We park along a culvert in a graveled pullover, out past Opa-Locka, beyond the developments. Miami lies east of us, its flatlands radiating in darkness strung with beads of distant roadway and lonely security lights. To the west, where we’re going, the darkness of the sky tilts down and spills into an end-of-the-world lightless swamp. I shove the plastic boots at the kid and say: “Put these on.” The kid stares and says, “I didn’t hear nothing about going in no water.”
I just about laugh. We’re sitting on the edge of a patchwork of swamp and wetland that stretches beyond the curve of the earth. I want to tell him, you think you live on dry land because you rent a townhouse in South Dade? Miami is water, striations of graduated hydrate differentials: swamp, subdivision, commercial zoning, waterways, beachfront. What are swamps anyway? Upwellings of primordial past time. But instead, I say: “So maybe Luis got his wire crossed. I told him I needed somebody who knows how to work. And he sends me some kid who’s never pissed blood. Show me your teeth.” And the kid does, levers his jaw open, revealing the gape where a left bottom incisor and molar number three are both AWOL. And then I know he’ll work out just fine. I can see through him to his bones, another one of those staggered and errant souls that Luis collects like beach trash in this ruined paradise, Luis who is up in Davie watching Nickelodeon reruns with his wife—resentment material. I lean and whisper to the kid: “The plastic is thick enough a water moccasin can’t get through it.”
The kid looks green-gilled but yanks the boots on. I open the trunk, and we lug the gas cans out, two each, twenty-five gallons, designed for outboard motor engines, and then he’s got a cigarette dangling between his lips. “Light that up,” I say, “and we’ll be chopping you up into briquettes for the barbecue.” The kid nods and slides the smoke back in his pocket. “Thanks,” he says, “I’m a t-bone man myself.”
My casual attire sometimes throws people off. My baggy hemp shorts from Micronesia, my belts of unfinished Argentine leather, my blond dreads, the tattoo of the space shuttle Discovery with its nose cone at my belly button. Yet I know every square foot of these nasty bogs from Key Largo to Vero Beach. I can talk impoundments, catchment areas, Section 404 fill permits and algal roles. I know exactly when alternative stormwater entrapments can mitigate the downstream costs of invertebrate assemblages. I haunt the map room of the South Florida Water Management District, and I can predict which parcels they’ll twist their panties up over, and which they’ll slide them off for. I can work my magic. I’m in the business of reclaiming the mire. At the water management district, they think I run my own consulting business, but in fact I work exclusively for Ernie Romulus, a power broker so big he’s invisible, a shadow presence even to the pols he has lining his pockets. Luis is my contact. Luis: this small time investor, this awful little man living on the swamp edge with his wife and his child, an eight-year-old with an as-yet-unnamed learning disorder which prevents him from reading anything much smaller than billboard type. But Romulus is the real ballbuster. Like me, he is larger than life, the one who knows like me that the law of life is from muck unto muck, amen.
Which brings me to the parcel lying before us, 2.4 acres of marginal wetland, slightly degraded, a border zone. On the one side is a larger segment that’s in ruins, phosphates, diesel fuel, a concentrate of industrial poisons, but on the other side is as sweet a piece of cleanliness-is-next-to-Godliness prime untrammeled wetland as you will find in any urban area in America. The muck lovers want to steal a march: upgrade the 2.4 acres, then do some flow through dike and culvert transmigration and reclaim the whole batch, more than 90 acres, lost in perpetuity to humankind. I won’t let that happen. Not that I know what this land will become once reclaimed. I am merely the artist’s assistant. I ready the canvas. On my rescued acreage, Romulus has daubed business parks and water slides, tract housing and golf courses. And yet the hacking septuagenarians who skate across the thin ice of those manicured greens (all muck below, deeper than glacial lakes) would nail my hide to a sailboat mast in Ft. Lauderdale harbor if they ever found out about my needful work.
