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P1010530Tyson had been gone for days, finishing a new record with his band. That Sunday morning, when he finally came home, there were warning signs that things weren’t right—every local hermit weirdo was wandering the streets, and Mildred looked frantic, babbling about the mandatory evacuation. She said the mayor was calling it “the storm we’ve long feared.” Tyson had been running hard on cocaine and vodka. He was barely aware that a hurricane was coming. They lived in the Bywater neighborhood, which was already deserted.

He steadied his eyes and gave Mildred his best cowboy look. “Fuck it. Let’s stay,” he said. “We’ve left every fucking time, and for what?”

She always said that he resembled a young Clint Eastwood, with his squinty eyes and the way he clenched a cigarette in his back teeth. Tyson knew that his red hair and vintage gas station attendant uniform, which was threadbare and rotten from body odor, bore no resemblance to Clint, but he was usually grimy enough to have just stepped out of a Spaghetti Western.

She stopped packing her cat’s favorite toys and stared at him. “Here, just you and me? That actually sounds nice,” she said.

He had a way of coaxing her, and now she was smiling her pretty smile. Although she was barely 30, she looked closer to 40. With dishwater hair and unmaintained brows, she was a far cry from the slender beauty of her days as one of the groupies who threw themselves at Tyson—and still do.

Tyson knew he was a shit—he would admit this when he was sober—and that her kindness, which was the most consistent element in his life, kept him anchored. He took Mildred in his arms and led her in a slow dance, just as he had seven years ago on their wedding day. He loved her name. Mildred had always hated it, but it reminded Tyson of Tom Waits singing his favorite song, “Waltzing Matilda.”

He broke away from their dance and looked into her eyes, which was always his way of checking in with her. He suggested they hunker down with his band’s manager, who was known only as Cheeseburger, and his wife Janice, at their place in the Ninth Ward.

“Why can’t we just stay here? I thought you wanted to.”

Tyson told her to put away the cat carrier, which she had dubbed “Toonces’ Taxi,” and to pack an overnight bag. “It’ll be a party. Plus, we’d go stir crazy here,” he said, figuring they’d only be gone a day or two. “Besides, you and Janice get along.”

“Well, it does sound kind of fun,” she said, but still looked anxious. She reluctantly put out enough food and water for Toonces to last weeks, and took a long five minutes saying goodbye to the 18-year-old cat. She treated it like a child. Mildred wanted kids, and they had been trying for over a year. Tyson secretly assumed his sperm count was low but hadn’t done anything about it.

By the afternoon, it was windy and raining steadily as they drove into the Ninth Ward in Tyson’s little pickup. He did a double take when he saw the crack dealers milling around, all looking very available. He slowed, trying to watch in his mirror but couldn’t because the back window had a hole smashed in it, which was plugged with a moldy towel. He recognized a couple characters and wanted to stop, figuring it was a fire sale. But he had promised Mildred he was done with that shit. When she put her hand on his thigh and caught his eye, he felt guilty for even thinking about it.

They pulled into his manager’s front yard, which served as his driveway. Janice opened the front door and waved them in. She was about 20 years older than Cheeseburger and had always reminded Tyson of Jerry Garcia in a muumuu. In the living room, Tyson put Mildred’s bag in the corner, and Mildred sat down on the couch all fidgety and looked around for Janice’s cat.

“You guys want to smoke?” Janice giggled and then said, “There’s good pot. We have games, backgammon and Parcheesi. There’s ice-cream sandwiches in the freezer, and a few pounds of Royal Reds are already thawing. I think we’re ready for this. Cheeseburger’s still out, but he’ll be back soon.”

“No thanks,” Tyson said waiving her off, “but it might calm Mildred down.” He heard the screen door slap and then Cheeseburger whistling.

Tyson went into the kitchen. Cheeseburger was bent over with his head in the refrigerator. “Did you see all those guys down the street?” Tyson said. He took the can of beer Cheeseburger was holding out above the door.

