Crossing the River
Hannah didn’t feel like rejoicing. She didn’t even feel like living, really. She’d been the only one to witness the death of the memorial shrine’s recipient, and now it was just a mess of garbage. He hadn’t even liked teddy bears. Why couldn’t there be Diecast cars, the only toys he ever played with? Because the people who made it didn’t know him. To them, he was just a deceased ten year old, faceless and devoid of personality.
None of them asked her because they didn’t know her either. It was better that way. Hannah preferred to fade into the background, keep hidden. She washed her own school uniforms in the sink and hung them to dry from the dead magnolia tree in the backyard. Best not to go to the laundromat alone, where bad men sometimes hung around. Hannah was an expert at keeping a low profile, never answering questions in school, but always showing up and doing enough to pass her classes. She’d made it to fifth grade that way and she intended to quietly graduate from high school.
She tried teaching him, but Marsh was no good at hiding. Marsh wanted to be noticed. He couldn’t help raising his hand when he knew the answer to a question, scoring goals in soccer on the playground, and singing loudly during music class. That was how Hannah noticed him, when she found him one day belting out “It’s a Wonderful World” on the street corner outside Jackson Brewery. He didn’t even have a hat in front of him for the tourists to throw dollar bills into. A waste.
Seeing him there, Hannah had felt an overwhelming desire to protect him. He technically lived with his mother in a house Hannah had never seen. But it wasn’t really a home since no one there took care of him. He’d learned to operate a can opener at age four and fed himself cold beans and spaghetti until he was tall enough to use the stove. His uniforms never got washed, at least until Hannah started doing it for him.
She’d treated him like her brother after that. The house where she lived with her mother wasn’t much—rotting siding and a floor with soft spots in the wood where the termites were eating it. The stove and washing machine had long ago broken and her mother couldn’t be troubled to have them fixed. She was basically never there. Hannah thought she probably had yet another boyfriend, a guy who might not even know she had a kid. That was fine with Hannah. She was old enough to heat hot dogs in the microwave and beg from tourists in the French Quarter when she needed to buy groceries.
Marsh would have gone on to do something great, Hannah was sure of it. That was why she’d been so determined to protect him. But she failed, just like she failed at everything in her life, she thought now. That day, that horrible day, exposed her for what she really was: a loser. Not that her mother didn’t already know that. She’d informed Hannah of her uselessness whenever she stopped by the house for clothes or a bottle of perfume. Hannah fought those lessons, rebelled against them with every atom in her body, until Marsh died. After that, she didn’t care anymore.
It had been her idea to sneak onto the Algiers Ferry. No reason except that Marsh loved boats and neither of them had ever been to the other side of the Mississippi. She could only come up with four dollars, enough to cover one way, but Hannah figured hitching a ride wouldn’t be that hard. She picked a time when she knew it would be busy, during the rush for workers to get home, back to Algiers from their jobs serving the tourists in the French Quarter. They slipped in behind a group with bikes who were distracting the money collector with a tale about not having the correct change.
The ride over was pleasant, a slight breeze coming in off the river and the unfamiliar feeling of movement under them almost like a rocking chair. Though she lived by the river, Hannah didn’t think about it much, it was just an obstacle, a wall separating her from the other side of the world. She’d always wanted to cross it and now she was going to. The freedom of it felt like flying. Marsh was enjoying himself too; she could tell by how he turned his face toward the wind and closed his eyes. She was glad she’d brought him, because seeing him happy made her happy, and few things did that, all told.
Algiers was beautiful with old, narrow streets and candy-colored houses. It was like the French Quarter, except safe and homey-feeling. Even decorated for Halloween with skeleton cats drinking from empty bowls and scarecrows hanging from trees, the houses were inviting, like if you knocked someone would give you a hot meal. But that only happened in the black and white movies Hannah’s mom used to watch late at night. In those worlds, being a poor kid was romantic and the parents were always dead, never drunks or speed-freaks with boyfriends who got touchy-feely.
