Monday, September 05, 2005

The least we can do

A linewoman is in charge of the dozen linemen who skitter up and down our street like angry bald ants. Her name is Cindy. Built like a fireplug with ruddy, unkempt hair he voice caries like thunder off the hot asphalt. She brought a crew down from Duluth, Minnesota. They drove six trucks fourteen hundred miles to our blacked-out and balmy shores. Linewoman Cindy says they left two days before Katrina took us in her arms. Then sat in Memphis, waiting for orders, until Thursday. And they have been in this fresh hell ever since.

Linewoman Cindy spent the last three nights vomiting into a bucket. This crew has repaired the fallout from eight or nine "bad ones," but all the other cleanups paled next to the dance of Lady Katrina. After a 16 hour shift, they sleep (or try to sleep) on hard wooden cots, inside a rotting mildewed tent. There are no separate areas for women. No showers. No phones or lights. What little breeze they get is laden with the scents from row upon row of port-o-lets that flank their make-shift campsite.

Linewoman Cindy says they don't know if they'll get fed today. On Friday, a runner brought a few bags of damp, rotting sandwiches. Saturday there was no runner. And they only ate after they had done their full shift.

I won't let that happen, today.

An hour later I have sixty dollars worth of Domino's pizza and three iced-down cases of bottled water lined up on the bumper of one of the Minnesota Power trucks. I wave down Linewoman Cindy and let her know I've brought lunch.

One by one, the linemen amble over, collect a few pieces, and give nod. Some put fists full of ice down the back of their shirts. Others rub water on their scalps and neck. They usually give me a wet handshake and thank me.

Once everyone else has left, Linewoman Cindy gives me a hug. Her fingers holding onto my back. Both of us perspiring in the late noon sun.

I tell her we don't have any extra beds, but there is plenty of floor space at my parent's house. And we have hot water. They're welcomed to join us tonight. I give her directions to our house. They can take a shower for the first time since they've been in town.

Linewoman Cindy's eyes fill with tears. She says that is the sweetest thing anyone has said to her since they left their homes. Nine days ago. We're rescuing each other, she says.

It's the least we can do, I say.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

A Tormet Darkly

As the night finds us, we're taunted by our first glimpse of neighboring street lights. The horizon to the north east is alive with cheers and laughter as dozens of people are lofted back into the embrace of light and air conditioning. The few remaining trees glow in a mask of sodium vapor lamps.

The distribution center at the high school must be lit. One or two blocks around it have been brought back to the grid. The linesmen have started to spiral out in an ever widening gyre.

Won't be long. It is a game of inches, now. Creeping toward power. House by house. But the darkness of our block torments us.

Better days

I couldn't take the idleness at Aunt Judy's. I hadn't sat still that long since the storm. I wasn't used to the quiet. Or the luxuries. Things like clean water and air conditioning. I felt like I was getting soft. Taking advantage of Judy while my parents and grandparents pull together the broken pieces of their lives. And I have this nagging voice whispering inches from my ear: Get ice. Get water. Get food.

So I kiss the kids, hugs my beloved bride, and hit the road, early. Have to do something. Have to obey the compulsion. Have to act. Ice. Water. Food.

On the drive through the fetid remains of Gulfport, I abruptly notice something. An alien in the sun. An angel. I'm actually under a red light. A real, live, working red light! There's power to the intersection. There is electricity coming from somewhere. People are obeying traffic laws. We are inching out the stone age, one utility at a time. RED LIGHTS! Who would have thought I'd be happy to see one? I love this first red light. I watch it shrink in the rear view. Fascinated by its simplicity. Its single-minded devotion. The herald of more to come. I'd kiss it. If I could. With tongue.

On the way to my father's house, I stop by the nearest supply site. Armed troops, still. Fatigues and guns and sun-baked recruits barely out of the teens shuttled here to save what is left of our lives. They help me appease the voice. Ice. Water. And food. Fill the trunk, thank the soldiers, and roll home to divvy up the spoils between parents and my grand parents.

Everyone is sweating. Everyone is tired. This is the new life. But we are together in our misery.

And better days are coming. We see them down the street. In the form of foreign power company trucks. Fat with linemen and fresh power-poles. Any day now, we will have electricity. Then air conditioning. Then clean water. And real food. And the kids will return to school. And the stores will re-open. And the restaurants. And the malls. And all the roads will be repaired. We see it down the street. Better days.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Back from the bottom

The trip to Hattiesburg was notable only because of the unmistakable presence of the military. Armored trucks. Jeeps. Hummers. Personell carriers. With almost as much hardware flying overhead, heading to Kessler and Gulfport International. An invasion of relief creeping south. And armed soldiers taking the place of every traffic light. By armed I mean: machine guns slung across their backs. Full on martial law as far as the eye can see.

Fortunately they all let me pass and I found my way to Aunt Judy's house, where I slept the sleep of the dead for nearly twelve hours.

In the morning, Cindy and Judy and Terry and Logan filled the van with tools and supplies, then headed to Gulfport, to help Glenda. They left me with the kids. We spent hours hugging and playing. I soaked up the air conditioner. And caught up on the news. The rest of the day was utterly uneventful. Completely boring. Stress-less. Just what I needed to decompress.

