The trip was my roommate Jason’s idea. Six days and five nights hiking around the John Muir wilderness reserve of the Sierra Nevada mountain range with his old high school friend Jared, making camp at a different lake every evening. The summer was winding down like a Victorian clock, and with only two weeks left until school started up again I’d yet to do anything remarkable other than fill my bottom desk drawer with increasingly mediocre short story drafts. I was between girlfriends, out of ideas, and bored. So I said sure.

I hadn’t been camping in years, but all the gear from my days as a Boy Scout was still in serviceable shape, so within two days we were cruising north on the 395, the three of us and our packs wedged into Jason’s tiny Geo Metro. The drive took hours, and as we climbed from the southern chaparral into the alpine slopes we passed through towns with names like Lone Pine and Independence, their welcome signs advertising populations measuring in the hundreds and the last cold Coca-Cola for X amount of miles.

It was early evening by the time we arrived, so we slept at a campsite near the trail head. In the morning Jason and I went over to the closest ranger station to check in his car and give them our itinerary. The ranger handed us a copy of the various camping rules, then asked if we wanted to rent a bear canister. “We recommend it for everyone this time of year,” she said. “The bears are going to be hibernating soon, so they’re getting pretty aggressive about food, and they don’t have a problem going into your tent to get it.” She pointed to a corkboard on the wall festooned with photographs of just such damage: shredded tents, torn-open backpacks and cars that had been ripped into. Jason and I took one look and agreed without argument to paying a week’s rental fee on a canister.

*****

Our first two days were calm and quiet. After an initial bit of effort we found our mountain legs and settled in to a light, easy pace. We chatted a bit from time to time, but were mostly content to hike in silence, stopping every now and then for a snack or a photograph or to pass water behind a tree. There had been some pre-seasonal snow earlier in the week, and small patches of it were visible on the peaks and hills around us as we followed the trail through thickets of lodgepole pine forest and small subalpine meadows. In the evenings we made camp next to lakes like sheets of glass; I would assemble the fire while Jason and Jared erected the tent, and we’d cook our dinners and make small talk.

Once the sun went down it was so cold we could feel it even through the double layers of long johns and flannel under our jackets, so we kept the fire burning as long as we could. I’d brought a copy of Call of the Wild with me to read and a notebook to jot down any observations and story ideas in. Jason had a harmonica, but he didn’t play much; though no one ever openly said it, we wanted to be able to hear if anything came upon us out of the night.

While the California grizzly is sadly extinct, there are still plenty of American Black Bears calling the mountainous areas of the state home. Despite being smaller than the grizzly, the black bear is still strong enough to kill a full-grown elk with a single paw swipe, though people I knew who’d grown up around them described them as shy trash can-raiding nuisances that generally avoided direct contact with people. I’d never seen a bear in the wild, and unlike my cohorts, I desperately wanted to.

City-boy Jared, less experienced with the wilderness than Jason or myself, listened with a certain quiet dread as Jason and I went over the common wisdom for dealing with a bear encounter. Don’t run, because they’ll think you’re prey and chase you. Don’t play dead, because they might think you actually are and try to bite off a sample. Don’t try to climb a tree, because the smaller bears are pretty good climbers in their own right, and the bigger ones might just push the whole tree over—assuming you managed to climb out of paw reach to begin with. In the light of the campfire there was a peculiar gray shade to Jared’s face. “I’m sure as shit not going to just stand there,” he said.

“I heard that you’re supposed to throw rocks,” Jason told him. “Wave your hands in the air, jump up and down, scream and shout. Makes you seem bigger and more dangerous.”

“You made that up.”

“No, he’s right,” I said. “They taught us that in Scouts.”

Jared looked back and forth between the two of us. “Tell you what,” he said, “while you two distract the bear by jumping around like a couple of crazy people, I’m going to run. No hard feelings however it turns out, all right?”

Fortunately for Jared there were no bears to be seen, but there was plenty of bear sign, mostly in the form of claw marks scratched into trees around our campsites. None of them looked fresh, but we weren’t taking any chances in getting raided. After dinner we’d seal all of the food into the bear canister, then suspend it as high as possible in a tree a good thirty feet or so from camp; to get it down, one of us had to be hoisted up on the shoulders of the other two. One morning we found an adventurous raccoon perched on it, trying his damndest to get inside. When Jared stuck his head out of the tent and shouted “Hey!” it shimmied up the rope like a chubby trapeze artist and disappeared into the branches. There were dirty little paw prints on our packs where he’d tried to get into them, too.

There were plenty of other animals about as well, always floating around the edges of the environment like a shadow in the corner of your eye: deer grazing at the far end of a small meadow; golden eagles soaring high overhead, diving occasionally to snatch up some unseen rabbit or pika; brave fat-cheeked squirrels that ran right up to us during our meal breaks, hoping to score a nibble of trail mix. While crossing through a rocky pass between two peaks one afternoon a large male Bighorn Sheep wandered out into the trail in front of us, his horns full and curved and his coat already showing signs of winter shagginess. He eyed us with wary curiosity for a moment before scampering up the granite-encrusted hillside.

****

Day three was the roughest of the trip. A mountain stood between us and the location of our next campsite, and to get there we had to climb it. At 10, 800 feet above sea level it was both the highest point charted out on our expedition, and the halfway point of our course. For two days we’d been heading southwest, and the plan was to make camp after descending the far side and then take another path northeast, forming a circuit back to our original trail head.

Even with a sunrise start it took us about seven hours to make the ascent, following a hardscrabble trail of gravel and dust up an unending series of switchbacks. It was earth that had never felt the touch of machine, only hoof, paw, and boot. Our path was so narrow we had no choice but to hike in a single-file line, and we were forced to off it onto the rocks when a rider with a mule train rounded the corner higher up on the trail.  He could’ve ridden right out of my Jack London book, with his sun-weathered face and the gear strapped to the backs of his pack animals. As he passed he gave us a tip of his hat and a “Much obliged.”

We were exhausted and blistered by the time we reached the pass near the summit, but is was worth it. The view from the top remains simply one of the most astonishing things I have ever seen, all the valleys and forests painted out on the mountains below. The lake we’d spent the previous night at, so large and deep and cool, looked like a pond.

We took our time enjoying it, eating lunch and tending to our sore feet before heading back down the southern slope on legs made of rubber. Fortunately, our descent was nowhere near as steep or as long, and we made camp well before nightfall.

