Thursday, September 20, 2007

Watermark -- a story

Good afternoon. I decided to post one of my recently written stories instead of a photo this time. If I can find the photo (printed in the Dalton, GA newspaper in 2000 or 2001) that I want to illustrate the story, I'll do so. (--couldn't find that photo, so I'm adding one from Columbia, SC, taken at an abandoned motel swimming pool. Sorry for the potential break in narrative. The photo is self-titled "at your own risk". --)

To a certain, very limited, extent, I'm taking a break from the "photo" part of this blog for a minute.

So, let me indulge myself by letting loose another portion of my repertoire.

And here we go. The beagle's outside howling for a walk and I go to work soon, so I have to keep the intro short.

WATERMARK -- copyright by J. Daniel Cloud, 2007 and forward

Charles crossed the railroad tracks and looked to the right through a gap in the row of decrepit shotgun shacks, one of which bore a sign saying it had been condemned. It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

The rough-hewn bare wood pillars that had once propped up the roof over the porch had collapsed, allowing it to droop precariously, like the bill of a disconsolate heron. Between the shacks Charles could see up the creek that ran through this old mill village. It skirted the backyards of all the houses on his street, making a sharp bend before going through a cement pipe under the road.

Those little Mexican kids were down in the creek again, splashing in briefs or diapers depending on their age. There were six of them, the eldest about ten years old. They lived in the house two up from Charles’s rental, along with their parents – twin brothers and their wives – and spent most afternoons in the creek. The older ones had dammed up the narrow stream. They’d pulled greenish clay from the three-foot-tall walls of the miniature canyon to reinforce and waterproof their dam of bricks and cinderblocks. Now there was a respectable pool built up behind the dam.
One of these days, one of those kids is gonna drown in there, Charles thought. Too bad. They’re cute. Or at least the littlest ones are.

The kids had been in their pool when Charles left soon after noon. The older ones probably should've been in school. It was mid-September, after all. Maybe they didn't go to school. They didn't speak English. Charles figured if they were in school, they'd know at least some English. And there they were again, playing in the creek. It was almost sundown.

After passing the shotgun shacks and rounding the right-hand curve, Charles had only a short distance to walk to his own house. To an outside observer it would have been just one more falling-down-but-still-livable house in the little village, but this place had been a godsend for Charles after he got out of the treatment center. That man with the beard at the halfway house had helped him find it. He’d been here for going on four months now, which meant he’d been clean nigh unto six months. The house wasn’t in great condition. You don’t get fancy for $200 a month, even in north Georgia. But it had a roof and all, even a refrigerator and a stove. No washing machine, though. The other houses the landlord owned on this road had washers. Charles knew because he could see the soapy water washing into the creek when people did their laundry.

Some guy from the county had been out to this road a few weeks before, wearing a tie, looking in the creek and making notes on a pad as he walked around the mill village. He had come back in the evening a couple days later. He walked around to all the doors in the neighborhood, telling some people they needed to replace their septic tanks, and others that their washer and dish water shouldn’t be piped out into the ditch at the street or to the creek behind the houses. He had talked to Charles some, but didn’t have anything bad to say. Mostly he had asked about the creek, how often Charles got sick, that kind of thing. Charles wouldn't have answered his questions – they seemed disconnected and a little nosy – but the man said he worked for the county and Charles didn’t think he was in a position to challenge anybody who worked for the government. He didn’t want to get in trouble with anybody official.

As Charles neared the gate through the fence in front of his house he looked between the houses again and could just see the tops of the children's heads. They were still in the water, still splashing around and laughing. He figured they were fine. Their lackluster dog was sitting unconcerned in his accustomed place on top of the house in the corner of a chicken-wire pen next to the creek. It wasn’t much of a doghouse. More of a cobbled-together pile of scrap plywood. It had a slanting floor because it sat on the slight hill.

The dog didn’t seem to mind. He rarely entered the house with its pile of old blankets, sodden from the water that ran out of the ground and down to the creek. Most of the time he slept on top of the house. It was flat and dry.

Walking in his front door, Charles went to the refrigerator and grabbed a beer before flopping on the couch in front of the television, where he settled into the broken-down curve of brown and tan cushions. As usual, he'd stay there until bedtime, getting up only to nuke a couple of frozen beef and bean burritos and, occasionally, to grab another beer. No reason to get up. No phone, so nobody'd be calling. No real friends. They were all farther down south. He'd been in Georgia when he got in trouble, had been sent to the treatment center here, and hadn't seen any real point in leaving town when he got out. They'd set him up in this house and helped him find a part-time job with a landscaper. He'd never had a house of his own before and found he liked the feel of it.

About 10 o'clock, right before the news came on, the rain started, one of those rains that don't creep up on you. It had been sultry but dry before, and began full-on pouring within a few seconds. It hadn't rained like this in the time Charles had lived here. He'd moved in just after the springtime rainy season ended, back in late May. Since then, it had rained but little, maybe for a half-hour or so at a time. Never did more than make the yards sloppy and shiny where the septic tanks were, but then the water ran off to the creek and the creek ran off to the river, which ran off to wherever it went.

This rain, though, it was different.

It started out as if it had been raining for an hour, and continued in that vein until Charles was lulled to sleep by its drumming on the uninsulated metal roof. He had watched the news. They were calling for localized floods but didn't say what the locations were. Then one of those forensic crime-solving shows came on, contributing to his stupor. He wasn't a fan. Too much thinking involved. Too many people convinced of their own cleverness. He eventually turned it down but not off. People talking at night reminded him of sleeping in the dorm at the center. He hadn't yet grown accustomed to the absence of others.

