Authors: Michael Farris Smith
Cohen went outside and shined the light around and Habana was in the field across the road and he called out to her. She saw him and began walking back as he looked around for anything dry enough to burn. Inside the church he filled his arms with small branches scattered about, but anything big enough to last was too wet and mushy. He climbed onto the fallen tree and broke off limbs and dropped them into a pile in the choir loft below. Then he climbed down into the choir loft and took a couple of the straight-back chairs and in the aisle of the church he piled it all together and it seemed like enough to make it through the night. Or at least until he could get a few hours’ sleep because tomorrow there could be no more rest. He felt guilty for wasting the afternoon but
it had helped him recover some and he knew he had to be ready for a fight.
He started the fire on the concrete slab outside the front doors. The smoke climbed and hovered in the ceiling of the porch and then drifted out into the night. He sat in one of the chairs while the other one burned and he drank water and ate aspirin. Habana’s saddle and bridle were on the offering table and the dog lay on the concrete next to him on a purple choir robe that he had found in a back room. The rain was steady and almost stopped once or twice.
He talked to the dog.
“The first one was white. Old as dirt but slow and careful like you like the first one to be. Don’t want a bronco to sit your kid up on. Didn’t even know we were getting him. Dad pulled up with the trailer, honked the horn. Me and Mom came out and he called me over. Said look at this. We walked to the trailer and her snout was sticking out and he said about time you got up on a horse. Her name was Snowball, I think. Real original.”
He drank a little water. The dog stood, walked in a circle, lay back down. Cohen rubbed at his beard. Thought some.
“First car was a VW. Little two-door something. Four gears. Couldn’t tear the son of a bitch up. I used to see how fast I could go in third gear. Seventy-two was the record. Damn thing sounded like it was about to blow any second. Crashed it. Or got hit. Or something. It folded up like tinfoil. Me and Elisa went on our first date in that car. Tenth grade. Valentine’s dance in that smelly old gym. It coulda been at the prince’s palace, though, ’cause I was out of my mind, I was so nervous. I mean nervous like wet hands and armpits and nearly-tripping-and-falling-down nervous.”
The dog laid its head down. Whined some.
“She wore a yellow dress. Everybody else had on red or pink. She wore yellow.”
He stopped talking and stared out into the night. It seemed as if his words were floating out there somewhere and if he looked closely enough he could see the pictures they described.
He leaned back in the chair and stretched out his legs. The rain had eased and somewhere out to the side of the church a tree branch cracked and fell. He looked back at the dog. “I don’t know,” he said.
Cohen had always talked to the dog. It had appeared one day. Just like Habana, and he had never bothered to name it because he knew it already had a name. He fed it once and that was all it took to make them friends and he talked to the dog in the way that one might talk to a child or a stranger on a train. Stating the obvious. Asking questions he already knew the answer to. His voice amicable and safe.
The dog rolled over and Habana walked around the side of the church. Cohen watched her and it was then that he saw the orange eyes back off in the trees behind the building. Two large orange eyes caught in the light of the fire, perfectly still in the dark. Habana kept on walking until she was around in front of them but Cohen didn’t move and stayed fixed on those eyes as he knew they were the eyes of something that mattered. The dog, seeming to sense his unease, sat up and looked out to where he was looking and began to growl a low, cautious growl. “Shhhhh,” Cohen whispered. The dog continued on and he reached down and rubbed its head and whispered for it to be quiet. Be quiet. Don’t move.
He slowly moved his hand to his belt and gripped the knife. “Sit down,” he told the dog but the dog stood stiff and its growl had turned into a tempered whine. “It’s okay,” he whispered. “But do not move.”
Habana walked closer to them and snorted and that scared the dog, which tucked itself behind Cohen’s chair.
The eyes remained. Still, like knots in a tree.
His mind raced back to the voices of his grandfather and the other old men that he would listen to at the camp on the edge of the bayou. To the things they had seen and the tall tales they had told and he tried to figure out what those orange eyes belonged to but all the voices of the old men did was conjure images of swamp monsters and nameless bloodthirsty creatures that lifted children from their beds in the middle of the night. The eyes staring at him were real and they were close and they were paying attention with an uncommon patience.
