~This story originally appeared in Talking River Review (2006).
August 24, 2005: Ivan boasted a warm, alcohol-fueled grin from his window seat as he and Katrina descended upon Louis Armstrong Airport. It had already been a long day; they rose before sun-up to catch their flight from San Jose, and had a long layover in St Louis (two Lynchburg Lemonades) before catching their connection to The Big Easy, Crescent City, The City that Care Forgot, N’Awlins. Katrina napped beside him with her mouth open, and Ivan nudged her awake. “There it is, baby: a place with class, with history, with style,” he said. “Get out your beads and get ready to party!”
August 29, 2005: Sheryl and her six-year-old daughter Markeesha sat on the lumpy, sunflower-patterned couch in their Garden District apartment and sang one song after another. By the time they got to When the Saints Go Marching In, they were on their feet and tapping beats on the hardwood floor. When they finished, Sheryl hugged Markeesha whose eyes pooled with tears. Torrential rainfall and triple-digit winds rapped at the boarded-up windows and Sheryl did her best to hide the sinking feeling she had. “You sure Nana’s okay?” Markeesha asked again. Sheryl nodded and sighed with relief. Through fate, her mother was spending the week with friends in Shreveport.
August 25: After a night of Hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s and making boisterous fools of themselves at Preservation Hall, Ivan and Katrina were at it again. They were on Day Two of their planned tour to hit every nook and cranny of New Orleans’ famed French Quarter. And Ivan could hardly believe it. Only two days before he was in Silicon Valley pushing e-commerce solutions to anyone who’d listen; now he was strolling about cobblestone pathways and wrought-iron gates on Royal Street, taking drunken horse-drawn carriage rides in the shadows of stately mansions on St. Charles Avenue. Jazz music drifted along the street, from bars and clubs and sometimes the sidewalks themselves. The street musicians were so good, in fact, Ivan guessed they’d probably command top dollar in most cities. This was Ivan’s utopia; this was “Disneyland for adults.” Indeed, it wasn’t long until he and Katrina arrived at a bar on Bourbon Street and were coaxed onstage by the long beckoning finger of the bass player in a ZZ Top-style trio: a rangy black man with an old-style ‘fro and instrumental chops not unlike Stanley Clarke, the king of Ivan’s self-congratulatory musical hierarchy. As they danced alongside the band, it seemed somehow natural to Ivan that he and Katrina were now improv entertainers of the Old Absinthe House. Andrew Jackson, Old Hickory himself, often celebrated there back in the day, and at that moment Ivan felt he’d forged a spiritual bond with the great general and president. This marvelous southern city satiated his ego, and as he danced the “po’ fool white boy” before the lively crowd, Ivan wondered what might someday be his own claim to fame.
August 30: They were without power for 24 hours and counting. Each had a flashlight full of batteries—Sheryl the large one with the nine-volt, Markeesha the penlight with the AA-cells. During the night they’d lined up candles in every room, and burned them for endless hours. Sheryl had told her daughter that it would only be one hectic night and then things would get back to normal. Sheryl hadn’t believed her own words even then, but she had no idea how far from the truth they really were until now. Water had flooded the downstairs apartments, and residents below migrated through the streets or climbed the stairs to the balcony, where they either stayed put, climbed to the roof of the complex, or doubled up in a few units. There was no way of communicating: no television or radio reception, no phone service or cell phone coverage, no emergency vehicles or signs of help on the way. Sheryl had invited the Handlerys in—all six of them—to have some juice and slices of bread with peanut butter. They didn’t refuse; the kids ate like ravenous dogs and afterward Sheryl somewhat regretted her crisis hospitality, especially when Mrs. Handlery followed her into the kitchen and seemed to take an inventory of what food items remained. But the powerless refrigerator was practically bare, so were the cupboards. The textile mill doled out paychecks on the 31st, and that’s when Sheryl had planned to go grocery shopping. Mr. and Mrs Handlery appeared ready to remain with them through the long haul, while their kids carried on inside and out—yelling, screaming, cryin’. At times even laughing. Markeesha circled about with rivulets constantly streaming down her cute, milk-chocolaty face, and—since they now had no electricity to power the fans and the temperature and humidity soared inside and out—Sheryl couldn’t tell if it was sweat from exhaustion or a child’s tears of fear and frustration. She guessed it was probably both.
