to get rid of it.  Don’t run for shit.’

‘But it’s a convertible.  It’s got character.’

‘My ass got character,’ JD said.  ‘Don’t mean you want to ride in it.’  Apparently everyone in the bar had been listening to our conversation; the place erupted with laughter.  I didn’t pay much heed.  I was already devising a plan for how I could swindle JD out of his convertible.

‘How much you selling it for?’

‘Hadn’t quite gotten round to it yet.  Why, you interested?’

‘I might be.  Yeah, why not.  I’ll buy it off of you.’

‘How much?’

‘Seven grand.’  I knew this was too high but I needed JD to bite.

‘Bullshit.’

‘No bullshit.’

‘Only worth six and that’s when cleaned up.’

‘So you’ll be getting a good deal.  I’ll need to try it out, of course.  And I don’t have the money with me.’  JD raised an eyebrow.

‘Cash?’ he said.

‘Of course.  I only deal in cash.  Meet me here tomorrow.  Eight o’clock.  We’ll take it for a spin.  If I like it, we can make a deal.’  JD smiled.

‘Why you want it?’

‘My old lady had one.  It got toasted.  Been meaning to get her another.’

‘My old lady hates the thing.  Been on my case since I got it.’  I tried to imagine JD’s old lady.

‘So we’ll be helping each other out.  Does eight o’clock work for you?’

JD grinned.  ‘Eight at night, right?’  He projected an alto laugh.  ‘Got yourself a deal.’  He offered his hand and I took it.  ‘The name’s JD.’

‘I know.’  JD’s grip was too hard.  ‘My name’s Jackson.’

JD jumped from the stool, still in motion, beer in hand.  He finished the pilsner and set the empty glass at the end of the bar and spirited out the door and leapt into the LeBaron.

‘Tomorrow,’ he shouted from the curb right before he shot away.  I hailed the bartender and paid my tab.

I hit my bed that night without taking off my jeans.  I slept long and hard and didn’t wake up for a long time.  My dreams were troubled.  In them I saw my father.  He was shirtless, standing above me, shoveling into a hole.  The dirt piled at my feet with a neutral expression.  I doubted he could see me in the hole.  I wanted to shout out to him, tell him to stop, but when I went to speak I couldn’t.  He had the dirt piled up to my waist before I thought to climb out of the hole and by then it was too late.  I struggled to speak as the dirt climbed up my chest and back, stopping at my armpits as my father took a breather.  He stood with his hand on the shovel, looking down into the hole, and for the first time I thought he saw me, his face twisted in a mask like tragedy.  When he resumed, though, it was with the same countenance, and I wondered if he had seen me all along.  Just before my mouth and face were buried I made one final attempt to scream out, to voice his name.  Even as I tried my lips hung limp.  The last shove-full of earth blacked my view

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