It’s gotta be a panther, he thought. A big-ass panther.
He unbuttoned the sheath and pulled out the knife and tried to figure out the best way to kill a panther or whatever the hell it was and he smiled a dumb smile at the absurdity of the thought.
Cohen shifted his gaze to the horse when she snorted again and when he looked back, the orange eyes were gone. Vanished in the dark as if he might have imagined them. He breathed, unaware that he had been holding his breath. And then he told the dog to relax. For now. He stood slowly and walked around to the side of the church and he called the dog and Habana to follow. There would be no sleeping near the fire tonight, not with that thing so close. So the three of them went through a back door of the church and into the room where he had found the choir robes. There were more piled in a closet, and he felt around in the dark and grabbed several and laid them across the floor. The dog immediately lay down on them but he told it to get up. Cohen picked up one of the robes and wrapped it around himself and then he went back to the door, feeling his way with his hand on the wall, and he closed it. Back in the room, he lay down on the robes and the dog lay next to him and Habana stood at the window with her nostrils against the glass and her breath fogging the window. They would be cold and they would be uncomfortable, but they would be safe. And then he started talking to the dog again.
SINCE THE PROCLAMATION OF THE
line, they came down like packs of wild coyotes coming in from the hillsides after smelling the scent of fresh blood. Some like gangbusters, with coolers of beer and good weed and radios blaring through the rainstorms, whooping and hollering like crazed spring breakers certain they were having a good time. They crashed the beach, milled around an upturned casino, and started digging not in unison or with any goal but all heads working independently and the holes they dug weren’t large enough to hide a basketball in, much less trunks filled with millions of dollars. The gangbusters didn’t last. They drove hours, maybe days, to get down to the coast, unaware of the severity of the life below the Line, and they left almost as quickly as they arrived, once the buzz wore off and the shots were fired over their heads.
Others knew the terrain. Those that remained below. Those that knew the winds, knew the thunder, knew the gaps in the seaside and where the bridges were washed away, and knew the lineup of casinos that once stretched for twenty miles along the shore. They knew which ones were still there, and if they weren’t still there, they knew where they had once been.
What separated the others were the tools they worked with. Those with no chance came in bunches of four or five, riding in truck beds, shovels and pickaxes for each man. They knew the landscape, had the heart but no guns and no strength or energy to dig quickly and make any headway before being seen and having to make a run for it back into the soggy hole they had crawled out of.
Those with a chance, if there was actually anything to be found, had the guns, had youth, had the vehicles to get through, or across, or over. Men in army-green jeeps and trucks, four-wheel-drive vehicles made for war, with gadgets that detected metal underneath the ground. Men who possessed the physical strength and training to work hard, dig deep, make haste. Men who had been left behind by their government, stuck in outposts in the region below the Line, for God knows what. To help those who didn’t want to be helped. To protect those who didn’t want protection. To sit in steel-braced cinder-block outposts, day after day, ducking from the storms, watching the rain, listening to the snap of lightning and the moan of thunder, staring at the walls and staring at the floors, so the same government that had abandoned the region could still maintain authority over it, even though there was no law to be followed. No law to be made other than what seemed right at the time. These were the men who sat there day after day, because they had been ordered to by other men who lived on dry land, and now they had grown restless and anxious and this was their opportunity to get out and go and do something and they came in their jeeps and trucks, their big guns racked on top or showing out of the open windows, to express to whoever might be interested in the same treasure they were looking for—do not fuck with us.
The coast was crawling with them and they all came after the same thing—the buried casino money. A lot of damn buried casino money. In the panic of the evacuations, and later in the panic of the Line becoming official, it had been rumored that casino executives ordered the burying of trunks of cash in an effort to hide it from the taxman. The less money the casinos moved, the less money they had to claim. Rumors swirled of men in the middle of the night, loading the backs of trucks with trunks large enough to hide bodies, filled with stacks of crisp dollar bills, and then disappearing into the dark to deposit them into the earth.
