Words by Sam Levine
William White wandered up and down the dilapidated sagging porch with a blank expression on his face, hands thrust protectively into the pockets of his olive green work pants. The bayou seemed different now that his grandparents were gone, rolled away in the surf of existence like so much driftwood. All around him was life and birds and trees and swamp creatures that made noises and inhumanly large splashes in the night, but all those things were not enough, all added up, to equal the place William had tried to come back to. It was almost there, but not quite, a body with a single ventricle missing in its heart, a tiny flaw which nevertheless made it dead.
Caroline tugged on his arm. She wanted to leave. This was no place of memories, no magic firefly encapsulation of the past for her. To her it was just a place daddy had made her go on the way back to mommy’s house. He laid a possessive hand on her shoulder, possessive because he could feel the reach of the swamp and its size and power in relation to his own, and he knew that he was alive and so was she at the mercy of all nature, but especially this bayou, this impregnable tract of ancient solitudinous decay which had snapped up his childhood in a sudden alligator explosion of water on the surface, his wings broken and torn while the rest of the flock rose in a frantic panicked flurry all around him and shot off into the sky, and with his fingers wrinkled and brown like old cigars he stroked her head.
Colorful beads in her hair clicked together in his hand and he thought of an abacus with a sum total of death on its rusted wires, the end growing closer with each swish-click of a decimal being thrown to one side. He stood, stoic in the face of his thoughts, and looked out across the vast expanse of marshes and cypress trees and hanging moss. There in front of the wetland, with his hands in his pockets and his daughter tiny by his side, their shadows stretching into infinity behind them, crawling up and down the sagging wooden walls of the house his grandfather built like holes torn from a new shirt, he stayed, a man watching the sun set for the last time.
In the car he glanced over at Caroline, his daughter, his blood, his tiny little reason for living, his heart beating in her tiny brown hands, and suddenly a lion was shaking its head with him trapped in its jaws, rending him apart to swallow him and he fought back, pushed up against the jaw of the beast until blood vessel ropes stood out on his flesh and he overpowered it and escaped, but none of this actually happened and he had nowhere for his anger to go, no teeth for it to push away and so instead he gripped the wheel tighter with his right hand and without knowing it he punched the accelerator until they were going eighty-five in a seventy, and then ninety, and the bayou was flying by, grass and bush blurring into one long green paint smear visible only through the window of one particular black Ford Explorer.
William mourned for the past, and he forgot the present, and he put off the future indefinitely. He was trapped in a chasm of whirling repetition, and his life was draining away from him. It hadn’t come to him, hadn’t really made itself known that he wasn’t real until today, standing on the old porch where so many endless years ago his grandfather had sat outside with him and told him the ancient stories, the only true stories, and where he had sat, a child full of possibility, and now it was gone, now he was forty-four and he was a cable repairman and his wife was divorcing him and she was moving to Ohio for work with custody of Caroline and his injunction had failed and so now he could drop everything and move to Ohio to see her on weekends or stay and he could see her every couple of months until it became once a year and she started calling the stepfather daddy and he was forgotten.
He looked at her again, holding the tiny white teddy in both of her fragile four-year old hands and he gritted his teeth and screamed inside and stepped on the gas until the speedometer said one hundred and then even that flew by and the wheel was vibrating and all at the same time he started to slow down and calm down and a myriad of blue and red lights all around, blinding him, and so he slowed down sixty fifty forty thirty and the speedometer needle dropped like a wedding ring into a drawer and he was parked on the side of the road with the lights in his eyes and he had his papers ready and he told Caroline that he’d done a dumb thing and now the police officer was going to give him time out.
Flashlight in his eyes.
“License and registration.”
Thirty minutes later a two hundred dollar speeding ticket he couldn’t afford. It all started to pile up on him and it felt like mounds of earth falling on his coffin from six feet over him, but the pall-bearers weren’t friends and family, they were grim-faced, sunglass-wearing institutions of society, lawyers and bureaucracies and laws and a wife who he’d never really loved and now he’d finally escaped the tomb with a single diamond, more beautiful than anything he’d ever known, but no matter how hard to his breast he clutched her they were going to take her away from him, and now with this ticket he was going to have to decide between his cell phone and food for the last week of the month and then he was going to have to go to the courthouse and the judge was going to look down on him from way up there in his chair and smash the gavel down onto his pride until he had none left and he was just another street nigger breaking the law in between jail stints.
It all built up inside him not like a wave but a typhoon brewing in his veins and arteries and capillaries, the tributaries of his heart, spreading out from his abdomen and storming through his head and his fingers until he felt electrified and he knew what he would do. His entire life he’d avoided the voice inside him which knew the right path, and this time he wouldn’t. He remembered a story his grandfather had told him, about how love was the most important force in the universe, and looking at his daughter he realized it didn’t have to be a romantic love. He unbuckled her from her seat and picked her up and looked into her brown unflinching eyes and told her that he loved her and that they were going on a trip for a while.
“But I thought I was going to go live with Mommy and Daryl.”
“What?” she had recoiled at the uncharacteristic harshness in his voice.
“No, honey, there’s something we’ve got to do first. Something I’ve got to do, but it’s for you. You understand?”
She nodded her beautiful head at him and even though he knew she didn’t, for a second he really believed she did and that was all he needed to stick the key in the ignition and start the car and whip it around in a U and head off North into America.
“Love was made before everything else.”
The highway rolled away underneath, the yellow dashes growing larger in the headlights and then disappearing under the car, here and gone like golden leaves in the winter. The sudden realization he’d gained earlier, and this new feeling of going in the right direction when before he’d been lost, the feeling of scratching an itch that you didn’t know was there, had not lessened. He needed to get away. He was a grown man, a fully functional human being, and he was not going to allow himself to be subjected to the fallacy of the whims of others anymore. He was going to go out on his own terms, for once and forever.
He was sure that this would end with him on the news, called a “fugitive” and an “abductor” and there would be implication in the way the local news framed its reports that there was something dark and evilly sexual in his motivation to run away with his only daughter, and they would dig up the mugshot from 1992 when he’d had cornrows and a habit of smoking weed outdoors and then he’d be just another Black guy again, a Statistic, and somewhere in front of those screens pumping useless information into households like lard into the open mouth of a morbidly obese billionaire would be a family and the father would say Chrissakes just once I want it to not be a black man doing this kind of shit.
His wife would say something to the reporters, like <I always knew there was something a little wrong with him>, and she’d mean it because when he woke up at night and walked around his neighborhood and admired the night and thought about the moon chasing the sun all over the sky she thought he was nuts and that’s why she went out and found a Real Man, as Daryl was first described to him the night their divorce was finalized.
He watched the road roll away beneath him and he felt his daughter beside him breathing softly, her head dropped to one shoulder in that way which only small children are able to sleep comfortably. He wondered logically, objectively, if this was something he should be doing, really actually doing, actually running away with his daughter to whatever place they could find, and was surprised to discover that it was, that this was absolutely the right thing, that this was the thing he’d been waiting forty years for. He was going to find the moon.