I hiked into LaVista Park early this morning. June 13, sunny, temperature about sixty-five and a cool north breeze. And the buffalo gnats were dying out. It was a perfect day.
Silence. Because the Mississippi River has flooded for nearly two months, there was no traffic therefore no farting motorcycles on the Great River Road, nothing but birdsong: Carolina wrens, pileated woodpeckers, redwing blackbirds, puffed-out cardinals and shameless mockingbirds.
A lone bullfrog was imitating that HBO intro sound: Bwaaaa.
Down in the valley I came across what I thought was a copperhead. It was stretched across the path, three feet long, nonplussed at my presence. As I got closer, I could see it was an eastern fox snake, a specie which is known for docility and I am a big load of docile. I moved the snake into the underbrush by hoisting it onto a long stick because I knew someone would come along and kill it. I will never understand people’s irrational fears of reptiles.
The lower park was open, the flood waters receding rapidly. I was able to walk all the way to the swollen river, still as high as the street signs. A flash of electric blue went by, and I turned to see an indigo bunting, a rare sight in these parts, finch-size, surely the most beautiful bird alive, its feathers like an azure glaze on a pot made by a potter on LSD. The indigo bunting worked the reeds along the path, gathering up topseed.
I climbed five hundred feet up the bluff road, my heart hammering, my right knee screaming, across the hill line then back down into Clifton Park. Stiritz Lane is there, the only way in and out for thirty homeowners up at the top.
There was an enormous snapping turtle on a boating tree branch, and Mr. and Mrs. Mallard swam around it. Down the path was Stevie’s house. Her son Michael came from California weeks ago to help her cope with the flood and he never left. They have no hot water and they can’t use the toilet. Four feet of water is in the basement. The air conditioner is failing. Stevie’s front steps are flooded. You could sit on her porch and toss out a line for a catfish.
A car parked at the Stiritz lane flood blockade, and a hippie-looking couple got out. They were wearing waders and sporting badges, Red Cross volunteers going door to door and ordering supplies for the stranded. They had a drone in the air scanning the homes below. Did I know anyone who needed help? Yes, I said, Hummingbird Man’s house is underwater. I directed them to Stroke Hill and how to find that unfortunate family. (“You know how it is, Gene,” Hummingbird Man told me while he sat in a lawn chair in the knee-high river water. “We’re river rats. We take what comes.”
I don’t know how it is. I live above it all. But the farmers above it all are hurting. Rain keeps coming. Peaches—forget it. Autumn apples—not likely. Farmer Orville’s tomato plants are drowning. The color up from the river is fade green, washed-out cornflowers, and there are exhausted butterflies and cynical honeybees.
Orville, Quilt Queen, Ruby Puppy and I sat on the porch and bitched. We’re out of jokes. We have been told that these two flooded months will now be the new norm. We won’t get California-style fires and ultra-hurricanes; we will just drown.
The couple are about to give Ruby Puppy to a daughter. They don’t have the energy to care for a young herder dog that needs lots of running. I’ll take her, I said, and Quilt Queen snapped, “You aren’t family.”
And this is true, I am an orphan. I am in exile in my own hometown, and I’m writing about racism, and people don’t want to hear it. The synonym for Alton is Whitey Town. Ask Elijah P. Lovejoy shot to death on his printing press: You don’t belong. If the book gets published you can’t live here.
But every once in a while, visionlike, one sees indigo, ethereal indigo, one sings with birds, all the professionalism gone and who gives a shit that once I sang like an angel? Now I write the songs, not sing them, mostly in minor keys.
Today the song is “Indigo,” a Joni Mitchell jazz riff. Key of D. A turtle and some ducks and snakes walk into this bar and….