Kev returned from his search for Choco an hour later.
“Choco sought employment elsewhere,” he told Jessup, Xavi, and me.
“So, we’ve heard,” Xavi said. “Berthe Mistry Chao.”
Kev saw Lilah. “So now, Tennessee’s girl.”
“Cheer-ell, Captain Kev,” Lilah said. “What be a Tennessee?”
“Captain Kev,” Xavi whispered.
Kev walked over and sat next to the helm. “Peace, Lilah Ross Romano. Tennessee’s Pierrot’s mother. She told me about you. So did Pierrot, less directly.”
“What be your plan, Kev?” I blurted. I didn’t want Kev to say any more about that. “Who’ll be your pilot this trip?”
“Ha. Yes.” Kev said and grinned. “Pierrot. I joined your grandfather on the river when I was seventeen. You’re fifteen, almost sixteen. I spoke to Sharon. You’re ready. Or ready enough. I have confidence in you. You’ll do a grand job. I think. No. What am I saying? You’ll do a superb job. Yes. Positive. Yes. You’ll be a good assistant. Would you? Be a pilot? My pilot? On the Miss Genius?”
“My wrong,” I said. “What?”
“Be part of the crew.”
“Wait, why me?” I asked. “Would no one else do it?”
“What? No. I haven’t asked anyone else. I’m asking you. You don’t want to?”
“Now?” I asked. I wanted to be with Lilah later that day and watch that terrible movie. I looked over at her. She looked from me, to Kev, to Xavi in confusion. Lilah, it seemed, struggled to understand our conversation.
“Migone, you two,” Xavi shouted. “Your father offered you a job as his pilot, Pierrot. Say yes. Relieve our suffering.”
“Yes,” I said after a much-too-long pause.
“Good. Superb. Excellent,” Kev said. “Your hesitation was not unexpected. The novel and exciting distract you today. I thought you might not. You’re already engaged with piloting Alan’s Slot. I’m glad you chose to join me. I’m gladdened by my being wrong. What an interesting day. We now know Pierrot prefers females to males. I said the phrase, seminal fluid, in a sentence….”
“Migone,” Xavi gasped. Xavi looked to me, then Lilah.
“And I have a new pilot,” Kev continued. “Ha. A good day. An interesting day.”
“I’m… surprised,” I muttered. I looked to Xavi, then Kev, then Lilah. “I prepare not. I’m not prepared. I don’t have my kit. I’m not prepared.”
“Pierrot, get now the corp truck,” Xavi said to me. “Hurry home without hitting anyone. Get your things. Come back. Leave.”
I stood there, trying to sort my thoughts. So much. Too soon.
“Yes…. Well. So.” Xavi said. “The… deck denizens sweat like… pigs running a marathon. Pierrot, hasten home and back. The passengers will mutiny soon.” She stepped out of the wheelhouse and pulled me with her.
“Take care,” she whispered to me. “Don’t let Pierrot-licious distract you. You don’t know her. Hurry back.”
My decision made, I turned towards to ramp between the boat and the dock, and rushed towards the shore.
Lilah chased after and me. “What? I understand not. Yagize speak-fast, speak-odd.”
“Wait here,” Xavi told Lilah. “He’ll be back soon.”
“Come so, Lilah,” I said. “I’ll explain as we go.”
I jumped from the boat and waited for Lilah. I reach up to hold her hand but she jerked it back. That weirdness with her hands, again. I tentatively trotted in the direction of our corp offices, to the corp truck.
“Slow,” she said.
“I must hurry,” I replied.
I stopped. “I will join my father when he leaves for upriver. I must hurry.”
“Truth? Truth?” she blurted. “What about Armadillo Dancer? And you were to help find me some employ as with a furniture maker. I leasoned we…. I thought…. You don’t like me?”
“I do,” I said. “Yes. I do. I’ll be back.”
“Pierrot,” Xavi shouted from the boat. “Fixate. Your task.”
“How long?” Lilah asked.
“A month, such be all,” I told her.
“Please, no.” She kissed me on my lips. “Stay as with me. At least for this day.”
“Pierrot…,” Xavi called after me.
I allowed myself to be swept off my feet by a sudden unexpected current and The River took me under, only to release me far from where I wanted to be. That day, I didn’t complete the simple task of rushing home, getting what I needed for the trip, and returning to Kev and Miss Genius. I repeated decisions as light as breath that, compounded, kept me doing what I needed to do.
I opened the garage door at the corp warehouse and Lilah followed me in. For the next few hours, I decided over and over to stay with Lilah for only a minute more too many times. My delay, the time I spent clumsily groping and kissing Lilah in the corp office, lost me my position as Kev’s pilot.