The rumors of the buried money were not dispelled easily. In newspaper articles and magazine exposés that covered the movement of the casinos and banks and other financial institutions from the region, the buried money was consistently part of the conversation. The men
in the suits flatly denied it, but there was always some casino services manager or pit boss or cocktail waitress who had been in the right bed, ready to proclaim that it was not some ridiculous rumor, I saw the money being loaded, so-and-so told me about burying the money and then he laughed because he said it was so primitive and brilliant at the same time, not only were the big trunks taken out and buried but the big shots filled up their own bags and stashed them across the coast as a retirement plan. The economy was breaking down and banks were folding and many of the casinos were not reopening elsewhere and cash was what mattered. And it’s out there. Somewhere.
So they came looking.
THE NEXT MORNING, COHEN GOT
up and he decided what to take and not to take. In the corner of the room where they slept, in a small closet, he left his extra clothes, some food, and all but one of the paperbacks. He fed the dog what was left of the dog biscuits and then he gathered the rest of the food and water and went outside. He put the food and water and aspirin in Habana’s saddlebag along with the flashlight and some matches and the book. In his back pocket remained the picture of Elisa and in his front the small socks. He then covered himself with one of the purple robes and mounted the horse. He looked down at the dog and told it to stay, I’m coming back here at some point in the next few days. But the dog ignored him and walked and then trotted along with them.
A gold cross decorated the back of the robe and Cohen had the appearance of a medieval crusader scouring a godless land in the name of the Almighty. For the next three days, he suffered the rain, rode Habana, and looked for his Jeep and the two who had taken it but he spent most of his time ducking away from others he came across. More movement than he had seen on the coast since before the Line. There was movement along the beachfront, movement in the wastelands of the casinos and hotels and restaurants. Movement even in the scattered remains of the neighborhoods of Gulfport, where there was usually only the quiet of the world of concrete foundations and chimneys. He hid away and watched them. Groups of men standing in a spot and digging. And then maybe gunfire, and ducking and dodging and driving off fast
in any direction. He came upon this a couple of times a day, and he had no choice but to hide, and watch them through the rain, and marvel at their dedication to a legend.
He searched most freely away from the city limits and in the miles surrounding his place, and in the miles surrounding the stretch of flooding where they had abandoned him. He followed dirt roads and jagged highways that he had known all his life but they all led to nothing and there was too much space to search it all. His fever came and went and he was sore all over. More sore in his shoulder than anywhere else and he always slept on the other one.
For a time he had taken refuge in a mostly standing gas station and garage on the outskirts of Gulfport. The doors to the bays remained locked down and he built a fire in the garage at nights and the smoke sneaked away through the gaps in the metal roof. The roof dripped from everywhere, smacking at the concrete. At night he slept under the counter in the station and Habana and the dog stayed in the garage. The wind blew and the sounds of the metal roof bending kept him anxious, so on the second night he put the dog outside in order to differentiate between the real and the imagined. During his searching, he had been able to gather a few items of need—clothes, canned foods, a lighter, a hatchet, and a length of rope. He’d held on to some things, not from necessity but because they interested him—a personalized coffee mug with a picture of twin girls, a Saints football jersey with a faded autograph, a pair of roller skates, and a Merle Haggard CD. He sat around the fire in the garage and held these things and imagined the lives they had belonged to. The names of the twins and which one had been born first. What kind of kid still knew how to roller-skate. The boy standing against the railing with his football under his arm and a hopeful look on his face as the players stopped and began to sign autographs. The roughneck or maybe the old man sitting on the back porch in a still, starry night, with a strong drink in his hand, while Merle played over the stereo. The woman who came out and
sat with him and their hands together and no words. Only the song in the air and the quiet that belonged to two people who loved each other. He kept these things on a shelf in the garage next to empty oil drums and forgotten socket wrenches.