We were all pretty beat at that point, and after some time consulting the map we arrived at a conclusion: instead of pressing on the next morning we would stay in camp for the day so to rest and recover, maybe explore the woods a bit. At a decent pace we could still keep to our original schedule, and if not, we had enough food between the three of us and could stand to be out in the wild for an extra day or so.

It was windy and cold in that little gully between the mountains, and we didn’t have the energy to gather enough wood to keep the fire burning beyond our dinner needs, so it was barely past sundown before we were zipped up in our sleeping bags, watching our breath curlicue about the air inside the tent.

The wind only got worse in the night, and I woke up several times to the rustle of tarp and tent fabric. The trees creaked and groaned, and the occasional wayward pine cone dive-bombed onto the tent’s roof. I woke up at one point in pitch darkness, vaguely certain in my semi-fugue state that something was moving through the camp. Probably just the damn raccoons again, I remember thinking. I rolled back over, trying to get back to sleep.

There was a noise from just outside the tent, mere inches from my head, clear enough even to be heard over the bustling wind: chuff-SNORT

And again: chuff-chuff-SNORT

I was suddenly wide awake. There was a viewing flap sewn into the wall of the tent above me, but I did not want to move enough to look out. I did not want to move at all.

Next to me I felt Jason stir in his bag. “Is that–” he started to say, and I cut him off with a “shhhh!” hissed out between clenched teeth. My mind was jackrabbiting, trying to think if there was a pouch of jerky or an apple or some other bit of food inside the tent we’d forgotten to seal in the canister, something that might be attracting animal attention. We hadn’t bathed or really bothered with much personal hygiene for three days; maybe we smelled like prey.

I wanted to see a wild bear, but not while it was ripping its way into my tent.

For what seemed like hours I listened to whatever was outside shuffling around our camp. As a child I’d once seen a huge stuffed black bear large enough to rival a grizzly in a museum, mounted in a standing position, snout perpetually pulled back in the bloody rictus of a snarl. In my mind it was this animal knocking around our packs and cooking gear, looking for leftovers. I was rigid with tension, ready to bolt the moment claw or fang penetrated nylon.

I considered my few options if it did discover us, and came up with a plan: my knife, compass, and matches were in pouches on my belt, and my belt was coiled in one of the boots placed at the foot of my sleeping bag. Our camp was maybe thirty feet from the water’s edge. If the bear came into the tent, I would grab my boots and dash for the lake. A bear might be able to outrun me on land, but I’ve been in and around large bodies of water since I was an infant, and was willing to bet it couldn’t outswim me. Even in their depreciated state my wilderness survival skills could probably keep me alive until I could make my way to a ranger station along the trail. Also, a potential death by hypothermia seemed favorable to being eaten. While it would have sucked to abandon the guys, as Jared said, no hard feelings, however it turns out.

Next to me, Jason was wide awake, his body held too still to be asleep–though Jared, it turned out, slept blissfully through the entire night.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but I did—though I don’t think “sleep” is really the accurate term; more likely my body could no longer stand the constant adrenaline stimulus and just shut down. It was daylight, well into morning, and both Jason and Jared were snoring. All I could see out of our tent flap was our bear canister, still dangling from the branches. But I didn’t get up and leave the tent until the others were awake.

Because of the wind there were no discernable paw prints around our campsite. Our packs had been knocked around a little bit but were otherwise unmolested. The same with the canteens left hanging on a tree branch and the mess kits fireside. I mentioned my plan to Jason. “Funny,” he said, “I was thinking the exact same thing.”

We started to wonder if maybe it hadn’t been raccoons after all, or perhaps even the result of the wind. It wasn’t until we went to retrieve our food that we saw the three claw marks gouged head-level into the tree where we’d hung it.

They hadn’t been there the previous day.

Without any discussion we decided to break camp after breakfast and push on up the trail.

*****

Quick note: Aside from the image of the bear (courtesy of the Internet) all photographs were taken by myself and my traveling companions. I would also finally see a live bear years later in the swamps of Louisiana.

Six Chambers

By Matthew Baldwin

Essay

On a late spring day in 2001 my sister’s drug-dealing ex-boyfriend crashed the pool party she was throwing at our house in the suburbs and shot two people on our front porch. He used a small, snub-nosed revolver from a distance of less than ten feet, firing off all six rounds. Five of them hit their mark.

This isn’t my story. I wasn’t even there; I was in the final year of my undergraduate studies at the University of California, Riverside, living in my own apartment and diligently working on my senior thesis. I’ve struggled to tell it before, as fiction, in poetry, by inserting myself into the narrative as a character, but it felt disingenuous then, and it feels disingenuous now. I don’t even know most of the people involved, and what details I have stem from one or two eyewitness accounts and a brief glimpse at the police report. And yet, even though I wasn’t present for these events, I cannot deny they’ve had an effect on me.

I will try to tell it as best I can.

*****

What I know is this: Daniel and my sister had been broken up for a few weeks, and he was having so much trouble letting go she was forced to get a restraining order. He turned up at the house drunk, and very likely tweaking on crystal meth as well. Accounts conflict as to whether the gun was hidden in the waistband of his jeans or the back pocket, but whatever his intentions were when he let himself into the empty house, he came packing. He wandered through to the backyard, where twenty or so of my sister’s friends had been drinking cheap beer and doing cannonballs off our diving board for a few hours, and immediately got into a shouting match with my sister. I don’t know what was said exactly, but I do know that when Daniel refused to leave several of the guys at the party took it upon themselves to escort him back out front, using their presence as a crowd to shepherd him. At first it worked; he went willingly, if begrudgingly.

No one thought to call the police.

When they made it to the front yard things changed. Maybe someone said something to provoke him, maybe some faulty synapse in his little tweaker brain misfired, but whatever the reason Daniel went on the offensive, drawing the gun and threatening the crowd with it, even though he had a clear path of escape to his truck.

Alcohol and adrenaline combined create a potent brew for stupidity, and after a second or so of shocked paralysis, one of the partygoers decided to do an extremely brave and absolutely foolish thing: he launched himself forward in an attempt at a flying tackle, but being drunk, only managed to stumble and get Daniel around the ankles.

Daniel shot him four times at point-blank range, opening up angry red blossoms in his chest, stomach, pelvis and thigh. He then fired the last two rounds into the crowd, apparently at random. One shot struck someone in the forehead, but the thick bone deflected the bullet sideways instead of allowing it to pass through. It opened up the skin of his right temple like a seam, right down to the skull. He was concussed and bleeding badly, but alive. Before anyone could do anything else, the now-unarmed Daniel fled in his truck.

