Karen Celestan earned her BA at the University of New Orleans and her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte. She manages the Music Rising program in the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University and is an adjunct instructor of English at Southern University at New Orleans. She is the owner of Mosaic Literary, LLC.
Prizewinner - 2013 Esoteric Contest
Monday, August 29, 2005—8:30 a.m.
Arianne Robertson was taking a fitful nap in her old bedroom. Hurricane Katrina had passed over the city hours earlier. A boom awakened her, louder than one of the thunderclaps that had cracked directly over the house the night before. This was a sound in the lowest register—basso profundo—and it came from the direction of the canal. The house shuddered violently—windows rattled as though they might break—and stilled.
Arianne wondered what might have exploded nearby, but she didn’t move, it was too hot. Without electricity, the air conditioning unit was silent. She had spent part of the night in sentinel mode, pacing the floor while Mama took catnaps in the recliner. Katrina had been a rough one. A light wind began swirling debris in the street in the afternoon, and as night fell, the storm began to rage with predicted ferocity. Rain beat against the house without ceasing, like a drummer high on cocaine. The eye of the hurricane brought a little relief. The tempest died down for maybe fifteen minutes, a too-quiet silence that made Arianne believe that she could hear her every breath and heartbeat.
The back end roiled with such power that it forced her and Mama to huddle in a closet under a mattress as the house vibrated under the onslaught of wind and rain. She felt sweat pour down her back and knew the same was happening to Mama. Arianne was afraid. Pit-of-the-stomach fear paired with anger for being caught in this situation. She knew this is why Dad always packed them up and evacuated to a hotel in Baton Rouge. Never again. Mama can say whatever she wants, but we will get out next time.
Arianne lay in bed, dozing, remembering the weeks leading to the storm. A scorching heat wave had gripped New Orleans for three months. Every day there was a furious fit of afternoon rain that the pavement absorbed in a hot minute. She sat on her apartment balcony and was amazed when the sky opened and pounded everything across the street, yet she didn’t feel a drop. Daily weather reports featured ninety-six-degree temperatures and ninety-five percent humidity. The sun seared her skin as she rushed from one air-conditioned spot to another; the street and sidewalk radiated heat deep into the night. Arianne usually enjoyed summer, but this broiling weather took all of the enjoyment out of wearing sundresses and sandals or savoring a light supper with Darren at an outdoor café.
When Tropical Storm Katrina skipped over Florida and hit open water, Arianne flipped from channel to channel, half-listening to TV meteorologists promising to “keep an eye on the storm.” Then, Katrina sat in the Gulf as if on vacation, sucking up warm water like happy-hour margaritas. Four days later, Arianne stood riveted in the middle of her living room floor as an ashen-faced weather personality spoke in a somber tone: Katrina had become a swollen Category 5 hurricane approaching Louisiana and Mississippi, threatening to deliver twelve-foot waves. She ran to call Mama, saying that she was throwing a few things into a bag and heading down to the Ninth Ward so that they could decide what to do.
Arianne took shallow breaths. Every window was open, yet it was stifling inside the house. The atmosphere was still in shock from the hurricane’s assault, the air wet and heavy. She lay on top of a single sheet, which was soaked with sweat. She could still hear news and weather reports in her head, and she hoped not to hear the name Katrina for a long time. She felt sticky and gritty and the nap hadn’t given any relief.
She heard running water. Mama had the right idea. A nice cool shower. Arianne considered pushing herself off the bed and going into the other bathroom to do the same thing.
Ooh, it would be nice to put on a fresh tube top and shorts. Wonder how long it will take for the electricity to come back on—
With eyes still closed, Arianne swung her right leg off the bed and stepped calf-deep into cold water. She sprang up. Water was rising. It was at her knee. A chair from the living room floated into the bedroom. The bed and nightstand started to move. Arianne was sweating, but her legs were cold. The water was at her waist. Panicked, she started toward the front door. She could hear her mother splashing through the hallway.
“Ari?” Mama’s voice was a near cry, a breath away from a scream.
“Mama! What’s happening? Where is this water coming from?”
Arianne sloshed through to the living room. The water moved in a torrent as though in the middle of a swift river. The sound of wood splintering and glass shattering reverberated through the walls. Arianne glanced to the left and through the open window saw a tree drifting by as more water splashed into the house. The water was slapping her breasts.
