August 31, 2005
WHEN SHE CAME TO, Celeste’s head was under the TV stand. The Russian from last night, the good stuff, was nearby, on his side, and empty. No more Mister $3.99, the red, or Mister Andre $4.92, the champagne, either.
She pulled herself up onto her stuffed chair and peered through the windows at the building across the way. Two men inside had called to her in the night. Asked if she needed a way out. Was she alone?
Not really, she’d joked.
Now she saw she might have thought about their offer. Below, the street was a shallow lagoon bothered by desperate waders. Voiceover: The days got drunk, Celeste, while you were drinking…. Hurricane came and went. Now—
Around two in the afternoon, after counting her change, she composed her list: All the Misters she could afford, for herself. And for the tiny raccoon-hungry hands scratching around in her belly: canned meat, salty things, chips, dip. She’d get a gallon of Kentwood Springs water to chase it all. Fresh, sweet, from an aquifer. She could almost feel it rushing down her throat.
As she gazed at the flooded mess outside, a man with a toddler on his shoulders appeared at the corner. The child held a tiny pack of Huggies. The man called up: “Pharmacy on Cortez wide open. No heat—”
What would you wear to walk in high water to loot? She had no rubber boots. Flip-flops.
She descended the dark stairs, went through the door, but paused on the stoop because she saw pink skin beneath mangy white belly hairs go by. It was the floating carcass of a dog.
A clump of four boys came out of a door down the street, sucking on bottles. “Hey you, white girl!” they said. “This is a disaster! Over here!”
“You just try!” she shouted, but they had moved on. She took the first step into the dirty water, where her building’s lawn had been. Headed for Cortez Street, for new Misters.
Why so deep? Her yellow dress floated up. Her underwear got wet— Couldn’t see the ground, the street, the curbs, grates, or pavement for the water. She tried to ease around anything her flip-flops came to. Slow progress that way. Closer to Broad, the flood was to her waist. Parked cars were drowned.
She discovered the crazy-busy avenue—people in airboats meant for swamps moved by, so did folks in skiffs, and also many in or on every kind of mattress, tub, plastic swimming pool, raft. A swarm, but where to?
Her next step would start the end. So, before it, did she hover, did she know? Did the misery about to arrive—or the revolution to come—hold her back for a half a second? She can’t remember any of that, where she is now. She only knows she was still a bit drunk.
She turned and felt a stab below her calf, above her ankle. Trying to get away from the underwater blade, she pulled across it instead so it slashed her more. Black clouds in the dark water were her blood. After the sight, a barrage of pain so intense she didn’t even take it in at first.
With her right arm—thick, fleshy, whole—she reached down, just to feel, figure it out. Whatever cut her was sharper than a knife—glass from a blown-out window, a tin roof piece. Her lower leg, sliced like butchered meat. She staggered forward, thought, Help me. Help me, God, but did not utter a thing.
She was silent, feeling her blood rushing out. The exit had its depth.
A green boat with stenciled letters on its side motored past. She pulled up somehow, tried to speak. There were six inside. One had a siren horn. They saw her. They did not see her wound.
Never would, she thought, as she closed her eyes, started to fall—
The boat’s wake, a muddy cocoa furrow, slapped behind her thighs as it moved down the river of the street.
It was as if someone caught her then, who—a stranger, she couldn’t see him, but certainly felt him so close he was underneath her own breath, and then, in the next second, she held up her hand, red as Carlo Rossi in the sun. Screamed, “Help!”
The skiff turned, for her.
“I’m cut!” In her sight the boat grew bigger, then arrived.
“Sit there. Show me.” A real man in a gray windbreaker called, as he steered beside her—soft brown eyes, dark mustache. He gestured for her to lean on a fallen oak’s trunk behind her, so he could bring his boat close, pull her leg from the water, and examine it.
