Marley Simmons Abril
In that scooped out slump of a neighborhood our house was favored over others because it had one big tree in the back yard, conferring some sort of legitimacy upon what was otherwise just a clapboard dump like the rest. Mom called the tree a swamp oak. Dad said it couldn’t be an oak because oaks have leaves like the footprint of some shore bird and this one’s were just oval. Mom countered yes it could be an oak because, look, all over the ground in the yard were green acorns, hatted like Chinamen and, further, there were squirrels all over the yard, and squirrels knew oak trees even if grown-ass men couldn’t tell a shorebird from a shithouse. Oak or not, I liked its late shade.
Uncle Jet made us a treehouse the prior spring. He drug the wood in from the alleyway. None of it matched and some was scarred by oily stains. The ladder rungs he nailed straight to the tree trunk, which Mom groused would injure it possibly fatally but Dad said nonsense, Jet here’s helpin the girls. Jet climbed his new rungs with the hammer tucked into his pants and a coffee can of nails in his teeth. Dad passed lumber up. Jet braced all four corners with triangles hammered into the trunk, then rowed up 2-bys for the floor and laid plywood over it. He made rails, but they were open at the bottom so anything could just roll out, including us. Halfway through Jet ran out of the good nails, so Dad fetched roofing nails from the shed and Jet pounded away willy nilly until he and Dad determined the treehouse secure. It looked like when spiders die under the porch, fold their legs up under them and fall over. Mom forbade either of us from climbing up there in that P-O-S contraption, but after Jet himself went up and smoked a joint, jumped around a bit, climbed back down, she relented. Dad and Jet whooped.
“Good view up there,” said Jet.
“Shit view,” corrected Dad. “A view of shit.”
Bargetown dead-ended in a little knob at the base of the industrial canal, which connected the lake North of town to the river just below. It used to feature steamers, cargos, paddlewheels, Mom said. All variety of boats. Then they gated it off at both ends. Water still ran into the canal, but folks threw trash up there for sport and the trash and the leaves and all of it cluttered up against the riverside grates, and then men in orange plastic suits came once a month to scoop it out. The canal was taller than most of the rooftops, a long sloping wall that wrapped around Bargetown like a fist.
Jet was right about the view. From the treehouse you could see down the block to the canal, shipping its load of plastic sacks and soda cups riverward. You could see up the alleyway that stitched the roads into the canal wall. You could see straight over the rear fences where yellow plastic playhouses sunk in corners of the ditchgrass yards. I borrowed mom’s old birding binoculars from the closet and took them to the treehouse, spied on the whole neighborhood from there. Rooftops bleached and wafting in the sun. Cat turds dry as pebbles. Little mean dogs pacing the fencelines into mud.
I kept candy hid up in the treehouse, in Jet’s old coffee can. Had a turned-over crate for a seat and a bucket on a rope for hauling goods up and over the rail. I was there that Friday eating Smarties and looking for those men on the canal when Mia pulled her face over the edge of the treehouse, announced boredom. Sometimes she forgot she was nursing a sophisticated new dislike for me. She was wearing what Mom called playclothes, a tee-shirt with a crocodile riding a bike, which she was fast outgrowing meaning it would soon be my crocodile tee-shirt.
“Lower the bucket,” she told me. “Mom made sandwiches for lunch.”
“You lower the bucket, I’m spying.”
“Just do it, shit stink.”
Her face disappeared. I kicked the bucket over into the dirt yard, and in a minute she was back, hauling up the bucket by its braided rope. Inside she’d packed tuna sandwiches on crustless wheat bread, bottles of soda water.
“The men still there?” She cracked open the soda water and it fizzed over her shoes.
“Nuh-uh. They gone.”
“Where’d they go?” Mia sat on the crate and toed her shoes off, curled up bare toes on the plywood.
“Are you asking me because you think I know? Or are you asking because you wanna hear words out your mouth.”
She told me to can it or she’d pummel me.
