Ruth hiked up her nightgown and heaved her leg over the rusted red Schwinn. She patted her pink curlers, praying they would stay put. Wobbling down the driveway, she shoved the pedals hard, knees banging against the handlebars. She hit the asphalt, picking up momentum. This bike is far too small! I’ll never catch up with her at this speed. Ruth whizzed by a sea of neighbors who murmured their comments. “Oh, go back in your house!” she shouted. “What is it about this town?” She scoffed and teetered on. Her bare breasts beat against her stomach, sticky with sweat. How girls went untethered these days, especially in this humidity, was beyond her.
Patsy Bundy hurled down the street, her father’s Confederate flag under her arm like a football, and Ruth had to know where the teenager was going.
Patsy was a strawberry-curled high school senior. She had grown weary of living in Cypress, of dealing with her parents. Patsy ran fast, made quick decisions, and had strong opinions. Her sharp tongue struck people, leaving them ten feet behind her in the thick Louisiana air, wondering what had just happened. They said she was exhausting. Maybe this was true. And she despised her father’s Confederate flag more than anything. That sweltering evening, a fight ensued between them.
“Daddy, it’s just embarrassing. Everyone can see that—”
“It’s our heritage. It’s the south. I’m not taking down my heritage! And besides, your friends aren’t real Southerners. They’re all off to hoity-toity Ivy League colleges, because of what I pay their fathers…”
“I am leaving,” she said, jaw clenched. She fought the urge to spit.
He pursed his lips, then said, “So, go. I dare you.” He puffed his chest out like a bird asserting his territory.
“I’ll never come back.” Patsy sure as hell never refused a dare. It wasn’t in her nature.
She was crazy angry by the time she set foot in the Louisiana heat. She ran from the Grierson-style mansion and headed for the wetlands. Patsy did not know these people who raised her, not at all. Her head spun. Beads of sweat pooled on her brow as she ripped the flag from its pole. She shuddered at the sight of it. The feel of the thick canvas against her hands made her flesh crawl.
Sprinting through the little neighborhood, she passed Cypress Market, and the rows of smaller, pastel-colored houses blurred together. The sickening, acrid scent of death chased her, the vision rolling through her like a rip-tide. Patsy thought she could outrun the feeling, the bizarre intuition that someone, at some time, had died here. That someone wanted to tell her something. Her pace quickened; the galloping began. The roar of the horses’ hooves clicking on the pavement intensified. A whistling wind shrilled against their muscled bodies as they passed. The horror sucked her in as she witnessed the otherworldliness of their bright white coats.
The horses hit the dirt. Unfamiliar men clipped their sides, yelling, “Go!” as they broke into a faster canter. Confederate flags flapped in the wind; muskets shot through the air. The stench of the earthy swampland rose into the atmosphere, filling the wetlands with a thick, green haze. Their cream- colored manes resisted the splattering mud. Thousands of them swarmed the wetlands. Patsy held her breath, tried to avert her gaze, but they persisted in her peripheral vision, gauzy against the dropping sun. A man riding by squeezed a woman against him as she screamed. They kicked up dirt, whooshing through Patsy’s beloved Bayou. Shaking and numb, she had to get to the tin house, the little cabin that was safe. The men dissipated before she arrived, diffusing like smoke in the trees.
Struggling to take a deep breath in the humidity, she trudged through the spongy grass, feet slurping through the mud. The tin-walled shack hovered on raised beams right over the water. The confines of the metal room burst with trapped heat. There wasn’t much to it, a couple of chairs and a gray folding table. It was her childhood hideout, a refuge where she played with her few friends, where she came to read, think or dream about the day she would move away from Cypress, far from the rumors that shot from all directions.
The visions began here in the tin shack. She couldn’t have been older than six. “This is what happens, here in Cypress,” she told her mother. “There is something evil in this town.”
Town legend had it that Patsy was a witch, burning Bibles down at the wetlands. The rumors died out by third grade. But with a population of less than five hundred, everyone knew everything about everyone, leaving an undercurrent of whispers babbling through every layer of the town on the Bayou.
But Patsy knew the truth. If only because she had seen it.
She saw ghosts, at least that’s how she described it. They permeated every living creature in Cypress. Only she knew their wickedness. She needed to understand where they came from.
For now, the flag had to go……
The cypress trees’ delicate leaves laced over mossy rocks, almost tickling the still water, where the gators lived. The summer sun soaked the sky in color; blood-red morphed to fiery orange, spanning across the tip of night like an eagle’s wings. Wispy clouds rolled in as they often did before a summer storm. Splotches of gray expanded, blotting out the remnants of day. A light rain sizzled in the warm night, but it did not extinguish Patsy’s rage. She lit a cigarette, drew a breath, tried to calm her trembling hands.
