The Endless Orange Skies — Devon Ross

Only sometimes did he dream about the war, about Camp Enari and the vast mountains of Pleiku where a woman named Mai pushed a peddler’s cart, canopied with oblong bananas and steaming pots of Cao Lau noodles. Mai gifted her food to Sidney and the other American GIs who crowded her streets with rifles and boots, who tainted her air with cigarettes and body odor.

Sidney dreamt of Mai and the black sandals she wore, strapped elaborately around her feet, looping up her ankles. Mai’s feet were milky and slender, never blistered or blemished, with long toes and tapered nails. Sidney thought of Mai’s feet each night as he lay inside the wooden barracks that housed the 4th Infantry, and his fellow platoon members did the same. They cherished Mai’s feet, fantasized the elongated arch that connected heel to ball, lusted over the smooth skin on her achilles. Those who did not think of her feet thought of her breasts, the way in which the thin fabric of her shirt hugged them, held them, high and full, enough to grab with the palm of an American hand. Sidney thought about her thighs, too, mysteriously hidden under a floral skirt, percolating in the breeze, occasionally outlining a lean set of legs.

The women in Pleiku were not fat like the women Sidney knew back in his home state of Georgia; they were not glutted from pan-fried chicken or lardy collard greens. The women in Pleiku nourished their bodies into seductive molds, abiding by holistic remedies and fostering natural diets of food they’d harvested themselves: rice they’d steamed, chickens they’d slaughtered. Processed American food paled in comparison: high fructose corn syrup and drive-thrus, frozen lasagnas from the Piggly Wiggly freezer aisle. Sidney grew up with a mother who stored ham and cheese sandwiches in the ice box and thawed them on the kitchen counter hours before the school bus arrived. She packed those sandwiches into his brown sack lunch alongside bruised, imported apples and Jell-O cups, a stick of Bazooka bubble gum for after baseball practice––as American as it could come, and there was pride in that, a gratification in the honorable title of American Man. American Man who fights in wars. American Man who carries a striped flag. American Man who carves a Thanksgiving turkey and eats apple pie, baked by an apron-wearing American Woman. Sidney liked quiet women with shiny hair and makeup––but not too much makeup. Women with subtle smiles whose lips were red and closed. Mai was not any of those things; her face was naked and her cheeks a bit too wide, but, like most soldiers in a foreign land, Sidney could look past that, focus on the lower half of her body and the secrecy enclosed beneath her skirt. Mai did not speak English, solely communicating with his platoon through willing eyes and hearty smiles. She was adorably complacent, and perhaps that is what he liked most, more than her feet or strappy black sandals.

Lieutenant Davies was the name of the man who commanded Sidney’s platoon. He kept a didgeridoo atop the antique bookshelf in his private quarters, placed beside a Kentucky coin bear whose stuffing had rotted from endless exposure to the Vietnamese humidity. Lieutenant Davies never played the didgeridoo––for he had not learned how––but he often told the tale of how he’d acquired it during the Battle of Brisbane, snatched it from the home of a white man who’d slaughtered three Aboriginals with a machete. Lieutenant Davies killed the white man during a riot, stole the didgeridoo, and kept it as a souvenir.

“This is a war-time didgeridoo,” he told their platoon. “Whoever kills me will earn it like a medal of honor, and whoever kills him will do the same damn thing ‘til this didgeridoo belongs to the last man on Earth.”

But Sidney never learned the fate of that didgeridoo, just like he never learned the fate of Lieutenant Davies, who was shipped off to Dak To in ‘68. He never heard the droning ribbit of that pacific instrument, carved from eucalyptus and hollowed by termites, though it often appeared in his dreams––the didgeridoo, five feet tall, perched in the skirted lap of Mai, her cheeks inflating as she blew into its mouthpiece, creating a melodic hum, anxious with musical fluctuations, a taunting showtune for falling bombs and trench foot, the gleaming helmets of the Viet Cong and their flamethrowers, hidden like snipers in the jungle’s foliage. The didgeridoo, a foreign sound, was misplaced in Camp Enari, and yet it was provoking all the same, because wasn’t all war the same? An enemy. A frontline. Expendable soldiers with bullet holes and missing limbs. Casualty counts and drafts––birth dates plucked from spinning bingo wheels on national television. November 30th was Sidney’s birthday, born three minutes after midnight.