I've collected some thoughts today. Just ideas and events that I want to write down before I lose them:
  • I watched TV today and if there is anything I could tell the world, it is this: I am not a victim of Katrina. I am not an evacuee. I do not want a "hand out." I am a single survivor among hundreds of thousands, if not millions. I only want aide enough to get some normalcy in my life, for me and my family. Once we're able to fend for ourselves, we will all be fine. In the meanwhile I'm thankful for anything and everything that helps us recover any piece of our life.

  • I saw New Orleans on the news. I saw the "victims" as they sat there and waited to be rescued. Thousands upon thousands of able-bodied people screaming for hours that they wanted food. They wanted water. They wanted somebody to come take them away. They blamed the city for not being ready. They blamed the government for not being prepared. They blamed the military for taking too long. Rather than doing anything for themselves, they spent hours doing nothing but placing blame and demanding help.

  • If there is one other thing I can tell the world: New Orleans is an embarrassment to me. I do not know anyone like the people there that you are constantly seeing on the television. I know and have met hundreds and thousands of people since the storm who are doing everything they can for themselves. The people I know have not stopped to ask for help. They do not blame anyone for what happened to them. They do not expect anyone to prop them up. And I wish you could see the real face of the other survivors. We are all embarrassed by what you see and we are sorry that the media has focused their constant attention on on such a mis-characterization of the people affected by Katrina. Please don't put us in the same light with them. We aren't cut from the same cloth as those folks.

  • I forgot to mention my Wound Of The Day, yesterday. I crushed most of my fingers. We were taking supplies to my grandparents and I was manually closing the garage door (which tells our neighbors that we are not home) and I didn't realize the gaps between the individual pieces of the door were going to snap closed as I lowered the door. I heard the sound of my fingers crunching like wet pieces of celery. And then the pain buckled my knees. Profanity not fit for writing came spewed from my mouth. And I cried out for my father to save me. Pleaded for him to push the door up. To free me from the teeth that were biting into my fingers. But it was my mother who rescued me. Dad never even turned around to see what was happening. Likely the deaf old man didn't hear my anguish. But Mom did. Even though I didn't call her. And she didn't let me forgot who rescued me and who ignored me, for hours. In the car, I told her I thought all my fingernails were going to come off (from the look of the blood bruises I could see forming. ) She thought I was babbling about having to cut off all my fingers And she won't let me live that down, either.

  • I try not to mention how angry I really am. If it seeps through into my writings, I apologize. But, I'm constantly beating myself. Constantly angry. And not just because of the lack of sleep and lack of excitement. A week ago, I left behind a four bed room house with a full basement and a six figure income. Not quite the move I thought it would be. Not by a long shot. I put off relocating for more than two years. Why didn't I wait one more week? I expected to give up a few of the amenities of living in Atlanta, but I didn't expect to be reduced to living in the middle ages. Let me summarize this way: DAMN! DAMN! DAMN!

  • The President took a tour of the Coast, the day after we saw the helicopters. Nice of him to take time out from his victories in Iraq to come see the remains of our battles with Katrina. He spends a billion dollars a week to bring democracy to the Middle East. I'm very interested to see what he can do to bring relief to the Gulf Coast. I hope he seizes the opportunity and devotes as much time and effort to us as he has the citizens of Iraq.

  • Jason and Mel are going to Alabama, to visit relatives there for a while. Aside from the time he helped keep me alive on Dad's roof and some help he gave on Doe's roof, we haven't seen them much. I think they're with Mel's mother.

  • I really have no idea what is going on with Cindy. What she is thinking. What she wants to do. She's asked me for answers a couple of times. I have none. Nothing other than constantly moving toward a normal life for us and the kids. I don't know what it will take to get us there, but that's what I want to do. I don't have to mention who is responsible for our move down here, who hounded me for two years to leave Atlanta.
I'm going to fix dinner for the kids, wait for Cindy to come home, and see where we are going from here. Then I'm going to sleep, again, and try to mentally prepare for the adventures to come.

I hope it can only go up from here. If I haven't seen the bottom, yet, I don't want to.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Before the curfew

I make it to Glenda's in fear of the damn curfew. Didn't sit down to eat any of the food Mom had ready for us. Barely had time to pack.

The sun starting to sink behind the horizon, but I have to check on Glenda and let her know the plan.

I was supposed to be there earlier today. I know she's disappointed. She doesn't have anybody with her. Lost everything. All alone in the ruins of her life. She is shriven by the heat and exhaustion. I can see the bones of her face. Her hair matted down. The faint uncertainty in her steps. The weakness of her hug.

I try to explain about the trip to Louisiana and how I've been tending to my grandparents. I don't know how much it takes the edge off. She doesn't really look at me when I tell her I'm heading back to see Cindy and the kids, just for a few days.

She asks me to try to pull up some carpet with her. The last room in the house. The one Dad and I didn't touch. I told her it was because the cats were in there. I'm allergic to them.

But we were just too tired. We could barely lift our arms that day in her. But then the explosion of filth from the refrigerator sapped what little reserve we had been holding onto.

Back in that room, I'm not much stronger than she is, now. I don't know how much I even try. I've been running all week. Barely slept. The endless heat. The lack of real food. And no end in sight.

I almost think I'm asleep right now.

And I can't do it.

Can't even make a single cut in the rug.

Glenda pulls. And I try some more. There's nothing left. I can't draw the crescent knife through the soggy carpet. Either the blade is too dull, or I'm just not strong enough. She sighs, curses softly, and brings me another knife. One her David had used on his carpet, she says, Which means if it doesn't work, it is my fault. Not the knife.

And I can't do it.

The carpet refuses to be cut.

