It was a month or more following the explosion that I found myself boarding a Greyhound bus not knowing precisely where I was headed but knowing I had to go to that particular, now soiled, edge of the continent. I took only my violin and a small bag of belongings, including a backpacking tent and cook stove, a framed photograph of my beloved Frannie, and a tuxedo – complete with studs, cufflinks, cummerbund, and a bright red bow tie. Looking back now, I should’ve taken my waders and a rod, but at the time, of course, I wasn’t thinking that far ahead. I did, at the last minute, toss in a can of insect repellent. But I forgot toothpaste, a map, sunglasses, and my blood pressure medication. Clearly, my mind wasn’t firing on all eight cylinders, which wasn’t too surprising, given the way I’d been overdosing on CNN and all the internet reports coming from where I was now headed.
Air travel I’ve never much cared for, having spent the vast majority of my working life dealing with concrete and asphalt, beams and girders, slab on grade. I’ve always considered flight something best left to the birds and waterfowl who don’t require aluminum or rivets or a single drop of jet fuel. And following the fender bender outside Safeway some six months after Frannie’s passing, I was informed my eyes are no longer good enough to operate a motor vehicle. So I rode a red-white-and-blue bus with a fifteen-foot-long decal of a dog on the side all the way from Oregon to the deep South, a region of this country to which I had never ventured.
Why, at my advanced age, did I embark on a cross-country journey of this nature? Even as I boarded that bus and stowed my violin overhead, I wasn’t all the way sure myself, but as I said, I knew I had to go. The idea had grabbed hold of me the night before I departed and would not let go. I am a retired civil engineer for Benton County and a one-time, half-way decent violinist who played in the local symphony. So, unlike most people these days, I have the luxury of a significant amount of free time on my hands—more of it than I prefer since Frannie passed some fourteen months ago. Of course at a year shy of seventy-five, I can’t count on a whole lot of time of any sort left; a number of years, perhaps, but no longer decades. So I boarded that dog-emblazoned bus, sat down, and settled in for the long ride to The South.
The night before, I had been up late watching the news and was having trouble falling asleep, what with all the images of the spill churning through my brain, and my brain thinking about the engineering of it all: that four-story, one-hundred-ton cap abandoned on the sea floor; the fluid- and thermal dynamics of working a mile deep in saltwater; the logistics and quantity of mud required for a ‘static kill,’ a term I was not familiar with but seemed somehow fitting on several levels. By then the oil had made land and the predictions of what would happen to the wildlife along the Gulf Coast were dire. But of all the images and equations and thoughts swirling inside my skull, what stuck with me as I lay there were two images I’d seen. The first, of a pelican coated the color of strong coffee being cleaned by four or five human hands wearing sky blue gloves. Those incredible colors—that blue, but mainly those browns. And the other image, of a pair of pelicans huddled together in a plastic tub, both of them coated the same, slick, chocolaty brown, their long bills pointing down, and their small, almost human eyes that seemed to hold astonishing patience. Lying there below our bedroom ceiling (I am still unable to use the term ‘my’ when referring to the house), it was the dark brown colors and textures of those rounded heads and graceful bills and those eyes that made me for some reason think of my violin, its mahogany scroll and pegs, the nut and fingerboard and tailpiece…the lacquer near the f holes the same color as those poor birds.
I got out of bed and took the instrument from the closet and tuned it up. I’d not played since the funeral, so I was a little rusty. And the fact it was three in the morning didn’t help matters. But it felt good to play, to noodle around, to fill the room with music. I even played Ashokan Farewell, Frannie’s favorite, which I had managed to make it through at the funeral. Playing that tune again felt better than I feared it might, so I played it twice, letting the final notes fade from the f holes and into the night. I loosened the bow and laid the violin back inside its case and returned to bed, but that image of those pelicans haunted me in the darkness until—like a puzzle piece snapped into place—I saw vividly what I had to do and was finally able to doze off.
The following day, I left a brief note on the counter just in case, then walked to the station and asked for the next bus south. The young man in the ticket window looked at me odd.
“By south, you mean all the way to LA., sir? San Fran? Medford? We go lots of places down there.”
“No. The South,” I said. “Louisiana.”
