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Authors: Tom Matthews

Like We Care (8 page)

BOOK: Like We Care
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But she was in the home stretch. Her father’s birthday dinner was on the table, and they were all waiting. All she had to do was hear back from one more stringer and her October was set. Her cell phone had died, and her little brother had been on the landline for what seemed like hours. She had spent the late afternoon pacing, burning through a pack and a half of cigarettes while telepathically begging her brother to hang the hell up.

Finally, the call made it through: Casey and the guerilla video crew would be welcome at a hog breeding exhibition in Baraboo, Wisconsin, on the fourteenth. Annie’s heart sang. Farmers! Animal sex! Pig shit to accidentally step in! She could already envision the smirking promo spots as she proudly typed the specifics into her laptop and emailed them off to New York.

She stood with satisfaction, exhausted but happy to finally be able to devote some attention to her family. It was never easy to explain what she did or why it mattered, but tonight she would try. While pretty much everything she had Casey doing was offensive and embarrassing, she was a linchpin in the programming pipeline of the hottest cable channel in the country. Surely they could see beyond Casey being thrown in jail for trying to give a wedgie to the mayor of Mederville, Iowa, and understand her vital role at R
2
Rev.

She stubbed out her cigarette and felt a sincere wave of pride and enthusiasm carry her through the bedroom door, only to have her feet tangle in a dense pile of towels that her mother had laid on the floor to contain her cigarette smoke.

Annie spilled out into the hallway in a belch of smoke, her forehead colliding sharply with the linen closet doorknob as she fell. It really, really hurt.


Jesus fucking Christ!

Her family, gathered Waltons-like around the dinner table, heard the thud and her voice rumbling down the hallway, and braced themselves. Her father, fifty today, winced.

“God
damn!
” Annie screamed, coming at her mother with a fistful of towels. “I mean. . . Dammit, Mother!”

She hurled the towels across the room. Equal parts furious, wounded, and embarrassed, she whinnied like a demented horse and instinctively stomped back to her room and her work.

“Christ!”

She slammed the door behind her, immediately understanding that she had just done an awful thing. Her heart sank. Her career concerns paled next to her regret at what had just happened. All they wanted was to see their little girl again, to try and re-create, if only for one week, life as it used to be. And she was being such a bitch.

She would cool down, make things right—after a smoke, and maybe just a little more work.

There was still November to book.

Lost before the Levee

R
ain was due. And Frank Kolak felt it. He always felt it. It was when his blue moods took hold, laid him low until the weather passed. In a life tending toward the melancholy, clouds blowing in invariably brought almost more sadness than he could bear.

His father had died in the rain.

It was a South Carolina summer, and Frank was nine years old. Every year the little town of Beckett got too much rain—houses flooded, sewers overflowed, Hard Tar Road filled up like a soup bowl, clean up to the 6
th
Street bridge. But what was coming that summer day was being called a disaster—a once in a lifetime kind of thing.

Maybe he remembered things differently after it happened, trying to project some kind of ominous portent on the days leading up to the storm, but Frank recalled his father spending a great deal of time charting the path of the weather system bearing down on them. On that first morning, when the paper first gave word that something horrible seemed to be coming together over the Gulf of Mexico, Walter Kolak sat at the breakfast table and sullenly read the story over and over. He was so entranced by the news that he was late getting to the shop, a first for him. Long after customers stopped coming around, Walter still prided himself on opening his doors on time.

Back then, it wasn’t so easy to see bad weather coming. In the first couple days, it actually looked like the storm wouldn’t hit as far north as Beckett. But just in case, a special service was held at church to wish the disaster away, and Walter Kolak insisted that he and his family be there. Frank remembers how intensely his father closed his eyes and prayed. This was when the boy first understood how serious this all was.

When the storm fixed upon its course, when the assault became inevitable, Walter bore down. Even in the mildest summer storm, the Kolak house took on some water, but now Walter seemed determined to beat it back. He was a slight man, as Frank would grow up to be, but he took on astonishing strength from somewhere. His hands were worn raw as he tore dirt from the back yard to build a steep grade around the perimeter of the house. To the irritation of his neighbors, he dug trenches with which to funnel the tide away. He cleaned out the gutters, cemented over cracks in the foundation, and boarded up the first floor windows should the waters rise that high. He ripped apart the shed out back, which housed his sad little repair business, for plywood.

And then, should all that fail, he dragged anything of worth up to the attic, starting with the important papers, including the bankruptcy records and the will that he and Lucille had cobbled together. Her wedding dress, his jazz records, a small freezer that only worked half the time—they were all moved upstairs. With not all that much time to spare, Frank marveled at how much deliberation his father gave each item. He ran his hand slowly over everything that had been sitting long-neglected in their moldy old cellar, as if to find a memory that would earn it a passage to safety.

Meanwhile, he ordered his wife Lucille to take every bit of cash they had and stock up on canned goods and necessities—huge amounts, more than the family of three could use in a year. “Empty out the bank account,” he had insisted. “What’s not used will keep. Best to have it on hand, just in case.”

For eighteen hours straight, Frank watched as his father worked without rest, listening obsessively to the radio and watching the purpling sky. Frank did what he could to help, hoping that, by joining his father in this almost messianic quest, there might be a bond, finally, between the two. But mostly he just stayed out of the old man’s way.