She sighs at my failure. But says nothing.

I don't know if she thinks I'm faking it. Trying to get out of here without helping. I don't have the strength to even defend myself, so I do not even try.

We don't look at each other as I walk to the front of the house. Mumbling something about plans for Monday. She is behind me as I make for the door. Both of us dragging and short of breath.

It's all bullshit. I know she needs me to help her. She won't ask. She never does. But I feel the night coming on the horizon. The panic rising behind my eyes. Feel five days of constant battle bend my bones. Feel her disappointment. The paleness of my own situation compared to hers. The weight of her crumbling house leaning against us. Just the two of us. And I'm the one leaving her to it. By herself. It shouldn't be this way. All bullshit. And I'm the one doing it. She won't say any of it. Just suffers through it. Cursing me with her silence.

I'm almost out the door, when I pull out the money. A thousand dollars.

She sees it as I turn to her. Stops and looks at me. A new anger in her eyes.

"Oh, no! No!" she says. Shaking her face.

I start counting out twenties.

"No, Jon!"

But Cindy told me, earlier. Glenda didn't have much left. We're all in the same situation: conditioned to having only $20 in our pockets, thanks to ATMs and debit cards. So I borrowed some from my father.


I fold half and put it in my pocket. Then I look at her.

Her jaw is clenched. Lips pinched tight. Eyes wide and staring at me.

I step in closer. Reach down and pull up her hand.

She takes in a breath. Finding words to stop this.

I put the money in her hand and close her fingers around it.

Step in closer while she holds it. Still silent. Still thinking what she wants to say.

"Take it, Glenda. Please. I don't want to beg." I whisper.

I feel the tears on my neck and pull her closer to me.

"Jon," she says.

I hold her with what little strength I have left. Trying to blink my eyes dry.

"We will all be fine," I say.




"I promise, Glenda. We'll take care of you. Please, let me do this."

She finally breathes. And puts her arms around my neck. The fight rushing out of her in deep, pained sighs.

I don't know how long it lasts. I don't how many of the tears are mine.

Finally, she says. "You have to go. Before the curfew."

I'll be back.

Good neighbors

As we drive down Dad's street, slowly cruising past the remains of our neighbors, honking and waving, a muffled hallelujah follows in our wake. It is like The Second Coming on top of Mardis Gras on top of Christmas. People run up to us as we get out of the cars. Everyone smiling, their eyes lit up, holding their breath like their birthday cake is being lit. We throw open the trunks and they come unglued. Everyone is shouting and clapping and thanking us and shaking my father's hand and telling us how much they appreciate what we've done. How they were running on fumes. How they'll bring us dinner tonight. How they'll go with us on the next run. How they can't believe all the gas we were able to get.

And my father, who paid for every drop, doesn't accept a single cent from anyone. He pushes their money back to them and politely declines. He says not to worry about it. He doesn't need to be paid. This is what neighbors do, he says. Shakes his head every time somebody pulls out money. No, thank you. He won't have it. Not when people need money for other things like rebuilding or paying for food once the donations dry up and the jobs are all gone.

I know The Old Man. Their smiles are all he wants. To know that he made a difference in their lives. For them and their children. Every time he steps out of his house, they'll be thanking him for weeks. And he knows if he ever needs anything, they will be there to help. Money can't buy that.

When everything is handed out and everyone has gone back to their homes to share the good news, Dad puts his arm around me. Squeezes my shoulder with one old, tanned hand and looks at me. "You done good, kiddo," he says. "You done real good."

And we go find Mom. She'll have something cooked for us. The tubs will be filled. There will be tall, cold glasses of sweat tea. And she probably has the floor cleared so I can collapse.

But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.

Minor setback

Just as we're pulling off the Interstate, only five miles from home and still giddy from the thrill of the hunt for fuel, I notice I have cell coverage again.

A week ago, I was wrapping up my paperwork for the new job, meeting new faces, and saying, "See you when this Katrina thang blows through."

It has been seven eternities since then. I didn't even think about work, until I saw those bars on my phone.

I know from the neighbors that the Copa and the Grand in Gulfport were destroyed. I'm sure my casino didn't fair much better, if not worse.

But I try the 800 number my mother gave me for their Hurricane Hotline. And nearly plow off the road when a friendly voice answers after the second ring.

Like so many other events since the storm, the conversation blurs until only the core ideas remains in my head:

The casino is nearly destroyed. Won't be operational for months. If not years. I'm not in their database. (Monday, August 29th, the day Katrina wiped the Coast from the face of the earth, was supposed to be my first day.) I didn't go to orientation, so I was never flagged as employee. They have no record of me. Would not have even checked on me, if I hadn't called them. For all intents and purposes, I'm not really an employee.

But the executives are starting to gather in Biloxi, and the Hurricane Hotline folks will pass along my information.

Somebody will contact me.


In the future.


This isn't good, I think. Something of a minor setup. And that's all the thought I give it. For now.

My family is alive, I tell myself. My parents have a house. My grandparents have a house. My brother has a house. We have food. We have ice. And now we have gasoline. That is all I need to bring the grin back to my face.

The Quest

After three days of generator power, we are nearly out of gasoline. We do not have enough to make it through the rest of the night. We've even "borrowed" some from my Grandfather last night. He won't have enough to make it through another day, either. If I haven't mentioned it before, the "average" wait in line for gasoline is reportedly 14 hours. To get fuel locally, people park their cars over night, and generally receive their $20 worth by noon the next day. And (needless to say) gas prices these days are somewhere close to $3.50/galon.