“That’s all taken care of,” Cheeseburger said, straightening up. He was large and constantly wore a sleeveless jean jacket. A wispy mustache barely matched his shoe-polish coiffure and rockabilly sideburns. “We’ve got plenty of everything.” He cracked a beer and held it up to Tyson’s. “As REO Speedwagon says, here’s to riding the storm out.”

Leading Mildred through the kitchen towards the backdoor, Janice announced to the men they were going to listen to the messages in the wind. Tyson shot Mildred a look, and she held his gaze as if she knew what Janice was talking about.

“Hold on,” Cheeseburger said, holding up his hand and reaching into the cupboard. “Let me show them what I got for my birthday.” The women stopped to look, still holding hands. He pulled out a brown paper bag containing a block of cocaine.

“Janice, pour us some drinks while I work on this,” Cheeseburger said and then took it out to the dining room.

Janice, hooking a six-pack of Coke with her thumb and grabbing a bottle of Crown Royal from the kitchen counter, followed him, telling Mildred and Tyson to grab some glasses. When they came into the dining room, Cheeseburger was chiseling at the brick of cocaine with an icepick. As Tyson watched, chunks the size of Mildred’s dental retainer fell from the white brick like pieces sliding off a glacier.

Cheeseburger chopped, scraped, and pulled the powder with his driver’s license until he had a parade of white rails.

“It’s something else,” Janice said. “It’s been stepped on, obviously, but once you get going—” Janice focused on rolling a cigarette. “You just have to indulge, except I overdid it last night.” She laughed and lit her cigarette, dabbing tobacco from her tongue with her middle finger. “It kind of put me on a bummer.” She laughed again.

“Where did you get this?” Mildred asked, looking concerned.

Tyson winced. His wife didn’t know what she was talking about.

“Where do you think?” Janice said. “You know. Cheeseburger got it yesterday.”

“Sure. I know,” Mildred said. “But I’m still going to go easy. Let’s not go overboard,” she said to Tyson. She tied her hair back and snorted half of hers.

“What do you think?” Tyson said to Mildred. Cocaine usually made her pretty edgy.

She flashed the look she gave when she didn’t want to cause a scene. She then switched nostrils and finished the line. They rarely partied together anymore.

They all did lines and then sat in silence, listening to the wind howl. Tyson had almost forgotten about the storm. He stared down at the tabletop, which was in desperate need of refinishing. He held his head in his hands and grinned. “Jesus.”

Janice laughed.

“What’s funny?” Tyson said after a very long time.

“Hell, I don’t know,” Janice said. She wiped her nose and giggled again, and Mildred and Cheeseburger laughed.

Then Mildred began staring at Janice—and blinking. “You said something about me being on a bummer. Why’d you say that?”

“I didn’t say that. But I can tell you’re tripping now.”

Tyson settled back in his chair, and looked over at the living-room window, which was making a racket, the wind knocking it around in the frame. He could see the television in its reflection, and he zoned out again, this time on a diaper commercial.

“Let’s pull all the mattresses out here and lean them against the windows,” Mildred said abruptly.

“Our aura is fine. We don’t need protection. Please don’t invite those spirits here, okay?” Janice said as she reached over and touched Mildred’s forearm.

Tyson was unsure which way his wife would go and hoped she kept it together. He felt her eyes on him but couldn’t look at her. Instead, he kept staring at the TV’s reflection as the wind began to sound like it was in pain and angry. Even though it was pitch black, he could see the rain falling in sideways circles outside.

“Okay,” Mildred said to Janice. “All I’m saying is it’s a big mistake to stay.”

“And I say stay,” Janice said.

Mildred didn’t say anything else, and they settled in at the dining-room table to play dominoes. The lights occasionally flickered. Tyson thought he could feel the entire house shift.

“What’s that noise?” Mildred said, pointing at the kitchen.

They tried to listen over the storm and the house creaking.“It’s probably Bobbie, our cat,” Cheeseburger said, having to raise his voice over the storm.

