Thursday, September 8, 2016

The Junebug Two-Step: an excerpt

The November darkness settled over the bayou as if someone had drawn the curtains. Suddenly the yellow lights on the other side of the front door screen to the dock were a mass of whirling, spinning bugs, especially Junebugs, crashing to the deck and twirling on their backs in a five-minute Saint Vitus death dance. Upon seeing the bugs, Jack burst through the screen door, still in the yellow rain gear and denim fleece-lined jacket. “Mr. Howard,” he blurted, “Mr. Howard come on this is real fun!” He pushed past me out to the fishing dock outside the screened-in porch and started dancing on the helpless upside-down June bugs in his bare feet, sliding around on their squishy guts, whooping and hollering in his own Saint Vitus interpretative ballet. Inside Binx was beginning to stir.
“Jack!” he barked, “Jack you halfwit sumbitch!”
“Don’t you worry, sir. I’ll take care of it,” Reggie called out as he rushed onto the fishing dock from around back of the house. Then Johnny said, “Mr. Binx, Reggie gonna get your son, don’t you worry, he’ll be fine.” His voice was soft, soothing, like a mental health professional trying to talk someone down from a fit.
Reggie ran out onto the dock under the light, his bare feet sliding out from under him as he fell on his ass with a crash, shaking the whole dilapidated structure. I stepped out onto the slick surface of the dock, holding the doorframe and extended an arm to Reggie who pulled himself up, grabbing my injured shoulder. I howled with pain, thinking I should have brought the goddamn sling. Meanwhile Jack was sliding along the sloping dock, then jumping, slipping his feet around in an uncanny display of natural balance, all the while avoiding falling on his prodigious butt. Toya and Eddie were on the screened porch, watching Jack’s crazy boogaloo and Reggie’s flailing attempts to grab him, sliding and falling until he finally got his arms around one of the crooked posts and righted himself.
Suddenly Jack stopped and stared out into the duckweed off the stern of the Sissy Mae, probably twenty yards away where the yellow lights from the dock faded into the darkness of the channel. “My pants!” he shouted, pointing at small floating pile atop the swamp vegetation. “And my underpants!”
Goddamnit, I cursed under my breath. I thought I saw those pants sink!
Then, just as Reggie leapt for the tackle, Jack ran down the dock and right into the water, unaware of the line attached to his pants and underpants. The duckweed barely came up to his middle, and he parted it with a wide sweeping motion, like parting jungle growth on an expedition, steadily sinking in the mud with each step. I ran down the pier to where I’d cleated the line and attempted to pull the bundle closer to where Jack was thrashing in the weeds.
“Grab the line, Jack,” I shouted. Then, just as he got his hands on it a deafening shotgun blast split the soft and heavy night.
“Leave him be!” Binx fired the gun into the sky again. “Leave him be, I say! The Lord has called his damaged child to the swamp, and it is there he must perish!” Then he leveled the shotgun at Jack and was about to fire when Eddie came up from behind with an almost-full half-gallon jug of Jim Beam and cracked his brother upside the head with a weak but effective blow. Binx staggered forward and fired, sending up a splash of luminescent weeds and water only two feet from where his son stood with the bundle of muddy clothes in his arms.
Binx dropped, out cold. Eddie pulled the shotgun out from under his unconscious brother and headed back inside, cursing loudly at this pathetic display of Southern idiocy. But before Eddie made it through the door Jack let out an earsplitting feral howl, dropped the clothes, let go of the line and started writhing in the water. A seizure? Puce foam formed around his flailing limbs, a greenish, ochre mass of bubbles, a bayou milkshake. Then the writhing teen was under water, drowning perhaps, then up again, wild, wiggling and screaming in the mud. “Get that boy a life preserver!” Eddie shouted, “but do not set foot or anything else in that water!”
There was a preserver hanging next to the door of the hold, so I jumped off the pier onto the gunwale, tore it off the wall and pitched it to Reggie, who in turn pitched it right onto the mass of bubbles.
“Jack! Jack! Grab the life preserver! Jack!” Reggie yelled. The boy emerged with a hellish bark, glasses down around his neck, head strap loose, eyes rolled back as he pulled a monstrous snake out of the water and hurled it onto the bow of the Sissy Mae. Arm hooked in the donut, he collapsed into the water.
