Pages 238 – 247:
Max signed all the papers in the emerald-green building near the warehouse district, and then he went with the keys to find the rental car. It was emerald-green, too, small and bright, like an insect. He walked around it, inspecting, put a foot to a tire, and finally opened the door and got in. He hadn’t driven for he did not know how long. He hadn’t driven on this side of the road. The cigarette smell, the warm vinyl; he rolled down the windows and turned on the radio, which blasted loud, and with just a touch of gas Max lurched from the lot and was seventeen, and girls were new again.
It was still morning, and he’d have the car until this time tomorrow. He drove east. At least it seemed to be east; with the river’s bendings, it was hard to keep track. Downriver, at any rate. A map flapped on the seat beside him, held down with a guidebook. He drove through the Eighth Ward, then the Ninth, and he knew the river was somewhere, snaking along to his right.
There were things worth seeing, his guidebook said, and as he drove, he glanced now and then at the fluttering pages and tried to follow the descriptions of sights with one finger, while he looked for the sights themselves, quickly to left or right, the bright green car flying over the ruined roads. The sun was in his eyes, and already, even on the first of March, he could imagine the place as it would be in the summer, with hot, fallen houses and roads cracking like mud.
The first of March? Had it actually been four months, then? Four months of this pointless pursuit?
Max drove on, flinching at traffic to his left, keeping his eyes near the curb for protection. As old men drove at night, looking for the white line to steer their precarious course. Was he an old man? It seemed that he had always been an old man, or somewhere either sixteen or ancient, somehow lost in between. He did not know how to do things.
Somewhere was the Saturn Bar, somewhere was the big pink Cadillac, but Max could not see any of it. The steamboat houses, too, by the levee, he had thought he’d like to see–he’d even underlined them in the book–but that street had already passed. Everything came so much faster than he’d thought.
Now he crossed into Saint Bernard Parish, and the city surfaces began to fall away. The road slowly glided around to the right, away from the highway and progress, toward water. A narrow canal appeared alongside the road, a thread of water between slopes of green grass. On it floated water lilies, empty trash bags, soda cans.
So had Therese really been pleading, when she stood at the door? Had he just made a mistake?
Max drove on, past other sights that were listed in the guidebook–a church shaped like a boat, for instance, and the Isleño museum–but he could not find them, even when finally he’d had enough and pulled over and carefully examined the map, even when he doubled back in a fit of determination and slowly retraced his route. There seemed to be no connection at all between the book and this terrain. Like a desert that shifted, its topography changing.
Then, without his noticing, the skinny little thread of water at his right seemed gradually to have widened, spread, slowly to have become a bayou. Max found himself driving past fishing huts on stilts, men and boys in old hats and boots who carried buckets and looked up as he passed.
What was he doing here?
Then the road came to an end. There was no more ground, so the road simply stopped. That little canal had swollen and spread and finally stretched over everything, and Max had not even noticed. He was in a small flat parking lot of dirt and broken oystershells, with tall grasses at the edges, where the water began. Boats were moored nearby. To all sides were water, bayou, sky. THE END OF THE WORLD, said a sign before him. It was starting to rain again.
When she had finally stood at the door with her bags, she’d looked just as she always looked, so that he could not understand how it had happened, when he had first disappeared from her eyes.
But didn’t you love me first? he said.
She looked at him, and as he watched, helpless, her eyes filled again. She didn’t speak.
I’m sorry, he had murmured, his hand reaching for her hair but returning then to his side, to his pocket.
Rain was streaming down the windshield. He couldn’t find the wipers. He rolled up the windows and turned off the engine and sat there in the quiet sound of rain.
He thought again of the wild little pigs that had once run through German forests.
He had known it was foolish to move here, on this quest. It was just that there had to be something of interest, in all the years that would come and go, to jolly himself along.
After a while Max roused himself. He had rented the car for twenty-four hours; it would be wasteful not to use it. He smoothed open the map and consulted the guidebook. Maybe he’d go to Algiers.