In Camp Enari, Sidney’s platoon looked forward to their hero’s return, a parade through the streets of their hometowns, kissing girls who were not like Mai but were instead simpler and better dressed, girls who were thick around the waist and slept with their hair in rollers. Sidney was not keen on these triumphal processions; they were declarations, not celebrations, proof of possible survival for neighbors to see, a glint of reassurance that their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers would return unscathed, brimming in accolades of bravery and proud anecdotes of the commies they’d killed or the refugees they’d carried through a swamp. No one spoke of Johnny, whose left leg exploded when Kip accidently detonated that hand grenade at the wrong time, or Lieutenant Smith, who’d died wailing as staph infection ravaged his blood. Sidney himself had lost half his hearing while crossing enemy landmines. A constant ring replaced white noise. When Sidney was not dreaming about Mai or didgeridoos, he was hearing that ring, day after night, a shrill escalation deep within his ears pushing the rest of the world into a distant background.

Sidney did, in fact, receive a parade upon his return, a motorcade around the city of Savannah, which was not where he lived. He rode in a sleek Impala with a convertible roof. Like Kennedy moments before assassination. A quick bullet to the throat. A fatal bullet to the head. Dead. There was death in parades just like there was death in Vietnam, but the children waved American flags on toothpicks and skipped alongside the procession as if destruction was only tangible in places far away. A young boy tailed the Impala for three blocks, a plastic army helmet on his head; its straps bounced against his chin. The boy held a tiny fist in the air, smiling, toothlessly, at Sidney and the convertible. His idolization was not for Sidney but for Sidney’s uniform, for the lionhearted persona that a green jacket could represent but almost never did. The parades stopped the following year after Nixon replaced Johnson and the war in Vietnam became increasingly unpopular. He wondered if the boy’s fist had become a middle finger.

Photographs of these parades hung on the tile-backsplashed walls of Chipper’s, a dive bar nestled deep within the quagmires of the Wassaw Sound. These black and white images, framed and displayed for all to see, showed American soldiers waving from their cars, decorated with ribbons and memorabilia. Photographs collected throughout centuries. Korea and Vietnam. Both the world wars. Two confederate soldiers posed on a muddied field in 1863. In the center of it all was a picture of a woman. A Chinese actress, recognizable from some old Hollywood film. Her jet hair, slick and curled, pressed neatly against her face. Her eyes did not reach the camera but instead looked up and to the right, gazing into something unseen.

Every Thursday at four o’clock, Chipper’s held a veteran’s discount happy hour, so every Thursday at four o’clock, Sidney sped his bowrider up the Wilmington River, roped it to the old dock then limped along the brick ‘n board steps until he’d seated himself in front of that Chinese actress. He’d stare at the picture all night long. Sometimes, if he stared hard enough, he’d swear he saw her eyes move, drifting downward in a diagonal line until they collided with his own: a woman amongst wars.

Sidney was not the only veteran who’d retreated to the swamps of the Wassaw Sound after the end of his service. A Sound like the Wassaw Sound was brutal in condition––a lot like Nam if he thought about it––but so plentiful in resources that there was never a need to venture into town: crabs to trap, deer to shoot, mudcats to batter and fry on a pan. Total solitude girdled the landscape, as devoid as the vacuum of outer space and just as beautiful. Stars reflected across the still-watered lagoons. Bull frogs and crickets conducted daily symphonies, loud enough for Sidney to hear over the pulsing ring in his ears. Chipper’s dive bar catered to men of Sidney’s type, with a dock long enough to fit dinghies and pontoons, skiffs and bass boats. They played old country music through crackly speakers, twanging with banjoes and fiddles; the music drowned the crass conversations of other Nam vets who no longer talked about Nam but about Iraq and Kuwait and terrorists and George W. Bush. They bickered amongst themselves until their chests swelled and their faces shaded red. Their fingers tapped the air above the open carry pistols they holstered in their belts. Sidney had a gun, too––a Glock with 1100 RPM, a powerful little thing that he used to obliterate the gulls and racoons who pestered the yard of his lean-to. He’d paid for the Glock with his monthly disability check, ventured up to the sporting goods store in Savannah and waited in line. There was always a line at the gun counter, men in need of bump stocks and bullets.

