I’m no fool. I never expected utopia. But I did expect fewer broken promises.
One chubby finger pokes my cheek. Rude. I blink a few times then sink into the gap between the couch cushions, retreating from the toddler stabbing me in the face with a finger that’s been God knows where.
“Ules, Ules, outside!” The effervescent giggles and what happens to my name, Jules, in the mouth of someone who hasn’t mastered the J sound yet overpower my urge to squeeze my eyes shut and lay here just ten more damn minutes. Defeated, I reach my arms out and pull Mallie—one of my six nieces and nephews, six alarm clocks— up on the couch with me for a way-too-early hug.
“Ules, outside!” she repeats into my shoulder.
“What are you waking me up for, Honey Bunches?”
“Ules,” she says again and points the same little finger, the one that I’m sure left an imprint on my cheek, toward the large picture windows that run the entire front of my parents’ home.
At seventeen, I ran as fast as I could from Bellefontaine, a small fishing village on the southern tip of Alabama, and the bright-as-hell great room of my parents’ house. Yes, the white room with white walls and white tile is beautiful drenched in sunlight, but back then I yearned for secrets and privacy and none of that existed in the pristine home of Mama and Daddy then or now. The summer after my high school graduation I left, intent on staying gone. When I met Jacob, I thought I was gone for good.
I never imagined that at thirty-two I’d sleep alone on my parents’ couch, wake up each morning to the sound of little giggles and seagull squawks, surrounded by my mother’s obsession: orchids and irises resting on every flat, white surface. I try not to think of the awful chain of events which led to this, my personal Hell. But, I’m only good at forgetting when half unconscious.
“Ules,” Mallie yells, loud enough to make me flinch.
“Mallie, shhh, it’s too early for all that noise,” I say to her, trying to hedge her ramping excitement, “Okay, okay,” I say and slide into flip-flops, which have long-since stopped looking cute and are in need of yet another repair to the frayed thong strap.
Early mornings with Mallie is the one time of day the house doesn’t feel like a clown car; that half hour before everyone else wakes and my sister and mother begin competing with the seagulls, squawking over squawking. But something about Mallie’s squishy little face in the stillness of early morning makes nearly everything else tolerable. Instead of dependable electricity, an indoor bathroom, and weekly date nights, I get months of watching Mallie grow from infant to toddler.
As far as Mallie knows, this new reality is the real world. In her mind, the life I knew before this one never existed. She’s never known the joys of brand name snacks and hours in front of Netflix and microwave popcorn. She thinks when the sun is up, we are to be outside, on the pier, fishing for that night’s dinner. She will never know Jacob. Mallie blew out the candle on her first birthday cake as my Jacob died and everything went to shit and I began to pray nightly for one more moment with him. Or one more minute of forgetting.
Because there are moments of forgetting. Glorious forgetting. In those moments, I find a familiar bliss, a joy I remember. Cool, white sheets rumpled across a king-sized bed. The knowledge of morning although no light breaks through the blackout curtains. The smell of coffee, freshly brewed. Kisses on my cheek and neck to wake me, although I’m only pretending to sleep. I open my eyes to his—big, golden brown, with long, thick lashes. In those precious best of moments, I forget his hands and lips and eyes are no more.
When the forgetting ends, I face the same truth: my Jacob is dead. Quick and cruel, that truth snaps back at me. My Jacob is dead. My Jacob is dead. Now nearing the end of May, the constant ache of September is duller, but the truth of Jacob’s death is almost too much to bear. The fact that I don’t know exactly what happened on that morning at Fort Stewart, Georgia’s gate. But, I choose not to cry when Mallie laughs and smiles at me, her morning hair standing straight up from the top of her little head, eager to play with her favorite toy — me. She will not know that every day she saves me. She will not carry my grief.
“Thank God for you, silly girl.” I squeeze her tight, too tight, I guess, because she wiggles out of my embrace and slides down the side of the couch.
