The Last Grand Tour of Albertine’s Watch

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The Last Grand Tour of Albertine’s Watch

By Sandra K. Barnidge

The smell is always the first thing the tourists notice, and it usually takes them an hour or two to adjust, if they ever do at all. It’s unmistakable: raw sewage baking in midmorning sun, seeping and solidifying into every crack, every seam, every hole of our town. It’s so bad now that even if the water did retreat back into the Gulf, which it won’t, but even if, we still couldn’t save Albertine’s Watch. No bureaucrat or journalist has told us this. We just know it the way we know there’s no one coming to help us. Not anymore. 

Anyone who comes now is just here to watch the end creep ever closer, and they pay my older brother for a seat at the show. Before each of his tours, Clay piles bandanas damp with lemon water into our pontoon. He sells them for seven each, on top of the tour price, and he rarely comes home with extras. They’re not bandanas, not exactly, but rather strips we cut from t-shirts abandoned on the highest shelf of our last remaining big-box store. The tourists tie them across their faces, over pursed mouths and pinched noses. It helps with the smell, a little. It’ll be worse for the ones who come after our t-shirt supply is gone. We have two bags left. 

I toss a Ziploc full of bills onto the seat of my kayak and carefully put down one rubbered foot and then the other. I balance myself on the edge of our rotted porch, and for a second I’m suspended, precarious, between my grounding and the boat. I hold my breath as I shift the center of my weight off the porch and down onto the bag of money. Got it. The kayak sways, and I settle in as quick as I can, careful not to drop the paddle in the water, not too soon, not until I’m ready.

Even after so much time, after so much practice, I’m still less adept at this than others. I came late to the kayak; I preferred to walk for as long as it was possible, longer than it was possible, really. I was stubborn about feeling the ground beneath my feet, and I graduated reluctantly from sandals to boots to galoshes to waders, until even those swelled with fetid seawater as I struggled to wade down our washed-out block.

I persevered because I wanted to be the last one anchored to our town. 

Clay’s the one who bought the kayak for me, a single sit-on-top, red with peeling yellow stripes along the sides. It cost him almost two months in tips, but he refused to take any of my own crumpled bills, which I keep zipped in plastic inside my pillow. I knew even back then it wasn’t a gift so much as a tether to his sinking business, but I didn’t care. By then, I’d secretly begun to tire of the water-covered streets, of pulling off my waders to find my legs covered in black and green. I didn’t admit it to anyone, but I’d begun to suspect that I might be approaching my limit. 

The kayak helped.

It’s higher now, much higher. The water. It’s only two inches below our porch, which is rotting from the bottom up, green spores all the way to the doorway. Some days, I joke with Clay that there’s so much green it’s like having a lawn again. On others, when I’m more defiant, when I refuse to let us drown without a fight, I get down on my knees and scrape off the top layer with a knife, though I know I’m doing more damage to the wood than I am against the mold. It waits for us there, on the porch, like a new tenant impatient for the eviction of the old. 

Most days, though, I don’t see the spores because I don’t look. I just get in my kayak and glide away, through water so dark I can’t see what remains of the pavement below. I can’t remember now the exact color of our old streets. Blue, black, or gray? I asked Dad once months ago, and he batted me away. “It doesn’t matter.” I’ve always suspected this is why Clay spends so much time talking to the tourists; they’ll listen to what Dad won’t. The tourists love stories about the way things were, down to the smallest of details. They like to compare our then to now and to study the ways in which Albertine’s Watch is like their own hometowns. 

But here’s what they like even more: to find the differences. To point out what we did wrong, our inefficiencies, our corruptions, our filth. It makes them feel clever and somehow safe, as if what happened to us can’t happen to them because we made simple mistakes, like painting our streets yellow instead of red like theirs.  

I float down the block, giving the kayak a half-hearted stroke or two as needed. There’s a current that runs from our neighborhood to the old downtown, subtle but strengthening, which means getting away from home is now much easier than getting back to it. I raise a hand to Tilla, who sits on her porch every morning in a mildewed rocker, a chipped coffee mug full of whisky balanced on her knee. She nods back at me, but neither of us call to the other. No news is good news; nothing’s changed. 