We’re about to go in, at the headland to the dike, and I can see the creepiness of it is getting to the kid. “You believe in ghosts?” I say.
“Only when they bite my ass,” he says.
“Or give you a blow job.”
The kid shrugs: “I’m here ain’t I? Ha, ha.” I nod, and don’t say what I’m thinking: maybe you’re here, or maybe not. In this territory it’s never more than a maybe, and then we step onto the dike. The air immediately loses its road smells, but is recompensed with a grand assault of swamp stench, closed in, fetid, gassy, parfum de muck. Even the soundscape is altered, the human echo the highway amplified from afar, cars sounds, the faint wah-wah of distant sirens, disappears completely in the throbbing insectivorous chorus. All this is happening as the cans get heavier by the second, and we stumble along the dike, deeply eroded, maybe three feet above the rest of the swamp plain. And yes, don’t kid yourself, there is all manner of life out here. Alligators, snakes, moccasins big around as my thigh.
“You alright?” I say.
“Hell, man, ha, ha, ha, ha,” he emits a braying sound. “I love this shit. Like camping out when I was a kid.”
I don’t bother to respond, but I know he will never understand. In this place, the weird spurting noises, the water splashes calm my breathing down. The terrain’s a complete rebuttal of the human impact on history. Out here we become the ghosts I warned the kid about, not just miles from Miami, but millennium from the present, way back in the Paleozoic or whatever the hell era when heavily caparisoned insects ruled the earth, forever and ever, amen. Finally we come to the end. The dike falls away. The water is strange, dark, silent, rippling like the skin of an animal, and underneath, things sliding through unseen, swift and living in their own strange ways.
“What the fuck?” the kid says.
“Yeah,” I say, and gently drop the cans to my side. We’ll need to dump sixteen-hundred gallons here before we’ve turned things around, but this first time, my first visit to any site, is always the best. I am still bending to unscrew the caps—I ought to have some baptismal incantation to rout the foul marsh spirits—as the kid begins unloading his can over the edge of the dike. I glance backward toward the headland of the dike. “Damn!” I say. Headlights are pouring forth near the pullover where we parked the car. Either I’ve left my lights on or someone is parked alongside us. I hiss quick instructions at the kid: how to hide the cans and get himself out of view, then I start walking fast back to the car, using my instinct for the terrain. At ten steps I glance back. The kid is trying to fire up the smoke again: “Hey,” I say loud enough for him to hear.
“Yeah, right. Sorry man,” he says. “When I get nervous I wanta smoke.”
I shrug, wondering where Luis digs up the death addicts he sends my way, and move on. I’m not deeply worried; I probably did leave the lights on. Besides, the Opa-Locka cops are too steroid-addled to find their way out here, and water district officers clock out at 5 p.m., no exceptions. So I’m walking fast but relaxed, maybe half the length of the dike, when a sound, very soft, closer almost to a pressure variation, a puff felt rather than heard in my inner ear, makes me turn, just in time to see a remarkable and rather gorgeous yellow ball of flame course upward into the sky near where I left the kid. I’m thinking: a last cigarette; I’m thinking: what to do; I’m thinking: body, death, and every life has its own last thought, last act, but not like this with blisters like boiling water, then blisters burned, the body’s water boiled off, to the shriveled black of beach drift and dead campfire. Thinking, rooted in my spot, unable to move, when without warning a body—no ghost this all too human meatiness, still gas scented, hurtles from the darkness, almost colliding with me. “Hey,” I yell, quickly getting a grip on myself, and then reaching. But the kid’s gone, running wildly for the car, and I know I have no choice but to intercept him. I heave after and snatch him just as we make the road. “What happened?” I hiss. “You were right man. I screwed up. A cigarette, man. Whooosh, that shit went.” The kid is wild-eyed, even in the dark his shoulder, which I maintain under my iron grip, lies shivering. A smell of burnt hair rises in my nostrils. “You hurt?” I say. “My hand,” he says. “Singed. If I hadn’t been a few feet back, man…” He holds the hand up, already swathed in a bit of rag. I herd the kid toward the car’s passenger seat. Good fortune: there’s no interlopers, I did leave the lights on. In the overhead light I can see the kid’s incinerated eyebrows are charcoal smears, a last detail that rigs him out in the full feather of one of life’s ragged losers. I deposit myself on the driver side. As the car wheels fling gravel, our site is illuminated with a billowing gas fire, and the kid is muttering: “I’m sorry, man. I don’t deserve to shit with humans. I ought to be out with the monkeys shitting from the trees.”
