I Write The Songs 2013 Contest Entry
DISCLAIMER: The Sookie Stackhouse series belongs to Charlaine Harris. The song "Wild Thing" was written by Chip Taylor, originally performed by the Wild Ones, and made famous by the Troggs. I've also used a few references to Karen Russell's short story, "Ava Wrestles the Alligator," and/or to her book, Swamplandia. And finally, I owe a nod to the History Channel's Swamp People. This is a fictional story. I'm only borrowing and playing with characters and ideas, not profiting from this story.
A big thanks to nonto94 for beta-ing this story, especially since I asked her at the last minute. ;) And thanks to PMR for giving this story a look-see when I was first working on it, way back when. ;)
Please note this chapter is the first of four, to be continued after the contest. All-human. Alternate universe.
Links to sources are on my profile page.
I first met my boyfriend Eric Northman when he found me sneaking outside his bar, after hours, trying to feed a piece of rotten meat to his "star" attraction, Bruce, a bull gator over fourteen feet long. I'd never met an alligator that hadn't liked my special beef melt: expired sirloin donated by my boss, Sam Merlotte, doused with the secret sauce his cook Lafayette steeps his burgers in, and then left to rot for three days in a double bag on my back porch. And Bruce…well, he looked like he needed something special.
Eric caught me red-handed, which was to say that I'd not only tossed Bruce a sizeable piece of flesh, but also had first squeezed the juice into the water to tempt his appetite. It was dripping from my fingers.
"Hey, you! Bar's closed. Can't you read?" Eric barked at me, standing below the "Do not feed the alligators" sign.
"You got a problem with Bruce," I answered, facing him squarely.
"Bruce?" he sneered, his bare feet slapping the vanilla wood planks of "Alligator Alley." At around six-and-a-half feet, Eric loomed over me gorgeously, handsome in an intimidating way, following a whole train of men in my life who'd openly recoiled at my appearance, teased, ignored me, or worse, tried to save me. "You stink."
At least he spoke the truth.
There was a splash. Eric and I turned to gape at the froth-capped bayou, at a dollop of foam where Bruce had snapped. Snapped.
"May I?" He was already grabbing at the bag.
"The trick is to work it up real good. You have something we could use to suspend it over the water? To see if he'll jump for it? Or some live bait?"
Later that evening, after a few more flirtations with rancid meat and a bull gator, Eric and I left a trail of clothes to the storage room—complete with a shower—and then to his office, flicking on lights along the way, peeling all the nocturnal corners of the place inside out. When I finally uncurled myself from Eric's arms under the mosquito drone of fluorescent lights, I had to unstick a plastic name plate from my butt cheek. Lateral sagittal view of dorsal bronchi,it read.
A leftover from other times.
Before Fangtasia, Southern Louisiana's Number One Swamp Bar, the building it occupied and its surrounding facilities had hosted LARC, the Louisiana Alligator Resource Center. During the day, sweaty bands of children, most of whom had grown up locally, would escape the re-heated outdoor stew to take out their bored, bayou-bound aggressions on the indoor educational displays. "Get down from there," teachers would scold, pulling upside down children from coin-operated observation viewers. With no quarters in their pockets, they'd return, only to aim the scopes on their teachers' panty-lined backsides. They'd wield the phone receivers—Listen to the sounds of the bayou at night!—as nunchucks and slap flattened palms on lighted panels—Press here to see tidal erosion!
"Watch this!" the children would shout, grabbing the knob on the Life Cycle of the American Alligator display. They'd whip the circular disc with its window viewer so frenetically that the flash of pictures and words swirled like a manic Ouija board. Spellbound, the children would read ghostly messages. "It says, 'Miss O'Fallon kicks puppies' and 'Ms. Pepper did it in the Classroom with the Mop' and 'There's a red apple in Red Ditch!'"
Gradually, the place had met its own stultifying death. Only the gator pits still simmered, as they always had.
"There was dust on the fake leaves in the raccoon display," Eric scoffed. He'd given the three-legged animal a quick death and then fed it to the gators. Make no mistake, though. Eric's motives hadn't been driven by kindness. Mostly, the raccoon hadn't fit with the business plan he and his partner Pam had worked out. Together, they'd come to one conclusion: tourists, alcohol, and alligators make for one lucrative combination.
