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Authors: Chadwick Wall

Water Lessons (2 page)

BOOK: Water Lessons
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Jim felt his heart sink with sadness as he turned from his father's property onto the narrow road and pressed steadily onto the accelerator, hearing the engine seem to growl, then roar, as he shot under the vast branches of the oaks and past the towering pines.

Nearly an hour later, he slapped the three dollars into the open palm of the tollbooth attendant and drove onto the Causeway Bridge. Jim contemplated the twenty-four miles left to travel over the brackish lagoon of Lake Pontchartrain, the memory of the shattered lamp and antique decanter, his father's shocked face, frightened that his son could be hurt.

He saw his father's silhouette shrinking in the dirty rear-view mirror, and recalled his father's strength, despite his fifty-seven years. He now saw the tall wall of pines bordering the lake, it too shrinking in that same mirror.
 

Jim muttered an expletive at the sight of the two continuous, bumper-to-bumper lines of cars and trucks coursing northward on the other side of the twin-span bridge, and the nearly complete absence of vehicles, both before him and behind him, on his own southbound span of the bridge. Soon the lights of New Orleans materialized on the horizon.

   

CHAPTER THREE

After a minute of Jim's pounding on the door, the porch light turned on and Freddy appeared. He looked like he had been sleeping.

"Well, my, Jim. You came back. For me?"

"Mostly. No wonder you didn't answer your phone. Sleeping?"

Freddy didn't answer but motioned for Jim to follow him inside. The house carried its usual smell of cigars.
 

"Want a drink? We still got power. A cold beer?"

Freddy brought back a tray with a frosted glass and a Dixie beer can for each of them. He set it down on the coffee table and sat down in the corduroy recliner, at a perpendicular angle to Jim.

"I could turn on the TV but it's just gonna worry us," Freddy said. "I was watchin' it earlier. You know I ain't got no cable but WWL showed that the storm was pretty much headed this way. Grazes us to the east, much better than if it hits just to the west of us."

"No use worryin' about what we can't change," Jim said. "I say we listen to some music, tell some stories."

"And don't forget, drinks and cigars!" Freddy said, throwing his hands above his head like a victorious Olympian.

"How could we forget?"

Freddy pulled two cigars from his humidor on the table beside his recliner, clipped the ends, and gave Jim his.

They sat, speaking of music and their families and the city they loved.

Soon Freddy reached over and lifted his wooden guitar from the couch and began to strum it and hum.
 

"Hey, Freddy," Jim said. "Let's hear some of those recordings again of your music."

The old man rose slowly out of his recliner and put a record on his stereo and in a matter of two minutes it could have been Mardi Gras in 1975. "Rampart Rag" filled every inch of the room. It was a song Freddy originally played in a jazz format. Now they were hearing Freddy's funk version.

And Freddy didn't immediately sit back down in his recliner. Instead he disappeared into his bedroom. When he returned and yelled "Hurricane party!"
 
he sported his green and yellow and purple Mardi Gras Indian headdress and his long gnarled scepter that resembled a club or walking stick.
 

Jim exploded with laughter as the old man strutted around the room, peacock-like, with long, pausing strides. Jim continued to laugh and clap with rhythm as Freddy pumped his spear above his head in his war dance.
 

Freddy strode into his kitchen and appeared minutes later with two more cold Dixie beers. He turned down the volume a couple notches and Jim related the events of the past day, about the quarrel with his father and what he had seen on the Causeway.

"Soon, Jim, soon you be onto some great things," Freddy said. "You still very young. We always are learning, but now you really in a learning stage. You gonna get into somethin' soon to prove yo'self and it ain't just in rehabbin' your grandpa's house."

Jim felt that warm solace come over him that Freddy's words often gave.

Then the electricity went out, and with that, the lights and music. Through the thin walls came the sounds of the wind lashing outside, the creaking trees, and the waves of rain punishing the roofs and adhesive-taped windows.

"Party time over," Freddy said.

Jim felt for the lighter on the lamp table and flicked it on. The dull flame lit up the room with the faintest glow, casting eerie shadows on the wall behind Freddy, who sat staring over at him from his recliner with a sort of sadness.

