Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

Talking with my Grandmother

There’s s a knock downstairs and the sound of footsteps, a door slams. Is it Cook bringing in fresh crabs for dinner? A yell.  Sound of a woman’s voice in the bedroom below and yes on the mantle the clock chimes high low middle gong, High low middle gong.
Grandma looks wearily at me, rings a silver angel bell for a refresher on her drink. It’s an old fashioned with a cherry, bourbon diet coke. She rings again, impatient, eyes slits, a drop of sweat on her lip. I see an envelope on the table, the shape a square; it’s my report card. If only I could get to it.

Cook comes up the rear elevator and sounds of a crab basket dropped on a counter, the slow sizzle of a pot of water boiling, smell of fish spices. If I can just get to that envelope and slip it under the People magazine, or the Yachting or the Architectural Digest. Grandma takes her refresher drink, adjusts the thin monogrammed cocktail napkin under it.

“How was school?” she says.

I look down at the gentle rose and white silk fabric on the side chair. Grandma is on the large beige sofa behind her a pregnant girl 14 puts ice in the glasses.

“School is. . .” A noise downstairs of a barefooted woman slipping inside a bedroom door. Reminds me of Mama. “School is OK. I had a dream about Mama last night.”

“Oh lets not go down that dead alley.” Grandma rolls her eyes.

“But I think it’s a sign.” Another strange sound of footsteps below and a woman opening and closing a door. I dreamt Mama had a lump like before. Only this time it was malignant. And I read this article that says one out of four women get breast cancer.”

Grandma stirs her old fashioned with a sizzle stick.” She uses different colored glass ones at parties to make sure people got the right drink. “This is not table conversation, Bunky,” she said.

“We’re not eating.  . . Anyway, in the dream Mama tells me she’s gone to Paris because that’s where the best surgeons are and she didn’t tell me because her chances aren’t good.  Oh gosh. Is it true? Is Mama sick. Will she die?”

Cook swoops in with some fresh salted pecans he has made this week. Grandma sucks on her swizzle stick and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t want the help to overhear anything private.

“Oh Grandma, I’m so worried about Mama. I’m sure she is dead or dying or maybe in the dream she is trying to warn me that I’m sick. I have a wart on my arm and it’s getting bigger.

“Stop that this minute.” Grandma rings the angel bell. Cook’s wife ducks in a light high yellow woman and bring s ice for Grandma’s drink. I make it over to the table and rearrange the Vogue magazine over the Oprah.  Grandma has all types of subscriptions on the table and below it on the shelf to be sure that people find something they want. I knock over the Town and Country.

 “And leave my magazines alone. I want to talk about your grades.”

A sizzle and a pop from the kitchen, and Cook’s voice booms,” You wanted it with them crabs.” The fourteen year old goes back to the kitchen with a pitcher.

“Grandma I am worried Ma is sick or trying to reach me.”

“You should be worried about your grades. Your mother is a self-centered narcissist. It’s hard to believe that I bore her. Running off to visit the Homes of the Romantic Poets. I can’t believe I inspired all this renting that long seminar tour on the Louvre and on the—Bunky I am sorry to say your mother isn’t thinking of you but she is very well.”

“But in my dream I still see her face so real so like she’s in the other room. Her face is huge and her lips move but I can’t tell what she is saying. 

“Oh for god’s sake Bunky. Find out what’s holding up lunch.

The phone blares. It’s a cancellation. Grandma slams it down.

A door opens downstairs and in the back an elevator clangs up. “Yes. I got the paper,” Clifford yells out.  “Yes.”

I take a deep breath. Pull a slip of paper out my pocket, I try to read it. It’s the dream yes I wrote it down.

I read it to Grandma, “In the dream, Mama is dead it’s her funeral, but I choose not to go.  I didn’t want to. I couldn’t see her.”

“Death what’s done. There’s no more dying then, “ Grandma says, “Shakespeare. We all worry about the d word.” She squeezes her glass. Then her eyes close for a moment.

“What you thinking Grandma?  Do you think this will be a bad summer?” Noises downstairs the shutting of a door.

“You’d think the new maid could be quieter. The working class today is loud. They speak loud move loud as if by doing so they can remind us that they are alive. Gentleness, Gentleness is all.“

“Mama was gentle. But then you walked all over her,” I say quietly.

“What a nasty little boy you are. I don’t know why I took you in. Your father cancels lunch after I’ve gone to all this effort.” Grandma looks at her watch, “He says he has car trouble an hour after the face. The green mantle clock chimes again--Ding dong ding dong, ding dong ding dong dong dong dong.  Clifford brings me a coke from the kitchen with a cherry and lemon like I like. The coke just ripples down my throat.

He hangs Grandma the paper and says, “You still waiting for your son for dinner.”

“Five more minutes,” she says.

Clifford puts the paper on the table over the Vogue covering my report card envelope.

The headlines read, “Newscasters predict a big hurricane is due?”