It was pouring again in New Orleans, too much rain for the pumping stations to manage, the ground already soaked. Rain streamed down so that windows on all four sides of the yellow house seemed liquid, leaves slapping the panes. In the back and front gardens, water sheeted the ground until only the tips of the grass blades showed, and then even they were submerged, and the ground was all pool reflecting sky, while the sky was all water.
Josephine had woken with little cuts in her palms. Bits of glass lay on the floor, crunching beneath her slippered feet. With toilet paper she wiped up the slivers in the sink and splashed the rest down the drain.
Money and eggs and inky babies, swirling down the drains. No wonder such lush algae grew there, swaying in the darkness.
She looked at herself in the mirror. Trash.
Droplets of rain were streaming down the window, joining briefly to form larger drops, then trailing off alone again. Josephine leaned her forehead against the glass, exhaled slowly, and tried to imagine herself other. How did people do things? How was it, between the first impulse to lift a foot and place it somewhere farther, how was it that the impulse itself did not fly forward to the logical, futile end and fizzle like a snapped electric wire, burn to nothing, so that there was nothing at all to stand on? Because everything always ended up nothing; there was no getting around that. She could look at her hands and imagine them gone; look at this house and imagine it gone; consider the things that one might do, and see them, years later, forgotten. And that constant running of her thoughts down a drain she just could not prevent.
Laughing was easier. Standing before Anton and just laughing, giddy, throwing up her hands, throwing back her head.
So, she knew she had never wanted it.
That wasn’t true.
Of course it was.
She laughed. Of course it was true. She did not want anything. She could not see how.
How do I tell you I’m sorry, Anton?
Rain rivered down the street; it swirled and eddied at the gutters until they could hold no more, and then the water rose up the curbs, sloshing and deep. Lost dogs splashed down the sidewalks, confused by all the drowned scents, bedraggled, pausing at corners to smell something familiar, then splashing on hopefully, farther from home.
Josephine gave the cat and the little dog extra bowls of dinner before she left the house. Rivers were lapping up over the curbs as she ran to the K&B, where soggy paper bags were laid on the floor. She selected a nice tall dark bottle and, with her package tucked under her arm, went out again and got on the streetcar.
Water, water, Le Flottant. The whole place seemed to be floating; even the streetcar hydroplaned. Floating houses, floating cars, floating live oaks and dead palm trees. Were they likely to come back to life after freezing? Discreetly she twisted off the top of her bottle and took a private sip.
The streetcar reached the last stop, downtown, and everyone got off. Some people had given up on their shoes, so Josephine took hers off, too, and splashed barefoot over the sidewalk.
Water, water, everywhere. She took another drink. She did not take the bottle out of the bag but held the paper close to the neck so that it was concealed. Although so silly, she thought, when here they have go-cups and even those drive-through daiquiri places. No cause at all ever to panic! She saw a sign for the ferry to Algiers: straight ahead. She thought of Charon oaring over the underworld river; then she thought of Mercury. Wasn’t he the one who took you? Mercury was the way in, through the mirrors: all you did was dive.
She walked straight ahead for several blocks. Streamers ran across the street, purple, gold, and green, slapping. At least now the rain had stopped, the streets shining wet. When she reached the ferry a few cars were already boarding, and the smell of the river was strong and cool.
The upper deck was empty. The whole thing vibrated as it idled. When it left the dock and pushed out into the Mississippi, it seemed to be struggling, dogged. Josephine stood holding on to the railing, but her hands vibrated so violently she sat down instead on the deck, looked around, and had another drink.
The ferry approached the middle of the river, the lights of New Orleans far away to one side, those of Algiers to the other. She stood up, unsteady, and looked over the edge, into the roiling water. Deep, she knew; very deep. A forty-five-foot channel from Head of the Passes to Baton Rouge. Forty-five feet! That was very deep. That was herself times just over eight.
