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Authors: Chadwick Wall

Water Lessons (3 page)

BOOK: Water Lessons
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Freddy vomited as if his insides would come up, too. Then he eased himself away from the edge. Jim held the water box over Freddy's open mouth and squeezed.

"That Fats is my ol' buddy," Freddy said after he finished drinking. "Used to play with him in the Famous Door on Bourbon and in Tipitina's. One time, I'd been robbed, and he sent me money for food and a train ticket to get me back from Chicago."

"He probably got out in time, Freddy," Jim said, knowing it was bold and blind conjecture. "He'll turn up in the next few days. He's probably safe and dry up in some Memphis hotel, watching this nightmare unfold on TV."

Freddy lay back on the roof and closed his eyes. Jim switched off the radio, sensing the strain on his friend's nerves. The old man said nothing for an hour. The breath came first out of the mouth alone, then finally out of the nose again.

Jim allowed his thoughts to wander. The storm's casualties surely numbered in the thousands. The beating by Nature and human error was merciless. The homes of his grandfather and Freddy were ruined. The storm flooded, violated the graves of Jim's ancestors, going back into the early eighteenth century. Lake Lawn Cemetery, where his Maw Maw and Paw Paw Laforet and his Mamere DuBuc were interred, would be smothered in several feet of putrid water, gasoline, and raw sewage. Saint Louis Cemetery Number One with its whitewashed crypts and angels would be hidden under many feet of the same fetid mire.

And what was worse, many of the crypts surely had opened, releasing coffins and remains alike into the dark unforgiving flood. Jim's stomach squeezed at the thought.

The rapid tempo of helicopter blades echoed all about them. The chopper approached from the north.

"Here we go," Freddy said. "National Guard, come and get us. Please treat an ol' fool to some insulin."

Several people on other roofs waved as the chopper neared. Several jumped up and down in desperation. Jim pulled off his white t-shirt and shot out from under the pecan tree's limb. He waved the shirt and shouted as the chopper started its ascent, and to his horror, sped on toward the east, downriver.

Jim cursed, slamming his wet shirt onto the scalding roof. He stomped over to the canvas bag and pulled out his last remaining clean shirt.

Freddy was now sitting up.

"Others will be comin', Jim," he said in a consoling, grandfatherly tone. "That's just one of many. Look at it that way."

"You're probably right," Jim said. "But how much insulin's left?"

Freddy paused.

"Less than a day's worth."

"Then I don't want to chance it," Jim said. "I'm gonna swim for it. Find some police, doctors. Bring help, medicine, something."

Freddy nodded slowly, his eyes enlarging, as if he was swallowing a large gulp.

"Thanks for that, Jimbo. Really. But that water's filled with all kinds of evil stuff. Every hour it prob'ly gets worse, too. Best to wait. Take our chance with the police and the troops and whoever comes by in a boat. Besides, I lived a longer life—sixty-five. Why you gonna risk yours for me? You twenty-seven, right?"

"Funny you mention that," Jim said in a soft voice. "Twenty-
as of yesterday. Twenty-ninth of August. Saint John the Baptist's feast day, as my mama often reminds me."

"I'll be," Freddy pulled his head back an inch and smiled. He gave a faint chortle. "You didn't tell me. Guess we were all a li'l busy! Just don't lose your head like John the Baptist, jump in no water. Anyway, glad you came back, ol' friend. Don't know what I would've done."

"Know one of my favorite stories about you?" Jim said, attempting some humor. "The origin of your nickname. I guess that's why I never hear you sing!"

Freddy snickered. A few months before Freddy was deployed to Vietnam, Louis Armstrong had visited his hometown and saw Freddy perform at the Famous Door with his first band. Afterward, Satchmo joked with Freddy that he could play the guitar like the devil, but he needed to abandon singing, that Freddy sounded as "loud and awful as a foghorn on a Miss'ippi River tugboat."

Jim pulled out his phone and dialed 911 again and again, but no call would go through. He sat back down in the shade of the limb, a couple feet from the old man. He tugged a flask from the back of his shorts.

"Jimbo, haha! You got whiskey in one pocket, pistol in the other!" Freddy said. "A walkin' country song."

Jim smiled and took a pull of the bourbon. He did not offer any to Freddy, knowing full well the old man had sworn off all spirits years ago.

