104. The Drowning

Bleaching heat, sun
White.
Riah’s house:
Strips of her wallpaper,
Up in corners pasted,
Once looked pink.
Louise noticed
These had faded
Gray.
In past weeks all
Tint had singed away.

Here from town:
Louise. She’d brought
Ice knocked off the Coke
Machine. Now
Dropped it in old
Coffee. Turned
Lukewarm. Louise:
“Ever swim?”
“No.”
“Ever seen much
Water in one place?”
“No,” said Riah, “Oh–
Just buffalo wallows.
Holding tanks.”
“Told you of
The time,” Louise asked,
“That I saw the Gulf?”
Riah pressed her cup
Against her forehead.
Sweat braided her
Neck: “I should do
Wash.” That meant
Boiling water-kettles–Riah
Winced.
“Told you
Of the time I
Nearly drowned?”
Riah, startled: “No!”
Louise, gratified.

She drew breath. “It
Happened when Ma
Took us to the Gulf. Took
Me and sis.
Pa’d been extra
Mean–the crop was poor–
Mama took us
Like for a reward,
And to get us
Off and safe from him.
To my aunt’s, who
Sold those souvenirs–
Painted shells to
Look like little turtles,
Little frogs,
And those little
Men with goo-goo eyes, tiny
Outhouses and stuff
That rich folks buy.” Riah
Tried to picture.
“Anyway,
Annie and I borrowed
Bathing suits. We walked
To the ocean,
Waded in. Well–myself, I
Thought sure I could swim.”
“Ann–your sister’s name?”
Riah seemed to
Try to take this in.
“I could,
Too. But out in
The Gulf, they have these
Drop-offs,
Undercurrents, canyons
You can’t see, quick
Clamp your leg as tight’s an
Octopus, and yank you
Down.”

Louise snaked her
Hands for full effect,
Circling Riah’s arm.
Prickling with fear, 
Riah shook her
Off. “What then?”
“Well, one caught me!”
“Octopus?”
“No! Current.
Floated out too
Far–and then I
Start to feel it
Wrapping round my
Leg. I beat my
Arms to keep up–”
Demonstrating,
As the table rocked:
“Top of my lungs
Yelling, ‘Help!
Help!’ But can’t pull
Free.”
“Then who helped you?”
Riah asked, intent.
“Well, those stupid
Cajuns on the shore–
Just that morning
They’d watched me and
Annie kidding round, throwing
Sand and such.
Guess we’d teased them
Some. So they
Thought they had me
Pegged for just
A clown!

“And so now, these
Musclemen, they see me,
Say, ‘Aw, it’s a joke!'”
“No!”
Riah shuddered:
James must never swim!
“So there’s Mama.
Hears me right away,
Running up and
Down and begging them:
‘Save her! Please go in!’
But they’re leery,
Scared to act
The fool. So they
Just look on.
Me–I see them
All from where I am,
Crazy dumb-show, with Ma,
Farm wife with her towel,
Wading in while
Men line up on sand.”

Louise broke out
Laughing: “To this
Very day–guess
What I best
Remember?”
“Wait!”
Riah’s skirt was
Twisted in her hand:
“They go in?”
“Of course. Down aways,
Two brothers yelling Spanish,
Run in. Hauled me
Out.” Riah sighed.

“But what I
Recall is–when I
Thought I’d sunk for good,
Dragged down gagging,
Gulping, coughing water,
Going under–
You know what I
Did?”
“What?”
Louise burst out
Laughing: “Why, I
Doggie-paddled!
Paddling, all
The swimming that I knew!
There I am–”
Louise seized her
Head with both hands,
Rocked with glee–
“There I’m drowning,
Sucked by the Gulf
Tide, near to
Die–what
Do I do?
Break into
The wildest fastest
Doggie-paddle you seen
In your life!”
Louise sat laughing
Till she cried.
Riah smiled,
Uncertain. “Legs
Pumping up and
Down! Whoo!
If I’d had some
Two-wheeler beneath me,
I’d been clear to
Dallas, no time flat!”
Riah laughed.

“Oh, my. Oh,
My.” Louise
Caught her breath.
In another
Moment, shook her head.
Story over.
Time now to go
Home. So
To the kitchen
She and Riah
Carried back their cups.

“Say,”
Louise asked her,
Walking to the car,
“How’s your windmill?”
“So-so–pumps some days.”
“Ours is busted.
Can I use your
Tank?”
“Take a pail.”

Louise dipped in:
“So hard these days,
Finding drinking water.”
Riah: “Make Bo mad?”
Smile: “Naw.
Bo, he don’t drink
Water,” Louise said.

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