Speaking French in Kurtz Territory

5

Summer nights on the Marais des Cygne were like I imagine the Amazon to be, deep in Kurtz territory.  For no really good reason we were on the inky water in a sloshing leaky john boat with a finicky trolling motor, rocking a little or a lot depending on what was going on.  Drunks checking trot lines at midnight. That got us to pitching and rolling with unnecessary gestures and stumbling movements, cursing, laughing, trying to figure out what the hell was on the line stringers after I dropped the flashlight into the water. It stayed on as it sank, the light descending, disappearing. The spookiest part was Pete slipping overboard and silently swimming away under water. There were three of us; Cobb, Reno Pete and me, Travis.  Cobb is my uncle, Pete’s younger brother and Pete is my old man. One scary motherfucker. Cobb idolizes him and I’m terrified of him.  I respect him, but sort of like I respect a mean bull.

I never minded going out night fishing or checking trot lines with just Cobb. Looked forward to it. He and I would drink, smoke his LaCygne Green, talk about women, star formations. It was relaxing. But with the old man along, I always, and I mean always, felt like it could be my last night on earth, my last moments alive. It appeared unshakeably in my thoughts that he would snap, kill me, then Cobb. It would be by knife and drowning. Or by muscle and skin, shirtless Pete, sheened with sweat, would use some quick snaky move and I’d get those tattooed arms front and back of my neck, his big hands on his biceps or elbows, and my windpipe flattening like a blacksnake on the hard-top road to the St. Cyr Compound.

We’re all St. Cyrs, but Pete goes by different last names. Wood. Ward. Wanz. And the people he runs around with call him Reno Pete. I never knew the history of that and never asked.  Pete is not a guy who invites questions.

Anyway, Pete would slip overboard almost every time out, we never knew when, just that he wasn’t in the boat anymore. It always freaks me out. It makes me want to cry, and I’m not a little kid. I can hold my own with any badass in the bars around Linn County, even down in KC. I feel unbalanced when he’s around or has just been there. Like a flywheel with a chunk out of it. And nervous. Mary Ellen says it’s just a pronounced father/son rivalry, that it’s as old as the Indian burial mounds visible from my bedroom window.

I live on the compound with Cobb and my aunt Vinita right on the Marais des Cygne wildlife refuge. Outbuildings and barns scattered around. I have a whole building all my own, a shed-roof two-story corrugated steel building that we insulated and made into a loft apartment. Slick as anything in the city.  We glassed-in the whole top north side with patio glass doors we found in KC at a salvage joint. That sun is like…freedom.  It blasts in there from the marsh side of a morning.  Nothing out there but geese and cranes and miles of marshy land and trees.  Beautiful.  Fucking lump-in-the-throat amazing. Bigass cranes take off in slow motion like overloaded C5 transports.  Foxes look for mice pretty much out in the open and one had her litter under my front stoop. I like to watch them leap in the tall grass to get a birdseye view of what’s in there.

The old man.  If it ever came to a showdown I would flat give up, give myself to it like to an unbeatable monster in a movie.  Hope for mercy but not expect it.  Funny thing is, he’s never hit me.  He’s a killer, I’m sure of that, things said not quite out of my hearing by family.  I think people like him have only two speeds. You just don’t ever want to hit that switch. After my mom died, years ago, he got a little meaner if that’s possible. But he was only dangerous if you pressed him, got into his face or wronged a blood relative.

I heard the Zippo clink behind me and jumped enough to make the boat move so that I grabbed the side. I caught a glimpse of Reno Pete’s face as he lit a cigarette, his eyes dead black marbles in the glare.  He winked, or I thought he did.

I yelped when a hand stroked my shoulder in the dark.

“Goosey, ain’t he?”  Pete’s voice from the corner of his mouth, pulling on the cigarette, the glow fulgent on his face, then down again.

It was all I could do not to whimper.  I started to reach for a beer in the cooler, but then realized I had to pee.  No way I was standing up in that boat in the middle of the Marais Des Cygne and risk going overboard into that womb-warm weirdass water. It was only weird when Pete was around.  It was benign any other time.

“I gotta take a leak,” I said.  “Can we get over to the bank?”