August 26: “You sho don’ wanna go there…not in the daytime.” The puzzling advice given by the hefty Caribbean woman wearing some sort of muumuu left Ivan and Katrina giggly and nervous for hours that morning. They racked up a hundred dollar lunch at Antoine’s, indulging in crawfish etouffe, duck confit salad, and Napoleons for dessert; the obligatory Hurricanes and a fancy bottle of wine to wash it all down. Before the check came they decided to go for it. What better place to wile away a hot and lazy afternoon than the St. Louis Cemetery, the set of the Easy Rider acid trip? The famous locale where Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper (Captain America and Billy) took Karen Black and that other chick, and spent an eerie twenty minutes or so of film time frightening pretty much all of America. Ivan loved that scene. He’d seen it at least a dozen times. And so he and Katrina brushed aside the voodoo woman’s advice, crossed the quarter’s edge (Rampart Street, dead crawfish littered up and down the sidewalk and plugging the storm grates) and spent hours meandering through a maze of above-ground tombs—some the size of SUV’s—in sheer amazement and utter awe. The names and dates. The design and sculpture. The human remains inside those tombs. It spoke to the great history of one of the world’s finest cities. There were spirits everywhere. Ivan could feel it. Katrina said she could, too. They stepped into each other’s arms and kissed, tongues swirling. Then they practically got down right there next to the plot of Charles Joseph Dominique Bouligny: 1773-1833. But when another couple came by to pay their respects out of kinship or just out of curiosity, Katrina gave Ivan the wide eyes and they happily made a beeline for the next trolley back to the Marriott.
August 31: “Mama, I can’t do this…I caaaan’t.” What could Sheryl tell her sweet child? The Big Easy was becoming a lawless shithole, and, with no help in sight and the crackle of gunshots and booming explosions throughout the night, Sheryl couldn’t take it anymore. So when someone knocked on the door that morning and said they were tending to people at the Superdome and shuttling them to safety, well, there really wasn’t anything more she needed to hear. She grabbed her daughter and a few belongings and within minutes they said adieu to the Handlerys and other remaining neighbors and began a waist-high slog (shoulder high for Markeesha) through a river of oily, rust-colored soup that stank to high heaven, each hoisting Hefty bags full of clothes for knapsacks. Somehow, they’d made it a half-mile down Magazine, passing dozens of antique shops and blighted housing, as they fought their way through the river of sludge, past an unspeakable assortment of flotsam and jetsam (used bandages, syringes, and condoms; gasoline, fecal matter, dead dogs and cats). Then, some poor angel, an almost toothless man yelled from the top of a building and slid an inflated pool mattress off the roof to their waving arms below. Sheryl shouted: “God bless!” and the man replied with a checker-toothed grin. He would likely become a casualty of the storm’s aftermath, Sheryl thought; if help didn’t come soon he’d dry up like a raisin. He’d end up like one of the floating corpses they kept encountering as they continued down Magazine. Sheryl still slogged through the sewage, but her daughter was now aboard the raft, adrift in body and mind. To Sheryl it was obvious that Markeesha was shell-shocked by what she was seeing. She only hoped her daughter wouldn’t be unduly affected by the harrowing experience and its lasting images. It was enough to scar a person for life.
August 27: Over coffee and beignets at Café du Monde, just off Jackson Square, Ivan explained to Katrina that he had phoned the airline that morning and rescheduled their return flight for that evening: “It’s ‘cause of that hurricane they named after you, baby. It’s bearing down on New Orleans and I don’t want to take any chances.” She agreed, but not before ribbing him about his hurricane namesake the year before. All that hurricane talk took them once again to Pat O’Brien’s where they downed a couple each before a lunch of po-boys in a dimly lit little dive not far from the hotel. A couple of hours later they had packed their hotel bags and caught the airport shuttle. Passing by the Superdome, Ivan told Katrina that “the greatest game in football history was played there. The Super Bowl where the 49ers beat the Broncos, fifty-fuckin-five to ten!” She was tuning him out, but Ivan was too enthralled to notice her uninterest. He imagined himself inside at kickoff, after a week of Super-Bowl hype and pre-game partying up and down Bourbon Street. Damn, that would be sweet! The past four days Ivan had had the time of his life, and he was sorry to leave. But he’d be back. Oh, yeah, he’d be back.