He got up and ambled into the kitchen.

“Jesus Christ,” he said, yelling.  “I thought it was a cat toy. You guys have to come see this.”

They joined him in the kitchen. The cat was nowhere to be seen. There was a rat’s head about six inches apart from the rest of its body. A little blood trail ran between it. Tyson couldn’t stop looking at its long tail.

“Bobbie brought us a present,” Cheeseburger said. “I didn’t even notice it earlier—just stepped over it.”

Janice looked at Cheeseburger and then at Mildred. “Now I’m hearing it too,” Janice said. “That sound—let’s push everything in front of the windows and doors.” Tyson went back to the dining-room table and did a line. Cheeseburger joined him.

* * *

By midnight, it was just the two men at the dining-room table. They had switched to poker. They had not bothered to check on their wives, who had been in the back bedroom for some time.

Tyson was watching the cigarette smoke roll from his lips when the lights flickered and the power went out.

They didn’t miss a beat. Cheeseburger lit the candles already out on the table.

“Should we go check on them?” Tyson said.

Cheeseburger casually shook his head and said, “You guys seem to have come a long way.” He talked about last year when Tyson came home from their tour with the clap. All he had to say to Mildred was, “You’re holding me back.” She didn’t leave until he got restless soon after and brought home a derelict crackhead named Sharon, just to be obnoxious.

“We have,” said Tyson. “I was out of control.”

After some time, Tyson said, “Do you have a Zanibar? I think I’m ready to crash.” He needed something before he could be with Mildred. He expected to get the same old rash of shit for staying up and partying.

Cheeseburger handed it to Tyson. “Don’t take the whole thing,” he said. “Last thing we need right now is an OD.”

Tyson examined it. It was scored into four pieces like a small white Tootsie Roll. He snapped it in half. He ate half and then looked at the remainder, popping it, too. He figured on sleeping through the rest of the storm.

He made it to the guest bedroom and passed out next to Mildred—who was definitely still awake—before she could start in.

 

When Tyson came to, Mildred was shaking him and crying. He thought he heard her saying the house was filling with water, but the Xanax kept pulling him under.

He came to again when Cheeseburger slapped his face and yelled at him to get up, and then he disappeared. Unable to think, he picked up his shoes. He’d passed out wearing his pants and nothing else.

As Mildred led him to the hallway, Tyson was so looped he ran into the doorframe. Passing by the master bedroom, he could see that Cheeseburger and Janice were frantic. Cheeseburger had pried up floorboards and was stuffing a backpack.

In the living room, water was pouring through the grout lining the fireplace, and the furniture was already beginning to float. Stunned and standing in water, Tyson let go of Mildred’s hand and barely noticed her slosh into the kitchen. He waded over to the living-room window and peered outside. It was like they were in the middle of a raging river.

There was a loud crash in the back of the house. Tyson turned around to look for Mildred but couldn’t see her. Cheeseburger came splashing into the living room and, without saying a word, tossed the backpack at Tyson. Then he was gone back down the hallway.

The water was up to Tyson’s waist as he waded through the dining room. He found Mildred in the kitchen crouched on top of the refrigerator. The windows had shattered, and the backdoor was a mangled-hinge away from being taken away by the current.

“Come on,” he said to her, holding out his arms.

“Where’s Bobbie? We have to get Bobbie!” Mildred said.

“Who’s Bobbie?” Tyson screamed, reaching for her. She crawled down and clung to him, sinking her fingernails into his neck, sobbing.

The current was strong, and the cold water overtook them, shocking Tyson awake. They made it through the backdoor, and he was able to grab hold of the hanging gutter. He looked up at the dawn sky, which was a menacing, glowing aqua, oddly reminding him of a picture of the Caribbean. Mildred was still holding on to him when he flung the backpack onto the roof.

“You’ve got to help me,” Tyson said. “Try to pull yourself up.” He looked up and saw Janice standing over them. She was there on the roof, like an apparition.