“Mister Howard, get down here and help me pull him out. I don’t think he’ll let go of the donut. Come on!” So Reggie and I began to try and haul Jack – two hundred and fifty pounds of gelatinous flab – out of the muddy, weed-choked water. Meanwhile Eddie had climbed up to the pilothouse where, shotgun at the ready, he swept the emergency lamp around and over Jack as the boy sank deeper in the mud.
“Jack, just relax your legs. We will pull you out, promise,” Reggie yelled. 
“Ten o’ clock, snake at ten o’ clock,” shouted Eddie from above. I turned just as the report shattered and sent pieces of water moccasin flying every which way.
“Arghhhhhhh! Ooooh! God save me!” Jack screamed from the water, thrashing his arms to ward off more attacks. In another minute we got Jack to the pier, but then we had to get him up. His terrified screaming was as horrific as anything I’ve ever heard come out of a human – a Barney Fife possessed by demons – and there was no doubt in my mind that his hysteria was speeding the venom through his system at triple the normal rate.
After Reggie, Toya and I managed to get Jack’s whole limp body onto the dock a light approached from further down the channel in the direction of Dr. Raymond Cobb’s camp, where my sister was supposed to be staying. The boat was screaming down the narrow channel at full throttle, creating a massive wake that splashed violently against the shore, probably awakening every cottonmouth and alligator in the area. Just before arriving the driver cut the motor and coasted alongside the pier, to where we stood around Jack. The driver jumped out without a welcome or introduction and started asking questions. Have we found the bites, did we see the snake, how long since he was bit etc. Finally Eddie said, “Thanks so much for comin’ over, Ray. I ‘spose you heard the gunshots?”

“Yessir, and the caterwaulin’ from this young feller, and all y’all’s shoutin’,” the doctor replied, cutting through Jack’s muddy slicker. “Y’all know how y’all can hear a pin drop out here.”
Our group was silent as the doctor looked for the bites. “Looks like more than one cottonmouth got a piece of this boy. You said he threw one of the snakes on board?”
“Uh, yessir,” Reggie said. “I suppose that snake is up there someplace.” The doctor wiped away some mud from Jack’s calf to reveal a heinous wound, like the snake took a bite out of him. The calf was already bigger than a football.
“Well, it looks like he ripped the snake right out of his leg,” said the doctor. “See if you can find that fucker, will you please?”
Just as Reggie jumped over the gunwale with a flashlight I heard a siren in the distance coming our way; whirling lights of red and yellow flashed in the treetops, then around the corner into our smaller channel. It was an emergency airboat, the water equivalent of a police car and ambulance combined. Behind us a screen door slammed; Johnny with a small suitcase – a first aid kit. But before stepping onto the pier he quietly shuffled to where Binx lay in the Junebug muck on the dock, still unconscious. Johnny shone his flashlight over the supine body, then bent over to see if Eddie’s drunken brother was still breathing. Slowly he scanned the brother’s face, shaking his head.
“Mister Eddie,” Johnny called over the sound of the approaching airboat. “You best come over here and see ‘bout your brother. He ain’t lookin’ too good.” Eddie gave the doctor a pat on the shoulder and stepped quickly up the gangplank to the dock.
The four paramedics pulled their airboat up to the dock and rushed to the two victims, a pair for Binx and the other two for Jack. Dr. Cobb had cut off the legs of Jack’s yellow rain coveralls and after the medic took a quick look at the snakebites they called for an airlift. They quickly prepared several injections while simultaneously cleaning and dressing the surface wounds. Finally one of the medics asked me: “Does this boy have a parent or guardian on the premises?”
“Yessir. That’s his father, Binx Sublette, over there with the nasty rap to the head. That’s his uncle Eddie Sublette looking over him.” When he asked where the mother was, I was tempted to say none of your business, sonny. It was a stupid, insensitive question, but based on the available evidence to date, this was an unusually stupid, insensitive part of the world. I said, “She’s not here.”
“And who are you?”
“Howard Brown, a second cousin. Visiting from California.”