Grandma reads the headlines, gulps some more old fashioned, cracks down a pecan. There’s so many gaps between speaking. I tighten my shoe lace, unplug an ear, look at the floor. I pick at the wart on my arm. 

Grandma gets up to go to the table. Maybe I can sneak the report card away if a run off with a magazine and say I have to wash my hands. I close in on the report card and see under the head lines article, “Women’s Breast Cancer on the Rise.”

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

Inside the Wisterias

I’m inside this spray of oleanders, sweet smelling tall row of bushes right up the side of the drive from the ocean to the house. They feel soft against my cheek, they sway with the smooth ocean breeze My radio is playing “ give me the free boys and free my soul I want to legit lost in your rock and roll and drift away. The oleanders are taller than me and I feel I could step inside and hide there inside this grassy green purple curtain. Oh the oleander buds dip past my cheek. I can’t imagine what would happen if a hurricane came down the road. Would the water and wind just rip up these bushes out the road?

My radio switches to “lets twist again like we did last summer,” I turn it down. I don’t want to be here in Mississippi. Oh up ahead there’s the chauffeur.

“What ju doing boy standing down here by the highway. Don’t you know those men’s drive down that road like they plum crazy.”?

“I feel nice here.”

Music plays round and round we go again.

“You want to walk along the road and talk a bit. You here by yourself this summer?”

I don’t answer. Let the salty breeze run past my eyes. See a heron dip ahead through an oak tree. I like it here by the beach, seeing the New Orleanians racing down the highway with their red convertibles, or Porsche roadsters.

I turn up the radio, “Did I tell you I need you every single day of my life plays.” Clifford nudges me and we cross the highway to the hot sandy beach. He takes off his shiny shoes, removes his socks, rolls up his pants.  Will Grandma get mad if she thinks he is resting too long? He looks at me.

“I’m telling your Grandma I’ll check the crab traps. You wanna cut some of the Oleanders there back there for the table?


“I thought you like them flowers. Your Mama used to cut them off and wear them in her hair. I think they were her favorite flower. You hear from her anymore.”

We walk along the sandy beach, the thick sand sticking to my toes and I see the foam.

“What’s that?”

“Pollution from the oil rigs.”

“I don’t see any rigs.”

“They way out there. Come out here with binoculars. You see them.”

“Will this bubbly stuff go away?”

“Hope so. Come on you want to help me check the crab traps?

“No. I’m going back in.”

I leave my radio playing to give him an idea I mean business. The hot air whips by my cheeks and he goes and pulls a cord attached to a buoy alongside the beach.

In the distance, someone whistles. A sailboat along the horizon dips in the wind.  I can’t see any oil rigs. But gosh this goey stuff looks awful on the beach and it seems like the water is grayish yellow. I don’t remember that before.

I turn up the music “I can see clearly now the rain is gone. Going to be a bright bright sunshiny day.

Gosh I hope I can meet someone my age here.

“going to be a bright bright bright sun shiny day. Look all around there is nothing but blue skies.”

Clifford is back with a big empty crab trap.

“Nothing doing here,” he says. He sings along with the music, “I can see clearly now the rain is gone.”

Then a seagull swoops overhead and comes by the crab trap looking.

Clifford adjusts the bait tied to the center of the trap. “You got a girl friend?” He says.

“No,” I say.

“You want to get one?”

“Sure.”  Salty wind slips past my cheek. I turn away embarrassed. I can’t sleep now for the excitement of waking up in the middle of the night with these pulsations and sweats and

And the music plays, ”it’s a lover’s question I’d like to know. I’d like to kno-w, I-d like to kno-wwww”

Clifford checks another trap. “Your grandma want you to find a rich girl now.”

I breathe deep, look at the grey yellow water, and the whipping waves sloshing to shore.

“I don’t intend to stay here this summer,” I scream at Clifford. “I got friends I could stay with in New Orleans. When you going back?”

Clifford laughs. “When you want to go back to the city? What you want to do there.”

Suddenly lightening strikes through the sky. And way back from the house, I hear the gong of a dinner bell. It’s Grandma on the porch.

“I done heard from your Mama,” Clifford said. “ She told me to take special care of you this summer.”

Did she write you? Can I see the letter? Is she coming back?”

Clifford looks away. “No. She done called me.”

“You lying. When! Tell me.”

Clifford opens a third crab trap. “This one got just one puny soft shell crab. Now it wrong to eat that.” Clifford went and threw the crab back.”

“This weather some strange. Can’t seem to catch us any good crabs.” Clifford goes off after another crab trap.

My music plays,” Talk to me. Talk to me. In your own special way.”

Thing that’s great about music is that it says all the things you feel down deep but can’t say. You wonder what people went through to come up with those lines. “Talk to me. Talk to me. Hold me close. Whisper low.”

Clifford is back and he is laughing because he has found a flounder in the crab trap.

“Now how that got in here. I’m telling you Bunky. Things ain’t right on the coast. I think the big one’s coming.”

“The big what. Hurricane.”

“I keep the Cadillac full of gas and I’m ready you know. To go back to the city whenever the Mrs. Say to.