He didn’t grab her foot—more careful than that. He took it in his palms like a gift, let the flip-flop fall away. How her father had held her once, or so she believed, when she was really little, before he left. “Oh, oh,” he said. “Oh.”
She eyed the tiny rescue boat’s passengers: two white, blue-eyed women with gray hair, stunned sleepwalkers in pale denims, big sneakers with marshmallow soles. A dark boy, about thirteen, with a trash bag in his lap, and on it, a kitten. Beside him, a tiny child in a T-shirt, Spiderman underpants, and no shoes. A second man in a khaki jacket had his back to them, hand on the tiller of the motor.
The pain tore into every second at this point, blew it up beyond reason. She’d been bleeding half her life it seemed.
Windbreaker man, his hands covered in her dark deep blood said, “Artery.”
One of the old women gagged. The bigger boy leaned in, said to his little brother, “Let me keep the kitten. Close your eyes.”
His brother: “You gonna pull on its ear again? Cover yours.”
All Celeste could see was the red fountain where her leg was, filling the boat. Then the man at the helm turned around, and she looked up. He looked exactly like a movie star.
What was he in? That square baby-boy face. Good at looking agonized. In fact, his face was redder and more lined than on screen, and his eyes were sharper, smaller, kinder.
He was taking off his khaki jacket. No shirt beneath, his abs in a neat, perfect row.
Then he was on his knees beside her. Windbreaker used the name. He was the star. The two old women and the little boys moved toward the tip of the boat, to get away from the girl with the terrible wound.
Movie Star came close and tied his jacket sleeve around her calf, saying low, like a come on, “Your blood is warm.”
“Tie it tighter,” Windbreaker told him.
He yanked it. She yelped.
“Tighter than that.”
He tried. She screamed, said he would take her foot off. Windbreaker eased her back onto the fallen tree, propped her leg higher on a crumpled tarp in the boat, asked, “Lord, what cut you?”
She thought of answers, but the pain demanded all she had. She fell back so her head hit the tree trunk.
When she could see again, one of the two pairs of stone-blue eyes was in a face with a moving mouth, yelling, “We on that roof all night. You hear me? My sister has high blood pressure! Sky high! Give it up?”
Movie Star, still on his knees, said to the four of them. “We promise. You have our word. She’s going to—we are going to lose her—just give up your place in the boat for—so we can speed her—back in minutes—”
I am the “her” in that, Celeste thought. Oh.
The older boy choking, crying, covering his brother’s eyes to shield him from the sight of blood, said, “It’s okay.” He stood, causing the boat to tremble, tilt, his cat on his forearm, meowing. “You just promise. My brother is too little for this.”
“How about I’ll stay—guarantee the return,” the star said to the old ladies, who had not given an answer.
Windbreaker: “No way. I need you.”
One old woman said, “Go on. All right. Go on. We’ll watch the boys.” She stood, and her sister said, “Jesus, Ethel, you gave away our chance!” and she followed her out, cursing.
The boat shuddered, then lightened, as all the passengers climbed onto the fallen tree. With great care, the two men lowered Celeste into the hull and lifted her leg on a bench. There was a loud noise when the engine came back full throttle, and the horn Windbreaker was holding turned the skiff into an ambulance. The street-river’s waders and slower rafts moved out of the way.
What would they have done if they had known what I would have done? Celeste thought.
Windbreaker said. “Can you hear me? Who are you? Do you know where you are?”
She said yes. She said her name.
“Heaven,” he said.
Was that here? She thought perhaps.
“We got some people can help you,” he said. “Outside the Superdome. Doctors—”
The now bare-chested star steered at the rear of the boat. She watched him. On his uncovered shoulder was a tattoo, a little lasso, a man next to some kind of squiggle or swirl.
Celeste had a little red rattler drawn on her upper arm. Voodoo, the artist on Frenchman had said when she got it. That is how they will identify me. I have no wallet. I was planning on looting— These ideas sailed through her and another, very rich, kind of drunkenness arrived.