“Mamaaaa!” Arianne shrieked. She realized that the house was floating.
Arianne reached back for Mama with her right hand and leaned forward with her left to pull the door open. A wave of water knocked her backward. She felt her right hand hit her mother’s leg for a second, and in an instant, the touch was gone. Another wave hit and Arianne was thrown into something hard. She lurched forward as more water washed over her. She flailed her arms and broke the surface. Water was three-quarters of the way up the wall.
Arianne spit out dark, oily water and coughed. She heard the house groan, felt it lean and right itself.
“Mama! Oh, my God. Mama! Swim, Mama. Swim forward, the front door is open. We’ve got to get out!”
Arianne pushed aside branches, leaves, and paper. Dishes floated around her head. She swam toward the open door and saw a beige column, recognizing that the porch must still be attached to the house. She reached out, grabbed the post, and pulled herself forward, grunting as she worked against the volume of water to wrap her legs around it, breathing hard.
She looked back and saw only black water a few feet from the twelve-foot ceiling. Pots, framed family photos, and chairs bobbed around.
Arianne yelled, “Mama! Can you hear me? Swim to the front. Don’t be afraid. It’s not that far. Come on!”
She heard a boompf-pause-boompf sound as the refrigerator bounced from one wall to the other. Arianne swallowed hard, grimacing at the taste of motor oil on her tongue, and turned to put herself back into the chilly water. She shivered, teeth chattering as she swam, pushing aside potted plants, books, china, and a laptop, kicking gently to propel herself. She stroked through the living room and reached the fridge. Arianne was amazed at how easy it was to move the appliance.
“Ma! Mama—? ” Arianne called, swimming from room to room.
She reached the den at the back of the house and saw that one of the glass patio doors was missing. A piece of cloth with pale pink flowers floated on the water’s surface, snagged on the frame. She swam forward and yanked it, tearing it away from the wood. Mom’s nightgown. Blood was splattered on the wall above the water.
She could barely say the word. Arianne’s chest tightened and a nasty fluid rose into her throat. She tried to take a deep breath, and though her lungs wouldn’t completely cooperate, the effort caused the bile to recede. She gently wrung out the gown and wrapped it around her head as she continued to tread water. She held the wall and leaned her head and shoulders out, hoping—no, praying—that Mama would be hanging on to something on the other side.
“Mama? Mama, it’s Ari, can you hear me? Mama!”
The water lapped against her neck, popping up into her nose and stinging her eyes.
“Please, Mama, let me know where you are. I can come to you. Mama?”
Arianne thought that calling ‘Mama’ wasn’t going to work. “Anita? Anita Robertson! Mrs. Robertson! Anita Robertson!”
Arianne felt tears slipping down her cheeks, the drops mingling with oily water.
Maybe she’s in the front somewhere—
Arianne pulled herself back into the house. She spit, turned, and stroked her way back through the den. She pushed aside CDs, albums, videotapes, coffee cups, jackets, dresses, table lamps, jewelry, toothbrushes, beaded purses, a Tonka truck missing a wheel, a Barbie entangled with a Ken; she wondered who those belonged to. Maybe the Pratts down the street, they have little kids—
The fridge was still bouncing off the living room wall.
I didn’t know refrigerators could float. It’s full of food. Mama told me that she went to the grocery a few days ago. She said last night that stuff in the freezer would keep if the electricity went out as long as we didn’t open the door—
Arianne splashed through and reached the column again. She wrapped her arms around it, holding on for a moment. Her breath came in panicked puffs, causing her chest to tremble. She rested her forehead on the pillar, closed her eyes, and started to cry, calling for God. She looked around, hoping for a glimpse of Mama. She saw denuded trees and dark water. She touched her head to the post again. Her legs were tired, but Arianne knew that she couldn’t stay where she was. She grasped her toes against the post and, using her knees as a fulcrum, inched toward the roof. She blinked to try to clear her now-blurry vision, but it didn’t work. She knew that she couldn’t rub her eyes because whatever might be on her hands would make the problem worse. The involuntary blinking was irritating, but she couldn’t make her lids stop.
