Thursday, September 11, 2008

After We've Recovered from the Toxic Gumbo...

When I opened an email whose subject was "Electricity?" today, I realized I hadn't updated my blog since we'd been home. So here I go, back...

The drive back to New Orleans seemed interminable, although it was uneventful in comparison with the one on the way out. I saw several Louisiana families on both I-85/65 and I-10 who were also headed home. They looked tired, as I am sure I did. My cat Ray was so "over" the car ride that he jammed himself between a box and the rear passenger window and stared ahead so resolutely and pathetically--without sleeping or blinking--that I worried he was dead.

When I got to Mississippi, the adrenaline had worn off, and I was just f-ing ready to get home. I was tired of listening to Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how spiritually enlightened she was (I'd promised to finish Eat, Pray, Love, and could only manage to do it via audiobook), I was tired of eating gummy bears and drinking Diet Mountain Dew, and I was even tired of texting Twitter updates (which are now appearing in the margins of my blog). So I smoked cigarettes to stay awake, even though I am really and truly one of those "social smokers" that real smokers can't stand, and I reset the cruise control for 77mph. Poor Ray thought there was a fire, and he let out a howl to rival even the most feral and in-heat of cats, so I motored along with both the A/C on and the front windows cracked.

My favorite part of the drive home is always when I make it over the top if the I-10 "high rise" in New Orleans East. You can't see the city until then, and so you climb and climb up this artificial hill (it's the only stationary bridge over the Industrial Canal), and then once you get to the top, there is the whole bowl of New Orleans all spread out before you. To the south, the lights on the Crescent City Connection dip and rise like Christmas lights strung between porch posts, and when the sun is setting--as it was when I drove in on Sunday--the Mississippi River undulates pink and orange and blue-Gulf-gray. I can remember seeing that view for the first time almost eleven years ago, how both my brother and I were like, "Holy shit," and my heart beat fast.

This time, I had a similar reaction, only my body wouldn't stop. My heart raced. My fingers tingled. I started to sweat from even my forearms, and I was sure I was about to either throw up or faint. The Franklin exit comes up quickly, so I begged my body to cooperate until I could exit the interstate. I drove the speed limit. I hung on.

At the bottom of the exit ramp, things felt better for a moment, and the cats, aware of the sudden stillness, started up with their cries. I had to get home. Had to had to.

On Franklin I saw dead tree limbs that'd been cleared from the road and piled onto the neutral ground. There was a power line down across from the home of a family who was all out gathered on the porch, the steps packed with sisters braiding brothers' hair. It was a typical Sunday picture, nothing much had changed.

When I finally got to the Judge Seaber (sp?) bridge, I looked left toward the back of town and saw the same canal walls that'd been on TV so much. The water'd gone down. On the lower-9 side of the bridge, I saw that Brad Pitt's houses had survived without a lick of damage--not a single solar panel was blown out. On Tennessee Street I took the potholes slow. I saw a big tree down just before Reynes. It'd already been cut up and its thick middle removed from the street. I passed by empty houses whose destruction was familiar, who had no new scars to show for Gustav. This made me sad for some reason.

As I passed the now-abandoned Holy Cross practice field, I saw black tar paper in peeled-back curls atop some of the old school buildings. I couldn't remember if this was new damage or old.

I turned onto Deslonde and saw that the CFLs on our front stoop were on. I was so shaky and vomitous-feeling when I pulled up by the house that I remember being very methodical: a) put in park; b) cut off ignition; c) open door; d) place one foot and then the other on the ground; e) retrieve cat carrier; f) go inside. Simon was unloading the back of his truck (he'd left an hour before me because his truck only goes 60), and Mr. Taylor was there, smiling, being our neighbor.

"How you derrin'?" he asked (this means "How you doin'," but people say "derrin" here).

"Oh, my nerves are shot," I said, the words falling out of me like I was drooling tacks.

"I'm tha same way," he said. "The same way."

I said to Simon, as low as I could, "I'm sick. I'll be inside." Then I went to the bathroom, stripped down naked, dry heaved, and took a cold shower.

I lay in bed for an hour before I felt better. Then Simon and I ate carry-out Mona's at our dining room table, only I didn't eat mine because it tasted sour and bad, like the hummus had been frozen and thawed too many times, the salad dressed in stale vinegar. We guessed their power had gone out, too.