She could only lie flat and look up. Black veins of oak branches stretched out above her against the curve of after-hurricane clear. There was another place right up there, close, and blue. An opening in the atmosphere. A sexy door. No more pain here, it said above that door. Celeste Willow from South Broad—a drunk and other things, such as, addict, bitch, mess, daughter of a sometime-bastard, slut, even her mother claimed, bartender recently fired for mouthing off by the last caterer who’d use her, and once, long ago, an eight-year-old with strawberry-blonde bangs, standing in a doorway in a My Little Pony nightgown, asking what was all the screaming about? She saw her life in all those pictures, with captions, labels. A teeny, private parade. Like they say, she thought. Fuck that they’d be right.
Maybe this was already heaven, or some other similar place, she half-reasoned, because she had never met a movie star, much less watched one order others out of a boat so he could speed it to save her. Not to mention water in the streets of New Orleans making it a scary, ugly Venice. In dreams she talked to Bill Clinton, Coco Robicheaux, and Mayor Nagin, with his shiny round off-orange dome of a head. Sometimes great giants stalked her, took her up by the scruff of the neck, and dropped her down, too. Those were nightmares, she thought.
Those four on that fallen tree trunk, and the kitten. She would have said, “Give up my place? What kind of fool you think I am?”
The Superdome ahead. How mad was that. Going to a game at a time like this.
Highway ramps rose out of the water. By the overpass, the dome hovering above, a great alien craft, they came to dry pavement. There they found a white tent, big trucks, camouflage, men in boots.
Four pairs of arms scooped under her, clasped, and lifted her, yelling over her head, “Stat, stat, stat.”
“Her name is Celeste, I said—” were the last words she heard in the movie star’s voice.
Soon as she had been carried out, he turned on the motor again, sped off with Windbreaker so he could keep his promise to those four on that tree trunk, and the kitten, too—just like the hero in a thriller.
“Honey, we are going to help you. Stop the bleeding.” A woman was looking down at her. Then there were more heads, some in white and green bathing caps. Going swimming?
Little gods, angel people. She wished she could tell them about that sweet door, get them to help her through. Or maybe they already knew. Bats out of hell about their job, these were, though. Pulling her down the other way. In their presence, she sank and sank. Her flesh leaden, their fingers, their words, so dense, so cumbersome.
“We are going to tie the artery, you hear me? Close it— You have lost—a lot of blood, you hear me?”
“Anybody have a drink? A Mister Taaka from Russia or a little Andre or another?” Celeste made a joke. She needed to lighten the load—didn’t they?
The tone shifted. A new woman took her arm, straightened her elbow, stabbed her vein. Rush of something fresh into her flesh, a filling-in chill, Pepsi Cola right into her muscle.
“What is that, honey? We didn’t get that, honey.”
A hand on her mouth: “Bite down, Celeste. Your name, right? We are going to stop the—” Gloved rubber hands, forcing, pinching, pushing.
Someone strong, trying to pull her tongue out of her mouth, her ear off her skull, her foot off her leg—all at once, in the same place, right above her ankle.
“Tough girl. Tough girl!”
For a moment, the hurt was all she was, the way it was in the beginning when she was cut, and that was all right. Nothing more, nothing less. No idea of a self to run up against it, to know it. The rage, the terror, too, always at the boundary, the edge.
Then she came back—screamed so loud those working on her stopped a second. They were dragging her back to shore. She’d been in loose, open water. “Shh, shh, for the pain,” a woman who had stabbed her said, stabbing her again.
And Celeste did shush.
She woke later, under a tent. People around her were crying and yelling.
“Hello,” said a new man, with dark eyes surrounded by bluish skin, bruises, shadow. His shirt had a bright mustard collar. “We are taking you to be picked up. I’m the driver. Do you hear me—your name?”
“That’s Celeste,” a white coat offered.
“Do you follow me? Can you sit up?”