Sidney’s Glock was locked and loaded, shoved down the back of his jeans so that only its grip poked over his shirt. He wanted the other vets to see it, to know that it belonged to him, the disgruntled old man who could not hear but could kill, because that was the purpose of open carry: to have a gun on your body for the inevitable excuse to use it.

Sidney imagined shooting off that gun right there inside Chipper’s. He could see himself going through those deadly motions: aiming and firing, hearing the shriek of the darling little waitress who cleared booths in the back, a blood splatter across the glass-framed face of the Chinese actress. He could do it without blinking, he was sure, like the man behind the bullets that had killed Kennedy, or Lieutenant Davies and that didgeridoo, but what would be the reason? Chipper’s was only a dive bar, not a warzone or a politically distempered country. The bartender’s name was Matt, and he mixed two-dollar drinks and wore a forty-year-old Atlanta Crackers hat from long before the Braves moved down from Milwaukee.

“Beethoven lost his hearing,” Matt the Bartender once said to Sidney. “That’s why he went mad, hearing this God awful alarm in his brain, but it was his madness that made him such a genius, that guy. His madness made the music great.”

Matt the Bartender tipped his hat low on his forehead, poured sugars and bitters over rocks, pulled bourbon off the shelf, mixed it into an Old Fashion for a regular barfly, Willie Neller. A Nam vet just like Sidney, Willie Neller ordered a flight of Old Fashions every afternoon. He slurped drunkenly from his glass, dark liquor trickling into the wiry curls of his beard. Willie was like the rest of them, stuck in the decades of his youth, his pants tucked into his socks.

Willie Neller’s mind had transcended time, stuck in Saigon or the 77-day siege in the Quang Tri province where the enemy bombed the American garrison into the ground. Willie’s eyes were constantly flicking up to the ceiling, and he’d shout, “Here they comin’!” sporadically, watching invisible helicopters descend through the clouds like they did on that day in ‘68––Operation Pegasus––swooping down to fly those US troops to their concession. Willie still saw mirages of those choppers, just like he still heard the songs of his childhood, reprising in his head and fumbling past his lips, songs from the south, from bogs and estuaries.

ya getta line and I’ll getta pole, honey
ya getta line and I’ll getta pole, babe
ya getta line and I’ll getta pole
we’ll go down to the crawdad hole, honey, baby mine

Sidney liked his Old Fashions the traditional way, made with rye whiskey instead of bourbon, how his father used to drink it. Bourbon was corn-based and saccharine. Rye was hard and cloying, could knock a man off his feet. Sidney asked Matt the Bartender for an Old Fashion with rye whiskey, and Matt the Bartender said, “We don’ make those in here no more.”

Sidney said, “All right. Just gimme whiskey.”

A group of bumbling fisherman clambered through the open door, sweat-slicked from the muggy air, their coveralls stained with sea spray and grease. They rallied around the red-felt pool table, wrestling the numbered balls into the rack, dusting their cue sticks with squares of chalk. Matt the Bartender filled pints with frothy beer, and the men plucked them from the counter one at a time. Willie kept singing.

whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry, honey
whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry, babe
whatcha gunna do when the lake runs dry
sit on the bank catch an ole horsefly, honey, baby mine

Sidney knew there was an unspoken competition between himself and Willie Neller, as there was amongst all the vets who crowded into Chipper’s. Neither Sidney nor Willie stood astute to the measurement of post-war success, neither rich nor working, both leeching off the very system that had called them into battle in the first place. 