Following Mallie to the kitchen, I take the rubber band from around my wrist and pull my hair up in a high ponytail, twisting the band around the thick, dark fall several times. I glance my reflection in the windowpane of the often useless, built-in microwave hanging above the equally impotent stove and take inventory: long, brown hair, no greys yet – a miracle in and of itself – hazel eyes, greener this morning than the day before, a touch of sunburn on the cheeks that will surely turn into fine lines. Jesus, why does it matter? I’ve no one to impress in damn Bellefontaine, Alabama. I ladle a cup of luke-warm water from the CLEAN WATER bucket into two cups and dismiss my appearance until tomorrow when I will most certainly glance toward the microwave again and curse what I see.
“Are you coming?” I whisper to Mallie while opening the front door with my elbow, two cups of precious, clean water threatening to splash onto the floor.
She doesn’t respond on account of galloping around the room on an imaginary horse, my pillow. Everything eventually becomes a toy to the two-year-old.
“Mallie,” I whisper again, a little louder this time. That one gets her attention.
Outside, the warmth of the sun rising over the distant horizon falls against my face, arms and legs. Mobile Bay, my childhood playground, spreads from right to left in front of me, sparkling against the sun, casting sequins with every ripple. Then, the sun hits the tin roof of the boathouse and sunbeams explode around the pier as if Heaven itself opens its doors.
Sitting on the porch steps, shielding my eyes from the sun and watching Mallie pick flowering weeds from the grass, I can dismiss my new life. Almost. I breathe in and try to let each disturbing element go. Blackouts. Cold showers. No blow dryers. Domestic terrorists. Empty grocery shelves. No take-out dinners. Bombings. Poison. No job. One outhouse for thirteen people, which is a cruelty no one should suffer. No Jacob.
I look out over the water, past the end of the pier, to a man in a kayak. Squinting my eyes, my vision blurs until I imagine him as a Chickasaw from a long-forgotten time; another time when searching for sustenance beneath the brackish water was how each day began. My ancestors knew exactly how to survive. I wish that I, like the Chickasaw that fished these waters a century ago, didn’t know any different.
But, I do know differently.
“Jules!” my brother Matt’s voice bellows from inside the house. “Grab the nets! Mullets runnin’!”
I didn’t know Matt was awake, much less awake long enough to walk from the detached garage apartment, around the main house and out to the pier to see the mullet skip across the open water.
I spring to my feet, scoop up Mallie, run across the porch and fling the door open, meeting Matt nose-to-nose.
“So, Fish Whisperer, have the mullet been calling to you this morning?” I ask him, impressed by his uncanny ability to know what is under the water just by lying on the pier and listening to the sounds of the bay, how a fish cuts or slaps the water’s surface. Or, maybe he felt something in the air or the wind sent him some secret signal only he and the sharks hear.
“Come on!” Matt pushes past me, charging toward the pier.
I plop Mallie on the floor and call to my sister sleeping in the rear of the house, “Kate, come get your kid!” Grabbing the nets by the kitchen counter, I turn and rush outside, pulling the door closed behind me to Mallie’s screams of protest. She is not a child who accepts being left behind.
“Jules! Move your ass!” Flop, flop, flop, flop.
Matt moves fast, even in flip-flops. I would bust my ass on an uneven plank and end up face first in the water, but he runs without fear, as if his flip-flops mold to his feet like moccasins. By the time I catch up to him at the end of the pier, he’s lowered the ladder into the waist deep water. A large, galvanized pail sits next to him on the lower dock. His rifle hangs from a strap slung across his chest and back. Despite being five-foot-four, Matt is well skilled at scaring the shit out of anyone daring to fish the water that surrounds our pier. I wonder how intimidating he’ll be when we all run out of bullets.