I don’t want to see, but I need to see—
After ten minutes of straining and grunting, sometimes sliding down the post and starting over, she reached over her head to grab the gutter, pausing to catch her breath before pulling herself up and struggling onto the roof. Arianne leaned her body forward against the incline to climb to the apex of her parents’ home. She bent over and vomited, crying as she heaved. Arianne felt like she was coming down with the flu. She was chilled, but hot; her joints ached; she felt weak and nauseous. She wiped her mouth in the crook of her arm. She felt short of breath and wanted to stand up, but could only hold her knees.
I want to see, but I don’t want to see—
She asked the Lord for help. Waited a moment, still couldn’t move and asked again.
God, Heavenly Father, please give me strength. Help me find Mama. Help me face this, help me—
Sweating and breathing heavily, Arianne willed herself to stand. She pressed her left hand into her chest to keep her heart from pounding. Her head was throbbing, so she pressed her right hand on her skull. Neither action calmed the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. She tried to breathe at an exact pace, but every intake of air made her chest constrict as though she wouldn’t be able to exhale again. Arianne started gasping.
Oh…my…God, I’m hyperventilating. Have to get calm. Don’t want to pass out up here—
Arianne worked to exhale slowly.
Mama. Maaaaamaaaa. Where are you? Dad, I need you—
She couldn’t get enough air. Arianne half panted, half whispered the only prayer that she could think of: Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take.
She kept repeating the litany as she took in a panorama of destruction. She let both hands cover her chest—breath jagged, body shaking—as she looked around. Water coated with dark liquid—thick and undulating like brackish blood—was everywhere.
Was Mama caught somewhere underneath this mess, straining to get air, nasty stuff filling her lungs? The image forced a scream from Arianne’s chest that felt like it was ripping her throat as it emerged. She kneaded her face and neck as though she had some salve on her fingers to stop the burning, aching pain. It didn’t help. Her skin was on fire with hurt and fright.
But the scream seemed to have lessened an internal pressure, and Arianne’s breathing slowed a little, enough so that her eyes could begin registering what her mind didn’t want to comprehend: she was standing on the roof of her parents’ house and it was the only place to be.
The neighborhood looked like it had been crammed into an earthen tub that had been filled with a sickly gray-blue-black morass. The eaves of houses jutted out through the waves; an oak tree held a truck, its branches leaning over and touching a roof, as though the tree had picked up the vehicle, laying it gently upside down on top of the structure; houses were on their sides, tumbled and jammed together as if God had blown His breath across the water. Every imaginable thing that was a part of living floated without worth in the inky pool—gumbo pots, books, skillets, shoes, a big sofa, microwaves, file cabinets, televisions.
And only the sound of water, slapping and sloshing.
A few people began to climb up onto their drowned and shattered homes. Each saw the others and stared, too stunned to speak.
Arianne saw old Mr. McCullough on his roof twenty yards away, looking wet and disheveled, cane in hand, bent over as he spit and coughed. No Mrs. McCullough.
Arianne turned to the right and, facing the sun, saw that her parents’ house had come to rest against a huge pecan tree. She closed her eyes to place where the tree was before the storm and realized that 2021 Tricou had been moved near the 2200 block. Turning around to the left, Arianne saw that a barge, like a flattened cruise ship, had broken through the levee. Water was still pouring through the breach. She heard a distinct metallic sound—a rhythmic creaking—as the barge rocked in place.
Heavy things settling into unaccustomed spaces emitted groaning sounds. A school bus was rammed into a stucco house. Waves bumped church pews against a brick building, the wood strikes breaking off rust-colored chips that looked like confetti floating in the water.
Shrieks and cries started to fill the air from every direction. Arianne touched the hem and resumed calling for Mama, throwing her voice in every direction and adding to the cacophony. She called and called, sat down to rest when her voice got tired, and stood up to call again. Spent and sweating profusely, Arianne unwound Mama’s nightgown and pressed it to her nose, inhaling. She believed that she could still smell Dove soap and the faintest hint of her mother’s musk. She re-wrapped it tightly.
The water began to rise again, more slowly this time, coming within inches of the eave.
Please, God, please, don’t let this water reach up here—
Wood and debris bumped against the house. The detritus of the Robertsons’ life had seeped out of windows and doors. Arianne wanted to scoot down and grab precious, familiar items: her parents’ yearbooks, pieces from Mama’s art collection—sculptures by John Scott, her college classmate; a couple of Bill Hemmerling paintings; framed Jazz Fest posters signed by Benny Andrews and Elizabeth Catlett—but she couldn’t move.
