The Rock and the River
They became the lies they wished they never told—the sharp red of the crawfish pressed against the Abbeville air and coming through the door, the vermilion seeped in through the humidity, over creased and weathered wooden tables, each striation, a story never heard—a mere rock and a river in a universe speckled with stars and stillness.
No one would know that it wasn’t just a chipped hut or a dim shack, wooden and unpolished from the outside, but just one step inside, a world compacted into cubes, full of cayenne and corn and onions, a layer of the atmosphere in itself. Just around the corner, the cooks drenched in spice and sweat play their own melodies of histories while the water boiled in volcanic fashion, drenching tails with seasoned minds. A greying Argentino—a lick for each paw—crouched near a dripping hose, such eyes had seen so much, waiting for a royal dinner of andouille and crab cakes over peppered concrete.
Down the road, under two streetlights—barely existing, Shantanu and Michot stood in an unkempt field, puffs of green blades sprouting toward the dark. Three wickets tucked into the dirt as Shantanu held a bright yellow ball, explaining to his friend about the game of cricket and its rules.
“It’s almost like a catapult,” he said, whirling his hand. “You just kind of wind up and let it go.”
He took a few steps and moved his arms like he was bowling, and Michot shadowed him.
“And you can hit the ball backward?” Michot asked.
Shantanu’s teeth gave way under the light.
“That’s wild,” Michot said.
Shantanu handed him the ball.
“Give it a go.”
Back inside, the ceiling fans rocked and swayed—a motion much like a crowd with arms around each other’s shoulders, moving to the hypnotic sounds of Corey Ledet at the Festival International de Louisiane in late April. In the corner of the room, a long table—for those bigger reservations, sat Shaq among a group of friends, his knees shuffling left and right as he leaned over, peeling shells. Not quite a regular, but it wasn’t his first visit, and he had formed a cordial acquaintance with Sabine, who had been working there for three years while attending SLCC.
"What's it called again?" Shaq asked.
He leaned back as she refilled his glass of water.
"It's called ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ and it's written by T.S. Eliot," Sabine said.
"How does that line go again?" Shaq asked.
Sabine emptied the plastic containers full of shells and tails.
"Do you need more horseradish?"
"Michelangelo," Shaq replied, looking at the remaining crawfish.
He wiped the sweat off his forehead and looked at the last of the corn, saving it for the end. It was his favourite part—dipping the cobs into the sauce that had already been through an endless amount of tails, creating a mixture of a tangy spice, sprinkled with Cajun salt rubbed and fallen from heads and claws.
“That’s one part of it,” Sabine said, balancing empty plates. “But the line I was talking about was ‘sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells.’”
“And the faces,” Shaq said.
“‘There will be time, there will be time,’” she replied, “‘to prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’”
Shaq nodded his head—trying not to rub his eyes, he kept his hands on the table.
“But what does it all mean, Sabine? What does it mean?”
“You’ll have to come back next time and find out, won’t you now,” she said, patting his shoulder before walking away.
“Damn,” Shaq said.
He picked up the corn and fiddled with it while the rest of his friends were talking, removed from the conversation.
“Marmalade,” he mouthed, dipping the cob into the sauce.
He was lost in his thoughts and without realizing it, he rubbed his eyes—an act Shaq was trying to avoid all night, and soon came the burning tears, blinding his vision, squinching his face this way and that, causing his friends to laugh.
Outside—Shantanu and Michot were still working on cricket. Michot bowled the ball, trying to sync his legs with the motions of his arms, and pitch would go everywhere it wasn’t supposed to go, sometimes taking them lengthy minutes searching for the ball in the dark corners of the spiky field. Michot panted.
“It’s not looking good, is it,” he said.
“It takes practice,” Shantanu said, tossing the bright yellow ball in his hand. “You’ll get it.”
Shantanu handed him the bat.
“Give this a go,” he said. “Just try to focus on the ball and block it from hitting the wickets—protective practice.”
Shantanu was gentle with his bowls, helping his friend to go through the motions, and once Michot was able to tap the ball a few times, he was feeling good about himself.
“Next up, a sixer,” he joked.
They took a break and sat on the road—Gatorades in hand, the buzz from the restaurant was so constant that it felt like silence to them. Michot looked up, counting every star he saw while Shantanu focused on an armadillo making its way through a ditch across from them. It was those quiet moments—in muted ways that brought Shantanu and Michot closer together, more so than any conversation or dinner or any other activity that required some kind of talking. When they were silent, the world was silent, and that was all they needed.
