Saturday, May 13, 2017
He’d been alone a lot. Not lonesome in the sad sense of the word... he was used to it. There was that woman, once. She stayed for a while but, eventually, she drifted away. There were the two dogs, of course, so he wasn’t really alone. Just no people around regularly. He wasn’t sure if he owned the dogs or they owned him. He didn’t think about it like that, anyway. Ownership, laws, rules. Like the soldiers and media types in the boat who came by. They were so sure that it was necessary, mandatory, even, that he leave. They tried to convince him to join the rest of the evacuation. They could shout and roar and threaten but they’d never catch him. They wore gloves and masks and worried when they got a bit of water on them. And here he was, paddling, belly down, his inner tube and plastic container, to the grocery store. The water stank and there were turds floating by, but he’d seen the kids of Bangkok swimming in the filthy canals when he was there on R&R from Nam. They survived. In fact, the Thais were some of the strongest. Some of the toughest. He paddled with his right hand to turn left. Up to the park where the tops of the swings were still visible and across the submerged boulevard to the mall. All but the hardiest and most determined had given up shopping here. It wasn’t really shopping, you didn’t pay for anything, most of the valuable stuff was gone, looted. What were they going to do with the electronic appliances and games, anyway? There was no power. He drifted in the door of the grocery store. There were a few pet owners still making regular trips to the store but he doubted that many, if any, had tried the dog food. He found that it didn’t taste so bad. The cans were safe and the dried stuff, though it was hard to get down from the top shelf without wetting it, was tolerable. Full of vitamins and raw protein. Not processed to taste good for humans like everything else. The dry stuff made up for the lack of vegetables in his diet. He arranged the bags of dry dog food on top of the cans in the container. He pushed it up the aisle in front of his inner tube. The Saint Bernard breeder was struggling with a large bag, trying to squash it into the bow of her canoe. He stopped to help the woman. They exchanged nods without words. There had been nothing to talk about after the first few days. The latest gossip and rumours had become meaningless. Especially when they realized that they were stuck with the bodies. Some neighbours didn’t get along with each other, but to see them like that. Talk became trivial, unnecessary. He nodded goodbye to the Saint Bernard breeder, paddled up the aisle, out the door. The sun was hot as he headed for home. The dogs’d be waiting. It was kind of ironic, he mused, as he paddled along. There was Eric Clapton explaining his long fascination with Robert Johnson. That had been the DVD on in the living room when the water started rising. The hurricane caused more damage than usual. The generator he’d hooked up conscientiously after the last hurricane, was doing fine, until the flood. An earnest guy from England, an ex junkie, probably one of the best white blues players ever, sitting in a deserted building in Dallas, fifty or sixty years after Robert Johnson recorded there. Max wagged his tail in time with the drumbeats. Brutus perked up his ears, howled along with the song when the guy accompanying Clapton launched into the electric slide solos. Then the generator quit because of the rising water. Darkness enclosed them until he found some candles and lit them. The dogs knew right away. They appeared more anxious every time he looked at them. From the moonlight reconnoitre, the water first approaching his knees, then rising to his hips, things started looking very bad. There were the sounds of shots and shouting that night, but nothing out of the ordinary for that neighbourhood. The storm surge had lifted his van onto the roof of his stilted house. They found it a dry place, high enough to escape the water. He knew that the accumulation of a twice divorced, twice-estranged father disappeared that night, below him, saw the evidence of it the next morning. Clapton and the DVD player were under water with the tv. At least they had some bottled water and provisions. Once they had settled in the van, the dogs were their usual happy go lucky selves though they didn’t like it when he made them accompany him to an empty neighbour’s house to do their business. They smiled as they shook all over him upon their return. It was the only cheerful note on a depressing first day of the flood. More bodies appeared, floated by. The destruction reminded him of Nam. The memory rekindled the spirit of those days. They were “can do” days. Days when he and his buddies did whatever had to be done. No arthritic complaints at the size of the job. They did it then and now he felt that spirit return. They needed food and water for the future. The idea of taking the inner tube and the plastic storage container to the grocery store came to him when an old man’s body floated by, turned toward the park. No use sitting, feeling sorry for himself. They needed supplies. Thirty years ago he would’ve just got them. Now, he would do the same. They see a pathetic old man paddling an inner tube through the shit. They see long grey hair sticking out of a battered old hat and a grin with some teeth missing as he looks up at them in their boat. Some had life jackets on, some, with weapons, wore kevlar vests. Who was going to attack them? Some of the young ones with their bulging muscles and square chinned aggression were probably glad that he refused their help. They couldn’t understand his smiling replies, his rapt attention as he listened patiently to their many reasons why he should join the evacuation. Maybe he was judging them too harshly. But they didn’t look like they wanted him near them when they heard his refusal. No way they would take the dogs. He realised that he was smiling at his own joke: it was an evacuation all right. Like everyone in New Orleans had a dump, relieved their bladders and puked at the same time. Then left. Or maybe it was God. Or Mother Nature. He preferred to think that the earth was taking back its own. Like weeds that grow up through neglected concrete and asphalt. The older guys in the boats frowned disapprovingly when he refused. They warned him that they’d be returning with a body bag tailor made for him. They couldn’t help it. Saving people in emergencies was their job. They did it every day, all year round. They had to believe in it. Mr. Johnson’s tv, at the corner, way up in the attic, gave him a glimpse of the situation as it was portrayed by the media. It ran off a car battery for a while. Mr. Johnson had gone with the rescue workers in the boats. He was a stubborn, old pain in the ass most of the time. He complained all the time he was being rescued. He put his faith in the system and its compassion for veterans and seniors. The dogs greeted him with a tail wagging, slobbering frenzy until he yelled at them. They all enjoyed the dog food as the night fell. He had been living under the radar, out of sight of the system, for so many years now, that it wasn’t a great strain on him. He would have paddled around the city to see how old friends were doing, but from the dying images on Mr. Johnson’s tv, it was obvious that there were too many nosy media types, soldiers, national guards and cops. Too many guards guarding untouched neighbourhoods. Those who believed in the system were now stuck at the Superdome and Convention Centre. Viet Nam cured him of “my country right or wrong” patriotism. He learned, by experience, that smooth assurances from the powerful weren’t to be trusted. His doubts were confirmed many times over the years. People with power often deceived in the name of freedom. He contemplated the devastation of New Orleans. Only fools believed them. He surveyed the interior of the van, lit a joint. Billy would have been making his run just when the flood hit. He wondered if the shipment got through.