James and I were sitting out in front of Elliott’s parents’ house, drinking some beer, enjoying the cool autumn air of the late afternoon when, as it did with everyone then, the conversation turned to the city, the recovery, and what needed to be done on personal and larger levels.
James nodded towards a tree branch that still lay diagonally across the corner of the porch, the railing splintered around it both on the front and side of the house. “I should bring a chainsaw tomorrow and pull that thing off.”
“Yeah,” I said and took a swig of my Budweiser. We were both tired from working all day. James, at least, was used to it. He’d been cutting down trees even before Katrina. I, on the other hand, had always tried to avoid exactly the kind of back-breaking manual labor I was now doing from sunrise to sunset.
“What’s happening with the bookstore? It didn’t get any water, did it?”
“Only some wind,” I said. “I went over there yesterday.”
“So when you going back to work?”
“Tom told me to take all the time I need. He’s just got the place open in the afternoons on Monday and Thursday.”
James chuckled. “Some business.”
“Hey,” I said, feeling the prickliness of the victims, of those who lived on the wet side of New Orleans towards those who lived on the dry, “not everyone can be looking to clear a couple hundred grand from this disaster.”
“You’re right.” He smiled and said soberly, “You’re right. But it is kinda funny.”
“I guess.” I could barely acknowledge the humor. I was too familiar with the condition of my house. I knew too well the amount of work—the amount of money—that would be required to fix up the ground floor. Even with the money from the flood insurance, I doubted I would have enough to get it back into the shape it was in before Katrina. I couldn’t even think about whether or not I wanted to try. I concentrated on doing the job that was before me, and back then, that was pretty easy.
Respirator clamped to my face, I spent my days swinging a sledgehammer at the walls. Where they’d only been painted, there was a satisfying bone-crack as the laths broke, then sometimes the pleasant sound almost of china as the plaster crumbled onto the ground. I liked this old method of construction, and it gave me joy to see it throughout so much of the house.
Once I’d smashed plaster for a while, I shoveled the broken pieces into a garbage can. It wasn’t bad, having these different jobs. One gave you a break from the other, and I could think about the house. I sometimes imagined how I would re-do the kitchen. I even brought James over to discuss tearing out a few walls to make a more open floor plan.
“A lot of these are load-bearing,” he said. “I’m not saying we can’t rip ‘em all out. I’m just saying that it might be expensive.”
“Like how much?”
He talked about braces and the appeal of columns and how I’d nearly be starting over, and then he gave me an estimate that was almost the size of my entire insurance settlement. Only later did I remember that I would still need to rebuild the kitchen and buy furniture.
“I told you it was expensive,” he said and took a sip of beer. There were broken, splintered gaps in the railing where he’d cut away the fallen branch. “Especially now. I could probably get you another contractor”—we both understood there was too much money in removing downed trees for him to be doing anything else—“but you’d pay a big premium.”
“Yeah. It was just a thought.”
I’d mostly been thinking about it in order to get out from under my father. When the underlying laths cracked but the layers of wallpaper simply stretched into the hole, surrounding the head of the sledgehammer and holding it, I could feel my dad, reaching from wherever he was to pull on the tool. I would curse him and the laziness that never stripped the old wallpaper before hanging the new—and the luck that allowed him to leave this trouble to me.
The dining room was particularly bad with its various papers, large blue prints on a white background from the late 80s, a garish avocado-based design from the 70s, some gold stripe from earlier, and a blue and white from before that. I only saw the smallest fragments, when a bit of bad gluing allowed the papers to separate. I could vaguely remember the avocado. I couldn’t remember its design—and I hadn’t the energy to try to pull the papers apart to see what it was. Besides having been off-limits, the room had simply been dark for most of my childhood. The wallpaper had drawn the light from the southern-facing windows to create a shadowy room that now felt more like something from Faulkner than anything from my own life.
I’d pulled all the furniture out the day after I arrived. Everything had floated and rearranged itself in the house. The sofa had drifted out of the living room and over to the stairs, where it rested half up the steps, a black mold covering its green cloth back. Armchairs were upside-down. Lamps were overturned. The coffee table my dad had gotten for his beer after the accident had settled, perfectly upright, in the kitchen. A verdigris mold spread across the mirror Mom had put in the entry. Her old dining room set had come unglued in the water, and pieces of sculpted wood had spread throughout the house. The fridge I’d chosen for myself because it had an icemaker had broken its copper moorings and drifted onto its back, where it sat inconveniently in the middle of the kitchen. Boxes of cereal, pasta, and cookies had floated out of the pantry. Magazines were stuck everywhere to the floor, and bright, beautiful faces sometimes smiled up from a layer of mud or sewage. The wet carpets squished when I walked. I couldn’t believe how little I’d taken upstairs. I’d worked most of the night before the evacuation, but here everything was—topsy-turvy, ruined.