They lifted her off a cot. She could see the lower half of her body again. Her leg was rioting, hot in a new way, had a line drawn round it, under a pillow’s worth of taped-together gauze. She swooped—they caught her, brought her over to a dark windowless panel truck, sat her on a bench inside, her leg stiff and straight in front of her. All the folks in bathing caps and green gowns backed away then, nodding goodbye. She said goodbye, too, but they were gone before they could hear her.
Inside the truck sat a man in a dirty brown T-shirt. She turned to the driver and said, “So, let’s go.”
“One more,” the driver said.
A girl—not fifteen, skinny, her hair in two ponytails, had a bowling ball under her tiny green shirt. She stood a few feet away, framed by the open, grimy doors of the van, her head cocked as if listening to music nobody else could hear. Someone told her to move on, that was her ride, so she waddled over, climbed into the truck and took the opposite bench, said to Celeste and the other man, “I’m Lucella. You?” Like this was exciting.
“Randy.” His voice was hoarse. He had two gold teeth.
They were waiting for Celeste to respond. When she realized, she gasped her name.
“Hell in the dome and I found the exit. I thank Jesus,” Randy said.
The truck sagged a little in one gear, then jerked, and moved. Randy went on. “I am blessed. Delivered me. I didn’t expect it. I prayed and was answered. You feel like that?”
“They say they taking us to the hospital. Baton Rouge,” Lucella said. “What happened to you?”
“Man stabbed me for my Capri Sun drink pouch. Puncture wound.” He pulled up his shirt, showed the tape. “Praise Jesus,” he said. “Got a hole in me deep.”
“What?” Celeste said.
The truck drove through water, then pulled up onto the highway. Celeste imagined surviving this, and finding sheets, and a bed, and cool water, and a clean bath. But, after an eight-minute ride, the truck stopped abruptly.
When the driver opened the back, Celeste looked out and saw the causeway, a great, elevated road, where it crossed the interstate. They were barely outside the city limits.
The other two got out quickly. The driver came over to Celeste: “Time to go, honey. Need help?”
Her bandaged leg was a great thing to drag—stiff and three times the size of the other. She swung herself around, crab-walked out of the van, took a little jump on one foot, and hobbled across the open highway.
“Sit with them,” the driver said, pointing to two people: a man in a wheelchair and a woman beside him on the ground, sitting tailor style. They were encamped on a bedsheet spread on the asphalt next to the guardrail.
“You have priority, you understand?” the driver said. “You—Celeste, and Randy? And you? Your name? Lucella? These are the Verboises. You all get priority one. I texted them in Baton Rouge. You go to Lady of the Lake.”
“When they coming?” Lucella asked, taking a deep breath.
“Soon as they can.” He wiped his mouth, squinted in the sharp sun.
“When the hell is that?” Mrs. Verbois asked, raising her long, horsy chin.
Lucella plopped down right next her. Mrs. Verbois pulled closer to the wheel of her husband’s chair, shouted to the driver, “My husband’s diabetic. We told you already. Did you hear? We can’t go on like this. We have been here all day.”
“Any minute now.”
“They promise?” Lucella said, her hand on her belly. “I feel funny.”
Driver said, “Gotta go.” And jogged to his open cab.
As he pulled off, Celeste got her first view of the whole.
A skyscraper she knew, the Galleria building, rose up many stories before her, a great narrow mountain in tatters, curtains and blinds flapping in a hundred broken windows. And out on the highway, as far as she could see, people were leaning against the outer railings or walls, or near them, clumps of five or seven at the most, close together, on the pavement in the sun.
She studied them. The groups were not far apart, but each one had its boundaries. You could tell where the lines were from the look in their eyes, their fields of attention, how they had adjusted their backpacks and bags and blankets to form fences, mark territory. A few had lean-tos made from raincoats, quilts, plastic sheets, their posts the handles of wheeled coolers or the aerials of radios.
