Miraculous in August that the swamplands can support life. In their heat and steam, even marsh marigolds wilt, native birds hide under mud. Twenty years of this climate have driven Blue asocial. He unwinds his time below a canopy of mangroves, watching the Ouachita empty into the Red River from his hitched aluminum skiff. Some days he hears the muddied, bungling steps of children coming to confirm his legend—his skin is Spanish moss; his hair is sea kale; he speaks the patois of catfish—and a country-fried grin lifts his reed hat.
He has watched one such child grow from tadpole to full-on toad. Mitchum, as he’s heard the other little sunburns call him, has for years shoved cattail microphones in Blue’s face and grilled him about his decline. “How does it feel to go from child pinball star to bayou bogeyman? Is it true you were so poor that at one point you were living off pickled eggs at bars, and your pee turned into white vinegar? Did you really throw a snapping turtle at a tabloid reporter and have to sell your mobile home to make bail? ” On those occasions, Blue has pretended to be sleeping. He’s embarrassed by the truth in the questions, but mostly he’s afraid his voice will have melted in his throat, his language will have evaporated.
Some days, Mitchum has come winded, high with news of a new pinball-machine purchase. He is building an arcade called the Sick Bay—in homage to Blue’s classic Blue-around-the-Gills act—and he is filling it with machines Blue has played on variety shows, at stadium concerts, in cameo appearances in stoner movies. It will be a haven for misfits and loners on the delta, and it will—here is Mitchum right now, rowing through the duckweed with a megaphone, startling sandpipers into crisis Vs—“be opening tonight!”
Beneath his reed hat, Blue opens one eye. The sun cat-scratches his retina. He tries to catch a glimpse of the young man as he powers down the river, but, unwilling to sit up or remove his hat, he only hears him disappearing into the low-leaning mangroves around the bend.
Here, he understands the way things work—that hoary bats keep watch of him overnight and red-velvet ants alarm him awake in the morning. He has learned to cope with being the most human among the swamp fauna, and in return they more or less leave him alone. He likes that arrangement just fine.
Blue counts impatient Mississippis until the sandpipers return.
On the freeway, on his youth-size dirt bike, Blue lets his dreadlocks blow riotously behind him. He lets his poncho, an old bed sheet, flutter in the wind. His stink blasts backwards from his body in straight lines, snake-thick and mildewed and noxious, a buildup of sweat and stagnant brown water.
He abandons his ride in the burned grass in front of a boarded-up store that once sold fishing supplies and pecans. In the gravel lot are a Jeep, a rusted trailer, some abandoned pallet jacks holding crates of rotten worms, and a rain-sodden mattress. Blue looks at the mattress acquisitively.
The Sick Bay is tucked in an outbuilding painted oyster grey and stripped by stormy weather. Blue knows where to enter because “Blue, here is the entrance, over here!!!” is sprayed in capitals on the rickety barn doors. As he yanks them open, the sound of ungreased runners blends with Mitchum’s schoolgirl screech. “I can’t believe it, ladies and gentlemen,” the young man says, once he has squeezed the last resonance from his long squeal. “We have an icon in our midst!”
There are no ladies or gentlemen. There are two drunk teenagers and a middle-aged woman wearing spinnerbait earrings and a mourning veil homemade from a seine. They stand in the timothy grass, their round eyes on him like lit pop bumpers. One of the teenagers is missing his left arm and has a cannabis-leaf bandana double knotted just below his shoulder. The other boy, with his palm suspended in the air, almost seems to be holding his companion’s phantom hand.
With nails like muskrat teeth, the woman grips a jar of chicory bitters. “Can I pour you a cocktail? ” she asks. “My husband drowned last week. Don’t make me drink alone.” Blue is not sure how to make what he calls “the piddlefeet of little bugs” and what some might call “conversation,” so he just nods.
While the widow mixes her concoction in an empty coal bucket, Blue roots himself in this new landscape. Inside are two dozen machines, some sunny and busy with rainbow bulbs and cyborg- and buccaneer-laden 1980s back glass, others pitch dark, their plugs slack in the dirt. A generator smothered in Kottonmouth Kings stickers chugs along beside a rogue squirrel in the far corner. Several missing laths in the roof let in folios of fading daylight. A few sporadically placed coach lamps, dimmed by the bodies of kamikaze beetles and impetuous moths, illuminate the rotting pine walls.
