September 2012

Butte La Rose

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The news on his car radio isn’t good. In Louisiana, state officials have announced that Butte La Rose, a small town of around 800 homes situated on a river basin, will be intentionally flooded at noon by opening a spillway to divert water from the already overflowing Mississippi. The measure will, these same officials contend, steer the oncoming deluge away from the more populous cities of Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

“The residents have been forewarned,” the governor announces, “and every effort is being made to move them to safer locales.” He adds, “Unfortunately, the state will not be able to compensate them for any losses, but FEMA is already on the ground giving whatever aid they can.”

Fifteen hundred miles away, as he pulls into the faculty parking lot, Albert Vance pictures the scene. Impoverished people, living on crawfish and welfare, thrown out of their homes without so much as a fair warning. They’ll leave without much complaint, just as the powerless always do, grateful for anything the government might dole in their direction. They’ll wind up, the lot of them, in some high school gymnasium among a universe of folding cots, the food line stretching outside the cafeteria and down the hallway as if it were leading to a Ferris wheel at a county fair. There will be men in overalls and waders, women with babies riding their hips, additional children standing a hand’s distance away.

In fact, though, Vance has no idea. He’s never been in Louisiana, let alone Baton

Rouge, but he’s seen enough of life in forty-eight years to make what he considers valid generalizations. It’s what we call inductive reasoning, he might tell his Argument and Persuasion 111 class. Making a judgment call based on repeated observation.

Like when his wife left, claiming there was nobody else in the picture. Claiming that Vance needed help with his drinking and his lying and his broken promises. He knew there was somebody else—there’s always somebody else—but he forced himself to hope. He went to A.A. and got sober, and at the same time started seeing a therapist. Six months later he drove two hundred and fifty miles, knocked on his mother-in-law’s door, and asked to talk to his wife. To Marie. She finally came down from upstairs and they had lunch at T.G.I. Friday’s. Vance told her he was seriously trying to work things out. Marie told him that she was happy he was progressing so nicely, but that there was somebody else.

There’s always somebody else. Inductive reasoning.

 

Vance first considered suicide shortly after the T.G.I. Friday’s lunch. It was mid-August, his summer vacation was winding to a finish, his wife was most definitely gone, his uncommunicative daughter was married and living in Toronto, and the job he despised was waiting like a bully crouched behind a parked car.

Ironically, he’d pursued his profession since he himself had been a college student. Vance remembered getting out of the Navy, enrolling in community college on the GI Bill, and falling into the world of academia like Alice had fallen through the rabbit hole. He’d started off in General Studies, moved on to a bachelor’s degree in American Lit, then a master’s in English, and a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition. He attended colleges in New York, Colorado, Vermont, and Utah. There were dinners at professors’ houses, foreign film festivals, discussions of art and sex and life that stretched far into the morning.

Somehow, though, things had changed. The students where he taught—Our Lady of Mercy College in suburban Connecticut—were stupid and apathetic. Where as he and some classmates had stayed up all night one St. Patrick’s Day in his junior year reading aloud the work of William Butler Yeats, the undergraduates at Our Lady of Mercy had, just last March, held a Frosted Lucky Charms eating marathon. His peers weren’t much better. Tenured professors had become lazy and, worse, predictable. And adjuncts worried about their crappy paying part-time jobs like farm pigs feared not getting their share of slop.

Vance had, some years back, purchased a 12-gauge shotgun. It wasn’t some heroin crazed home invader he feared, it was students he had failed. Not so long ago they’d have gone to work painting houses or working for the phone company. Now, through their parents’ ability to write a check, they were expected to graduate. More than a few, faced with the D or the F, became surly, even threatening. Vance’s car was “keyed,” his computer virused, his office door swastikaed in red Magic Marker despite the fact that he wasn’t Jewish.

It would be so easy, he though after Marie brushed him off like sand on a beach blanket, to take this gun I’ve never even shot, load it, walk into the woods behind the house and pull a Hemingway.

But he hadn’t. That form of death would be too messy. What if he was discovered by some poor kid taking an innocent Saturday morning hike? Or worse. What if he survived, the top of his head blown off, destined to walk through life like a freak in search of a circus.

 

In his office, Vance diagnoses his symptoms for the umpteenth time. The periods of high-pitched breathing, the neck pain, the sore throat and cough that won’t go away. He factors in a quarter century of cigarettes and scotch. “Throat cancer,” the Mayo Clinic site tells him, “has a 90% cure rate if detected early. But if the disease has advanced to the surrounding tissues, that rate drops to 50%.”

The last thing Vance wants is to die while standing in front of a room full of students. It happened two semesters ago to a colleague, a middle-aged guy named Ray Fashetti, who had a heart attack in the middle of his Academic Writing class. From a PowerPoint lecture on “Analogy,” to a crumpled heap on the floor. His class, all first-year students, sat silent and motionless for ten minutes until one of them finally broke classroom policy, turned on her cell phone, and called campus security.

 

At home, Vance watches television while eating a Hungry Man Meatloaf Dinner. It’s Good To Be Full the box had declared, right under a picture of what resembled two flattened, gravy-covered turds backed up by corn, mashed potatoes, and a brownie. The back of the box was a bit more intriguing, identifying the meal as a 680 calorie, 55 percent saturated fat, 41 percent sodium feast. Like a saltlick covered in grease, Vance had thought while his meal microwaved, but who cares.

The flood-ravaged state of Louisiana is in the second slot on Six News Six, right after the story of a slutty-looking rock singer who shoplifted a ruby and sapphire ring from Kay Jewelers, but claims she’d simply forgotten to take it off and return it. “I do have other balls in the air,” she reminds her audience.