"Let's find your flashlight," Jim said. "Then we can pack you a bag and get over to my house. There's lots of food and a gas lamp. And I can start up the fireplace if we need more light."

They ground out the cigars and Jim followed Freddy with the lighter until they located the flashlight, which Jim shone on Freddy until the large canvas bag was filled.
 

They plunged into the storm, with Jim steadying Freddy on their march through the pelting rain and winds until they reached the work truck. Jim drove it the few hundred feet up the street and parked in front of Jim's grandfather's house. Minutes later, they were warm and safe inside, reclining on the living room couches between the small gas lamp.

Freddy had lost his joyous spirit. He reminded Jim about his late wife, now dead several decades, and Freddy's ex-girlfriend now living in New York. Freddy had moved back down to his hometown a few years ago and she and all his children from his first marriage were living in the New York area.

"This hurricane here could be 'the Big One' the state always feared, Jimbo. And very timely. My nurse didn't show up yesterday with a new delivery of insulin. My grandson living here, my only kin here, decides not to answer his cell phone. Well, he finally did, admits he already in Shreveport."

Jim wondered if his parents and brother were now safe in Meridian. Immediately after he felt a glow of pride within him that he hadn't followed, and left Freddy.
 

"Least your family dudn't
desert
you," Freddy said. "Don't know what's with families these days. Now I'm more in trouble than I been in almost forty years."

Jim said nothing, remembering the drama in his own family. Freddy administered his own insulin injection into his stomach.

Soon they finally slept, Jim on the couch, the old man in the guest bedroom.

When Freddy stepped toward one of the windows the next morning, he swore loudly. Jim sprang from the couch and rushed to the window. A good ten inches of water stood in the street.
 
An Orleans Parish school bus full of people plowed down the road, dividing the swelling water, while the men, women, and children stared with fright out of the windows.

Jim turned his cordless radio to 870 AM. Garland Robinette, who had retired as anchor of the local news in the early '90s, was filling in a radio spot on WWL. A woman in the Ninth Ward called in. Jim barely understood her words for her weeping. She had fled with her children to their attic as the water first started to invade her house. She screamed that she had no ax or hatchet to chop a hole in the roof. And the water was slowly rising around them.

The line abruptly went dead. Jim slowly raised his head. The old man stared back with an unsettling expression, somewhere between horror and resolve, as his chest heaved with a faster breath.

CHAPTER FOUR

That Monday, they waited as long as they could, atop the foldout stairs. Until they knew it was inevitable. Then, with the water mere inches below them on Tuesday morning, Jim Scoresby took up the ax that for forty years lay among the cobwebs and dust of the crawl space in his late grandfather's shotgun house, and he hacked his way out of the decking of the roof.

Jim and Freddy crouched on the searing roof, watching the dark waters rise a few inches every hour. And there it was, lapping inside the crawl space, around the foldout stairs. With terror and despair, Jim realized, though much of New Orleans had braved the winds, the levees had failed. Entire neighborhoods would drown.

"Dang, this roof hotter than
hell!
We gonna fry like bacon up here," the old funk guitarist said, and then smirked. "Now, what you think of your view of the Second Great Flood?"

Jim stared down at the water welling up around the foldout stairwell. "God help us," he mumbled.

What had come was surely the end of many lives and many homes. And his great times at parades, smoky jazz clubs, storied piano bars and grand old restaurants would now be mere memories.

When he looked aside a minute later from the cavity in the roof, Jim spotted Freddy twenty feet away, standing against the chimney, near the roof's terracotta ridge. The branch of the pecan tree stretched over the roof, granting some shade to the old man. Freddy squinted into the horizon, a look of resignation spread across his face.

Jim trudged up the roof and grabbed onto the chimney for balance. "You seem so alert, Freddy. So, what're you thinkin'?"

Freddy had looked sickly when Jim found him, bedridden, the day before.

"This wasn't even the Big One, Jimmy boy. I think Betsy and Camille were stronger. But I see them weak levees done broke. This whole city gonna flood out, man. This time the
whole bowl
gonna fill up. Reminds me of that ol' blues song by Memphis Minnie and Kansas City Joe."