“I bought you some king cakes as game fuel!” Mitchum says, scampering to the squirrel corner to reveal a milk crate of braided, sugar-glazed dough. “I remember you saying on one of those late-night talk shows that they were your favourite.”
The teenagers, who had so far shown little interest in this massive lump of moving swamp—trying to get a song to play on a second-hand transistor radio, squabbling over who flushed the weed down the toilet when the principal whistled into their high school bathroom—are now gawking. “Why were you on TV? ” asks the kid with the phantom arm.
Blue is not sure how a person might be expected to respond to the question. Tiger salamanders aren’t too advanced with their hellos and how-are-yous. He grunts, and the noise is crustier than he remembers. The voice in his head is that of a deferential fifteen-year-old, the kind of voice these drunk teens might be hiding under their cherry-picked quirks of spitting and sniffing. “Why, yes, Mr. Paparazzo, I certainly miss my manager-father, but he didn’t leave me his address. Well, Mr. Interviewer, I can’t pinpoint when I stopped being cute, but I sure don’t get booked anymore.”
The widow hands the coal-bucket cocktail to Blue and plugs a joint into her lips, which are painted magenta just past their border. “He was on TV a lot,” she says to the minors. She uses her teeth to keep the joint in place as she colours the myth. “His face would be lousy with ultramarine glitter, and he would always have a tuna-shaped flask in the pocket of his dress shirt. You live in Catahoula Parish and you’ve never heard of him? How did you end up at the Sick Bay? ”
The boys move their eyes from the widow to the timothy grass. The boy with the phantom arm mumbles, “Snuck in the stray-cat door,” and his friend snatches his hand back from the shared air between them.
“Listen,” Mitchum says. He turns over empty milk crates for the boys and the widow, and for Blue he pulls a pilling chair from behind a Grand Lizard machine. On the seat cushion, Mitchum has embroidered in amateur hand, “Sitting on Pin(ball)s and Needles.” Blue sees him waiting for a sign of appreciation, but he can only think to pollute the needlework with the seat of his peaty cargo shorts. Mitchum scuttles over to help Blue peel off his waders. “I want you to make a comeback,” he says.
Five bodies in a tight powwow. In the centre of their circle is enough room for a small campfire, though instead that space is occupied by a rat turning Blue’s slimy boots into a home. Mitchum snatches the transistor radio from the teenagers and turns the dial until prog rock inspirits the tiny speaker. Daylight is gone; now gentle rain spits through the missing roof planks, which, mercifully, are in the corners of the barn and not directly above the huddle.
“I couldn’t afford a fog machine,” Mitchum says, “so you’ll just have to imagine that. Camille, blow some smoke in his face.” The widow turns to Blue and coughs exhaust at him. His face is too mud-caked to feel it. As the music builds in intensity, and the drum fills get their own drum fills, everything around him takes on a new consequence. Two webworm moths in the spilled light are not just pests fluttering around an old barn, they are supernatural beings who at any moment might collide and explode into a thousand tiny prisms of transcendental colour. The rat is leaping in and out of the waders in action-hero slow motion. It is in this electric air that Mitchum overturns his milk crate and stands to deliver his plan.
They will book a spot on public-access television. The boys, Andre and Malik, will pretend to be Blue’s adopted sons, Camille his steadfast wife. Mitchum will be his manager and—this part he says with his hands twinkling, jazz-style—will wear a three-piece linen suit with a rhinestone bolo tie. At this point, Blue starts calculating the distance to the barn doors. Thunder belches in the sky outside.
Blue remembers a book on missing limbs he found years ago, on his first foraging visit to the parish dump. During electrical storms, it said, phantom pain can become torturous. One patient had gouged at the air below his dressed shoulder with an oyster knife so violently that he hacked into his gracilis.
The arm is missing, but the pain is always there. Blue looks at the widow and at Mitchum, who he is fairly sure is an orphan, and at the boy with the phantom arm, and he thinks about the book he read when he was foraging for a bed.
“So then,” Mitchum is saying, “you’ll go up and work some of your magic, do a couple death saves, and I’ll pipe in crowd noise from a boom box. We’ll start small with public access, but before long the word will get out and they’ll want us on every television in America!”
A turtle shell, sideways, is in Blue’s throat. He can’t breathe past it. The teenagers seem drunkenly enamoured of Mitchum’s plan, nodding and slapping each other’s baby-fat shoulders. The widow stands up and begins to waltz with unbridled excitement, miming the body of another in her empty arms. “What should we call our team? ” she asks.