In Butte La Rose, a husband and wife who look to be in their fifties, watch as water fills their backyard like a bathtub. Behind them, in the driveway, is a packed station wagon with an upsidedown rowboat bungee-corded on top. The woman, who wears a t-shirt that reads THIS IS MY CLONE, is telling a reporter that in her “not-so-humble opinion,” the intentional flooding was not as much to save Baton Rouge and New Orleans as it was to save the oil refineries down river. Following the report, an anchor woman, dressed as if she’s on her way to divorcees’ night at the Ramada, smiles and says to the weather guy next to her, “Honestly, Paul. If I live forever I’ll never tire of hearing those drawling dialects the folks down there use.”

Vance switches channels and watches as other families, carrying all they can, crowd highways in a slow motion stampede. They take laptop computers and photo albums. They transport the elderly, some on mattresses, across the back seats of their cars. They leave behind furniture and bicycles and pets. Some lock their doors, some turn off their lights.

Vance finds the entire thing extremely depressing and wishes he could do something to help. But he knows better. He can’t drive down there; he’d never even get close to the place. If he sends money to a relief fund, it’ll wind up in the pocket of some fat bureaucrat who’ll spend it on male prostitutes and cocaine. It’s hopeless, all of it. It is, in the words of some actor from one of those old Billy Jack movies, “just one big shit-brick.”

Vance watches Classic Fight Nite on ESPN, grades a few papers, smokes the e-cigarette his daughter sent him—without any written correspondence—for Father’s Day.  He has a coughing spasm and for the first time notices blood on the tissue. He envisions himself six months, a year from now, in some hospital bed. He’ll weigh under a hundred pounds and have to be fed through a clear plastic tube. He’ll shit into a bag. People from the college will come to visit, not because they want to, but because it’s protocol. They’ll bring him dumb books like, If Cats Could Talk, and stay as briefly as possible. In the parking lot they’ll congregate and discuss what bar is closest and the quickest way to get there. When he dies, an email will circulate throughout the college. Subject line: Condolences. It will be sandwiched between Change in Library Hours and Document Shredding Service.

Vance thinks again about suicide. Maybe hanging. A cafeteria worker at Our Lady of Mercy, finding out she was pregnant while her husband waited two years for her in Mexico, had gone that way. She was discovered by her landlord after the rent was a couple of weeks past due.

But Vance worries the method might not be thorough enough, and the last thing he wants is to be swinging there, totally conscious, his neck broken, his TV—which he neglected to turn off—playing endless reruns of That ‘70s Show.

****

In the middle of the night, after zero sleep, Vance figures it out. It’s been raining for hours and the roads are slick. An accident, some might say, waiting to happen. At

9 AM, as he does every Thursday morning, he’ll get into his car and drive toward his 9:30 class at OLMC. At the entrance to I-95, where the north-bound traffic is relatively light, he’ll pull onto the Interstate, swing a U-turn, avoid oncoming traffic until he spots an 18-wheel tractor-trailer, close his eyes and floor the accelerator. At eighty miles an hour, his car—a Ford Focus—will fold like a Wal-Mart lawn chair. The driver of the 40-ton truck will be annoyed, but otherwise uninjured. He must have lost control of his vehicle, people will say. A man (some will even say “young man”) with so much to live for.

Vance pictures the scenario over and over. It excites him. He thinks about what he should wear. If he needs to get gas. Whether or not he should finish grading his papers. He decides not to alter his usual routine; this should look like an accident. He doesn’t sleep. He knows if there was a drop of alcohol anywhere in this apartment, it would be gone.

But what he doesn’t figure on is actuality. Hours later, when he yields on the entrance to I-95, he sees that traffic is barely moving. He spots flashing emergency lights in the distance, an accident that has surpassed his own. He edges onto the Interstate, creeps along for two miles, passes the car which has flipped onto its side, and finally gets off at the Park Avenue exit south of the college.

Butte La Rose, the morning news guy on WXW-FM informs him, is a ghost town. Flood waters have, in some places, reached fourteen feet. The last evacuated resident is identified as an eighty-two year old man who decided to leave at the last possible minute. “I don’t want to go down with the ship,” the man is quoted as saying. “Not when there are other ships.”

Vance stops at a red light, considers turning around, calling in sick. The rain has intensified, the wind has picked up, the sky has turned the color of Guinness Stout. It’ll have to be the shotgun, Vance thinks to himself. Mess or no mess.

Except then he sees it. It’s nothing particularly noteworthy, nothing that would attract much attention under other circumstances.  It’s simply a girl—she’s maybe twelve at most—rushing up the granite steps in front of the middle school. Perhaps she’s just been dropped here by a parent who, late for work, has already taken off. The girl wears a hooded red vinyl raincoat. Flip-flops on her already wet feet. She shoulders a backpack the color of a traffic cone. Under one arm, a manila portfolio which the girl, hunched, tries to protect. She’s a few steps from the school’s entrance when the portfolio falls—perhaps it’s dislodged by the wind—from her grasp. Papers fall from it—color printouts, maps perhaps—a school project due today. She quickly collects a few, stomps on others. Vance, even from a distance, can see colored ink on what appears to be a pie chart blending into some nondescript shade of brown. But the kid doesn’t give up. She losses a flip-flop, expertly regains it, collects each smeared and soaking sheet of paper, returns the whole sodden mess to the portfolio, hurries up the rest of the steps and disappears.

Damn, Vance thinks.

Behind him, a car horn shrieks.

 

Vance parks in the faculty lot, but stays in his car. His hands are shaking the way they used to when he first stopped drinking. He considers calling the middle school, asking about the girl, maybe telling the principal the entire story and pitching a plea for the poor kid to be allowed to redo her project. But he knows how creepy this will sound, a grown man leering from an unmoving car. Beside, this child seems capable. Able to stand her ground, as the old saying goes.

He decides instead to call his doctor.