 

Now, it was Monday morning, and the two couples sat on the roof in the wind and pouring rain. Tyson was trying to stay awake but kept nodding off. Mildred screamed and cried and shook him and then gave up. In his narcotic state, the rain and rising water sounded like a cat cleaning itself, which was mesmerizing and made it all the more impossible to keep his eyes open. He tried to sing to stay conscious but wasn’t sure the words were even coming out.

By the afternoon, when he finally stood and looked around, he saw only dark water and roofs everywhere. He staggered over to the edge of the roof and studied the murky water, which looked like an abyss.

“Nice to have you back,” Cheeseburger said.

Tyson was soaked. The air was thick and drizzly. Mildred was curled up, wet and shivering. She was barely responsive, which disturbed him. He tried to comfort her, but her only answer was that she wanted Toonces.

“That fucking cat,” Tyson muttered under his breath, to which Mildred had no reaction.

That night, the city sounded nothing like Tyson had ever heard before. There were constant gunshots and screaming.

Sometime before dawn they heard someone swimming towards them. “Who’s there?” Cheeseburger called into the darkness.

“Oh, praise the Lord,” a man’s voice said and splashed closer from the darkness. “I’m just a God-fearing soul and want to live.”

They helped him onto the roof. He was towing a bicycle and pulled it up behind him. Children’s floaties were fastened to the frame.

“Do you have any water?” Tyson said to the stranger. It was too dark to make out the man’s face.

“All I’ve got is that bike,” the stranger said, pointing at it. He sat for a moment tapping a fingernail on his front teeth. Tyson saw the glimmer of a gold tooth. The man then set a pistol down on the sandpapery shingles and said, “I’ve got this, too, but it’s wet.” He paused and then said, “You got any food?”

Janice, with a deadpan expression, held up a flimsy produce bag. “We have lemons and limes.”

“It’s all I could grab,” Cheeseburger said.

* * *

When the sun rose Tuesday morning, with it came heat. It was 110 degrees at least. And there was a new sound in the distance, helicopters echoing off the water. It was a gut-wrenching tease to hear them pulsating in every direction, giving hope that someone was coming.

There wasn’t anything to do but sit and wait. Each couple had their own space on the roof, as did the stranger, who was staring off with his head propped up on his bike.

Tyson was actually relieved when Mildred pushed him away. She didn’t seem to be in shock anymore despite her facing the opposite direction at any given moment. “Are you mad?” he said.

“All I want right now is Toonces.”

Tyson sat silent, picking at a shingle. Shirtless, his fair skin was already severely burnt by the afternoon. He was sweating profusely and felt feverish.

“This is your fault,” she said, furrowing her eyebrows.

“Lower your voice,” Tyson said without looking up. He stroked his beard, which was more patchy red peach fuzz than whiskers, and knew what she was going to say next. He was an addict. He hated that word, addict.

Mildred’s bottom lip curled over like it always did just before she cried. She covered her face and began balling. No matter how many times he tried to comfort her, she blocked him with her elbows.

Late that afternoon, as they were eating the last lemon, a National Guard helicopter finally came, sending gross black mist into their faces.

Shingles and slop was flying everywhere. A soldier in a helmet and dark goggles studied them from the open side of the helicopter. He offered no communication, not even a wave. Tyson noticed fellow refugees already onboard.

A basket was lowered, and Cheeseburger, by far the biggest, said Janice was going up first. Janice was in the basket when the soldier motioned for one more. Cheeseburger joined her without hesitating. He didn’t even look at Tyson.

It felt like forever as Tyson watched the basket go up, dangling and swinging overhead. Mildred was wrapped tight around Tyson and had her face buried in his armpit. He looked down at her, then at the stranger who had joined them in the middle of the night. The stranger’s neck freakishly hyperextended as he tracked the helicopter with cloudy, reptilian eyes.