There was no nostalgia. There was too much work, and the furniture, discolored by pervasive mold, was too far gone. Nothing was the same, and I dragged armchairs and the sofa out to the curb. Despite the cool weather, I was soon sweating. My hands were moist in my gloves. Fearing the toxicity of the moldy air, I kept tightening the respirator until the gasket pressed uncomfortably against my cheekbones. I was dirty but glad to be back in my home. I’d stayed too long in that crappy motel in Houston, watching the news, waiting to use the computers at the library, leaning against the railing overlooking the parking lot as I talked to the other refugees and we worried about what had happened. It was good to know. It was good to be doing something.
I used the shovel to scoop debris into a neighbor’s garbage can—mine had floated away. The carpets split easily into strips. The wood floor was more difficult, but I got after it with a crowbar, prying up the buckled hardwood along with the glued-on magazines. Despite the physicality of the work, I never sat down inside. I never allowed myself that leisure of reminiscence, because the floor was still too nasty, the air and the house still too disgusting. I pushed on, shoveling books and papers into the garbage can, which I dragged down the front steps and emptied into the street. By late afternoon, I’d made quite a pile of furniture, mud, and debris, and the next day, the city came with a Bobcat and pushed everything down the block and out to Octavia, where they loaded it into the back of an 18-wheeler. I sat on my steps and watched the Bobcat zoom back and forth. I undid the respirator and could still smell the mold coming from the house. I was glad to have the break, to see that there were other people working, trying to make the city better, trying to help. I looked at the dead grass that had once been so green. I wondered if the Boscos’ magnolia was going to make it. It grew on the edge of their property and provided a nice afternoon shade for my front yard. I’d always liked that tree, and I felt vaguely guilty hoping it wouldn’t fall on my house. The Bobcat driver had pushed everything down to the end of the block and now came back for one last pass while pushing a mattress, as if this giant mop would clean up the street. The remaining dust had turned the asphalt white.
It was strange driving from where I had always lived to where I was currently sleeping. The streets gradually lost their deathly pallor, and there was less debris out by the curb. Luckily for James, however, every block still had downed trees in yards or pushed to the sides of the road. As I continued into the dry section of the city, I saw a steady greening of the grass. Houses became free of the rescue symbols spray-painted by the doors. Streetlights began working. There was electricity and an end to the temporary stop signs propped at major intersections. I didn’t mind sitting at an actual, working stoplight. By the time I reached Elliott’s parents’, the world almost seemed normal, except I was staying with another refugee family in a grand, luxurious house that was better than any hotel.
The absence of any of Elliott’s family added to the surreal emptiness of the house. His parents were living up in Baton Rouge, and I never really saw my fellow refugees, this other family which somehow knew Elliott or his parents. I only saw the college-aged son once, and I wasn’t sure if the parents were staying in the same house or not. The son told me they’d lived out in Lakeview. For whatever reason, they hadn’t had flood insurance, and now with the breach in 17th Street Canal, their house was as damaged as mine. I’m not sure what that family did or where they went or if they just despaired in bed during the day. I never saw them, only the evidence of their existence—a toilet seat left up, the dirty dishes now in the dishwasher—when I came back to take a shower, eat dinner, and read a little before exhaustion took me. I slept solidly in the clean, soft sheets, and I assume I woke and left the house while they still slept. During that time, I always woke at dawn to do what work I could during the daylight hours. Without electricity, my schedule was dictated by the sun.
I threw out the magazines under the stairs, the decade-old cans of beans, countless things my dad should’ve thrown out long ago. I should have thrown them out when I’d inherited the place, but I had also inherited his laziness, his facility for doing whatever was most desirable at the moment and hoping that conditions would somehow change before it became absolutely essential to do whatever was unpleasant. He’d taught me this laziness, almost forced me to inherit it by encouraging me to stay in this lazy city, this corrupt city where the real deals weren’t ever negotiated with hard work, but always with a contact, with my dad’s sending a bottle of scotch to the building inspector so that he could do his own wiring—and forever curse me with a microwave and dishwasher that wouldn’t operate simultaneously.