A dog paddled by, swimming in one direction and changing course, as if looking for something or someone. The animal wound up treading in a confused parallelogram. It kept paddling until it began to tire, swam some more in a circle, and slipped beneath the water.
Had Mama tried and tried to get back to the house and gotten tired like that poor animal? Arianne grabbed her head and sobbed.
She felt her nose, arms, and legs begin to burn in the sun, though her clothes were drenched and gummy. Arianne felt every fiber of the cotton shirt and shorts sticking to her skin. An oily sheen on the water reflected more light and heat. The air shimmered with vapor. Roof shingles heated up, searing her butt cheeks and the soles of her feet, so Arianne alternated between sitting and standing.
The screams and calls for help were relentless. When one voice would fade, another took its place. People called out for their loved ones, caterwauling with grief when the desired voice did not answer. The sun was parallel with Arianne’s face, so she turned her back. Facing away from the barge, she saw snakes. The serpents chased rats looking for a dry spot. A snake swallowed one and rolled over onto a branch to digest it. Arianne was both fascinated and disgusted as the rat wriggled in the snake’s belly. She could see the distinct line and curve of the rodent’s head and body as it struggled. The snake’s mid-section trembled a bit with the rat’s movement, but the rest of its coil was still. An inert lump soon replaced the shape.
Will I have to challenge the snakes for rodents to eat? Where will I get water to drink—?
Arianne used the palm of her hand to thump her head several times in an attempt to make the thought go away. Her tongue thickened and she couldn’t stop longing for water. The desire to drink made her think. Mama. Gone. Mamaaaaaa. Dad in the nursing home. Was he okay? Did the center evacuate the residents in time? She wanted to cry, but she was too tired, sore, and hot. She needed to pee, but didn’t want to pull down her shorts because Mr. McCullough might see.
Arianne looked across the water and saw that the elderly man had a dark stream that ran from underneath his leg and down the side of the roof. He held his head in his hands.
“Hey, now, Mr. McCullough, how you making out over there?”
“Baby, what’s gonna happen to us? We ain’t got no water or food. And my wife…my wife…” His voice faded as he started to weep.
“Somebody’s gonna come and get us soon. They have to. Police. Somebody.”
“Ain’t nobody coming down dis here Nint’ Ward. Everybody gone for the hurricane, ‘member? We the only fools,” Mr. McCullough yelled.
Arianne hung her head. Mr. McCullough’s teary words made her remember Mama saying that she would not leave town without her husband.
“We’re going to stay in this house and let the storm pass then we’ll go on uptown and check on your dad. You can go, baby, but I’m not leaving Jonathon to go sit in a hotel somewhere and worry myself silly,” she had said, wagging her finger and nodding, a sign that the discussion had ended.
An explosion, followed by another, made both Arianne and Mr. McCullough duck instinctively. An acrid smell filled the air and they watched as fierce flames consumed two houses.
“Gas lines starting to blow,” Mr. McCullough hollered.
“How can that be with all this water?” Arianne yelled back, holding up her hands, puzzled.
“It’s the pressure of the water and some little spark from the stuff hitting the houses,” Mr. McCullough shouted back.
Arianne scooted down the side of the roof and grabbed a piece of wood. She began gently pushing whatever was in the water away from the house. Mr. McCullough, hobbled by arthritic legs, slowly followed suit.
A muted blorp caught her attention. A body had risen to the surface; only the back and arms were visible. Arianne held her breath for a few seconds. She exhaled when she saw that the body was fully clothed, remembering that Mama was probably naked.
What if someone else sees her—?
Arianne felt shame for Mama and wished that her nightgown had stayed on. She doesn’t deserve that. Always covered up around the house, making sure that she had a robe hanging on the back of every door. Mama, who wore a dress up to her neck, stockings and a chapel cap to Mass, no matter what the weather. Mama. Out there somewhere, naked—
The sun was setting. Arianne wanted to close her eyes, but couldn’t because she didn’t want to think about Mama. Didn’t want to think about snakes.
No cool came with the darkness. No stars, no moon. No hum of electricity. No birds chirping their location. Nothingness.