Cheeseburger and Janice made it into the side opening of the chopper. The basket didn’t immediately return down. The soldier twisted around and was talking to someone inside the helicopter.

Tyson had never felt so anxious and started screaming about the basket.

Mildred looked up for a long second but just as quickly buried her face again. He could feel her breathing under his arm; she was beginning to hyperventilate.

Tyson stopped yelling for a moment to look at the stranger again, who was now staring back. It frightened him when he saw the stranger’s eyes and how crazy they had become.

As the basket finally began to lower again, the stranger said, “I’m next.”

Tyson was shocked.

“One of you can come,” he said over the noise of the helicopter, making visible the gun tucked in his waistband. “But Lord help me, if I’m not in there, I’ll kill you.”

The stranger got in the basket and looked up at the soldier. With one hand holding the cable, he insistently jabbed his finger skyward.

Tyson told Mildred to get in the basket, but she didn’t even lift her head. After the stranger made it to the helicopter, the basket didn’t redeploy. The soldier looked down at them and gave the cutthroat signal.

Tyson was on his tiptoes, hysterical, screaming obscenities. Mildred was hunched over with her arms around his waist. He realized she was fainting when her hold loosened. He laid her down on the roof and continued to yell and shake his fists. The wind felt like it was whipping down at 100 miles per hour.

The soldier responded by twisting around for a minute and talking to someone behind him. He then turned back around and tossed out a package to Tyson, which bounced off the roof and bobbed in the black water.

The next one the soldier threw clopped Tyson on the head, knocking him down. Tyson looked at it and read: MEAL, READY-TO-EAT/LASAGNA. The chopper then peeled around and disappeared behind a row of houses.

All the hope that colored the afternoon—they were certain another helicopter would come—vanished by the middle of the night. Mildred was passed out asleep, and Tyson felt like they were the only two people on the face of the earth.

When he finally drifted off, he had a fever dream about the sky above them. It was too close and awash like the Northern Lights, and he heard lonely harmonium tones echoing like they were inside an aquarium. When he slowly came to and saw bright-white flashes, the loud explosions suddenly registered as real.

Bolts of electricity filled the sky towards downtown. A little later, he smelled an odor—it reminded him of the time at his dad’s old hunting cabin—like a litter of dead mice nestled in oven insulation. He had no idea what was happening.

“God, what’s that smell?” Mildred said.

Tyson licked his finger and stuck it in the air. “At least it’s blowing west.”

“No one’s coming,” she said and lay back down to sleep.

At dawn Wednesday, day three on the roof, they huddled and prayed for any indication of rescue. Mildred kept crying and saying she had a bad feeling about Toonces.

He looked at Mildred’s pajamas and feeling terrible, wanted to cry. They used to be light pink with a sweet little kitten pattern, but now they were tattered and filthy. Seeing her so ragged and worried, he felt sick. It wasn’t just dehydration. He had never felt so responsible or cruel. He remembered all the times his dad beat the dog, and now he felt just as heartless.

“Mildred, I’m going to change,” he said. “I promise.”

Wednesday morning’s heat was unbearable, and as the afternoon wore on, Tyson knew he had to do something. He stared at the bicycle that the stranger had lugged up onto the roof and then studied the black water. It looked bottomless and like a creature, a leviathan, and it kept him from speaking for quite some time. “Mildred,” he said, “I’m going for help.”

She was unresponsive and kept looking at the water.

He turned and looked at her. “Did you hear me? I’m going to swim for it. I’ll take that bike and ride home. Maybe I can get Oscar’s canoe. I’ll come back and get you out of here.”

“You won’t make it,” she said. Then she looked up at him. “Can you call Daddy?”

Her dad had never approved of Tyson and barely gave them his blessings. He was a rich asshole and the last person Tyson wanted to call, but he was probably the only person who could help them. “Okay,” he said.

As he lowered himself into the black sludgy water, he thought about snakes. As he clung to the gutter and began treading water, Mildred did her best to lower in the bicycle and helped him steady it. “Can you do this?” she said.