To look at him, Matt should be slower. He should be weaker. But, Matt moves down the ladder with the same athleticism he displayed as a teen on the baseball field. On the diamond, he shocked spectators as his stubby legs and 150-pound frame flew around the bases. First basemen winced at Matt’s throw from third to first as it slapped the leather of their gloves.
I kick off my flops, toss the tub and one net to Matt below in the water, then climb down the ladder, careful not to drop the other net. Nothing pisses Matt off more than lost fishing equipment. We’ve lost enough to looters. We don’t need to lose more to my God-given clumsiness.
In the cool water, the mullet ping my legs. I hate mullet. They taste too fishy for me, but they aren’t the turtles or gamey possum I’m sure to find in the swamp traps, so I’ll fish while the mullet is here for the taking. Maybe I can trade some for salt. And I’ll check the citrus trees. Even a small lemon would improve the flavor, although it’s still a bit early for the lemon trees. Maybe lemon grass and oregano will help.
The best part about fishing for mullet is that I become so focused on my net, the floating tub, the fish skimming the dark water, and watching for sharks eager to feed as well, I can’t think about my former life or my current life. I’ve no cognitive space for comparing old reality to new reality. All I’ve room to do is scoop, dump, look. Scoop, dump, look. After a half hour, my arms are sore, my stomach grumbles, and the tub is full.
“Looks like we’re having a fish fry tonight,” Matt grins as he hoists the tub of flopping mullet up onto the lower dock. His grin fades as a boat appears in the distance, heading for our pier. Water sprays behind the vessel as it pops up and over the deep-water chop. “Ya missed it, dumbasses!” Matt calls over the sound of double motors. “Jules, be ready on the bell if these jackasses start something.”
I hop up from the crab pier to the main boathouse and position myself near the jubilee bell, the brass bell intended to signal neighbors of a fishing jubilee, but lately rings out in alarm rather than celebration. The days of welcoming a wayward fisherman to our pier are gone. “Must be nice to have that kind of fuel, huh?” I ask. “Wonder what the they’re doin’ to get the gas for a dual engine?”
“I don’t think you really want to know that, Jules.”
We both stand on the lower deck facing the duel-engine boat. As it approaches, I see the large K on a shield painted on the front hull, marking the boat as property of The Knights and the occupants as proud members—our very own red-blooded, God Bless the USA, homegrown militia. Their radio blasts one of the political broadcasts—Preachin’ Time—that clog the AM airways ever since the power grid went offline again and Wi-Fi went down and being a journalist in this country became more dangerous a profession than rattlesnake charmer. I guess mainstream media is on an extended hiatus. Not that supporters of The Knights want the journalists back at work.
One man stands at the helm of the boat, a pair of binoculars hanging from his neck. Three other men, all in camouflage, sit in the bow. The idea of four Knights being so close to our property roils my stomach. The few rumors that float our way of The Knight’s compound paint a picture of an Al Qaeda-style training camp meets Little House on the Prairie. The men and boys train for combat, clean guns, and prep explosives while the little ladies bake bread and make pies. They’re doing God’s work, some say. Men like The Knights will save this country, they assert.
No, The Knights didn’t start this. That, I can’t blame on them. They are one of many pocket militias that rose up all over this country out of fear, convinced of the government’s incompetence. Uncle Sam wants you! has been replaced with Protect your own! And, groups like The Knights aren’t completely wrong. If a house has a wooden foundation, the termites will feast. We neglected, denied, stoked the ills of our society too long.
“Do you think they have some secret stash of camo t-shirts?” I ask Matt.
“Probably. Probably use ‘em to hide all the stolen fuel.” Matt pulls his rifle around his waist, holding it down by his side with his right hand. “Ya need some help?” Matt asks the men as they idle up next to the pier, having reduced the engines to burps and sputters.
“Know any good spots this morning?” The man at the helm looks from Matt’s rifle to the full tub of mullet.
“Nope,” answers Matt.
“Looks like you got pretty lucky,” the man says, still eying our morning catch.
Matt never gets “lucky.” He just knows.