“The Pearl Gouramis!” Malik yells, bourbon-loud.
“That’s dumb,” Andre says. “Why don’t we call ourselves the Un-men? He can be Swamp Thing.”
Another leap of thunder. On his crate, Andre recoils. Blue tries to cue his mouth to ask about the pain, but Mitchum cuts back in too quickly. To be among people is to play a silver ball. “Nice try, little dudes,” Mitchum says. “But I think we’ll go with Blue and His Spectacular Zipper Flippers.”
The widow puts some hip into her waltz. “Don’t you think that sounds a little suggestive? ” she asks.
Mitchum laughs bourbon into spit bubbles. “Okay there, pervert.” Absently he plays with the radio dial until a baroque surge of tenor drums explodes from the speaker. It’s abrasive and brusque and Mitchum seems to enjoy it. “Wait, that’s a great idea. Let’s sell him as a hot commodity. You know, like in the teen magazines.”
Blue shampoos his dreadlocks with sea oats. He subsists mostly on scavenged water plantains, and his teeth have the plaque to prove it. He was with five different women at the age of fifteen and has not seen a female body since. He once did a double take at an outcrop shaped like two breasts when he was out paddling and ended up crashing into a jutting rock, splintering yellow pine from his bed-boat.
“No offence,” the widow says, “but I’m not sure that’s going to be the best approach. I think we might want to go spooky with this one. Behold the half-man, half-beast that emerged from the marshlands!”
The two boys seem to like this slant, judging by the slow nods of their soused heads. The half-man, half-beast isn’t sure how he feels about it, but he hasn’t been able to claim his voice yet, anyway.
Malik palms his friend between his shoulder blades, then notices what he is doing and drops his hand to his own knee. “Remember in Saga of the Swamp Thing when the Floronic Man performs an autopsy on Swamp Thing’s body? And it turns out all his organs are just crude imitations of human organs? ”
“Of course,” Andre says. “He only acts human because the swamp undergrowth has absorbed his mind and memories and created a new sentient be—” Like a sandpiper, he jerks his head toward Blue. The final syllable of being morphs into a soft duuuuuuuude.
The boys start tongue-tripping over this autopsy, over the non-human sitting in their milk-crate circle, his heart made of twigs and bay mud. Eventually, of course, they revert to the million-dollar question of who flushed their precious weed.
“Can we get back to my plan? ” Mitchum asks.
The widow finishes her joint and Blue fumbles on the ground for something that could play the role of an ashtray. Amid the detritus he finds a fragment of steel roof and offers it to her. “Thank you,” she says, and he mouths the words for practice.
“I have just the game for Blue and His Spectacular Zipper Flippers to stun the world with,” Mitchum says. During his pause for effect, he licks his fingers and straightens his translucent ducktail. “Can anybody say Monster Bash? ”
Hearing the words, Blue feels a galvanized spike pushing into his belly. The widow crinkles her nose, as if smelling a rancid proposal. Blue wonders if she was watching that night, twenty years ago, when he—sauced on Sazeracs—played Monster Bash at the Super Bowl and passed out on the glass. If she peeked through curtain fingers as he bled redly onto the machine and forced the world’s most tightly orchestrated spectacle to cut to an impromptu commercial break.
“More like Hamster Cash,” Malik says. His eyes have started to drift closed. The part of his brain that connects ideas to language has pickled.
“How about it, chief? ” Mitchum asks, turning off the radio for emphasis. “Do you want to keep leathering your skin under the sun, getting poked by snotty kids like some extinct museum display, or do you want to reclaim your life? ”
Andre sees the fun Mitchum is having and tries to grab at it with his clammy teenage hands. “Do you want to be a petrified biped in some sort of dinosaur menagerie, or do you want to have the pretty ladies calling you Big Boy Blue? ”
The barn falls quiet as a barn.
Blue unties his poncho and wraps it around his head, leaving only his eyes uncovered. He’s not sure what else to do. Shame is making the room small and hot. He must pretend the poncho into another sky.
Dancing across the circle to Blue, the widow startles the rat from its boot. “This is your place, too,” she calls, but the little fur monster is already joggling across the sawdust floor and into a dry crack in the wall. The rain has gotten heavier, and a plank above them creaks under its wet weight. The widow kneels in front of Blue. “Not too many people have four strangers conniving to save their future,” she says. “I mean this in the best possible way: don’t be a worm.”