“Oh Clifford, the first sign of a storm, let’s pretend something bad is coming. I got to get back to the city. There are no girls here.”

“Your grandma say she getting you sailing lessons.”

“I’m not going to be on a boat with girls and make a fool out of myself. I only want to be—“

“You wants to look good. I see. Well when your Mama get back from Paris, you’re going back to New Orleans and everything will be fine.”

I put the oleander branch I have in my hand against my cheek and I feel the sweet smell of the soft pedals, and the slightly sharp bite of the leaves. And the music plays “Cause you’re got personality…course you got a great big smile.”

Clifford is right. Mama will be home soon. She just can’t tell Grandma for fear Grandma would punish her in some way with the knowing. 

The fifth crab trap has a “Well lookke here 2 pregnant crabs.”

That’s what those big half oranges are on the backside?” I say.

“Yep,” Clifford says. “Ocean can’t be that bad off if crabs is still getting pregnant.”

And my music plays. “There’s a thrill upon the hill. Lets go. Lets go. Lets go.”

We both start singing to the music. “There’s a thrill upon the hill.” I can hear grandma’s cowbell ringing loud from the parapet of the mansion in the distance. She keeps the loudest bell and rings from a spot designed to carry noises out to sea.

“There’s a thrill upon the hill.”

“I had my first girl friend at 15,” Clifford said. “Jumped the broom at 16. That’s what they used to call it for getting married.  I know what you feeling Bunky.

The heat is dripping down my back. And the music on the recorder seems louder. Clifford goes and throws the pregnant crabs back. “You be careful,” now,” he says.

“And you best talk to your Dad about all that.”

And the music plays “Get ready because here I come.”   A young couple walk past us on the beach and their music plays “Little Darling, to try to love  you too?” Is all the music all over the beach blending to bring people closer together or to keep them apart?

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

The house is as empty as my thoughts

I’m walking toward the mansion with Clifford the chauffeur. It’s so hot that even moving my lips seems too much trouble. Beads of sweat over my lip. Sweat dripping down my eyelid. He’s in a three-piece chauffeur’s suit and doesn’t seem to be sweating. How can he stand it? He pulls his brimmed visor over his head. 

I run back to let my German shepherd out the car. I’m afraid the heat will kill her.  Clifford takes the dog lead. He is tall, good look like Sidney Poitier but we rarely talk. Has someone told him not to speak to me? Clifford always lets me walk a little in front of him and there’s a robin red breast on the ground and I recall grandma said that the breast is red because it tried to pick the thorns out of Jesus hands on the cross and the blood ran down.

Sweat on the back of my neck. And stiff grass under my feet. God I don’t want to go inside. How can I possibly survive here for 3 months without my friends?  The click of Clifford’s black polished shoes on the ground.  He passes me a stick of spearmint gum and I take it. I feel a crucifixion is about to occur. If grandma has gotten my report card. No point in defending myself I know it’s all F’s.

Mama used to say the first act of war is self-defense. Don’t speak. Yes that’s what she did when dad attacked. Took on this serene expression and let him reel away. Was she listening to him? Grandma says Emily Post says a good conversationalist is a listener. God I think I’m going to pass out. The dog barks and the robin flies off.   The house up ahead seems to get father and farther. I pause and look up at the parapet. That white railing. Must be 30 feet over the front door. This house seems bleak empty. No one there.

What to talk about for 90 days with Grandma. I hold my breath. Yes if I could pass out that would be wonderful. Clifford clears his voice, looks up; he wants me to keep walking. He starts talking about the lunch he thinks we are going to have.  Roast beef and gravy and mashed potatoes or stuffed crabs; real shells with the stuffing flesh made with okra and celery; Grandma always lets him eat with us but in the kitchen. Putting him in that lower class status is so natural to her. 

Her grandmother rode in a carriage she said and the driver was always outside and in the full air so there was never a thought about conversation.  I burp. Oh thank god I didn’t do that inside with Grandma.  Maybe what’s that I look over. God it’s a snake crawling across the dry grass. It’s seems to wrinkled and parched to leap over at me.

Clifford grabs a stick and hits it off. Good maybe by the time we get to the house grandma will have already eaten and be taking a nap.

Naps were regular for her like desert. She swore that was why she never saw a doctor or needed one though she came from a family of doctors. I can’t rememb3er her sneezing or coughing or with fever even. She believed if you didn’t notice a cold it wasn’t there.

Oh whoops I’m in the house now and she’s in front of me. How did I get here? Did I pass out? Have I gotten some way to speak to her I don’t “Yes Grandma. So nice to see you. Do you think I might have a friend over for the summer?”

Ah yes I don’t know if my mother had any girl friends before college. Grandma made her study fifteen minutes after she came home from school. That’s all she got. Fifteen minutes with the help maybe milk and a cookie. And then study and come first no matter what it took. 