She hated him; she hated them all. Her older brother, with his feigned piousness and perpetual parent-pleasing kind of way. Her mother, so tender in that sweet iced tea syrupy kind of way, that slap-you-in-the-face and ask, “Why, whatever is the matter?” kind of way.
At least, she thought, her father did not have a kind of way. He just was.
The little tin house was so humid, like inhaling water. You got used to that, living on the Bayou, but it was interminable today—like a steam room. She stumbled out through the sludge and sunk by the water’s edge, the only light from the sliver of incandescent moon and the glowing red tip of her cigarette. She blew a stream of smoke out of her line of sight. In her lap was the flag, now dark as night. With her fingers, she felt its stitched edges. A bubble of wrath, a flash of teenaged indignation welled within her.
She flicked the green lighter and touched the edge of the flag with its flame. It did not catch fire quickly. Flick, flick, flick. A little smoke, a tiny ember. Four tries, five. With a roar, it shot ablaze. Her hands went numb with cool panic. For a moment, Patsy stared in disbelief at the edges curling up with fire that lit the shadowy night. It smelled like a mixture of sulfur and campfire smoke. She whipped it sideways, hard, so hot ash could not blow toward her face. And in the water, it floated for a moment, flames licking the water, until they fell quiet and it sunk, leaving nothing but ribbons of smoke.
She did not have a kind of way—she just was.
There was a crash, a clatter of metal, followed by a high- pitched scream. It skipped across the water like a stone.
“What the hell?” Patsy yelled into the bushes, smoothing her shirt, now balled up as a tissue.
A disheveled version of Ruth Marks— at least that’s who Patsy thought it was— tumbled out onto the dirt, seemingly attached to a red bicycle. Patsy squinted, trying to get a closer look. She waved the cigarette smoke away. It was very dark now. “What the hell?”
She shivered and took a drag from her cigarette, wet with snot and tears. She wept louder still, struggling to form coherent thoughts. Daddy’s gonna kill me. There’s really nothing that can be done… it’s over.
Something rustled behind her. She froze, heart thumping.
What is that noise? Could he be here already, with his shotgun….no, no it’s just a lizard…
“Patsy! watch your language. There’s no need to talk like that.”
“Mrs. Marks? Shit!” She crouched lower to access the situation.
Ruth mumbled a series of swear words of her own, tangled in the Schwinn. The bottom of her nightgown was caught in the chain, ripped clear up to her armpit. Blood ran down her leg, and her head was a mass of pink Velcro scrunched together.
Well, thought Patsy, at least she put on her slippers before she went for her bike ride, otherwise—
“Mrs. Marks,” said Patsy. She moved closer to Ruth and helped her untangle the last bits of cotton from the bike. She wiped the grease from her palms onto her jeans, breathless. “What the hell are you doing, riding around on a bike, at night, in your pajamas?”
Ruth raised an eyebrow. “Well, what the hell are you doing here, setting fire to your father’s flag? I swear, Patsy, if I hadn’t known your mother since kindergarten—”
“It doesn’t matter, Mrs. Marks. Even without your intervention, this,” she said, waving her hand towards the spot in the water where the flag had been, “will run through town faster than that time Will Thompson spread gonorrhea to half the cheerleading squad.” She slumped down, lit another cigarette, and stared glumly at the water, where the reflection of the moon shimmered like shards of melted glass oozing into each other.
“Give me one of those,” said Ruth, motioning towards the pack of Marlboro Reds as she plunked to the ground with a thud.
“Obviously. I smoked when I was pregnant with Tommy, even. Don’t tell anyone,” she whispered.
“All right. Not really. I thought you’d feel better if I told you something scandalous about myself.” She sighed.
“Scandalous? Oh, my God.” Now Patsy was laughing. “Why did you follow me out here, anyway? Just to run back to the old ladies and gossip?”
“Contrary to what you might believe, I care about you,” she said. Patsy thought perhaps this was true. “I know you want to change your dad. But this,” she said, pointing at the water, “is just gonna get your butt paddled.”
“I’m not sorry, you know. He’s trying to stop me from going to college in Boston,” she said, raising her chin. “But I suppose we should go back. For now.”
“Whatever. I can’t imagine anyone stopping you from doing exactly what you want,” snorted Ruth, heaving the bicycle up the dirt path to the road. They trudged in silence, listening to the crickets chirping and a pungent kind of sorrow hanging in the air. Patsy had the odd feeling something had changed forever, but exactly what was muddled in her brain.
