Levee, by Roy Kesey

I have watched my father rise in a handstand, his white chest scarred and full, his legs bending at the knees, his feet out like spars as he made his way across our back yard and up the side of the levee, slowing as it steepened. One hand forward, a rest, another hand forward, veins thick as night-crawlers rising from his neck, his face the color of blood itself. Another hand forward, another, quivering slightly, the levee so steep that simple walking turns to a scramble. He fought for one last handhold and then he was at the crest, the sunset sky fiery behind him, the roiling hush of the Mississippi, and my father, lowering his legs gently, standing upright, chest heaving, and he smiled, waved, and now I could breathe again.

He wasn’t showing off for me alone. I turned, and there was my mother, and she was waving too. My mother, beautiful woman, I knew this even as a boy. She was the one who taught me and Beverly to swim—freestyle, backstroke, butterfly. She took us down to the battures once the river let up a bit late each summer, and we did our best for her, diving contests and races, and she beamed no matter who won.

There was a great happiness to her in the water, but it never lasted all the way back to the house. She’d dry herself there on the bank, her long arms and legs, and the happiness got soaked up in the towel, or brushed away like grit. My father loved her deeply if not well, is what I think most days. All this was back when Harahan was still called New Orleans 23. I was born without thumbs, so I never climbed the levee the way my father could, never even managed a handstand, and my mother has been gone for forty years.

*

Bev and I are twins, but we’re not identical, or even all that similar. She was born perfect as far as I can tell, though she complained, complains even now, fifty-four years old and still complaining that her breasts are too big, that she catches people staring and her eye begins to twitch. As soon as they notice the twitching they glance away, but they always turn back for one more look. These days she lives in Dallas and says it’s just the same.

It took me years to learn new ways of getting ahold of things. School started hard each September, the looks and the names, but it was nothing you couldn’t fight your way past. Harder was family. For my seventh birthday an old uncle got me a jar opener. He meant no harm, I know. And when my cousins were small they used to come up behind me and slap at my hands. They didn’t mean anything by it either. I sat them down, made them look, made them touch. One of them grabbed at the joint where a thumb should have started, pinched it as hard as he could, asked me if it hurt.

Something gave way inside me just then. I smacked him across the room, asked him if that hurt. He was tough enough not to cry, but he didn’t get my point, thought I was just being cruel, and he was partly right.

*

My father waded ashore at Iwo Jima—that’s all I know for sure of his service in World War II. I’ve seen pictures of the beaches that day, the bodies thick as driftwood, the water dark with blood. All the same, when I heard of Vietnam years later my first thought was to sign up, head over, get a look at the show. But you can imagine the scene, kid with no thumbs shows up at the recruiting office, how the secretary frowns, how the officers strain to keep a straight face.

My father’s only souvenir from the war he fought is his bayonet. It’s stained with old rust or older blood. Though I asked, he never told me how it felt, the bayonet lifted and driven home. He was never one for speeches, except on the single topic that stirred him: the levee, how it was the only thing that kept us from being washed down into the Gulf, how if it ever failed we’d have third-class tickets to Cancún, and toward the end he’d stare at my mother as he said it.

She’d been part of the war as well, one of the thousands of women who spent those years in New Orleans building Higgins Boats, the same kind of craft that landed my father on the beach. It’s hard to know how much anything has to do with anything else. My father’s arms are now skinnier than mine, and I make puppets for a living.

#

Hand-puppets, finger-puppets, marionettes, I can make anything, with any degree of control you might desire. Half-body or full-body, puppets your children can dress however they like, carved in wood, cast in neoprene or latex, layered in papier-mâché. I can make animal puppets that produce real animal sounds—parrot, jackal, peacock, panther, rattlesnake. If you’ve got the computer to run it I’ll make you an animatronic skeleton with moveable arms and legs, and LED eyes to keep the neighbor kids screaming with nightmares for weeks. I’ll make anything you can dream up and many things you can’t, but what do people want? Clowns and nurses and farm animals, pathetic.

I was twelve the first time I saw my mother with a man who wasn’t my father. She was in a rose-colored dress my father had bought her the week before, and that was all I saw at first, the beautiful dress, short-sleeved for the heat, lace around the collar. She was coming out of the drugstore, her long dark hair tied back, and I called down the block and started running, thinking she’d maybe slip me a quarter for a roll and a cherry Coke, but she didn’t look my way, and there was a man coming at her.

Her hands lifted toward him. I stopped and watched. He was tall and thin, mostly bald. They could have just been old school friends meeting up for the first time in years, a pleasant coincidence, but their faces were all wrong for that. They met, held hands too long, and took off down the sidewalk.