Mama said she thinks she had a stroke one summer. She slept for 3 weeks straight on a cruise with her mother she was so exhausted. But Mama was valedictorian. She got the prize for perfect attendance for 14 years. Even went to school with 104 fever so she wouldn’t miss that attendance award. Grandma powdered her face and sent her off.

In Grandma’s house the sweetest one’s are the help.  They don’t expect good grades. Cook can write but not punctuate.  But Mama’s nanny can’t read.

I’m upstairs now with Grandma. She’s got a square envelope in her hand. Sure that’s the report card.  But maybe not.

I drink some water nonstop brought to me on a silver tray with lots of ice and a slice of lemon. Oh it feels good down my parched throat. I don’t think it’s good for a kid to say too much. Do you? Like Mama left this spring and grandpa died and I’m feeling kind of blue. Who cares if a child feels blue if you lose your mind?

So I’m there with Grandma saying nothing looking at her feet in the pumps she always wore. Two sizes too small (She pushed her feet into a size five not a seven) and the top puffs up over the shoe. She talk about the face that Chinese girls used to bind their feet to keep them small.

She is worried that my feet are too small like a girl’s and that if they don’t grow I’ll be short (although I’m already five foot nine) Apparently her father stopped at that height although he prayed nightly to become six feet tall. On her mother’s side of the family the men were tall. Oh please let me keep getting taller and let my feet keep getting bigger.

Grandma feels totally comfortable saying nothing, “How’s school?” is the only comment.  She pats her stomach (she always wears a light girdle though she calls it spanks): she always wears dark colors, navy, blue usually. She says after a certain age women of style should give up pastels.  She is proud of her complexion, her figure, her face.

I’d like to just get out of here. Run down to the beach. Take Uncle’s Sailboat out for a spin. Go fishing with Clifford if she would let me. Why do kids have to be the entertainment?

The house has a haunted feeling with Mom gone. Each room seems to have expanded.  The air-conditioned rooms hotter.  Now that Grandma and Ma have both gone, will I be expected to lighten the load for everyone. Create stupid jokes. Become the family clown.

I want to go to the movies. I want to watch TV—the shows I like. I want to go back to New Orleans. This heat is crawling down my throat. They say the beach is polluted. In New Orleans I could have a friend over. But then I forget. The house my parents raised me in has been sold. Oh yes. Mama’s gone and the house is gone. I can’t walk back it so naturally like I used to, up the front porch, through the foyer with its antique brass chandeliers and marble mantle and through the big dining room with table set for Dad Mom and me and whatever friends I want. Could be four or five.

That house was Mama’s everything sweet and beautiful in it was Mama’s. And with one ax the thing divorce crashes in and then something you count on like naptime at nursery school. Boob it’s gone. Someone else’s Mama is answering the door. Someone else’s Dad is driving up the drive way in back. The house that was there for you from beginning times. Is there for somebody else.  Your things that you don’t absolutely have to have right now are put in storage and sent to a new elsewhere place.

My dog Greta barks from another room. And Grandma shrieks to bring the dog downstairs.

Oh she’s had pity on me because my throat is hot, and my face seems sunburnt. I burp and she looks horrified. I burp again. Maybe if I’m lucky she’ll send me off to the help’s quarters.

I’m hoping for a hurricane this summer if I can’t have friends over (because of the punishment—sooner or later the report card violation will surface.

Last summer there were more hurricanes than normal. And it seems that with global warming we are getting more. So there’s a good chance a big storm will hit and grandma will be too frightened to stay on the Gulf Coast.

I don’t know how Grandma can take it here. You can’t go out it’s so hot unless you go down to the water. She doesn’t like the beach. She doesn’t trust friends. Just wants the family at dinner. She suspects new people may be there to steal from her.

Grandma’s whole focus is her family even though she doesn’t get along with Mama or Uncle or Dad. She wants these close relatives about her to fill up this huge house that is run for them and them alone.  Grandma amused herself by planning fantastic meals with the appropriate china and silverware to match, cheese forks, and pearl handled butter knives, and tall bone chine coffee cups for crème brulee.

Grandpa was the sportsman liked to go yachting, deep-sea fishing, hunting. But now he’s gone.  For whom will these lavish home coming meals be prepared. Will grandma begin to drill me for perfect grades like she drilled Mama and Uncle, both of whom became sterling students and confused companions?

Clifford brings me an iced brown cow from the kitchen: ice cream, coke, chocolate. Oh how I love to eat. The ice cream is so soothing and his dark brown eyes look at me with a grief of understanding.

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

In a Trance...

Who knows how long I’ve been away. God I fell into this trance and when it woke up I was in a different time and place and on the gallery with my grandmother. Everyone had left because of the hurricane and she was sitting it out trying to figure out whether she should go back to New Orleans. Where was everybody going? They had taken off in one swoop. Shouldn’t we leave, test the highway, get out before it was too late.

The chimes rang the hour and I jumped up suddenly and looked out. It was pitched black and stormy and yes there was now and then the sound of thunder. Should I stay here with grandma when everyone had gone? A strange radio song was playing from another room and I wanted my Dad. Though he was mean and selfish in dark situations he could always decide real quick what to do.