When the waters recede, Frank figured,
then
they could see what they had accomplished together.

No one slept that night, what with the pounding and the shouting and the unrelenting hiss of the radio, its forecasters growing ever more dire as the storm took shape over Alabama and started heading northeast.

Just past four in the morning, the South Fork river rose up and swallowed whole the nearby town of Kitchings Mill, rain falling at a rate of almost three inches in just over an hour. Entire city blocks were being swept away. Folks who hadn’t obeyed the order to head to higher ground—“Well,” the grim-voiced man on the radio said into the night, “God have mercy on ’em.”

With the morning sun cloaked behind matted black clouds, unable to accept its responsibility for the day, Frank’s neighborhood lost power at dawn. Frank’s mother broke into the carton of batteries she had brought home from the market the night before and fired up the flashlights and the transistor radio, just in time to hear that the heart of the storm could be expected within the half hour.

Already it was raining—Frank’s father soaked to the bone as he put the finishing touches on a final berm—but this was just a prelude. The ground, already saturated, had no hope of accepting what was to come.

Finally, Walter Kolak put down his shovel and dragged himself into the kitchen as his wife broke open the refrigerator and served up everything inside, lest it spoil anyway. Tired and scared, Frank nevertheless rejoiced at this turn of events, piling his plate up with ice cream and bologna and hardboiled eggs. Never before daring to be playful with his father, Frank took advantage of the lull before God-knew–what, and urged his old man to pull up a seat and help himself to the damnedest breakfast he’d ever seen.

Walter just grunted wearily beneath a sad half-grin and poured himself the last bitter cup of the night’s coffee.

“The levee’s gonna need shoring up. I’d better get over there.”

Beckett was that kind of small town—when Walter’s shoe repair shop was about to go broke, and his hardware store before that, neighbors instinctively came around, spending what they could to keep his doors open. What was destined to happen anyway happened a little later, thanks to good people Walter didn’t really know.

So when the town itself was at risk, when the Congaree took on more water than it could hold and threatened to jump its banks, the townsfolk instinctively grabbed shovels and met at the levee. The river always won, but there was never any thought of not putting up a fight. Walter, knowing a debt was owed to these people, would be the last to surrender to the waterline.

All of nine years old, Frank felt halfway grown up already, and begged to come along and help. But Walter solemnly told his son that his place was with his mother, to see to it that the house and everyone inside got through this as best they could. On the other side of the storm, he said, he’d want to hear that Frank stood up like a man.

Walter refused breakfast, said he’d packed something in a knapsack, if he needed the strength. He said a terse goodbye to his family and headed down to the river. With the rainy gray dawn casting a bleak, despairing light, Frank and his mother watched as, all along the block, men with their shovels went off to battle.

The flood wall quickly dissolved away, just as everyone knew it would, and all the men of the neighborhood raced home just ahead of the deluge. All, that is, except Walter. As the great fist of water hit, Frank and his mother watched hopefully in the direction he had last traveled. Down the road, now a river, came tires, furniture—tangles of this and that torn loose from countless lives. But still no Walter. With a fury that sliced shingles from rooftops and punched holes clean through, the tempest pummeled the neighborhood. Some of the older homes on the block, built cheaply by people who couldn’t afford better and who never knew how long before they’d be ridden out to live somewhere else, simply melted into the turbulence. Whole families were flushed out into the street, only to be fished out by neighbors whose homes were faring better. As agonizingly slow as the rains had come, they moved on in under a half-hour. Almost immediately, the sun started earning its way back through the clouds, the people of the neighborhood descending from high ground and upper stories to wade through water that rose to the chest in some spots. Many homes would ultimately have to be torn down, their aged wooden structures infected by the rot caused by such an assault of mud and water. But Walter Kolak’s house stood firm—six inches of river left to stagnate in his cellar—but otherwise Walter had won. When he finally turned up, he’d have rare reason to celebrate.

Just past two that afternoon, the Congaree crested. Tadpoles, freshly introduced to life in lower middle-class living rooms, began to feel the gentle tug of the tide that would return them to their top-flight river homes, and to their futures as frogs.

With an agonizing stillness that belied any movement whatsoever, the hot, fetid waters slowly began to recede. If not tomorrow then the next day, Beckett would have order restored—and a fresh tragedy to deal with.

Surely Walter Kolak was dead, presumably swept downstream before he even reached the levee. In the aftermath of the flood, no one could say for sure that Walter and his shovel had actually made it to the flood wall. Truth be told, more than one man had scowled angrily at Walter’s absence at such a desperate time. The man never fit into the neighborhood, they thought, with his skittish ways and his pathetic ability to foul up even the most simple-minded business. When this crisis passed, some men on the levee had said, Walter Kolak would have to answer for his inaction.

The police were called, and authorities downstream promised to start dragging the river once the silt stopped churning. Goaded on by the sight of Walter’s timidly frantic wife and poor, fragile Frank, the men of Beckett attempted to retrace his last known steps, poking through the tangles of reeds and branches lining the river to see if his body had never actually made it out of town.

It was a half-hearted search, the decent gesture to make, despite the fact that they all had flooded homes needing their immediate attention. The fact was that Walter Kolak barely seemed to occupy space while living. His remains would probably prove just as hard to get a fix on.

BOOK: Like We Care
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ads

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