No one spoke. Thank god they didn’t tell me to just piss over the side. Someone started the trolling motor and we headed to a mud bank. I climbed out, welcoming the relative solidity of the muddy bank, slipped a little in my pull-on Converse sneakers as I moved upward to some more or less horizontal, grassy ground.  The trees joined at the top over the narrow stretch of the Marais Des Cygne where we stashed some trot lines, so it was tunnel dark with only a few stars visible through the heavily laced canopy.  I started to pee but experienced a stricture when I heard movement. Then I didn’t hear it anymore. A rabbit, maybe a snake, something off to my right, but I still couldn’t urinate. Damn. I wasn’t like Cobb and Pete, natural woods creatures. I stood until a stream started, half expecting them to start hollering at me, but saw two glows in the boat; their cigarettes, heard them talking low, indistinguishable. Finally, I was relieved and zipping up when the scream came. Jesus! It was maybe 100 feet in front of me in the woods. Was it a woman? A big cat? Some fucking Hobbitlike thing that lived in the wildlife refuge like a a chupocabre?  I wanted in the boat and out of there but ran into Cobb who was heading up the bank.

“Wh-what the fuck?” I said.

“Were you hollerin’?”

“Wasn’t me,” I said, sliding down the bank on my ass.  Cobb grabbed my T-shirt and stopped my slide.

There was Pete by the boat, calm and collected. He’d bundled some greasy shop rags and wired them to a stob, lit it with his Zippo.  I noted that he’d tossed the three-prong anchor into the mud bank so we wouldn’t lose the little boat.

“Mind me to bring extra fucking flashlights next time,” he said, “since junior here likes throwin’ ’em in the water.”

This was a scene out of some Huck Finn nightmare, Pete holding a torch, his hair wild, the flames throwing deep shadows on his face making it look like a tribal mask. I’d smoked some of Cobb’s powerful LaCygne Green, had some coffee and Jack Daniels; the chemistry inside me was bubbling surreal.

“It come from over thataway,” said Cobb, pointing in the flickery light. I followed them rather than wait in the solid dark on the greasy bank. We skirted a thorn tree, parted some tall trash growth, and made our way into a pine needle floor with fallen trees and old growth giants forming a pretty solid tent overhead, but with holes big enough to see some stars and moonlit clouds. Pete stopped, motioned for us to be quiet. His torch wouldn’t last much longer; pieces of shop rag floated down gossamer as silk, showing the weave of the fabric as it disintegrated. I was fascinated by the pink floaters, when Cobb said “There, ten o’clock,” and they took off to their left. I’d never heard Cobb say anything like that and I laughed, it was like an old war movie with pilots talking about bogeys, I mean ten o’clock would be up in the trees wouldn’t it? What a weird fucking night.  Both Cobb and Pete had been in Vietnam, but I bet nobody said ten o’clock there. Maybe he’d said “There, to the left,” and I got it scrambled. Cobb’s pot did that to me. He grew it in the wildlife refuge and in his pastures by the fenceline and in horseweed where the planes would never see it.  He knew where every plant was. It was supposed to be number two in the world he said, due to the peat and rot in the refuge. It said so in a book. LaCygne Green was originally hemp in WWII. “Hemp at ten o’clock,” I said, real low, and started laughing again. I was sort of snorting and huffing to myself in my own pot world when I heard Pete say, “Over here. Cobb, you won’t believe this shit.” Then the torch died. I stopped where I was, maybe twenty feet behind them, and Pete lit his Zippo and waved it over a white form on the ground. Then he cursed and flung the lighter down, due to heat I guess. All I saw in that flash was what looked like a woman on the ground, sprawled naked.

Cobb had pulled his lighter out and they located Pete’s Zippo.  It was a woman’s body on the ground.

I got closer so I could hear what they were saying.  “…Raleigh’s wife, LeAnne, I’m pretty sure,” said Pete.

“How do you know?” said Cobb.

“That tattoo on her thigh, rose with the stem coming out of her cooter.” Pete said, preoccupied.

“When the hell did you ever see that?”

“Never mind.  I think she’s dead. Nothing we can do for her now,” said Pete.

“We can’t just leave her,” Cobb said.

“Right. The three of us out here, drunk and stoned.  Why don’t we just call the sheriff as soon as we can get in cellphone range?”

“You think Raleigh killed her?”

“Could be. She was fucking around on him. Crystal whore.”

“Why here? The son of a bitch, right in our back yard, damn him…”

“Or it coulda been one a those meth-heads from town. Who knows. Thing is, no matter who or what, if we report it guess who gets the hard look and the blame?”

“Shit,” said Cobb.

“She’s gonna come up missing,” I said.  “And if they find her back in here, turkey buzzards circling, like that, well, they’re gonna ask us about it anyway.”

“Unless nobody ever finds her,” said Pete.

“How’s that happen?” I asked.

“You two go on back to the compound.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

Cobb said, “Come on Travis,” and gave my T-shirt a tug.

I followed him to the john boat by sound, and got caught up in some thorn trees. “Wait up, Cobb. I’m in this fucking thorn thicket.”