Oh god. If a hurricane came I didn’t want to be stuck here in this big house on the Gulf coast. The sound of a song kept ringing in my ears some strange music they put on between announcements of hurricane updates and.

“Do you want to dance and hold my hand? That was the song that was playing. Oh baby do you want to dance under the moonlight.

Grandma I found myself saying. I’m leaving here. I feel bad about it. Think I’ll do something drastic like hitch hike to town.  Surely someone else racing down beach drive would pick me up.

Surely. “But before I go I want you to know that I do care for you. I’m just scared that the house will blow down and.

She turned a deaf ear to me and handed me the phone. It was Dad he had left for true but he wanted to come back to Serenity and pick me up and if Grandma wanted to stay in the big house and watch the big storm he couldn’t let me die there with her.

“Don’t you want somebody to love played on the radio. I dropped deep inside. Yes I wanted to come get me but at what price.

Could I take a crash course in stocks and bonds so I could realize how to talk to talk to him. “Don’t you want somebody to love.”?

I went and crashed off the radio.

Yes there were the two eye lights coming up the drive. Dad was coming back to get me. We would drive to Florida and pick up his yacht.

But what of Grandma. Could I just leave her here in the big house? Seems like I was always trying to please someone pivoting between Grandma and Dad. Now another phone call. The lines were all strangely connecting as the moon dropped and the Gulf rose and soon there would be too much water on Beach Drive and we couldn’t get out. And grandma popped on the radio, only to hear another dreary song, “And when I told her I didn’t love her anymore, she cried.”

Had this artist written songs out of terrible circumstance? “ And when I told her another girl had caught my eye, she cried.” Ah there was Mama, calling me know from Paris. Did it take a near death experience to get her to call home?

“Ah I’m fine Mom. Just here on the gallery with grandma. No the storm seems to be passing. Yes Katrina is her name. Russian sounding Grandma says. She doesn’t know why they can’t find more American names.

I’m glad you’re fine, Mom.

Oh God it was hot on that gallery overlooking the Gulf. “Got to go now Ma.”  Once again I was alone with Grandma, and unlike Mama and Dad, Grandma rarely talked. She only like interaction with adults and with children she liked to tell stories. But with the heat and the crickets and the birds crying, I knew a storm was coming and I didn’t want to see my young life sacrificed inside a story of a former time.

The dogs began to squawk from the pen near the house, a kind of rueful whelp as if they were scaring off spirits or calling for emergency dog help.

I contemplated whether I wanted to sit on the gallery and watch the water rise and slowly creep higher and higher over the land or go inside and pull down the shade.

Problem was newscasters’ exaggerated disaster to get more followers and it didn’t look bad.  Still a radio blast broke through predicting a tidal wave of 100 feet someone had spotted in the Gulf and feared was on its way to us.

Dad had driven over to the cottage. Was he looking for me? And the boat house and now was below waving up. “Come on down. I order you to come with me.”

He yanked at the door and grandma’s emergency alarm began to scream. She went inside to turn it off. I waved down at Dad. Go on. Someone has to stay with Grandma and we don’t think it will be bad

Why should I go with him? He had stolen and sold off the property. If it didn’t go down with the hurricane, it would be plowed under for oil rigs and/or condominiums. Dad would do his best to squeak out what money he could from his unlawful ownership of Granma’s land.

My throat was dry the wind was rising and echoing through the trees. The branches shook. Ma was gone. Dad was gone. Could the worse thing actually be death? Since we couldn’t escape death why not go in an avalanche of violence and not breathing. A big wash of a wave would probably knock me out.

In 24 hours maybe I would be dead and all this fear and catapulting about what to do wouldn’t matter.

I called down to Dad and told him to go. Anna was in his car and she was shaking in her shoes. She jumped out and screamed please come with us and my uncle inside Dad’s van began to race the engine. They were all so scared.

 I screamed I love you. Please go.

Grandma didn’t believe Katrina was coming. She turned up the news and got static and a sound like the zoom of a space ship and then quiet. I sat back on the porch counting the sounds of cars rushing by in front and then timing the silence between them.

Oh god were we making the right decision. Should I not rush down to Uncle, Dad, and Anna. 

More quiet. Was it just her arrogance or her stupidity that had grandma convinced Katrina wouldn’t harm us.

Dad left.

We were in a big house of solid brick, a villa with 12-inch walls, 3 stories high, rectangular solid like a box of cement. What it would take for that to be leveled was nothing short of an avalanche and earthquake something god awful enormous like a tsunami or unheard of act of natural violence.

The house took on a should like quiet, When big houses go empty they are like mausoleums. Three’s a hollowness to them a big stretch of emptiness, and silence.

Mama called again from Paris. Dad phoned from the highway. The radio faded into a raw beeping sound.

Then the electric went off and everything inside went black. Grandma fiddled with the radio, but its battery too had died.