“You’d probably crap on somebody’s head,” I say. And then add: “You just be quiet. We’ll be alright.” But I know it isn’t so. The cans are back there, someone will find them, reports will be made, suspicions raised. Worse, the parcel is off our list, will revert now to its primitive destiny, to the cheers of the swamp sillies. And deals cleaved, and consequences for Luis, for Romulus, I have no way of fully knowing. I slow down, having made Route 7. “Where are we going?” the kid whimpers. I say: “We’re going to Luis’s place.” It’s a decision I made the moment I caught up with him at the edge of the swamp. “His wife is some kind of nurse. She’ll get you fixed up.”
But it turns out I was wrong: Luis’s wife, Nayeli, was never a nurse—she worked in the billing department of Pembroke Pines hospital. But that hardly matters. The kid and I find Luis in a nasty mood, standing at his backyard patio grill and hammering burgers with his spatula like he’s driving nails. It turns out Nayeli has checked into a motel and is threatening to leave him. “She’ll be back,” he says, looking at me murderously. And then: “So what the fuck you doing here?”
The kid is sitting tight on a lounger next to Luis’s guests, neighbors who project that boiled beef look of well-to-do suburban lushes. Luis, I notice, has not even bothered introducing us. His son is seated at a garden table flashing slides of one of the Harry Potter books blown up to massive type on a screen across the pool. The entire backyard is enclosed by a giant mosquito mesh—Luis’s property abuts a swamp so extensive my methods would never make a dent. I quickly fill him in on what happened. He takes the news with a strange calm. “You did your best, Stevie,” he says. “What more can you do?”
I look at him warily. The code of Luis. When he’s talking like a mobster he’s actually a businessman; when he’s talking like a life coach, he’s a contract killer. I begin to feel defensive and jerk my head in the direction of the kid. “I was interfered with,” I say.
“The trouble is,” Luis says, ignoring the kid and turning his gaze directly toward me, “you just blew up the Big One.”
“The Big One?” I say. “I doubt that.”
We stare at each other an instant. Dark clouds of insects are beating against the screen, fighting their way toward the pool lights and the Kon Tiki candles burning in the yard. The feeling is of assault, of desperate energy thrown in our direction and then deflected at the last instant. Every time his son clicks to another slide, a light shift is thrown across the yard, as though it’s been fractured and rearranged. I try to act like I’m calling Luis’s bluff, giving him the big eye, but I feel knocked back on my heels. I’ve been hearing about the Big One for as long as I’ve worked for Romulus. The core idea is simple: Romulus, sick of building Bowl Americas, go cart tracks, and box stores, will build a mall with theme park rides that actually go right through the middle of high-end anchor stores. “The big one?” I say again.
“Yeah,” Luis says and sighs. The silence between us feels like the silence after a shooting. Luis whispers: “And I’m not going down on this.”
My head swivels as though it’s set on a castor to the lounge chair where the kid is now cackling as he finishes telling a story to Luis’s neighbors. “Put me in a steel pot,” he almost shouts, “and I’d cook up greasy.” But I notice too that Luis averts his eyes, not looking at me or the kid, as though he’s embarrassed about something. “Just stick around here,” he says suddenly.
“Stick around?” I say.