The men had been there all week but that day the edge of the canal was scrubbed of human life. I lowered the binoculars and we both looked up and down the empty wall. The men were not the men that came to scrape out the drain, and not neighborhood men in cut-off Levi’s, but men in suits too dark for the sort of heat that seared up from Bargetown. Mia said she’d heard they were down from Boston, mom said it was Austin, dad said they’re Soviets. Mia made up names for them from TV. The one who’s blond and round, that one was Joey. The one in the shades was Jessie. I said they all wore shades and Mia told me no, the rest wore sunglasses, but that one there he’s wearing shades. They were up on the canal all week then the Friday of the water suddenly they had scrammed.
Mia had half a sandwich on her lap and was digging in the coffee can for more Smarties when the air up in the treehouse roared then crumpled. The whole tree lurched, us in the treehouse suddenly frail as bugs. Mia’s hair puffed out comically, and her mouth was open but there didn’t seem to be sound coming out of it. There didn’t seem to be sound anywhere, just the percussive heaving of branches around us. Below, the canal split like a sack. White dust hung in the air, until the water foamed over it and raced chalky and bleak across the mud, pushing in front of it every object not held fast in the solid ground. The water pushed lawnmowers and barbeques, pushed chairs off the front porches, flattened roses and creeper vines, plowed through tool sheds. The water pushed a car into our tree then skirted it off to the side and away. The water pushed over wood fences, bled through and around chainlink. The water pushed until Bargetown was scraped clean, and then it proceeded to bubble upwards like a slow bathtub, leaving us a two-kid island in a vast black lake.
After, I noticed things by their lack. No birds or bugs or cars or horns or music. No dogs. No babies. No ice cream truck. Not even wind, just the suck of the water and the draft of trash it pulled behind.
Both Mom and Dad were gone at work upland. The current boiled. Through the binoculars I spied in all directions. Water came down from the lake greenish then turned brown soon as it hit the gap and turned into the streets. It sucked all the floaty garbage from the yards and porches and alleys with it. The canal had only been emptied in one direction, and on the other side the same dry field rolled out to the highway as always, old farm equipment stranded like boulders, a twitching ribbon of pavement on the horizon. The other way, towards the city, police cars stood at the street ends spinning their lights. Every other direction was water. It covered the bottoms of the triangle braces Jet had fastened to the tree. The rungs sunk down the trunk like a pool ladder.
“Oh God,” gasped Mia. “What do we do?”
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Someone will come get us.” Our house sat quiet and ruined across the water. I laid on my stomach. If I skooched all the way out I could touch the water with my hand. It was black and greasy, with odd debris floating through it. A small stuffed horse, spinning leaves, a red plastic bowl big enough for mixing cookie dough. A pink sweatshirt. A whole stack of white papers that clumped and traveled together like ducklings. I saw the neighbor kid’s bigwheel drifting at an angle, one yellow wheel stuck up out of the water and trailing a long whippy branch like a kitestring. Another branch followed it, this one closer. When I pulled it up into the treehouse water peeled off it like spit, thick, smelling like an alleyway.
Dad called it shit-town down here. I reminded Mia of this. “Dad says this place is a sewer drain and all the rotten apples have rolled downhill to Bargetown.”
“Dad also says that hindsight is fifty-fifty.”
“It is,” I told her.
“No. Hindsight is twenty-twenty. Fifty-fifty is something different.”
I spied other folks on rooftops. Blocks towards the lake, top of the corner store, the whole Korean family that lived in back was gathered. They’d strung a tarp from the satellite dish for a sunshade. The men were taking turns waving their T-shirts at the empty air. A very fat woman sat on the peak of a garage roof, shielding her eyes.
The water kept rising, but slower. The lake would just drain all out. I looked under the treehouse, and one of the triangle braces had come loose in the current. It bobbed along at a useless angle, trying to float away. Its bent nail snagged a frothy wad of hair, which I pointed out to Mia. Mia put on what Mom called her fruit face. Lemon got a good look at ya! Orange you gonna pout all day?
