AFTER WE DROWNED – Jill Yonit Goldberg

Chapter One: Jesse – The Aftermath

Ever since the oil-rig exploded, Daddy’s been obsessed with killing things. Small animals mostly, so we can eat, but his bloodlust has gotten so bad that lately, when I catch his eye, all I can think of are the glowing, leaden pupils of the alligators that float up Bayou Lafourche, near the shack with the soft, rotting wood and peeling paint that we’ve been living in. My father says he almost died in that explosion. Now he acts as if life is a punishment, a bitter drink he swallows every single day.
Around here, water and death come together like twins. Daddy and I have waded into the bayou, and he’s bent over, noodling for catfish, sticking his hand under a log, into a nest where he swears he can feel a big one. He stumbles back and yanks from the water a beast, its mouth sucking on his wrist. The fish is longer than my father’s ropey, muscled arm, and it’s wrestling as it bites into his flesh. On its side, dark wet holes big enough to stick your thumb into gape open, belch sludge.
“Fucking oil,” Daddy says, fingering one of the holes. The catfish lets go. He rubs his bloody arm on his bare stomach and then holds the bite to his mouth as if to suck out venom. His jaw is narrow, grizzled with stubble. “Kill it.” He throws me his knife and then the fish.
“We ain’t even going to eat it.”
I’m not the son my father wants. At fifteen, I haven’t even had sex yet.
The fish’s tail twitches like electricity.
My father pushes his rough-skinned hand through his wavy hair, rubbing heat from the ridge of his forehead. His eyes are closed, as if, when he looks at me, it will hurt. I grunt and fling the huge fish into the murky water of the lonely estuary, where no one else ever comes.
“Pussy.” That’s what my father calls me now.
I clench my fists so hard that I think my nails will draw blood from my palms, and I whisper that I wish he was dead.
He puts the cigarette from above his ear between his thin lips. “That don’t make you special,” he says.
I look straight ahead at the sluggish water and breathe in the stink of swamp that is always there.
Daddy and I went fishing four days before the explosion, when we still lived in Grand Isle and he would come home for three weeks and then fly off to his job on the rig for the next three. He was a roughneck—the lowest job on the platform—but it was the first time we’d ever had enough money to do more than survive on peanut butter and cup-of-noodles. In the weeks he was gone, everything at home would get real peaceful—my father had always been a raging drunk, and that was even before everything happened, before his bad moods swelled like the tides of the Gulf during a hurricane.
That time, we fished at the far end of the Island where the beach is wide, and we watched the sun, the color of peach flesh, melt way out over the water where you can see the rigs, like alien ships in the distance. We waited until a fat red snapper showed up at the end of our line. My father laughed when he saw it: a real fighter, writhing and slapping its tail until Daddy yanked it from the hook and sliced its head off, blood spurting to our toes. My father never left a fishing trip without catching something big.
When we drove home in the dusk, he turned up the radio in his dusty pick-up and sang along with Johnny Cash’s lyrics about the devil, and I pretended I knew the words too, mouthing them from the passenger seat.
When we burst into the kitchen with our sandy shoes and bucket of fish, Mama and Willow Rose sat there eating burgers from Jo-Bob’s Gas and Grill. The smell of fried meat filled the room.
“Michael!” Mama said, as if we’d startled her. And then, “We were hungry.” She hid her guilty smile in her burger, letting her long, dark hair fall into her face.
My sister, Willow Rose, who is barely three years younger than me, has the same long, messy hair as Mama, but light like Daddy’s, and the blue eyes we all have in our family. She looked up from her half-eaten burger, mayonnaise and bloody juices running off her hands into her lap. “Want some?” she offered, holding the bitten-up meat and bun out to us. Willow Rose is the clown, the fearless jester, and she meets Daddy’s eyes when even Mama doesn’t.
If that happened today, my father would holler, maybe even slam his fist on the table, but that day his face crumbled like a sand castle. All quiet, he took two bottles of Bud from the icebox and went alone to his room to pack his clothes for his morning trip in the helicopter back to the rig. The bucket of fish sat on the kitchen floor.
Three days later my father came home to us looking like he’d already turned corpse. They’d given him a clean company t-shirt—white with that slick green logo on it—at the hotel where they’d flown all the men who survived, but he came back to us like a man who didn’t know how to be alive anymore. His eyes were shadowed and wild; he became a stranger who needed and hated us at once. During the days he’d close himself in the bedroom or scream at us for making noise, for every little thing we did. At night I’d wake to hear him sob.
The day after the explosion, the stench of smoke and chemicals drifted over the water and squeezed our lungs so hard it felt as if they’d been turned inside out, while our eyes grew red with stinging tears. Then the tar started showing up on the shore. Two weeks after it happened, Willow Rose and I went looking for Daddy at dusk and found him at the beach where we always went, where the dolphins used to swim so close, and we watched as he dug the sticky balls of oil from the sand, his fingers turning greasy and black. He piled the tar into a gummy welt and then put the whole mess into a plastic garbage bag.
He paused at the sight of a dead fish washed to shore, picked at it, and then touched his hand to his eye, smudging his face with dark ooze. “Fuck,” he whispered, his voice like a hammer whacking a nail. He rubbed his eye with his arm and cussed again.
I yanked my shirt off and ran to offer it to him.
“Get away from here,” he said, his now-pink eye blinking fast, tears coming. “This beach ain’t no place for you no more.”