The first thing they'd done was gut the interior of the main hall, a large, circular space walled in glass that overlooked the surrounding gator pits. A lower space, designated as Hell, offered an underwater view. "Lost Souls enter here," the sign above the wide, curving staircase read. They'd had an upstairs dance space, Heaven, complete with skylights and sweeping views. But when the space had drawn few people—tourists must not like to dance, he joked—he'd made more space for Lost Souls by hanging a "Hell Overflow" sign and furnishing it with the same red leather lounge chairs and low tables from below. The place had quickly developed a reputation, encouraged by eye-winking signs such as, "No biting or snapping on the premises," and "Mating season isn't HERE."
As Eric told me with a sly grin, "Nobody gets to hell without assistance."
"Aw, hell no," Lafayette first said of Sam's new girlfriend Callista, trailing a flowing skirt and a long dark mane of random half-snarls, here-and-there ropes of hair frayed at the ends. "One hundred percent natural," Sam boasted. I thought Callista smelled of coriander, lavender, and B.O. until Lafayette chidingly informed me that that particular fragrance was weed. Mixed with B.O..
Everywhere she went, she dragged a pot-bellied pig named Mickey, over 100 pounds, his barrel-shaped body supported on short little stumps trotting a quick step. He squealed and snorted just like you'd expect a pig would, which was notable for the fact that the pig was inside, wandering the bar, rooting and snorting up Chex Mix beneath Jane Bodehouse's stool.
"Tha'a pig?" she slurred.
I know what my gran would have said about the damn animal. She'd spent all of Jason's and my childhood trying to keep the great outdoors from infiltrating her clean home. "The good Lord's wild kingdom belongs outside, where He intended it to be," she'd said. This included rocks, moss, lizards, snakes, turtles, frogs, etc., as well as the cat and her own brother.
"You can go ahead and pet him," Sam urged in his proud Papa tone. "Callie's trained him to be real nice."
I wanted nothing less, but I thought I shouldn't be prejudiced—poor pig couldn't help Callista was his mama—and reached for his back. He jumped and snapped at my hand, slicing through the side of my thumb.
"He get you?" Sam reached for my hand.
"Well, look at that." Callista leaned over to gawk at more than today's injuries to my hand and arm. She met my eyes. "Ce n'est pas bon."
"You'd better go wash that so it doesn't get infected," Sam instructed.
"Right. I'll go do that tout de suite."
Callista had bent to to pick up the pig's leash, attached to him by a harness. She gave it a perfunctory tug. "Bad Mickey. No biting!" He strained against her, rooting for more Chex Mix.
I thought after that incident, Sam would ban Mickey from the bar, but at best he kept him in his office, where he'd occasionally chew on something like a box of file folders, last month's invoices, or the leg of Sam's desk. I took to wondering whether my purse stashed in his bottom drawer would be safe. It set the other servers on edge, too, like Arlene Fowler, who'd begun obsessing whether she'd lose her job over health code violations that would close the joint. "I got soccer uniforms and a family Y membership to pay for. What in the devil is he thinking?"
"Thinking?" Lafayette would snigger. "Ain't nobody doing any thinking." And that, inevitably, would set Lafayette on a chortled string of "Calla-bunnngaaas!" It was the shout we'd heard from Sam's trailer one night as a group of us were leaving the bar. Lafayette took it up as a rallying cry, of sort. Cooped up in the kitchen, he bounced in rubber soles on sticky anti-fatigue floor mats, a ball looking for a game. "What'd she do this time?" he'd hound us, when one of us flounced into the kitchen. "Lafayette, you need to get out more," Dawn chided.
I tried to keep an open mind about Callista—really, I did—but I struggled more and more as Sam got increasingly stuck on one track and Callista got ever bolder and more secure. One day she grilled me about Eric's newly instituted and wildly popular Live Chicken Thursdays. "How big of a chicken does he use? How does he suspend them over the gator pit? How high? Do the chickens cause a big fuss? How long until the gators jump? Do they take the whole chicken at once? How does the crowd react? Did he ever try any larger bait, like a goat?" For such a gruesome topic, the questions came out weirdly smooth and flowing, like dreamy sex, her eyes liquid and lush.