“Shreveport? Baton Rouge? Lafayette? New Orleans?”
“New Orleans,” I said. That city had been all over the news, ever since Katrina, and now this.
“Down near where that oil’s gushing, then?” It was a question although he wasn’t really asking. “Now that’s one sad situation if ever there was one.”
“That it is,” I said. “Way beyond sad. Downright criminal.”
He nodded without looking at me and printed my ticket. “Going to see family there, are you?”
“Of sorts,” I said, then added, “A funeral.”
He looked at me now, the way young people rarely do when you reach my age. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said.
“More of a requiem, really,” I said.
He handed me my ticket. “Good luck with that, sir.”
I’m not sure he knew what a requiem was, but I was grateful for the wish.
It took several days, and the ride itself was not what I would call pleasant or restful, but I enjoyed watching the country slide past beyond the large panes of window. When you drive or fly, you don’t generally meet the people who ride the bus. It used to be you did, because most folks went that way, before planes and fast cars sped everything up. But I found the people on my bus trip interesting for the most part, and tolerable, other than the intoxicated man who fell asleep on my shoulder and snored sour breath until he disembarked in Las Vegas. Riding across the midsection of the continent, I thought some about the engineering underway at the Deepwater Horizon site—the concrete and calculations and what had to be a lot of chaos. But what kept resurfacing was that photograph of those two pelicans, those eyes reflecting off the inside of the window glass staring back at me. During those long hours, I thought a great deal about Frannie, too, and wished she could have been there with me, the two of us riding along side-by-side the way we’d spent so many years. At most stops, I would step off and stretch my legs, wash my face, purchase a cup of coffee or something to eat. A time or two I panicked and considered catching the next bus back home, but then I would see those eyes, and re-board and carry on, making sure my violin was still there and knowing Frannie would want it this way.
Soon enough, thanks to a generous taxi driver who shuttled me out of the steaming maze that is New Orleans, I had made my way to a spot where I could see the Gulf beyond the sea of marsh grass that rippled in the wind like fine hair. I could tell the driver didn’t want to leave me at so late an hour where that narrow crumbling road petered out, but I told him I would be fine. He offered to take me on to the next town where I could get a motel room. But I told him I might be here a few days, that I had a tent along, and besides this was such a beautiful place. Except for the humidity, the spot was surprisingly close to the way I’d imagined it three days earlier lying in our bed when the idea first hit. I paid the driver the fare plus a generous tip. He shook my hand, and said he might check back by in a day or two, just to be sure. I said that would fine and now had a better feel for the term Southern Hospitality. He drove off and I watched the dots of taillight fade into the evening and disappear down the road, leaving me in the muggy heat, my ears still ringing from the bus ride.
I was tired, but I wanted to play a little, so I put down my things and changed into the tuxedo. It seemed appropriate to dress properly for the task at hand, especially in this place of such serenity. The warmth of the water surprised me when I first stepped in. Nothing like the bone-aching Pacific. I took several steps out beyond the marsh grass so that I could better see the open water even though the sun was nearly gone to the west. I admit I felt a bit foolish standing there thigh-deep below the moon rising, dressed the way I was and holding a violin. What had I been thinking? Perhaps senility was upon me, after all, and with a vengeance. But once I brought the instrument to my chin, tuned up, and touched the bow down, I was gone. The horsehair glowed a pale orange in the last rays of sun, and I closed my eyes and let the music carry me. Although I marveled at the fact I had made it, just like I had imagined that night, I tried not to think of the ruptured well or anything beyond the music. I sent the notes out over the water, out to the men who died on the rig, to those pelicans, and to Frannie, wherever they all were.
When I stopped, my fingertips were already sore and the first stars were out overhead. I stood looking out, wondering at the silence and thick air, before turning to wade back to shore. It was only after I’d taken several steps that I saw a girl standing on the bank and startled a little. It had become so dark, all I really saw was a pale dress and what looked to be a candle in a jar. The child’s legs and arms and face were erased by the dark. But her voice came across the water sharp and clear, and I could see her teeth and eyes flash.
