Caroline Belle Stewart
So here’s what I packed: a white ball skirt, a silk sweater, binocs and Earl in an admiral’s blazer. I let him go bare beneath his blazer like he wanted. It was humid. He was young enough. We were safe and had key limes and oysters. Snorkels. Music that filled the boat that I adjusted on a glowing little dial. We agreed on an album of tropical lovemaking songs. We agreed also to avoid catastrophe. There was radar and radio. Flares. I let Earl sip from my wine when the guide wasn’t watching.
The guide called himself Dwight and wore a camouflage hat, brim down on all sides. When he walked to either edge, the boat tipped dramatically. His golf shirt looked made of synthetic materials. The pockets of his cargo shorts were bursting. He’d spent his whole life motoring the intimate crevices of this swamp. Days on the water, sleeping on it.
Dwight had no sons and was thrilled to have a boy onboard. We’d visit all the secret spots. We could see alligators here, here and here.
Earl was so excited I couldn’t get his life jacket on!
It was very relaxing to be out of the city.
And it was nice to have someone be a friend to Earl for once.
Never mind that Earl was not a charming boy to most strangers, mute yet demanding, speaking only to bring himself pleasure. He was a hider, a ducker behind legs, a child who shriveled at affection.
He was impatient.
Here’s what we saw: mangrove, swamp cypress and sawgrass. The ridge of a turtle’s shell and stick of its neck. Beyond our reaches, feathers. In our reach, Dwight’s muscled sunburn and slithering ponytail.
Dwight acted educationally and kept Earl at his side. His voice got louder when the airboats passed by.
“Do you know what makes flamingos pink, little boy?”
“Pollution,” I answered. “He’s very shy.”
Dwight said, “Get up here and sit on my shoulders, kid.”
Earl was pink himself, girlish and pouty. Wide-mouthed like a pelican. I envied him.
In my modeling days, I had a body like Earl’s but much taller. I’d shown it off in places more tropical than this and come home with bags of fine clothing. Now we lived in a very large, very cold city teeming with girls doing what I did. Walking in shows for free. Making blogs. Putting hot sauce on rice cakes. Dipping cucumbers in champagne and saying yes to male photographers. Some too young to even give birth—for the better. We all know the risks of childbearing on a model.
My home life with Earl had gotten tense, I’ll admit it. He wasn’t particularly articulate. He left his clothing on the floor. Had bouts of crying. Seemed in a constant state of need. It made no sense. Whatever he asked for, I supplied immediately. I’m a natural mother. I have a sturdy stomach and body fluids don’t bother me. I was raising him right. He had all the right clothes. He’d never have to wander a dirt driveway with stray cats swiping at the fringe of his cut-offs. Earl, I’d say, when he asked for acai berry juice or another nap, have you ever seen the pictures of the trailer homes in Florida? Children live in them, children with grime that will never cover you.
“Not even a daughter Dwight?”
“Not even a wife.”
The wind flapped Earl’s hair and rustled my skirts.
Earl had high standards and demanded results. I could sense his disappointment when what surfaced not far from our propeller was only a pod of dolphins. This was the part of the world where women swim with them. I had seen videos of it. Mothers and daughters riding the animals, clinging defensively, legs splayed out behind in hindrance of the tail’s motion. Wet, white t-shirts fisted down over pale curves. Blowholes struggling to reach the air as neon fingernails made deep crescents up and down the dorsal fin.
I tossed an empty bottle into the sea.
What a fabulous ecosystem!
For lunch, crab cakes on a baguette and white wine.
“I think Earl would like to go swimming,” I said.
“We love swimming.”
“They could be anywhere,” Dwight said, “in these waters—anywhere. They’re like machines. No sense of caution. Their brains are the size of a data chip. Sometimes they forget to come up for air. They could be directly below us, even.”
Earl and I had recently watched a black-and-white European film in which a surly woman previously thought to be middle-aged takes her hair down and her sweater off, and in her white halter-neck swimsuit is suddenly young. Smiling brilliantly, she dives into the water and hides from her husband for hours behind a buoy. Then goes missing. The rest of the movie is boring.
I dropped my ball skirt, picked up Earl, and jumped in. I took my top off and splashed him. I was thrashing like a shorebird, skinny legs shooting downwards, treading violently. Earl cried when I got some water in his eye. He was always acting about half his age.
Sometimes children cry out of sheer impatience.
“Let me flush it out,” Dwight said, easily hoisting Earl aboard.
Picture this: Earl and I on the bow like a married couple, great vistas behind us of swamp and swamp trees, he handsomely blazered, bare chested, I in generous, blowing skirts.
It’s a photo Dwight took of us.
Oh to have Earl’s flat chest and straight hips again!
Dwight gave Earl a children’s quiz on hot pink, waterproof cardstock. They tied knots and eyed maps. Dwight caught fish and showed them to Earl.
He brushed bug after bug from Earl’s blazer and hair.
The sun was so bright I could barely look up from my book.
Now and then, I drifted into sleep only to open my eyes to find them in increasingly loving stances. Earl’s head turning after Dwight’s pointing finger. Dwight’s hand on Earl’s back as they looked down the water. His hand on his hand as they steered.
The lapping and growling of our vessel.
It was a tender display.
“Tell me your biggest fear,” I said, feeling the stem of my glass.
“I won’t say dying childless,” Dwight said, sipping. “You can’t tell someone that on the first date.”
