HURRICANE SEASON by Damian Caudill
WE ROLL INTO STARKS around sundown, and Annie is just now starting to nod her head up along the smudged glass at stop-signs and slow right turns. She has her body pressed up tight against the passenger window to make a nook for her boy Lee, who is spread across the truck’s interior in a fox-curl that has kept his black Reeboks in my lap since Lafayette. Annie squirms up in her seat as I creep into the motel lot, Lee kicking soft against me now as he comes out of a dream. Annie has never been out this far before. Never ventured west of New Orleans to the part of the state where old lumber mills circle every Parish seat. In western Louisiana the lure of voodoo is absent. The million versions of roadside gator-wrestling miles back in the swamplands, folk-tale schemes dreamt up for the chubby, peach colored tourists in from places like Savannah or Wilmington.
Annie drops herself out of the truck hard now, legs asleep and stuck out straight as pale fence posts. She’s a wisp of a woman, with a hollowness in her middle where some hint of Lee’s nine months should linger. Her arms are muscled and lean, ridged and curved at the shoulders. Smooth plates that move tectonic under her skin during the rare tantrum where Lee screams like hell and must be lifted up onto her shoulders with some force, must be held tight there until the fight leaks out from him hot and red and thickened with sweat.
Right now Lee isn’t throwing any tantrum. I watch as he tries to walk fast like Annie, taking strides too big, half-leaps. He kneads his fingers into the muscles of his thigh, hits away at the length of each leg with purpose. Works at the limbs. Thin, and bone-cut, and one day tall, he looks something close to my own. A blond slip of the Calcasieu pine that wraps around Starks like a green and pock-marked rind. Splinter. Sap-blood. Fire-starter. Knob knees. Step-son.
In the room we split one bed. By the time I get back from the lobby with a bucket of ice Lee is back in his fox-curl atop the mud yellow covers. Annie is fixing her short brown hair into a ponytail at the sink. She fumbles with the cap of one of the small peach-colored bottles of soap provided by the motel.
“I can’t get it,” she says so soft I think I’d have missed it if I hadn’t seen her mouth move.
She tosses it to me. I pop it open after a few twists, toss it back.
“So you like it?” I ask, stretching my arms out and turning a small circle on the carpet, as if to show her the entirety of what we’ve got going for us.
She walks over and kisses my chin. The tip of her front teeth biting out at a millimeter of skin. She pulls her fingers across the line of my jaw. My hands on her arms, I feel out the small places where each is softest. Strips between the solid muscles that move down in thin lines. Gaps I press into with my thumbs, and love.
She climbs into bed and wraps herself in a half-circle around Lee’s body. Turning off the light I lose her face in the dark of the curtain-sealed room. Her son out cold beside her Annie speaks a little louder this time.
“I think it’s real nice, Clem. Real nice.”
I pull the only chair in the room up against the wall and sit in the dark. Annie’s asleep fast as always, so I turn on the TV after a few minutes. Of the thirty advertised channels only three come in much. On each I see the thick orange-red of Doppler fill up the fuzzy center of the screen. The path of the storm shown to cut up through the delta in just two day’s time.
I focus my eyes in on the center of that orange-red. Look as hard as I can at the blue dot in the middle and think of all that storm around me for a hundred miles in every direction, enough room I could reach my arms out forever and not find the edge. And I can’t help but think we are somehow in the middle of that eye. That by driving due west we had run smack into the heart of that tiny place in the world. Back in Starks, Louisiana where I hadn’t been in four years. A place and a past I could never let Annie know about. And yet I had brought her here with a son. No matter what I can’t help but think there was no where else to go, that orange-red moving around us in every direction. Two days and New Orleans might be swallowed up whole, but out here in the last sliver of the state I can feel the wind pulling up at everything; roots, and roofs, and all the rest of it.
It had been storming when I hit Paul. I remember the water most, how it had been trickling down the kitchen wall all night from a crack in the ceiling. I remember staring at it when Paul came into the room. I had waited for him all day, the small stack of pictures lying out on the table like a jigsaw of an accusation.
They had been Polaroids. New or old, I couldn’t tell. I remember my son looked ageless in them. The images from a time and place I missed out on somehow. Entire years and lives Paul had lived without me ever knowing.
On each there was white across the left side of the frame. An unnoticed fog on the lens or maybe the ghost of the son who I thought I’d raised. Who until then, had never really appeared to me at all. Paul saw them first thing when he finally came downstairs. Didn’t say a word at all. I didn’t either. Instead I took my son by the thick of his arms and threw him against the wall. Paul had seemed light then, weightless in the strangest way. Like there wasn’t an ounce of matter in his entire being. I was surprised when the wall buckled in beneath him, his shoulder-blades pressing in through the thin sheet-rock like clipped wings. The water from the leak dripping faster now, the crack widened. Cloudy rain water gushing onto his face and hair, into his mouth as he let out only half a breath.
Paul moved quick then, unexpected. Hit me. Brave at sixteen my son ran his fist across my face, left gashes in my lip that bled out onto the carpet in orange-red streams. Paul’s hands that color too, pieces of me stuck inside the thick rings he wore on each finger. Looking down at the floor I could see the orange-red collecting around my feet in the saturated carpet, flooding up around my sneakers, filling the house. I could see nothing else.
I hit Paul back. Not for the punch he threw or even the orange-red, but for the photos. Images of his fingers locking inside the other boy’s belt loops, pulling up and in. My fingers locking inside my palm, pushing out and through. Paul’s lips parted and dumb against the other boy’s mouth. Against my fist.
I hit him hard. Harder than I ever hit. Hard enough to break his jaw into a thousand fragments, white seeds in the busted pink of his watermelon flesh. Hard enough to spin him out across the table beside us like a sliding off table cloth. Hard enough to not get up. But Paul got up. Hunched over himself he stumbled out the screen door, puking blood and teeth beside the mailbox, taking the car through the flooded yard and up the hill onto the road. Grass and gravel dragging up wet beneath the wheels, the opposite of a landslide. Paul drove due east into the storm, away from the rising orange-red tide. I stayed in the house alone, swollen and clenched tight as a wet knot.
Lee has teeth like a gator. Crooked and scattered with red-gum gaps in between hard off-whites that tilt at odd angles. I see them up close now as he paws at my face, growling over me like some kind of tiny, blue-eyed terror. His small unclipped fingernails scratch the skin around my eyes, snag up in the two-days stubble along my jaw. I pick him up off my chest and hold him above me like a model airplane, tilt him flat and narrow through precise maneuvers, pick up speed on a plunge that pans out before the soft carpet below. He looks at me straight-lipped when he rises from the landing and I can’t tell if I’ve scared him or not. Brave a moment before when I had been silent and unmoving beneath him. Letting him claw and snap away at me like I was some kind of trapped river-rat.
He flinches when I get up off the bed and slide on my jeans. A little snap of the head to the left, away from my eyes. Or maybe not a flinch at all. Maybe only my own head twitching, losing focus on the fair-haired alligator boy. Scared to think of him as a son, to have him think of me as a father.
DAMIAN CAUDILL is an undergraduate English major at Ohio University in Athens. His previous work has been published by The 2nd Hand, Word Riot, The Foundling Review, Glossolalia, and Zygote in my Coffee, Sphere, The Envoy, and Candygram.