“Can we stay here?” Marsh asked, examining a house with a jumble of kids’ toys in the fenced-in backyard.
“What do you mean?” Hannah was genuinely confused—how could they possibly stay in this little town? There was no place to hide, no tourists to beg from, not even Hannah’s mother’s junky house to live in. Nice as it was, they didn’t belong there.
“I mean this town. It’s so pretty, so safe. It’s like a pretend town. I bet the police never even come here,” he said.
He had a point. Algiers was like a mini-Disneyland without the cartoon characters. Not that either of them had seen Disneyland, of course, just pictures. But Hannah imagined it—pristine streets, bright colors like lollipops. If you looked closely enough, there were cracks in the stone sidewalks and bits of paint peeling from the siding of the houses. Yet Algiers still seemed perfect next to Hannah’s neighborhood, with its crumbling brick, creeping vines, and rotten wood. The houses there seemed desperate to return to the earth, become clay and dirt all over again.
Hannah wished she could say yes, they could stay. How many times had she wanted to say that word to him? But she couldn’t and he knew it. That kid was little and sometimes naïve, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew before she told him they weren’t going to steal from the corner store or that they’d play their pathetic orphan game for the tourist carrying the Prada handbag. That ruse was dangerous since the person might get it into her head to call social services, but Hannah and Marsh could run fast.
An old church seemed to have been dropped in the middle of the town square by an alien spaceship, but Hannah only noticed the Sysco semi-truck parked to one side of it. Sysco meant one thing—food service. She was so hungry that her stomach felt like it had turned inside out. The truck drew her with the powerful magnetism of food. Besides the ferry money, only a few stray coins jingled in her pocket, possibly enough to feed into a candy machine if the restaurant had one, but nothing else. If they spent the four dollars, they’d have to sneak onto the ferry again and very few people would want to go to the Quarter at this time of day. They would certainly get caught.
As they came around the church, Hannah saw a narrow corner building with bikes parked out front and a Coca-Cola sign reading “Algiers Café.” Through the subtly tinted windows, she could see tables adorned with ketchup, mustard, and Tabasco bottles. She wanted to take Marsh inside and buy him an enormous hamburger and a pile of fries. She longed to be rich—to have pockets full of dollar bills she could spend on anything she desired. Unable to stop herself, she led Marsh toward the door.
“Do you have any money?” he asked, his voice hoping when he knew there was none.
She shook her head. “Just the money to get back.”
She should have known something was wrong at that moment, when that terribly thoughtful expression came over his face. “Let’s spend it,” he said.
She was too hungry to argue, too depleted for rationality.
Marsh pushed the door open. He walked straight up to the counter and the cashier immediately labeled him with her eyes—street punk. But he gave her the neon-light smile that he brought out only occasionally and said, “What can my sister and I get for four dollars?”
She poured two glasses of ice water from a pitcher on the counter and said, “Two biscuits.”
His smiled turned into a carefree grin that Hannah had never seen. “That sounds amazing,” he said.
They chose a wooden table near the window and Hannah marveled over the bounty—two biscuits as big as CDs and packets of butter and jam. She forced herself to slowly spread the butter and jam inside with her knife and take small bites. Fluffy and light, the biscuits were easily the best things she’d ever eaten. Even better, Marsh’s smile didn’t disappear.
When they were finished, Hannah left a few of her coins on the table and they walked outside, the full feeling making her sleepy and happy at the same time. She wanted to lie on the grass near the church and just relax for once. Instead, she had to be responsible. Someone needed to figure out how they were going to return to New Orleans. The sun was already ballooning up orange and fat before its descent below the buildings. No time to play pretend. Algiers might seem safe, but at night people crept out of the shadows and Hannah knew that the ones that seemed nice and helpful were the worst.
Marsh took her hand. “Don’t worry. It will all work out,” he said. As if he knew. As if at that moment, he had it all planned. Hannah wondered about that later on—what he had decided and how he thought it would end. She wanted so badly to believe him that she allowed him to take her back toward the river. They walked silently along the stone streets, passing the occasional person pulling weeds from a garden or throwing a bag into a trash can. People who took for granted their lives in those little houses.
