Charley, Bayou

Meghan Tear Plummer

You are waiting in the woods, and I am coming to find you. You told me not to follow, but I know by now that actually means, “Come as quickly as you can.”

I can see how you’d be happy to be in the place where I know you are, the sun heating the pine needles to fragrance and the palmettos snapping when the wind can get through the trees. The defined hills of these woods—like breasts in shape and suddenness—are dirt the bayous did not want. With the algae diminished from the passing winter, anyone can see the water all around is the color of bloody tea.

You have been all over the news, and not so many people have taken the time to spell your name correctly. Charley. Short for nothing. Today is the day the police have found you, by which they mean your body.

Where you really are—where the part of you that counts is—is a place you’d taken me once on a Saturday much like today, a day in late winter when the sunlight is first able to warm skin, a day on which we dared to wear bikinis. Our tan lines were gone, and only when we stripped on the dock did we realize we were missing them. You drove us to a dock in the state park—where I am now—and we paid a dollar’s admission apiece. We flirted with the attendant who sold us the tickets, but I’m sure she thought we were just friendly.

I didn’t have a towel, just a white and blue keffiyeh a man who’d served in Iraq had given me. He’d also told me—and I relayed the story to you—that while he was keeping watch one night, he’d seen, through his binoculars, a shepherd fucking one of his sheep. I knew no one was a worse human than the shepherd; it’s only that some of us get caught. “In our hearts,” I told you in conclusion, “we are all fucking our sheep.” You laughed, but I knew you didn’t understand what I meant.

I spread the keffiyeh on the soft-splintery dock facedown, so you wouldn’t see where I’d spilled candle wax on it.

“This thing smells,” you said, “like the cloth napkins we used to use at my grandmother’s.” You were lying on your stomach with your cheek against the keffieyh against the dock. You asked me to untie your top. Then you reached for the string of mine.

 

Your body is somewhere else. It is in a place of fluorescent lights and no shadows, and you are kept at a temperature of thirty-five degrees, though you only look like a human because someone has arranged your parts in that way on a stainless-steel table. Really, you are a pile. Your flesh is ripped right through the middle of the bike tattoo on your ankle. This morning, I went with your mother to view your remains because you told me it was what I should do, late last night when I saw you in my bedroom, competing with the lamplight for visibility. I have been hearing you since you went missing. You would disguise your voice in the window unit’s hum. I heard you also in my coffeemaker, in its gurgling purr, in the morning and during the day, when somehow making coffee was the best way to comfort myself.

But here is that dock, where we had our first date—we called it a picnic, but there was no food, unless you count me and count you, the places our tongues touched. And there you are, lying on the bare wood. I wonder are you getting splinters. I wonder can they be soft enough to pass your flesh by, to decide to bend and snap instead of stick into you.

 

When I saw your remains this morning, it was less painful to believe you had extra orifices naturally, that you were born with them. It was easier to believe that even after all our tenderness, I’d simply missed those openings, in the same way it took me some weeks to recognize the birthmark just under your ribs as a round-winged butterfly. I wanted to believe those slits in your flesh existed before his knife and that I just hadn’t noticed them. In this way, what most people would call “stabbing” was not actually that. You can only stab someone if there aren’t holes there already. I pretended yours had always been there. I wanted to imagine that, for you, a knife going into those places was the same as having a popsicle forced into your mouth.

But staring at you now, on this deck, you are whole, and I see that those little flaps of flesh, like lipless mouths, are missing from your body, which means that he put them there. He made them up and put them in you with his knife. Today, you are pretty like you were that day you first brought me here and stuck lit cigarettes between the slats of the dock like incense, to keep the mosquitoes away. I wonder would I be able to recreate myself so flawlessly as you have, down to the chipped tooth I see now as you smile at me.

When we’d come here once in the summer, I’d started to put on sunscreen, you grabbed the tube and threw it into the woods. “I want to taste you,” you said. You put the tip of your tongue to my neck, and your breath cooled the sweat there. It was so hot outside that the insides of our mouths were comparatively cool, as if we had been sucking on ice cubes. That day, even though I didn’t put any on, sunscreen still became the smell of you. Today, I pull the tube from my pocket and start to rub it on my face. At home, I have five more tubes. I have a fear this particular brand of sunscreen with its particular smell will be discontinued suddenly, and this is a way I will lose you again.