My sister’s girlfriends kept her hidden in the house while this went down, and I think it was one of them who finally decided that calling for emergency services might be a good idea.

The aftermath was—perhaps unavoidably—anticlimactic. Both victims survived their injuries, though the first one spent the better part of the week in the ICU. When the police searched Daniel’s apartment, they found no sign of his drug activities aside from a misdemeanor amount of marijuana (he likely went straight there after the shooting and cleaned everything out; I would’ve). After two days as a wanted man Daniel surrendered to the police, and because he’s half Mexican and a fluent Spanish speaker, he was considered a high flight risk and denied bail by the court. It was months before the case went to trial, and when it did Daniel got off with a slap on the wrist; since he plead guilty to a charge of attempted manslaughter, had been a model inmate in the county lockup, and hadn’t actually killed anyone, the judge sentenced him to a couple of year’s probation, with credit for time already served. He walked, though the restraining order remained in effect.

The blood of the two shooting victims left stains on the pavement of our porch and front walkway.

We never figured out where that sixth bullet went.

*****

I look at these words here, that I’ve written and rewritten, and I don’t know what to make of them. I do not know how to respond to the knowledge that this happened, that this violence brought itself to our very doorstep to further mar the home where I spent the majority of my childhood, even though by that point I was already gone, having deliberately distanced myself from the unhappiness that already resided there.

What they don’t tell you about a gunshot is that the impact doesn’t just strike in the here and now, it ripples backwards in time to damage the past. A bullet wounds not only flesh, but memory as well.

None of us live there anymore. Once her divorce from my stepfather was final my mother sold the house, and she and my sister found new places to live. I finished my degree in Riverside and moved to New Orleans for graduate school. But the karate studio I teach at now is in the same neighborhood, and from time to time I pass by the house. When I do this is always the first thing I think of.

It’s the damndest thing. As I say, I wasn’t there, and yet the mind is a tricky machine; it combines this information with the knowledge I already possess to create the synthesis of a memory, one that I can turn and walk through, moment by moment, room by room. I know the exact path Daniel walked from our front door to the back. Though I didn’t know any of my sister’s friends at the time (she and I have always sailed different social seas), I knew the kind of people she hung out with, and my imagination fills in the details: their baggy shorts and sideways ball caps, cans of Bud Lite and crumpled packets of Marlboros. I know the crack of the shots and the smell of cordite; I’ve seen gunshot wounds up close and personal, and will never again require my imagination to recreate them.

By happenstance, I was in town that weekend, taking a brief respite from the rigors of my thesis by attending a friend’s barbeque. I first learned about the shooting when the ten o’clock news ran a report on it. The reporter stood just down the street from our house, but out of the corner of the frame you could see the yellow police tape marking off our lawn. I remember feeling a riot of emotions when I saw that: fear, anger, worry, and even guilt that I hadn’t been there to do something about it.

But not surprise.

I think I’d been expecting something like this to happen for a long time.

I met Daniel once or twice, and wasn’t impressed. When we were in high school my sister’s taste in boyfriends always ran towards bad boys, the kinds of knuckle-dragging aggro meatheads who spent their spare time either in detention or on the lookout for things to stuff firecrackers into and watch explode, and Daniel was no exception. It was only a matter of time before one of these troglodytes engaged in some spectacular criminal violence.

No one knew about the drug dealing, though; my sister took pains to hide that from us, even after they’d broken up. She also hid his fondness for firearms. I’ve thought about that gun a lot during my attempts to write this. I cannot imagine what Daniel was planning on doing with it. It would be too easy to write it off as junky behavior, but I think that’s a fallacy. High or not, he had the foresight to load it, bring it, and to conceal it when he came inside. Was he intending to force my sister to take him back at gunpoint? Did he anticipate a shootout with some of the other people at the party? My sister had told him about my martial arts training–was one of those rounds meant for me, in case I was there and caused him trouble?

I don’t know. I doubt I ever will.

One thing I can say, though, is that this episode forever ended any infatuation I had with firearms. I’m not looking to overturn the Second Amendment or outlaw the NRA, but I sure as shit don’t want a gun anywhere near me. I refuse to allow them into my home, and any invitation to go down to a gun range and fire off a few rounds is met with a firm “no, thanks.” And I reject, whole cloth, the entire notion that they are in some way “for defense.” The act of penetrating a human body with explosively-propelled bits of metal is designed to be fatal, and there is nothing defensive about that. As far as I am concerned, a gun is the unearned power to take the life of another human being, available for purchase far, far too cheaply.

We’ve reached the end here, and I still don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know how to articulate the emotions this stirs up. I’m angry, and I want to be angry, I believe this anger is deserved, but I do not know where to direct it. My sister, for all her lapses in judgment, did everything in her power to push Daniel out of her life, and it isn’t her fault he clawed his way back in. Daniel has long since disappeared; if there’s any justice in the world he was picked up for another violation and is now doing time. I suppose this could be thought of as a warning, about how we sometimes invite those people most dangerous to us into the innermost areas of our lives, even though–because–we know they might very well cause us harm. We’re moths in a world of candle flames.

But that doesn’t really help. I’m still angry. Angry because, eight years on, those bloodstains are still there, enduring all of the effects of time and weather, of bleach and scrub brush.

And in my mind, they always will be.

I’ve been thinking about blood a lot lately.

Blood I’ve spilt, and blood I’ve seen spilt. The red fluid gushing out of a beheaded rattlesnake’s body, sizzling as it splattered onto the hot Mexican soil. The crimson seeping out of the crushed chest of a fourteen year-old boy, opened up like a book as the doctors tried to massage his heart back into life. We cut the snake into strips and fried the meat over an open fire. And as for the boy, there was simply too much of him smeared across the front grill of a wrecked car, and his poor heart had nothing left to pump.

I think about my own, the biological magma that during the summers of my childhood would spontaneously erupt in a series of unpredictable nosebleeds, leaving permanent stains on my shirts and pillowcases. Once, as a teenager, I awoke from a particularly vivid dream about murder and mayhem to find my face and hands coated with blood, momentarily horrified to think I had become some murderous somnambulist.

Some of those bleeds were so strong they seeped through my fingers, even though I pinched my nostrils closed hard enough to make my fingers ache. My pediatrician could never find anything medically wrong. It was as though my body was just too small a container for my life.