Lilah pulled me to her, and we embraced and kissed. I lost myself. I had a choice. I made many choices. I stood at a major intersection of my life and chose to fall backward, arms spread wide, into the embrace of a woman I had just met. I elected to stay, one small turning after another. I chose her over Kev in my many delays. I chose her over joining my father on the river.
Time passed. Then, after the town bell rang the hour more than once, Lilah pulled away.
“Who be that furniture maker?” she asked.
“What now?” I replied.
“You’ll speak of me to a furniture maker,” she said. “I can’t wait a month for you. I must employ now. To pay our room. To purchase food.”
“Winreve Traore Li,” I told her. “His workshop… be in the area between… your bento and Johns Road. Just beyond the Power Plant. It’s easy. A yellow building. The only one that color…”
“No,” she interrupted. “Go now. For me. Speak of me. I need you. Then ride your little boat and leave me.”
I did nothing.
“Pierrot,” Lilah whispered. “Fixate. Your task.”
I climbed into the cockpit of the truck, juiced the boiler with the cassie, and soon wheeled the wheezing machine towards the furniture maker’s workshop.
At Winreve Traore Li’s workshop, the workers said he had gone to the Exchange. At the Exchange, they said he went to the sawyer. I arrived at the sawyer soon after he left for his workshop. I finally tracked him down at the workshop and pleaded with him to talk to Lilah. He promised he would. Send her by.
I rushed home. I packed my upriver bag and returned to the corp’s office. Lilah hadn’t waited for me there.
I sprinted to the dock with my bag. Miss Genius, and Kev, had left.
After Kev left without me, I imagine only a few options for my future. Or at least, that’s how it felt. The path others planned for me since birth, to become a riverling, disappeared from view.
I could find a place in the tunnels to live in a dark and damp cell-like compartment beside Carver and Mangler. Or I could wander off to the Unlaw and begin a new life among the Coevals who, like me, had no place for them within Aoustin. Standing there next to the docks, I had my bag with clothes, a book, and Colum’s computer. Lilah and I could walk away without a word of explanation to anyone.
I chose the way of courage. I made my way for my home to face my mother.
I jest. I did not.
I walked, aimlessly at first, away from the docks. I decided not to decide.
I got to Broadway and made my way to the unnamed Bento where Lilah lived. I bounded up the stained stairs to the urine-soaked fourth floor. I knocked on the door. No one answered.
I left that bento, crossed the street, and did not find Lilah at the tellibar. Kan sat alone, watching a television show from the Twentieth Century.
Near the college, vendors set up a market each Friday. I rambled between the merchants.
I looked at the goods with a riverling’s eye. I noted the items that sold well on the river. Enameled iron bowls, large enough to mix their bread in, sold for fifty kee. I could get the price down to forty if I bought ten. Farmers on the river pay seventy kee for the same type of bowl.
I saw a thin gold necklace I could give Lilah. How long would my money last outside the family? Should I buy it?
I bought the necklace and put it in my pocket.
The man who sold Peter’s spheres had a few new ones that day. Two hundred years ago a man named Peter made these elaborate glass spheres as art. Ranging from the size of my thumb to the size of my fist, he spun complex patterns of gold and colored foils inside the centers of balls of glass. Worth many times their weight in gold, people used them in the place of kilograms of precious metal for transactions. One of the merchant’s new Peter’s sphere had a knot of gold threads surrounded by star-like silver motes. The merchant allowed a beam of sunlight to illumine the spheres through a hole in his tent. I moved my head to see the different shapes made by the curvature of the light within the glass.
Long ago, on Miss Genius, Kev brought out a sphere, covered the windows, and let me shine the clear cold light of a torch on one. The torch makes the colors come alive in a way that sunlight could not. That’s the best way to view them.
“Peace Pierrot,” the sphere seller said.
“Peace Daniel,” I called him by his first name. We were friends with him. To move large amounts of money up and down the river, our corp bought his spheres and used them as compact currency. I wondered if I had a place in our corp and would I ever hold one of these glass orbs in my hand again?
I sighed and left the market.
I walked between Broadway and Landing Ridge, past the Power Plant, and into Sam and Ella’s. Thankfully, I did not know the few people who sat at tables. I made my way to the small bar next to the kitchen.
“Hey Bait,” Sam said. “You decided so not to pilot as with your father?”
“What?” I asked.
Sam asked again. “You decided not to join Miss Genius as a pilot?”
“Kev spoke of such as with you?”
“Yes,” Sam said. “Yes. You told him you piloted the slot and he leasoned such you too perfumed to accompany him. He be correct, I see.”
“Please, no. I knew not what piloting the slot meant,” I told Sam. “I desire a Nevermore. Full.”