By the time they reached the river, only the tip of the sun remained above the far away buildings of the French Quarter. It had spilled orange dye all across the Mississippi, that treacherous, fast moving water deceptively beautiful in its artificial color. Hannah felt a little shiver as she looked. The river had turned monstrous, a dragon or an alligator, reptilian and ancient, boiling with malevolence.
But Marsh didn’t seem scared at all. He watched the ferry dock and the men in reflective vests secure it.
“How are we going to get on?” Hannah asked him, but he didn’t appear to hear her. He scrambled up the levee, over the railroad tracks, and to the rocky slope that disappeared into the river below.
“My mother is going to send me away,” he said.
Hannah started to speak, but he held up a hand to stop her. “She wants me to live with my grandfather in Shreveport. I can’t go there.”
Hannah waited for him to continue, but he didn’t. “Why not?” she finally said, feeling coldness seeping into her, beginning at her feet and crawled upwards, a snake sliding under her skin.
“He used to do things to me. Things I can’t let happen,” Marsh said. He didn’t sound like a kid anymore. His voice was adult, determined.
Hannah knew at that moment he was going to do something, but she was too slow. Maybe it was because she was full, or she just didn’t have the experience—she wasn’t ready for this. Besides, the snake had made it to her head and her whole body was frozen, rigid, unresponsive.
She had no idea where he’d learned to dive. Perhaps it was just instinct, a talent he’d had hidden deep inside without even knowing it. He bent his knees and shot into the air, flying past the rocks, hands reaching out and meeting the water first. As he disappeared, the orange of the water was replaced by black. Too late, Hannah’s body thawed, and she ran up to the ferry, screaming for help, for anyone.
The ferry workers put up the shrine. Someone must have told them Marsh hung around the Quarter and that was why they put it up there rather than in Algiers. Hannah watched silently, unnoticed as usual. She didn’t tell them that he didn’t like teddy bears. She didn’t tell them he was her best friend. They didn’t ask.
Hannah knew what poverty looked like. It was cheap clothing worn too many times, frayed edges, faces toasted deep brown by the sun. The woman who stopped her car by Marsh’s shrine had none of the signs, nothing to indicate she was poor. In fact, her sedan was nearly new with no dents, no sun fading, no broken mirrors or balding tires.
Her face rotated slightly, and the shadow receded from it. Hannah gasped, covering her mouth too late. The eyes, the nose, and the chin belonged to her Marsh. Except that he was gone, probably cremated. She had no idea what had happened to his body. Once she’d summoned the men to the riverfront, they’d ignored her, focusing on rescue. She’d known it was too late. Marsh had never learned to swim and she hadn’t seen so much as a bubble, though she’d watched the spot where he entered that deep water. She couldn’t swim either and yet she regretted her decision not to jump and try to save him. Why couldn’t she have sacrificed herself for him? That would have been so much better than this regret. She stayed on the levee and saw the men drag him out, hours later. She refused to leave until he was gone and then walked to the ferry, emptied out, gone. There was nothing left of her, so she wasn’t surprised when the men let her onto the boat without seeming to see her at all.
She couldn’t look at this woman’s face. She covered her eyes with her hands and pretended not to hear when she spoke. Louder, the woman said, “Girl!” and Hannah finally had to either answer or run. She wanted to leave, but more, she wanted any possible connection to Marsh. Without him, she had nothing.
So, she said, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Did you know this boy?” the woman said.
Hannah took one step forward and stopped. “Yes.” She knew she should run away. She should not trust this strange adult, this rich woman in her unscuffed shoes and creased pants, but she saw the anguish in her eyes and didn’t go. Not yet.
“What happened to him?” the woman asked. “Did someone throw him in the river?”