These days I give it away, one pint of Matt-brand O+ offered up every nine weeks or so. The ladies in the blood mobile love my large, generous veins, so easy to hit with the needle.

It’s a strange thing, blood. You can never predict how a person will respond to the sight of it. Some people faint, some vomit, some are ambivalent, some are fascinated, some stimulated into a state of extreme sexual arousal. Once a month its appearance is a sign of healthy fertility, yet in many cultures menstruating women have been forced to spend this time in exile, somehow marked as “unclean” by their ability to create life. For Indo-European pagans, the act of sprinkling blood on a person during a ritual sacrifice was called bleodosian, a term later co-opted and transmuted by the Christian church into the word blessing.

It never really comes out. Eight years ago my sister’s ex-boyfriend shot two people on our front porch. We sold the house and moved on, but the stains on the concrete remain, enduring sun and rain and the passage of time.

Among its other contents, my blood contains the proper genetic alchemy for brown hair and eyes, astigmatism, male-pattern baldness, a predilection towards cancer, and a susceptibility to chemical dependency. If certain parties are to be believed, it may also contain the right codes for a greater abundance of melanin in my skin, a longer stride, congenital heart disease, and…a susceptibility to chemical dependency. But while being an O+ means I can give to anyone else with a positive blood type, I can only receive from other Os. My blood marks me as a giver, not a taker.

But is that me, these components? If you were to unspool the chain of my DNA and climb it, what would be waiting at the far end? A set of model kit instructions for assembling my physical self, certainly, but while all those pieces make me, do they define me?

They say blood—and thus, DNA—is thicker than water. That it is the inseparable bond which holds families together, the ultimate yardstick for measuring loyalty and allegiance. To feel particularly close to someone is to love them like family. And to go against the family is to commit the worst trespass.

They say an oath written in blood is one that cannot be broken.

I say, fuck that.

For my 1000 Words entry, I detailed the revelation that I might in fact be the bastard child of my abusive stepfather, an event that was pivotal in the formation of my identity as an adult. One of the larger bits of fallout from the detonation of that particular emotional atom bomb was the development of my belief that people don’t get a free pass simply because we happen to share genetic material. This belief, and my willingness to act on it by writing that essay, has cemented my position as the family pariah. Most of them no longer speak to me, and I am not invited to holiday gatherings. I’ve gone against the blood.

Maybe this should upset me, but it doesn’t. Part of this status is self-imposed. The truth is, I’ve long felt closer to those I call “friend.” The people I’ve chosen to have in my life have often felt more like the traditional definition of “family” than the one I was born into.

I suspect that I am expected to cover up or avoid the question of my conception and birth, out of deference to someone else’s embarrassment or shame, but I won’t. I’ll discuss it with anyone who’s curious, and have done so for years. During the recent TNB gathering in Los Angeles, it came up in separate discussions with Lenore, Duke, Simon and Zara, each conversation inevitably coiling around to the question everybody asks: “Don’t you want to know? Aren’t you curious?”

No, I don’t. I reject the notion that my blood—my genetics, my DNA—define my identity. These things may be what I am, but they are not who I am. I’m a being of will and choice. The qualities—and flaws—of my character belong to me, and no one else. The quantitative concept of my Self cannot be measured under a microscope. I would gain nothing from this knowledge.

And yet….

….and yet….

These conversations started the little hamster in my head busily spinning on his wheel. The denial of my stepfather’s claim to parentage has been ongoing for so long that it has, like my blood, simply become another part of me. But things have changed. I became the first person in my family to earn a master’s degree, survived a natural disaster, turned thirty and (hopefully) shed the last of my post-adolescent angst. I’m comfortable enough now with my identity to understand that it doesn’t need to shaped around a question mark. I must admit that I am curious after all.

Regardless of the outcome, I’ll still be my own bastard, not anyone else’s.

My blood, it seems, is relevant again.

I spoke with a coworker, a geneticist by trade, about getting a DNA test done, envisioning some sterile, CSI-like scene: a scientist spinning vials of the red stuff through a centrifuge in some chromed, blue-lit lab while a Massive Attack tune plays in the background. I was crushed to learn that for about $30 I could purchase a kit from any pharmacy in the U.S. All that was required was a cheek swab from myself and another willing donor and a processing fee of about $125, all of which I could mail in. No blood required.

For less than $200 out-of-pocket I could know, conclusively. “Willing donor,” however, is a stickler. The few members of my family who maintain contact with me are either from my mother’s side of the fence, are too distantly related to be a viable candidate, or live too far upstate.

Except one.

I have stepsister, my stepfather’s daughter from a previous marriage, and the knowledge that she may actually be my half-sister weighs on my mind. It’s like a patina of dust, barely there yet persistently reappearing every time you think you’ve wiped it away. Though we are only six months apart, I did not include mention of her in my 1000-word piece because by that point she had written herself out of the story of my life. She went to live full-time with her mother when I was fourteen, and aside from a few letters and one phone call during our freshman year of college, we have not communicated with each other since.

More than anything else now I want to know if the substance that runs in her veins is anything like mine.

She lives here in town. I obtained her phone number a few years ago. It’s written down in my address book, and even programmed into my cell phone. But I’ve never called it. After so much time we’d be strangers to each other. Were it not for the question of a few red cells suspended in plasma we would not be entering each other’s orbit at all. It’s unlikely there would be any sort of joyous reunion in learning we’re really siblings, or that she would even care enough to donate a sample. Her battle into adulthood wasn’t bloodless either, and as someone who has had his own wounds forcibly reopened for another’s benefit, I find that I cannot bring myself to risk potentially doing so to her.

For over ten years I’ve been content, and even proud, to live without knowing. I think I’ve got it in me to keep going a while yet. She is who she is, and I am who I am.

A little blood isn’t going to change that.

*****

A note from the Dept. of Credit Where Credit’s Due: This essay was inspired in part by my recent re-reading of Zara Potts’s excellent “Bloodless.” You do yourself a disservice by not reading it.

The first thing I did after you moved out was rearrange the furniture.

Before your moving truck even made it down the hill to the interstate I was back upstairs, calculating the new equation of chair/couch/bed/desk that redefined “our” home as “my” home. It was easy; the strength I wasted trying to keep us together was more than adequate to the task. With all of your junk gone there was at last room to move, room to breathe. You took away so much but at least you left me with that.

