Swimming Under Barges

By Jason P. Reed

You couldn’t practice swimming under a barge and coming out the other side alive. It was something you had to just do. Or not. Most guys didn’t. Wouldn’t even think of it. But sixteen year old Neville Breaux wasn’t most guys. There was something about his chemical makeup that made him different, something in his blood. But to look at him, he was just an ordinary east Texas black dude. A teenager at that point, still a good five years from the local celebrity status he would enjoy in Lafayette, Louisiana—the rising young star of the Cajun music revival.            

At that time he still had one foot in the cough-syrup hip hop style coming out of H-town, and another one in the cowboy boots all his cousins wore on zydeco trail rides around Beaumont. He was a confused teenager with more to prove than he had sense in his head. Exactly what he was trying to prove was hard to put your finger on. It didn’t have anything to do with music. At least, he didn’t realize it did until the experience of that day just somehow picked him up and set him down on a parallel path, a back road he never knew was there. Until he was on it, and everything was suddenly different. Not better-different, at least not at first. Just different. 

Bairds Bayou was just a little offshoot of the Neches river running near the Port of Beaumont. It wasn’t nothing but some muddy-ass water with washing machines and shit stuck in the mud at the shallow bottom. Catfish, snakes, turtles sunning themselves on any log or piece of trash that stuck up out of the water. The place was a dump. A tetanus shot just waiting to happen.

Some bayou’s were cool as shit. People would fix up a rope swing on a point where a big oak or something hung out over the water, and if you were really lucky the ground would be solid enough to where you could back a pickup truck in there to carry your lawn chairs and ice chest and maybe some chicks if you were lucky. Those spots were like country music wet dreams.

Bairds Bayou wasn’t that. Not by a long shot. To start with it was noisy as shit. I-10 ran right over it, elevated over the bayou, big trucks roaring through day and night with the big hum of tires and a rush of air as they passed. From down on the bank where the crazy kids gathered, Neville called ‘em Bayou Rats in his head, it was like the interstate was right on top of you. The noise was always there, reverberating down onto the water.

And if the noise and the trash didn’t turn you off, the chemicals probably would. There was usually a rainbow film on the surface of the water that was actually kind of pretty and made it to where you could see the current moving. All the trash collected right there in that one spot where the Bayou Rats hung out—Whataburger wrappers, BudLight cans with bullet holes, styrofoam containers, plastic soda bottles with who knows what sloshing around capped inside—all just collecting in drifts that moved at their own pace through the murky, slick sheen of the water.

But there was a certain type of person, and Neville was one of ‘em, that gravitated to the spot for exactly how fucked up it was. The louder, the nastier, the more disturbed and discarded, the more they liked it. 

To a person—and I say person because there were some girls too—every Bayou Rat that ended up there was fucked up in some like, fundamental way. Abuse, neglect, drugs. Not that it was easy to tell what their issues were just to look at them. These were guarded, hard types. They didn’t wear their shit on their sleeves like a bunch of pansies. But if you paid attention, little clues would trickle out. Also, just the fact that they were there entertaining themselves and showing off by risking drowning in the most awful way possible—that pretty much told you all you needed to know.

It was interesting though, how a lot of times someone who turned out later to be a Bayou Rat would come down the first time with one of their normal friends in tow. Now, those mother fuckers! . . . well, you could absolutely spot them from their spotless shoes and the freaked out look on their faces. The normal friends never lasted long. Sometimes they left dragging their prospective Bayou Rat friends with them. Other times they walked back up the bank alone, trying to keep the soles of their shoes white.

This part of the bayou was basically like a parking lot for barges. In some places they were roped together so tight you could walk across them like a bridge. They were big, low, rusty things that nobody would mistake for any kind of leisure vessel. There was something ominous about how they squatted there, low in the muddy water. They looked like something a kid would build, except scarier because of the unyielding angles and the thick, no nonsense welds. They were like harsh, metal versions of the kinds of rafts boys with too much time on their hands like to build.

The first time Neville saw somebody go under he wasn’t sure what he was witnessing. He thought it was probably a trick. A skinny white dude with cut off jeans and red hair ducked under the water at the edge of the barge and he disappeared for a long ass time, it felt like. And then eventually somebody called out when they saw a hand and then his whole head pop up on the other side of the barge. He pulled himself up, dripping like a nutria rat, and just walked, casual, to the near edge of the barge and sat down to face the group of boys on the bank. Just sat there, looking at them. The dude’s name was Randy, and Neville could still see the look on his face, that red hair matted to his head and his ears sticking out.