Most of the rest of our block is abandoned, since our neighborhood was the first to fully submerge, and our neighbors were the first to find their limits. Everyone’s got one, a limit. I used to pester Dad and Clay about what ours would be, but I don’t bother anymore. “We’ll know when we know,” is always Dad’s answer, and so that’s become mine, too. Not that anyone ever asks me for it. There’s no one left who would care to know. 

The smell ended up being the limit for a lot of the neighbors who tried to hold on for a little while after The Big One, The One That Didn’t Recede. Before it, the town council voted against paying to seal our sewers and reroute our pipes to an above-ground septic, and that’s why it got so bad after the water came and stayed. But it’s not the council’s fault, not really. The state would have said no to a seal-and-shift no matter what. After all, every household in Albertine’s Watch had already voted, unanimously, four years back to accept a relocation grant in exchange for letting the state folks rub their hands together, hold them up, and back away from us onto higher ground. There would be no more government-sponsored repairs. 

We were supposed to leave after we took the money, but we didn’t. Some did, but not everyone. Not us. Not Hayden’s people. They have a different name for Albertine’s Watch, one I can’t pronounce, much less spell, but it means, roughly, “A Dream Rising from the Mist.” We can’t use that on the tour website, though. Hayden’s people trademarked it and they police it, especially from Clay. 

On some of his earliest tours, Clay used to make up nonsense phrases for the tourists in an attempt to pass as one of Hayden’s people, to give himself a deeper and more tragic claim to the land below the water. But it didn’t take long for Hayden’s brothers to catch wind of that, and to retaliate, they set our pontoon on fire with diesel fuel. We saved it, barely, and Dad told me in his way not to bring Hayden around for high-tide beers again. So the next time he floated up in his small green motorboat, I didn’t meet him on our porch, like I always had before. Instead, I sat with my back against the front door and my hands flat on the floor to feel the vibrations of him moving around on the planks outside. He left a trio of water lilies, white with pink edges, on our soggy welcome mat. 

The tributes started after that, from us to Hayden’s older brothers, due every afternoon, after every single tour. 

At the end of our street is a triangular buoy spattered with bird shit. It’s our traffic signal, our cue to make a right. Before, our street routed straight into town. Now, straight means paddling into an eddy that makes for more trouble than it’s worth. So instead we float through the old grove of big and twisted oaks. 

For years we were zealots about those trees. We protested every feeble attempt to cut a road or even just a pathway through them, and a group of us once chucked eggs at Dirty Ray’s house after he supposedly snuck a cigarette in the shadow of the oldest one. I’m not proud of that, but I am proud of protecting the tree as best we could, the only way we could think to do.  So it was big news in Albertine’s Watch when the initials CW + DM showed up inside a heart carved into the bark of a tree smack in the middle of the grove. Clay Walker and Dana McMullen. The fine was so steep that Clay had to take a bar-back job at Dirty Ray’s Diner. No one ever liked eating at Dirty Ray’s, but that roach of a restaurant is the only one that’s made it.  

Clay took it hard when Dana’s family hit their limit two years ago: water moccasins in the toilet. A whole nest hatched under their porch and slithered through a hole in the plumbing, and that was it. When they left, Clay disappeared with the pontoon for three days, leaving me to hand out refunds to the tourists. 

We got the house raised not long after that, because Dad wanted it done before the contractors stopped doing it. He was right; only about half of our remaining neighbors managed to get their houses lifted up onto thick wooden stilts before the state told the contractors to stop accepting our money, to stop enabling us to stay. Dad said yes to the stilts but no to wrapping them in copper sheets, so eventually the worms will eat the stilts from the inside out. I sometimes wonder if Dad’s pass on the copper wasn’t really about the money so much as an excuse to build in a limit for us, a hard one, nonnegotiable: when the house falls down into the seawater for good. But whenever I ask him, Dad just says we’ll dive down and patch the stilt legs ourselves when we feel the floor begin to wobble. 