Next I cleaned. Every spill, every stain, every unwashed surface you spent months ignoring I attacked. Your laziness towards housework had accreted in buildup behind the toilet, under the microwave and in all the little crumbs of half-eaten cat food scattered around the edges of the carpet. I swept and mopped and scrubbed, down on hands and knees with a toothbrush where need be. I mauled the carpet with the vacuum, running it back and forth, over and over, siphoning up piles of fur left behind by two cats I hope never to see again and the dog I’d give anything to have back.

I found the ashtray stuffed full of cigarette butts you left for me out on the balcony. Thank you for that.

When that was done I stripped the bed like a carcass, collecting the worn sheet set you’d left behind and hauling it down to the dumpster. A waste, yes, but it was too worn out to be donated to Goodwill. I warned you about that in the store, tried to tell you that the pets’ claws would hook on all those embroidered flowers and tear the comforter to shreds. “But it’s pretty,” you insisted, as if this were the principal criteria for the purchase of any household item, and I chose not to carry the fight further. When the animals proved me right you hated me for it, even while we lay as pages between those covers.

I organized the DVDs and the books and cupboards, discovering in the process that my copy of Shaun of the Dead was missing. My posters and decorations were repositioned and re-hung, liberated from the tyranny of a single bedroom wall. I did this all while playing CDs by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on my stereo system, thrilled I could once again listen to them without hearing your endless complaints of “Ugh! Chick music!”  

Every photograph of you and I, every image that suggested we had been together in any sense at all, I collected into a shoebox I shoved into the back of the closet, where it remains. I could have burned or shredded them, tossed them in the dumpster along with your sheets, but like it or not you are a part of my past, and I cannot burn you out of my memory. But I saw no need to leave reminders of that lying about.

When all this was done, when the apartment finally looked like a place where I lived rather than where I merely existed, I was still buzzing, blurry around the edges with unspent energy. It was early dusk, the sun still up in the air, and I doubted you’d even made it to the Arizona border. I went for a run, making sure to listen to my iPod so I wouldn’t have explain to the neighbors out walking their dogs why mine wasn’t jogging with me this time. On the way home I bought dinner from that Hawaiian barbeque place you hated, even though you only ever tried one dish.

After dinner I took a long shower, since there was no one around insisting she had to take a bath. I scrubbed myself the way I scrubbed the floor, and made a note to throw out all of those various little bottles of bath oils and emollients you left behind. When finished I chose to stay naked, faint steam rising off my skin in the apartment’s cool January air. I walked around the living room aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of my unclothed body. The lights were on and the blinds half-open, and I could hear you in my head, yelling at me about how someone would see, how embarrassing it would be.

“Fuck it,” I said to you-in-my-head, “anyone spending their time staring in through my windows gets exactly what they deserve.” And that was the last word on the matter.

I watched my DVD of Blade Runner, the film you always said you “don’t get,” because it is how I’ve christened every solo apartment I’ve ever had, and because it is my favorite, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.

When I finally felt tired I stretched out on the bed, now fitted with my old flannel sheets from college, and marveled at how much space there was, and how relaxed I felt in it. I avoided looking at the empty spot at the foot where the dog should have been curled up in a little fuzzball.

I thought about how much time I would have to write, without you around to constantly interrupt.

I decided to take up learning the guitar again, and to exercise more.

I wondered about the next person I would date, and the next person I would sleep with, and which would come first. 

The last thing I did after you moved out was send an email to my friends, everyone I should have called individually but just didn’t have the patience to, to bring them up to speed on the day’s events. Instead of paragraphs I wrote only two words:

“It’s done.”

Note to the reader: I lived in New Orleans from 2001-2005. For the last six months of this period I held a position both on the security team and as an ER intake/administrator at the Oschner hospital, the largest medical facility in Orleans Parish and one of only two to remain open in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. As a member of the Disaster Relief Staff I remained within the city for the storm and the first few weeks of the aftermath. The following document is a collection of the emails I mass-sent to friends and family during that time. I have edited out some bits of personal information of no interest to the casual reader and have made some minor corrections to the spelling, but have otherwise left the text unchanged, grammatical warts and all, so as to preserve the immediacy in which these were originally written. Some of the second-hand information reported herein was later proven to be hearsay, and some of it turned out to be worse than originally thought. I was very torn as to whether I should publish this at all, and am doing so largely due to the encouragement of some friends and fellow TNBers.

The paragraph titles are taken from the subject lines of the original emails.

Hurricane 8/28/2005

There’s a Category Five hurricane barreling down on New Orleans right now, the biggest in the history of the state according to some of the news anchors. The Mayor has issued a mandatory evacuation alert, coupled with Sheriff Harry Lee announcing, “If you stay, you’re a damn fool,” at a press conference this morning. My girlfriend is evacuating to her parents’ home in Mississippi. I’m a damn fool, and am going to remain in the city. The security department has been deemed “essential emergency staff” at the hospital, although in what capacity we can be helpful I do not really know. It’s a fairly new building and up to code as far as structure is concerned, so I should be safe enough, and if anything happens I’ll be able to get treatment right away. Just hope my apartment survives all right.

Approaching the Hour 8/29/2005

Half past midnight and a glance at the sky outside of the Emergency Room makes me feel like I’m in an H.P. Lovecraft story. The night overhead is an inky expanse ribbonned with gray streaks, and it moves and undulates in a seething mass, as though heralding the rise of something ancient from the depths of a brutal and uncaring sea. The whistling of the wind is painful on the ear. Out on the street I can see stop signs bending to forty-five degree angles, and I foresee them becoming deadly projectiles before this thing is done.

We have a skeleton staff on hand here. Everyone is nervy, on edge and afraid, and drinking more caffeine than is probably healthy.

It’s going to be a long night.

The Hammer Falls 8/29/2005

I don’t know what time it is. Hurricane Katrina is beating us senseless. The wind battering against the glass is choking with water. Unidentifiable pieces of debris can be glimpsed hurtling through the air. Parts of the hospital shake like we’re in an earthquake. Staff, patients and their families are huddling down in corridors, exam rooms and waiting rooms, away from any exposed windows. No matter where you wander, you can hear the desperate sobs riding just underneath the barbaric winds.

At some point in the last hour we lost main power, and are currently on the reserve generator. Enough to keep the critical care machinery functioning, provide some lighting and power to the computer terminals, but that’s it. We are currently without television, radio, or telephones. The plumbing has stopped working entirely, and the hallways near the restrooms are thick with the odor of human waste.