 

The night you disappeared, it was my house along the saints streets that you were leaving. Your bike was one you’d found in these woods, buried under leaves and leaves. It was a steel frame, but it was your size, which was odd, because you are tiny. You took it all apart and cleaned everything and put it back together again, though the chain was a little loose, and only you knew how to ride the bike without it falling off. “It’s a security feature,” you said. “No one else gets more than twenty feet away.” You stopped locking it for this reason, and eventually, it stopped getting stolen. The twenty feet covered was not worth it to any thief.

The police found your bike in the Atchafalaya, five feet out from one of the public ramps under I-10. I wanted to ask them was the chain off. But I was already hearing your voice in my coffeemaker, in my window unit, in my cough-to-start car, and I knew even before they found your bike that you were dead.

Seeing you at the end of this dock, though, I wonder if you know it, that you’re dead.

“Yes,” you say, “I know it.”

I ask why you chose this place, and then I ask at the same time can you choose other places to be? You are reading my mind.

“Just one place,” you tell me. I think to you that I am so glad that you chose this one.

“When it’s over,” you say (you still haven’t turned around), “you have to choose immediately where you want to go. Just name a place in your brain: Grandma’s. Pontchartrain. The Tetons. Heaven. Hell. And this is the first place that came to mind.” You lift your feet out of the water and I see that you still have your tattoo of your bike on your ankle. You tell me, “Brains are just as confusing when you’re dead as when you’re alive.”

 

That first day that you brought me here, while we were stretched out on my keffiyeh, we lay on our stomachs, and then our backs. “My nipples have never seen the sun,” I told you, and you reached over to thumb one and then the other. “Mine have,” you said, “but never with yours beside them.” You were always making up firsts of your own to balance out the fact that I had next to zero experience with women; you were my first for everything. Finally, we realized that every moment is a first, each second in time a test tube that fills with that moment and overflows into the next one, ensuring that no contents in any two test tubes are the same.

I ask you whether you have found your test tubes yet, the liquid of your life stored away somewhere at thirty-five degrees. You tell me that you have, that most of them are iridescent and that they bubble, and when the bubbles burst, they play a song. You tell me they are at the bottom of the swamp, just under this dock, actually—you knock on a plank three times—and deep deep deep in the mud to keep them at the right temperature when you’re not looking at them.

“I could show them to you, too,” you say, “but you’d have to be dead first. You’d also have to pick this as your place to go when you die.”

“Let me think about it,” I say out loud, knowing already that I will not die for you, knowing that you can hear me think that. Behind me the boys’ high-school cross-country team is pounding and laughing up the trail I am standing just off of. I have my back to them and they smell like a horse, all of their sea-salty sweat together. Their mothers feed them well.

“You’ve got some time,” you say. I see the legs of the dock tremble in the water with the impact of their strides. The extra ripples surround your legs. The best legs, I remember telling you. “Come here and look at them,” you say.

I sit next to you, and you draw one leg out of the water and drape it over my lap. Your leg wets my skin, and I am sad to think that I cannot help that this water will dry up eventually. I put a palm over your knee and run my other hand up and down your shin. The best legs are shaped like the best lady figures, a sort of hourglass shape. Your calves are as wide as your thighs, which no one ever believes me about you, that your calves and thighs are the same width. I said it at your funeral.

“What else did you say at my funeral?” you ask me, flirting. You want to hear about it, though you were there, too, in the static of the microphone.

When it was my turn at the podium, your mother introduced me as your childhood best friend and now your girlfriend, and then I read your description from your missing-person report. As I read it, I elaborated. I read about your bleached-blonde hair and told how it was growing out to a milk chocolate at the roots; I read about what you were wearing, which was black lamé pants and a cropped shirt with stripes on it, the stain on the sleeve from the grease of your bikes’ gears; you’d rub the material between your fingers to get it off. There was a stain from the same substance on the underside of your sleeve, too, I told everyone there, though maybe no one but me had been lucky enough to see it. You have to be intimate with someone before you ever see her clothes inside out. The people at your funeral tittered at my being sexual kind of, but that day, in their tittering, I could hear your laughter.