I cracked open a beer from the freezer, and then took to the task of washing the few moldy spots that had grown in the fridge during the week we'd been without power. It was nothing, nothing, so bad as it was after Katrina, when the dried-up rice grains of coffin-fly carcasses peppered the refrigerator seals, when we had to have a group of roaming Scientologists help us carry the whole affair to the curb.

After dinner, Simon brought in more of our stuff: our art work, my wedding dress, the contents of our file cabinets, the new rug we'd bought at IKEA. I wanted Simon to take the boards off the windows and doors because it felt like we were living in a box, but there was too much else to do, and I was worthless for carrying stuff.

At one point, Simon came in and told me to come outside, he had to show me something. There, a tiny orange and white kitten was curled up on the sidewalk, cushioned by our ridiculous weeds. There were two more, Simon said, and a mama and dad-cat, too.

Later, Simon came in to tell me that he'd seen Mr. Washington from across the street. Mr. Washington said he'd gone up to stay at his house in Shreveport for the storm, but he'd been home already for days. "You seen that movie, that 'Alice in Wonderland'?" he asked Simon. "What's that the girl says in it? 'No place like home'?" Simon nodded and Mr. Washington went on, "I took that shit serious."

I guess that's really the best way to put it, too, isn't it? Here in New Orleans, we take this home shit serious.

And so--thank God--now we are home.

Still, on Monday I felt empty and all shook up. I "taught" if you can call it that, but it felt like I was tripping over thinking, over picking up chalk, over talking about "the importance of description in fiction writing." I put my writing workshop students to work on a craft exercise in "showing versus telling," and I asked them to use their five senses to show readers their evacuation experience. One student described the sight of "clouds moving faster than cars," another, the discomfort of her foot being "wedged between the gear shift and a crock pot." I shared the sound of "love bugs banging against the radiator" (a detail I don't remember, really, from my own evacuation, but I had to offer something, and there are the love bugs now--the love bugs everywhere, like there were ladybugs when I lived in Ohio and fireflies when I was growing up in Georgia, only lovebugs lack the charm of either, save their name.) There was, of course, lots of "sweaty skin sticking to the seat."

Later in the day I started to feel a bit more human. My friend Kim came by my office to bring me a copy of the textbook we'd worked on all summer. I flipped through it and felt vaguely proud, vaguely remembering that we were concerned about textbooks once. I told her about how sick I'd felt when I came home the night before. She said it was probably some weird form of relief, of release. As in, I'd seen the city, finally--all okay like I'd been told it was. But then there it really was, and all the stress I'd been holding in all week came flooding out. It was toxic, that stress, and so it made me sick. Sick like I'd eaten a bowl of "toxic gumbo".

On Monday night, after my Intro to the Short Story and Novel class (which went wonderfully, thank you bejesus), I went to the Parkview to have a beer with some of my school comrades. We shared stories of this storm. AC and Bill had gotten eaten by ticks while hiking in Tennessee. Jenni had begged her way into an overpriced hotel after 18 hours of driving. Joseph and Amanda had weathered the storm in Baton Rouge, which turned out to be a mistake, and so they returned to New Orleans on Thursday to sit in the still heat of their own home, at the very least. We all talked about watching TV, about how the reporters got their geography wrong, how someone actually, for real, used that blasted Katrina-phrase again: "toxic gumbo." Then we laughed some and seemed generally glad to be home again (although we all seemed still to be doing a bit of sleep-walking, to be grinding our teeth).

I slept for ten hours Monday night, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I began--slowly--to feel human again.

Now I am sitting in my office, and outside the winds of Hurricane Ike--still two days from Texas--are whipping the leaves of the banana trees so they look like raggedy combs. I know that at home the wind chime is making so much noise that all the cats--Carrot Soup, White Stockings, Sammo, and the still-intact, still-kicking Miss Stripeypants are all huddled beneath the porch. I read on Jeff Master's weather blog that Ike will have surge bigger than Katrina's, and that there's already 5 feet of surge in the Industrial Canal.

But tonight I can't look at no stinkin' flooding in no stinkin' canal.

Tonight I will go to the neighborhood association meeting. Then I have a Ben and Jerry's ice cream cake party to attend at Markey's bar. Then I think I might just keep it going at Vaughn's, since I'm feeling like me again, finally, and since I am home, dammit, and since I, too, take that shit serious.

1 comment:

a mississippi friend said...

HURRAY and bless de Lawd for preserving Miss Stripeypants! The rest of you sound okay, too. Stay well!