I’m off shift right now, and need to find a safe spot to take a nap—I’ve been awake since this time yesterday.

Aftermath 8/29/05

It’s about 3:30 PM right now. The worst of the storm seems to have passed, and by the looks of it beat the living daylights out of the hospital front—there’s broken glass, metal debris, and stripped siding from the buildings lying everywhere. Although we didn’t flood, places throughout the facility sprung leaks in the ceiling, and we had to seal off portions of the campus. We’re still without main power and running water. Without air conditioning the hospital is growing uncomfortably warm.

A few police officers have stopped by to check in. They report that downtown took it very hard; apparently the glass windows on the Hyatt-Regent blew out. My neighborhood is said to have fared better, so there’s a chance I might actually have a home to go back to tomorrow.

My cellular network is either damaged or overloaded; I get a busy signal every time I try to call someone.

In a very surreal turn of events, as Katrina raged outside, I found myself catching a few hour’s sleep in an OB/GYN exam room.

On the exam bed.

Hot 8/30/2005

I won’t be going home anytime soon. The lake, pregnant with runoff from Katrina, has ruptured through the 17th Street levee, spilling water into the city. Levels are rising right now, and movement within the city is completely cut off. The hospital seems be staying dry, but that could change very soon.

Temperatures rose sharply, and everyone inside is miserable. The emergency generators are unable to power the AC without cutting out the support systems for the patients in the Intensive Care Unit, and the nurses and doctors are walking around in cutoff scrubs and tank tops. Those of us on the security detail have been instructed to remain in full uniform, and I am developing a heat rash in some very uncomfortable places. Bottled drinking water is in urgent demand.

The psychiatric ward on the seventh floor is having extreme problems. The doctors have been upping the patients’ levels of Thorazine since before the hurricane hit, but the rising temperatures aren’t helping. We’ve had three calls up there in the first half-hour of my shift. I’ve had four other cases of internal violence since then, largely do to a potent combination of heat and fear.

I still can’t make any calls on my cell phone, but I was able to swap text messages with my girlfriend. She and her family survived all right but the house, like my hospital, is without power or water, and they are leaving for her aunt’s house in Roanoke.

We have running water, although it’s unsafe to drink. The toilets work, at least, and we can take cold showers.

There are rumors that looting has begun downtown. Everyone on my team has been issued a sidearm.

I’m not sleeping well.

Camped Out 8/31/2005

My cellular network has completely crashed. Although the hospital is still running on emergency power, we’ve managed to safely restore AC to much of the building, and even have hot running water in a few places. My understanding is that we are the only functional medical facility within the metropolitan area.

The restoration of AC is crucial. It’s been so hot over the last three days that people’s tempers have been flaring up all over the place, and my crew and I have had a great deal of peacekeeping to do throughout the hospital. Stress and anxiety aren’t helping, either, and on the average most people are getting four hours of sleep out of every twenty-four. Last night one of my friends in the ER had to give me an IV of fluids to combat dehydration.

The Salvation Army is here, handing food and blankets. A local grocery store has a distribution warehouse across the street, and has given us permission to raid it as we need, which earlier today our Shipping and Receiving department did, accompanied by several police officers; their efforts have provided us with a stockpile of canned food and dry cereal.

People are kind of on the barter system at the moment, trading what they have for what they need: a can of peaches for a change of scrubs, a tube of toothpaste for a pair of clean underwear. I traded off my last extra razor to an ER nurse in exchange for showering privileges.

There have been several shootings in and around town. Two individuals assaulted a police station with AK-47s, and there are reports that medivac helicopters and ambulances are being fired upon. Looters are turning on each other, and some of the bodies floating around downtown aren’t drowning victims. Other hospitals have been raided, or are taking on water, and we’re doing what we can to get their patients here safely. The shock of moving has been more than some of them could handle.

Last word that reached my ears is that my neighborhood stayed fairly dry, even with the resultant flood from the levee breaking. Flooding has stabilized, not really increasing, not really draining. My car was left in a different area of town before the storm, and is now most likely underwater.

We have as yet received no aid outside of local law enforcement, and they are stretched thin enough as it is. Martial law and a strict curfew have been imposed.

I’m doing a little better. Last night I found an abandoned conference room to camp out in, and in my off hours hole up in there to read and write by flashlight. Given that I’m using my Swiss Army knife to open and consume all of my canned meals—Campbell’s Spaghetti, Del Monte Pears and SPAM—it’s a lot like Boy Scout camp.

Except without the fun.

I’m currently on my last set of clean clothes, but there’s talk that the hospital laundry may be functional again later today, so we might be able to get some stuff washed. The Mayor’s office is going to allow us to return to our homes on Monday, and if I can I’ll grab some more clothes. As far as civvies go I only have three tee shirts and a pair of jeans, and right now the pants can walk around without me.

Gunshots 9/1/2005

Occasionally you can hear the pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons firing in the neighborhood around the hospital. There’s no way to judge the distance; there is absolutely no vehicular traffic and no noise pollution, so the shots could be carrying for miles.

Gradually, and then in increasing numbers, people are trying to get into the hospital. The day after the storm we sealed ourselves off to everyone but incoming emergency care patients, and everyone who is allowed in must be searched for weapons. Although no one has been armed, people are getting aggressive in their attempts for access, including faking ailments as severe as heart attacks right outside our door. Although I don’t feel good about turning them away, the sad truth is if we threw our doors open we’d be flooded with uncontrollable numbers of people, placing the staff and the patients that actually need care at risk.

Still no TV or radio, although the cell phones are sporadically working again, and the Internet remains functional. The news websites claim that federal aid is coming, and we’re supposed to get some National Guardsmen here later.

The news also reports that people trapped downtown are beginning to die. I don’t know if it’s accurate or not, but I don’t really doubt it.

Lull 9/2/2005

A strange quiet has descended tonight. After all the chaos of the last few days the lull is surreal. I can’t help thinking it’s the stillness of the sheathed knife, of violence and danger waiting to be. Between the anarchy in the streets and the ever-growing cabin fever of the people trapped in here, it’s only a matter of time before something brutal and nasty happens. I hope desperately that it won’t, as there are enough injured and suffering people, and such behavior will only make it worse, but all of my training and experience tells me it will. Still, I’ll try and enjoy it while it lasts.

Curfew is lifted during the day. I’m going to try and make it back to my apartment when this shift is over.

