Excert from Breakneck: A Katrina Fugue
We reach the outskirts, Chalmette, then Reed Road, to the left Oakwood Shopping Mall, or what’s left ofit, to the right, Sam’s Club, a shattered wreck. Staggering damage on each side of the interstate. This stretch, usually furious with traffic, bears few travelers now; we’re one of the only vehicles on the road.No signs of life. Even back on the inbound twin span, perhaps a dozen cars. Concrete sections knocked out by Katrina have been replaced with dinky metal mesh that hum and creak as out tires speed over them. At any moment I expected our vehicle to plunge into the lake. And the boats and yachts on each shore—mutilated piles of trash.
“Take a look, girls,” I say, “and hope you’ll never see anything like it again.”
They’re looking all right. They had seen enough in Biloxi, but it never ends, and we haven’t even reached the heart of the city.
“I hate Katrina!” Lea mutters.
“So do we all,” I sigh. “Hate isn’t even a big enough word.”
What the Jews in Dachau must have felt about Hitler. Or was Hitler so grandiosely evil that he somehow transcended mere hatred? Impossible to hate what you cannot comprehend. It shifts into a new gear,tenth gear, the realm of Wyrd, fate, destiny, karma.
“Ok, Bee?” I ask and watch her sad little face nod in the rear view.
“It’s a mess. Far worse than TV footage. What about you? Can you do this?”
“No, don’t think I can. Reminds me of some lines in a book I read once: ‘I can’t go on. I’ll go on.’”
And on we forge into no man’s land.
“Look!” Renee cries, pointing frantically to something beyond the windshield, in the sky.
“What?” We all want to see too.
“It’s . . . it’s a pelican!”
Yes it is, clumsily flapping its figcolored wings as it soars over the stunted, jagged remains of trees.
“A good sign at last,” I say. “Well, half good. The pagans believed that a mother pelican fed her offspring with her own blood. She saved the babies but died herself. Catholics take the pelican as an emblem for the Redeemer.
“Where is the redeeming?” Renee asks. “Look at this place.”
We’re now ascending the high rise just before Gentilly Woods. This is usually an exciting moment, for at its pinnacle we’re abruptly treated to a view of the only real skyline between Atlanta and Houston. And sure enough, there it is! Whitney Bank in the Central Business District, once the tallest building in the city, surrounded now by towering sky scrapers. Even from here you can detect thousands of broken windows and patch jobs, but it’s still there, the heart still beats. From this vantage you also get quite a view of the Industrial Canal and Gentilly Woods, one of the last developments in the city proper. There’s an old mall to the right, but it’s in tatters. Ships and wharves in the Canal mangled and crushed as if by a single, unimaginable blow. The aging Howard Johnson’s hotel wrapped, secured with sheets of plywood. Not a single human or animal on the streets.
Bee and Lea have tuned out again. It’s too much for anyone much less children. They’re quibbling over some new semielectronic game, a handheld plastic box with a screen. I never get the name right. “It’s Tamagotchi, Da,” Lea mutters with exasperation, “for the millionth time.” A game I have yet to appreciate or understand. Apparently it gives birth to some little creature who needs tending and nurturing, and players shepherd it through the varied stages of life. From what I gather, the creatures can even die. Who wants a game like that? But they love it; it’s a school fad. Every child in the Blue Ridge owns a Japanese Tamagotchi. Without one, you’re nobody. I fiddled with it one night but gave up in defeat when I realized that each button on the console controlled about fifty different functions. Give me one button for power, one for volume, one for tuning and I’m good to go. Maybe a fourth for bass. Even Renee expresses exasperation at my perplexity, but I notice she never touches the thing either. Once we found Peaches asleep in the back room, the Tamagotchi nestled between her teeth. Oh, the howling. Poor Peaches. Bad dog. Peaches slinking off, tail between her legs, whimpering.
Peaches is the youngest female in the family. I bob in a sea of estrogen.
Getting hungry again, but the next stop is Mom’s house and she’ll have food. No restaurants still standing from the looks. A strange feeling indeed to see what we all take for granted—McDonald’s,Burger King, Hardy’s, Wendy’s—decimated. Rosa told me that the first few months after Katrina were like being stranded in a remote outpost during pioneer days; from what I behold, it’s still that way—except we’re not pioneers. Eighty percent of the city lacks running water and electricity, still; it took Mom six months to get power and water, and cold water at that. Billions of dollars flow into Iraq each day. No mission accomplished. New little terrorists hatched each day clutching not Tamagotchis but hand grenades. Our president, President Katrina.