When Charles awoke it was light outside. The TV wasn't on. He hit the power button on the remote control and nothing happened. Only then did he look around and notice that the kitchen light was off, as well. The power had apparently gone out.

Musta been the storm, he thought. It happens.

Then he swung his sock-clad feet off the couch, recoiling when he felt the saturated carpet. It was soaked right through. Water was standing in some low spots in the floor. He had left his work boots on the floor next to the couch. He pulled them on and laced them up, glancing around the living room and connected kitchen while doing so. Other than the water on the floor, there didn't seem to be much damage. He walked to the front door, his boots squelching on the water-soaked carpet, and looked out. There were puddles in the yard and the ditch was standing full. The old lady next door was sitting on her front porch.

"How's everything?" Charles asked. "Some storm, huh?"

She didn't say anything. Just sat there and looked through him.

Stuck-up bitch, Charles said to himself. She probably knows I got sent away and doesn't want to talk to somebody like me.

He walked down the 20-foot-wide space between the two houses, his and hers, and into the backyard. There wasn't much of it, only about 40 feet between the house and the creek – which had overflowed and flooded his yard and all the adjoining ones he could see. It had risen high enough to enter the house, which accounted for the wet floor. The yards didn't slope much, probably 18 inches in the 40 feet down to the creek. The water level had gone down some, but was still high enough to get right up to the back of the houses. It was brown and foamy, and wasn't rushing by the way a flooded creek should.

"It's blocked up somewhere downstream."

Charles heard the voice and looked around for its source. There was a young man standing in the water behind his neighbor's house, his feet barely visible below the brown wash. He was wearing knee-high black rubber boots, with tan pants tucked into them. Above, he was wearing one of those bright-yellow hooded rubber raincoats, although it had stopped raining hours before. He had a camera slung over his shoulder, hanging outside the coat.

"The creek's blocked up somewhere," the man repeated. "The water is about a foot deep where it crosses the road up there. You alright?"

"Yeah, I'm okay. House is a little wet. Not too bad."

"You're lucky, then," the man said. "This whole neighborhood’s flooded. Lot of people had to leave in the middle of the night. Your power out? Everybody else's is, all around here. I work for the newspaper. That's why I'm down here. Working on a story and trying to get some pictures. I asked the lady next door if it was cool for me to come back here. She didn't say no, so I figured it was alright. You mind?"

"No, go ahead."

"Okay if you're in some of the pictures? Might not use any of them, but I have to ask."

"That's fine."

"What's your name? I've gotta have a name to go with the picture. They don't like it when I don't get somebody's name, unless there's a crowd. Then it's okay."

"Name's Charles Martin."

"You go by Charles, or Chuck or something?"


The reporter wrote down the name and scribbled for a minute before putting his notebook in the back pocket of his pants. He lifted the camera and started walking toward Charles through the water.

"Don't come in the water, not without waterproof boots on," he told Charles. "This stuff's all kinds of nasty."

It's just water, Charles thought. Guy's some kind of pussy or something. Rubber boots for a little water.

"I've been working on a series about the sewage problem down here. County says the sewage flows right into the creek. Did you know that?"

"Some fella said something about that a while back," Charles said. "But my house wasn't one of the ones with a problem."

"Buddy, you've got a problem now. This whole neighborhood is on septic tanks and none of them work because they're too close to the creek. Even the ones that are in people's front yards are too low to function. They're almost as low as the creek, and they just can't work like that. So this creek is real bad polluted with the sewage. Don’t you read the newspaper?"

"No, I don’t,” Charles said, shortly. “I got enough to deal with myself without reading about other people’s troubles. Besides, it can’t be that bad. There's kids that play in there and everything. You don't think we'd know if the water had shit in it?"

“It’s not shit, exactly. Most of that is filtered out by the soil. But the other stuff, the bacteria and all, it washes down into the creek. I saw them doing the tests, man. It’s in there, and it’s serious. They’re talking about closing down all these houses unless people put in some kind of special system or pay to hook on to the sewer or something. Yeah, I’d say you have a problem.”

“Are you done with your pictures? I’m going back inside,” Charles said.

“I guess I’ve got what I need,” the reporter responded. “You have a good day, now.”

It’s a little late for a good day, Charles thought as he took the single step from the yard to what passed for a porch. Last night I had a decent house. Now I’m living in a wet piece of crap the county wants to condemn. At least I won’t have to work today. Too wet. And at least it’s not my house. Good thing I don’t own it. The sewer’s the landlord’s problem, not mine.

Standing in the back door of the house, Charles watched as the reporter walked behind the house next door and headed downstream into the Mexican family’s backyard. The fence where the dog lived was either covered by water or had washed away. The dog’s house was gone. He should’ve been able to see it sticking out of the water. The water wasn’t that deep.

Hope that dog’s okay, Charles thought. He’s smart enough to sleep on top of that shit hole instead of inside, but ain’t no way he’s smart enough to open the fence and get out. Maybe they let him sleep in the house last night. Hope he’s okay.

The newspaper man had walked out of sight around the curve of the creek. There wasn’t anybody else in sight.

Charles entered the house, leaving the door open behind him so everything could air out. He walked down the short hall, through the kitchen and into the living room, where he flopped down on the couch. He took off his boots before laying down. No sense getting the couch dirty and wet. At least it was still dry. That was something.



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