BANG! authors are showcased individually here online for a month. Each author installment is made up of three pieces in any combination: poetry shorts (20 lines) or fiction or nonfiction (500 words each) for a month. All work on must be previously unpublished. Submission period runs all year round. BANG! pieces are not published in The New Guard. Work should be very short: flash-short. Pieces on BANG! are meant to serve as a kind of calling card for the author. :: Our next installment will be posted on November 22, 2017. ::
Ingrid Norton is a BANG! Selected Writer.
Ingrid Norton's essays and short stories have appeared in publications such as Boston Review, Litro Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Palimpsest, and The Saint Ann's Review. She is an alumna of Harvard Divinity School and of the University of Texas and a current PhD student at Princeton. Norton is working on a novel.
letters from the gulf
new fiction BY ingrid norton
A fool’s errand. I wanted to find the bar where we danced into the night, the dock where we slept in the back of your truck—
Sinews of the past leapt up, full-bodied. The gray clouds came closer and closer over the headlands, as though they formed a lid over the road. Everything lush green. I hear your voice say, like you could swim in it.
An instant after I let the windows down, I was sheathed in sweat. Raindrops misted the windshield as I crossed a corrugated bridge. These first drops splattered into a downpour, Bienvenue La Louisiane. No trace of a town or the ocean. Just that pure, deep green, broken by muddy channels, and a thick fresh smell: wetland. It carried me back to how I felt then, when you were new to me, before our time together was outstripped by time spent with memories of you.
On a lush bend of road, I pulled over and began to write you this.
It was dusk by the time I reached the branching two-lane, laminate map between my legs. The rain lightened and returned. When I reached the town, everything seemed so familiar it took my breath: the raised, scattered houses and old tucked-away church, its white paint peeling. Clouds churned beneath the darkening sky. I kept looking for the cavernous warehouse building, purple neon illuminating a shack of a bar.
I got out and wandered the streets in the soft rain. I found the railroad tracks that run alongside the raised earth near the bayou. But each time I followed it to an inlet, its familiarity dissolved at my approach. No sign of a marina. I found bare earth, not the wide trees that shaded the railroad tracks we walked along. The rain was coming harder. I stepped inside a gas station. Off to the side, there was a dark smoky room full of tawny men bent over video poker machines.
“Excuse me . . .”
They turned blank faces to me. In the corner, an old man with shock-white hair smoked a cigarette.
“I—I’m looking for the marina—I think there’s a warehouse —and a bar—”
I was met with silence and an unperturbed yet hostile look.
I stepped back outside and stood under the flickering yellow light, trying to read the map and shelter from the rain. It took me a moment to notice that the old man had also come outside. He flicked his cigarette away by some dusty pay phones. The wind caught his words.
“I’m sorry?” I said, stepping into the rain to get nearer to him.
“—place you mean. Marina got wiped out years ago, nothing left after the second hurricane.” As he looked at me, his manner changed to one of condolence: “So sorry, ma’am.”
The kindness in his voice stung. I thanked him. He nodded and went back inside. I trudged up the street and back to my car. Back to the night, no nearer.
I drove to Biloxi, and took a long walk on an emaciated beach, strewn with glass and rebar. The gray-blue shades of early evening imparted a spooky glow to the sand. Low tide. A row of large, spindly bird-prints led to the waves and a pair of herons stood out in the shallow, dirty waters. Some water started seeping through the edge of my skirt. I had been holding it up. I dropped it down to the ocean’s surface. Water spread into the fabric. I waded past a long, broken concrete culver. The herons craned their necks, hardly looking at me. Up the beach, middle-aged drifters, men and women, stood in a bedraggled circle marked by the orange glow of cigarette ends. I began to turn around, a slow circle. I tried to take in a panorama of it all: the beach, the scattered foundations and fast food stores up by the road. And, out to the horizon, calm dark swells of sea and the waves’ hairline white.
When I arrived, it took a moment to see the damage behind the gleaming rebuilt bridge and all the bright neon, the battered turn-of-the-century houses tucked down dry side streets with crooked trees. Layers of jagged cement with FOR SALE/LEASE signs lay beside towering new hotels lit with blue lasers.