Harahan isn’t big enough for that kind of thing. It was a couple of weeks later that I came home from school and heard the shouting. I slammed through the screen door and found my mother on the floor, my father standing over her, one thick arm drawn back.

He saw me then, and his arm dropped. He went to help her up but she wouldn’t have it, pulled away from him, ran out the back door and up the levee. She stayed there on the crest all afternoon, through dinner, all evening. The rest of us sat in the family room staring at the walls.

My father sent us to bed early, and I went to the kitchen for a glass of milk. Out the window I could see my mother silhouetted against the glow from across the water. I tapped on the pane, heard my father coming in behind me, turned and went to my room.

The next morning the only thing out of place was the thick black bruise on my mother’s face. We all tried not to look. I ended up looking at Bev instead, and her eye began its dance. I asked to be excused, and my father told me to stay right where I was.

*

My father’s metal shop had always done just enough to keep the house looking decent, to keep us in shoes and clothes and food. Then a lot more business started coming in, Avondale Shipyards fat with defense contracts and desperate for custom parts. The following September my parents sent me to Jesuit and Bev to Sacred Heart.

It was a different thing, this private school, uniforms and Latin class, but the stares were the same, me and my hands gone wrong. No one else there was from Harahan. They were all from Carrolton and the Garden District, knew nothing about my world and didn’t care to know.

But my old friends knew, and soon enough the talk started up, my mother and some Italian who ran a butcher shop down in River Ridge. I didn’t believe it at first, fought anyone who brought it up. You’d think she would have learned—don’t do it, don’t do it here, don’t get caught, whatever the lesson was.

It was a Saturday morning this time, late spring, the river high. I’d just finished mowing the back lawn, was raking up the cuttings when the yelling started. I straightened and listened, and this time I heard it, I heard his fist land. Something shattered, and my mother came running out the back door, blood spilling from her nose.

She ran right past me and up the levee, stumbled, flicked off her shoes and kept running. My father appeared at the back door and shouted her name. I raced up the levee behind her, but she wasn’t sitting at the top this time. I stepped to the edge and saw her kicking out into the river, called back to my father and he came charging up. We watched as she wriggled out of her dress, that same rose-colored dress. She slipped free of it, and it bloomed in the water behind her, hung full and bright for a moment before it sank. Her arms gleamed in the sun as she stroked away, and the current had her now, a massive vicious thing.

I waited for my father to take off after her, but he didn’t, he just watched, so I dove in and swam as hard as I could until the current had me too, spun me once, again, and I was looking back toward home. I caught a glimpse of my father still standing on the top of the levee as the current spun me a third time, my mother’s head a dark spot far out ahead of me, smaller and smaller and then it disappeared. From where I was I couldn’t tell if she’d slipped under or if she was just too far away. I had a thought of diving once I got to where she might have gone down, but the current ripped me along—there was no way to stay in any one place, no way to know where that place even was anymore.

I wouldn’t have made it back if my father hadn’t come in the neighbors’ motorboat. He hauled me in and we searched for hours, up and down both banks as far south as Belle Chasse, searched until the light was gone.

*

There wasn’t much talk in our house after that, not much noise at all except from the metal shop out back, and Bev and I never swam in the river again. We survived our schools, barely. She went on to LSU, graduated with honors, moved to Dallas with her architect husband. I got involved in theater, went from there to puppet theater and on to puppet design. It was maybe an odd choice for a thumbless man, but it turns out I can do everything I need to—my fingers have gone something like double-jointed. A year ago I moved back in with my father, and I keep the house looking decent, keep both of us in shoes and clothes and food.

I’ve been up all night working on a demon that a teacher from Gretna needs for Halloween. Body of foam, armature of joints and tubing and beads: the limbs bend just like real ones. I sculpted the head in clay last week and built the plaster mold yesterday, let it heat up and cool down. Now it’s time to slip-cast.

I put the mold back together, left brain and right, and fill the seam. I pour in a bit of neoprene and slosh it around good. Then I pour and pour until the mold’s full, and tap it to get the air out. When it’s had a couple of hours to set I’ll toss the slurry back in the pail.

In a day or two it’ll be dry, and I’ll blow in a little talcum to keep things from sticking, take the mold apart and pull the cast out. I’ll give it another few days to cure, and set about the sanding of it. I haven’t yet decided how to finish the job. Scarlet silk, maybe, or straight black paint.

They never found my mother’s body, and Bev and I still talk about it on the phone sometimes—how there’s a chance that she didn’t go down like we thought, that she got pulled out at some point, a riverboat or tug, or even that she made it all the way across, dragged herself onto the muddy shore, crawled away and started up somewhere else. She’d be seventy-eight this year, and I imagine her living someplace green and lush, a rest home in Florida or California, golf courses and swimming pools all around. I imagine that the folks who take care of her are good people with good hearts, and they take her for walks, remind her gently when it’s time to take her pills.