She said we should go to sleep and when we woke up in the morning Katrina would have passed. More cars out front and now the water appeared to be sneaking over the lawn. Just an inch or so. Should backup and go away by morning. Lots of houses on water were on stilts so used were they to the water drifting in and drifting out.

So if this was the last night of my life, I need to talk straight with grandma.

I told her that I was sorry for any rudeness I cause her and asked her to let me take the Cadillac and drive her through the escape route back to the highway. But she wouldn’t hear of it.

She began reading her Emily Post of all things. Strange book about how to act in all circumstances but it didn’t have a chapter on hurricanes.

My throat was dry and I fumbled inside and got some water from the fridge. Grandma screamed out that I shouldn’t let the cold air out.  Felt really weird doing all these stupid daily things while the avalanche of the hurricane was clearly on the rise.

Dad kept calling, Mom kept calling. We would answer the phone but we couldn’t hear their voices and Grandma’s cell phone was low on battery.

Please Grandma please lets go get the Cadillac and escape while we can. My throat was hot, my head heavy, and it occurred to me maybe I didn’t want to go. God yes let the old woman die. I had to live. I would drive alone back to town in that car.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

Walking to the mansion...

I recall walking to the mansion between the big house and Mama’s cottage. My chest feels heavy and I hear people talking in the distance. No, it’s Dad he is walking beside me. It’s hot, hot. There is sweat on my nose my chin I look down at the hard yellow grass, sweat in my armpit. A bitter taste.  I want to tell him how I love this land. How I dream one day to see my children here. A Knife in my chest. He’s talking with that low rational slow voice about how he doesn’t want me to make trouble. How this land wasn’t meant for me. How I shouldn’t feel jealous that he wants to sell it to give it over to someone else and it’s his by god so he can do what he wants. A pause.  A mosquito bites my temple. I scratch it.

So hard it is. My earliest memories are of the water. Screaming out from the car’s back seat “Wa Wa” soon as I saw the Gulf. Looming up at the end of the road as we turn on to the beach highway. So surprising. So magnificent. So unexpected. This huge body of blue just waiting for me, to dip a toe into, to squish my feet in the sand, to harness the courage to run down the water’s rim with my dog shooting ahead, unafraid of the highway, of robbers, of strangers, or onlookers, just free. When I was two I started loving it here.

Dad says very little. I hear his feet plod strong over the ground. There is a silence inside of him, so if I cry or wait or scream (I’ve done all these) the silence will remain there like a weight fierce cold solemn.  How do you talk to someone who’s mind is fixed plugged into an energy socket that’s closed. I hear him sigh. He starts to put a hand to my shoulder. I walk ahead quickly. 

“Do you know how that makes me feel? That you would just sell Serenity. Give it off to someone else for the profit for the fun for the...  Treachery is what I feel. I am breathing deep, like I’m adopted and just discovering this, like I’m being shipped off to an orphanage, like I am a bastard. A wiring scream goes off in my head. My eyes tighten I have a pain in the back of my neck. The oak trees loop down as if they are crying and I want for them to swing down and take me up. I love my Dad. I don’t want others to see his meanness. I don’t want to be part of the—God I have the same genes. Would I defy all for money. Maybe one day I would. I am not really part of this land this endless grass, this big stretch of grey water, this scenic drive looping in and out around the gulf. What strange planet do I come from and am I going to? My heart sags. I close my tight eyes, look up but Dad is trodding off back to the mansion. He didn’t wait for a response. He just makes a decision and like an egg you crack, throws down the shell, doesn’t look or see where it lands.

My throat is hot, a warm breeze sifts through dry pecan trees, fallen blossoms from the dried out rose bushes lay on the ground.

So many silences here. Silences in the footsteps you can’t hear of people departing. Silences in the dying roses and dried out pecans and retreating beach. The warmth is coldness. Oh god I love my father and yet that love is rooted in a fierce misunderstanding, a shift of values, a betrayal that makes me yearn to self destruct or leave this cage of misunderstanding.

I’m a rich boy. No sympathy for me. No sympathy for a kid who flunks out of school from too much Internet and predawn watching of TV.

Inside the guest room is dark marble topped dressers and desk, cold Ming china bowls, silver ice chest full of warm water. I look for family. This is the room that receives new people, that brings hopes, that is full of camellias floating in water, and cool lemon fresh bed sheets. This is the room where Ana and I have met and hidden beneath red satin covers and magically discovered a new softness.

But it’s dark now. If only sex could stop open the memories, could hold parents accountable, could stop time and choices. If only sex could make you get good grades, and win awards, and bring your mother back to all family functions.

“Time holds me green and dying.” Mom said that. She drifted away. My head spins. My eyes water. I’m angry. I kick at crochet step stool beside the bed. All these heirlooms from ancestors gone by, If only they could whisper in my ear how to grow up in this family, how to love it, how to leave it, how to fill the silences; how to avoid the contempt.