Voices started coming from every direction. Cries of anguish, fear, and anger. Curses and blasphemy. Arianne was unnerved because she could hear so many people and not see them. She heard names, people who had knitted her life together. Miss June. Bobby Lloyd. Mr. Benjamin and Mrs. Hilda. Man-Man. Maxie. Jo-Jo. Poochie. Juan. Each shout conjured up a face and a memory, each starting a movie reel that was interrupted when another outburst cancelled one thought and started another.
Her mind turned over and over: Dad and Mama laughing, talking, and play-wrestling. The three of them doing chores around the house. Mama yelling when she found ‘crust’ on dishes or dust bunnies under beds that should have been swept. Cherry Ames, Student Nurse novels and Dr. Seuss books—And, really, it’s sort of a terrible shame, / For, except for those stars, every sneetch is the same. Sesame Street and the Electric Company. Bugs Bunny cartoons. Pepe LePew. Pinky and the Brain. Birthday parties. Nuns at St. David’s. First Communion. Sitting on Dad’s shoulders to yell and catch trinkets at Mardi Gras parades. Junior Prom. Kissing Darren. Tasting Dad’s bread pudding. Graduation. A hangover to hide from Mom and Dad. Acceptance into college. Nursing classes and lectures. Practicums and procedures. Nursing cap ceremony. Arianne Robertson, R.N. Starting at Touro Hospital. Decorating her first apartment. Lying on the beach at Ship Island, Mississippi. Watching dolphins, their fins creasing the surface. Snuggling down into her warm bed on a cold, rainy day off. Church on Easter. Fourth of July fireworks. Labor Day picnics. Thanksgivings. Christmases.
Arianne heard a new sound through the darkness. A voice—soft and melodic—was joined by another voice and another.
Is that someone singing? What the hell—
The voices rippled and expanded as more joined in.
Just call my name/I’ll be there./I’ll be there…
This is madness. I’m not singing some stupid Jackson Five song—
Arianne heard a deep male voice weakly take up a chorus.
Even though the pain and heartache seems to follow me wherever I go….
Mr. McCullough? Oh, no, he isn’t! Why doesn’t he save his energy—
The unseen song leader switched to Mardi Gras songs. Arianne shook her head as the lyrics, off-key and wrong, wafted through the thick, humid air.
Down in New Orleans/it takes a cool cat to blow a horn./All the parties on Rampart Street/dancing to the mambo beat./Mardi Gras Mambo-mambo-mambo/Down in New Orleans—
Arianne was irritated at first, but reluctantly lifted her scratchy voice and joined in. She felt comfort as she sang and tried to snap her fingers, but her skin was too hot and moist.
Dawn started streaking across the sky, the sun was returning to bring light and heat. She wondered if Darren had made it safely to Atlanta with his parents. She wished she could hear his voice, how he sounded like comfortable slippers padding across the floor when he talked. She rolled her stiff neck and stood up. Her knees and back cracked after being in the same position for hours. Her butt muscles burned. Her tongue was dry and sticking to the roof of her mouth. She couldn’t believe she had peed and shat on herself during the night and didn’t realize it. She was embarrassed and disgusted.
Arianne heard the buzzing first, flinching as fat, inch-long flies surrounded her head and body. She swatted until her arms tired. The snakes and rats seemed to have multiplied, slithering toward and skating away from each other across water that hadn’t receded one inch. She looked through tired, burning eyes and saw that the murky abyss held the same debris, but was dotted with more bodies. She looked away, but the gray, bloated corpses—some face down, some face up—were on all sides of the house. The bodies displayed a host of traumas—missing eyes, severed limbs, exposed organs, bashed-in heads. Arianne was terrified that she would recognize one of them. Mama. Oh, God, Mama! Bile rose again—the sour, alkaline liquid oozed into her mouth and she spit it out.
Some of the flies abandoned Arianne, moving on to dead animals and humans. There was a sickly sweet smell—a rancid perfume that settled deep in her throat. The odor of death. Her empty stomach turned over, sending a slice of pain through her midsection. Arianne wondered if she would die and slip off the roof to join them in the pool of death, vermin nibbling at her fingertips.