Bev sends a bit extra along when she can—things are good in Dallas, or so it seems. When she calls, we talk about her husband, his job, their boys. We don’t talk much about my job or our father, and it’s best that way. Sometimes there’s a moment where we’ll both go almost silent, no sound but our breath against the receivers. In those few seconds of quiet I try to picture her, and wonder if her eye is twitching even now, touched by a thought down the phone line.

*

Every so often my father loses track of himself, asks for my mother, asks where she’s off to so much these days. Whenever that happens I tell him the truth of it, every single detail, make some of them worse than they were. He starts to fidget and sweat, and I wait for his fist to ball up, for his arm to draw back, but then his eyes go dead and he walks away.

So it’s time to try something else. I put the demon up on a shelf, drag a big plastic tub to the end of the workbench, and carry in bucket after bucket of water. When the tub is full I go to the cabinet and bring out two puppets I’ve spent the past few months carving, sanding, dressing up just right: a Marine grunt with his helmet and his tiny M-1, and a tall, beautiful, dark-haired woman.

It’s not quite six in the morning, and any minute now my father will come walking in dressed for work, his overalls thin at the knees, his flannel shirt sick with burn-holes. He knows it’s not his shop any more, but he’s always a little surprised to see me sitting in his place at the workbench. He looks around for his grinders and punches and lathes, and shakes his head at what’s taken their place—rolls of fabric and spools of thread, boxes of plastic eyes, old plaster molds that I’ll never need again.

I hear his steps on the walkway, the door opens, and he pauses on the threshold. He nods to me, squints up at the ceiling. I tell him that I’ve been waiting, that I’ve got something he needs to see.

He considers for a moment, and sits down on a stool in the corner as I clear the bench and take a puppet in each hand. My father’s thick eyebrows lift. I start the chase in slow motion, the Marine’s stained bayonet fixed, the woman’s lace collar bright under the desk lamp.

I’ve been practicing for days, don’t have to watch my hands at work, can concentrate on my father’s eyes, rapt. The soldier closes in, and the woman stumbles. The bayonet rises, sweeps down as the woman lunges away. The soldier slows, the woman reaches the edge, the soldier stops, and the woman looks back. Then she jumps, drops from my hand, falls. There’s a splash as she lands in the water below. The soldier walks up to the edge. The woman floats face down.

And I watch my father through all of this. Sweat beads on his forehead and he jiggles his legs. When it’s done he stands and steps forward and I’ve got him.

Except his eyes go soft and empty. He nods, turns and walks out of the workshop. I sling the soldier into a corner, pull my father’s old sledge from under the bench, and bring it to my shoulder. Slivers from the handle dig into my palms. I open the door and my father’s halfway to the house, but I could catch him in five quick steps, could have his head in pieces with a single swing.

Before I can move he trips on a loose brick, goes down, barely gets his hands out fast enough to keep his face from striking the walkway. I let go of the sledge, and it clanks to the concrete floor. My father’s slow to get up, slow to brush himself off. It feels like hours, and I just watch.

Once he’s inside I take the sledge back up and tamp the loose brick into place. I head for the kitchen, knowing he’ll be there. He opens the refrigerator, stares for a while, closes it. There are cuts on his hands but he doesn’t appear to feel them. He rummages through the cupboards, finds nothing worth reaching for, and gazes out the window. I do these same things myself.

He looks at me, asks me what I’m doing with his sledge, tells me to put it where I found it when I’m done. Now he’s walking past me, through the door and out into the yard, but he’s not headed for the workshop this time. He struggles up the face of the levee, his legs gone thin and weak. When he gets to the top he stands perfectly still. Fiery sunrise sky, roiling hush of the Mississippi. He’s forty years past handstands, and I wonder if he remembers how it was, the sky below, the river above, the world upside-down and beautiful somehow.

***

Roy Kesey’s latest books are the short story collection Any Deadly Thing (Dzanc Books 2013) and the novel Pacazo (Dzanc Books 2011/Jonathan Cape 2012). His other books include the short story collection All Over, the novella Nothing in the World, and two historical guidebooks. He has received an NEA creative writing fellowship, the Paula Anderson Book Award, and the Bullfight Media Little Book Award. His short stories, essays, translations and poems have appeared in more than a hundred magazines and anthologies, including Best American Short Stories and New Sudden Fiction.

“Levee” first ran in print in Orchid Literary Review.

kesey oct 10 c

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: