By Garland Patterson
I still remember the day we left. My pale, 11-year-old shoulders were uncharacteristically pink — sore and burnt rosy from weeks at summer camp. Freckles sprinkled down my arms like constellations on a dark night. It was hot, and it was August, four days after my birthday to be exact. Tired, I squirmed with uneasiness as my back stuck to the weathered leather seats of my mother’s Chevy Suburban. I beamed through the beads of sweat that ran down my forehead; I had been awarded the superlative of “Most Genuine” in my cabin, and my excited chatter rose to match the whirring of the engine as it pounded across miles of black asphalt.
Momma was quiet.
She’d never say, but I could tell she was scared, too. Her warm green eyes wrinkled with worry each time the odometer ticked another mile. This time we weren’t going home.
We would not go back to the white-columned brick house I had spent each day running through. No rocking chairs on the porch, jasmine tangled green and yellow on the fence, or woodpeckers outside my window. I’d never tell, but I’d miss lying awake and listening to them tip-tap away.
Two hours on the road turned into four, and four into six. Soon enough the crisp air of the Ozarks became a warm and muggy bayou. It was stagnant and uncomfortable, like a wet blanket wrapped around freckled shoulders — it was suffocating.
An hour across the Louisiana state line we stopped at a roadside stand — it is still Momma’s favorite way to get a lay of the land. Peaches, butter beans, and honey for her, a transcendental state of disconnect and a watermelon for me. Mosquitoes buzz.
I’ve never been fond of birds — maybe it was those lost hours of sleep listening to woodpeckers. Maybe that’s why I noticed that not a single bird circled above my head. Maybe two years was too soon to fly home. Two years of living without a father, two years of utter chaos and destruction, two years of tears and rain and floods that washed over this unfamiliar place. Even if it was supposed to, this sure didn’t feel like home.
The birds and mosquitoes weren’t the only things I noticed. Soon enough the sea concrete slabs I had seen standing lonesome were littered with blue tarps and FEMA trailers. The same blue marked the names of streets I couldn’t pronounce and flashed in the lights of cars that flew over potholes and through traffic lights. Amidst the “vieux’s” and “eaux’s,” I stared blankly at greenish blurs of ancient oak trees swaying slowly, dropping leaves like dark snow onto the rot that lay at their feet. Some withered brown, others stood crooked with missing limbs, some split right down the middle. My favorites glistened purple, gold, silver, and red; the beads hanging around their gnarled branches like diamonds on my mother’s neck.
But one tree had none of these. Instead, a blue and white speedboat hung high above the street, balancing on beds of Spanish moss. Tears stung the corners of my eyes as I stared up in fear and intense curiosity.
“Here?” I choked, between salty gasps and whimpers, then recoiled into my seat.
That single word would ring in my ears for years that followed. It would permeate every move I made, numbing me, casting the vibrant pulse of the city around me dull and gray. It made me hate the moss that draped lazily over centuries of oaks, the tanned faces and funny voices with accents I couldn’t make sense of, the fishing boat. It made me hate my mother and father for choosing to settle in a place full of words I couldn’t pronounce, roads that looped endlessly in and out of the same neighborhood and ditches that flooded if the rain fell for more than 10 minutes.
Eventually, those accents became the lullabies I long for when I am away, the faces those that light up my phone and welcome me with open arms even though I still don’t bleed purple or gold. That tree still stands tall on St. Charles Avenue, and I must have passed it a hundred times. Everything is different now. I don’t quake with fear, but the curiosity remains. It weaves in and out of the city the same way those twisted roots do. Eleven years later and someone finally came to find their boat, and I found mine, too. It navigates the murky waters of a place I still don’t fully know. Before I jump in, I sit and rest beneath a tree and smile knowing I can pronounce “Tchoupitoulas,” and for now, that is enough for me.