Shantanu put his arm on Michot’s shoulder and leaned his head against his friend’s neck, like when they were children sitting in golden fields full of bale and tractors under a summer sun. It had been ten years since their friendship had ceased, only to be reunited over a funeral a year ago—Michot’s grandfather who had raised him and his sister—Shantanu’s only friends at the time were the siblings, and his fond memories of Chalmette led him to the service knowing that he served as a father to the two. This was the first time they met each other since the funeral—Michot had reached out to him just a week before.
When they were silent, the world was silent, and that was all they needed.
“I’m glad we’re friends again,” Michot said, one eye closed while looking up at the stars.
“What even happened?” Shantanu asked. “I don’t know why we stopped.”
“It’s my fault,” Michot said. “I stopped it—it’s my fault and I feel bad about it.”
Shantanu picked up a pebble and skipped it against the road like it was a river.
“That brings back some memories,” Michot said, watching the rock tumble over.
A piano could be heard in the distance, coming from one of the houses a block down.
“You went to college and I didn’t,” he added. “I felt like you were leaving me.”
“I still didn’t have any friends,” Shantanu replied. “I still felt really alone, and I never heard from you. I needed you, you know.”
“I got into a lot of trouble, and I had no one.”
Shantanu didn’t realize how angry he felt until that point—finally being able to let out thoughts he had kept to himself for years.
“What kind of trouble?”
“All the bad things, pal—it wasn’t looking good. Not at all.”
“I think so—I’m surprised that I’m still alive, but I think so.”
“It really meant a lot to see you at the service, you know that, right? You were the only person that made me smile when I saw you there. My sister, too. It meant a lot.”
Shantanu picked up another pebble and skipped it. It came to a stop when it reached the grass on the other side.
“I want to lick those stars,” Michot said.
“Yeah. I know.”
“How are your folks?”
“They’re good—they’re good,” Shantanu said, almost in a whisper. “They’re good.”
“What about your brother? Bipin?”
“He’s doing well for himself—he really is, and I’m really proud of him, you know.”
“Proud of your little brother,” Michot said, nodding his head. “I know the feeling.”
They each felt a hand on top of their heads—cigarette smoke in the air—Shantanu breathed it in.
“Hey, jerk,” Michot said. “You done?”
Shantanu leaned his head back and looked at Michot’s sister upside down, as she dragged in her cigarette, its orange-tipped glow reminding him of fireflies.
“Done and done,” she said, tapping Shantanu’s forehead. “So good to see you.”
Shantanu stuck out his tongue.
“Let’s get,” Michot said.
“Y’all want to go for a drive?” Shantanu said. “Baton Rouge—maybe, we can sneak down to the Mississippi like when Mr. Chalmette would take us.”
“I’ll get the wickets,” Michot said.
“The what?” Sabine replied.
“If you don’t know, you don’t,” Michot said.
He took the cigarette from her mouth and puffed on it while he jogged off for the cricket gear.
“You’re happy,” Shantanu said. “I’m glad that you’re happy, Sabine.”
She hugged him.
“Damn. Last time I saw you was at our grandfather’s funeral. I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to talk.”
Shantanu patted her arm.
“Before that,” Sabine continued, “fuck—I was like just up to your waist then.”
“I haven’t grown much since then—but you have, little sister.”
“It feels nice to hear that again—to hear your voice.”
They got into Shantanu’s truck—the wickets and the bat were in its bed. Michot sat in the back while Sabine was in the front with Shantanu. She was telling them about Shaq and Prufrock—her voice full of excitement.
“He’s a big tipper, too,” Sabine said. “Like a really big tipper.”
She pulled out her folded cash—thick.
“Let’s hit Ruth’s Chris,” Shantanu said.
“On me,” Sabine said. “What you think, Michot?”
“Potatoes Au Gratin,” he replied. “That’s all I got to say.”
“Tomorrow night, folks,” Sabine said.
She lit a cigarette and gave it to Shantanu.
“You want one, big brother?”
“I’ll just take a drag of yours.”
The wind flapped in fast—all the windows were down and they listened to KRVS on the radio as Shantanu headed to the highway. At the lights, Shantanu felt his phone buzz, and he pulled it from his pocket to check it, but a loud banging came from the back of the truck, making all three of them jump in their seats. Shantanu looked in the rearview mirror and saw two men—one held the cricket bat, and the other held a wicket—they continued to bang the gear against the side of the truck.
“What do you want to do?” Shantanu asked, putting up the windows.
Michot looked behind him.
“I don’t feel like it,” Michot said. “Just run the red.”
The oncoming traffic had a steady flow though—Shantanu didn’t want to back into them, but he couldn’t make a U-turn either without putting his friends in danger. The back of the window crashed in, and Michot ducked, feeling bits of glass on his neck.