During the tenth and eleventh centuries Norsemen swept down from the frigid outskirts of the known world in dragon ships. They slipped in, leveled the object of attack, and disappeared—like lightning bolts with all the nubile young women as captives, the young men as slaves. They slaughtered the old and handicapped, anyone deemed useless. Dread saturated the merry old yeomen of EngleLond.The Nordics took Russia, became the first czars. They pushed into Lombardy, acclimated, became Normans.They claimed Greenland and Iceland as their own and even founded a colony in Vineland way before Columbus. Vikings! Imagine. Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas. Where’d they all come from? Had they been huddled like cock roaches in the hive of Scandinavia?
History can’t be true. William the Conqueror, a Viking? Sorting through the tribes, the barbarians, is like working a jig saw puzzle with infinite pieces.
We take the Franklin Avenue exit into the older, most venerable section of Gentilly. My eyes cannot evade the houses below, what’s left of them, roofless, shattered, some altogether collapsed, some still bearing the weight of massive trees. The musty scent of mold begins to filter in through the air conditioning vents as we approach the familiar red light that will lead us onto the avenue. Our eyes burn and water. The light is not working, its pole uprooted and bent precariously over the neutral ground. I cruise slowly in the direction of the lake trying to absorb what cannot be absorbed. Houses I’ve known all my life, one after another, unfit for habitation. Water marks above the windows. Practically nothing spared. FEMA and SPCA hieroglyphics sprayed onto whatever flat surfaces of wall remain. I’m trying not to lose it again—too much defeat on this journey—but I can’t help myself and release a prolonged, angry wail.
“Da?” Bee says.
I can hardly speak but manage an “I’m ok, little girl, I’m ok . . . just a little overwhelmed. It’s ok, really.”
And we press on. Past my old junior high school, a concrete fortress, now boarded up and dead. Passed the Lutheran Church, its massive crucifix splattered all over the front lawn. Past the tiny businesses—a 1950s pharmacy, barber shop, hardware store, a pool hall, a corner bar—all trashed beyond repair. Just yesterday I stood before the wooden counter of that hardware store, “Jimmy’s,” and bought exactly twentyseven 8-gauge screws for my father who was working on some project. Screws were not prepackaged then. Mr. Jimmy counted them out one by one from a small wooden crate.
Now the Methodist Church at the corner where we turn for Mom’s. Taken over by FEMA as one of its local headquarters. We still haven’t spotted a soul. No one lives here now. The first block of Wisteria Street seems, at first glance, somewhat normal. A closer look reveals that at least half of the houses have been gutted. A few blocks down in the other direction, at St. James Major Catholic Church, several priests were found drowned, floating in bilge near the altar. The street itself is torn up, buckled, shifted toward the left sidewalk. We do finally come across a car or two and a few people hauling trash from one house. They nod as we pass, and we nod. I have become an interloper in my own home town, a sightseer, a tourist. Do I only imagine the Rumi volume almost bent in half poking from the back pocket of one young man hauling out a television coated with mold? I’d almost forgotten about Rumi.
Forgetting may be the only redemption.
Mom’s block. From here you can usually spot her metal awnings, but they were twisted and mangled by Katrina and literally blown off the house. More of the same grass and tree slaughter. Everything looks gray and jaundiced. But as we pull into the driveway I note that the cherry tree to the right and the age-old poinsettia bush to the left still stand proud, as if nothing had happened. What happy sights! Scars everywhere, but the house looks solid, and I can’t wait to turn the doorknob and hear the tingle of tiny bells attached to it. Actually, the girls want this privilege. They will remember the sound of those bells forever.
The little things that make you you are those least relevant.
Mom will probably be asleep in her rocker up front. That has become the case in recent years.
“I can’t wait to smell Gam’s house,” Lea gushes. “I love that smell.”
“Hold on, girls,” I say. “I haven’t turned off the ignition yet. Grab whatever you want to take in right now.”
“Should we unload?” asks Renee.
“Let’s give it a while,” I say. “I need a break, some coffee, something to eat. I know she’s got something. I hope it’s that tuna salad.”
“Daddy was a tuna fish in another life!” Bee cries, always waiting for the moment.
“And now I’m just a pair of ragged claws,” I laugh.
“T.S. Eliot, Paw. You’re quoting a lot lately. Why is that?”