Neither my father, nor I have any intentions of sitting in any line for 14 hours. And $20 ain't gonna cut it. We're going to get enough gas for ourselves, my grandparents, and all the neighbors. So we've been planning us a little road trip. Into the heart of Louisiana.

Generally speaking, gas is cheap in Louisiana. Raw materials are usually gathered in The Gulf, shipped only a few miles to the shore, and processed at local refineries by cheap local labor. Aside from New Orleans and Slidell, Louisiana was relatively spared by Katrina. So our theory is this: if we drive a couple of hours into its belly, we'll eventually find the motherload.

My father and I load up both of his cars with ten empty five-gallon containers in each trunk, say our goodbyes, and set out for I-10, heading West, toward the remains of New Orleans. We have a pair of walkie talkies and keep in touch, sweating in the early afternoon sun, keeping our air conditioners quiet to conserve fuel, but our stereos are cranked and we're privately celebrating the eventual outcome of our safari.

After 30 minutes, we pass Slidell, LA. It's blackened by the destruction and the one or two gas stations we see from the interstate are swarmed by lines which stretch as far as we can see before we shoot past them.

After 45 minutes, we pass the exits which are supposed to lead into New Orleans. They're all barricaded. Nobody is going in. But there is an exodus of people evacuating. A tired, desperate storm of vehicles nearly buckled from the weight strapped to every available flat surface. An armada of families who salvaged what they could and hit the road, bound for greener pastures.

After an hour, we're in the thick of evacuee traffic going to Baton Rogue, or Texas, for further. Our progress grinds to just about 20MPH and we find ourselves passing hordes of military vehicles and utility trucks. As we creep past the open exits, we continue to see endless flocks of locals clustering around their neighborhood gas stations. Cars by the hundreds, lining the roads. No restaurants are open. No other stores are open. Everything is dark, unpowered. Nothing for us here. So we continue our quest, heading ever west.

An hour and a half after we started, we finally begin to see signs of power. There are open stores. The lines have begun to shrink. The madness slows. There is almost an air of normalcy as we see traffic vanish and fewer people waiting vulture-like for supplies.

Barely ten miles from Baton Rogue, we exit the interstate and shoot to the nearest station. We're tenth & eleventh in line.

We get out. Stretch our legs. And hug. Smiling like drunken fools and patting each other on the back. We did it. We found our treasure. Our golden goose. Not even two hours from the house. We'll be home in time for dinner!

Maybe twenty minutes later, we're fueling up. The station is sorry to tell us that they have imposed a 25 gallon limit. We grin likevillage idiots. 25 gallons each may as well be the motherload. It's 500% more than we'd get at home.

Almost enraptured, each of us fills half (5 out of 10) of our five-gallon cans, grab forty dollars worth of junk food, and find out there's another station less than a mile up the road. But, we're told with a frown, we'd be limited to 25 gallons there, too. Our grins grow even wider.

At the next station, we're fifth and sixth in line. We only wait 10 minutes before topping off all our cans and our cars and hitting the road.

The cars drive completely differently with 50 extra gallons weighing down their ass end. But we don't care. We roll up the windows and bask in the well-deserved chill of sweet sweet AC. Feeling like conquering warriors. Destined to return with the holy grail in our hands. Fuel. Fuel. Fuel. Enough gas to last everyone for another 5 days.

If we have to, we'll do it again next week. And the week after. As long as it takes. God willing, nothing can stop us from reclaiming our lives, now.

Surprise. Surprise.

On the ride home, the unexpected: my cell phone rings. It is Cindy. My wife and children are safe. I haven't heard their voices since Tuesday. Only four days ago. Feels like four weeks. My world is upside down. I can't believe I'm talking to her on my cell. Never thought to even check it for signal. She's doing most of the talking. I'm silent.And numb.

Hattiesburg has power again. She's spent the past couple of days standing in lines. Getting supplies. Getting gas for all the cars. Uncle Terry has already started off on another run (he drives big rigs all cross countries.) Aunt Judy is back to being a realtor, riding the wake of the sudden real estate explosion.

Cindy asks what to do. Should come down to the Coast? She can't keep them up there for weeks. Doesn't want to impose on the family. But doesn't know what to do. They're running out of cash, too. Debit cards are useless. Nobody will take a check. The banks are all closed. What should she do? Where will we go?

I'm still numb. I've been juggling the pieces of my parents chaos and trying to fend for my grandparents since the moment I left Hattiesburg. But now my own life comes falling back to earth. Liam had only been in school for one week, before the storm. Cindy hadn't even started looking for a nursing job. Where would Meg go to pre-k, now? New house? My new job? Would any of those dreams survive?

I can't think about any of it. Can't talk about it. I tell Cindy I'm okay, everyone is okay, and I'll see her tonight. I'll get some money and drive back to Hattiesburg to see her and the children. And we'll figure out what to do. We'll make something work.

Supplied by Arkansas

With a full belly, I head to the middle school for another supply of ice and water. There are new troops handing out the rations. And there is now a maze of squating pallets for the car to navigate past.

MREs? they ask?

Yes, please! Kosher ones, if you have them?

A case goes in the back. The Kosher ones taste better. Half will go to my grandparents.

Water? they ask?

Yes, two, please.

Instead of two gallons, two cases of bottled water go in the back. Half will go to my grandparents.

Ice? they ask?

Yes, two, please.