“Mama says the water’ll wreck my clothes now so I can’t go swimmin’ till they clean it all up, ever’ last drop, what she says.” The girl had a set of lungs and a southern accent so lovely it bordered on song. “I hope your trousers are okay, mister, ‘cause it’s way harder ‘n rust to wash out, Mama says, so it’s good they’re dark.” I looked down. Not only could I see the oil slicking my slacks, but I could smell it, too, for the first time. That was when I thought of my waders hanging in the garage back in Oregon. I could make out a dark band on the marsh grass above the waterline and assumed the tide had turned and was on its way out, perhaps the reason I had not noticed or smelled the oil earlier.
“They’re old pants,” I said, which wasn’t a lie, as I’d worn them years ago when I played in the symphony. “It’s all right.”
“See any gators out there?”
I hadn’t thought of that at all and felt my face flush some. “None so far,” I managed.
“That’s good.” She lifted the candle as if to get a better view of me. “What’cha doing all the way out here’s anyways?”
“I know that on account of I heard it from way back up the road. It’s real pretty. But why you doing it out here and all by yourself?”
“My uncle Johnny he plays fiddle, too,” she went on, the words tumbling out. “He’s real good at it and says he’ll teach me some day when my fingers are longer so then maybe I can play as good as he does. The skeeters aren’t bad all the way out here, which is why I come sometimes. Not much for ‘em to eat, I guess.”
“You must live nearby,” I said.
She nodded, proud. “Just back to shore and up the way there, but it’s gettin’ dark so I gotta get home or Mama’ll be mad as all get out. So see ya.” And with that she turned and hopped onto a battered bicycle I’d not noticed and floated off through the night like a moth. I watched her dress and the candle hanging from one handlebar until the dress had been swallowed up and the candle winked out and just the faint squeaking of the chain hung in the air. Then the breeze died and the mosquitoes seemed suddenly fierce.
The next day, I played again at dusk. But when I heard voices coming across the water, I stopped and looked around. On shore, the girl in the yellow dress was back, and standing next to her was a tall, lean man I assumed to be her uncle, because he had a battered fiddle case hanging from one hand, and a rifle in the other.
“This here’s my Uncle Johnny I was telling you about who’s gonna teach me to play when my fingers are longer,” the girl called out in that big, southern voice of hers. “And I brought along my Mama, too, ‘cause neither of ‘em believed me when I said I found you down here last night playing to the gators.” She snickered. “They said I was either seeing things or plum nuts so I told ‘em if Uncle Johnny brought his fiddle with I’d prove it was true, if you hadn’t already left, but you’re still here, and thank goodness for it.”
Even from that distance, I could see the resemblance between the man and the girl’s mother, although neither of them were smiling the way the girl was, her teeth bright in the gloaming.
“You’re probably thinking I’m the one whose nuts,” I said.
“Not necessarily, sir,” the uncle said. “But these days you can’t be too careful. There’s weirdos about.”
“With all due respect, I’m not one.”
“What is it exactly you’re doing, then?” the uncle said.
So I explained the whole thing, how the idea had hit me that night after seeing the pelicans, how I’d remembered my violin and gotten up and played, and how I’d caught a bus the following day. “I realize this must appear rather foolish, but I couldn’t just sit around anymore watching the news reports. So I’m here. Just playing…to the pelicans.”
“And me!” the girl interjected, waving one hand above her head. “And them gators!”
The mother hushed the girl, then said, “We don’t mean to interrupt. Your playing sounds real nice, what we heard. And don’t worry about gators; they don’t much care for saltwater. Prefer the swamps inland. So go ahead. We’ll just watch for a spell, if that’s all right.”
“That’s fine,” I said, then looked at her brother. “But if that’s the fiddle your niece told me about, I would be honored to hear you play. Johnny, is it?”
The man nodded, lifted the instrument a little, lowered it, then shrugged and said, “What I play’s a little different. No offense, sir, but I’m not much good at the classical stuff.”
“No offense taken,” I said. “That’s the fine thing about music, there’s all sorts of it. I would enjoy hearing whatever you do play.”