The old man started to sing softly as he looked out over the rooftops. Jim knew the lyrics, but it was still spine tingling. The verse about the unending rain causing the levees to break, that tears and prayers would be futile, caused his heart to quicken in his chest.

Jim couldn't bring himself to comment. He remembered with a pang of guilt that at that moment, with better planning, he and Freddy could have already reached Memphis. The old man drew in a slow breath and launched back into song, singing the old verse of the cruel levee causing him to weep and moan and leave his happy home and loved ones.

Jim scanned the horizon. The dark water had closed over the roofs of the cars. It stood throughout the streets and welled up just below the gutter line of the neighboring shotgun houses. His father's 1976 Ford pickup was completely submerged.

"Damn it to hell," Jim said, bringing his hands to his temples, wincing. "How high's that water gonna come up?"

"High as it wants to. Tellin' you now, it may be comin' higher. But quite not up to where we standin'."

"It can't, right? We're probably above sea-level, at the chimney right here."

"Mmm hmm," Freddy said.

"Well! We
might
be sleepin' up here."

"S'all good," Freddy said. "You fetched me outta my bed, after all. I woulda been back in my house, not knowin' what to do. Too old to open up my roof."

Jim took cautious steps down the roof to retrieve the plastic water boxes and white canvas sack of food and valuables. He placed the sack against the ridge nearby. Then he held the water box above Freddy, who sat atop a wadded-up blanket, and poured water into his mouth. Jim placed the water box on top of the chimney and sat in the shade of the limb, just next to the old man, who began to puff a cigar. Jim closed his eyes and tried to sleep.
 

Jim jolted upright on the spread of blankets. The boom of a shotgun sounded, followed by an assault rifle's staccato, then deep reports of what had to be a .357 or .44. Several house alarms pierced the air, perhaps triggered by the floodwater. Jim reached into the white canvas sack between him and Freddy and fished out the single-action .357. He removed the zip-lock bag of shells and loaded the chambers. Jim ensured the safety was on and shoved the revolver into the pocket of his cargo shorts.

Freddy smiled. "Them gunshots shakin' you up!" he said, trying to add a little levity.

"I usually only hear 'em at the shooting range or the hunting camp."

"You
are
a Northshore boy. Well, at least you come prepared."

The temperature climbed. Sweat trickled down Jim's brow, down the length of his nose, and dripped between his knees onto the charcoal-colored asphalt shingles. Jim fretted about the old man, about the rising waters and rising temperatures.

Freddy mentioned there was a day's worth of insulin. When would help come? Should Jim swim for it? He couldn't decide. He saw to it that Freddy ate some of the bread and canned tuna, and that he downed it with plenty of water. Freddy's dessert was a shot of insulin. This time the old man put the needle higher up into his belly.

"Damn," Freddy groaned with discomfort. "Insulin done heated up. When it's too cold or too hot, it stings!"

"Sorry," Jim said. "The NOPD or National Guard boats will be comin' through here soon enough. Then we'll get you to the hospital."

All around them expletives and pleas for help erupted: black voices, white voices, more shouting of frustration and fear down the street. Some were drowning, all were terrified. All were waiting, bearing the worst of the flood save what must have befallen the lower areas of the Ninth Ward, Lakeview, and New Orleans East.

He pulled the radio from the sack. Garland was interviewing the New Orleans Police Chief, Eddie Compass. Strong Category Three winds ripped open the roof of the Superdome, with over twenty three thousand people inside. Rampant looting and police retaliation were underway.

Though the Quarter and most of Uptown remained dry, water had submerged a projected eighty percent of the city. Fires were reported in every neighborhood. The Southern Yacht club on Lake Pontchartrain burned to the ground. Thousands sought refuge at the Morial Convention Center and had attempted to flee by foot or boat. The Ninth Ward suffered the worst. It was virtually annihilated. Its most famous resident, Fats Domino, was nowhere to be found.

At this last bit of news, Jim shivered. Freddy jerked onto his side and crawled a few feet to the roof's edge.

"Freddy?" Jim lunged toward the old man, in case he slipped over the roof's eave into the water.

BOOK: Water Lessons
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