Willie’s face ticked as the racked balls were broken. They scattered across the table, eight-ball in a pocket. The fishermen cheered and hoisted their pints, sloshing beer onto the floor. Their amplified volume interrupted the ring in Sidney’s ears, broke its shrill continuum and suspended his flow of constant noise. It always happened that way: a rush of over-bearing sound sullying his brain into a callous neutrality, the ensuing silence producing a magnification of miniscule background noise. Sidney could hear Willie Neller pivot in his barstool, could hear the ice rattle in his glass. Sometimes Sidney thought he could hear a blink: Old Willie Neller’s eyes shuttering, stickily, over his reddened eyeballs, goop pushing onto his waterline, like a toad’s eye stamping open then closed in an oozy, mechanical manner. Red eyes were a telling weakness, an inability to function as a drunk. Functional drunkenness was a skill Sidney had learned in Camp Enari, along with assembling M1 carbine rifles and M3 grease guns. He’d marched for miles in whiskey stupors, fired weapons and tipsily scanned jungle terrain for landmines and trip wires. Sidney could down his whiskey in a single gulp, and he’d sit, saturated in the dulling numbness of intoxication for hours, content and alert. In drunkenness, he knew, he bested Willie Neller.

“Here they comin’,” Willie said, his voice low and gruff. Sidney followed Willie’s gaze to the end of the bar, where that darling little waitress was rolling a mop bucket across the room. Its wheels squealed over the divots and sags of the floor, caught against the uneven wooden planks. She fumbled with the bucket, keeping a hand on the mop inside. He knew her name was Ellen––had overheard it once or twice from Matt the Bartender––and Ellen wore gray tennis shoes, laces stained from mud. He was certain she had nice feet, a little lady like her, for her body was closer in resemblance to that of the Vietnamese women he’d seen in Pleiku. Her legs were long, knees knobby, and buttons were missing from her dress. Her hair did not fit into luscious roller-styled curls but more in a frizz, held in place by an unflattering low ponytail. A woman like her, he thought, should wear her hair high. Ellen had nice cheekbones and dark eyes, the kind of eyes he would want in a woman, large and gleamy and pointed at the floor. He assumed she was poor, because all poor girls in the Wassaw Sound were thin and badly dressed, working among men, cleaning up their messes. 

Ellen leaned over the mop, scrubbing spilled beer in copious circles while the men floundered around her. If Sidney stared at her dirty tennis shoes hard enough, he could visualize her feet, stuffed inside, pressing against the interior material. Small feet, but they were narrow and curved, like Mai’s. It sent a tickling through his belly; he hadn’t found a decent-footed woman since the end of his service, thirty years before.

Willie was watching her, too, his lips rested on the rim of his Old Fashion, eyes bugged beneath his aviators. Ellen gave him a smile, tenuous and sweet, as she dragged the mop around Willie’s stool.

“How ya doin’ t’day, ole Willie?” she said, her hair falling sloppily over her shoulder. Willie wasn’t looking at her hair but at the front of her dress. He didn’t give her an answer, just a nod, and then Ellen turned toward Sidney, but she didn’t smile at him, didn’t utter a word.

Sidney’s mother had been a hard working missus, raising five sons and cooking the nightly suppers that his father demanded. On the first Saturday of each month, Sidney’s mother sat her boys down in front of the bathroom mirror for a haircut. She wet a comb, parted their hairs clean down the center, then trimmed the edges with shear scissors.

“Smile,” she’d say, “so e’rybody can see your whole self. Let ‘em know who ya really are.”

“I don’ wanna smile,” Sidney said, and his mother frowned.

“A smile don’ mean ya’re happy, Sid. Just lets all the respectable mans and womans know ya ain’t gon’ be trouble.” She looked straight into the mirror and smiled, and Sidney did the same. Now he was a veteran well into his fifties who’d fought in a war, and that was the most respectable kind of man there could be. Yet, here he was, unable to earn a smile from a table-bussing waitress. 