Chapter Two: Michael – The Explosion

Smoke. That’s what I remember. Black smoke like a beast trying to kill me a dozen different ways. Even now I can smell it, taste it in my sleep. It pushes into my throat, and I sweat so that the sheets become wet as if I’d pissed them. I wake, but the beast has already got me.
I should have died that night. No one was supposed to be drinking on the rig, but I was the guy no one ever noticed. I figured nobody would care, so I brought the stuff on board hidden in a metal canteen—real smart, I thought. That night I got my buddy Frank drunk. He was the only one on the rig who bothered with me: he was like a boy scout, so damn friendly and good, talking all the time about his wife, his daughters, and his dogs—terriers, for Christ’s sake. He didn’t want to, but when he told me about his younger daughter getting a spot on the varsity track team, I pestered him until a sip became the two of us passing the whisky back and forth long after dark like we were brothers and it was the last night before one of us was losing his freedom to marriage.
“A man shouldn’t have to choose between a job and whisky,” Frank said. He lay back on his single bed, identical to all the other beds in the small cells we slept in on the platform. He laughed for no reason. “I have to piss like a horse,” he added.
When the siren blared over the loudspeakers, I grumbled about too many fucking drills, and the two of us waited for it to stop. The pulsing noise kept on. “Shit,” Frank said and jumped up, grabbing my toothpaste and squirting some into his mouth, using his finger to rub his teeth. I copied him, but lazy, like it was some kind of joke.
The first explosion threw us across the room so hard that after I hit the wall I lay there unsure if I was alive or dead, my insides vibrating, my vision gone for seconds or longer. My head had slammed against the far wall, and so did my shoulder, but the pain felt far off, like someone else’s, even as I could feel the wetness of blood or flesh seep down my cheek. The room spun and swooped. How long did I lie there? I could hear Frank groan, and I figured if he was alive, I must be too.
The lights flickered off, then on, then off again. I heaved myself up, my left arm dangling from my side like a dead animal. I hoisted Frank up from where he lay, and we leaned on each other—him much bigger, much taller than me—and we inched our way into the long hallway, heading toward the light. The siren blasted over and over. Men ran past us, their wailing voices trailing into a blur of sound. The smell of crude oil, of gas, thickened around us. I could taste it.
When the second explosion came, the force rammed me into the far wall and the world went silent except for a high-pitched ringing. I couldn’t call out because I couldn’t catch my breath. On my cheeks I felt moist droplets, and I knew—methane. Still I lay there. Sound came to me in the feet of other workers racing past. They’re leaving, I told myself. If you don’t get your ass up, you’ll die right here, all alone. Ain’t no one else going to help you.
I gasped myself awake, feeling the back of my throat grow ragged from the smoke. I craned my neck. Frank sat in a heap, his head on his chest, eyes closed. When I crawled to him he whispered, “I don’t want to die.”
His ankle was bust, so I wrapped his arm around my shoulder and took his body onto mine. A man is a heavy weight to carry. Beyond the hallway the blistering heat licked our skin, and the fire on the derrick roared so loud I could hear nothing else. The beast was on the move.
We’d rehearsed this during drills every week. We knew our way to the lifeboats, but now it was night and the black smoke took up all the space. If there’s such a thing as Satan, he was in that inferno. I dragged Frank to the deck with the lifeboats, I pulled us up to the edge and looked over. Nothing. We were on the wrong platform. The light from the fire made Frank’s eyes glow like trapped prey.
I didn’t think I could drag Frank anymore, so I pleaded with him, and together we crawled to the stairs, trying not to breathe. When we got to the platform, I screamed at him to hurry up. I raced ahead to the metal railings where the lifeboats should have been. They were gone. They’d left without us. Tossed aside was a single lifejacket.
From across the platform, the blaze swept toward us. The platform groaned like a dying man.
Frank crept up to me. “I can’t swim.”
The sounds of the fire and the siren swallowed Frank’s sobs. Beneath us the Gulf was five stories down.
I half-wrestled, half-tugged him to the edge. I held his hand. I forced him. At the last second before falling I grabbed the lifejacket and handed it to him.
I don’t remember letting go. I remember thinking that the wind would tear my limbs from my body, so that death would meet me before I crashed into the water.
Alone I plunged into the Gulf, as if drilling into concrete with my body. The water rushed past me, and when I stopped going down I had to guess which way was up. I thought my lungs would burst. I broke the surface. The taste of salt and oil fouled my mouth. I was swimming in gas. Flames raced across the water.
When the men on board the lifeboat pulled me out, I hurled myself to the floor, puked up water, fuel, and salt, and pissed myself waiting for the flames to get me. I shrieked for Frank, but he never answered.
I should have died that night. The greater punishment is to live.
Hours later, in a hotel room in Houma, I signed my name on the dotted line of a paper I didn’t read. I peed in a cup.
I went home.
For weeks it was all over the TV. Every goddamn time I turned it on, all I could see was the smoke, the fire, the oil that kept gushing into the Gulf for weeks. The men who didn’t make it. The one who did but then ate a gun inside his own car. From the TV you couldn’t smell the oil or feel the flames scorching your flesh. You couldn’t hear the voices of the men who’d been burnt alive. Yet all those talking heads seemed to think they knew something. Even the president himself, old Ronny Reagan, was everywhere, looking all concerned—but I knew he was an actor, a son-of-a-bitch pretending to give a crap about men like me, who dig up the oil, while men like him get rich.
I unplugged the TV and shoved it in a closet. No one at home said anything.
Days later a polite broad from Texas called and told me to return the insurance payout. Her words—liability, regulations—slipped past me, so I hung up on her and cut the cord of the phone with a blunt pair of kid’s scissors. I closed our bank account. I found us a new place to live.
If I never see the Gulf and its stinking beaches again, I’ll be lucky. Let death find me, but find me on dry land.