I didn’t hear him. I started when I felt his big hand wrap around my elbow, and followed where he pulled me. The thorn trees had bit me about ten places.

On the way back, I asked, “So what’s he gonna do?”

“Disappear her at first light, walk on back.”

“Disappear?”

“You don’t want to know the details.”

Once a game warden had disappeared in the Marais des Cygne.  I was pretty sure the trolling motor on the transom was state property. The story I got, years ago, was if you want someone to disappear, gut them, put thirty pounds of log chain inside them, wrap the body in pig fence and slide them in one of the deep backwaters for the carp and cats. Cobb said there were catfish in there big as a man.  In a week or two, nothing left but pigwire, bones and chain. It never surfaces. We had a cache of tools and wire half a mile from here.

As little as I’d seen of the white form on the ground I felt sick at the thought of that. Someone had done her in, someone who knew the woods. Cobb said she was a meth whore, far gone, used to be hot in her day, went wrong after Raleigh started beating on her. Raleigh was a mean drunk and, by rights, ought to be the disappeared one.

 *

It was the following week we got wind of the search party.  They might comb the backwoods where we’d been, on foot and horseback.  Cobb was beside himself.  Lacygne Green was scattered throughout that area and sure to be discovered.

“That fuck, Raleigh. I think he’s behind this.  Brought her in where the plants are,” Cobb said.

Pete just lit a Pall Mall, said, “Don’t worry about it.”

“Growing on govermint property, that’s some real time, man.  Don’t worry about it? Shitfire. You think he’s gettin’ back at you for her cheatin’ with you?”

“That was ten years ago, Cobb. They weren’t even married. Anyway, I found her clothes out there and took ’em to Loud Thunder park. That should focus the search over there.”

“If they find ’em.”

“They will.”

Sure enough, on the news from Kansas City that night, a tip about the missing LaCygne woman’s partially burned clothing turning up at Loud Thunder and off they went to search that area. Waves of people kneeing through the cheatgrass, horse trailers in the parking lot, no clues found.  Then like most of those searches they sort of dry up when the excitement dies down and nobody stumbles over a corpse.  After the media exposed the seamier side of her life, there were no candle-light vigils for her. TIPS hotline didn’t yield anything and it all sort of blew over.  Raleigh was questioned at length but with no body, and a couple of questionable cohorts alibiing for him, the small sheriff’s department cold cased it pretty quick.

I couldn’t tell Mary Ellen about it. She thinks we’re all jackpine savages down in the refuge anyway, but she’s interested in us with her anthropology degrees. We come from French fur trappers who settled all along the Little Blue and the Missouri and the Marais Des Cygne way over a hundred years ago.  She finds that fascinating. I find her fascinating so it works out. I throw some French at her once in awhile, making sure I pronounce it right.  Old lady Chouteau in LaCygne at the Refuge Tavern coaches me in French. Her people explored Kansas in the 1700s.  Most people around here pronounce it “lay-seen” but not her.  Anyway she explains how to drop the last letter of certain words and how to form the word while saying it. Sometimes you have to hold your mouth funny to say it right. When Mary Ellen speaks French to me I nod and smile, not understanding a word of it.  Or I say “mais oui, mais oui” in an absentminded way and pretend I’m looking for something under the bed, something I can’t find and which causes me to say, “zut alors!”  I don’t fool her but she loves me for trying.

So, Mary Ellen was asleep and I was awake but drowsing luxuriously the morning Raleigh showed up. My aunt Vinita was in Oklahoma visiting her sister in, you guessed it, Vinita, the town she was named for. A few minutes later I was thankful she was gone for the weekend. I heard some horn honks out there and the dogs raising hell.  We’ve got two biters, blue heelers.  The rest of the dogs are hounds that just make noise and then look around like, “Where am I?”  I got up, slipped on some cargo shorts and my sneakers, and, yawning, went on down the shaky spiral staircase and out the back door which faces the gravel drive.

It was Raleigh’s truck. Cobb had the two heelers under control and Raleigh was standing by his open door.

“What can I do for you, Raleigh?” said Cobb.  Not friendly, not unfriendly.  Raleigh was not highly regarded anywhere that I knew of. Cobb’s neutrality seemed ominous. It was unusual for anyone to venture in to the compound uninvited. I was tensed up. Was Pete here, I wondered. That question was answered as he came ambling up from the metal shop building, wiping his greasy hands on a pink industrial rag.

“Raleigh,” he said, “Shit it ain’t noon yet, what are you doin’ up so early?”

“Funny,” said Raleigh. “I’ll get right to the point, boys.” Then he just stood there as if he forgot what he was going to say. Cobb and Pete both cocked their heads like they were trying to hear some far off music or like, “yeah?”