It was another three or four days before Neville first tried it. He was high on whippets at the time which, he recognized was a mistake as soon as his first foot sank into the soft mud of the bayou and he leaned forward to half swim, half wade into the warm, brown water. It was a thirty foot swim just to get to the barge, his feet not quite touching the bottom, and he was so fucked up he was having a hard time keeping the barge in front of him. But he got there and clung to it as best he could.

The first thing was, there was nothing to grip onto. His fingers were maybe longer than average, but he would’ve needed hands like a rake to do any good. And the current was there, pulling him, barely perceptible at the surface but strong underneath. It was enough to where he had to work hard just to keep from being pushed down the length of the hull.

The part of the barge above the waterline was flaky with rust, and underneath the water it was slimy and slick as fuck. Neville could feel it as his feet touched the underside when he tried to tread water and keep in the same spot. His adrenaline was jacked, and between the ringing in his ears and the drone of the cars on the interstate he couldn’t hear himself think. Not that there was much to think about. At some point as he struggled to hang on against the barge he became aware of the jeers from the bank—the Bayou Rats telling him in no uncertain terms to get the fuck on with it. And he was slipping off the giant rusted hulk anyway, so he took a big breath, pushed it out of his lungs, and then came back for the deepest one he could draw before holding it and ducking under the water at the edge of the barge.

He hit his head right away on the underside of it, slick and slimy with algae and god knows what. And then the current pinned him against the barge and he was already feeling panicked and disoriented. He had to advance in the direction of his head but he couldn’t swim, couldn’t use his arms the way he needed to because he was pressed to the underside of the barge at his back.

He was aware of the current, too. It was hard to gauge how far it had pushed him. Was he still facing the right direction, across the width of the barge and not the length of it? He couldn’t tell, so he opened his eyes but he knew right away that was a mistake. He couldn’t see anything at all—nothing but deep brown stinging liquid in his eyes—and that didn’t help his state of mind.

Before he realized he’d made the decision to do it that way he was already spinning around to put his belly to the underside of the barge so he could crab walk across the bottom of it. And that seemed to work pretty well. He couldn’t actually get any kind of grip with his hands, but with his long fingers splayed out like a garden tiller he could maintain contact with the bottom of the barge and, with his feet working in coordination, make progress along the bottom. He thought he was in good shape, expecting to reach the edge, no problem. Except that after just a few seconds—maybe ten, maybe twenty, who the fuck knew?—he should have reached the other side but it wasn’t coming. It didn’t make sense, because he’d traveled a long way. Long enough to cover the width two times over by then. And here he became aware of the ringing that was still in his ears. The whippits, fear, some kind of weird underwater sound he didn’t know about . . . he didn’t know where it came from, only that it was there. He focused on crab-walking along the bottom because he only had another thirty seconds of air, if he was lucky and if he didn’t panic. But he was panicking.

He exhaled a little, pushing used air out of his lungs and that felt better. He still had some air left, but didn’t know where he was and he needed to move. Instinct told him he’d gotten turned around and must’ve traveled along the length of the barge. But even so, he should almost be past the edge, the way he was making time crab walking along the bottom . . . so where the fuck was the end? He pivoted what he thought was ninety degrees to his right to put himself heading towards the near edge and he tried to pick up the pace, his fingernails starting to dig into the algae growth on the underside of the barge, slipping every so often. One, two, three, SLIP, four, five, SLIP, six . . . where the fuck was it?

He couldn’t help but open his eyes again when his air ran completely out and he knew he had maybe ten or twenty seconds if he was lucky before the urge to inhale that was already building in his chest—already uncomfortable and constricting—would be too much. What would happen after that, he didn’t know. He couldn’t see shit, but he could feel the greasy strands of stuff growing from the bottom of the barge brushing against his face. That was it. No light, no nothing. However much he’d been able to calculate his moves up until then, all that was gone and it was all primal instinct from then on. Just blind fucking animal desperation.

All he knew was he had to get out, now. His instinct was to scream, to gasp. He was trapped. His arms flailed against the underside of the barge and he could hear the sounds—the treble scratching of his fingernails and the deeper drumbeat of his feet hitting the hull and searching for purchase as he rushed towards his own death. That was what was happening. He was dying, already dead, trapped under the water. He was dead because there was no way out, no matter which direction he went. He scratched and pushed and clawed but the edge didn’t come.