I read about the things you carried, your backpack purse with the smell of your childhood attached to it, its color the color of the ’90s, this deep maroon with hunter-green accents all over it, little brass tabs on the zippers. I told about how you’d wanted so badly to fill up that backpack when you were little, to show people that you had important stuff to be carrying, too. A Beanie Baby, a postcard from your grandmother in Maine, a Presidential Fitness Award medal, and a tube of lip balm in whose stick you’d cut a diagonal to make it the same shape as your mother’s lipstick; all of this was replaced with your paisley wallet, your ID for whose photo your mother had made you take out your nose ring; your keys that I know you flipped through to assure yourself you belonged somewhere: your apartment, your parents’ home, my apartment, the special reading room in our college’s library. The little backpack also held your can of mace and some sticky sweet lip-gloss that your hair got stuck in and which also got all over our faces when you insisted on wearing it.

I told this to them all, everyone who was there at your funeral. I could still hear you giggling in a way that told me you were also overcome, and I could feel that you wanted to be alive there in the way that we were alive.

And I, how badly I wanted to be alive in the way you were, on the other side of some thin film and without a body that someone could touch the shoulder of, pat the back of, without a body that someone could stab fourteen times before shooting it in the head, then dumping in a swamp.

I did not say this at your funeral: We fought and you left and you died. The sun had gone down on our anger.

“I didn’t want to hear about that part,” you say now. I think to you that I hadn’t meant to take us there, hadn’t meant for those thoughts to take us away from the sweet things I did say, that litany of your person, your accoutrements—mace, tattoos—that few others in our little town were brave or thoughtful enough to own.

“Tell me about your last night,” I say aloud, and it sounds like my words are on the outside of a dream in which I am trying so hard to speak. I dare not open my mouth again, for fear that it will take you away. Our situation is starting to feel precarious.

“The police report’s pretty much right on,” you say, and we both cock our heads in amusement at my thought of how strange it is the documents that may best tell your story—what you were wearing the night you disappeared and your height and weight, and how it was that you came to die—are reports written by the police. We studied literature at our college.

“But if I have to tell it, I will say,” you begin, lifting your legs off the tops of my thighs and lowering your feet back into the water, “it was a dark and stormy night.” I hover my hands just above the wet places your legs leave, so that the sun won’t evaporate them. But when I look more closely, I see that my legs aren’t wet from yours. The wetness is just what my brain expects to feel.

You begin your story by saying that night had been one of those midsummer ones whose humidity hasn’t decreased from the daytime. There is so much moisture in the air and it is so hot that walking through a bunch of brambles would snag your skin right off your body, the tears like an orange peel, unbroken.

You tell me you put the chain back on your bike and wiped your fingers on that place on your shirt. You tell me you were riding toward campus, because your apartment is on the other side of it and you always did like to ride through there at night.

Then there was a truck. And the truck was like the one your daddy drove, a boxy Chevy he couldn’t justify trading in till it died. For this reason—for this coincidence, you surmise—you were not scared.

In the streetlamps, every color was washed out to black and white and yellow. The truck slowed when it should have been speeding up to pass you. In the truck’s lights and out in front of you was your shadow cast on the road and passing signs. You watched how your shadow pedaled to the left as the truck moved toward the right, toward you, toward your back tire.

You tell me how the truck stopped your back tire with his bumper and how you flew forward over the handlebars because you were, by then, pedaling as hard as you could. “Why didn’t I go down an alley? Into a parking lot?” you ask me. The question, though, you utter with the same feeling as someone who has walked into a room and wondered, What did I come in here for?

When the truck’s tire stopped yours, you were racked against your handlebars and your breath was knocked out of you and you couldn’t move, and you didn’t have to say it was like a nightmare you couldn’t wake up from for me to know you were comparing it to that. By this point, the channel between our thoughts is moving both ways, and I can hear everything you are thinking, see the images of it in my mind, as if the memories are my own.