He had quit the swim team in the third grade after half a summer. Sports were never his thing. Plunking at the soupy water with panicked arms, accidentally splashing her, he saw incredible doubt on his wife’s face. Terrified, he swam away using an odd combination of the backstroke and breaststroke, pulling the bike. He didn’t say another word to her.

At first, he sank a little and struggled, but finally found his rhythm with a sufficient dogpaddle and rounded the street corner. He didn’t look back.

Surrounded by stillness, he kept to the center of the streets, figuring the shoreline was about a mile away. As he swam, a terrible emptiness overcame him and he tried not to picture the topography beneath him. It felt like when he was a little kid swimming at Silver Dollar City and imagining Jaws. He thought about what would be down there if he dove and touched the bottom, paddling faster.

Debris and plumes of waste were washing up against the houses. It was like he was swimming in dishwater. He had always wondered if he wasn’t born with dishwater in his blood. Before moving to New Orleans, the only job he’d ever had was washing dishes at his family’s restaurant in Warrensburg, Missouri. Those were the days, he thought now as he swam through the goop, when his paychecks all went to CDs and pot. Friday nights at age 14 were still innocent—he’d ride his bike home after work and write songs on his acoustic guitar.

There was an exposed second-story bedroom just above the waterline that had accumulated massive amounts of garbage, and it was there he saw the first body. It was facedown with blistered skin covered in gas bubbles. A little further, there was another caught on the barbed wire and chain-link fence of a parking lot.

Tyson kept thinking he saw movement in windows from the corner of his eye—phantoms and refugees. He saw a scruffy little dog in a window. It just watched him pass, never barked.

As he swam, he thought about the last time he’d seen his parents. His father had a cocaine problem, which was a fairly well-kept secret. But Tyson’s dad was unable to see him graduate high school because he was in jail. Around the same time, his mother filed for divorce and took over the family restaurant, and asked Tyson to help, but after visiting his dad in jail that one time, everything changed. He didn’t so much move to New Orleans as he fled, leaving behind most everything his parents had provided for him, especially the polo and button-down shirts and a career in the food industry. He was going to be something bigger in life than a restaurant manager. He was going to be a musician.

And he did, taking immediately to New Orleans’ underground scene, playing shirtless and sweaty in clubs, wearing heavy mascara and Sharpie-scribbled messages like “Satan Rules” on his bare back. Fueled on coke, he exploded as a performer and earned a reputation, which was now.

At one point, he wasn’t sure but thought he saw flames glowing from beneath the muck, probably from broken gas lines. Their edges flickered like fireflies. It made him think of a Village Voice journalist who had said three years ago during a telephone interview, about Tyson’s star burning bright, which now made his head feel like it was sizzling, like resin in a crack pipe.

A helicopter swooped overhead as Tyson swam an avenue. He stopped and tried waving it down, but it was useless.

He focused on ignoring the rancid taste on his lips and thought about Mildred, who he had always taken for granted, a realization he’d had many times before, but not like this. God, he wanted to live. He felt like such a clown as he remembered times on stage when he’d strike a Jesus pose and claim to embrace death.

 

It was early Wednesday afternoon when he finally reached dry land. He immediately crossed paths with a black family that looked like a roving gang. Flanked by shotgun-toting kids, a grandmother was carrying a baby and a grandfather was pushing a shopping cart filled with loot—sneakers, junk food, electronics. Tyson was relieved to see people but had a feeling he was the only person unarmed. Behind him were so many miles of stillness, yet seeing life again, the city appeared even more absurd.

Tyson had to stop to take in one particular sight: a city bus going the wrong way. Maybe they were rescuing people? He rode after it and finally got the bus to stop. The doors opened and he was greeted by the huge golden smile of the shirtless black man driving.

“Cops are holding the Quarter,” the man shouted. “And look out for mercenaries too!” He laughed maniacally and slapped the big bus steering wheel. “Everybody’s armed like in Iraq.”