Instead of two bags, they begin to fill my trunk until they can barely close it. Half will go to my grandparents.

So, while I'm waiting, I talk to the troops.

Hey, man, thank you! Thank you for coming. Sorry for the heat and humidity. But we really appreciate everything you're doing for us.

No problem, sir. We're glad to be here with you.

Where were you before this?

We're National Guard Reserve, from Arkansas. They called up our unit on Tuesday, and we made it down last night.

Thank you,guys! Thank you, so much.

No problem, sir. Come back when you need more.

And I drive off, bordering on tears and choking up at the unparalleled show of generosity these kids are giving us. A couple of days ago they were safe at their home in Arkansas. And now they're down in the pit of South Hell, dressed in long-sleeved, long-pants camos. Without power and away from their families. Trapped like the rest of us Gulf rats.

And they're smiling as they hand me the sole means of supplies my family and my grandparents may see for weeks or months.

I fight back the tears and wipe my nose. This damn storm, I think. Look at what it has done to me. It's turning me into a blubbering idiot.

Thank you! Thank you, for sending those boys from Arkansas. Another godsend.

The smallest improvements

When I return from my now-routine trip to the supply lines, Dad has a new generator. And a fresh pizza!

The engine is an upgrade from Walker's Rent-All. Dad went over after I left and traded in the old one, plus three hundred dollars, for a new modern unit. This one will hold 10 hours of gas and we can power a window-unit (air conditioner!) without over heating. No more bi-hourly trips to refill the dinosaur! And cold air tonight, if I don't mind sleeping in the same room with my father and his Thunder God snoring.

The pizza came from Dominoes. $10 per pie and worth every cent. The manager put everyone who showed up to work. Fired up the ovens and accepted only cash. One of the kids was walking down our street with an arm full of large pepperonis when Dad saw him. He was sold out by the time he made it to the end of the road and headed back for another run. For the first time since the storm, we're eating fast food, licking the grease off our fingers, and talking about how long it will take to get a window unit setup in Dad's room.

The smallest improvements are a godsend. The simplest trappings of civilization give us fresh hope.

This false ghost

When sleep has avoided you for the better part of six days, time and space conspire to play naughty tricks on your feeble brain. All night I keep trying to prove to myself that I'm not dead. Looking for signs that I survived the storm and I'm not lodged in some dank corner of hell.

On my parents floor, sweating constantly and rolling in slow angry circles, I think I am in a coffin. I don't believe the night is real. I don't think I should be so hot. So tired. So uncomfortable. The fan spews nothing but hot air. I feel my pulse throbbing in my neck. I can't breathe in this coffin. The air is dying, too. There isn't enough oxygen and it weighs on my chest like a drowned corpse. The room is stifling. It thrums with the constant moan of a gas-powered generator. The dry whispers of the lazy fan. I'm either dead or dying and they've already buried me. I can't find a way out, until I sit up and squint at my hands, wipe off my face and try to re-arrange my pillows for the thousandth time. Alive or dead, I suffer and repented and try to crawl out of the coffin all night.

Every two hours I snap out of the waking nightmare, roused by the abrupt silence of the house, and limp outside to fill the engine. Sometimes I hear my father snoring in the other room. Unshaken by the heat and anger. I'm jealous of his slumber. Angered that I can't find the same genuine bliss.

So I curl up under a sweat-soaked bed sheet and lapse back into the delirium. Drift back into the howling coffin of insomnia. My eyes are closed but I can feel the room pressing down on me. The hard floor lurching against my spine. The carpet wet with perspiration. I welcome the dawn and the new burden of recovery. At least it will be real. Unlike this false ghost of sleep that taunts me with each heartbeat.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Our laughter

The good news: I'm not sweating. For the first time in what feels like a decade, I'm clean and dry. The bad news: I'm biting on a rag, clenching my jaw like a fist while my mother digs a huge shard of glass out of the bottom of my right foot.

It happened after I trekked home from Glenda's house. I made the waaaaaaay stupid mistake of walking around my parent's yard without any shoes. I hopped off of the deck in the back and landed on what feels like a seven inch glass dagger. Once again, I hobbled into the front room, whimpering like a lost puppy, shouting for my mother to come and rescue me. Again. It's like a damn daily event.

Anyway, Mom has a set of tweezers in one hand and a pair of pliers in the other. She literally pulls open the wound with the pliers and tries to get a grip on the glass with the tweezers. She's able to pull it out a couple of millimeters before the ancient lizard part of my brain gives into the searing pain and I pull away from her, gulping in a lung full of air, wiping back the tears.

The air is cool. The rag I've been chewing is cold against my teeth. Mom swears she's being as gentle as possible and slowly pulls my foot back into the light of a Coleman. Just as she starts to get another grip on the hunk of glass, I see something buzzing over the horizon. Something black and oddly angled, like a ceramic dragonfly. It gets joined by three other dark objects that drift quickly in its wake. Mom starts to draw out the glass. The objects edge closer. I'm holding my breath again. Vision going white as the pain creeps up behind my eyes. And then I'm able to see the deep green underbelly of the lead helicopter followed by the deep black military units in formation around it. Somewhere, I feel the pain weeping out of my foot. Just over the trees, has to be near the middle school where I've been picking up relief, the helicopters dip down lower and begin to circle. It's almost like a resounding, sickening pop as the glass comes out. The world goes gray.