He brought me the beer. “Such he said. Good happen such you say not ‘piloting the slot’ to your mother. Tennessee would laugh not. You and Kev have a strange concording, so.”
Riverlings entered and left the tavern over the next hour. Some looked over to where I sat. Few said anything to me.
“Please add one,” I told Sam as I pushed the empty glass to him.
“You have a man’s body, but a boy’s head,” Sam said. “No.”
With that, I decided to head home and face Momma.
Momma brooded in the chair facing the front door when I came in. “The tomcat came home,” she said. “You disappointed your father so. He opened himself to take you into his work and you act such. Chasing a she in heat. I thought I taught my child well.”
“Peace, Momma,” I said. When Momma raged against Kev, he’d stumble with his words and tried to diagram a mutually beneficial resolution. That frustrated Momma more. Momma had a sadness inside that burst onto me or Kev. I decided years before not to fight her exasperation and let it wash over me. Argue with her, and her irritation grew.
“Be wareful, of such family,” she said with tears misting her eyes. “You better than them. I want better for you.”
She stared at me and let an explosive silence build between us. Kev would have tried to fill that silence.
“You have no words, so?” she said.
“You better than her.” She diverted a tear from her face with a finger. “You much better, son. Damn it.”
Athletes on Earth had rituals before a competition. Some listened to music. Others walked through their performance in their imagination. They do this since the human brain is not a single entity. It’s more a federation than a single object. My brain has several states, each appropriate and maximized for a purpose.
The feeling I have when going to a high place where I can experience not just the environment around me, but the greater environment, is one. It is the closest I can come to religious awe. I realize I am part of much more than the immediate distractions around me.
Xavi says she feels much the same when she draws. She focuses on her subject and looks for what is really there, not what she thinks is there. She decomposes what is in front of her into shapes of tone and light.
When Kev moors Miss Genius in the bayou, I visit the boat often, thread Colum’s audio tapes into the player, and lay on the backbench of the wheelhouse and allow the instruments and voices from long ago on Earth fill my mind.
Then there’s when I am pleasantly drunk and listening to music. Not too drunk to the point my thoughts become a random jumble. I become drunk and then I see beyond the sunken road I travel on. I can see the other paths around me.
The Beatans, for some reason, can get in my head when I am in some states of mind, but not others. They can’t enter my thoughts in my normal state. I must be asleep to feel the Beatans inside my head. For others, they can enter a person who experienced terror. Some of the folk that worships the Beatans can feel their favorite sentient non-humans in their thoughts when they sit still, control their breathing, and let go of all other distractions.
The weeks after I met Lilah, my brain entered a new state. It’s not that different from Xavi’s drawing. Instead of an object, my attention revolved around Lilah. And I didn’t sit for only a few hours and lose myself in the act of drawing, I lost myself day after day in Lilah.
I didn’t go back to school that month. I never returned to school.
I gave Lilah relief from her horrid mother and the airless room they stayed. Hal Tam Ros at the Green Leaf agreed to put her in a place on the second floor and charged me half as much as he charges others. I had the money. I had worked for years with little to spend on. Meals and beer at Sam and Ella’s had been my only expenses before Lilah came. Lilah and I went to the market together and I haggled for the food she kept in her room. That food didn’t cost me much. She preferred to eat with me in the taverns of Aoustin.
We spent many hours in that room in the Green Leaf, writhing together on the bed. She never let me explore the area from her waist down to her thighs. I consumed the frontiers she did allow me to wander and I left that room both elated and unsatisfied day after day.
We went to Sam and Ella’s together once.
A table-full of riverlings shouted greetings to me when we entered.
“Peace, young miss,” Brindle Joe said to Lilah. “Come so, we desire so to meet you.” He rose and walked over to her and held out his hand.
She crossed her arms and hid away her hands. “I damaged fingers,” she explained. “Broken, some may be.” She had not said anything to me about hurting herself.
She stood, arms across her chest, and nodded as each person at the tables introduced themselves.
“Parrie speaks much of yagize,” she said. It took a few seconds before I realized that Parrie was me. Pierrot. Parrie.
I ordered several of the best dishes that Ella cooked and Sam brought them to our table for Lilah to sample. We shared the food, but I ate much more than she did. I drank one beer, then another. Sam refused to bring me a third.
Lilah did not eat much and sighed often. She leaned across the table.
“Let us go, you and I,” she whispered.
“How so,” I said. “Now?”
“Now, please,” she replied softly.
We got outside and she leaned against me.
“The smell,” she said.
“How so? What?” I answered.
“They…. They in the corner…. They reeked so.”