She stood up to avoid staring at the bodies and turned to check on Mr. McCullough. He was lying down, holding his cane across his chest. She called to him and he raised a hand, but did not stir otherwise. She felt a familiar flutter in her abdomen and cursed. I can’t believe my period is starting. She longed for some water to drink and for the sun to disappear.
. . .
The house on Tricou Street was considered to be high ground according to the flood maps. That’s what Arianne heard Mr. Guillory tell Dad. He was their State Farm agent, that’s what Dad called him. She told her mother and everyone at Edison Elementary what Mr. Guillory said because it made her sound smart and grown up.
Arianne loved taking a short ride with her Dad every year on the Saturday before her birthday in early April to visit Mr. Guillory’s office. They would have a cup of coffee and Dad would pull out the checkbook from his back pocket to pay his premium. Mr. Guillory would always hand over a big sucker and ask how she was doing in school. Arianne answered with a polite, “Fine!” and kept playing with her doll.
She heard Mr. Guillory try—again—to get Dad to buy something called a flood policy, but he laughed.
“Come on, Guil, I’m right by the levee, two blocks away. You’re always trying to separate me from my money. Tricou never floods. Hasn’t flooded once in the 10 years me and Anita have been there. We don’t even get water in the street during those hard thunderstorms. I stand on my porch with a beer and watch the stream roll down the street. The water doesn’t get up to the rim of my tire.”
. . .
Memorial Day 2005. Dad had taken charge of the grill and was serving up a steady course of chicken, ribs, steaks, burgers and hot dogs. Arianne insisted that he throw on some vegetables.
“You need some fiber and roughage to offset all of that beef and swine. People don’t eat like this anymore,” she said, a hint of irritation lacing her voice. “I’ve marinated some chicken, asparagus, squash, peppers and seasoning, and wrapped it all in foil to make it easy for you.”
“All right, my honey lamb, whatever you say. Go on and put that nursing degree to use. But you know me and my frat brothers aren’t going to eat that sissy stuff. That’s fine for you, your mama, Mrs. McCullough, and those church ladies to nibble on.”
After the barbecue and subsequent cleanup, Dad settled into his recliner to watch a late NBA playoff game and drifted off to sleep. Arianne went to kiss him goodbye before she headed out. She walked into the room and found him convulsing.
. . .
Arianne shifted her weight to lean on her side. It was a relief to be in a new position. She figured that Dad was making life difficult for the convalescent center staff. She knew that once he found out a storm was coming, he would start pushing the staff to let him go home so he could put up the boards on the house, paralysis be damned. Mama decided to postpone evacuation until she knew what was happening with Dad.
When Arianne got to Tricou Street on Saturday around noon—after 90 minutes of traffic—Mama was waiting in the driveway, sweat dampening her forehead. She got inside the car before Arianne could shift into park.
“Where have you been?”
“Mama, you don’t know what it took for me to get here. There are so many cars on the road, it’s ridiculous.”
“Let’s do what we can do to get up to the Hainkel Center,” Anita mopped her brow with a handkerchief and turned the car’s air conditioning on full blast, letting the current muss her hair and ripple through her shirt.
Arianne sighed as she turned the car around to reach Claiborne Avenue and head back across the Industrial Canal bridge.
Anita chattered nervously. “This is like Betsy, I swear. That hurricane stirred around in the Gulf like this one. I don’t like this at all. No one is answering the phone at the center. I wonder if they’ve taken him somewhere upstate—”
“I’m worried too, Mama, but they have to deal with more than Dad, you know?”
“Ari, I know that, but your daddy is my main concern. What they do for one, they’ll do for everybody, but everybody ain’t my husband. Watch out for that truck—”
“I see it, Mama.”
“Mamie McCullough keeps ringing my phone telling me that she wants to go to their daughter in Memphis, but I can hear Ramsey in the background carrying on, saying how he isn’t leaving his house for robbers to ransack. She wanted me to talk to him. Me? Can you imagine? Now, if your father had been here, he would have chatted with Ramsey for a few minutes and had those folks on the road. Don’t you see that car trying to come into this lane—?”
“I see it, Mama.” Arianne kept her voice in a steady tone.
Traffic had come to a standstill. Car horns blared. People stepped out of their vehicles, craning their necks to see why there wasn’t any movement.