“Please, Uncle Johnny,” the girl pleaded, pulling at his shirttail and jumping up and down. He tried to hand the rifle to the girl’s mother, who refused to take it, holding up a hand and taking a step back. He shrugged and laid the gun in the grass then opened the violin case and took out a fiddle and bow. He tightened the bow then tuned for a few notes and let loose with a high-spirited Cajun-type piece I had never before heard. When he finished, I waded the rest the way back to shore and soon we were jamming, me following his lead the best I could, the mother and girl singing along in what were stunning harmonies. The breeze whipped our notes off over the grass and seemed to keep the bugs at bay. The air was balmy and the moon bloomed big and reflected off the water. When we stopped, it was full dark and the girl had her candle going like some fragile campfire at the center of the four of us standing there at the edge of the Earth.
“You have any family, sir?” the mother asked. “A wife or kids?”
“My wife, Frannie, she passed a little over a year ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said. “You must miss her. Terribly.”
I nodded. “I do. Part of coming down here was for her, I think. She loved the sea.”
“So did my daddy,” the girl said. “And we miss him something terrible, too, don’t we Mama?” But the girl’s mother could only nod. She had produced a tissue that was a brilliant white in the dark and turned away.
Johnny cleared his throat and said, “Well, I’m glad you climbed on that bus, sir.”
“I didn’t know what else to do,” I said.
“There isn’t much else,” he said. He was a shrimp fisherman, but hadn’t worked in weeks. “Everybody’s idle. We just been sitting up at the house praying for the oil to stop, but that hasn’t been working too well, it seems. I call it ruined water. Which is ruining a lot of lives in these parts.”
The girl’s mother touched my sleeve. “Why don’t you come stay at our place tonight. We have a spare bed. A man your age deserves one.”
“That’s very kind, but I’m comfortable in my tent here, close to the marsh grass and the water.”
“I respect that,” the uncle said. “A man needs some solitude now and then. But would you mind if I came back tomorrow? Maybe we could play again, if that’s all right? Like I said, I don’t have work, and this takes my mind off the worrying.”
“It would be an honor,” I said.
That was when the girl grabbed her uncle’s arm and tugged at it, jumping up and down again and announced in one long, enthusiastic breath, “We’re gonna do this every night till there’s people playing music and singing from here clear to Florida and all that oil’s gone and I can go swimming again!”
“You’re on,” I said, and shook her hand while she beamed and told me her name was Nellie Jean.
“We’ll bring you some supper down, too,” the girl’s mother said. “God knows you can’t have brought much to eat coming all that way on a bus.”
“That’s very kind,” I said. “I did forget to throw in my fishing rod.”
“Not sure that would do you much good in this mess, anyway,” Johnny said.
We wished one another a good night and they turned and as they walked slow away, I heard the girl asking them if they believed her now.
I stayed a week or so, and most nights the girl and her family returned. They brought one of those screened picnic shelters and folding chairs and if the bugs were bad we sat inside and ate and talked and then played music into the summer night. If the breeze was good, we played out in the open air. They brought a mix of friends and neighbors and soon we had quite an impromptu jam session going on the edge of the ruined water, one man playing a washtub bass as well as I’d ever heard any bass of any kind played. These people taught me the difference between wire grass and oyster grass and about the different kinds of birds—that pelicans can live thirty years or more and some people believe they mate for life. The cab driver even dropped by one night and said he was happy to see I was in good hands. These were good people, frustrated as much by the spill as by the whirlpool of politics spiraling around it all, in which they found themselves trapped and swirling, unable to swim free.
I don’t know how I knew it was time to return to Oregon. Perhaps it was Frannie calling me home. But something told me it was time to go. I had come and done what I’d envisioned. I had played my violin, far more than I had ever imagined I would. I had seen hundreds of birds—terns and gulls, spoonbills and egrets and many I did not know. And I saw pelicans—one morning a row of them gliding along just above the water’s surface like a short string of big, bizarre beads on some scrap of airborne necklace, their tucked heads crowned with clean white feathers that shone in the sun. But I also saw a number of pelicans slicked and struggling with the oil, one close enough I could see those eyes watching me, all its feathers that rust-colored, gooey brown just like on the news, only much worse live. When I tried to get closer, hoping to somehow help the bird, it spread its clotted wings and flopped away through the oyster grass and out into deeper water where I could no longer see it. That evening, before anyone had arrived, I played Ashokan Farewell for that bird. I will never know if she succumbed or survived.