I looked down into the water. It was murky and churning, like a wash machine. Out of the water only the rooftops and trees stuck up. Branches bent at confused angles, used to hanging down but now forced to float. Under all that was my bedroom. I pictured it as I’d last seen it, balled up pillows and the blanket tossed half aside, but now rippling a little bit, as if the flood was just a breeze. That seemed nice, but I thought more likely it was splintered and smashed, all the clothes and sheets and posters of my room hauled up into a topmost corner and trapped there, mattress and all, pressed against the ceiling while the current whooshed on beneath, out the door, through the house’s smashed up windows.
A yowling piece of some signage came spinning towards us. It was red and white, looked like an ad from the back of a bus bench. It was only half the ad, but the half that read “Like A Good Neighbor,” with one huge and perfect ear before the ragged edge where it had broken off from the bench. A sodden pile of cat spun atop it. I stuck the branch out and tried to drag it in but the tug swamped the ad, and it sunk into the current with a burp. The cat clawed onto the branch. I hauled it towards me. It was some black and some white, all claws, points in every direction. A thin line of snot looped from its nose up to one ear. “Mia,” I whispered, gripped the cat behind the neck and lifted it limp out of the water. The cat put its belly straight on the floor, whined like a garage door creaking shut. “Mia look.”
The cat had the sour smell of the water, and pushed backwards towards the tree trunk like it was trying to shy away from its own rancid self. It settled in a corner, raked its claws against the trunk, then climbed up to a higher branch where it sat dripping onto the treehouse. Mia did not smile but declared that its name was Bessie, not just cause it looked like a cow but because it crouched low like one also. I asked where she’d ever seen a crouching cow, and she said on a school trip to Atlanta once and I countered that I could recall no time ever when her school took her to Atlanta. Whatever, she said. The cat’s name is Bessie. Bessie sustained a growl while Mia tempted it with bits of tuna scooped from the edge of her sandwich.
Across the way I spotted a ruckus in the water, and then at the roofline of our own house a raggedy man hauled himself out of the mud and flopped fishlike onto the house. I put the binoculars down to watch. He fell over, spread out with his chest heaving while the tarpaper under him darkened. He laid on his back a minute, then folded over and barfed ratty water into the gutter. Flecks of something dribbled out, like cat puke. He didn’t have a shirt on, but his tan line was so regular it looked like he did. He let out a happy wheeze, and lay back on the slant of the roof, face up to the sun.
“Mister!” I yelled to him. He lifted his head up, lazy as a dog, then set it back down. “Mister where’d you come from? You on my roof.”
“You ain’t usin it.”
It was hard to argue that.
“I just restin. I’m swimming home to my house.” He lifted his arm and pointed downcurrent. He was wearing a watch. The inside of his arm was tattooed with a skull. “It’s there a ways.”
Mia whispered to the cat up in the tree, pulled more Smarties from the coffee can.
“There’s a man on our roof,” I said.
She looked over then back. “So?”
“So that’s our roof.”
From across the way the man hollered. “You’d grudge a tired man a roof to dry out on?”
“Ignore him, Missy.”
“Don’t eat all my candy, Mia.”
I walked to the opposite rail of the treehouse, went back to spying around with the binoculars. I heard Mia crumple up a wrapper, and a second later it floated past me in the water. The houses of the neighborhood had shrunk to just rooftops, rooftops that poked up like orderly glaciers. Flat, ugly roofs. They didn’t look so ugly when I could see the bright stucco underneath them, grass skirts around, even the junk littler kids left on their porches. I couldn’t see anything through the water. Not a screen door or weedy windowbox or downspout or even a floating chinaman hat from the tree that may or may not have been an oak. Mia ate the rest of her sandwich sitting on the milk crate. Then she ate three more Smarties and swept the wrappers out like leaves.
I heard the motorboat before I saw it, tried to find it in the binocular’s jumping circles, but everywhere I aimed them was just water. Mia heard the boat too, and walked up to the rail next to me. The treehouse squeaked and shifted under us.
The boat was painted all red, with a circle logo on the side. It slapped up and down, its nose lifted on account of it having no people aboard save the man who stood and pawed the outboard in a straight line towards us. It veered around a cardboard box, turned itself back on course. He cut the engine just low enough to hold it steady in the current.