He pivoted again, his chest about to cave in, battling to keep his mouth closed. Another ninety degrees and his arms and legs were working on pure animal instinct, slipping and scratching against the underside and the only word in his head was “no”. No! He couldn’t die! He flipped over, his back against the underside of the barge, and pushed deeper into the water, pulling his arms hard in a full breaststroke underwater and now he was moving, but he’d lost all sense of direction. He could have been anywhere.

His chest had been squeezed of every molecule of air and his heart was pounding in his throat. But he was swimming, covering distance. At least he couldn’t feel the hard and slimy surface of the barge trapping him. But he knew it was still over him, and the feeling of freedom he felt in a flash then was maybe just his animal brain accepting the release of death. His head hit the underside of the barge again and he wasn’t able to control himself at that moment. He reached with his hand and pulled as his mouth opened and it should have been his last act, dirty rainbow slick bayou water rushing in to kill him, but somehow the water didn’t come and his lungs found oxygen. His hand was out of the water. He’d found the edge of the barge by nothing but blind, panicked luck.

His face scraped against the jagged lip of the barge as he came up but he didn’t notice. He couldn’t notice, because there was only one thing and one thing only in the world that mattered then. Air. Oxygen. The Bayou Rats on the bank saw the bloody image of his face pop up above a distant barge where they didn’t expect it, drawn by the awful sound of Neville gasping for air like some kind of clubbed seal in the throes of death.

The sound that came again from deep in Neville’s throat as he gasped, desperate and free, was shocking and awful. It was inhuman, almost. He had been all alone, fixing to die, and here he was breathing again, alone. He made the sound two or three more times as he took in grateful lungfuls of air, his eyes fixated on the elevated bridge of I-10 practically on top of him. He didn’t know where he was. He didn’t know it was blood streaming down his face. He didn’t care. All he cared about was pulling oxygen into his lungs. The feeling of it didn’t get old. It was glorious, the breathing. That was all he wanted to do. To just breathe.

The first tentative sounds from the Bayou Rats at the bank came then, asking “you okay?”. It brought him back, and he pulled himself up onto the barge he was still clinging to. When he stood up he was disoriented again because the Rats weren’t where they were supposed to be. They weren’t in front of him. They were way off to his left, maybe fifty yards up the bayou. And he was standing on the wrong barge. He wasn’t even standing on the barge next to the one he was trying to cross.

Once they saw he was okay it was like a switch flipped for the Bayou Rats. They erupted in celebration. But as Neville looked at them, he realized they weren’t cheering for him. They were happy he was alive, for sure. But only because they would be in a shitload of trouble if he’d drowned under that barge. And even then a few of the Rats might’ve been secretly disappointed they didn’t get to see a guy die right there in front of them. Either way, they were off the hook now. No authorities, no parents hassling them about what they were doing down here in the first place. So they cheered, and watched.

He stood there in his shorts for a long time, just breathing and watching them clustered on the bank, still kind of disoriented, but coming back. Eventually he realized he would need to get off the barge. But he didn’t want to get in the water. He had no choice, and they were all watching him. Not that he cared about what the Bayou Rats thought. In his mind it just became a practical question. He needed to get to the bank to get his shoes and his shirt.

“I guess I can’t walk on water,” he said to himself, and squatted down on the edge of the barge. But he still sat there for a long while, thinking not about getting across but about what this all meant. He had no idea, except that it meant something. Eventually he slipped into the water and very slowly, his head up the whole time, made his slow way through the murky water to the bank. He wasn’t afraid of the water. He just didn’t want to have to close his eyes.

The Bayou Rats had gone silent again, once they got a good look at his face. It must have been eerie from their perspective. This bloody faced dude who almost died just swimming towards them, silently knifing through the water. Neville would always remember how he slipped in the slick mud in two feet of water, trying to scramble up the bank. How he literally clawed his way out of the water. There was no dignity in it.

He was alive, but that was it. If he thought he was gonna come out the other side with respect or some sense of purpose or even just the first class rush of adrenaline, well, it just proved he still didn’t know his ass from a hole in the ground. All he managed to do was bring himself low, to fall down in the mud and have a bunch of tough kids watch him struggle to get up.

When he did get up he didn’t say anything. Not because he didn’t want to. Just because he couldn’t think of the right words. He would have to know what he was feeling first to speak. So he just slid into his Adidas and left them untied while he climbed up the hard packed path up to the road. Nobody called up after him. Nobody said shit. They just let him go. And when he got to the road and stopped to put on his shirt he listened, thinking he might hear the Rats say something and that might offer some insight he could use, but there was nothing. Just a splash.