I come out of it as Mom yells for my father to come see what is happening over by the school. Then she starts taping up my wound. But the helicopters have spun up and out of site before The Old Man comes calling. He admires Mom's handiwork and eyeballs the hunk of agony she dislodged.

Now, he says, you won't have any excuses, tomorrow.

The hum of rotor blades dies out long before our laughter.

Holding it together

Judy (who was wandering through yards) meets everyone. Hears their story. Tells her own. Then suggests we get to Glenda's house before she needs to leave.

Glenda thinks she is ready.

She does a remarkable job of keeping herself collected as we brave the remains of her house. Almost a week since she has been home. Certainly not how she remembers it. Creeping room to room. Talking to the cats. Eyeballing the wreckage. The smell of new mold. Shaking our heads at everything below the flood line. Trying to figure out what was upturned by Katrina vs. what was Dad and I disturbed. Like the table and chairs. I didn't touch them, but the storm did. Swirled the dining set the same rising waters that tipped the 'fridge. Glenda's whole life reduced to a ruined puzzle.

To help, we make soothing small talk. Trying to soften the air. And Glenda keeps it together.

Judy walks around and absorbs what she can, for a while. But she has to leave before dark. There's a curfew and she doesn't want to be caught by it. She leaves all the supplies for Glenda and makes her escape.

I'll have to leave, soon. The curfew also applies to me. But with Judy gone, Glenda has taken to stuffing trash bags with debris and is starting to register the extent of the damage. I stay until dark swallows the house. What is left of her house. She'd do it for me.

I can tell she is thinking about her antiques by the way she avoids them for other obvious wreckage like pillows and bloated magazines. I'm holding the bag, trying to say something encouraging. But I'm only good at fixing computers and lying to myself about my future.

After the second bag, she finds Liam's empty fishbowl. I tell her the story about the 'fridge and we agree to let him know that Jupiter swam away in the falling water, to find a new home in the wild.

After the third bag, Glenda takes a deep breath. Holds it in her chest. She has found her bible. Her old brown family bible. Slick with swamp water. The first page has her family tree on it. Goes back four generations, at least. She closes it before I see any more. Sighs. Looks at me. Sighs, again.

For a moment, I think I'm going to have to say something from an episode of Oprah. I would fail miserably. I would say something terribly inappropriate and likely cause my mother-in-law to have an abrupt stroke and died in my fatigued, sweaty arms.

But Glenda holds it together. Starts breathing regularly. And quietly places her bible on the top of the drying remains of her antique piano.

After three more bulging garbage bags are put to rest in the graveyard of Glenda's front yard, I think we are going to be fine. Until she comes out of her guest room, carrying something in her arms, saying: Oh, Jon. Oh, Jon.

The dripping bundle in her arms is a hand woven blanket.

Oh, Jon. Oh, Jon.

She's shaking her head and dropping large tears onto me as I put my arms around her neck.

My mother made this, Jon. My mother.

I just hold her. I think I manage to say: I'll fix it, Glenda. I can fix it for you.

There's more, but it bleeds together into a balmy memory of her weeping, my whispering that I'd do everything it takes to fix it, and the cold water from the blanket trailing down my legs before I stuff it into a trash bag and drive it home to see if my mother can wash the storm out of it.

Glenda's surprise

When we reach her street, Glenda balks. Doesn't want to go into her house. Sees the looming piles of carpet that Dad & I dragged onto her lawn. Sees the new mounds of her neighbors' ruins heaped on every curb. Says she wants to see David & Ricky, her neighbors, first.

Gives her a few more minutes to compose herself, I think.

But she's never going to be ready.

And then it is a big crash of trembling, sweaty bodies as David and Ricky and Carla (friend) and Phyllis (friend) and Glenda and I come together in a dank mound of hugs and tears and stuttered have comments about love and god and still having each other.

Out of nowhere, with a bright Cheshire smile, David starts singing. Then Carla. And Phyllis. Glenda is just shaking her head and hugging David. And I'm a few heartbeats behind as the song registers in my head like a cold sledgehammer:

Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday to you,
Happy Birthday, Dear Glenda,
Happy Birthday to you!

I think she'll forgive me, but I forgot Glenda turned 60. Yesterday. August 31st, 1945. The strength of the blow shakes me.

Hurricane Camille came calling for Glenda's 24th birthday. 1969. Cindy was 4yrs old. They lived in the same house that Hurricane Katrina visited for Glenda's 60th birthday.

My stomach lurches. Anger? Despair? I don't know. It keeps getting worse.

There won't be any party hats or cake this year. But David explains over Glenda's sweaty protests that they were going to fly her to New York City. (No! she says!) To see Broadway. (No!) To go shopping. (No!). Her son, Darren, was going to surprise her there. (No! No!) Cindy was going to do the same. And they'd all celebrate her birthday. (No, you didn't!)

But Katrina took that away from us.

As Glenda's crying and laughing, I'm looking for some place to throw up. Doubled over by the cars. Thinking about everything Glenda has lost. And my dry heave. The ruined trip. A second violent spasm. I'm trying to keep quiet. Taking huge gulps of air and wiping my eyes. God damned storm! A third retch catches me as my own mantra takes hold: This too shall pass. This too shall pass. This too shall pass!

Jon? calls Glenda.

I wipe spit and snot off my face with my shirt and limp back to the group.

Jon? Are you okay? she asks.

I'm good. Just getting some air.

Everyone is happier now that their tears are out. Glenda's smiling. Her friends are alive. They've been feeding her cats. David says she can sleep in their camper tonight, in the air conditioning. Everyone is going to rebuild. Together.

