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.