“Some been here more than a day. Us, since morning. We run out of everything,” Mrs. Verbois said. She and her husband were pale-colored Creoles—he had eggplant patches on his face, wore a large beige trench coat that covered his wheelchair in that heat.
“So when you due?” Mr. Verbois asked Lucella.
“Well you in for it,” the woman answered, gave her a stare so harsh the child backed off to the far corner of the sheet. Celeste stretched out her bandaged leg on the cloth. Randy sat right in front of the pair, cross-legged like a yogi.
For a few hours they stayed like that, waiting to be picked up, saying very little to each other, not really forming a pack as others had. The windowless truck came and went, dropping off other groups.
“Keep that sheet obvious. Let people see it,” Mrs. Verbois said every time anyone moved on the muslin. “They gave it to us. Priority one.”
The sun got a rim, became a disk, and started to sink. Mr. Verbois, who had been dozing, stirred, said, “I hear something, I do!”
His wife told him he was dreaming.
At a certain point, Celeste looked up and considered that no ambulance might ever come. The clouds were fringed in gold, the pinks and purples fanned out, blocking almost all the daylight left. Lucella had curled up like a baby on the corner of the sheet, her hands tight on her belly, as if she were trying to keep the contents in. Randy was snoring, still seated upright, his back at the rail now. Celeste closed her eyes but could not sleep. Too much pain, too much thirst. She lay on her side, her leg throbbing.
Mr. Verbois, fully conscious now, said to his wife, “Doris. That one’s lost a lot of blood, look at her—and the baby about to have one.”
“It’s ours,” Doris said.
Mr. Verbois whispered, “It’s a gallon.”
“I will not, Herbert.”
“I can hear you,” Celeste said. Her voice gravel.
“We got nothing to give away,” the older woman said.
“You a bitch, you know that?” Celeste said.
“Get on outta here. What dope you do? Why you look so raggedy?”
Her husband said from his high chair. “She’s a person, Doris.”
“She don’t think I got names for the kind she is?”
“Hush,” he told her.
Celeste now hated Mrs. Verbois, for judging her without knowing her, and being right. She looked off and away and spied a group of sleepers on the other side of the white highway line. Very still and calm, she thought. She would try their side.
“They drop them off here, too,” Mr. Verbois said, observing her, raising his purplish hand to point, his eyelashes long in that light, his eyes pale. “You didn’t notice before? The drivers put a tarp over them, but those over there needed it to cover themselves.” He gestured to a clump of three women and two slender children with black hair and scabs on their hands, not twenty feet down the highway, their turf a plaid bedspread. They glared back from under their stolen awning.
“Why you speaking to that girl after what she call me?” Mrs. Verbois said. “I mean it.”
Celeste stood, dragging her bad leg with her good one, and crossed to the quiet side.
Mr. Verbois called to her when she arrived. “Hey, you don’t see what they are?”
Mrs. Verbois: “Let her go on over there if she like it. Have a fine old time I say.”
And her husband said, “What do you pray to, woman?”
Celeste said, as loudly as she could, “Don’t tell me what to do,” and hoped that old woman heard.
“You crazy?” Randy woke somehow and called to her.
Lucella rolled up to a seated position, said, “They give you cooties.” Then she sucked in her breath, said, “Something like kicked me.”
“It going to do more than kick you!” Mrs. Verbois said.
“Don’t follow her—” Randy said to Lucella. “Stay here on the sheet.”
“I like her!” Lucella said. Then she said, “Shit,” and sucked in her breath again.
By the time Celeste arrived on the opposite side, the triage-tent bandage round her leg had sprouted a new wine-red bloom. Her throat was a stack of clenched fists, her eyes rocks. Her brain was pounding.
She had found a new country. She looked at the inhabitants. Eight or nine, most flat out on their backs or on their sides, some covered in coats or blankets, most not. Faces gray or ashy brown, mouths open, a low stink. Every color of man and woman. At the end of the row, one still sitting up, off by himself, his body propped against a high barrier wall, knees at his chin. Big old smelly man. A scent like bread.