“Fuck,” Michot said.
“Get in the front,” Sabine said.
He crawled over the centre console and sat on the right side—Sabine was in the middle.
“Get down for a second,” Shantanu said, motioning to Michot’s sister. “I’m just so curious,” he continued, looking at Michot.
He looked at his sister—the two men were on each side of the truck, banging on the windows. The lights turned green.
“Gun it,” Michot said.
The truck screeched as Shantanu pressed hard on the accelerator.
“You good?” Michot said.
“I’m good, big brother,” Sabine replied.
They drove down and pulled into a gas station just before the lane merged into the highway. The back of Michot’s neck was covered in cuts—Sabine had a few nicks, too. Shantanu went inside to find whatever he could get to help his friends clean themselves up, and they sat on the bed of the truck.
“Damn,” Shantanu said. “They have my bat. That bat meant so much to me.”
“Sorry,” Sabine said.
“Well,” Michot added, “what a way to lose it, right.”
“You’re right about that, pal.”
They let the night settle in before deciding that they would go to the river on another day. On the way back to his friends’ house—just before dropping them off—Shantanu looked at his phone and then put it back in his pocket.
“Tomorrow,” Sabine said. “After we go to Ruth’s Chris.”
“You got it,” Shantanu said, giving Michot and his sister high fives.
“We’ll take my Jeep this time,” Michot said, grinning.
That next day—that very next day, Michot couldn’t get in touch with Shantanu.
“Maybe he brought his truck to the shop, and he’s just really busy,” Sabine said.
“Maybe,” Michot said. “But I just feel like something is wrong, you know.”
He called Shantanu’s home number—a dialling he hadn’t saved in his phone, but rather one that was remembered from his childhood—impressed in his brain after pressing those buttons over and over again until it became an infinite memory. With each number he pressed, flashes of their youth diffused into his mind—shooting hoops, playing in the front yard, walking down the road and looking for bottles and aluminum cans, hide and seek, learning how to drive or how to smoke cigarettes next to the Walgreens, and an overwhelming feeling of nostalgia took over—one that caused him to think about the ways he had left him after high school. He thought about his grandfather cooking dinner for them on Saturday nights or the scent of saris belonging to Shantanu’s mother when he went over to their house. The phone rang and no one picked up.
With each number he pressed, flashes of their youth diffused into his mind.
They waited all day, and it wasn’t until five in the evening when he and his sister decided to drive over to his home—one that he hadn’t visited in years, but heading toward his house felt like going home. They turned into Tolson Road from Verot, not too far from Comeaux High School—a route Michot hadn’t taken since he had dropped off Shantanu at his house the morning after their graduation party—red eyes, hoarse voices and messy hair. That was the last time they saw each other until the funeral service for Michot’s grandfather ten years later.
“The grass is long,” Sabine said, as they pulled up to the driveway.
“I’ll cut it for them,” Michot replied. “They used to have a gardener years ago, but I’m not sure what they do now.”
As they walked up to the door, Michot felt like he was frozen in a photo taken over a decade ago. Not much had changed except for the paint on the garage—now a dark blue, when it was once maroon. He rang the bell and knocked on the door, but there was nothing—just silence coming from inside.
“It just isn’t right, sister,” Michot said.
They heard barking coming from the backyard of the neighbour’s house, and its front door opened. Sabine waved to an elderly man dressed like church, Cajun-skinned.
“Do you know if they’re home?” she asked.
“We’re friends,” Michot added. “We can’t seem to get in touch with Shantanu or anyone else.”
Michot noticed Shantanu’s truck parked in front of the mailbox—its back window still smashed from the night before.
“He didn’t bring it to the shop,” Sabine said, also seeing the truck.
“Oh, he’s gone,” the neighbour said.
His voice was gentle.
“Gone?” Michot replied.
“He’s gone,” the elderly man said again. “They took him away last night—I know that.”
The man sat on the stoop of the porch, holding a book.
“Yeah,” he continued. “They came and took him away.”
The neighbour looked up at the sky to see a flock of birds making their way past a lowered sun—he squinted his eyes and nodded his head, whispering words to himself as if he was having a conversation with a ghost.
“Sorry,” he said, out loud.
“Who took him and where?” Sabine asked.
“The box did—they sure did.”
The flock of birds had become sprinkles in the sky.
“They were here last night,” he continued. “And then they took him away in the box, stretcher and all, they did.”
“What about his parents—his family?” Michot asked.
“Oh, they’ve been gone, now, they’ve been gone.”
“Gone,” Michot repeated.
“His brother, too?”
“Oh, he’s gone, too, now.”