Out here in the grove, away from our neighborhood, the smell isn’t so bad. A cloud of salty damp hangs over everything, like it does in any coastal town, and I close my eyes and breathe in heavy air scented with budding oaks. For a moment, it smells like nothing’s changed. But the sound is wrong, all wrong. Before, the grove was quiet, almost silent except for the chatter of birds, or the rustle of wind through leaves, or the lazy backfire of a truck in the distance. But now, the grove is loud, relentless, and my ears fill with the sound of rushing water. I’ve adjusted to many things, but not to the sound of high-tide waves pushing against the trunks of our beloved trees. 

How long until they, too, find their limit?

I float past the tree Clay once carved. Just the very top of the heart is still visible above the water. I push my paddle against the current and reach my hand out to grab a piece of waterlogged bark hanging loose. I trace the top of the mark with my fingers, careful to keep an eye out for snakes in the pockmarks of the trunk. The C and the D are wholly gone, and I dare not slide my hand into the water any further to follow the edges of the stripped-bark heart. 

It’s hard sometimes to accept that things like this don’t matter anymore. A crime once bad enough to make second-page news in the Albertine’s Watch Herald has now been washed away by sins so great we still won’t name them. “It’s a hoax,” Dad says anytime the state paper calls us climate-change refugees. That’s all we have left, the state paper, since the Herald writers abandoned their office full of soggy reams. Every weekend, the state editors send an intern in a boat to deliver the weekend edition to us free of charge. We don’t appreciate the pity, but we do appreciate the toilet paper.

I paddle beyond the grove and float above Mom. I touch the necklace at my throat, a single gray pearl that hangs from a thin silver chain. I don’t bother to pause the kayak here, not anymore. She was the first person in Albertine’s Watch to die after the cemetery was officially closed by frequent flooding. The coroner tried to send her body to the crematorium north of here, but Dad wouldn’t have it. Hayden and his brothers helped Dad get her back, and together, they put her out here, by the trees. In the ground. 

I used to wonder what her limit would have been, until I realized she was the first of us to find it. She was sick long before the first hard rains came, and she died the first time the hospital flooded. That night was just a small storm, and the water receded in the morning after Mom was gone. Later, our neighbors would say Mom was the lucky one, the smart one. I still have nightmares about her coming up and out of her coffin, of her floating just beneath the surface of the water, a white rotted hand reaching out for us as we float on by, leaving her behind. The nightmares come less often now, but not never. 

I hum to myself, a song Hayden’s grandmother taught us when we were very small. The cicadas buzz along with me; the day has just passed peak heat, and they’re at their loudest now. I think of the tourists, of Clay. They should be at their break stop, at Dirty Ray’s, where they’ll order shrimp and French fries, and if the group’s polite, no one will ask where the shrimp are from. The truth is, no one knows for sure anymore, not even Dirty Ray. One of Tilla’s sons brings in a catch for him twice a week, floating up in a trawler that’s trailed by a crowd of seagulls so dense they shade the diner dark as dusk.  

After he gave me the kayak, Clay used to make me stop by during the tour break and entertain the tourists as they ate. Our neighbors shy away whenever our pontoon floats by them with cameras flashing, but if the tourists don’t get at least one local sighting, they get bored and leave poor reviews. And without a sighting, a meaningful one, it’s too easy to write off Albertine’s Watch as a ghost town, as a place already dead and lost to the drudgey clutches of my brother and some guy named Dirty Ray. But to meet me, a girl, a woman, well, that changes things. Some like to play counselor and ask me about college, jobs, my future. But I know as well as they do that their interest in me is just pretend. When the tourists look at me, they think of one question and only one: if there’s a woman here, could there still be children?

The idea unsettles them. The women touch my hair, as if to smooth away the threat of my fertility, and the men buy me drinks too early in the afternoon, ready with varying degrees of guilt to put it to the test. After a while it got to me, and I made Clay choose: I’d play puppet at Dirty Ray’s or I’d deliver the tributes to Hayden’s brothers. I would not, could not, keep doing both—no, not even for a better cut of the tips.

I’m not paddling toward Dirty Ray’s.