“You have any water?” Tyson said.

The man offered him a hot can of beer, which seemed to just evaporate in Tyson’s throat.

When he said goodbye to the bus driver, Tyson realized he wasn’t far from home, which gave him hope that he might just make it. He felt like things were actually beginning to make sense. It had been a hot summer, and August was always the worst. New Orleans was like a criminal when you got down to it.

He found a working payphone, which was some kind of miracle. He spoke to the operator and reluctantly called Mildred’s father.

Riding home, he stopped at an off-ramp where an old lady lay prone in the late sun. Her hands were bleeding. She said, “I was in my house for days, up to my waist in water.” Tyson opened a Strawberry Shortcake umbrella lying next to her and kept going.

He only had a few blocks to go. Pumping those pedals through his neighborhood, his skin felt like a full-body mud-mask, which stung as it dried in the breeze.

* * *

He broke in through the bathroom window and called for the cat, but Toonces didn’t come. The house was an oven, and he found the old cat beneath its favorite chair in the bedroom. Tyson knew the cat was dead without even touching it. When he sat down, he wept uncontrollably. He could become teary when he was strung-out, especially when he sang certain songs, but this was altogether different.

He pulled himself up, knowing he had to get back to Mildred. He cut through a few backyards. The neighborhood was abandoned, and he headed to Oscar’s house for the canoe. He found it in an overgrown patch of weeds and had to peel it away from its resting spot.

He had to carry the boat about a mile and felt safer by hiding his head under the canoe—no one bothered him. He used an old board for a paddle and was surprised by his command on the water. By the time he was gliding up to the roof, his wife gradually stood and watched in shock.

“Where’s Toonces?” Mildred said right away.

Tyson became flushed with dread. He knew that she knew.

She looked stunned, and he got out of the canoe to comfort her. At first, she allowed him as they stood together by the edge of the roof.

“You bastard!” she said, pounding his chest, except she had no strength. “Fucking bastard. You killed my cat.”

“I’m so sorry. It was too hot in there for him.”

“Toonces was all I had.”

“You’ve got me.”

Mildred got into the boat and went to the front. She didn’t say another word.

On their way out, Tyson surprised himself as he guided the boat. He’d never actually maneuvered a canoe before. The same scruffy dog he had passed earlier was still watching from the window. Rescuing the little guy was easy. Tyson stuck his paddle through the window, and the little dog, which he named Patches as he called it, came to him. Mildred just stared at the water.

 

A day later, they were no more than 30 minutes in the air, with four hours to go before refueling God knows where, when Tyson vomited. He had gorged on cured salami rations and milk at the Louis Armstrong International Airport. Mildred was seated next to him and offered another airsickness bag. Mildred’s father, who was in the front seat next to the pilot, had chartered the single-engine, four-passenger airplane to Oakland.

Mildred’s father didn’t even acknowledge Tyson when they had met in the airport terminal. He and his daughter embraced and walked away with their arms around each other. For a second, Tyson thought he should take a swing at the old man and get it over with, but instead he just followed along behind them. During takeoff, Tyson became drenched and could feel beads of sweat running down his legs. He wasn’t wearing socks and had sweat through his rotten Chuck Taylors.

Tyson looked up to see his father-in-law twisted around from the co-pilot’s seat and surveying him. “Daddy” wore a look of disgust as he raised his aviator sunglasses, and Tyson saw eyes fill with contempt—no trace of compassion. Her dad turned back around in his seat, shaking his head. It was so noisy in the plane that the sun-faded headsets were required to communicate. Her dad’s voice came booming over the radio, when he said, “Goddamn son, don’t you chew your food?”

Tyson could see the instrument panel and the ETA. He felt the ticking countdown of every single miserable second and could do nothing but slump over in his seat.

Mildred’s father looked out ahead and said, “Goddamn, son, we’ve still got four hours to go.”