Later, I caught her hanging out with a table of college kids who were bordering on sloppy drunk, pushing the limits of our serving policy. I knew exactly what they were doing, all of their body positions oriented in my direction, the expressions on their faces an exaggerated mimic of my own lopsided smile.
"They're making fun, Sam."
"What? Who is? You need me to take care of somebody?"
"Yeah. Callista. She's been sitting there with them the whole time, watching me." I'd had plenty of practice at controlling my reaction to rudeness, but even I had limits.
"Callie? You sure you're not being, you know…oversensitive?" His eyes flickered across the scar that made one side of my face droop.
I straightened my apron with a harsh tug and stalked off, didn't even dignify him with an answer.
Sam avoided me, which said to me that he was feeling guilty, until finally he offered, "Oh, hey, listen. I know she hasn't been very nice to you." I considered that comment only half an apology.
It takes a certain kind of person to make it in the swamps of southern Louisiana.
A lot of folks I knew had grown up in Bon Temps, lived off the swamp, either directly or indirectly, the way their daddy and mama had done, and their daddy and mama before that. Back and back and back. "Ain't no other place on this earth like it, but it's a tough life. You gotta work for it. Can't give up. It's out there. You just got to go out there and get it. Ain't nobody else gonna do it for you."
Folks adored their swamp, even as they weathered all of its challenges. Beat them. Conquered the elements and every goddamn thing thrown at them, from hurricanes and oil spills to heart attacks and bad backs to termites and invasive mold.
Until they didn't. Swampers are tough, but everyone has his breaking point.
But Eric...Eric was different. As a transplant, he'd arrived in southern Louisiana gamely enough, much the way someone might spend a Sunday afternoon: "Oh, why not take a drive out to Dairy Queen for a Blizzard?" or "I think I'll head outside now and wash the car" or "I ought to run to the store to buy lunch meat for next week's sandwiches."
True, he'd done his homework, researching business trends and developing a plan to make the change from science center to bar successful. He'd hired people to do the work for him that he hadn't known how to do. And true, he'd never cotton to defeat. But if his bar ever stopped making money for him—or if he had a better opportunity—he'd leave it in a heartbeat. Move on to his next venture.
It was one of the things I liked about Eric. Around him, I could relax the tension in my scalp and face. When everything I'd known in my twenty-seven years of life didn't have to matter so much, holding on by the scrape of fingernail made less sense. And funnily enough, that attitude just made it easier to get a better grip.
He did his part, too, as a steward of the swamp. He maintained Fangtasia in a way that did not jeopardize local fishing. He sponsored a Little League team and sent his day man, Bobby Burnham, on initiatives to clear channels of roseau canes. He donated heavily to keep the Asian carp, nutria, and water hyacinths under control. He ran a promotion to get the Dixie Brewing Company back to New Orleans, post Katrina. And then there were the Bad Ass hot sauce competitions, the reigning queen of which was a tough, stern woman known as Ms. Thalia.
Still, he made a lot of swampers mildly uneasy, mostly about the obvious things, like his standoffish attitude and the fact that he hadn't grown up on the bayou or even in any one particular place. People didn't know how to peg him.
"I've been around," Eric had answered me vaguely when I'd asked where he was from. Oh, he had stories—plenty of stories—just not any from a single place he called home.
Jane Bodehouse, perpetually too far gone to pick up on any clues, had wrapped her arms around the "handsome devil" one afternoon, tousled his long blond hair, and announced he was "just a Bayou Baby after all." The bar had looked askance at Eric's stiff posture and barely disguised scorn before conversations had rushed to playful ribbing over who makes the best turtle sauce piquante and could-they-please-have-another-pitcher-of-beer.