The elderly man nodded his head.
“They’re all gone now.”
Michot turned to his sister, speaking quietly.
“Maybe Lourdes,” Michot said. “It’s the nearest one.”
“Let’s go by,” Sabine whispered. Her voice wavered.
All she could think about was when Shantanu would visit, and how she would run up to him and tug on his shirt, asking for a hug.
“Thank you, sir,” Michot said.
“If you find him,” the man replied. “Tell him I’m taking good care of Raj—he’s in good care with me, and I got him. He’s good.”
Michot looked at him, trying to make sense of what the neighbour was saying.
“That’s him in the back,” the Cajun-skinned man said. “Exploring the worlds between the blades of grass—I got him, and he’s in good care. If you find him, you tell him.”
“His dog,” Sabine said.
Michot thanked him again—in the Jeep, he put all the windows down, letting in the flapping wind and the sounds of traffic to help him think, concentrate, trying not to let the sinking feeling overtake his brain. There were quiet tears—from both of them.
Room 204. That was Shantanu’s room. That was where they found him—drowsy, but awake. The TV was on mute—the lights were on, bright—the curtains pulled to let in the Lafayette evening sun, a welcoming.
“I’m sorry,” Michot said. “I’m so sorry.”
He was on one side and Sabine was on the other side, each holding Shantanu’s hands.
“When did this happen?” Michot asked.
“Three years ago, yesterday,” Shantanu replied, his throat trying to find strength.
“Where was the service? You know we would’ve been there—you know that, right?”
Michot wasn’t sure if he was telling the truth, perhaps, convincing himself more than his friend.
“I took them back to my mother’s land,” Shantanu replied. “It was the only way—the Ganges welcomed their ashes, a lotus flower for every year they all had lived.”
He shifted his body, slightly, toward the easing sunbeams.
“164. An infinity of petals floating away from my soul.”
Michot couldn’t hold it in—nor could his sister—the tears came. There was crying. There was sobbing. He pressed his cheek against Shantanu’s forehead before kissing him on the cheek—his friend’s face, streaked with his own sorrows.
“And you?” Sabine managed to say, firmly grasping Shantanu’s hand, though it trembled.
“I had so much fun last night—I did. It was so much fun, and I didn’t know what to do when I got back home. I didn’t know what to do, and it was so much fun. I just wanted to be with my parents—my brother. I didn’t want to lose that feeling—to be happy. I tried, you know.”
He pressed his cheek against Shantanu’s forehead before kissing him on the cheek—his friend’s face, streaked with his own sorrows.
The evening news was on TV—still muted, but if they turned on the volume, they would’ve heard how Shaq was in town for a donation he made to Lafayette High School’s sports facilities. He was being interviewed.
“It’s like this poem, Prufrock,” he said.
Michot caressed Shantanu’s hair. Sabine still holding on to his hand.
“We’re here,” Michot said. “We’re never leaving you. I’m so sorry. You’re our family. I’m so sorry.”
Shantanu lifted his arm—slowly—with the IV attached and patted Michot’s shoulder. He pulled Sabine in close. A clip of Shaq on TV—holding a basketball while talking to the local reporter, the room was mute. The world was mute, and that was how they wanted it to be.
It was dark—night, and they were on the banks of the Mississippi River, not too far from Baton Rouge. They were all there—Michot, Sabine, and Shantanu, and Raj was there, too, resting in the mud. The engine of Michot’s Jeep sang its own song a bit away, headlights shining, and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” oscillated through the air, softly reaching the three friends.
Sabine was on her back staring at the stars while Michot and Shantanu ran their fingers through the water. Michot whistled along, responding to the faint sounds of the music. Shantanu threw a rock into the river—Michot did the same, and they took turns, throwing rocks into the Mississippi.
“Are you ready for next week?” Shantanu said.
“Not at all,” Michot said.
“It’ll be fun.”
“You can hit the ball backward, right?”
“Anywhere you want to—knock it anywhere.”
Sabine joined in.
“How about that Gratin?” she said. “Like I promised—it’s on me.”
It was quite a night, that night—for the three of them, together on the banks of the Mississippi, feeling kindred—the water tying itself to a friendship. The Potatoes Au Gratin, too, and it was all so spectacular, indeed—that next week when Shantanu took Michot and Sabine to the parking lot of Griffin Hall, on one of the edges of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s main campus to play in a cricket match held monthly just outside the building. They were under the streetlights, bright, and Michot even got a hit. He didn’t knock it behind him as he wished, but it was a hit, and the way it sounded—it sounded like throwing a rock into the river at night, only to vanish in the dark—only to last forever in the silent echoes of the Mississippi.