My motel—the Flamingo Palm, a dingy roadside place—reminded me of somewhere we would have stayed together. But the place was oddly laid out. The shiny sign, a drained swimming pool, and large parking lot fronted the road; the office and the rooms were set back a ways. It was only when I returned, the Gulf dripping from my clothes, that I saw the shellacked look of the pool and noticed the foundation scars in the front parking lot. An entire other building once stood here. Not so long ago.
This whole town made me think of the thin beachside road where we passed a row of casinos: a summer morning, the sand and the gaming palaces lit in wispy circus shades. I had a guidebook on my lap and read you French settler descriptions of swamps to pass the early drive. When we stopped, we went swimming in our clothes. We were leaving New Orleans, I think—or returning? If only I could retrieve the unadorned moment, the woman who laughed and called out, “Y’all need swimsuits?” and the feeling of being in your arms.
But I can’t.
The next morning, my sodden skirt hung over the shower. The reek of saltwater filled the air. I wished myself anywhere but this tatty motel room across a two-lane from the ruined beach. I woke hating my return to these latitudes. I woke wanting to scrub my brain bare of memories and to rid myself of your influence. Betrayal, death, time itself—one loses what one loves best one way or another, and emerges alone into the impartial day. Orpheus should never have gone back.
That night, I drove further up the coast and found a different motel. I couldn’t sleep. I walked down the beach to a jetty where jagged rocks stretched for a mile down the shipping lane. The sea was illumined by the fragile, indecipherable shades that precede dawn. I drifted past rows of fishermen who gazed intently at the waves. Static from their radios slid up into the soft, leaded glow. A mackerel spread of clouds shimmered above, the highest portion lit by a shaft of light. In the distance, a rust-colored ship was slowly coming toward land. I watched the hot red disc of the sun glide over the horizon, and my mind slipped back to another sunrise.
It was that scruddy Gulf town—what was its name? With all the rusted motorboats and BUY 5LB SHRIMP GET 1LB FREE written on the side of every other store in peeling paint. We stayed in an awful motel, a narrow room with threadbare blankets.
At the edge of night, I woke suddenly and began to work myself up.
Then you woke too and put your arms around me.
“Hey—what is it?”
“Love, I—I—” I was almost crying. “I really believe that I can be great. Like there’s this capacity for greatness in me. But I’m scared I’ll fuck it all up.”
It’s strange to remember how unsure I was. of my own powers. How tortured by obligations to my family in Houston. There was another night when I worried aloud and you said, “So forget them.” I was aching to, but scared of my ambition. When we took that road trip, I hadn’t yet made up my mind to go to New York. And leave you.
“Hey, hey now. You’re a tough, gifted girl—or, woman, I should say. You are great. You just have to get out of your own way.”
You continued to hold me tightly while my breathing slowed to match yours. I murmured, “Thank you…thank you,” and violet-orange light stole through the windows.
With the sun overhead, I made my way back down the jetty.
“Next time, bring your rod,” a fisherman with a reddened face and wraparound sunglasses called out.
I walked along the sand in the stark, glaring light. In my hotel room, I shut tight the curtains to seal out the sun. I fell into bed, where I could imagine you were with me.
A few years ago, moving apartments for the umpteenth time, I was sorting through my books. I opened one of them and the front page startled me. We had both written our names in red Sharpie, a <— —> stretched between them.
Someday a stranger will find it in a bookstore and wonder who we were.
Fiction © Ingrid Norton, 2017. All rights reserved by the author.
Previous authors with appearances on BANG! are: Patricia Smith, Jose Padua, Pete Follansbee, Jillian Brenner, Susanna Baird, Alexandra Oliver, Kerri Quinn, Mike Heppner, Marc Mewshaw, Lola Rainey, Timothy Dyke, Marcia Popp, Quenton Baker, Courtney Campbell, Joshua Graber, Charles Wyatt, Julio Duggan, V. Hansmann, Margo Orlando Littell Scarlett S. Diaz, Erica Vega, Amy M. Alvarez, Jonathan Segol, Lissa Kiernan, Roger Bonair-Agard, James Kimbrell, Bridget Boland, E.G. Cunningham, Melissa Goode, Mark Wagstaff, Carla Stern, Sarah Glass, Jennifer Amell, Zakia R. Khwaja, Julie Poitras Santos, Lyall Harris and Amy Nash.