Hannah pulled back, shrinking down into the too-large coat she’d stolen from her mother’s closet. In the few days since Marsh’s death, winter had come. The cold might only last a few days or weeks, but in the meantime, it made her mother’s house seem even more empty. “He jumped,” she said. “He couldn’t swim.”
“I know that,” the woman said. Her head dipped and when she pulled it back up, tears were tracking down her face, small rivers of despair. “He ran away from home. He did that a lot, but this time he didn’t come back. I couldn’t deal with him. I just…I had too many problems of my own.”
Hannah didn’t feel sorry for the woman when she said that. She straightened and spat out the words with all the anger that had been building in her since her mother stopped washing her clothes, buying groceries or even bothering to come home and check on her: “Yeah? Well, we had problems too. Like no food to eat, no clean clothes to wear. But I guess your problems were more important.”
The woman folded forward as though Hannah had shot her in the stomach. “I would have come back, if he’d just stayed. I try to do what I’m supposed to do, take care of him. Since George left, it’s just too hard. I was trying. I was doing my best.”
“Yeah, well, your best sucks,” Hannah said. “You and all the rest of you. You suck.” She didn’t feel strong anymore. She was small and weak, alone. Bundling the coat around her again, she turned to walk away. Back at home, she might find her mother had left her some canned food or there could be nothing but a cold house and the rats scratching around under it. She didn’t want to go there. But she couldn’t be where Marsh was. She was too afraid.
“Come with me,” the woman said. “Please. I know I’m a terrible person. I’m a complete failure as a human being. But I have money, at least for now. I can get you something to eat and a warm bed to sleep in. Maybe a bath if you want it.”
Hannah wanted all of those things. Her stomach gurgled, reminding her that it was there and empty as usual. How could she betray Marsh by going with this woman who might be his mother? She was curious, though. She’d told him everything about her life, but he never wanted to talk about himself. Thinking about him made her head feel like it might float away and be gone forever, but she couldn’t seem to stop. “Okay,” she said.
The woman’s car smelled like the cherry cough drops Hannah’s mother used to mix with something sour. Hannah sat quietly in the backseat and looked out the window, trying not to think about how far they were going from her home. She didn’t even know if they were still in New Orleans when the car stopped moving. When she got out, she couldn’t see or smell the river anymore, which was strange. She’d never thought about how much it was in the background of her life until it was gone.
The house was small and pink, like cotton candy, which Hannah had never tasted but had seen once in a picture book. She followed the woman across the white porch and into the house. Hannah expected it to be neat and clean, as she imagined rich people’s houses to be, but it was so cluttered that she had to move a stack of empty boxes just to sit on the couch. The woman collapsed into an armchair after tossing aside a dusty clump of newspapers and Hannah got a good look at her for the first time. She had a heart shaped face and a bow of a mouth, but her tense, pale blue eyes didn’t fit at all. They seemed to belong to an old man. Her clothes, Hannah now saw, were average, not fancy and expensive as she’d first thought.
“I need help,” the woman said. “I let my son run away and kill himself. There is something deeply wrong with me. I’m a horrible person.”
Hannah surveyed the stacks of newspapers and magazines, the empty boxes, the unopened mail, the bottles and cans lining the windowsills. “You said that already, but he’s gone now and there’s nothing any of us can do about it.” Hannah heard her own voice and thought she sounded adult, too adult, but that was what she’d been made into by this world. There was no help for it. “I can clean up this mess for you, though, if you’ll get me something to eat.”
The woman got to her feet surprisingly quickly. “I’m sorry. I’ll make you a plate right now.” She disappeared through the doorway leading into the kitchen where Hannah could see that more mail and papers covered the table and appliances.
Shaking her head, Hannah took the first pile of magazines out to the recycling can by the woman’s driveway. Three loads later, the room wasn’t clean, but at least she could see the top of the coffee table. The woman came out with a tray containing assorted store-bought cookies and apple slices. Her eyes showed panic and she looked around for her missing things, but she closed her eyes for an instant and then set the tray on the table. Hannah sat down on the couch and took a cookie, resisting the urge to shove them all into her mouth at once.