Back to Gulfport

I'm dicing wilted tree limbs when Glenda arrives. My mother-in-law and her sister joining the fray at Mom's house. I don't recognize the car. I don't recognize her face. Or Aunt Judy's face. We've all aged. The weight of surviving these past four days drags at our bones. Glenda's hugging me and crying and smiling and yelling hello to my parents. She's glad we're all alive and happy that my parents still have a home. And the remains of a roof over their head.

Judy is slowly, unconsciously turning in circles. Trapped in the gravity of disbelief. Trying to fight it. Breathing through her mouth. Her jack slightly dropped. Trying to make sense of this upside-down world. It takes a while to get acclimated to fires of this fresh hell.

They just drove down from Aunt Judy's house. Cindy and the kids are fine. They received my text message this morning while Cindy was in line for gas. It was the only way they knew I was alive, but Glenda had to come down to see her house. She hasn't been there, yet. But she knows. Knows how bad it will be. She thinks she's ready to see it.

I get cleaned up (as best as possible given the conditions) and pack a few extra supplies for Glenda. She thinks she's ready. I can see the hunch in her shoulders, the detachment in her eyes. Probably whispering some mantra to keep herself calm: It's okay. It's okay. It's okay. We all play these games, psyching ourselves out.

But as bad as it is at my parents' house, everything grows slowly worse as we inch into Gulfport.

You simply can not fathom this level of destruction as a whole. You can only digest bits and pieces of it. I'm convinced our minds can not hold the entirety of this new world. Even on my third trip every mile on the road grips me in a spiral of acceptance and denial.

Some of the drive is all to familiar: the warped trees, growing mounds of tattered carpet, a slurry of molding sheetrock and glass, the growing number of soldiers, everyone driving slowly, everyone numbed by Katrina's successful campaign of shock and awe.

But some of the drive is new: missing buildings, tents erected on slabs that used to be homes, and all the sunken faces of people on their front porches as they slowly fan themselves in the numbing August heat.

Oh, God, Glenda whispers. Again. And again. And again.

Following behind us, Judy is doing the same. I see her head twitching side to side.

In near silence, I drive Glenda home.

A war of inches

The line was much shorter. The supplies more plentiful. Thirty minutes in a rapidly moving caravan netted two bags of ice and two gallons of drinking water. The news crews are gone. But there are twice as many military boys helping distribute relief. I thank every one of them as I pass. Thank some of them twice.

But when I drive up to my Grandmother's with the spoils of my victory, I see Doe (my grandfather) shuffling across the roof. 85yrs old, sweating like a cold beer in the noon sun. Hammer in hand and an ancient tool belt cinched around his waist.

He is supposed to get me if he wants something done. He's up there flopping around on the scalding roof in the unrelenting heat, even though I made him promise to come get me. He swore as a Mason that he won't pull stunts like this. But there he is, feebly trying to hold a roofing nail in place with his withered, arthritic hands trembling with each breath.

I drop off the supplies with Grandma. She's yelling: I tried to get you, Jon. You were gone. I tried to get you.

I'm yelling up to him as I climb the ladder. Telling him to get down. I'll do it, for God's sake! Let me fix the roof. But he's still hammering. Ignoring me. He's placed three nails in half an hour. And there are dozens more to be done in order to get the additional.

After one more nail and five minutes of me asking him, "Come on, Doe, I'll get. I'll get it," I have to take the hammer out of his hand. He almost loses his balance and catches me with the same stare I imagine he gaze the Japanese in Manilla in 1942. I help steady him and he's trying to reach for his hammer.

Stop, Doe. I'll do this. You said you'd come get me if you wanted something done.

God damn, it, son! I'm not cripple! Give me my damn hammer. I can do this for myself. Shit, son!

We just stand there for a moment. I'm holding his left hand, helping him up. I can feel the bones and thick, old skin between my fingers. His other hand is open, waiting for the hammer. We're sweating and angry and tired and there is no end in sight for this adventure. Neither of us really wants this arguement.

Doe, please, I'll do this. You show me what you want. I'll get it done real quick. And we can go inside.

God damn.

Let me have the nails. Please.

Then he gives them to me. And points where he wants them to go.

One small step at a time. A war of inches.


On the way back to the ice/water line, I glance down and notice one lone bar on the cell phone I've been compulsively carrying with me. And it hits me: I haven't seen or talked to Cindy in three days. I miss her voice. The way the candles lit her face while we cowered in the bathroom. Haven't held the kids. Or heard their laughs. I miss Meg's red hair. Liam's practical jokes.

Now I have coverage! Sweet, sweet signal! And I almost get into a wreck. Halfway into oncoming traffic as I try to thumb Cindy's number. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. Bzzzt. And I'm staring numbly at the phone.

Of course it doesn't connect. The damn central office in Hattiesburg is offline. The landlines are dead. Only a few microwave dishes on the cell towers survived. (T-Mobile only uses landlines, anyway!) What few lines are open are jammed. Filled to capacity beyond anyone's expectation. Too many calls trying to connect, no voice channels available.

Then it dawns on me: text! I can type a message to Cindy! Next time she gets within range of a tower in Hattiesburg, she'll pick it up. (Text messages don't use voice channels. On a GSM network there are data channels that carry the text sessions.)

But the bars are gone. Dead air. Nothing. "Can you hear me now?" NO, YOU FREAK!