“Well, here we are,” said Ruth, as they approached Patsy’s large yellow house. Ruth lived next door, her little pink house in the shadows of the street lamps. “Maybe it’s best you avoided your father tonight.”
“How?” said Patsy.
“Your room is on that side, right?”
“Yes,” Patsy said, eyes wide. Was Ruth Marks going to help her sneak into her room?
“I have an idea. You see, my house creates a perfect dark spot where your room is.” Patsy knew this was true. She had spent many hot days in the shade provided by Ruth’s little house. “They’ll never see you. I’ll just hoist you up like this—” she laced her fingers together into a little pocket “—and you’ll climb in the window.”
She cringed, trying to walk on the gravel path that led to the back of the house without making crunching noises. “All right, let’s do it!” said Ruth, as Patsy stepped in her interlaced fingers. Good lord, I can’t believe this. She didn’t weigh much, she knew, despite feeling conspicuous at this moment. Hands splayed against the stucco wall, she yelped as she toppled in the open window. “Thanks,” she whispered, and tried not to laugh, peering down at Ruth, her hair a mess of half-fallen out curlers, nightgown in tatters. What some people will do, thought Patsy, for a bit of gossip.
She crawled into bed fully-clothed and awaited her fate. The house was dark. And then she heard the creak of the garage door and Daddy’s heavy boots thumping up the stairs. He knew she was home; he had been to her hideout. Patsy shivered.
“Patsy!” he yelled, his presence filling her room. Mama stood behind him, smaller, but no less formidable. Her eyes narrowed, and she shook her head. The smell of wet ashes wafted in with them. Patsy’s heart stood still. She held her breath and thought the better of speaking.
He threw the flag, muddy with its charred edges, onto the floor, and glared at her. “This,” he said, voice composed, “is a disrespect I cannot tolerate in this house.” He squared his arms against his chest.
Patsy got out from under the covers and stood across from him.
“This is mortifying,” said Mama. “All my friends will find out about this. Hell, they probably already have.”
“Heaven forbid I tarnish your reputation,” said Patsy, “because you find pride in slavery. And keeping women in their place.”
“We have had this discussion. My house, my rules,” said her father. “This is more complicated than you understand. But flag burning?”
“Flag burning is perfectly legal. And it’s not even a real flag to anyone, but old Southerners stuck in the Civil War. Most of the neighbors have gotten rid of theirs—”
“I am not racist! Oh, my God, you need to go to bed. I’ll figure out what to do with you later. I just hope this doesn’t affect business.” Daddy shook his head.
Patsy thought this was outrageous. Unless everyone in Cypress decided to drive out of town for their seafood, Daddy’s shrimping business was perfectly safe. Stanley Bundy was a well-respected man in the town of Cypress. The conversation was ridiculous.
Those days she had spent as a little girl, plowing through the mist on her father’s night trawl, hauling in big nets full of crawdads and shrimp, breathing in the drenched air were gone. How she loved running her fingers through the slippery catch, sorting through the nets for what they could sell to the stores.
“You know my ‘insubordination’ is unlikely to cause anything more than whispers of pity for you. For having me as a daughter.” She raised her eyebrows and shot him a pointed glance. He sighed, ran his hand through his dirty- blonde hair, and turned away.
Stanley’s face was weathered from years of hard work in the sun, and it made him look older. His eyes caught her heart for a flittering moment.
“Just go, Daddy,” she said.
“You’re grounded. Which means stay away from the shack on the marsh. I can’t trust what you’re up to down there anymore.” He turned toward the door.
“I don’t have to listen to you at all,” she retorted. “I’ve been accepted to
6 That Night on the Bayou
Boston University. I was considering staying in Louisiana, but my decision is made, I guess.”
“There’s always that little obstacle of paying for it,” he said.
“GET OUT!” Rage bubbled in her stomach.
“Like I said, you’re grounded. College is months away.”
“I do not have to stay here at all. My birthday is in less than thirty days.
I’ll be gone by then.” She chewed the inside of her mouth until the taste of blood hit her gums, and added, burying her head in her pillow, “Like I said, get out.”
Maybe he continued talking, it was hard to say, given how loud anger pulsed through her head. And her mother, so concerned about nothing but her reputation around town, the perfect wife and mother. I’m never getting married, thought Patsy, balling her fists, and cursing into the pillow on the twin bed. Marriage came with unspoken rules and expectations, and Patsy wanted none of it. The house remained silent. She hurled a textbook out the open window. Out, she thought. I am getting out of here.