At the Time when Kings Go off to War, a short story

from my short story “At the time when kings go off to war
The Literary Review, “I Live Here,” Vol. 59 Issue 04,

There were a lot of things she’d done that Talia wanted to take back. Me, I only regretted the one.

We had limited out on redfish, and I was driving down the Chef Highway back towards the city with the cooler in the trunk. Mo had said he’d clean the boat and I’d let him and I was glad I had because the sky was coming down, a dark black roil getting close enough to the western horizon you knew the rain would break at any second. Out on the Chef, there’s still this feeling of disaster—shrimp boats on their sides in the ditches, trawl nets hung up in trees from when Katrina pushed the whole Gulf of Mexico up into the Rigolets—and I’m not used to it yet. I suppose I’ll never get used to it. Every time I go out that way I feel the flood in my chest as an enormous gratitude to still be alive, as an imperative to keep on living all the way to the hilt. So, anyway, that’s my frame ofmind as I’m driving in towards the city, stinking offish blood, and then there in front of me I see an F150 with a buck hanging out of its bed pulled over somewhere in the middle of Bayou Sauvage, and this big shave-headed man standing on two legs next to the popped hood, cursing. I pulled over—I can still feel my foot leaving the gas pedal without hesitation and jamming down on the brake. I pulled off onto the shoulder and that rotten egg, green grass, kudzu smell of the swamp came in through my open windows like some kind of chemical weapon.

He came at me, shaking his head, and I should have read the signs. Should have seen him saying No No No and listened, and gone off again, or—no—just taken him home like I did do but not accepted his offer of a beer, not come into the house where she had the door open to the bathroom at the end of the hall, sitting there on the edge of the tub in just her panties, feet in the water, soaping Jody’s narrow brown back. Oh! Company! she said and laughed, and wrapped a towel around her, but I shouldn’t have gone in, because as soon as I went into that house the storm we’d been outrunning swept down on top of us, and Ray left me alone in the living room to go shut all the open windows. I averted my eyes, but I shouldn’t have gone in because already the room was full of ozone, and even without looking I could see her chest rising and falling as she breathed, the water sloshing as she soaked a sponge and rinsed the baby’s back, her eyes half-closed.

By the time Ray came back, it was all over for me. He laughed, asked me what I found so fascinating about the old baseball trophies, but it was already too late. It didn’t take them inviting me to stay until the storm was over, didn’t take having a drink with her, didn’t take sitting on the floor with them and watching the news.

A tornado had touched down on the Chef, right where we’d been—Ray called me the next week to say I’d saved his life, think of that, that the twister had picked up his truck and dropped in the middle of the Bayou, gutted buck and all, and he was glad because that way the insurance would pay him for a new one, and would I like to come over again to dinner because it seemed somebody who saved your life should be fed a better meal than beer and nachos.

But it didn’t take her cooking me that second meal—red beans and rice so good you wanted to bathe in them—didn’t take her walking me to my car, didn’t take her laughter, which back then still sounded in great peals. At least I don’t think it did.

When I think back on it, it seems like I knew I was in love with her from the moment the rain fell across the roof, but I’m unsure of my memory of that afternoon now, because I have gone back in time so often and played it the other way:

Ray waves at me from the side of the road, his hood up, and, the storm in my rearview, I keep driving.