Allie Mariano | Winner: Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest
The cement steps disappear into Pontchartrain brack and Mississippi mud. A flock of shock-green parakeets roost on the rail. Our kayak is chained to its posts. We’re lucky we built houses seven feet off the ground. The higher the house, the closer to God. Murder is down; petty crime is up. This is a roguish, half-governed place.
A little skiff approaches with three teenage boys. They hold a sousaphone, a trombone, a snare drum. They look ahead, somber. The snare drummer raises one stick in greeting. The sousaphone player takes a deep breath and presses his lips to the mouthpiece. His cheeks dimple. “St. James Infirmary” moans from the horn: slow, mournful, in a minor key. Let her go, let her go. God bless her.
When the water started rising, the rich by the lake with their nice brick homes and their carports were SOL. The rest of us lifted our shotguns. We scooped sand and lifted and scooped sand and lifted, and a couple people made a few more feet. Then, they rounded us up, they made us leave; they told us the city would soon be gone.
Today, we climb in the kayak and follow the band. We pass the cemeteries first. As the water rose, the crypts stayed put. Bodies seeped out, bone laced with remnant flesh floated amongst the graves. Now, statuesque angels stand tiptoe on the water, a concrete stag looks out over the water-imbued city. A popular tourist attraction, these cities of dead. Now there is nothing, and the tourists won’t be deterred, enchanted as they are by the ravaged. A parakeet flies overhead and settles on the nose of our craft. Three more follow suit. The brass band speeds up; the sousaphone player keeps playing. When I die, please bury me in a top hat. The sky is gray and threatens rain.
Down the street, Canal, as it is, past the half-submerged pedestal where Jeff Davis once stood. The corner bar, the Holy Ground, took water and held it. Its doors are gone; its insides fully flooded. Past the hospital complex, under the highway, must and mildew scented. Fat droplets fall on our heads. Ahead, the tallest buildings rise from the water like lifeless cypress. On the left, the Quarter, deader than it’s ever been.
We came back, like we always come back, even though they said it was gone. All the wood was damp and spotted black, nothing bleach couldn’t cure. They told us we couldn’t take any more water, not for a decade. This flood will just drain into the coast. It sounds like bullshit.
Ahead, the levee separates this lake-city from the river. Once dirt and grass, it is piled high with sand bags. On the other side, a Mississippi steamboat bursts with people. They shoulder each other to see the drowned city; those in front clasp the rail and look out in wonder. They look well fed. It’s early, and this band is smart. The tuba has stopped its solo second line, and the boys don’t look at each other. The snare player counts off, steady, and they begin. Joyful. You’d never guess the tuba warmed up on a dirge.
The tourists clap. An older man on the boat knows the lyrics and claps his hands. This is all we’ve got. Everything is water. They throw food into the boat: packaged cookies, apples, cans of Coke. We can taste the syrup. We could climb on board, abandon ship, find a new place. Somehow, the water suits us. The scavenging and the singular pursuit of survival. It seems better to stay. The parakeets fly up and land on the boat’s awning. It feels sad, but they will come back.