The Knife in Motion 9/2/2005

A huge explosion just erupted downtown, powerful enough to be seen and heard from my post outside the ER, ten miles away. It lit up the night like a flashbulb, and the afterglow is still visible against the sky. Preliminary reports from the police stationed with us place it somewhere in the vicinity of the French Quarter, possibly at a chemical storage facility. Could be arson or just some idiot breaking into the wrong place and lighting a cigarette. I can’t tell yet if it started a fire. Although without functional water in the city, how would the fire crews fight it? Is the Fire Department still functional?

I realized a few minutes before the explosion that I can’t remember what it feels like to sleep in my own bed. Or any other.

Fun With Herpetology 9/4/2005

It’s been a long and weary twenty-four hours. I have successfully conducted a commando raid of my own home, bypassing looters, wreckage and miscreant reptiles. My will is a thing unto iron and my kung fu strong.

After the night of the explosion (Friday morning I think, it’s been getting hard to tell) one of my coworkers volunteered the use of his car so I could conduct an inspection of my apartment. What is normally a ten-minute drive took the better part of an hour. I was initially stopped at a sheriff’s checkpoint by six deputies wearing flak jackets and armed with AK-47s and riot shotguns; they kept their weapons trained on my vehicle until I identified myself as a member of the hospital stafff, at which point they let me pass.

Katrina turned my neighborhood into a Mesozoic wasteland, the uprooted and shattered oak and cypress trees forming a dense maze; in some places the rubble was so thick I couldn’t see the houses beyond. Coupled with the downed power lines, it was difficult terrain to navigate in the car. I passed a looted Rite-Aid on Oak Street. Someone had found a forklift and used it to smash open the rolldown security gate.

Worse, the earlier reports weren’t accurate. There was flooding in much of the neighborhood. From Oak south to St. Charles was dry, but north towards South Claiborne was a different story. I had to park the car and slog through five blocks of thigh-high nasty water the rest of the trip. I had a PR24 riot baton ready in case of itinerant looters (I am by law not allowed to take a firearm off hospital property). Stray cats roamed everywhere around, some of them following me at a discreet distance with expectant looks on their faces, and I had the creepy thought they were waiting for something tragic and fatal to happen to me so they’d have something to eat. The water was brown and shockingly cold, and covered in a slick oily sheen.

Here’s where the narrative gets strange. This may be the most truly surreal thing that has ever happened to me, and I wish to all hell I was making it up.

About halfway there, around the intersection of Plum and Burdette streets, I was attacked by an alligator.

Yes, that’s right. Go ahead and read it again. A fucking alligator.

I didn’t believe it either.

I was walking down the center of the street, as it was the highest point, although by no means easy going; the street underwater was littered with branches and God only knows what else, not to mention the ever-present New Orleans potholes. I kept having to go over or around fallen logs or power lines, and while doing so my foot went down in one of those unseen holes. I stumbled, reflexively reaching out for something to steady myself with, and that’s when the little bastard bit me. I guess he was lying in the water around the branches or something, and I spooked him. I didn’t even know what it was, just that something latched onto my forearm. I pulled free and finally saw him—pretty small, really, about two feet long or so, the size of a well-loved iguana. Looking at the wound, I’d guess his mouth was just big enough to fit around my arm but not bite down, which is why he didn’t do much other than scratch me.

He came at me again, and that’s when I hit him; the PR24 was caught in my belt on my left-had side, so I used my fist, landing an underhand strike that knocked him back in the direction I came. Normally the environmentalist in me would shriek at the thought of treating an endangered species that way, but it’s a different matter when said endangered species is treating you like so much beef jerky. He plopped in the water and didn’t come back up.

Several of my coworkers have chastised me for not finishing the job and bringing the carcass back so they could eat him in turn.

I made it to my apartment without further incident. The house had lost its rain gutter and there were shingles lying all over the place, but aside from one broken window where someone had tried to break in it appeared unmolested. Nothing inside was missing, but the house stank of rotten food. The basement in the building’s lower half was filled with water. I cleaned the fridge out as best I could and gathered the personal items I’d come for.

Items rescued included: all relevant computer disks containing my own writing projects; birth certificate; the entire contents of my sock-and-underwear drawer; changes of clothing, including clean uniforms; all remaining canned food in the pantry. All of this weighed about seventy pounds, strapped onto my body in a backpack and two duffle bags. Walking back took twice as long as getting there did, and by the time I finally made it back to the hospital (unmolested this time by either man or animal) I smelled like a bilge rat. I stashed my bags in my campsite and went to the ER for treatment of the bite. They cleaned it and gave me several antibiotic injections. I fell asleep with four hours to rest before my next shift started.

Since then it’s been nonstop. New Orleans is burning along the Riverfront and French Quarter, and the police are actively exchanging gunshots with looters on the street. The wounded are coming here, as well as the evacuees that are too ill to make it to Texas without treatment. We’re doing our best to keep them safe and get everything staged for their departure. Last night a medivac chopper rescued a pregnant woman who had gone into labor while trapped in a water-filled attic; she was actively giving birth as we sped her stretcher through the hospital up to Labor and Delivery.

I volunteered to spend the first part of today helping the rescue teams crate up the bodies of the deceased. In my first two months on this job I saw more dead bodies than ever before in my life; in one day I saw more than triple that number. My body right now feels like a wad of Silly Putty slapped hard up against a wall and left there.

Spirits are starting to lag all around, including mine. We now have main power back online, but stir craziness is getting bad, especially after the 11:00 PM curfew, when the dyed-in-the-wool smokers get profoundly hostile about not being allowed out for their fix. I need rest, mostly, a little time to read a book or write a bit—free time seems to be trickling away faster and faster. I miss my girlfriend terribly.

Two NOPD officers shot themselves today.

I’m going to shower and go to bed now. My brain has the shape, texture, and cognitive ability of day-old oatmeal.

I need a cold beer. Someone out there drink one for me.

Fresh 9/05/2005

Funny. As of today it’s been only a week since this whole business began, and it feels like a lifetime. Strange how acclimated I’ve gotten to this routine. Everything else in the world seems like so much distant history. The hospital is an island, floating in a stream of chaos. We have main power; the rest of the city is using candles. While our running water is by no means clean, it comes from a well instead of the contaminated reservoir, and is as good for flushing a toilet as anything else. We have bottled drinking water and have canned food, hot showers and clean clothes. Everyone still left in the city has none of those things. They have violence, despair, illness and misery.