“Everything’s already been said.”
We twist and slide out of the XTerra.Its sizzling engine pops, sighs, shuts down for a rest like an exhausted mule. We’re parked right beside Mom’s Hyundai, which she told me had acquired no less than a dozen flat tires in the past few months from nails scattered all over the streets of the city, nails that once held houses together. Or pinned Jesus to the cross.
Then the tintinnabulation of the bells. How splendid to turn the knob of a door you’ve known since childhood, a door that often appears in your dreams. The ancients were not so off the mark to consign each household object its own special god. I imagine the god of this door as some sprightly, smiling old coot with uniform and epaulettes, lavish with his “good evening’s” and “thank you’s.”
“You all go ahead,” I say, “I want to take a look at the condition of the yard.” Renee and the girls file in and I hear Bee and Lea screech as they zoom for the living room. There will be lots of hugs and kisses. I walk back toward the old rusted fence mostly to check on my mother’s giant bay leaf tree. In the old days we had a moldy old fig tree that bore prodigious fruit. I spent many an hour perched in its branches, dreaming, wasting time. That tree figures only in memory now, but the bay leaf—Mom says it suddenly sprang ex nihilo of its own accord—if the bay leaf thrives, I will take it as an omen. And sure enough, behind the garage and carport, it still towers above my head, lush, aromatic,its dark green leaves firm and robust. I break off half a leaf and suck in its essence.
Ah, “thank you,” I tell the tree, “thank you.”
The four oclock bushes that line the wire fence tell a different story. Scraggly, half dead, many just missing. The grass has that familiar stale, dehydrated look. The sweet olive over to the side has a branch or two missing but looks ok. One weathered elm had to come down altogether, a job one of Mom’s surviving neighbors took upon himself. Kevin next door. Mom says he comes and goes, was stranded in Baton Rouge for months.
I glance back at the house. Definite evidence of attack. The weather boards are loose in spots, the gutter spouts dangling, the paint chalky with ashlike bruises. Mom says when she got back from Virginia the inside was filthy. Katrina had swept dirt and dust between window and door cracks throughout the rooms. Bob, Rosa’s daughter’s fiancée, lugged the fetid refrigerator down the back stairs and into the yard. The insides were so foul that Bob and Liz sealed it off with rolls and rolls of duct tape. A few months later, when some city services were restored, trash men hauled it away to one of the appliance dump sites, each of which rose nearly fifteen feet above ground. Every refrigerator in New Orleans wound up in one of those mounds of refuse.
“Oh, this is good,” I gush, slurping up the tuna as olive oil drips down my chin.
Renee, Bee and Lea are also feasting. There’s French bread, butter, slices of Creole tomatoes, a cheese cake and lady fingers for Lea.
“Only one store open in the entire neighborhood,” Mom says. “The shelves are picked clean by five every day. Got to get there early. Would you girls like to watch some old movies?”
Bee and Lea glance at each other, smile devilishly. The moment they’ve dreaded. My mother’s collection of Shirley Temple. Old deteriorated VHS tapes. Lots of dubs too with no volume and grainy video. The girls despise Shirley Temple. Mom has actually watched the movies over and over again for decades.
“Can we go upstairs, Gam?” they ask.
They can’t wait to pirute through the many bureau drawers and closets around the house. My mother has stuffed every nook with every conceivable item from the 1950s on. She throws nothing away. The house is full of stuff, most of it worthless except to Rosa and me, but every now and then . . . last year I found an old wooden Howdy Doody marionette in pristine condition. Mine as a kid. I had to transport it back to Virginia, just had to. I too throw nothing away. In fact, the plan is for Renee and the girls to fly back before I leave so I can pack the car with books and antiques I had stored years ago in the garage.We’re all afraid another Katrina will come along and wipe out what it missed the first time. Katrina has staked out our minds. The psychologists call is posttraumatic shock. We will never free ourselves unless our souls can somehow shrug it off, clap their hands and sing.
The house feels cozy, friendly and in order, and Mom seems happy enough. Mom is a family anomaly,cheerful by nature. How she got stuck in a family with chromosomes programmed for scowling,foreboding, worry and desuetude is beyond me. Bee’s temperament resembles Mom’s but only on the surface; Bee’s inner life is torrential. Lea twirls and sweats with the dervishes.
This just in: within fifty years all seafood may become extinct. We ransack the seas as we once slaughtered buffalo.
In a future life I will never be a tuna fish.