“You’re going to have to re-do all of it,” James said later when the walls were stripped down to the studs and the wiring was hanging embarrassingly, like a man’s privates. “And it’s not just the flooding. I can’t believe you never had a fire.”
“Dad did all this himself.”
“He sure was a cheap, lazy bastard,” James said. “No offense.”
“It’s not like you’re telling me something I don’t know.”
“Well,” James said with a chuckle, “the good news is that you found out about it before you burned the house to the ground.”
I nodded, despite my uncertainty as to whether or not burning the place to the ground would’ve been worse. Then, I would’ve been free. I could’ve simply taken the money and moved away. Who would buy the place now, now that the entire neighborhood was blight, now that three-quarters of the houses on the block were still awaiting their owners’ return and could be smelled from the sidewalk?
I saw almost no one in the neighborhood, despite the constant sounds of distant hammering. Only the Perez house had already been gutted. Its windows were open several inches, and the entire ground floor was stripped down to the studs. It was often difficult to see through the windows of the other houses, opaque as they were with the scum of the flood. The Boscos’ front door was open—it had been kicked open same as mine, the strange circle and cross symbol spray-painted by FEMA on the wall next to it. I had looked inside, and everything was a muddy chaos. I wondered when people would return. I wondered where everyone was staying and wished that Mom’s address book hadn’t been on the counter by the phone. Walking around the block one afternoon, I could hear the beeping of a backing truck somewhere in the distance, possibly on Nashville. The neighborhood was eerie. Everyone’s grass was dead. Refrigerators and washers and dryers sat out by the curb, waiting for the special crews who would pick them up. I dreaded taking out my own fridge. It remained in the middle of the kitchen as I worked around it, and the food inside only rotted further in the weeks without electricity. Uncertain what to do, I’d taped the doors shut soon after I’d arrived. I knew I’d need a dolly at the least to move it—and probably Jame’s help. I kept putting it off, wishing it would magically find its way outside.
And while I was smashing plaster with the sledgehammer or shoveling the broken pieces into the garbage can, I would think about how this work and the rebuilding would further enmesh me in the problems of New Orleans. I doubted my father’s house would ever feel like my own, and I cursed him for leaving me this house and inextricably trapping me in this city. He had been so disconsolate after the accident, unable to help himself, and he’d wanted me there. I got a string of incompletes at NYU and transferred the next semester to Tulane. Dad never was a talker. It was enough that when I found him sitting in the kitchen, drinking a beer at two in the afternoon, I would join him as if it were my fate to experience all of the college drinking I’d avoided by never joining a fraternity. I only realized later, when I was more mature, when it no longer mattered, that he should’ve gone back to work after a few weeks of mourning. He’d finagled an early retirement, however, and this had allowed his sorrow to stretch through the spring and into the next fall.
I had tried to work him up over the Saints—part of his long-term, unwavering belief in the team was a simmering rage at Tom Benson’s constant mismanagement—but he seemed not to hear or lacked the vitality to respond. And I let his sorrow affect me. I shouldn’t have sat with him. Perhaps by blaming him for infecting me with his sorrow, for showing me a life of lethargy, I was blaming myself for his death. I smashed the wall with the fury of this guilt, and the sledgehammer broke through the plaster and laths to the angled two-by-fours that crossed the studs and ran around the outside of the house like a protective layer of striated muscle. The sudden resistance ran up through the handle, stinging my hands, and I threw the hammer. I could feel my anger dissipating as I swung my arms such that when the sledgehammer left my grip the feeling was already gone, and I was glad the tool bounced harmlessly off the neighbor’s garbage can.
I went outside and took off my respirator. I couldn’t stay in that house, and I walked around to the back yard, where I had bottles of water and a couple of boxes of MREs I’d gotten from the Red Cross. The lawn furniture I’d retrieved from the bushes wasn’t in any worse shape than before Katrina, and I sat down to have lunch. The novelty of the MREs and their chemical stoves had worn off, and I picked through the case for a box of chicken and minestrone, because I knew it also contained a packet of the Army’s lousy coffee. I had a copy of Absalom! Absalom! I was working my way through, and I thought I might just read the whole afternoon. It occurred to me that I had nowhere I needed to be. I wouldn’t be back at the bookstore for months, and it would probably be at least that long before I could get a contractor to fix up the house. It seemed like the Red Cross would keep giving me food. I was in stasis, and if I could forget the house, if I could forget the smell that occasionally wafted my way, I could read all the books that had stayed dry upstairs.