LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON
by Mel Bosworth
Lyndon is bent face down in the Pedernales River, head snapping side to side like a fish on a hook. He is standing waist deep in the cool water, the unfettered straps of his overalls drifting limp on the surface. The river has been funneling water into his left ear for the last ten minutes.
On the river’s bottom, a frog scuttles in the murk. Between gulps of air — and with clouded eyes and slippery fingers — Lyndon tracks the frog, relentlessly. He won’t be outdone by this frog or any frog. Not today. Not ever. Lyndon jerks, grabs, misses. Mud squirts through his fingers. He stands upright, emits a spurting, “Mmmphaaaahh!” before cutting the water again with his nose.
Lyndon is in Stonewall. Like Jackson. Fifty miles north of San Antonio and fifty west of Austin. Locals still squeak and bump along carriage lanes. Horses still snort, shit, and neigh. There has been talk, though, of roads making their way to Stonewall and then through it — roads for automobiles, for his father’s Model T. Which would mean a smoother, quieter ride. Soon there will be no more bouncing on the backseat, the place to which Lyndon has been designated ever since his baby sister Rebekah claimed the arm-looping safety of their mother’s lap.
Lyndon’s bare back is red, white, and arched. The growth beyond the river’s edge, heading toward the family farmhouse, is scorched yellow. Nearer to Lyndon, the reeds and the monkey grass are green and hearty, the rocks smooth and wet. The frog’s long legs kick and kick as it tries to hide under slack blankets of silt. Lyndon spies the frog, snatches at it, misses again, grazes its hind legs.
Lyndon rises up, seizes air with his mouth stretched wide and pink. Thin brown rivers spill over his temples and down his cheeks. His eyelids flutter, blurry in the sunlight. He submerges his face once more, just as determined as when he began.
Rebekah is back at the farmhouse. She’s sitting on the carpet in the kitchen. Crates and boxes filled with their lives are stacked everywhere and ready to move. Their mother is at the table, arm scooped like a sling beneath her belly. Josefa is on her way, or Sam is on his way. In the evenings, losing himself in her growing ripeness, Lyndon wonders which, scoots closer to her.
With her mouth, Rebekah catches strings of honey that dribble from their mother’s fingertips. Lyndon’s father — clean shaven and smelling of cologne — leans against the doorjamb, a wooden box filled with glassware under his arm. His lips make a clicking sound as he smiles. He looks out the window and rises up as if to speak, holler, or spit, then comes back down on his heels, sighing.
The Pedernales is low and docile. Pinned behind newly naked river rocks, frothy pools swirl weakly, gathering mosquitoes. Lyndon has managed to scatter the frog closer to the riverbank. On occasion the frog breaks the surface, eyes shiny and loose. Lyndon’s shoes suck out from the river now when he walks. The water evaporates from his back, leaving it covered with goose bumps. He shivers, stalking, smirking.
Roughly forty feet from Lyndon, three shirtless Mexicans dressed in cheap straw hats and faded jeans are walking alongside the river. A lanky man leads, followed by two men who are short and squat. They all have dark, meaty arms and hands. Lyndon’s father is expecting them. They are coming to help pack up the farmhouse. The lanky man spots Lyndon first. He slows, then, making a hushing gesture with his hand, turns to the other men. Grinning, he says, “El hijo del jefe,” and the short men grin, too.
Biting their cheeks to keep from laughing, the three men crouch low and tip-toe. The lanky man turns again and mimics a bear. He snarls, spreads his arms, and curls his hands into claws. Then he becomes himself and gapes at the men, seeking approval. The men look at each other, blankly at first, and then they nod, excitedly.
“Muy bien,” they whisper together.
Lyndon only sees what’s in front of him: the frog, or what will be the frog.Pushed into a shallow pocket of black water, it has nowhere else to go but onto the riverbank. Lyndon is ankle deep now, hunched and expectant. The surface of the water quivers, and then a snout appears. Then an eye. A mouth. The frog rockets from the river as Lyndon pounces.
Lyndon shouts, his small hands crashing empty on the rocks. The frog executes a miraculous 360° turnaround kick off a jutting rock that sends it flying over Lyndon’s bare back before returning it to the river. The frog slips beneath the water with barely a bloop.
Furious, Lyndon cranks himself around, flopping into the water just as the three shirtless Mexicans leap onto the riverbank growling, snarling, and pawing as bears. Lyndon slaps wildly in the river in search of the frog.
“Hijo?” the lanky Mexican asks, shrugging his bear charade as the other two continue. Lyndon is a blur in the water, wild and vulnerable. The lanky Mexican’s face fills red with purpose. With his chest heaving and arms thrown back in a heroic pose, he readies to launch himself after the flailing child. The Mexican’s first step stalls, though, as something green and gangly slops onto his open mouth and then tumbles down his chin.
“La rana!” a tiny voice calls from the river, triumphant.
Lyndon has erupted from the Pedernales. The lanky Mexican stares at the boy, incredulous. In search of peace and shade, the frog hops downriver, sleepy and undetected. The two squat Mexicans, enjoying their bear dance, reluctantly stop beneath the weight of silence.
Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at melbosworth.com, Read the next story, RICHARD NIXON, here.
* thanks to Amber Sparks and Brian Carr for their editorial work on this project.