But it was Ms. Selah Pumphrey, real estate agent, who might have been the first swamper to butt up against Eric's way when she'd first taken him and Pam on a tour of her LARC property listing. I can well imagine this scene: Pam in pristine linen pants and a sweater set, Eric in his leather boots, not the muck around kind. Selah must have fallen all over herself escorting them along the planked walkways, giddy with joy that she was finally associating herself with city folk, civilized people who knew about the world beyond the swamp: fine French restaurants, the opera, and fashion that could not be purchased from either Wal-Mart or a sporting goods supply shop. She'd made the mistake of assuming they weren't interested in venturing into the wilder regions of the property, to see a large tract of land on the western edge accessible only by boat.
Eric had never owned a boat and had no intention of ever setting foot in one, but to hear him speak of it, that's where Pam had bit hard. She'd rolled up her linen pants and pulled a folded pair of waders, in Swiss dot, from her handbag. Selah had had no choice but to join her, shoving the boat free.
"You'll come along, Mr. Northman, won't you?"
"Pam will go."
"Surely you don't want to have to wait for us," she'd persisted.
But Eric had already wandered off, trying to get a good feel for the feasibility of fencing an entryway to keep drunken customers contained, which had left Selah with Pam in the mud.
"Look at us! Liberate a woman and you liberate a man," she'd marveled, with more than a touch of wryness.
Pam—bless her—hadn't appreciated Selah's spin on the world. To hear Pam speak of it, once they'd gotten out onto the water, she'd managed to take over captaining the boat. She'd shrugged. "I might have churned up the water a little, to try to get a feel for the carp."
The Asian carp is an invasive fish that has taken over the waterways. Funny thing about carp is that when you start churning up the water, they jump. And they're big, menacing suckers that'll arc right in the path of your boat, knock you flat out if you're not watching. Nearly every swamper has a story. Concussions. Bruises. Cuts. Even broken bones. Hoyt, Jason, and Rene had come into the bar for pitchers of beer one time after poor Hoyt had gotten nailed. "Right in the balls," had been their refrain that evening.
I was sure the carp had mattered little to Pam and Eric for their purposes of opening a bar. But of course Selah hadn't known that, and had tried to wrangle control of her boat, which had only made Pam churn up more carp. When they'd finally returned, Eric said, a twenty-pound carp had been flopping in the bottom of the boat.
"Why, I never saw anyone catch a carp with her bare hands," Selah had said.
Pam was fiercely brave. I was glad to have her on my team of wild swamp women who (in Selah's words) had only barely outgrown their grass skirts. I heard her speak of it months later, when Bill paraded her into Merlotte's. Tipsy from wine, she huddled with him in a booth, giggling with him about the depravity of local-yocals. Maybe deep down she was jealous. Maybe her own orgasms never registered above a composed "oh," which was a pity, really. A true friend would have taken her home and spared her the embarrassment. But Bill, tipsy himself, his breath a tickling curl of sour yeast, cornered me in the hallway.
"You're much better in bed, you know. World class." His expression was uncomfortably soft, limp with languid, but assured intent.
My stomach roiled; I pushed him away. "Don't ever bring her back in here."
"Or what, Sookie?"
"There's no or what." I scoffed. "Just don't do it." There was no need for drama. There'd be no turning of the cheek, or taking of an eye for an eye. Though I was sure if I had to, this native could kick ass.
No…no. On this matter, I was happy to be able to rise above both Bill and Selah. I channeled my energy in better ways, bringing extra oomph and creativity to the bedroom that night. Eric knew better than to ask.
Something else about Eric set him apart from other swampers: his favorite way of getting around was by helicopter.
That's how he picked me up for our first "date," surprising me by wedging his red helicopter in the clearing in front of my house. "Driveway looked too treacherous," he said.
Gran would have been scandalized. Not only did he send dirt and plant debris flying, swayed and parted her rose bushes, but also he didn't even make it to my front door. "You sit right there, young lady," she'd told me when one of my high school dates had honked his horn in the driveway.
At least Eric cut the engine and directed me away from the tail, still spinning.
And then Bill materialized. "Sookie, you all right?"
"Sure. Bill, this is Eric, the man who took over LARC and turned it into a swamp bar. Eric, this is Bill, my neighbor." And ex-boyfriend, a fact that Eric had already known.