The paramedic nodded, smiling. “Oh, of course. Sissy Mae’s brother from Cali. Does everybody grow so big in Cali? I reckon you ain’t never been nowhere like this before, eh?”
“No sir, I have not,” I said with a slight chuckle, wondering how this cracker knew my sister.  The paramedic chuckled a little, then bent over Jack, unconscious from the injections. He pulled his eyelids up, then the lower part down. He opened Jack’s mouth and stuck a gloved finger under his tongue, lifted it up. Nothing unusual. But when we looked over his body there were strange concentrations of shuddering muscle, and the wounds themselves were massive bruises covering his legs, feet and forearms.
“Jesus,” I said, shocked by all the bites. “Is this kid gonna make it?”
“Hard to say. Usually a bite from a swamp viper won’t kill a man if you get to him in time, but I’ve never seen anybody with so many bites in so many different places. It was like he stepped on a nest, but when you pointed out the location...well, snakes don’t nest underwater.”
In the distant west the sound of a chopper approached. Jack was loaded onto a gurney and rolled to the dock, an oxygen mask across his quiet face. To look at him one might think he was just a typical overweight Southern teenager with shitty eyesight, a bad hairdo, and in need of a shave, though there was something about the shape of his mouth that suggested something was awry in his brain.
On the dock the Junebug guts had become white and sticky as Elmer’s glue. The paramedics had father and son, both unconscious, on gurneys under oxygen with IV drips plugged into the back of their hands. The medics were more worried about Binx; his pulse was slowed and his face has taken on a tinge of yellow ochre. The lump on the back of his head was bad, but not bad enough to cause any bleeding in the brain, according to the medics.
When Dr. Cobb – technically a psychiatrist that keeps his EMT certification up to date for swamp accidents like this one, I’m told – examined Binx he came to an entirely different conclusion.
“Alcohol poisoning,” he stated with authority. “We see it fairly often out here in the bayou, and Binx Sublette is a prime candidate, with his history.”
The amphibious chopper came into view, flying low over the channel, then pulling up and circling
above the camp. After a couple of times around it settled over the water, the wind from the blades kicking up whitecaps that crashed against the pilings of the pier and the dock like a hurricane was upon us. Once the chopper was at rest in the water with its blades still spinning slowly, a skiff was lowered and two EMTs exited from the door behind the cockpit, jumped in and piloted it over to where the two gurneys waited on the dock. The gurneys were collapsed; Jack was loaded into the skiff and taken to the chopper. Once Jack was loaded in the skiff they returned for Binx. His other son Bolling shouted over the din that he would be the family representative at the hospital and joined the crew in the copter. Slowly the whirring blades picked up speed, the waves kicked up and splashed over the Junebug guts on the dock, and the chopper, with Binx Sublette and his two boys aboard, took off down the channel.
Then, for a what felt like a long, discombobulated moment as the medics prepared to depart, I had a profound sense of complete displacement – an abstraction of real self from virtual self – as if I was not who I thought I was, but was exactly where I was supposed to be. The day’s events, especially those of the last hour, had presented a glimpse of a familiar yet foreign existence and, though I had a vague memory of my original purpose at Camp Serendipity it was being crowded out by…by what? Ancestral memories? Had this strange and dangerous environment been sucked through my buzzing Chown Hoon Dong to create a disturbance in the chakras? Where was my psycho when I needed her?
I paused to study the suddenly familiar scene – the backwards boat, Sissy Mae, tied up to the rickety pier, the yellow light throwing its beams into the all-engulfing dark of the swamp; the low droning thrum of crickets and cicadas rising up like columns of circling smoke, punctuated by the hoot of a solemn owl and the belch of the lonely bullfrog; the quiet, still water, blanketed in its neon chartreuse, smoother than silk; all of it a part of me from the day I was born and perhaps before.
And then I noticed one more thing. “Goddamnit!” I muttered under my breath. There were Jack’s jeans and his nasty briefs, still floating at the same spot, tied up to the line that was still cleated to the Sissy Mae.
I shuffled down the pier, pulled out the clothes with a few globs of duckweed, schlepped the whole mess to the dock and laid it out. Tomorrow I would get them washed with strong hopes and maybe even a little prayer that Jack would think twice before he pissed in them again. 

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