September 1: They’d barely slept for days on end and Sheryl thought perhaps she was enduring the world’s longest nightmare or had taken a turn into hell. If it wasn’t for Markeesha, she probably would’ve given up by now, just done up and died. She’d sprained her ankles numerous times: on the sidewalk’s edge, on potted plants and other unseen objects in the filthy muck below. And she’d cut her leg—badly. She wasn’t sure how, but thought it might have been from a rusty bolt sticking out from a sidewalk bench or something, maybe from the jagged edge of a car bumper or the derailleur of abandoned bicycle. It was impossible to tell what lay behind or before them. When they crossed the intersection with the Rite Aid, Sheryl and Markeesha did as dozens of others did: went inside and took what they needed to survive. A policeman shouted halfheartedly: “Whachoo chirren doin’?” at a group of kids hopping around behind the counter of the pharmacy where the prescriptions were filled. But he didn’t do anything; he watched them like an innocent bystander. Sheryl took gauze bandages and disinfectant for her wound, disposable surgical masks to ease their breathing, cans of food (chili, tuna, corned-beef hash), and a can opener, and stuffed them inside her bag. Markeesha grabbed a case of plastic bottled water and held it in her tiny arms, her sack of clothes resting on top. When they returned outside the raft was gone, and things had gotten even uglier. There were fights on both sides of the flooded street and then someone pulled a gun and shot at the cop. Markeesha screamed and Sheryl felt herself going faint. But she couldn’t let herself lose consciousness. She grabbed her daughter by the arm, not caring about the bags of clothes, food and other supplies they each dropped in the process. The humid stench around them played on Sheryl’s decision making—she was acting on instinct; it was telling her to move, and move quickly. People were hooting and hollering, smashing windows, and sometimes firing shots in the air. Fires burned buildings every few blocks, even with the rivers of water navigating the district’s streets. This was what people meant when they spoke of Armageddon. Sheryl and Markeesha moved forward in the direction of the Superdome, but at the rate they were going Sheryl knew they’d be lucky to ever get there. She shielded her daughter from the crazed eyes and shocking behavior of others out on the street. It was the stress of the situation that turned otherwise fine citizens savage-like; especially the young men who cut through the waist-high waters in clusters, like schools of deadly sharks. The way they looked at her and Markeesha made Sheryl’s stomach turn. As the nausea swept over her again, she felt her skin go clammy and heard Markeesha yell: “No mama, nooooo.” The last thing Sheryl saw before everything went black was a shining vision of the Superdome.
Elsewhere, September 1: Ivan and Katrina quietly stared at the wide-screen television in their den, occasionally uttering remarks of disbelief. It had been going on for days, chaos and despair in the great city they’d just visited—tens of thousands displaced, hundreds upon hundreds dead. Every network carried the same footage: as if they all passed around a dusted-off B-roll montage. Ivan and Katrina had seen the same frightened residents waiting for miracle rescues from the precariousness of their rooftops. They’d seen the same poor man babble almost incoherently as he retold how the storm separated him from his wife, from his kid. And they’d seen the masses holed up at the convention center and at the Superdome. Poor blacks mostly, who hadn’t the wherewithal to leave the city, or who trusted the authorities who called on them to gather there. They were packed in, spending days with little food, water or sanitation; with little care or protection. They lived in conditions unbefitting a prison camp. The same shots repeated themselves, over and over, no matter which station played. Finally, after a particularly disturbing close up, Katrina shuddered and told Ivan she’d seen enough, that she was going to change into her workout clothes and go for a run. Ivan flicked off the set before she made it up the stairs. “Me, too, babe,” he said. “I’ll join you.”
THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY
This was the second story I ever published. I wrote it as Hurricane Katrina was happening, the weekend before the start my final year in the MFA program at San Diego State University. I’d always had the fondest memories from the time I visited New Orleans and to see what was taking place there, and all the people being neglected amid the devastation was heart wrenching and shocking. It drove an energy through me that kept me writing and thinking for days on end. It was a rare moment where I felt compelled by some inner force to write and document what was happening. It was the only way I could really grapple with the emotions I felt then. Visitors like myself may tend to romanticize the city, and for good reason. But hundreds of thousands of people live there, and don’t all share in les bon temps. This story tries to capture that.
ABOUT ROLAND GOITY
Roland Goity is a writer and editor living in Ashland, Oregon. He has published dozens of stories in print and online. He co-edited the anthology Experienced: Rock Music Tales of Fact & Fiction (Vagabondage Press), was the editor of Works (of Fiction) in Progress (WIPs), and edited fiction for the online journal LITnIMAGE.