"Fangtasia," Eric said, reaching out to shake Bill's extended hand.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It's Fangtasia now. Southern Louisiana's Number One Swamp Bar." He handed Bill a card.
"He kept Ginger and Bruce," I said to Bill.
"T-Rex," Eric corrected, referring to the gator by his adopted name for him.
Bill's arched brow had puckered his forehead. "Yes, I recall they were your favorites."
Bill and I had been to LARC on a few dates. He reached into his shirt pocket and produced his own card, which he passed to Eric. "I work for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, heading up a research program on duck migration. Being new here, you might be surprised to find some seasonal troubles with air traffic control with our boom in duck population."
Bill had worked hard, with my help, to connect with locals and establish his duck database.
"Should I change?" I asked Eric, eyeing the big step into the helicopter and figuring how high my short, tight dress might hitch.
His fingers glanced my arm. "No. Definitely not." He nodded, indicating I should go ahead and climb in. I took off my heels and tucked them inside.
"Where did you log your flight training hours?" Bill asked, which gave me cover. It was a good thing I was wearing pretty underwear.
"Through the PFA."
"You never heard of them? The Phoenix Flyers of America?"
I gave Eric's arm an extra pinch as I hoisted myself and turned to sit. Bill's grim expression said be careful and don't be late. I looked down at Eric, his eyes level with my backside and thighs. Good enough to eat, he seemed to be thinking. Bill started talking, something that my ears heard but my head didn't. If I hadn't been so excited about going for a ride—I'd never even been in a plane—Eric and I might not have made it out of my front yard.
Bill receded from view even before Eric shot straight up into the sky, leaving my belly with my toes. I figured it was a sure thing we were both getting lucky that evening, though judging from the looks of the controls and instruments in such a tight space, I doubted we'd make it into the mile high club together. Then we tipped forward in our glass bubble, dangling above the bayou, our toes skimming tree tops.
"More, more!" I wanted to clap and shout like a fool, but I kept most of my poise, except for my huge, untempered grin. But that was okay; I shared most of my real grins with him.
Even my great grandfather, when he still had most of his wits, had a need from time to time to set a boat in the water.
"Come for a ride with me," he offered one deeply blue day. We'd just weathered another tropical storm, the kind that had claimed both my parents in one wet, lascivious gulp. After sheltering inside for rainy days on end, I happily took him up on the offer.
Fitting myself on the bench seat of his aluminum boat, I lay back, using a life preserver as a pillow. From this position, staring up at nothingness, I lost the edges of the waterway with its knobby boscoyos and overhanging limbs draped with moss. Great Grandfather crept stealthily, flirting with the engine of his boat, coaxing it to a quiet mutter. I stretched first one leg, then the other, and marveled at the brush of air so dry and light and brittle I might float away. My fingers and toes, the crook of my arm, behind my ear—clean and dry and new.
His face appeared in my field of view. He'd cut the engine and was gazing outward. Gradually, I became aware of another sound. A blip. Lots of blips.
I sat up.
We were floating in a sea of gaping mouths, bobbing at the surface: hundreds of catfish.
"Oh!" I cried out. "What's happening?" Here and there a tail thrashed.
He smiled. "The storm."
Clumps of his hair, normally smooth, had fallen in his face. "The storm blew down so much plant matter into the water, now it's rotting and stealing oxygen from the fish."
Panic rose. These fish were suffocating. Excruciatingly slowly. "What can we do?" I wanted to start scooping and transporting. Foolishly, I began shifting the contents of the boat and grabbing for a bucket.
He stopped me, placing his graceful artist's hand on my shoulder, as though reassuring me. "The alligator, he's one who learns and adapts."
Dinosaurs, hunters around here often call them. Ancient beasts. The old gators—fifty, sixty years old—are especially difficult to catch, so wise are they to the ways of hunting.
Great Grandfather saw the alligator as a foe worthy of his attentions. Of course, he didn't have to do the actual dirty work. Hides brought to him were ready to go. He spread them out on the table of his pristine workspace and stroked them—lovingly—before cutting them with his tools.