Raleigh’s unkempt hair shot out from under a grimy John Deere gimme cap and his beard was between needing a shave and growing out for real.  The gun rack in his back window held a cane that he used to prod livestock through the chute at the auction center in town.  He was redeyed and both his hands were jammed into a light hooded sweatshirt that he didn’t need on such a warm morning. That’s when I suddenly figured he had a gun in one pocket. I suppose Cobb and Pete knew right off. I was behind him and unnoticed, so I started moving up closer to him. Pete gave me a shake of the head, no, so I stayed where I was. Pete was a Ranger in the Army and had been in lots of fixes back in the day. But there was always that final fix, I remember thinking.

“I know you knew where LeAnne was,” he said.

“Wish I could help you there Raleigh, but she’s probably in Denver or somewhere by now,” Pete said.

“Think she’s alive, do you?”

Pete didn’t reply, just stood there looking at Raleigh, still fooling with the shop rag. Cobb’s hands hung by his side slightly out from his body. I could feel the tension in my neck, my knees.

“I know she’s not,” said Raleigh, and he smiled, or tried to.  I got the idea he was trying to be cool in his own little movie here. “What I’m here about is a business thang.”

Pete just laughed, more like blowing some breath out with a smile.

“I want in on the LaCygne Green,” said Raleigh.  “Half.”

“Why, Raleigh, they ain’t no such thing.  LaCygne Green is a myth.”

“Or else, I’ll get some search parties going on a brand new tip that she’s buried somewhere back in that marsh you like so much,” Raleigh said, gesturing with his head back over by the lake.

“Better do that, then. The other fairy tale ain’t workin.”

“Hot damn you Pete, think you’re so fuckin’ cool!” That’s when Raleigh pulled the gun but it hung up on the sweatshirt pocket by the hammer, and in trying to get it loose he fired it wild somewhere into the ground between him and Pete. Right on the echo of that report another shot came from where Pete was. Then another. He’d had a snubnose in the shop rag.  He was standing sideways aiming carefully, one hand at his side, like in a duel. The shot made a popping sound. The first shot had confused Raleigh, being just birdshot in a .38 shell, but it had gotten him in the head and shoulders, little blood spots blossoming on his forehead. The second one got him in the left chest and down he went. The more intelligent hounds had vacated the area, but one of them was interrupted in mid scratch and sat there with the hind scratching leg sticking up in the air.

“Move his truck into the barn, Travis,” Pete said, walking toward Raleigh’s downed form.  “Now!” he said, when I just stood there. Raleigh’s truck was filthy and smelled of booze and cigarette smoke. Beer cans rolled around in the bed. I thought of something Cobb had said, way in the past, when someone had brought up Raleigh as a useless mean prick. “No shortage of Raleighs in this world,” he’d said. When I got back Raleigh wasn’t there anymore. I didn’t know how to process what I’d seen. One less Raleigh in this world. The one hound that had stuck around was sniffing the ground where he’d been. I figured I’d better check on Mary Ellen since she’d not come down to see what the racket was. My knees were beginning to shake. I’d have fucked up the confrontation. He’d have gone back to town, talked to anyone who’d listen about the marijuana and where it was. I’d have gone to jail. Etcetera. I’d just seen Pete kill a man, and not in a panic either; he’d been clear-eyed and calm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Coleen Whitfield




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About Author

G. Wise has been a creative director in advertising most of his working life. In his youth he put forth effort as a bullrider, ironworker, laborer, funeral home pickup person, bartender, truckdriver, postal worker, ice house worker, paving field engineer. A staid museum director called him raffish, which he enthusiastically embraced. (the observation, not the director) He took up writing fiction two years ago. His short story collection, Night Train, Cold Beer will be published in 2013. See cover and info at wisesculpture.com.

5 Comments

  1. This is such a powerful mix of gut wrenching
    roughness with poetic observations. What an enjoyable ride. I had no idea where things were going, when or if I would be surprised. I like that. Alot. And, it’s all wrapped together by such a high level, quality mix of words.

  2. Eric Baumgartner on

    I grew up in those parts and knew guys just like Pete, Cobb and Raleigh and what’s so amazing is every word brought me back to the late night frog gigging trips. The language is dead on perfect and ring so true—”womb-warm weirdass water”—Wow.

    All that said the story is riveting and powerful and the prose put me in the boat on the shore and in the driveway.

  3. What an interesting setting, characters and voice. Drew me right in, even though I have never been to that part of the world or met characters like this.

    Fluid and effortless storytelling!

  4. Intriguing characters, brilliantly presented with a wondefully evocative description of darkness that gripped me from the start. The quality of writing is exceptional.

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