Dad is at the door. My god he is spying on me. Always looking to see what I’m doing under the covers. Does he suspect my affair with Anna or is he just there? His mouth moves but I can’t hear what he is saying.  He is a contemptible vile brute. Always scheming for how he can make money. Always free with the choices that are best for him.

It’s hot in here even though the air conditioning is drumming. Dad leaves. Wow just appears and leaves that’s a wonder.  Think I hear something like I’m sorry son floating on the dry air. He never talks loud. You got to strain to hear him. What he says is so important you have to be alert to get it. He never repeats.

He’s sorry. Grandma’s sorry. Mama’s sorry. Everyone is sorry and for what. I’m a rich boy. They’ll be someone who’ll take Dad’s money or Grandma’s phone call, a school, a camp, a troupe of some sort will take me in.

Knifing in my back, ear hurts, neck hurts. Be brave. Be strong. Get out of this town while you’re young, and strong. Plan your own life for yourself.
Problem is you can’t plan your life without the resources. And it takes time to negotiate between different perspective like a cold war between relatives you have to watch the barometer and see which one is leaning toward a hurricane.

Ah Serenity with its looping oaks, its paths of heron; its stormy skies; it’s water going out to sea farther and farther.  And all the well dressed people, in Brooks Brothers white collared blues, and Rolex watches, and khaki, and white linen suits; croquet on the lawn and mint juleps on the gallery.

Always a feeling of being thirsty for a mint iced tea, or lemon-aid over crushed ice, or bloody Mary’s with snap beans, or cherry cokes with lemon, or purple cows (coke with ice cream/ vanilla or chocolate, or a silver pitcher of ice cold water, or a Heineken from the freezer, or a Sazerac on ice. Or any kind of really cold soda, Red, Sprite, Dr. Pepper. And all drinks have to be frozen or iced or in some snow ball kind of glory: like strawberry, very very cherry, blueberry, vanilla, lemon, and hazelnut. Those iced drinks flow right through you to your fingertips, numbing and sweetening everything. And if you can’t find an iced drink you better rush to the Dairy Queen for a vanilla cone with chocolate dip.

You are really landing into the core of the father son dilemma. It’s a classic tale a boy has to kill off his father to come into manhood.

I want to tell him I love it here.

It's his by god and he can do what he wants. He’s going to be forced to go out. Felt conflict and the presence of the father. A powerful presence. He had started to love it there when he was to “Wa Wa” to let him see the child in him (great)

Up against the silence inside the father.
I love my dad and I don’t want... to see his meanness.

I’m starting to love the way he describes the land. He’s damaged goods. He's accepting his father’s view. He’s caving.

Cracked eggshells image.

Love rooted in a fierce misunderstanding. The son spending his life trying to understand.

If only sex could do . . .for me.
How to grow up in this family.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A boy's perspective before Katrina

Pass Christian the summer before Katrina, a 15 year old boy’s perspective from his diary as I imagine being back there.

I don’t want to go there to the hot thick air that seemed to crawl over my body. I know I had the dreams about the hurricane waking in the night with a full bladder and then walking the long walk to the side by side refrigerator to get rid of something, no to find some food. But everything made me sick. Being in Mississippi the head felt hot like little spikes were going in it like pin heads all over and the back of the neck was heavy like you wanted to curl up in the bucket scoop of a deep porch chair. And then there were the screeching sounds of the seagull swooping low. Over the gulf looking for minnows diving in headfirst but coming out with nothing and grandma inside always had a TV program on low so it was hard to talk to her. Gunsmoke or the three stooges the tiny sound of some meaningless escapade seeming to have her enthralled. What was it she saw in those mindless series that blocked all possibility for communication out? I wanted to tell her about my love for Anna. Anna the golden haired piano player who played the baby grand at dinner Chopin or Bach or Dvorak just loud enough people could focus on dinner and worry about conversation. Other than the weather, which sent instant terror into conversation, there wasn’t much to discuss.

I wanted to tell Grandma about Anna about how good it felt to have someone beautiful want to hold me, the excitement of kissing in the closet, or finding each other under the sheets in the guest bedroom. But the piano playing made you have to stretch for sound and otherwise Grandma was partially hidden behind a newspaper silenced out by the TV series. Yes, the drivers down Scenic Drive were going faster and there were more of them signaling that some people were afraid to stay too long on the Gulf Coast away from the cities and emergency services should the electric go off. Yes, that would be the worst of it - no air conditioning in August on the Gulf of Mexico.

Just a short trip outside to the car and the grease would streak down the sides of my nostrils and the heat on the oyster stones would claw up inside my shoes and my legs would feel weighty in my shorts and any shoe other than an open thong was impossible to wear on the feet. Just too hot. Oh it was awful. Grandma wouldn’t let me wear no shirt and swim trunks at the table or a light thin T-shirt where I felt free. I would sit at the Dining Room table after dinner and in a far corner Anna would play the Grand piano and in another corner of the room Grandma would watch that low humming TV. Did she really see anything significant on the screen or was it just he way to keep apart. She wanted people in the house but not to talk to,- more like ghosts floating around, available for chatter should she so desire it.

Before the hurricane there was my uncle. He amused himself with magic tricks, his favorite the disappearing quarter. Or the card that vanished in thin air only to be pulled out behind your ear. He was truly interested in philosophy. He ordered special creams to keep his hands smooth and limber and dreamed of going to Chicago where he could be a master cardician. (The best magic people worked in clubs or bars there)

What made that summer different was the heat. And a certain weight even in the air-conditioned rooms and the fact Grandma now played the TV all day and all night. Always these silly channels that she was absorbed with. And the racing of cars down the highway. Were they going to the Casino in Biloxi up a ways or were they vacating early for fear of a hurricane in the close out of August.

I began praying for a hurricane. I played a game that every time a car raced by I’d say we are one step closer to a hurricane, thank god. Most people in Mississippi had been through one big storm at least so I felt I’d been cheated not to have one. And that summer of no rain, no big windstorm, no tornadoes; it seemed we should at least have one scary hurricane to pull us all together.

When a hurricane came Grandma couldn’t watch TV and all of us would gather some place to listen to a portable radio in the dining room. She’d send the help off to fill up all the cars with gas though she never allowed the Cadillac to have less than a half tank. The help would talk about the last possible time they could leave and make it home. And flashlights would be found and candles and the tubs filled with water and the shudders outside the house closed and grandma would have the help carry all the best oil paintings and rugs and valuable furniture up to the attic and then we would sit around maybe pray and rosary (very fervent but fast) Of course Dad would have to take his boat out the water and crank it up to the highest point in the boat house and he would secure all the life preservers in a shed or with ropes.  It was annoying when we didn’t get some sort of storm, as it was a lot of work for a false alarm.  There had been 4 hurricanes on the Gulf from 1915 to 1969 so we were due one and now any alarm sent people scattering like birds.

First off a truck with a big bull horn and microphone like the one used for the Church Fair would drive down Scenic Drive telling people to evacuate and giving them a time line. This was done for those who might not have electricity or might like Grandma not be watching the weather channel. Then all the news stations in the Mississippi area would pitch into full gear with weather updates and traffic reports for those already evacuating. They would also show pictures of cars broken down and out of gas already on the highway to and from New Orleans.

My dream was of course to be alone with Anna or to rescue her.  Anna was beautiful blonde 16.  Her background was mysterious. She’d run off from her family. But she had to have been educated to play the Moonlight Sonata with such fragile grace. Always leaning over and back from the keys in a rhythm of connection only she and the piano understood. Grandma loved her playing and her beauty. “Whoever marries that girl may have a hard life but one thing is for sure he will have beautiful children.” In a way that was the highest praise she could give because in our family a woman and a breeder were the same thing. A girl’s highest honor was to be “enseinté,” as the French say, which sounds like a saint.

The cars on the highway out front should have alerted us that the weather was bad. And the dogs moaned so bad out in the pen as if they had seem something horrible. In the kitchen the help talked about Agnes being back  - some female ghost that Cook swore she had seen who had died in the house and came to warn us in bad times.

I just wanted to keep dragging Anna to the closet and make love to her in the helps house in back but she would stop me soon as we got to the point I could release myself and make me pull out and it was totally frustrating but in the heat and with the screaming dogs and with grandma playing that god-awful TV it was heaven.

The scary weather had gotten grandma to playing Mash. She felt so relieved we weren’t at war and she didn’t mind seeing summer reruns.

 The drum of drivers in their hushed run out front down the beach road began to get to Grandma and she started collecting hurricane supplies just in case. Lanterns, buckets for water, cans of sausage and soup and Chef Boyardee spaghetti. And the Mash theme song; she started playing that louder.

We still had the same glorious noon meals gumbo with shrimp and boudin sausage, and king crab, and alligator soup. She even got cook to make Oysters Rockefeller, and Red Fish Courbillion, and hot apple tarts Crème Brule.
We brought in summer flowers for the table but after a day or two their edges turned brown, peach colors turning to purple, green stems too quickly black.
We still went sailing and skiing out front on Dad’s yacht, but we were careful not to go to far out into the deep water in front of the house, too far that if a squall descended suddenly the coast guard would refuse to go out.  Too far that Grandma’s huge cowbell rung on the edge of the beach wouldn’t be seen or heard.

The summer was winding down. We started counting the days till September and the start of school and more and more people started showing up for services to pray to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  She had saved New Orleans once from a fire and a flood and the Ursuline Nuns and the Bishop and the Jesuits in New Orleans (a city half Catholic) all prayed to her Sundays in August. Even at St. Thomas’s Church in Mississippi Our Lady of Perpetual Help was the Saint of Church. And Dad and Uncle and even heathens went to Church Sundays in August.  There was always a hurricane or storm that had just slipped by us or was on its way and could rise up fiendishly and change its mind. We knew that so we discounted most hurricanes.  We had already been through hurricanes with all the letters of the alphabet so if someone talked about a small storm called Katrina way out in the gulf we laughed.