“What can you tell them?”
“Something like this—one day I will open the weather website, punch in my zipcode, and it will say, Apocalypse Warning, in red letters. The icon for the day will be a crumbling tower surrounded by black tornadoes. Same picture for all the days in the Seven-Day Forecast. And for the weather each night, there will be an icon of a blood-red moon barely peaking through the smoke of burning bodies. And the temperatures ahead? Zero degrees, day and night.”
“Some people survive the apocalypse,” I said.
“I do have survival skills,” Dwight said.
“You have physical strength,” I said, moving closer to where he sat on the bench. “You’re a nurturing type.”
Earl was napping. There was a shower stall in the cabin with a skylight in it.
“Can you put the boat on autopilot?” I said.
We went into the cabin.
In the era of the movie I’m thinking of, people were lonely and poor and there were terrible wars. Everyone wore natural fabrics. Wool, leather and silk. Custom tailored. And women, unsmiling with thick, worried eyebrows, high cheekbones and minimal makeup, were stunning. The end of the world was thought to be coming. There was accordion music playing constantly.
Now let me tell you what else Dwight knows about the swamp. Temperatures are famously variable. Tree height is limited by lightning. Sea grass absorbs impact from waves. Flamingos are pink because they eat pink things.
Let me tell you what Earl doesn’t know about his mother.
I have a heart full of barf.
Or at least, one-half a heart of barf. The other half? I keep people in it.
My friends, if you can call them that. All my boyfriends. My lovers. Prior lovers. Even men I no longer speak to. Bad lovers, ones I send out to get me coffee and then send away. The ones who come soundlessly to the apartment and leave before Earl awakes, kissing me while I whisper of our love, mine and Earl’s. Some trying to get something. As if there’s anything left to get at the rate I spend.
What else can’t he know?
Not every child survives to adulthood. If he survives, I can’t promise that anything will go right for him. And if things go right, he could still spend his life sad. How many mothers will you find who admit this? I know it’s sick to say that happiness doesn’t come from within. But you can’t put your hand on happiness. Sometimes—sometimes you just need to buy something and adorn your body with it. You need to glisten and gleam. You need to rustle, princessly, over a crowd’s whispers in a high-ceilinged hallway. Click down a marble stair in soft light. Eat champagne for dinner. Earl, I’ll tell him when he’s thirteen, fourteen. Make some money on the runways while you can. You’re beautiful.
“Can I have some wine?”
“Go ahead,” I said, “but save some for Earl.”
I opened new bottles. Earl awoke. I lost track. The shape on the deck of a vulture crossing the sun. The hot puff of a school of fish. I made my boy an origami captain’s hat from our charts and said, “Look sweetheart, now you’re in charge.”
“In that case,” said Earl, “Surrender your cellphones. I’ll take your cameras and any other electronics. Dwight, your leatherman and machete. The fishhooks. The corkscrew and bottle key. For that matter, all kitchen utensils. Mother, your nail file and razors.
“Now helm this craft for me as follows. Hold a steady course towards the channel marker ahead. Then, leave it to port. Follow the river seaward. Head starboard at the mouth of it. You’ll want to be careful of the shoal. Be aware of choppier waves where the channel meets the bay. Use your instincts. Turn off the depth sounder. In fact, turn off all navigational instruments. They won’t be necessary in open seas. Turn the lights off and the lanterns too. We won’t need them where we’re going.
“Now mother? Listen to me. Over my five short years of being your son I have occasionally experienced a hallucination in which every animal in the world is my infant sibling. In this reverie, your previously youthful, almost-skeletal body is spangled with enough nipples to nourish all the animals in the world, and they hang onto you as would billions of articles of clothing on one lonely hanger. Animals hanging onto other animals. It’s like a fractal. It’s pitch black.
“Do you feel that? We’re in open water.
“Mother? Dwight? Can you hear my echo?
“It’s bouncing more speedily back to us.
“Turn into this new river.
“Go up the river. Two kilometers.
“Cut the motor—I won’t have us scaring any wildlife.
“Now tie up here.”
A pen of handsome goats faced the river and bleated.
“I’ve grown sick of waiting,” Earl said. “I want to use bait.”
Earl jumped ashore and extended his hand, for my balance.
He led me up the bank and my heels entered soft mud.
There was hanging moss in my eyes.
Midnight had come.
We went into the goat pen and turned on a spotlight. My white ball skirt grew brilliant. The depth of field shrunk. I felt as though my shadows were shortened. I cast my shadow onto the night. A plant with huge leaves and fat veins stood beside me. The shadow of its leaves fell on my skirt. I fed a goat a poison dieffenbachia leaf. I took the sleeping goat to the river. Its coat was of sturdy, neutral hues. Crème, beige and gray. Legs thin and toned. Neck long and elegant. Dainty hooves agleam. The animal was no bigger than my son, who followed with his notebook and camera. I threw the goat to the creek. And the boat? It thrust gently in ripples caused by fish, wind or wake. The smell of bug spray came in on a low, dark cloud.
Every day over Floridian waters, somewhere, a tornado ropes out and dies.
I’m sending my love to it.
Earl poured himself a glass of wine and took Dwight’s hand. He dipped Dwight’s fingers in the wine and splashed them, one by one, upon his smooth chest, as we do in the Passover ritual. He put those big fingers to his hot mouth and licked them.
How fast does the fan of an airboat go?
That was the speed my heart whirled as I watched them.