“The way you came running out here earlier,” the man says, then pauses to spit over the side of the boat. “We thought maybe you had a Jubilee going.” He stares at the scaly creatures flopping and gasping as the last bubbles of wet air leave their tiny mouths. A tub full of mullet catches a hefty price at market.
“No, man. No Jubilee. You woulda heard the bell,” Matt shrugs off the man’s suggestion that we committed the ultimate social crime of keeping news of the mysterious, fishing free-for-all called Jubilee to ourselves. Such selfishness is forbidden in Bellefontaine, no matter how dire our present circumstances. “The mullet were runnin’ this morning, but they’ve gone on.” Matt points his rifle to the left, indicating the direction of the mullet. “You may try some of the old pylons further down. They were headin’ that way.”
“Yeah, we were out at Middle Bay Lighthouse just now. Ain’t nothing biting out there.”
“Looks like you didn’t leave empty-handed though,” I tell the man and gesture toward the stack of shiplap, the white paint nearly stripped clean from years of standing against the wind in, as the name indicates, the middle of the bay.
The man cuts his eyes at me then turns back to Matt. “Y’all sure have a pretty spot here, don’chya.” Scanning the front of Daddy’s property, the men in the boat exchange a look I can’t quite interpret. It was somewhere between appreciation, lust, and rusty wheels turning.
“You don’t want to keep the fish waiting.” Matt’s hand adjusts around the forearm of his rifle. “Or, the repairs you must be making to the lighthouse.”
“Well, I guess we better get to it.” The man, who seems in no hurry to fish, tilts the throttle from idle back to trolling. “Gotta get these boards repaired and back out there.”
Sure, you do.
As the boat pulls away, one of the men in the bow winks at me from under a filthy, white hat. His pit-stained t-shirt and oil and algae rubbed jeans complete his definitely-a-local appearance. My stomach turns at the thought of his long, pale, tattooed arm ever touching me. Keeping his gaze on me, he removes his baseball cap to reveal thinning, blond hair with wet wisps creeping below his shoulders. He licks his bottom lip as his gaze drops from my face to my boobs to my hips.
“Not a chance in hell.” I take a step backward, moving as far away from him as I can without falling in the water.
“We’ll see!” he calls back to me as the boat floats north.
“What a bunch of d-bags,” Matt says as he grabs a mullet out of the tub, throws it down on the cutting board and chops off its head with a cleaver then affects a country accent. “Join us as we fight tyranny. If you want to safeguard your heritage, sponsor a dead, Confederate General today. Just five dollars a day can get ‘ol General Lee back in the saddle.” He mocks hocking a loogie over the railing which then makes him spit for real.
“Dammit, Matt,” I choke out between gags and pad over to one of the wooden swings Daddy hung and re-hung after every hurricane that knocked down the pier from Frederick in the Eighties to 2005’s Katrina. “Notice they didn’t go off toward the mullet.”
“Apparently, that’s not what they’re fishing for this morning, sis.” Matt winks at me then grins. “I think that real ugly one wants to show you his rifle.”
As I push off with my toes, causing the wooden sing to sway, two US Army Black Hawk helicopters appear on the horizon. They float closer and closer until water kicks up all around the pier.
“Here, boys, I caught this special for you!” Matt tosses a severed mullet head toward one of the choppers.
“Matt,” I caution, “Don’t get them started!”
“Oh, please, what are they gonna do? Accuse me of assault with a deadly fish head?”
“You don’t want to be on their radar. Just play nice.”
“Jules, what do you think they’ve been doing with all the patrols and flyovers of the last nine months? We live smack dab in the middle of their radar.”
The helicopters hover just outside the small tin roof of our boathouse. I catch the stare of a soldier sitting in the open door of one of the helicopters. He looks at me then adjusts his rifle, resting it on his knee; the barrel pointed in my direction.
“They can do a lot more than patrol, Matt. You know that.”