Sidney took his whiskey to-go in a styrofoam cup and placed it in his boat alongside stubbed-out cigarettes. He removed the Glock from his pants, placed it in the empty bait bucket. A six-pack of beer sat at the boat’s stern, warmed by the sun that snuck through the tupelo trees. The Sound could be just as foggy in the evening as it was in the morning, with clouds real low in the sky and mist that rose from the water, damp in all directions. Sidney’s boat was a hand-me-down, passed on from his father. His father had a love for the Sound and the winding rivers that meandered out to sea. There was a gentleness in which the salt marsh faded into sandy beach, rocky where the waves broke and calloused with the shells of petrified crustaceans, dredged from the middle of the Earth. Sidney’s father was a crabber, laying traps along the coast. When he died, those traps were Sidney’s inheritance, clunky rectangles of wire and rope, strung to a buoy, bobbing with the tides. The traps were stagnant and unchanging, surmounting their life span, catching crabs all year round. His father used to sell those catches to a restaurant on Wassaw Island, a seafood experience built on an ocean-viewing wharf for wealthy tourists who vacationed on its shores, but Sidney could no longer recall the restaurant’s name, for it closed its doors in ’81 after Red Lobster expanded out of Florida. Instead, his father sold his crabs to a local bait ‘n tackle shack, which had much less demand and offered much lower pay. He died two weeks later. Had a heart attack right there in his boat, floating up the Wilmington River. Sidney knew it was because he couldn’t deal with the change.

The Wassaw inlet carved its way through an archipelago of marsh hammocks and bald cypress trees, bloated around the roots, drinking up the water. The inlet bled into the expansive Atlantic, where the crab traps were. Sidney drained his styrofoam cup as he motored away from Chipper’s and toward the open horizon.

Fiddler crabs and blue crabs, calico and lady. Atlantic horseshoes washed up on beaches and ghost crabs scuttled along sand. Mole crabs lived way down underneath and could only be dug up with shovels or hands. Fiddler crabs were red crabs with one giant claw for pinching. They snapped at Sidney as he hoisted his traps out from the sea. There was a technique in holding them––a thumb on one side of the shell, a finger on the other, grabbing from the “armpits,” so as not to be pinched. Sidney held a young fiddler crab even with his eyeline and examined its four walking legs, frantically bicycling. Only males had the giant claw. It was small in size and girth, immature, but he tossed it in the fishing cooler and moved on to the next.

Sidney’s father had an aphorism, adopted from the sailors who’d colonized Georgia centuries ago. Pink skies at night, sailor’s delight. Red skies in morning, sailors take warning. An aphorism because, whimsical as it was, it was rooted in truth. Red skies brought thunderous clouds and heavy rains, an ancient form of weather prediction. Sidney had brought this mantra to Camp Enari, stared at the sky each dawn and dusk, attempting to discern the forthcoming forecast, but in Nam the trick never worked. Rain fell incessantly even as the sun shone bright and song birds sang from the trees. Even while indoors, asleep in his bunk, Sidney felt as though he was marinating in the rain, waking hot and dampened, cursed by recurrent night sweats––a physical torment and terror. It was not long after his return that he discovered the solace in the cool Atlantic breeze jostling through him as he pressed on the throttle, hastening the bowrider to 40 knots then 50. The crab traps quacked beside the beer cans. His Glock slid around in the bait bucket. Sidney tipped his head back toward the fiery sky, not pink but bloody orange. The fleeting sun projected across the water, erasing the fog and setting it alight, an ocean enraged, and as the wind whipped past his ears, paramount to the ring he heard within, he swore the crabs chirruped from under the lid of the fishing cooler, and the perilous tripletails bellowed to the king mackerel’s beneath the choppy waves of the golden sea.