Author’s Statement

Set in rural Louisiana, surrounded by marshes and alligators, After We Drowned is a novel about masculinity, violence, and ecological disaster. In this coming-of-age story, fifteen-year-old Jesse’s father, Michael, a man who is both a tragic drunk and a troubling model of masculinity, develops PTSD after he survives an offshore oil-rig disaster that causes the death of a friend and the destruction of much of the local natural environment. With his father too wrecked to look after the family, Jesse is determined to do so, but his youth and gentleness prevent him from fighting when his mother and sister encounter men willing to take advantage of the family’s poverty and isolation. Seeing himself as a failure, Jesse tries to emulate his father’s brutality in order to get his family’s lives back on track, but his efforts are puny in the face of his dire circumstances.
After We Drowned explores the coping mechanisms of men, examining both the strength and the futility of traditional masculinity. By contrast, the women in this novel, by creating networks among themselves, save one another when the men cannot. Their resilience, bonds, and moral surety drag everyone from the abyss. In this fragile, fraught environment, marred by environmental degradation and punctuated by violence, Jesse must figure out what kind of a man he wants to be, and what kind of a man he must be in order to help his family.
After We Drowned is told alternately from Jesse’s and Michael’s points of view. Where Jesse gropes with unanswered questions about his father’s erratic behavior, Michael is direct, explaining the dark secrets that Jesse doesn’t know, letting the reader in on the reasons behind his terrible actions.
When I wrote this novel, place came first: on a road trip through rural Louisiana—Leeville, Grand Isle, Golden Meadow—I was struck by its remoteness, its poverty, and its tragedy. This is a place where a football-field-sized piece of coastal land is swallowed by water (due to rising seas, the damming of the Mississippi, and the effects of canals dredged by oil companies) every ninety minutes, where the biggest economic driver is also the cause of environmental ruin. Remembering the Deepwater Horizon Disaster, I arrived at this story of a family on the brink, left behind by the massive ambitions and false promises of the oil industry. While I wanted to tell a story that pits humans against encroaching environmental disaster, I also wanted to explore the interpersonal relationships that bend and sometimes buckle under the strain of this conflict. In addition, I hoped to look at the meaning of masculinity and to suggest that where the power of brute strength ends, the power of moral strength—and in this case the power of women—picks up.

 

Jill Yonit Goldberg recently completed her MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. She teaches literature and creative writing at Langara College in Vancouver, BC, and is the past Chair of Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs (CCWWP).

Embark, Issue 9, July 2019