In the first chapter of Infinite Tenderness, we met Hershel Prall, who was looking for his mentally ill son Landon in New Orleans on a rainy Sunday night. In the second chapter, also on that Sunday night, we met Landon’s mother, Dewey Bassett, who has evacuated with the rest of her family from NOLA to Colorado, but has had to leave Landon behind and Hershel to look for him. Dewey and Hershel haven’t been able to find Landon after five days of frantic searching, and now Hurricane Katrina is due to make landfall in the morning. In the third chapter, it’s still Sunday night and the question remains: Where’s Landon?

From Infinite Tenderness, a novel by Mark Clemens

Black wings flap

Sunday, August 28, 2005

10:17 p.m./central time

Why were the starlings tired? The question had kept running through his mind as he played the tape over and over while cruising around New Orleans that morning. Then he had parked the Dub and wandered through City Park while listening to his portable cassette player. His Dad had made the mix tape for him a long time ago, packing it with the best blues and rock from the 60s and 70s. The starlings had faded away as he strolled by lawns and lagoons, but walking out of the park, the looping wa-wa kicked in and Cream’s lyrics bloomed once more—black roof country, no gold pavements, tired starlings. The question of why had just started to niggle him again when a flock of starlings burst into the gray sky overhead, chattering, black wings flapping out across the city and he couldn’t figure out how the starlings from his earphones had come out of nowhere to fly away. He had headed down Orleans in the general direction of the French Quarter, he thought, though the streets seemed endless and he wondered if he was wrong like always and kept repeating Rosedale, Rosedale to himself so he’d know where he’d left the bus until it morphed into rose something and slipped away and all he remembered was that the bus was parked beside a cemetery and the starlings came back. A big sign said Lafitte Greenway and he walked on down it til his stomach knotted up and he realized he hadn’t had anything to eat. On his way out of Louis Armstrong Park through the late shadows of afternoon, he had come to a cart and stopped to watch the man spin a long rod round and round with his wooden handle until the awning on his cart was rolled up tight and the man was ready to leave for the unknown. His best smile and a polite hello and sure enough the man handed over his last po’boy friendly, an oyster po’boy from heaven.

Sitting on the curb at the corner of Rampart and Dumaine, he had wolfed the po’boy down and leaned against a lamp pole and slept for how long he didn’t know except night was coming on when he woke up and it had rained and the lights of the Quarter flickered and winked on the wet black walkway that was so shiny slick it made a perfect reflection of the three girls walking by although they were way ahead of him by the time he stood up and made to follow, the prettiest girl swaying pretty along the street with her girlfriends in their blue, silver and pink skirts. Her silver skirt rode moonbeams between her girlfriends, all tossing their hair. But that girl, no strings could secure her—had she looked back at him? Never saw her dark eyes. He’d fallen behind and the silver girl disappeared with her friends, their laughter hanging in the air. Then he had caught up to find them standing in the open doorway of the Voodoo Museum. She smiled at him over her shoulder as they went in, and he had an incredible floating feeling just as the rain began pounding on him out in the street and he stood there, drenched and grinning. Goodbye windows in the Quarter that night, black pools, people waiting in the dark and striding down the gold pavement of Dumaine, the Quarter buzzing, black roof country, a humming hive inside his head that he could not touch. He passed a party on the corner of Dauphine and a guy grabbed his arm, said hurricane party happy all night long. He remembered her smile and thought of going back to the museum in the rain, the quiet closets hidden there where he might find the silver girl waiting in the white room.

Then the driver’s door skronked on its hinges and swung wide open. The silver girl vanished like a black ghost in the night and Landon fell back in the shotgun seat, yelling at the dark figure silhouetted in the streetlight. “You get out, ain’t got nothin’ for you.” He threw his arms over his face, still peeking at the dark form in the door frame, a black cape swirling around it in the wind-whipped rain. Then it lunged into the bus and across to Landon cowering in the shotgun seat and hooked his hoodie open to see his face. 

“You in there, Spider?” he said. “Jesus, simmer down.” 

“Torch, goddam,” Landon said, lowering his arms. He pulled the drawstrings tight on his hoodie, then pulled it open again and pushed it off his head. “You scared me.”  

Torch laughed and climbed in behind the wheel, his black poncho streaming water on the floor. Before Torch had come along, Landon’s trip through the Quarter had gone nightmare. He’d seen the flash of the silver girl’s skirt down a street—Ursulines?—but when he came up, she looked at him and inside her face he saw her skull. She grinned at him and spoke, bare jaws clicking teeth. He could not hear the words, but he did hear his Mama telling him take your meds and “No,” he said, he yelled it, but just then, looking at the other people along the street, he wished he had those pills, felt them tumbling down his throat, pebbles in a stream. And then he beheld the skulls of the people near him, saw how each person would look as they grew old, the days of future pasts shriveling them with age before his very eyes. 

Torch stuck the key in the ignition and the bus choked and rattled, then started in chugalug. “We got bad info,” Torch said, turning to him. 

Then there he was just like here he is now—Torch. His old friend, Jimmie Wye. Had that been last night or the night before?  They were running from the storm together. They’d find that treehouse they built across the water a long time ago. He’d been lucky Torch found him. 

“This old guy told me—” Torch said. “Look, he’s still there—”

The bus was parked in front of the train station, a long building curved like a spaceship. Through the slanting rain, Landon could barely see the old man huddled under the portico. 

“—old guy said the last train outta N’arlins was Saturday night, bro, as in last night. Freddie told me it was tonight, but we’re a fucking day late and dollar short.”

“What about these cars?” Landon pointed at them scattered around. “Must be people waiting for a train.” 

“Spider, Spider. You’re out of it,” Torch said. “Them cars got left behind yesterday.” 

“So we would’ve left my Dad’s bus behind?

“But we didn’t,” Torch said and goosed the engine. “Good thing we got your Dad’s ol’ VW scenicruiser, even though we had to walk halfway across NOLA to get it. Otherwise, we’d be standing here like drowned rats with a hurricane comin’ on.”

Landon shook his head back and forth at the buzzing. “What’re we doin’?”

“High tail it over the Causeway if it ain’t shut it down.” Torch punched on the radio. “Let’s see what the news is.” 

“No,” Landon said, black wings flapping. He pulled his cassette player out of his hoodie pouch and popped out the tape. “This, this.”

“Play it again, Spider?” Torch laughed as he looked at the tape: For Landon from Ol’ Da.“I always thought ‘White Room” was about somebody totally messed up,” Torch said. “Whattayou think it means? 

It wasn’t a question Landon had thought about, he just listened. “It’s just somebody trying to catch a train,” he said.

Torch slid the tape into the player. “Your old man sure made you an awesome mix tape.”

Why were the starlings tired? Landon had wondered that forever. Make the buzzing go, he thought, Mama said. Salve old wounds. Over the black roofs, starlings.

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Designer, writer, editor, teacher and spokesperson over the years, Mark Clemens came to Port Townsend in 2010. His stories and poems have appeared in The North American Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Mountain Gazette. His first novel, Infinite Tenderness, is now in search of a publisher. He has also written a screenplay about two young sisters running a small-town newspaper in the depths of the Depression.

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