An excerpt from With the Memphis Blues Again


The following tale of adventure and history is an excerpt from “Q2: Those about to die,” which is a chapter from Bryan Harvey’s novel With the Memphis Blues Again. You can find the novel in its entirety at You Can’t Eat the Basketball. The illustration featured here (and the one throughout the novel) are the work of @CrumpledJumper.

The oar Russell Westbrook used to steer the rotten canoe was cracked. A body lay slumped between his legs. Somewhere over his shoulder and growing smaller in the distance was the dock where Kevin Durant had shot Westbrook in the leg before disappearing into a doorway etched in light. The sun crept over the horizon, bleeding pink, almost a mirror image of the blood soaking Westbrook’s plant leg.

“Did he buy it?” asked James Harden from the floor of the canoe.

Russell looked at the man on the floor of the canoe. He stayed petty. He stayed paddling.

The man lowered his head to the canoe’s rotten belly again. He felt the tenderness of the soft wood. He knew the vessel wouldn’t last long, but he didn’t say a word about it.

He raised his head again. “Did he buy it, though?”

“We’re not on speaking terms,” said Russ. Still petty. Still paddling.

“Why not? I thought we were in this together.”

“I thought if I shot you, he’d stay.”

“Told you it was a bad plan.” James was sitting up in the canoe now.

Westbrook continued to row with the cracked oar, its shape somewhat reminiscent of the gap between two front teeth and rather useless to the task of moving large quantities of water aside.

“Did he buy it, though?” asked Harden for the third time.

“He shot me in the leg and walked through a f*****g doorway made from light?”

“What does that mean?”

“I don’t think he bought it.”

“Yeah, doesn’t sound like it, so what’s the plan now? I mean, you can’t exactly track someone who teleports.”

“He didn’t teleport.”

“You said he was here and then he disappeared.”

“I said he walked through a f*****g doorway made from light.”

“That was literal?”

“It was a f*****g doorway made from light.”

They stopped talking, and after a while Russ stopped rowing. They drifted in the Gulf of Mexico. They waited for a doorway of light to open up. They, too, were in need of magical assistance in the form of a plot’s deus ex machina.

Instead, dark clouds filled the sky, blotting out the dawn’s light. A bolt of lightning split the towering darkness with a varicose vein’s electric webbing. The winds picked up. The thunder boomed. The rain pounded them without mercy.

Then, as quickly as it had arrived, the storm passed.

“That was tough.”

“We’re not on speaking terms.”

Another storm arrived, as wild and vicious as the first, but, because it wasn’t the first, the impression it left was that of an echo.

“That was tough too.”

“We’re not on speaking terms.”

“The boat’s sinking.”

“We’re not on speaking terms.”

“I’m hungry.”

“Feed off your anger.”

“Anger isn’t material.”

“We’re not on speaking terms.”

“What if we figured out a way to catch fish?”

Russ hit James upside the head with the cracked oar, cracking it some more, making the journey all the tougher. And James, of course, was kind enough to make the obvious observation: “That’s tough.”

A third storm arrived, and this one lifted the canoe into the air. As it did so, the wood rot in the bottom of the canoe gave way and Harden started to slide out the bottom. As he did so, he made a motion with his hands that Russ didn’t quite understand. He was either asking Russ to reel him back into the boat or eating from an imaginary cereal bowl. Russ didn’t lift a finger either way, but he did ask: “Does it taste like anger?” As he tumbled through the busted boat and towards the water, Harden might have yelled back: “I thought we weren’t talking.” He may also have fallen in silence. The wind and the rain and the thunder were all very loud and such details grew slippery when wet. Without a doubt, though, the scene was levels of tough on par with King Lear or anything Shakespeare could imagine. When a hush fell over the water once more, Russell Westbrook remained unchanged and armed to the teeth with a busted-ass canoe paddle.

Very little is known about Russell Westbrook after this juncture in time. He was essentially unstuck and left to his own devices. He could have unraveled the fabric of the universe and no one would have been around to stop him. He was a line from a Paul Simon song. He was an island, and the rock of his pettiness his only friend.

The route he took after parting ways with both Harden and Durant (his lost companions) has been a subject of considerable debate by many a historian across the years. Some have speculated that he was not concerned with matters of geography or chronology. And, unlike Durant, who always kept a journal, Westbrook refused to do so. Still, he managed to report as much information as possible concerning the lands he visited and the happenings going on there and the inhabitants he encountered. Some deficiencies and inaccuracies can be attributed to any number of reasons. For one thing, he survived his odyssey by feeding on anger and pettiness. Those were his only nutrients. And they somehow sustained him, but it’s possible they also warped his worldview, that he lost track of any sense of duty or honor. He talked almost no one, and he never left the Gulf’s salty waters, as if he were attempting to return the human condition into something amphibious and less dependent on the laws and customs that so often tie humanity together. He stirred the waters with his paddle, but he did so with destination in mind, like a straw belonging to a drink no one ever ordered or demanded.

When interviewed about the sights and sounds of his journeys, here are some of his more notable answers:

After the first storm, when James’ lame a** was still with me, we saw some f*****g dinosaurs. Pretty sure there was a t-rex, a giant bear, and maybe a mastodon. No, I really don’t know if that’s anachronistic or not, but I’m telling this story and that’s how it happened. Oh, and there was a flying pterodactyl. Yeah, I know that’s redundant. Also, its wings were loud as f**k. Like in a literal sense I think the world could have been born this way. Yes, I did make a shirt from a dead pterodactyl’s wings. No, I’m not wearing it now. It’s something I would only wear on a special occasion and talking about time travel to a bunch of reporters who can only talk about the past and get the future wrong is not one of those occasions.

Next: It's not easy being Jeff Green

Before the dinosaurs, I’m pretty sure we witnessed the Battle of New Orleans. How do I know? Because there’s no statue in Jackson Square of a triceratops, so I’m pretty sure this s**t that went down was after the dinosaurs. Yeah, but I wasn’t traveling in order. I was more Euro-stepping, which, if you know anything about those Enlightenment motherf*****s’ attachment to linear steps and process doesn’t make a heck ton of sense. Anyway, there was a ton of artillery fire, an ample amount of pettiness, and lots of skirmishing, which is also a dumb f*****g word because it doesn’t stick. Today we would call these skirmishes mass shootings. Did you know more people died in that church recently than on the first day of the Battle of New Orleans? Are we experiencing random violence or living through a goddamn War of 1812 everyday? See my pettiness doesn’t begin and end with just one thing. I’m petty through all-time and in all places. S**t’s been bad for a while. S**t will be bad for a while. I intend to scowl and survive through it all.

You can find the novel in its entirety at You Can’t Eat the Basketball.

Author’s note: This excerpt from With the Memphis Blues Again draws heavily from John M. Barry’s great historical work Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, as well as from The Account: Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca’s Relacion.