And down there all the female eels were gliding along, silent, down to the Gulf to find their mates, then the long way home to the Sargasso. She knelt and placed her empty bottle carefully on the deck. She made sure her shoes were neatly beside it. Then she put both hands on the railing.
The boat had reached the middle of the river and was beginning to turn against the stream. The city lights and the darkness wheeled around. She put one foot on the bottom rail.
Once, when she was small, she’d been on a raft at the beach, a blue raft with yellow edges and a strong white cord. The other children were older, and as she kicked to keep up with them, the current began to pull at her legs, without her even noticing. It pulled at her calves, pulled at her thighs, began gently loosening her from the raft, and still she noticed only that it seemed a little harder to hold on. The current pulled at her hips, slipped around her stomach, and then the raft, instead of being under her stomach, seemed to be only under her chest. Then it was not even under her chest, just clutched in her hands–and suddenly, somehow, it slipped right away, and she only held the cord. The others by now were far, their heads small across the choppy water. And without it making any sense at all, the cord too slipped out of her fingers and she had nothing, she was pulled away, water sloshing into her mouth.
Maybe, she suddenly thought, maybe I don’t want this.
She struggled to hold on to the wet rail.
But already something was happening. That blackness, coming over her eyes. Where were her hands? Where were her feet? She tried to grip the slippery railing, but now the boat revolved as it moved forward, so that all the city and Algiers and the long dark river itself seemed to spin around her, and Josephine could not hold onto the rail, and she slipped, she lost her balance.
Max shut his eyes and breathed the wet night air, holding his mouth slightly open. He was at the top of the ferry’s stairwell, having climbed up from where the cars were parked to watch Algiers approaching. He’d driven his rental car all day. To the End of the World and back again, then along the river to see some plantations, and he was exhausted. His face kept shuddering and stretching with yawns, and what he really wanted to do was sleep, fall forward, shoes on. But a twenty-four-hour rental was a twenty-four-hour rental; there’d be no chance for Algiers in the morning, and he wouldn’t think of wasting the time.
He opened his eyes to the windy darkness. The boat must have reached the middle, because he could feel it start that laborious turning as it continued to plow forward. Exciting! Enough to wake him right up. The lights of New Orleans, the lights of Algiers, all of it seemed to swing around as the boat began to swivel. He put out his arms to enjoy the dizziness and opened his mouth to the breeze for the thrill.
But then he noticed someone with bare feet unsteadily climbing the railing.
Was that the funny lush?
Just then the engine shifted huge gears, and the whole boat suddenly lurched.
It was raining then in Venice, too; Anton couldn’t sleep. At five he finally got up and went out to walk, to think it through. The paving stones were slippery, black, and as he walked he held his coat close.
The rain was steady, featureless, without thunder or storm. It fell and fell, and as it fell, sea water rose, bubbling through the slits in the granite. At first puddles formed around those slits, but they gradually spread, joining each other, until water covered the passageways and the bubbling was no longer discernible. At San Marco the moored black boats banged and rose, until at last the lagoon spilled over the embankment. Soon a single surface of water stretched from the sea to the city. Buildings seemed to float on it then, buildings of Istrian, verde antico, and mottled Verona marble gliding like ships on the seamless sea.
But I can’t just give up, thought Anton.
At six-thirty he returned to his apartment, soaked. Just one call, he told himself. One simple call, a clear pipe of air blown between us, her voice.
He picked up the receiver and dialed, then placed his palm against the window and waited, looking out at the lagoon.
A slow ring, the long pause, another ring. He could hear it all the way in New Orleans, the ripples dissolving in the dark of that old wooden house. Another ring, and as he stared out the window, he thought of the ring that had been dropped in the lagoon each year, that sacred golden ring, a promise. Five rings, six, falling into the emptiness. Four more, and it would be over.
The phone was answered.
“Hello?” a man mumbled.
Anton stared at the receiver. The meter clicked.
Then he whispered, “Max?”
<. . .>