It doesn’t take long for me to float across the old school ballpark and come into view of a bungalow on a hill, and the sight of a house still perched on land prompts an ache down in me. Behind the bungalow is a whole compound of never-drowned homes; almost two dozen people live back there, maybe more. When we were children, Hayden was embarrassed that his people all lived so close together here, packed in tight alongside growling dogs and overflowing garbage cans. Clay and his teammates had all sorts of nicknames for the houses behind the park, nicknames they’d whisper into Hayden’s ears as he carried around bats and uniforms for them.  

But it’s been a long time since anyone’s played baseball in Albertine’s Watch, or even just regular catch. One by one, the boys lost their balls to the muck, and these days, no one mocks the dry land behind the park. 

I push my paddle against the current to stall out the kayak. I’m required to light a flare, as a sort of statement of my intentions. It’s a waste of good flares, which are increasingly hard to come by, but I think that’s part of the point, to drain our resources until we give up and go away, leaving Albertine’s Watch to them and only them. 

But even though it’s a waste and an insult to make us do it, I still like to watch the pretty red light burn out against the afternoon sun. 

Someone whistles from inside the bungalow, and I paddle up to the pier they built hastily at the end of their once-long gravel driveway. Hayden meets me there, as he always does. I don’t look him in the eyes as I hand up the plastic bag of money to him. He tosses it backward onto dry land and offers me a calloused hand. I take it and let him pull me out of the kayak. I don’t bother to tie it up, since there’s nowhere for it to go. I bend down to retrieve the bag of my brother’s money, and Hayden bumps into me as I stand back up. For a moment, just a moment, we’re close against each other like we sometimes used to be. On him, I smell cinnamon and saltwater, but I know on me he’ll just smell sewage. 

I back away, holding the money in the space between us. “Here.” I try to hand it to him, but he waves it off and gestures at the front door of the bungalow. I shake my head in a false protest, but both he and I know I always want to go inside. I finger the pearl at my neck and follow him. He pauses at the threshold and I think he might speak to me for the first time in weeks. But he changes his mind and just puts a hand on my shoulder as he frowns. I know the weight of his hands better than my own. 

We go together to the kitchen, where Grandmother is ready for me with a mug of chicory tea and a thick slice of banana bread. Some days, when the tour tips are bad or Dirty Ray’s coolers are bare, this dense slice of bread will be all I eat for a day. I squeeze her hand as I take it from her. Usually, I sit at the table and eat as she sips from her own steaming mug of tea. And usually, Hayden sits on a crate on the floor at the other end of the kitchen, with me but not too close. 

Today will not be usual. 

“Phee.” The eldest of Hayden’s brothers comes into the bungalow through the back screen door, with the second-eldest brother behind him. I pat Grandmother’s wrist as I stand up and offer the plastic bag to the eldest. But he doesn’t take it, instead smiling at me with cracked teeth as my stomach falls to the floor. Clay predicted this might happen, just not yet.  

“Rate’s gone up. Thirty percent, per tour.” 

I’m upset. “Too high.” 

Grandmother gets up from the table and leaves the kitchen, and I’m relieved I won’t have to see her take their side. The eldest brother comes close to me. He smells like thawed-out fish. I struggle to speak without breathing, without taking in the scent of him. “You’ll put us out entirely. The three of us can’t survive on what you’re asking.” Hayden doesn’t move from his crate.

It wasn’t always like this with them. Before, I came and went from Grandmother’s bungalow as if I were one of their own, or at least that’s how I thought it was. I feel seasick in the grounded house. My ears pound with blood and I hear Clay’s voice: “This is my limit, Phee. This is it.” I tuck the bag of money into the back of my pants and step away from Hayden’s brothers. “I’ll get the rest. Right now. Just wait.” I run for the pier and jump off it, down into the water, up to my knees. Hayden follows and watches me corral my kayak. I hear the apologies he’ll never say. 