“The staff should have called us or sent you an e-mail or something. This is a damn shame that we have to try and get across town in this mess to see about your daddy. I can’t believe it. Why aren’t we moving, Ari? What’s the problem?”
“Folks are trying to get out of town, Mama. Everybody is out here,” Arianne said, gripping the wheel.
“I wish that I could leave too, but I’m not going anywhere until I know what’s happening with Jonathon. Anyway, I remember seeing so many people with boats during Betsy. I was a young girl—”
Two hours passed. Arianne had only been able to move her Camry one mile in short, irritable increments. Every few yards or so, she saw a car stop, the driver emerging to lift the hood, steam billowing around the edges as the engine overheated from extended stop-and-go traffic.
Arianne noticed the needle on the temperature gauge creeping into the red zone.
“Mama. We can’t do this. This car is going to overheat. Let’s go back home and keep calling the center—”
“No! No! You keep going. We are going to get uptown if it takes us all day—”
“Mama, this car isn’t going to make it. We can try again later—”
“Dammit, Ari! Don’t make me have to get out of this car and walk!”
Arianne inched the car to the intersection and made a U-turn onto the southbound side of Claiborne.
“Mama, calm down. We’ll get up there, we can’t do it right now,” Arianne said, letting her mother yell as she drove back toward the bridge and saw the gauge’s needle slowly drift back downward.
. . .
The break of another day—was it Wednesday or Thursday?—brought a new sound: the distinctive sound of boat motors in the water. It was a whirr-hum-whirr in the distance. Arianne turned full circle on the roof and didn’t see any boats, but she could hear them, along with faint shouts.
“Hey, now, Mr. McCullough! I think help might be coming our way!” Arianne had to make an effort to call out, her voice raspy and crackly. “Maybe we won’t have spend another night on our roofs, right, Mr. McCullough?”
Arianne turned to the right. “Mr. McCullough? You all right over there? Can you hear me?”
His cane rested beside him. Flies swarmed over his body. She put her hand on her chest as a feeble holler rose. She wanted to cry and scream, but had no tears and no strength. She closed her eyes and said a Hail Mary.
The shouts seemed to be getting closer. She decided to try and clean herself. Arianne peeled away her shorts and panties and inched down the roof to the waterline. The mix of feces, urine, blood, and sweat-salt had crusted on the fabric. Exposing her skin to the air made her want to scratch, but she resisted the urge, knowing that the water was filled with bacteria and God-knows-what-else.
Arianne pushed away some of the oily sheen and dipped only the soiled portion of the material into the water. She rubbed the filthy spots to loosen the waste and dipped the area into the water again, carefully wringing it out. She shook out the clothes, stood up and winced as she pulled them back on, disgusted at the thought but satisfied that she got some of the mess off her clothes.
She walked back up to the top of the roof, letting her ear follow the sound of voices and boats. She turned to the left and saw a slow-moving pirogue with two figures fifty yards away at a guess. She heard the garbled noise of a bullhorn, but couldn’t make out what was being said. She remembered Anita’s nightgown and meticulously unwrapped it from her head. Her arms were burned and a little stiff, but the possibility of rescue pushed adrenaline through her body. She waved the gown in the air, slowly, then with vigor. She realized the moment when the men saw her, their heads turned and they straightened in unison. She tried to yell but her voice failed.
As the boat approached, she could see that the men were policemen. One cop cut the motor and both paddled the last few yards. The short, muscular cop grabbed the house gutter and steadied the boat while the thin cop with long legs put one foot on the roof and kept the other inside the boat. He held out his hand toward Arianne. Her legs quivered as she eased down the roof and climbed into the boat. She held Anita’s nightgown tight to her chest with one hand. The cop helped her sit on a slat and handed her a bottle of water.
“Ma’am, don’t drink that too fast. Sip it slowly at first, okay?” Skinny Cop said. His last name—Hutson—was engraved in navy blue on the brass bar.
Arianne nodded and took two quick, small sips. Having water in her moisture-less mouth made her tremble. She quickly put the top back on the bottle so as not to spill a drop.
“You all right, miss? Any injuries?” Muscle Cop said. His last name—Prosper—stood out on the brass bar. Arianne nodded her head in the affirmative to the first inquiry, shook her head side to side to answer the second.
“We’re gonna get to St. Claude and you can get on one of trucks headed to the Superdome,” Hutson said.