Freddy reached into the canvas bag. He brought out a wooden box, then produced a cigarette lighter and two Dominican cheroots, the mouth ends already clipped. They sat puffing away in silence as a breeze reached them, gently waving the limb with its green canopy. Jim was thankful for the strong, rich tobacco smell, as the wind had started to waft toward them the stench of burning tires.

"Know what I always thought was crazy, Freddy?" Jim said. "How when these hurricanes are a day away, the breezes are pickin' up. And we can catch the scent of all the cypress and the pine and what's bloomin' that time of summer or fall: azaleas, camellias, magnolias. Li'l closer to the Gulf, there's that smell of the salt air. And all those trees and branches are just bendin', swayin'. Up in Folsom we'd see those tall pines swayin' overhead. That's 'bout the stage in the storm we'd evacuate, my family."

Jim puffed on the cigar, which he knew would last for a good half hour. He thought of his father, and if he would be impressed in the end with Jim's struggle to survive.

"This city been dyin' a long time," Freddy said. "Now it's gonna be on its knees many years. Eventually it'll come back. Not what it was. But it'll always be the only thang like it on the earth."

Jim spotted one of his neighbors several houses away. Becky Fourchon was petite, auburn-haired, almond-eyed, and with the energy of a teenager. A young forty years old, Becky owned a deli a few streets away. She was untying a canoe from her chimney. While her husband Beau held the rope, Becky lowered herself into the boat. She started to paddle her way down the street.

"Hey, Becky!" Jim called, and then stepped out from under the branch toward the gutter.

"Hey, boy! Jimmy, whatcha say, dawlin'?" Becky said as she paddled toward him.

"Glad you're okay, Becky. Mister Foghorn Beasley and I are up here sweatin' like stuck pigs."

"Freddy up there on that roof?"

"In the shade, under that branch."

"My husband went by Freddy's house when the water was comin' up. Called 'round for him, didn't hear a peep. Glad he's here! Y'all got food, water?"

"Yes, but he needs insulin. We'll run out tonight or tomorrow morning."

"We gotta brainstorm 'bout that one. Ya hear Oschner and Charity Hospitals have gangs tryin' to get into its drugs? Neither of 'em even got power. Just heard it on Garland's show."

Becky was now no more than thirty feet away.

"Y'all know what my Daddy back there just saw?" Becky said, an eyebrow raised. "A ten-foot gator just next to our house. With Bayou St. John backin' right up to us here, ol' bastuhd must've just floated right into the street. Folks been callin' into Garland's show, claimin' they seen gators and snakes in the water all over town."

"Great," Jim said. "I was a hair away from swimmin' for help a while ago but—"

"No, boy, don't," Becky said. "You got all these reptiles in the water. Then you got human waste from all the sewers, you got cars' leaky-ass gas tanks, benzene and oil from the petrochemical spills. E-coli and maybe cholera just breedin' away in there. You swim and nick ya skin, you prob'ly wind up dead. Graveyard dead. We got some black and white cans of spray paint in all that stuff back on my roof," Becky said. "I'll go fetch it and I'll be back. Y'all need to spray 'NEED INSULIN ASAP' in white on that roof there. In big bold letters. Coast Guard and National Guard will see it when they come back through here."

"Great idea," Freddy said, now at his friend's side. Freddy stood with a slouching stance. His arms dangled limply. His face drooped in turn, the eyelids heavier.

"There you are, my boo! What's happenin'?" Becky said. "You lookin' worn out. Hey, I'll be back with the paint."

The old man nodded and managed a slight smile.

"Freddy, how ya feelin'?" Becky said.

"Thanks, baby," Freddy said. "Gotta lay down. Ol' bones gettin' weary." He returned to his shaded spot as Becky paddled away. This time he lay down on the blankets.

Jim poured some water into Freddy's mouth. Then Freddy thanked him and again took up his cigar. Jim sat next to where the old man lay and started in again on his own cigar. Jim made another try for 911. Again, nothing but a busy signal.

Minutes later, water splashed behind them. Jim asked the old man to remain seated and stepped over to the rake of the roof.

Becky sat in her canoe, holding fast to the gutter. The hint of a smile, not without a tinge of melancholy, played around her mouth as she pointed to a spot in the water maybe twenty feet away.