“They are yours,” you say, and this is the last time I will ever hear your voice aloud.

You show me the man’s face, its impassiveness. I hear that the man can’t say his R’s correctly. I see you notice that he is attractive as he lifts your steel-frame bike off of you. You are still paralyzed in your windedness, and you think he may be helping you. And I feel your shame when you find yourself still thinking that he is attractive even as he is slamming the bike back on top of you, aiming for your head, as if you are dough and he is softening you for what is to come.

You show me the smell of this man’s breath, your sudden wondering of What is his mother like? as he loads you into his truck, which even smells like your daddy’s. He folds you into the little space behind the driver and passenger seats where there is a shotgun seat that faces sideways. You show me the cigarette burns like new moons on the carpeting. You show me how you are unconscious and then you are not and then you are again. You show me the red dirt on the floor of the cab where you are lying, a dog’s collar, loose change, a sticker that says I VOTED. There is a birthday card from a very young nephew, stained with coffee rings.

I can’t be sure, but it seems that the stilts of the dock on which we are sitting, silent now, are sending off ripples with each jounce of the man’s truck. He’s driving down parish roads that you remember by the turns of them, because they are where you brought your boyfriends—and then your girlfriends—when you were in high school and in college.

You show me the place he took you is the place where the swamp is dying, where crawfish skeletons float on the surface of water black with stink and the birds are forever molting, too sick to even sound their mating calls, let alone think of mating. Here is the place where you can throw a frozen chicken in the water and see it explode in a splash. The gators are always hungry, and they are indiscriminate.

By now, I am pulling your thoughts out of you like hair from a drain. It is all coming slowly, but I see how you are limp in his arms. I hear you telling yourself that you will kill this motherfucker, that it cannot be the other way around, because the universe is not so cruel. I see the time when you were little that God spoke to you and told you that you would do great things. I feel the grass itching against your arms and lower back, the only places your skin is exposed, as he lays you down on the ground with a tenderness neither of us expects. I hear him load a gun and rustle around in the cab for what turns out to be a knife. Through your slitted eyes, we watch him come back over to you. He lays down his knife as he kneels besides us, unbuttons our pants. Checks our pulse. It is erratic, and we feel him start to tremble.

We grab the knife from where it lies beside us. We scream as we stab it into his belly and feel his muscles contract around the blade, making it hard to remove to try again. He grabs our wrist, and the angles are all out of our favor. The knife is his.

He barely takes aim before bringing it down on us. We catch his wrist, but his adrenaline controls stronger muscles, and it is a slow descent for the blade toward our stomach. Its penetration is equally slow, and even as we scream in pain, we think of our lovemaking, the first time I touched you and how slowly we moved against each other.

We don’t give up. Every rise of the blade is a fall we can prevent. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t. When we catch his wrist the next time, we somehow wrest the blade from him, and we use two hands to sink it into him, higher than the first wound. His ribs prevent the blade going very deep.

He has been kneeling on our sternum to keep us in place, and now he falls backwards. He scoots like a crab toward the truck. The passenger door is still open. The spring peepers are out and they nearly drown the sound of his high-pitched panting. Something splashes in the swamp that lies beyond the truck, a rare sound of life.

We don’t feel our pain. We have the knife in two hands and we are slick all over with blood. We run to him. We yell because there is no one to hear us. We raise the knife and are aiming for his back, when suddenly his back is not his back but his bleeding chest, and outheld is his gun. The last noise we hear is not its shot but a lone bullfrog outsounding the peepers we think of as only being female. Our last thought is a wish, a wish that we could tell someone the swamp is not dying after all.

 

On the dock where we sit, you are growing transparent, and our thoughts are no longer shared. We cannot speak now. The day’s light is glowing orange in the tops of the pines, but I know it is much earlier than I would guess. The sun’s heat has long since faded, and I untie my jacket from my waist, knowing that I cannot tell you that I miss you now any more than I could offer this warmth to you.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter