I had been back in L, the boondocks of my birth, less than twenty-four hours (Doctor John Voltaire remembered, writing in his scientific journal) when the bargeman’s body bobbered ashore. According to the Medical Examiner’s report, issued on the morning of May 25, the bargeman had been in the water for almost a month—three weeks at the least—but his absence had not been reported by anyone. This was not because his neighbors kept to themselves, which they did—closed off, living the lives of freshwater clams and zebra mussels; nor was it because the good people of L stayed out of other people’s business, though that was also true. Finn Sosotris lived alone in a one-room tarpaper shack on Isle la Plume, and it was not unusual for him to be missing for days, if not weeks, at a time, due to the nature of his work, barging as far south as New Orleans, deadheading there, and then returning, stopping in St. Louis perhaps, to take on coal or barley hops, before pushing north another six hundred miles to dock finally in L. So no one thought there was anything fishy about not seeing him out in his bass boat or digging for worms in the woods behind his shack, if they thought about him at all, which was not likely, since the good citizens of L are so often lost in musings and daydreams. And no one was really all that surprised when he washed onto the beach anyway. Like many people in L, Finn Sosotris was a heavy drinker, and it was supposed that he had had one too many and fallen overboard, intoxicated, unable to swim, chugging river water now instead of beer, his rubber waders filling too, the cold current carrying him downstream, so that he was caught for a while in the grasp of weeds and suffocating muck before eventually surfacing onto the shoreline sand.
The bargeman was not the first to drown in L, only the first to do so after my return, and his passing was little remarked upon. People of L were always drowning: drowning in debt, bankrupt; drowning in sorrow and tears, heartbroken; drowning in obedience, conformity, and consumerism. They were going under, unable to reach the surface; shackled, sunk, on their way down. Yes, residents of L were similar to the citizens of ancient Athens, that other water-centric city, and like them they were little more than “frogs sitting around a pond.” They had been drowning for years, almost instinctually hopping into the water at the slightest provocation, and there was little reason to doubt that they would continue to do so, especially in light of the recent flood, the Mississippi River cresting at historic heights, reaching 17.9 feet on May 5, six feet above flood stage, with workers and National Guard troops building dikes, and volunteers filling nearly 70,000 sandbags in just three days.
For the most part the sandbags and dikes worked, until an eighty-foot section of a North Side levee broke and water filled at least fifty homes, forcing evacuations as well as closing roads, bridges, and the railroad service. Not to be deterred, the hard-working people of L continued to go about their daily activities, and Roland Fisher, fifty-five, drowned while ferrying employees across the river to work the first shift at the Northern States power plant.
A washout caused a 107,000-gallon gasoline storage tank to topple, prompting fire officials to ban smoking, the burning of leaves, and backyard barbecues. Telephone and electrical service was lost for nearly a week; National Guardsmen, with bayonets fixed, marched alongside dark dikes, watching for looters and leaks. Ten days later the river began to recede, streets reopened, residents returned home, and the drownings continued. In fact, the day following the discovery of the bargeman’s body, only one day after my return to L, two college students were found a mere twenty yards apart inside the city boat club’s harbor, coupled to steel dock pilings by their belt buckles, causing no small consternation among patrons consuming a nice Chardonnay and shrimp linguine al dente, slip-side on the lovely patio.
As with Finn and the ferryman, there was a perfectly reasonable explanation for these drownings, according to the local press and elected officials. The two young men, both of Hmong heritage, sophomores at the local university, had been drinking in a downtown Third Street pub the night before, when an altercation broke out between the Cambodian natives and a group of fraternity brothers. According to eye-witnesses, the police report said, racial epithets were hurled, beer was thrown, and the two Hmong men fled the bar, immediately followed by the frolicking fraternity brothers, who chased them toward the river, only three blocks away. Seeing the encroaching Greek gang, eye-witnesses testified, the Hmongs, thinking to save their lives, jumped into the river and began to swim out into the middle of the black, wide, still flood-swollen channel, the laughing, shouting fraternity brothers now heaving toward them heavy rocks picked up on the shore. There were no cuts, contusions, or bruises on the bodies to indicate that the rocks had hit their marks, the coroner concluded, so the deaths were ruled “accidental,” and no charges would be filed other than disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, misdemeanors both. The incident was deemed merely “a cultural misunderstanding” (it was said that the Hmongs could barely speak English), there being no societal advantage to be gained by staining the reputations and lives of these promising young fraternity brothers, all of whom came from prosperous, upstanding families—families, it might be noted, who could trace their ancestries all the way back to L’s founding fathers.