Blue loosens the poncho so his mouth is free, and Mitchum, seeing this, poles his back prairie-dog straight. Instead of speaking, Blue takes a long drink from the coal-bucket cocktail. The singe, the sear: it shocks him back into his teenage body. He huffs air, then he chugs the rest of the bucket.
“Slow down there, champ,” Mitchum says. And then, jazzing his hands again, “Save some for the fishes.”
The widow grabs Blue around the ankles, where his mohair socks have bonded to his skin. At once, she seems very beautiful, her bait earrings twirling from amber to lime, her toasted hands rooting his ankles into the grass. “Ready to dazzle us? ” she asks.
Blue lurches his boggy body upright. The others do the same, except Malik, who has dozed off and started to make bullfrog sounds in his sleep. Andre flicks his ear, and Malik shocks out of his dreams. Andre offers his good arm.
Blue stomps to Monster Bash, the barn quaking with the impact of his tuberose feet. The sky rumbles with drumfire. Rain lashes the earth floor. As he waits for the rest of the gang to huddle around the pinball machine, he imagines a miniature version of himself, complete with microscopic stink lines and tiny, mildewed bed-sheet cape, darting through the virtual world of this play field. He’s amazed how readily this old routine returns to him.
Blue’s avatar dodges spiderwebs and axe-shaped guitars and Gothic-lettered coffins. He escapes the skeletal green hands, the electric shocks of crazed scientists in space-age labs, the skinny dipper scraping her way through a neon seep of lagoon scum. He refuses to catch the stage-diving mummies and werewolves in the mosh pit, though he does stop to help Frankenstein’s monster reattach his patent-leather feet.
He is inflated back to full size by the sound of seven palms banging the machine’s glass. Around him, his team has assembled, their faces glossed from gin and August. He pulls the plunger, and as the silver ball zooms up the shooter lane so does the blood up his basilic veins. He can feel the alcohol roiling in him now, and the blinking lights are making him seasick. If he looks at nothing else, he can follow the ball, and he hears the life-affirming ching ching of his rocketing score. The others are whooping, are thundering their praise.
He is still reigning over that first ball, minutes later, when a massive gale plunders half the barn roof. Suddenly they are soaked, their bodies pummelled with torrid rain. Blue’s vision is clouded by grime washing down from his dreadlocks, but he continues to play. Beside him, the widow is weeping, the boys are spewing godless words, Mitchum is squealing in terror—but Blue continues to play.
With her muskrat nails, the widow digs into his forearm. “Let’s go somewhere safe,” she calms down enough to say. Blue wants to explain: this play field is the safest place on the planet.
Even when Malik jumps on his back in a frantic attempt to pull him away, he will not let his immensity be moved. He stands resolute as the rain sharpens and intensifies, falling loud as knives against the machine’s glass. It continues to slash down until, with an eruption of sparks and an appalling pop, the play field goes black.
This is when Blue’s mind muddles. He fades in and out as his bulk is pulled out of the barn and across drenched grass, floating gravel, flooded foxholes. Above him, the dark sky is sporadically brightened by full-moon faces.
Blue wakes in a concession trailer, the grime clean from his eyes. He’s on a dry fleece blanket on the ground. Around him, Mitchum, the widow, and the boys are warming the linoleum floor. The fire and ferment of rye make his mouth unbearable. From that hot biome he forces the word “water,” and Mitchum must understand, because he scrounges a bottle from his jacket.
Malik strokes an imaginary goatee. “Do you think from space we all just look like pinballs? ” he asks.
“Fool,” Andre says. “You can’t even see us from space.”
Mitchum fidgets with the radio dial and settles on a song Blue remembers from his childhood, Cléoma Falcon on her holy guitar. Her throat is a kinked garden hose but her voice forces its way through. To Blue, this song will always recall church basements, tableaux of holy couples dancing, viewed from the distance of the chipboard wall.
“Listen to that Cajun queen,” the widow whispers. She puts her palm on the small of his back, and even through his layers of clothing, he feels it. “Come on, Mangrove Man, don’t make me waltz alone.”
She raises him to his full human height, and from there he follows her steps. Oui, tant bien vite on a jouer, cher. The boys are going, “Gro-oss,” but Blue sees how close they are sitting to each other. He wipes the green silt of cordgrass from his fingers and joins his hands to the widow’s waist the way he remembers the congregants doing. The way, he thinks, a man would.
Prenez Courage (Prends Donc Courage) by Cléoma Breaux, Orly Breaux, and Joe Falcon (1929).
This appeared in the July/August 2015 issue.