Sidney could not hear the rumbling engine of the incoming skiff boat that emerged from the estuary ahead; it was a dinky three-rowed vessel with a sputtering outboard motor and, what looked to be, an emergency oar laid out across the bench seats. Sidney knew who drove that boat, had seen her cruising through these waters a time or two before, wearing the same button-down dress she wore to work at Chipper’s. Sidney sped his boat parallel to hers, keeping quite a bit of water between them. She was heading north, same way as him, toward Wassaw Island and the bait ‘n tackle shack, hair unruled in the restraints of her ponytail. Ellen kept her eyes focused onward, but a young lady like her, Sidney was sure, she had good ears. He knew she could hear him, chugging alongside her.

She was pretty in the flaxen light, waning against her skin, which was not pale but darkened by the sun, an attribute of hard work and long days. What he could not see was the tiredness within her, the exhaustion not from the heat of the sun or the stifling Georgia humidity, but an emotional strain brought forth by mopping around the ankles of men who called, “Hot stuff. Pretty thing. Darlin’. Baby doll,” then offered nothing more than a dime in gratuity. She had recognized Sidney’s bowrider from half a mile out. Sidney was the old man who kept a gun in his pants while he drained a whole whiskey bottle. She often docked her skiff boat beside him at Chipper’s. His smell was rancid of booze and brine.

As fast as Ellen steered her boat, Sidney matched her speed, staring across the mix of their wakes, watching the furrow of focus between her brows. All women were ugly with furrowed brows, resistant and determinedly rude. Complacence was not a word he used to describe young women like Ellen, women from this new generation, who had only experienced a man’s war through a television screen. Women like Ellen, Sidney thought, were weakened and unstructured, spoiled from their simple lives. Ellen had not lived through the sixties, yet she ignorantly reaped its benefits, lived without the decency to send him even a smile.

It happened on a Monday, a few months into his first tour of Vietnam. The trickle of communications had stalled in Camp Enari, so Sidney’s platoon roamed the streets of Pleiku with their rifles across their chests, missionless and pandering, filling contemptible time. Sidney found himself walking up the row of peddler’s carts, a joint burning between his lips and a flask sagging in his pocket. He was searching for Mai and her bananas and noodles, avoiding the leery pedestrians. “The American War,” they called it, as if Sidney had been the one to bring the violence. The war still would have a been a war without them, a war with a much quicker end and, possibly, far less casualties, but the presence of Americans, Sidney knew, was for the best. No longer isolationists, they fought against the plight of communism that had enraptured the eastern portion of the world. They were the good guys, or at least that’s what they were told, and Sidney deemed only Mai grateful. Mai with her smiles and nods, welcoming Americans into her peddler’s cart, spooning noodles into bowls.

He spotted her at the end of the street, her cart crookedly planted on a dusty corner. A straw hat shaded her head. As he walked closer, she did not look up, her gaze aimed down at a steaming pot. She churned its contents with a flat wooden spoon, elbow in the air. Her feet, he noticed, were bare on the ground, her strappy sandals in a heap beside her. She raised herself onto her toes while she stirred, rhythmically, swaying from one side to the next. Her feet, like a dancer’s, pressed into the ground, encompassing it wholly, silt clinging to her skin. Sidney spit the joint from his mouth, beguiled by those feet, exposed and alluring, just as he’d seen them in his dreams. Her stance was inviting, and he floated toward her as she stirred and stirred. Bending at the waist, Sidney reached. He extended a hand toward her heel, caressed its tender curves. Mai stood still as his fingers coasted along her flesh. She gibbered at him in a language they both knew he would not understand. Sidney heard her, loud and clear, for the ringing in his ears had yet to arrive. He lifted her foot in both of his hands, yearning for its closeness, craving its taste, but Mai resisted, pulling away, giving him a gentle swat.

“Food,” she said, the only English she knew. “Food.” She extended a bowl toward Sidney, who was down on his knees, but he could not muster an appetite. He stared at the feet, only the feet, uncovered and free from the prudence of sandals, a sudden sublime abyss, inches from his possession, like the didgeridoo––killed for and stolen, time and time again. But as Mai leaned away, she kicked dirt in Sidney’s eyes, and the feet disappeared from his sight.

