The boat is smaller than he imagined. And dingier.
Even at night Jay can tell it needs a paint job.
This is not at all what they discussed. The guy on the phone said "moonlight cruise." City lights and all that. Jay had pictured something quaint, something with a little romance, like the riverboats on the Pontchartrain in New Orleans, only smaller. But this thing looks like a doctored-up fishing boat, at best. It is flat and wide and uglyâa barge, badly overdressed, like a big girl invited to her first and probably last school dance. There are Christmas lights draped over every corner of the thing and strung in a line framing the cabin door. They're blinking erratically, somewhat desperately, winking at Jay, promising a good time, wanting him to come on in. Jay stays right where he is, staring at the boat's cabin: four leaning walls covered with a cheap carport material. The whole thing looks like it was slapped together as an afterthought, a sloppy attempt at decorum, like a hat resting precariously on a drunk's head.
Jay turns and looks at his wife, who hasn't exactly gotten out of the car yet. The door is open and her feet are on the ground, but Bernie is still sitting in the passenger seat, peeking at her husband through the crack between the door and the Skylark's rusting frame. She peers at her shoes, a pair of navy blue Dr. Scholl's, a small luxury she allowed herself somewhere near the end of her sixth month. She looks up from her sandals to the boat teeter-tottering on the water. She is making quick assessments, he knows, weighing her physical condition against the boat's. She glances at her husband again, waiting for an explanation.
Jay looks out across the bayou before him. It is little more than a narrow, muddy strip of water flowing some thirty feet below street level; it snakes through the underbelly of the city, starting to the west and going through downtown, all the way out to the Ship Channel and the Port of Houston, where it eventually spills out into the Gulf of Mexico. There's been talk for years about the "Bayou City" needing a river walk of its own, like the one in San Antonio, but bigger, of course, and therefore better. Countless developers have pitched all kinds of plans for restaurants and shops to line Buffalo Bayou. The city's planning and development department even went so far as to pave a walkway along the part of the bayou that runs through Memorial Park. The paved walkway is as far as the river-walk plan ever went, and the walkway ends abruptly here at Allen's Landing, at the northwest corner of downtown, where Jay is standing now. At night, the area is nearly deserted. There's civilization to the south. Concerts at the Johnson and Lindy Cole Arts Center, restaurants and bars open near Jones Hall and the Alley Theatre. But the view from Allen's Landing is grim. There are thick, unkempt weeds choked up on the banks of the water, crawling up the cement pilings that hold Main Street overhead, and save for a dim yellow bulb at the foot of a small wooden pier, Allen's Landing is complete blackness.
Jay stands beneath his city, staring at the raggedy boat, feeling a knot tighten in his throat, a familiar cinch at the neck, a feeling of always coming up short where his wife is concerned. He feels a sharp stab of anger. The guy on the phone lied to him. The guy on the phone is a liar. It feels good to outsource it, to put it on somebody else. When the truth is, there are thirty-five open case files on his desk, at least ten or twelve with court time pending; there wasn't time to plan anything else for Bernie's birthday, and more important, there hasn't been any money, not for months. He's waiting on a couple of slip-and-falls to pay big, but until then there's nothing coming in. When one of his clients, a guy who owes him money for some small-time probate work, said he had a brother or an uncle or somebody who runs boat tours up and down the bayou, Jay jumped at the chance. He got the whole thing comped. Just like the dinette set he and Bernie eat off of every night. Just like his wife's car, which has been on cement blocks in Petey's Garage since April. Jay shakes his head in disgust. Here he is, a workingman with a degree, two, in fact, and, still he's taking handouts, living secondhand. He feels the anger again, and beneath it, its ugly cousin, shame.
He tucks the feelings away.
Anger, he knows, is a young man's game, something he long ago outgrew.
There's a man standing on the boat, near the head. He's thin and nearing seventy and wearing an ill-fitting pair of Wranglers. There are tight gray curls poking out of his nylon baseball cap, the words BROTHERHOOD OF LONGSHOREMEN, LOCAL 116, smudged with dirt and grease. He's sucking on the end of a brown cigarette. The old man nods in Jay's direction, tipping the bill of his cap.
Jay reaches for his wife's hand.
"I am not getting on that thing." She tries to fold her arms across her chest to make the point, but her growing belly is not where it used to be or even where it was last week. Her arms barely reach across the front of her body.
"Come on," he says. "You got the man waiting now."
"I ain't thinking about that man."
Jay tugs on her hand, feels her give just the tiniest bit. "Come on."
Bernie makes a whistling sound through her teeth, barely audible, which Jay hears and recognizes at once. It's meant to signal her thinning patience. Still, she takes his hand, scooting to the edge of her seat, letting Jay help her out of the car. Once she's up and on her feet, he reaches into the backseat, pulling out a shoe box full of cassette tapes and eight tracks and tucking it under his arm. Bernie is watching everything, studying his every move. Jay takes her arm, leading her to the edge of the small pier. It sags and creaks beneath their weight, Bernie carrying an extra thirty pounds on her tiny frame these days. The old man in the baseball cap puts one cowboy boot on a rotted plank of wood that bridges the barge to the pier and flicks his cigarette over the side of the boat. Jay watches it fall into the water, which is black, like oil. It's impossible to tell how deep the bayou is, how far to the bottom. Jay squeezes his wife's hand, reluctant to turn her over to the old man, who is reaching a hand over the side of the boat, waiting for Bernie to take her first step. "You Jimmy?" Jay asks him.
"Naw, Jimmy ain't coming."
"Who are you?"
Jay nods, as if he were expecting this all along, as if being Jimmy's cousin is an acceptable credential for a boat's captain, all the identification a person would ever need. He doesn't want -Bernie to see his concern. He doesn't want her to march back to the car. The old man takes Bernie's hand and gently guides her onto the boat's deck, leading her and Jay to the cabin door. He keeps close by Bernie's side, making sure she doesn't trip or miss a step, and Jay feels a sudden, unexpected softness for Jimmy's cousin. He nods at the old man's cap, making small talk. "You union?" he asks. The old man shoots a quick glance in Jay's direction, taking in his clean shave, the pressed clothes and dress shoes, and the smooth hands, nary a scratch on them. "What you know about it?"
There's a lot Jay knows, more than his clothes explain. But the question, here and now, is not worth his time. He concentrates on the floor in front of him, sidestepping a dirty puddle of water pooling under an AC unit stuck in the cabin's window, thinking how easy it would be for someone to slip and fall. He follows a step or two behind his wife, watching as she pauses at the entrance to the cabin. It's black on the other side, and she waits for Jay to go in first.
He takes the lead, stepping over the threshold.Black Water Rising
Excerpted from Black Water Rising: A Novel by Attica Locke
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