I flip the car back to the four-way stop where I found the signal. Sure enough, within ten feet of a country road in the rural north of Long Beach, MS, I have somehow found a Bermuda Triangle of cellular activity. I pull onto the dusty, searing side of the road. Cut on the car's AC. Hold the phone to the sky. And pray to the dark gods of bandwidth for enough signal to deliver a few words to the love of my life.

And my prayers are answered. A small miracle. Some good karma to take the edge off my sorrows.

So I text Cindy not to come to the Coast. Let her know that Glenda's house was submerged, but my Dad and I were trying to clean it up. Keep the kids safe in Hattisburg, I tell her. There's no room for them. I miss her. I love them. Miss them.

And then I head to the line for a bag of ice and a gallon of water.

Meager spoils of a meager victory

When you have nothing, you’ll wait patiently for anything. For example, I’m going on my third hour in line for water and ice.

My current adventure started at seven this morning. The Southern Gossip Network reported that the National Guard convoy had indeed arrived at the Long Beach Middle School very late last night. And the boys were returning at 8:30AM, with fresh supplies.

After filling the generator for my parents, I slipped out of the house, bound for the Middle School Drop Off Lane. And another day of chasing rumors.

But, lo and behold, WATER! Crates upon crates of bottled water! Just sitting in the dawn sun, available to any who would have them. And only a few truckloads of folks gathered to consume the dwindling pile.

I picked up two cases of bottled water. Other people filled their trunks. One family employed several kids to get at least twelve cases in the cab before driving off. I just shook my head. Shades of New Orleans. But only a few people took too much. The majority of us tried to leave something for other families. They’d need some, too.

Once the cases of water were gone, I actually sat second in line for the rumored re-supply convoy. Everyone had gotten out of our cars and mingled for a while. Sharing the same hope that the worst was past us. Swapping stories of the damage and our efforts over the past four days. I usually saved my story for last: I picked the wrong week to move from Atlanta. Usually left them wide-eyed. Until I’d laugh about it. Then I’d always hear, “Welcome to Mississippi!” Welcome, indeed.

After an hour of chinwagging, a cop drove up. Told us we were in the wrong place if we wanted water and ice. All the trucks had driven to a large supermarket, a mile west of us, and the parking lot was the staging ground for distribution.

And off we fled. A freshly created caravan of sweating, thirsty, desperate survivors. Probably fifty car loads of us descending upon the new location. Eager to get our hands on anything that would help us see another day.

But hopes fell flat when we turned into the parking lot. Yes, there were trailers and cops and National Guardsmen on site, but my position in line had shifted from second to seventieth. And we had to stand in line, rather than drive through. With the heat from the road coming up at us. The heat from the sun baking down on us. The fumes from the diesel engines. The stink of dead fish wafting over the tracks. The reek of stagnant water. This was the first support we’ve received in days, and the crowd was quickly growing to hundreds of desperate, over-heated, anxious survivors.

After yet another hour of wallowing in my own sweat and sharing stories with my neighbors, there was a collective moan from the front. People started to pile into their cars and drive off, empty handed and even more upset. Here’s the clencher, we were, yet again, in the wrong place. Nothing was going to be distributed in the parking lot of the super market. We had to pack up and relocate. Can you guess where? To the Middle School Drop Off Lane, where I was second in line this morning.

And here I sit. Three hours later. Creeping toward the convoy, which truly exists and is truly handing out supplies. I can see the armed troops. I can see the news crews. And the dozens of policemen with their rifles slung and their Kevlar soaking up the sun. Water and ice being lorded over like gold and diamonds.

Everyone silent and staring forward and the line advances. At first people would “walk up” with coolers. But as soon as the people in the back of the line (which now stretches for several miles) started sending their passengers walking (nearly running) to the front of the line, the police put a stop to walk-ups.

I’ve long since stopped my engine. No need to consume the gas. As soon as there is a gap in front of me, I drop the car into neutral, open the door, and Flintstone my way forward, creeping like a spent racehorse.

Then it is my turn. Almost four hours after I sat second in line, I’m finally able to get something for my family. WLOX, the local news crew, puts their cameras almost through my windshield, capturing me thanking the troops and the cops. One man hands me a plastic gallon of water. Another hands me an already-melting bag of ice. And I’m done.

A gallon of water and a bag of ice to split between my parents, my grandparents, and myself. That is what the government sends us after four days of fending for ourselves? It’s going to be a long road to recovery, at this rate.

I take what I’m given and drive home. Or what is left of it. Mom’s disappointed. Dad’s picking up the backyard. I dump half the bag of ice into our toasty ice cooler and leave one of the boxes of bottled water. The rest I’ll take to Grandma.

Then I’ll get in line. And do it all again.

Day Four

No sleep, again. Fourth night.

All these worries about food and supplies. A traffic jam in my head. Piled on top of fears for the future of my family. On top of constantly missing my wife and my children. On top of regret for moving down here one week before the storm. On top of regret for regretting my move down here. I know I’m obsessing. I keep running over these same thoughts and scenarios endlessly. Like a bad movie looping behind my eyelids.

Compound the obsessive worrying with the sweating. Then mix in a dash of refueling the generator every couple of hours. And the result is my nearly complete lack of sleep.

My head feels like it came into repeated, prolonged contact with a very large fist. My neck is an inflexible piece of rebar. Everything aches. My eyes are burning.

And I need to puke if I move too fast.

Thus begins Day Four in the wake of Katrina.