Tyson said nothing. He was accustomed to god-awful hangovers and sickness in his band’s hot, crammed van, a former sate prison shuttle with the windows sealed shut. He was determined to ignore Mildred’s father.

“You should have known better,” her dad said without turning around. He then said, “But thank God my baby girl is okay.”

Mildred glanced up at her father with a strained smile and then returned to staring out her window.

It took all of Tyson’s energy to remove his headset. He didn’t want to listen to his father-in-law. He preferred listening to the propeller’s drone, which undulated as they dipped and tossed about. He had to find mercy somehow and had never felt so claustrophobic. When he looked out the window and saw the miles and miles and a rounded-out patchwork of greens and browns, it felt like they were high enough to be in the stratosphere. It was hard to believe there was any ground below.

Then they caught a downdraft that plunged the small aircraft like a massive rollercoaster hill, and Tyson’s dry heaves caused the dog to begin howling from the back. From the corner of his eye, he could see Mildred, her gaze still fixated out the window. She didn’t even turn her head.

Tyson looked out his window again and couldn’t help thinking that it was only a matter of the sheet metal at his feet keeping him from an unfathomable free fall. His only relief was that he could hear Tom Waits and his sad melody itching at the back of his brain. He’d always reached for it but could never quite touch it, not as an artist—and now, not as a husband. Tyson’s mind went utterly blank, and he realized the song was no longer a melody or a woman. Matilda was a ghost he’d never have, and yet she was all that remained.

 

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MATT MCCONNELL has a career in finance and moonlights in the literary arts.  This is his first published story, and he couldn’t be more excited.  This one is dedicated to Bob S., who stuck with him until he finally discovered Stanford Continuing Studies had workshops that take anybody.  He lives in Mountain View, California, with his family.

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TNB FICTION is proud to showcase book excerpts and original short fiction from some of the finest writers in the world. Features have included work by Aimee Bender, Dan Chaon, Stuart Dybek, Jennifer Egan, Bret Easton Ellis, Roxane Gay, Etgar Keret, Antonya Nelson, and hundreds of other internationally acclaimed and emerging writers. Spotlighting a recent book release each week, TNB Fiction helps bring awareness of new literary fiction, from both trade and independent publishers, to readers around the world, providing a global, free-access arena for spotlighting the genre in an era of shrinking coverage among mainstream print publications. TNB Fiction has its finger on the pulse of a vibrant new generation of writers, as well as established literary greats whose work continues to shape the future dialogue of literary culture. Fiction Editor Rachael Warecki lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere, and has received residency invitations from the Wellstone Center and Ragdale. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently at work on a novel.

7 responses to “TNB Original Fiction: “Waltzing Mildred,” by Matt McConnell”

  1. Wes says:

    Great read. Sign of good things to come – looking forward to the next story. Not sure Tyson is though!

  2. Tina says:

    Great story, Matt! I liked this from the get-go, and it just got better and better.

  3. Bobby Luv says:

    I feel so Dirty,Guilty & Ashamed. Yet I have done nothing more than lose myself in this story of self loathing and destruction. It made me feel much like I did the first time I saw the movie PULP FICTION on the big screen which to this day is still one of my top 5 favs of all time.. This Kid can write, forget about the finance career, Some publisher needs to scoop up this talent!!! & So Handsome!!!

  4. Monte says:

    That was amazing. I’m Sure Bob S. would agree you have come a long way with your writing skills!!! The problem with contemporary literature is that it is like watching a mainstream Hollywood motion picture. It is so cram packed full of SHIT, flashy cinematography, special effects, and story lines that are truly an insult to someone with any intellect. Thank you for not contributing to the mindless trash being distributed by our mainstream media outlets.

  5. Ivan says:

    Well done Elvis. Gimme some more.

  6. Chris says:

    Great story!!! I love this gritty stuff.

  7. Tiffany says:

    Wonderful story, Matt. I came across this by total accident and am glad I did. Truly an amazing short story with so much packed into it.

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