And I quickly learned—as if the emerging plague of drownings were not enough, as if the outrage inflicted upon the finer sensibilities of the decent offspring of L needed further fuel—that the L County Sheriff and Mayor and Public Health Commissioner, later that same day, conducted a press conference and photo opportunity on the picturesque, manicured lawn outside the Village Hall. There was, as one might imagine, coming so soon after four other recent drownings, growing public concern; that very morning a group of fishermen had stumbled upon human skulls and body parts on a back-channel sandbar, buried in shallow graves, the second set of such remains found in L that spring. At the podium stood Mayor Roscoe “Rocky” Rockton, and behind him the Health Commissioner. Beside them both, off to the right, in a black Stetson cowboy hat, black shirt (gold badge polished bright), black jeans, Tony Lama lizard boots, and black leather vest, with pistols snug in the hand-tooled two-gun holster around his waist, L County Sheriff David Bubbow sat on his black stallion. Refusing to dismount and take his place on the stage, Bubbow instead delivered his version of events and answered questions while remaining secure in his saddle. Reporters raised their microphones to his high level, cameramen dialed their lenses to zoom.
Also assembled were several of the anglers who had discovered the unmarked graves. “The skulls were just sticking out of the ground,” one breathless boater told authorities. According to a forensic anthropologist, the director of a burial-sites preservation program, also speaking at the press conference, which was carried live on local radio and television, the remains included a complete human skeleton, some clothing still intact. Additionally found was a woman’s body, partially submerged in a puddle. “It’s too soon to tell the person’s age, or how that person died, or if she was sexually molested,” the forensics expert said, adding that cycles of freezing and thawing cause the soil to heave and that this may have forced the skeletons up from the ground.
“Isn’t this abnormal?” a reporter from the local newspaper asked, “not to say odd? I mean, it’s like the earth is puking up dead people. Or is it sucking them in first, and then upchucking?”
“It’s hard to say if the number of bodies found recently is unusual,” the expert said, “or how they actually came to be below ground, or above ground, for that matter. The Department of Natural Resources does not keep records of such things.”
“Nor does the Department of Justice,” L County Sheriff Bubbow added.
“Is it out of the question,” a television reporter asked, “to think that as the flood waters recede other bodies may be found?”
“What about foul play?” a radio reporter interrupted. “Is that what we’re dealing with here?”
“We are currently looking at all possible explanations,” Sheriff Bubbow said, “and yes, we must anticipate that other bodies may surface as the flood waters continue to abate, but we have, at this time, no credible evidence to support speculation concerning criminal acts.”
“Let me add,” the Mayor added, “that the public should remain calm. There is no reason to assume the worst, no reason to panic. Appropriate actions will be taken. To that end I am announcing the formation of a special task force, led by Sheriff David Bubbow himself, to investigate these incidents, as well the establishment of a public safety committee to study possible solutions for the prevention of further drownings, if they are indeed the results of accidents, as we fully expect to find. Solutions under consideration include, but are not limited to, required life-guard and CPR training for all residents of L, and the construction of concrete walls, wooden barricades, and electric fences, twenty-five feet high, along both the east and west river banks, extending as far as five miles north and south of the city. Also the possibility exists for the creation of volunteer citizen patrols. For the health and welfare of the people of L, all options are on the table.”
The Public Health Commissioner interjected, “The Health Department would like to take advantage of this opportunity to urge residents to be cautious when swimming in local lakes and streams.” Blue-green algae blooms had been found on Lake Onalaska, and hot, humid weather provided ideal conditions for their growth, the Commissioner warned. Lake Onalaska—as well as other waterways in the surrounding environs—was a perfect incubator. Besides coloring local water bodies psychedelic shades of green and blue, the algae, according to the Commissioner, “can produce toxins when swallowed. Signs of illness range from eye, ear, and skin irritations to projectile vomiting and unceasing, explosive diarrhea.”
