The Secrets of the Stars

We came down from the campo before the sun had fully risen in the sky, the air smelling of dung and of whiskey and of the swamp. The gators appeared on street corners like sentinels guarding sacred treasure, street signs strewn across roads like so many fallen branches after a storm. You could see where the floodwaters had stopped from the houses that still stood, brown water lines along their outer walls marking the height of the world’s smallest man, or else implying a tub that had not been properly scrubbed.

We collected what we could, I remember, what had not been ruined in the waters. You would stop the truck, let me out of its bed, and time me with your stopwatch as I looted the lawns. Notepads with half their leaves torn out, the rest yellowed from the flood. Whole boxes of balloons to fit the necks of to hoses, vessels with which we could control the water. An unbroken mirror, antique, and tying a stained blanket around it with twine.

I begged you to stop at the houses with walls nearly toppled, wanted to document them with the camera I found, but it was not safe and you would not let me. The marooned liquor bottles were not off limits, however. You sipped their bitterness as the sun came through and splintered light on the hood of our dusty truck. I asked if I could have some, that this time was different, and you actually let me. You’d pour swallows into the cap, alcohol spilling onto your hands so that you had to be careful when lighting your cigarillos, and I stuck out my tongue as if that would rid me of the burning.

We would drink till the world swam in my eyes, and then we would drink some more. I was young and unpracticed, so it didn’t take much. But you had years of experience. When the occasional officer passed through, you ducked into the cab and I the bed, not even daring to breathe until they had passed, them thinking our truck just one more abandoned auto among hundreds.

If it weren’t for the sign still left standing, there’d be no way to tell that our street was our street. Our house was spread in pieces across the road, shingles and siding covering photo albums, the plastic recorder I just got in music class. I remember you slowed the truck when we came to the wreckage, acted as if it was so you could take a swig without spilling, as if you had no idea where we were. When I asked if we could stop you acted like you hadn’t heard. It wasn’t until I yelled that you acknowledged my question, that you answered by speeding up.

I remember watching my ruined neighborhood recede behind me, the hood looking more like a garbage dump for monsters than a place capable of human habitation. The smell of the mud spraying out from under the tires, infused with the stink of human waste and loss. The taste of stale whiskey still clinging to my lips like a whispered secret I didn’t want to keep. The sun blinding my eyes like a beacon or a warning or both. I remember being surprised when it wasn’t the fall that hurt, but the tumble afterward. The mud unforgiving despite what you’d think.

You got a block out before noticing I was gone. By then I’d scooped up our lives into my arms like a misshapen infant, ran off into the swamp where your truck couldn’t reach. Your eyes when you stopped at the edge and got out, me able to see them when I turned my head and just kept running. Your voice as it carried into the sticks and I left a trail of dropped items behind me. I found a dry patch of land and passed the hours by scoping for gators, their eyes glowing after the sun fled from the sky and night enveloped everything.

I came back to the campo next morning, not knowing what to say to you and so saying nothing. Instead, I handed you the things I carried out of the swamp and you accepted them, stole furtive sips from your flask and ran your fingers over these things as if they held the secrets of the stars. And for all I knew, they did.

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