Most riverlings came to Sam and Ella’s from the docks. They had worked on a boat in the heat and they smelled that way. The smell of a riverling mixed sweat, grease, cellpells, and the odor of whatever cargo was in their hold. That smell comforted me.
“Take me not there again,” she said. “The food tasted as with grease and dirty pans.”
Xavi had told me that Aunt Sharon wanted to see me. “She demands you present today,” Xavi said.
Aunt Sharon’s office filled a corner of the top floor of the Up and Down Building. The Up and Down Building abutted the Exchange. When young, I chased Xavi through each of the three stories of the Up and Down Building, through the openings between it and the Exchange, and among the goods stored in neat rows in both buildings.
Built on a foundation of porous rock in a deep pit, the Up and Down Builder floated upward when the pit filled with water and settled downward when the water drained. A pair of gates, connected to one another by gears and levers, either allowed the water to rush into the pit or drain from the pit.
When the water completely drained from the pit, Aunt Sharon could look out the two windows of her office at the same level as the street and she could see people walk just outside. When the pit filled completely, Aunt Sharon’s windows opened out over the tops of the nearby buildings.
Xavi danced with excitement whenever we heard the mechanism that controlled the gates moved. Someone pushed the immense wooden bar next to the building to turn the gears that opened one gate and closed another. I, too, delighted being inside this large structure when it rose or descended. The Up and Down Building leaned against the Exchange and wooden wheels between the two popped and moaned as the structures moved past each other.
I approached the building and it stood at its full height. The entrance for the first floor opened at ground level and the third-floor door loomed above me. I could have walked in through the first floor and ascended the stairs to the third floor, but I didn’t.
I closed the wire door in front of the entrance. The wooden beam that controlled the water gates met me at my mid-section and I leaned my weight into it. The gears clicked and turned as I pushed hard. The Up and Down Building lurched to a start before I finished and it creaked and groaned as it eased into its descent. I pushed the paddle until it went no further and then waited for the third floor to reach ground level. Once the chattering building settled as low as it would go and stopped moving, I opened the wire door and entered the third floor.
A small wall had built a room in the corner of the otherwise large, open floor. The Dignac corp claimed that space as its office generations ago and Aunt Sharon continued to run the corp from that room. Bales of cotton and bags of maize filled parts of the room. Two workers stood near next to the Exchange-side of the room with arms on their hips. They stared at me as I crossed the room to Aunt Sharon’s office.
“Peace,” I said to them as I passed. They did not reply.
Long-dead Dignacs from the last century and a half stared down from photos, paintings, or drawings that filled the walls of Sharon’s office. Xavi drew Kev, Aunt Magritte, and Aunt Sharon while they posed together on the desk. That drawing hung in the midst of the others. Aunt Sharon sat at the massive wooden desk. The desk scarred from all the years of use and misuse by the men and women on the walls.
“I thought such you,” Aunt Sharon said. She looked up from the papers in front of her. “Pierrot, you should check before lowering the building.”
“My wrong. Check?”
“It be for moving goods out from the Exchange. Not for amusing. You made no friends as with the crew out there. We need them. You need them.”
“Will do, mitter.” I said. “Peace Sharon Roux Dignac.”
I heard the gears that controlled the gates grind as someone moved the wooden beam. The room began its jerking rise. I heard someone hammering. A peg got driven into the mechanism to lock it in place.
“Also with you, Pierrot. Sit free.”
The lamp on Aunt Sharon’s desk shook and the glass shade chattered from the movement of the building. She reached up and held it still with her fingers.
“So you think you done as with school?” she asked.
I ground my teeth. My eyes narrowed. I let the quiet build between us.
“So now,” Aunt Sharon said. “Be you done as with school?”
“Yes,” I told her. My vision narrowed to Aunt Sharon and the space between us. I didn’t know if the family still had a place for me. “If the corp still have me, I will work as with you. If not, I guess it be needful to find some else work.”
“Pierrot, your lay be in with the corp, not some else work. Desire you to work for the corp?” She adjusted the glass shade for the lamp on her desk.
“Much so,” I said.
“Pierrot, your father needs a pilot. He wants you. He wants you on with Miss Genius, now so. But…, hear and believe.” She stared at me. “We turn on you or we will not turn on you. You must be responsible, unfailing. You failed us, Pierrot.”
“I know. I know. I know not why I did what I did.”
“Pierrot, there be a time for… that girl. There be a time for business. Desire you to work on with your father? As pilot?”
“I aver me, so,” I said. “I aver.”
Aunt Sharon sighed. She had begun to look old. Her eyes had hardened.
“I aver to you, now,” she said low, almost as a whisper. “Runoff such so again, Xavi will take your place. We will train her so.”