And so life goes on, such as it is, even in L. The sun and moon rise and set, and rise and set again. Earth wobbles on its axis; mosquitoes and bats bite, spreading encephalitis and rabies. Carrion birds fatten on road-kill raccoon. Enclosed between one red dawn and the next, blind Mayflies propagate and die, mouthless, scraped from greasy bridges by snow plows. Another body is found in the river or woods, another wall or barrier built, another crypt closed and coffin capped; another case of water-induced diarrhea stains the city’s underwear. No matter how long I stay away, no matter how far I run, nor how fast, nothing changes in this muddy midwestern town sunk into the carp-rank banks of the Upper Mississippi River Basin.
“Let us pray,” I prayed, placing palm against palm and folding fingers between fingers, looking skyward. “Let us pray for souls ferried to heaven by fish.”
At the railroad depot I hired a Yellow Cab. It was the first time I had been back in L since my parents’ double suicide, one successful, one only partially so: Mother has been molding in the wet earth seven years now, while Father, brain-damaged and soul-dead, is locked inside the insane asylum.
L has often been described as “a good place to be a child” or “a good place to grow up.” But I never felt that way. I felt exactly the opposite. Trapped, cornered, even as early as elementary school, all I wanted was to get away, to climb over the surrounding bluffs, swim across the river, and escape to the wider world. I never felt at home in L, never a part of L. I was always the outsider, different somehow; in some unknown yet important way I was exceptional, I possessed a secret inner strength lacking in others, and it made me stand out.
“But was I really unique?” I asked myself, then answered, “Of course I was.” Weak, afraid to defend myself and strike the first blow, I turned my back and took the lashes and the abuse, and then I ran, forever the coward, shivering in the night. The “good children of L” seemed to sense this too, the mean, vicious, stupid, bullying children of L, the bourgeois beneficiaries, the happy children of L. I kept away from them, avoided them as much as possible. Strangely enough this seemed to draw them to me, making me a person of interest, an object of curiosity. They followed me wherever I went, chased me, hunted me, and when they finally caught me, to show their respect, to acknowledge my superiority, they beat and bullied me—after school, before school, before church, after Sunday School. It didn’t really matter where or when; once caught, cornered, and captured, I was honored, my difference was celebrated, and I was beaten.
So I had few “friends” in L. And the “friends” I had were not friends to each other. Hank Blank was my “friend.” Charlie Childers was my “friend.” But Hank Blank was not Charlie Childers’ friend, and Charlie Childers was not Hank Blank’s friend. As far as I knew, neither of them even knew the other existed. Each thought he had me to himself.
Yes, all my life I have been trying to get away from L, and yet here I am back in L once again. After my parents’ double suicide and Mother’s funeral, having paid off the burial expenses and other debts, and having committed Father to the insane asylum, I was responsible, as the firstborn, for seeing that the family “estate” was administered correctly. Not that there was much to attend to, aside from a three-bedroom “colonial” where my brother (Cristo), my sister (Lara), and I were raised, where our parents “took matters into their own hands,” and where Cristo—and Lara, until recently—still resided, which contained the family furniture, “heirlooms,” and “memorabilia.” Throw in Father’s low-mileage 1968 red Thunderbird convertible, which had rarely left the garage since he had been forced to give up driving due to encroaching blindness, not long after he had driven it new off the car lot; an aluminum, flat-bottomed fishing boat with a 50-horse Evinrude outboard motor, docked inside a ramshackle and rotting boathouse anchored to the Mississippi River shoreline; plus the junk my brother had carted in over the years—books and magazines and newspapers for his “research,” rusting water heaters, washing machines and dryers, kitchen stoves, lawn mowers, lengths of pipe, copper wire and coils, tin, boards and planks, car parts, “found objects” for his “constructions” (all “worthless,” according to my sister)—and that was pretty much it for the family “estate.”
As a result of our parents’ “last will and testament” (which required the signature of all three siblings for any sale—one final parental jab), my brother, my sister, and I each owned one-third of the property, and any nincompoop with even a modicum of diplomacy, much less fiscal acumen, could have handled the proceedings. But according to my sister, who possessed neither, the sticking point was the equitable dispersal of the funds gained from the hoped-for commercial transaction. Real-estate prices had skyrocketed in recent years (even in L!), and according to my sister, who had recently been released from a local drug and alcohol detoxification unit and had experienced such complicated relationships before, having married and divorced three times—along the way dropping two late-term pregnancies into the abortion basket—now was the time to sell. She had engaged a realtor (whom she had meet in rehab; cocaine) and put the house on the market. To her credit, she wanted to ensure that the money was distributed evenly, that one sibling did not profit at another’s expense. “I’m not interested in ripping anyone off,” Lara said during one late-night phone conversation. “Fair is fair.”