She sat down near him, thought of her daddy—the lantern jaw. That look he got when he passed, not many days after she reached him.
No rigor yet, though his face was set. Dark tan and a bolo tie, a Texan.
He found the gate, she thought. Must be around here.
Lucella, far away in the unincorporated city of the white sheet, said, “Something just kicked me in the back!”
Mrs. Verbois said, “You gonna have a night, little girl.”
Mr. Verbois to his wife: “Hold the child’s hand.”
“I will not.”
Celeste was close enough to the Texan’s body to feel the cold swirling in his dead-man’s mind.
Somehow she knew what it had been in his last minutes. A few inches of loneliness, same as selfishness, surrounded him like a fence at first, keeping him crouched, and close—a little row of appetites, open mouths on sticks. She thought to tell him they were not what they were cracked up to be, the things of this world, even vodka, and Andre Champagne and all the other Misters in this universe. Did he know? How did she know?
“I am scared! Get away from them over there! Come back to me, Celeste!” Lucella shouted, but she was in another country now. She said, “What am I gonna do?”
“I look like I know?” Randy’s voice carried well.
Celeste leaned beside the cowboy, closing her eyes, begging for rest. But then he grew bigger, and took on a smile, rose and stood, and offered his hand. She climbed up high beside him on billows of air. Huge man with chaps and a lasso, a long face, a bolo tie. He took off on a swirling wind he really could ride, and they flew over the Galleria. Soon they were miles above, cruising and looking down upon the thousands on the highway asphalt and those screaming on rooftops, begging, terrified, burned in the sun. Astonishing, so much injury and terror in one place and time. “What can this reconcile?” she asked him, and he did not answer.
He spread his lasso out. Its loop widened and widened so there was nothing she could see that was not in it—stars, sky, clouds thick as blue butter, people waiting, calling out. Then he dove down close and hovered with her over the road at dusk, so they looked into the huddles of people waiting to be rescued. From this angle their boundaries had no meaning. She thought, oh now if it would just rain and they could all open their mouths and take it in, their sorrow washed back, and away, I would love if that happened, for them all, not only me. At that, he kissed her. And at first it was a marvelous kiss, but it wasn’t an ordinary one—it forced a hard ache into her. And then it was as if the feeling were one wave, a fist, moving through her as he touched her, and then on, and on, and on, and on, through all of those waiting, below, one next to the other, and through those today who ceded to her, or saved her, Windbreaker, the baby boy with his brother and the kitten, the triage nurses—and through Lucella who was starting to cry and Randy who was cradling her shoulders now, though he was terrified, and through Mr. Verbois, and then back into Celeste, and then—
Her new cowboy pulled in his loop, knotted it into a cinch, and rode off, straddling the tornado.
She opened her eyes with a great start. She had seen many things by this time. She had even glimpsed a woman with a great healed scar on her leg, sitting outside a classroom, her feet before her on the rung of the next chair, telling a long story that happened years back, about the wound, and a movie star and doctors and a tiny girl who had a baby in an ambulance, how this was the reason for everything else that woman did, that she became.
But Celeste was certain she would stay here, next to the Texan, and follow him on. It had been settled, and for good, and for the best.
But then, in the far, ungoverned country of the spread muslin called Priority One, Mr. Verbois said to his wife, “Shut up.”
She said to him, “I am not going to.”
“Well then don’t,” he answered her, as he reached down and picked up his raincoat. From under his wheelchair he pulled out a fat clear jug, a Kentwood gallon that glistened blue-white in the last of the sun.
Lucella called out, “Celeste! Come back! Water.”
There was a siren somewhere in the west. Mrs. Verbois screamed at him, “What has moved you to save these scraps out here? What they got to live for next to us? What kind of fool you are?”
Mr. Verbois was silent.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.