No doubt he'd done well for himself, bringing in designer prices for his creations. He'd embarrassed me one day when he'd strolled into the bar, dressed to the nines as usual. "Mr. Brigant" or "sir," everyone called him. I doubted they even knew his first name. He'd let it drop that one of his bags had fetched over $6000, an amount that had galled the entire bar.
But these catfish? Not worth his time. His smooth fingers stroked my shoulder.
I wanted to recoil at his touch; a quiet nudge inside stopped me. I'd worn a bikini top to catch up on my tan, but Great Grandfather was the one baring himself.
Not much later, after he'd gotten his diagnosis, I went over that outing with him. Had his disease stripped him of his control and dignity, let his dark side seep out? Or had it changed who he was? Made him a completely different person?
I'd never know and I decided it didn't matter. He couldn't control who he was now, and family was family. I'd be there for him. It was only a matter of time.
Eric called me one morning. "I have something to show you," he said.
I never passed up a chance to go flying with Eric, so I was ready long before he made his big, noisy entrance. "What's up?" I asked.
"You'll see," he said simply. Even with headsets on, talking was difficult.
The helicopter rose and pushed forward, leaving behind the glare of my tin roof, the gravel lot of Merlotte's, and the steeple of First Methodist Church. In only a short flight—just a skedaddle outside of town—we reached open wilderness. As we passed over it, the bayou unfolded, seemed to straighten-up for company, cutting neat waterways through cypress groves and marshes. Here and there, a tail got tucked in. A trick, for sure. Gators are lurkers, patient hunters that wait motionless and hidden—sometimes for hours—until prey passes nearby.
Then they lunge with startling speed.
Eric pointed ahead. At first I noticed nothing. Even when we came upon it, I saw only another body of water, circular, like a pond, about the size of a football field. He dropped, closely enough that I could see the churning brown water.
My mouth dropped open, forming a circle of surprise and awe.
As we watched, an edge of the "pond" collapsed, taking with it a cypress, which simply slid into the water as though its roots had melted. My grandpa Mitchell had shown me one time how loggers had harvested cypress trees from springboards notched into their trunks or even from pirogues, a dangerous and difficult job. But this tree was floating in minutes, its branches and leaves poking out like bits of garnish in a giant bubbling brew.
Right below us, the mealy core of the bayou had crumpled and let go of its fumes and creepy-crawlers, dank and colorless and other-worldly.
"If you get to hell, keep going," my gran had always said. But Eric and I hovered and flitted just out of reach of the belching mouth.
Frissons tingled up and down my spine.
I thought about the local fishermen coming in for a pitcher of beer at Merlotte's to celebrate, like when Alcide had brought in an extra big haul of shrimp or when Catfish Hennessey had shot a thirteen-and-a-half-footer. When they'd managed the beast, even if only for the day. "Now that's what I'm talking about," they'd say.
We circled again, skirting the perimeter, almost as though corralling the water.
I took one last look at the stirring below us before I met Eric's gleaming eyes. Sparked by surprise and adventure and challenge, he wasn't unlike other swampers.
"No day's ever the same on the bayou," they're fond of saying. There would always be that moment—every alligator hunter knows it well—of having to reach into murky water to untangle a line, not knowing what they'd snagged. A rotten bit of wood? A limp, injured gator? Or an angry one, waiting for the right time to come up fighting? Gators can leap, propelled by powerful tails, five feet out of the water.
And if they catch you in their jaws…everyone's had close calls. Ms. Thalia, for instance, considered herself lucky to have lost only an arm, which was later pulled out of the gator's stomach and re-attached. She devoted months and months to a difficult and painful rehab. But there are no guarantees. Swampers take pride in hard work, even if it doesn't always pan out.
Eric nodded at me under the din and racket of the rotor and blades just above our heads. Something had passed between us, an understanding that we were on this hunt together, as swampers do: one to work the line and one to pull the trigger. Though neither of us knew what adventures lay in wait, below the murkiness. Goose pimples prickled my arms as he lifted us out of there, tilting crazily.
While somewhere below us, under cover, those dredged-up creatures were scattering for new grounds, only beginning to give chase.
Thanks for reading!