“Two of you here?” he asked. “No injuries?”
Mia reached for her shoes, had one of them laced and the other in her hand saying thank you thank God thank you, ready to levitate herself into the boat.
The man put his hand out like a crossing guard. “Oh no, Miss. I’m not rescue. You’ll have to wait for those. I’m just survey. Survey’s not authorized for rescue.”
Mia gaped at him, one shoe still in her hand. “Why not?”
He looked at his empty benches. “No life preservers aboard. No passengers.”
“I don’t care,” she told him. “We don’t care. We’re inches from the water now with no life jackets. We know how to swim. You’re with the government or whatever? Take us out of here.”
“Can’t.” He jotted something in his notebook and veered the boat away, between the rooftops towards the Koreans atop the corner store. They had stopped waving shirts, and just huddled under their tarp like folks waiting out the rain. Mia, gaping and pale, threw her shoe after the boat’s spreading wake.
I spied all afternoon. The low sun sheared off the water. It had gotten clearer, all the flood muck washed down current and now just lake, still spilling. The lake was huge; it would never drain. The water had leveled, was leaving wavy tidelines on the sidings of each house. The smell improved. Also, on the canal, the same men from the week had reconverged, now wearing tall rubber boots over their dark suits. There were at least ten of them. They stood in a single line stretched out on the canal’s soggy wall, passing clipboards up and down.
Mia ate the last pack of Smarties, and then threw them all up. She barfed over the upcurrent rail, and it washed below the treehouse in a pink smear. She groaned. Her hair was flat on one side.
“Give me your soda water.”
“No way. I didn’t eat a coffee can full of Smarties.”
She whined at me, and I told her to suck on a wrapper, work up some spit that she could reswallow.
Mia told me I was dumb. “Hand on the Bible, that does no good.”
“What’s your other choice? Drink pee?”
Below us a dog floated down current, buoyed by its swollen belly. It snagged for a minute on the treehouse, and its face floated upwards to me, eyes missing, fur clumped, skin looking thin as tissue, before the water worked it loose and let it on its way.
The choppers came at dusk like mosquitoes. They rumpled up the water beneath them. One flew so close the branches of our oak tree flapped in heavy waves, scattered leaves outward, fluttered the plywood floor. Mia leant out over the rail waving, her hair a swarm around her face, but the chopper didn’t slow. A man hung out of the side with a long camera. The chopper circled the tree, and the man kept the camera aimed at us. They went round and round, me and Mia swiveling our heads to follow. The man in the chopper let his camera drop enough to look at us straight on. Mia waved like a lunatic. He lifted a hand to her in greeting, then the chopper barged through the thick air and banked away.
That night we curled together in the uphill slant of the treehouse. We lay close as puppies, cold in the draft that floated along the top of the water like a bad breath. She was closest the tree trunk, slumping down into me. It was worse than sharing a hammock. Through the branches I watched ghosty clouds skate across bleak sky. It was nearly silent. I was aware of the lack: no heat bugs in the ragged grass, no howling dog across the alley. I laid on my back looking straight up through the shuddering branches. Mia next to me pushed her face into my arm. Her eyes bounced in her sleep. Awake, she liked to boss. Awake, she shouted like everyone. I thought how dad was maybe a little bit right about Bargetown.
It took me a long time to fall asleep that night, almost til dawn. The cat in the tree above sat space-eyed, looking at nothing out in the cold night. “Bessie,” I whispered. Her ears swirled like satellites. “Yeah. Bessie.” I was hungry but I felt it in my fingertips more than my stomach. My knees shook. I was so tired it seemed like every third second my brain simply shut itself off, whirled back to the top then sank again, but my eyes kept flying open to the silence and the dark.
I got up and crawled to the edge of the treehouse. Bargetown was a moonscape. Powerlines snaked around between peaks, spinning off their hooks and dragging in the current. There were no lights save the far-off blink of police flashers, and the dim city glow behind it. Rooftops breached the black flood like sharks. I made out my own reflection peeking over the edge of the treehouse, jumpy and shattered in the water. All around us, the sagging oak sheltered.