“Take your burger,” he says, shoving a plate at me. I look down. The meat is clearly half cooked at best. “The valve on the grill is messed up,” he says, then walks abruptly away. I watch him proffer another burger to the kid, who takes it as if he’s just been passed a gold ingot. “Deluxe treatment,” he says. “I never expected it.” Luis just stares at him, beady-eyed.
So what happens after that is we have a party, me, the kid, Luis, his neighbors, and his son, which mostly means we sit around the pool and drink while Luis’s son projects his super-large images on the screen, and I find myself reminded not for the first time how the flow-through transmigration of alcohol at a suburban deck party mimics fluid exchange rates in Grade B despoiled wetlands. From time to time, I try mulling over what has happened: the enormity of having blown Romulus’s big plan—but everything feels unreal, and for most of the evening, I find myself landlocked in a lounge chair staring helplessly at the pool lights. At some point, I notice Luis pass the kid a baggy full of percocets. That will take the edge of his burned hand, I think, yet I’m the one who’s feeling narcoticized. At some point I must have drifted off, because I am aware from time to time of disjointed dreams: images of the doomed theme park, giant senseless letters projected on enormous screens, the looming face of Luis, hair implants glistening. Nightmare stuff. I wake up into a night of clammy darkness, reality reassembling. I am by the pool, the patio is mostly dark now, except for some low wattage safety lights on the pool margin. The house is dark and low, and gives the feel of a boat sunk to the gunwales. Something grisly descends when the human life is squeezed out of a suburban scene. I stand up. I think I’m seeing shadows move through the house, but then I think, don’t be stupid. But I drift away from the house anyway. At the rear of Luis’s yard a gate permits egress from the giant enclosing bug screen. I push through, outside, onto a low bank, which I know will carry down to a feeder canal. Beyond it lies the vastness of the swamp. Maybe that’s all I need, I’m thinking. My swamp. I descend a steep grassy bank toward a dock Luis has built along the canal, feeling more sane and settled with each footfall, and then I land on the dock, and stop dead: I didn’t expect anyone, but here he is, the kid, seated with his legs dangling over the edge under a cone of light that spreads over the water and rises upward in a white flutter of moth wings. He’s fussing with his burned hand. He turns and squints and then says simply, as though he’s not surprised to see me: “Check this out.”
I move closer and realize he’s methodically tearing a long glimmering streak of blistered flesh from his hand and then dangling it over the side of the dock. The light illuminates the water where a bright school of yellow fish hovers just below the surface. “Here you are little critters,” he says softly and lets fall his piece of mangled skin. The fish strike and boil in a mass, then hang like yellow sacks of pollin in the water. It occurs to me that given a few more years, the kid will have torn himself up piece by piece and fed himself entirely to the fishes. It’s a wonder he’s even lasted this long.
“We should probably get going,” I say, as the blackness of the swamp wheels up, as though dark ash is pouring upward into the sky.
“Yeah bro. But Luis told me to wait.”
“He told you to wait?”
“Yeah.” The kid throws me a look and then bends again to watch the fish. “You should probably go,” he mutters. I nod. The night has a weird feel, as though I’m corrupting it just by standing in it. I look up to Luis’s yard, and then I say, “You should come with me.”
The kid stands and we start up the hill. In the backyard, the barbecue grill looks like some abandoned piece of military equipment. The pool lights seem almost to have gone out. But when we get close to the sliding door, I see Luis seated with someone at the kitchen table. The other person is Nayeli. She’s come back. They are working under a small lamp no stronger than a nightlight and appear to be going over bills, their heads almost touching. I motion to the kid and we go to the side yard, where I fool with the gate and get us out. On the street, Nayeli’s BMW is parked behind my car with one tire up on the curb. Everything else looks normal, but I can feel the swamp lapping at the edges. I always could. We climb in the car, and I tell the kid I’ll drive him to Miami. I can see it glowing over the rooftops to the east. “You got a smoke?” I say.
He shakes his head. “I quit. After tonight. You know?”
“Good for you,” I say. I mean it too.