I have never been big on good-byes, so I packed up my things one morning and decided to slip away. But the girl showed up as I was stuffing the tent and asked me where I was headed.
“Back home,” I said. “To Oregon.”
“You missing your wife?”
I nodded. “Yes. That, too.”
“My daddy died out there on a rig when I was three,” she said sweeping her small arm toward the water. “I was so little, I don’t remember him too well. But Mama does. She tells me stories about him. Says the telling helps, but still she misses him, worst of all at suppertimes when he used to come home and scoop me up and blow my tummy full of raspberries, Mama says. Sometimes she still cries a little.”
“I imagine she does” I said. “That’s hard, especially since she’s so young.”
“She likes coming down here and singing, though. Says she likes you.”
“But now you’re leaving, so I’m not sure what she’s gonna do, or Uncle Johnny neither.”
I looked out at the water. “You can still come out here, and play. There are enough people. You don’t need me.”
“But you’re the one that started it. Mama says it’s like you tucked a little star inside of her and it’s shining there right next to the star Daddy left us.”
I watched a single gull flying across the sky, then turned back to the girl and said, “Why don’t you ask your Uncle Johnny again to teach you how to play the fiddle?”
The girl looked down at her fingers. “Think they’re long enough now?”
“It’ll be a stretch, but I think you can do it. And they’ll get longer.”
“I’ll pull on ‘em every day. Think that’ll help?”
“It can’t hurt. But let me tell you something else. Practicing every day will help most.” I picked up my violin in its case. “So I’m going to leave this here. For you. So you and your Uncle Johnny can play together, okay? It will be your very own fiddle.”
Her eyes and mouth all went wide and for a few seconds she didn’t say a single sound. It was just the breeze and the rustle of grass. Then she shrieked for a while and waved her small fists in the air before she calmed down enough to talk. “Wow. Thank you! That’s nice of you, sir. I mean real, real, real nice. So nice I can’t even believe it, and I know my Mama and Uncle Johnny won’t neither.”
“They will when you show it to them,” I said.
“What if they make me send it back to you all the way out in Oregon?”
“They won’t,” I said. “Because it’s my gift to you. And you can’t give gifts back. Your Mama will know that rule. All mothers do.”
I handed her the case, which looked huge in her small arms. With some extra nylon webbing I’d brought in the tent sack, I helped her strap the violin case to her back so she could ride her bicycle home safely, and we said good-bye. The last I saw of her was my violin case peddling off at a wobble up the road, one of her little arms shooting out to the side now and then trying to wave, and her voice calling out a final good-bye and another thank you and something about pulling on her fingers.
I made it back home on the bus, and a couple of weeks later the oil stopped—almost as suddenly as it had started months earlier. I felt the whole country breathe a collective sigh. I lit a candle that night—for the mud of the static kill to hold, for that pelican I’d watched flop away, and for my dear Frannie. She liked candles.
The next day, a letter from the girl arrived, along with a photograph of her holding my violin out in front of her by the neck like a trophy fish. She was wearing that same yellow dress and her hair was done up and she was grinning as big as I’d ever seen her smile. In the note, which she had written out in block letters, she said her Uncle Johnny was teaching her to play. I am still awfull squeaky but getting better all the time probably because my fingrs are getting longer just like how you told me they would. In some places she had erased so often and hard the paper was smeared or torn through. She went on to say they were all still going down to the water most evenings to play and have supper, and that lately there had been quite a few more people. Below her big signature with a star above the ‘i’ in Nellie, was the P.S., which read: I am still hoping it will stop if we all play hard enough so I can go swimmin before school starts up again and summer ends.
Gregg Kleiner is the author of the novel, Where River Turns to Sky (HarperCollins), which was a finalist for both the Paterson Fiction Prize and the Oregon Book Award, and was optioned as a feature film by Fox Searchlight. His first book for kids (and their adults!), Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!, asks: What might happen to climate change if CO2 were pink? He grew up playing in creeks outside various small towns in rural Oregon, where he currently resides. He was a high school AFS exchange student in the mountains for northern Thailand, where he spent a month at a Buddhist monastery under the tutelage of an aged monk. Website: http://greggkleiner.com.