“Won’t your parents wonder where you are?” the woman asked as she returned from the kitchen with a glass of water and a napkin.
Hannah paused in the act of reaching for an apple slice. “No one knows where my dad is, and I spend most of my time wondering where my mother is. So no, there’s no one looking for me.”
The woman was silent for a moment, contemplating the spot on the end table where a stack of People magazines had been. “My name is Rose Broussard and I am Marsh’s mother.” Her voice cracked like a faulty radio signal. “Can you forgive me?”
Hannah was taken aback by the question. No adult had ever asked for her forgiveness and she didn’t know what to say in return. Did she forgive her? A terrible thing had happened, but how much of it was Rose Broussard’s fault? Did she know that Marsh’s grandfather was a monster? And she couldn’t have known that when Marsh ran away the last time, he’d meant to kill himself. Could she be blamed for not knowing things? Hannah thought so, but she wasn’t sure. It was the kind of question Marsh liked to think about—what made someone’s actions bad and another’s just stupid? Hannah decided that either way, Marsh would want her to forgive his mother. “I accept your apology,” she said. “And I’m sure Marsh would too.”
Rose went back into the kitchen and returned with a garbage bag. “I’m ready,” she said. “Let’s do this.”
Together, they gathered up the rest of the junk in the room and brought it outside, filling both the trash and the recycling. After that was done, they cleaned—Rose vacuuming and Hannah dusting. Weirdly, Hannah felt good. She liked seeing the room get cleaner and she even relished the feeling of her body becoming tired.
Rose turned off the vacuum cleaner. “Will you help me with his room?” she asked, her voice small.
Hannah’s good feeling vanished, replaced by a dark curtain of despair. But when she looked at Rose, she saw something deeper than her own grief, a void of nothingness. “Yes, I’ll help,” Hannah said.
At first, she couldn’t open her eyes and look at his room. But feeling the weight of Rose next to her, she pried her lids apart. The room was lined with shelves containing books that no ten year old should have been able to read:Moby Dick, The Hobbit, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Robinson Crusoe.
“He always wanted to be somewhere else,” Rose said, her body seeming to collapse in on itself.
“It’s not really dirty in here,” Hannah said, almost whispering.
Rose reached out and touched the edge of the plain, beige bedspread. “I know. What am I supposed to do with all his things? His clothes, his books, his old toys. They are all just here and I don’t know what to do.”
Hannah tried to picture her friend’s face. What would Marsh want? He would just want her and his mother to be happy, or at least as happy as they could be with him gone. “Let’s just vacuum and dust,” she said.
Rose’s face relaxed a little and Hannah thought that was what she’d wanted to hear. They worked together again, in silence. When they were finished, the room looked almost the same, but Hannah felt different, as though she had talked to Marsh. She thought she knew him better than she ever had.
“Do you have anywhere to go?” Rose said. “You said your parents weren’t looking for you, so I wondered if you’d want to stay here.”
Hannah didn’t know whether she meant just for the night or forever, but she decided not to ask. “My mother won’t miss me and it’s a long way home,” she said.
“Stay,” Rose said. “Please.”
After showering, Hannah dressed in a pair of Marsh’s sweatpants and one of his T-shirts, reminding herself that he would have wanted her to take advantage of any opportunity, any small comfort his death would give her. She felt especially strange crawling into his bed, but she was too tired to think about it and simply fell asleep.
When she woke up the next morning, she expected Rose to have prepared a breakfast of pancakes, bacon, orange juice, and scrambled eggs. They’d watch cartoons together or go shopping. Perhaps, they could help each other heal, bond through their shared love for Marsh. Instead, the house was empty when she awoke. She went into the kitchen, counters still piled up with junk, and looked in the refrigerator, finding a bottle of ketchup and milk that smelled sour. Cookie packages filled the cabinets, the same ones that Rose had served her. She stuffed as many as she could in her jacket pockets and began the long walk home.