Coursing directly down the center of the street, where Jim hoped to find a Coast Guard or National Guard motorboat, was a water moccasin. The arrow-shaped head poked like a ship's prow through the water as the torso undulated side to side behind it. The cottonmouth was even bigger than the ones he had seen in St. Tammany Parish to the north. It seemed as plump and long as the Eastern Diamondback rattlers he had encountered once while hunting in North Carolina.

Jim stared at the haughty head and neck of the reptile, older than man himself, and imagined it knew of the great thrashing civilization had just endured at the hands of Nature.

"My," Jim said. "I see Bayou St. John's unleashed all its inhabitants on us."

Becky handed him the spray paint. Jim thanked her, and took his time to spray, "NEED INSULIN ASAP PLEASE," in bold white letters onto both slopes of the gabled roof. He handed the can back to Becky, who patted his shoe twice with affection.

"How's the Foghorn takin' this, Jim?" she said.

"I don't think he's processed this yet," Jim whispered. "He's lookin' really worn down. The insulin's exhausted soon. If something happens to him, it'll rip me apart. He's close to me. I could've lent him my truck; he could've driven north two days ago. I could've met up with him later. I could've used one of my parents' cars. Instead I was too busy peddling insurance. Waitin' too long to plan. Now I just wish I could use your canoe, go for some insulin."

"We need this, though, Jim," Becky said. "We may need to get my family outta here soon, one by one."

Jim sighed and nodded, then glanced at the spot at the roof's ridge, just under the branch. The old man lay on the blankets. The cigar was gone. He had probably cast it over the edge into the murk. Freddy gazed through the pecan tree's leafy limbs into the azure sky.

"Any boat or chopper comes our way," Becky said, nodding toward her house, "we'll direct it here."

"Thanks, Beck. I'm prayin' for y'all. Tell Beau and the kids and your parents I said hey."

"Will do," Becky said. "I'll check on y'all soon."

Jim walked up to the old man. Freddy's eyes were shut, his hands peacefully at his sides. Jim sat beside him and said nothing.

The old man spoke without opening his eyes. "Know what I cain't get over, Jim? Flood must've taken thousands to their graves. So many with so little. There's gonna be an exodus outta here. N'awlins won't be what it was. But one day many will be back. It's 'specially y'all's duty, the kids with the ideas and the energy, to resurrect her."

At that last line, Jim felt overwhelmed. He could only imagine how thoroughly destroyed the city was. He probably could never feel at home here again.

"But let's not dwell on what's happened. We need to plan our escape here."

might escape," Freddy said, his head turning, the eyes fixed fast onto his young friend. "I ain't. What been done here… my
may escape. But my
will stay. This is too crushin', man, too powerful. What's been done to this place, my memories, what I knew, those I knew, it's gonna crush this ol' heart."

Jim knew he could do little to avoid this last reaction in his friend. He had always said Freddy was synonymous with New Orleans.

"Let's take a nap. Then we can eat later and get you an insulin dose."

"A burnin'
dose," Freddy chuckled. "I ain't told you 'nough. Thanks for all you done for me here. Wouldn't have made it without you. But if I do go, I'm gonna watch over you from the other side."

"Don't think like that, Freddy!" Jim said. "Let's nap. Then we can eat, and you can tell me again about Satchmo and your funk band. And all your times as a Mardi Gras Indian in the parades."

"That costume and my Zulu one." Freddy closed his eyes again. "They in my poor flooded house. Gone."

Jim said nothing. They both drifted off to sleep.

Hours later they woke to the sun setting just below the level of the rooftops. They snacked on tuna and bread, and then Jim administered the injection into Freddy's stomach. The old man winced in pain, releasing an agonizing whimper through clenched, chipped teeth. The insulin was uncommonly hot, but there was no way around it.

Jim had wanted to hear the old tales but he was surprised at how drained they both were. And so again they slept, and despite the sirens and the occasional shout or gunshot, they woke for only brief moments.

Wednesday dawned. They devoured more of the tuna and bread. Jim held the water box over the old man's mouth, slowly pouring out a long, steady stream, and then did the same for himself. They took turns urinating off the roof, under the branch.

Without any sound of warning, a helicopter approached. Jim ran out onto the center of the left slope. He pulled off his white t-shirt and jerked it overhead as he waved with the other arm. The military chopper slowly descended beside the house.

BOOK: Water Lessons
11.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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