I paddle away, fast and hard. Their green motorboat could overtake me at any time, and I won’t have long at home before they come over to collect. I have to get to Clay, to Dad, to tell them it’s over, that Hayden’s people are going to sink our boat, cut our stilts, drown our bodies. I bite my lip and tell myself not to cry, but the current is harder this way, and my arms are tired, so completely and hopelessly tired. The ballpark feels like an ocean, and when I finally manage to cross it, I let out a sob. I didn’t notice while paddling the other way, but at the edge of the grove, one of the trees has begun to lean sharply and dangerously into the boat corridor. When it comes down, its roots will pull up so much muck it might create another eddy, possibly big enough to cut off the corridor entirely. We could be stranded in our neighborhood, alone, for good. 

I harbor the hysterical hope that it will happen now, today, when Hayden’s brothers decide it’s time to follow me. I imagine the tree will pick that very moment to find its limit and let go, crashing down on top of the green motorboat. Sink them, save me. As if we have a choice about when and how we’ll break.   

The fantasy distracts me, and I hit a branch of a different tree with the nose of my kayak. The force of it startles me, and I lean to the side, irrationally, mistakenly afraid that another branch is coming down on me from above. The kayak lurches, and I feel the plastic bag slide out of my pants. I cry out and lunge for it, dropping my paddle. The kayak rolls, and I’m in the water.

I gasp not from cold but from a pain spreading across my shoulders; my muscles are already cramping, too tired from too much paddling and too little food. I fight the current to keep my head up and watch as the plastic bag bobs away from me, an air bubble keeping it temporarily at the surface. I’m paralyzed by indecision: swim for the bag or the kayak? Adrenaline floods me, but I still can’t focus. There are too many things happening at once after so many days, months, years of nothing happening at all. 

I go under. I come up, and when I go down again, I stay down. The water is dark and salty. Foul. I clamp my teeth together, trying and failing to keep the water out of my mouth. I’m seized by an idea, that if I swim down even further I’ll get under the current, where I can swim along its underbelly, across the ballpark, and pop up again in front of Grandmother’s bungalow. I can start the visit over, and this time it’ll go better somehow, the way it did yesterday and the way it will tomorrow. I am suddenly overcome with joy, with certainty that this is the right idea, the best idea I can possibly have. I swim down into blackness and pinch my eyes shut against the stinging. I orient myself horizontally and begin to thrust. 

I realize that I’ve erred, that of course I’m wrong, that I can’t breathe, that I must breathe. I jerk upward and hit something, another branch or a piece of garbage, and I turn over, my nose filling. I open my mouth in surprise, and the water rushes in. I choke and panic. I can’t remember which way is up. I hear the voice in my head begin to scream, and my arms fail. I can’t fight. I can’t push to the surface. I can’t do anything but feel the water rush past me, over me, around me, below me. 

I understand now that I’ve passed my limit, that I’ve been living beyond it ever since all of this began. But it doesn’t matter anymore, because all that’s left is water and force, and together, they will pound me, again and again, until they break up what I used to be and break me down into what I will. Like an old rock on a stormy shore that takes wave after wave until it finally just shatters, and then shatters again and again into sand ground ever smoother.  

The collapsing sea has freed my mother’s corpse, and she is rising toward me now, out of the darkness of the muck. Translucent fingers run through my tangled hair. A palm runs along my arm, but I’m not chilled. She wraps both arms around my chest, and I watch her skeletal face as she pulls me along the current. I don’t struggle but instead lean into her, into the flow of the rising tide. 

I’m disoriented when we break the surface. I don’t comprehend the sky above me, bluer than our water ever was. I don’t comprehend the words that Hayden yells at me. I don’t comprehend my brother’s face or his hands around my waist as he pulls me up from Hayden’s arms, from the water to the pontoon. I don’t comprehend the tourists who gasp and shriek, unsure whether to help or take my picture. One of them is someone who knows where to press me, and he does it. I spit brine into his mouth, and he stammers at me as the others applaud. 

I keep my eyes on the sky as I begin to cry. Clay takes one of my hands, and Hayden takes the other. They both say my name, again and again, “Iphigenia, Iphigenia,” in rhythm with the steady waves that roll endless against our boat. For a moment, I feel no limit.

Next Story: Half-Eaten Cities, by Vajra Chandrasekera

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