It was a long walk home. Only a mile as the crow flies, like they say, but you had to run across I-10. Otherwise it was more like three miles. And running across the interstate was no joke, especially when you were feeling like he was. You would think the universe would’ve taken it easy on him after being under water scratching against the underside, fighting for his life at barely sixteen, but no. If there was a God he was fucking with Neville. If there wasn’t a God, then the world really was as cold as they say.

He almost got flattened by this little car, a Miata or something—he couldn’t see for sure—that must’ve been drafting behind this eighteen wheeler and just picked that moment to accelerate out from behind it. He was halfway across the four lane road at that point and it looked like he had maybe five or six seconds when he first noticed the little car but an instant later it was gliding left, into his path and then whistling by like a bullet a couple feet from his head.

By the time he climbed through the fence and slid down the big cement abutment he was crying. And when he put his hand up to his face, embarrassed, and it came down bloody and wet he thought maybe he was gonna die all over again. But it was weird. Looking back, he wasn’t actually scared of dying. It was like he was just waiting for it all to be over. Whether over meant everything just going black or him living for another day, maybe for a long time, he couldn’t say. All he knew was he felt empty and numb and he just wanted to make it home.            

When he did finally walk through the little gate in the hurricane fence and into the yard, there was a surprising sound of music coming from the backyard. It was a fiddle tune he had heard his uncle play probably a hundred times before, but it had always just gone in one ear and out the other. That day it was like he heard it for the very first time. He didn’t even have words for the kind of song it was his Nunc Papst was playing. But it was amazing.

There was like some percussion to the sound of the fiddle, these jumpy sort of doubles, four of them, in each measure. Da-da da-da- da-da da-dum, Da-da da-da- da-da da-dum . . . and just on and on. Just that. The only other sound was Nunc’s boot on the porch, his heel hitting hard on the boards, keeping time. Neville had stayed to the side for a time, shielded by the house, just outside of view so he could listen and man, it was like a fucking heartbeat after a while! Just the fiddle and the base of Nunc’s boot.

It might’ve been ten minutes later when his uncle finally stopped playing the jig and reached down to take a long pull from the can of Budweiser at his feet. When the music stopped Neville stepped over to the hose on the side of the house and turned it on, leaning over to hold the hose over his head and let the water flow for a while. He kept his eyes open, and eventually, when he felt clean, he turned off the water and coiled the hose back.

When he came up on the porch Nunc Papst was watching him. Neville had just stepped up on the porch and walked over to the Little Playmate ice chest against the wall to take a beer and a piece of salty ice. His uncle said “get me one too”, and so he offered up the one in his hand and popped the salty ice in his mouth, then went back for another beer.

“What’s that you was playing?” Neville asked, and his uncle gave him a measured look then. A long, measured look.

“Dat’s part of Conray’s Jig.

“What kinda music’s that?” Neville asked. Again his uncle gave him a long long           

“There’s only two kinds a music,” he said. “Ray Charles said it best, I think . . . they’s good music, and bad music . . . and what I was just playing? Dat’s the good shit.”

Ten minutes passed and not another word was said. Neville could feel something leaking down the side of his face again, so he got up to go in the house and see about it. Nunc Papst put the fiddle to his shoulder again and before he started up with the same tune, he said low, almost to himself. “The fiddle put the blues in Cajun music.”

It was a line Neville would be using with audiences, sometimes upwards of a thousand people, in a little less than three years. 


Bio: Jason P. Reed is a writer from Louisiana. He loves and promotes writing and writers from his state and has created a publishing company, “New Bayou Books” for that purpose. He has published two novels which can be purchased at Amazon. This story “Swimming Under Barges” is a character sketch drawn from his latest novel “All Saint’s Day of the Dead” which is about a woman fleeing an abusive ex. She comes to Louisiana, and the ex follows her, bringing trouble with him.

This is what he says about himself:

“Hi. I’m Jason P. Reed, a middle aged, independent novelist focused on South-Louisiana fiction. Originally from Eunice, Louisiana, I have been moving about the world since graduating college in 1996. I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Mongolia from 1999 to 2001, and after I returned to the U.S. I freaked out all my Peace Corps friends by joining the U.S. Air Force. Though I’m not in uniform anymore, I still (somewhat reluctantly) work for the Department of Defense. It’s made for an interesting life, but the luster of “public service” has worn thin. A few years ago I finally climbed out of a bottomless bottle of Jack Daniels, and since then I have been trying to make my dream of writing novels full time happen. I’m not there yet, but it’s early yet.”

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