Sidney cursed and jumped around, flung his arms until he struck––struck bananas, struck the cart, struck Mai, then Mai again, then again. He did not stop until the bleary haze had mitigated into a subtle blur. Mai’s face was black and blue in front of him, her straw hat on the ground, her cart collapsed. Nobody came to help her. Spectators ran the opposite way. Grabbing her sandals, Mai ran too. Sidney aimed his rifle.

An altercation resulting in the use of lethal force, the report would have said, if anyone had bothered to make a report at all. Mai, he told his platoon, had attacked him, kicked him in the face as he approached her cart. A communist, he called her, and the others in his platoon nodded their heads in agreement.

“Gotta get ‘em when we can,” Lieutenant Davies said.

There had been a threat within Mai’s resistance. The flick of her leg was a denial of Sidney’s dreams, and those dreams didn’t cease once Mai did; they lingered in his thoughts, endless images, cemented into his history like the photographs framed on the backsplashed walls of Chipper’s or the crab traps that shook as his boat jetted up the Wassaw Sound. 

He pushed in on Ellen’s boat, closing the gap between them and accelerating so that his bow passed hers. Finally, she looked to him, lips in a line. Sidney could not see her feet.

“Am I in yo’ way or sumthin’?” Ellen said, but Sidney could not hear her. The crabs clicked and clacked inside the bucket.

Ellen slowed her skiff boat, and Sidney slowed his bowrider.

“Hey,” Ellen shouted. “Ya’re gittin’ in ma’ way, sir.”

Sidney reached for his Styrofoam whiskey cup, but he found it empty. It crumpled in his fist, and he tossed it to the bait bucket, where his Glock lay flat inside.

Ellen’s outboard motor made a fretful gargle, then a clank, then a clunk, then her engine coughed and died. Her skiff boat sank low into the water, waves lapping over its sides. Sidney cut his own engine, all the sounds rushing back.

“God dammit,” Ellen said. She leapt upright and waded through the spillage. She pounded her fist, once, twice, against the motor before she retrieved her emergency oar. Her tennis shoes dripped as she stood and paddled, plump and waterlogged. She looked at Sidney with the oar in the water. She said, “Where ya’ headed, sir? Maybe ya’ could tow me there. I gots rope ‘n stuff.”

Sidney pointed north, where the orange sky was fading into a velvet black. “Bait ‘n tackle shack,” he said.

Ellen set the oar aside, held the rope up in her hands. “Tha’s great,” she said, a smile on her face, but Sidney did not see it. He was firing his engine and pressing on the throttle, speeding toward the inlet. His Glock remained in the bucket.

As ocean regressed into river and river regressed into streams, the ring in Sidney’s ears prevailed, and the crabs in the fishing cooler turned lethargic––items in transport to their slaughter. His bait bucket would fill with squid heads, and the squid heads would fill the crab traps, luring in tomorrow’s catch. The sun dipped below the horizon, the night sky setting in like an ashy suffocation of flames––orange flames not red or pink, inconclusive in accordance to his father’s weather-predicting aphorism. While Sidney slept, late in the evening, on the rickety porch of his lean-to, swigging through warm beers, bottle after bottle, he dreamt of his bunk in Camp Enari, the way in which the foamy mattress sagged around his hips, burdened by the weight of his body. In this dream he stared at the bottom of the overhead bunk, concealing him like the lid of a fishing cooler, human packed inside.

Through the dizzy darkness, Sidney watched that bunk bottom swirl, deciphering figmentations of conjured memories, some simply imaginary, others blatantly real. He saw the vibrations of a didgeridoo, dancing out of the mouth of the white man who’d murdered for it––the original killer. Then there were feet, limp in a pile on a dusty road, alone and dismembered, nothing attached. Sidney knew these feet were Mai’s feet, which in turn became his feet––his token to carry with him, a constant in the ringing, ringing confines of his head, conquered by American-Man-conquistador and running, running through him like the endless rivers and streams.