But she had done all this, retained the realtor and put the house on the market, without first consulting my brother, or me. Of course there were complications. I was not opposed to selling. I saw my sister’s point of view. I would sign the closing contract without hesitation. L held no interest for me; it was little more than a ghost town, a graveyard housing dead and incapacitated parents and unpleasant memories, a place I had been trying to distance myself from for years, a past I would just as soon forget, as if it had never happened. A bad dream. And yet there I was, back in L, a place I had no desire to be. I had come back not only because was it time to sell the house, because my sister needed the money, but also because Cristo and Lara were at each other’s throats most of the time now, for one thing after another, and Lara was afraid that one day it would go too far and Cristo would finish her off. Or she would finish off Cristo, or they would finish off each other. And so there were two reasons for me to come back to L: to oversee the sale of the house, and to prevent more bloodshed.
To make matters worse, if that was possible, lately Cristo had been acting even weirder than usual, my sister said, and he refused even to consider the benefits of a sale. The mortgage had been paid off for almost a decade now, and he and Lara had lived there rent-free all that time. I was not particularly close to my brother, nor to my sister for that matter, but Cristo did unpredictably, perhaps out of some misplaced familial sentimentality, correspond with me through the mail. He refused to use a computer. “As a form of human communication,” he once wrote, explaining his preference for pencil and paper, “email is right up there with the grunt and the groan, the belch, and the burp. It is little more than electronic flatulence.” A literary and conceptual “artist,” working on his “masterpiece” fifteen years in the making, my brother was one of those people who, no matter how hard he tried (and it was not always clear that he did try), could not, or would not, hold a steady job.
“I’m not in it for the money,” he wrote in one of the letters he sent me over the years. “Just as any moron can receive an education, and a diploma to disprove it (sic), any moron can earn a paycheck. It’s the experience, the raw materials of existence, that I am after.” To those ends he would work for a while—long enough to qualify for unemployment benefits—while living frugally, stockpiling his pay. Then he would take the next six or nine months to work on his “visions” (my sister called them “hallucinations”). Fired, laid off, or just quitting on his own, he had labored his way through life as, among other things, a waiter, a short-order cook, a dishwasher, a taxi driver, and a landscape factotum. He had emptied bed pans and changed diapers and sheets in nursing homes and mental hospitals. For a number of autumns, he had hitchhiked across the river and taken temporary jobs in Minnesota apple orchards, an original Johnny Anti-seed, going nowhere, planting nothing.
Having grown up along the banks of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, donating blood to all fifty-three varieties of mosquitoes native to Wisconsin (I assure you I have never been bitten by a bat), my 54,000-word novel Water Bodies captures the environmental, psychological, and emotional landscape of a family and community attempting to reconcile the prophesied present with the fatally flawed past.
The novel is set in contemporary times, yet it is not far removed from the Middle Ages. Dripping with miasmatic mists and fog, flooded by marshes, creeks, and lagoons, L is a small, isolated town sunk into the banks of the Upper Mississippi River Basin, where death by drowning is not an uncommon occurrence. But when Doctor John Voltaire returns to the place of his birth to settle the “family estate” after the double suicide of his parents, the drownings increase with a suspicious and frightening frequency, cyber messages announce where bodies have entered the water, and Voltaire and his eccentric siblings soon become prime suspects in Sheriff David Bubbow’s investigation into the so-called “Emoticon killings.” At various points a chorus (“Vox Populi”) enters the narrative, providing the viewpoints of local citizens on the inexplicable plague that seems to have descended upon the community. As mile-long oil trains cross crumbling city streets and railroad trestles, and acts of eco-terrorism further threaten civic safety, Doctor Voltaire utilizes his ointments, herbs, and sack of toads to confront his family, his fate, and the intersection where the personal and the planetary collide.
Jeffrey Perso is a former newspaper editor and winner of three International Labor Communication Journalism Awards. He now teaches in the First-Year Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His fiction has appeared in, among other places, Art Muscle, Iconoclast, Manzanita, and The Rockhurst Review. Excerpts from Water Bodies have appeared or are forthcoming in Crooked/Shift, Kudzu House Quarterly, and Why We Right Write Outside the Lines.
Embark, Issue 1, July 2017