My department had a meeting last night, voicing complaints and concerns to our immediate supervisors. It was largely a bitch session, and some tempers erupted, but the end result is that this evening my bosses rolled a big cart loaded with fresh apples, oranges and bananas into our operations center. After a week of canned  meat, powdered milk and over-boiled pasta, I can honestly say that nothing on Earth tastes so splendid as a ripe fist-sized navel orange, rivulets of juice running helter-skelter like children on a playground.

Tomorrow is the day that the city government is supposed to allow us to return to our homes. I am utterly tempted to take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge and hop a plane for California.

I’m not going to, though.

I got off easy; about half my team lost their homes and only has the clothes on their backs, and they need this time to start getting their lives back in order. My apartment might be inaccessible, but it’s still there, most of my things undamaged. Any time I take off robs them of what they need. I want to be with my girlfriend, but I’m okay and she’s okay, and so many of my crew aren’t. With luck I’ll have a week or so later on in the month to start putting my ducks in a row, but right now it’s imperative that others do so first.

Shift change, so I must go.

Sleep 9/06/2005

So after being diagnosed with Exhaustion, not to mention the head cold that’s making the rounds in here, I was prescribed sleeping pills and given a night off. At best I’ve been sleeping about five hours a night since this thing started, and that’s usually been broken, as I wake up every forty-five minutes or so. If I dream, I don’t remember, which is probably a good thing.

I took my pill, laid down in my little campsite, and proceeded to sleep for about twelve hours. The fatigue headache I’ve been carrying around seems to have disappeared, or at least taken a break, and my hands have lost the tremble that started sometime on Sunday. Still, I can’t wait to sleep in an actual bed and eat something that doesn’t come out of a can.

Apparently I got lucky in my exposure to the floodwater. People who have been stuck down in the 9th Ward and other flooded areas are being treated here for lesions and massive skin rashes due to the contamination in the water. We continue to be a staging area for the dead to be shipped off elsewhere for identification and inspection. The effect being in the water has had on some of the dead I won’t try and put into words right now—suffice to say it’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. And there have been a lot of those in the last nine days, so it’ll be a while before I figure out what tops that list.

Spirits are dropping hard around here. People are tired, worried about their homes and loved ones. New Orleans proper is still officially sealed off for entrance, so a lot of employees haven’t even seen how their homes fared through Katrina. Even with the arrival of relief from Baton Rouge and FEMA (who showed up here last night—finally) there hasn’t been much of an upswell in mood. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that we’ve endured a massive traumatic experience, which I hadn’t considered before. I’m no psychiatrist but I guess it’s fair to say that we’re seeing some signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome; it explains why those cops swallowed bullets a few days ago. It also explains why some yahoos are refusing to leave their flooded homes even as the rescue boats come by. The last time we talked, Tristyn asked why I’m keeping it together when she’s going to pieces.

I don’t know. I’m so damned weary, even beyond what sleep and medication can cure. There are people here that have the skills and training to save lives, but in the meantime they need protection and safety, both from the looters and elements and their own collapsing morale. I can do that, or at least try. I wish I had more medical training, gotten certification as an EMT or something. I wish I’d fled, even though I know I’d stay if it happened again.

But when all is said and done, I’m going to have a nice big cathartic freak-out.

Swamp Thing 9/12/2005

So in the wake of Katrina the city of New Orleans has effectively turned into a toxic waste dump. The Garden District periodically bursts into flames that can’t be put out, as there is no functioning fire brigade. The U.S. Army controls the streets now (and I never thought I’d be happy for the day when the military forcibly seizes control of an American city) but really, what is left to control? The broken, ruined shell of a city, saturated with water carrying disease, the week-old bodies of the dead and gallon after gallon of raw sewage. The water is now so toxic that even touching it has been deemed highly hazardous. Plus, there’s so much oil coating it, and so many exposed gas mains and downed power lines that every single fire that starts could cause what’s left of the city to go up like a Roman candle.

It’s starting to go back to the animals, too. The police officers coming in for treatment over the last couple of days have been reporting some strange things. Water moccasins slither on their merry way down the streets; several of the search-and-rescue boats have had to abandon bodies because displaced alligators are snacking on them, and the teams can’t drive off the reptiles without endangering themselves. And when the levees broke, the floodwaters washed several bull sharks into the waterlogged streets. A Jefferson Parish Levee Board officer used his cell phone to snap a picture of a four-foot shark happily cruising the I-10 service road.

(Bull sharks, for those who don’t know, are one of the most dangerous breeds of shark. They attack quickly, ferociously, and indiscriminately, and there are records of them bashing through canoes. They’re all the more dangerous because they can survive in both salt and fresh water, and have been documented as far up the Mississippi River as Indiana. Large numbers have lived in Lake Pontchartrain for some time.)

Several months ago at least forty manatees were spotted in the lake. They’re delicate, slow moving and slow to reproduce species, which is also highly endangered. In what you could call a tragic caveat to the misery Katrina has caused, the pumping of all this toxic sludge back into the lake is almost certainly going to endanger their lives—and there isn’t much the EPA or WWF can do about it. Like a rapist, Katrina continues to leave scars long after the deed is done.

Getting slowly ready to depart. I’d like to remain down here for another week or so, just to get one last complete pay period done, especially since FEMA is dragging its feet on actually getting financial assistance to those of us still stuck down here. I lost my car, I no longer have a home I can live in, I am displaced—where’s my $2000 debit card? I still have to get a plane ticket to Roanoke and enough gas to drive from there to my family in San Diego, not to mention food and lodging along the way.

Seriously, every single FEMA employee I’ve talked to in the last twenty-four hours gives me the dull-eyed look of a freshly milked cow when I ask them where I can obtain pocket money for travel and shelter expenses.

Does anyone else think the federal government’s handling of this mess has effectively guaranteed we’re going to have a Democratic president in the next election?

Out 9/18/2005

I sat on top of the hospital’s raised parking garage last night and watched some of the fires that continue to flare up downtown, although less severely than they did before. Sadly, this may be because there isn’t much dry material left to burn. Occasionally something ignited a patch of leaking gas, leaving a bright orange flower against the horizon. It looked like nothing so much as the opening of Blade Runner.

This morning brought the restoration of cable to the facility, so we could all turn on the TV monitors and see footage of what we’ve been dealing with the last couple of weeks. The political sturm and drang is just going to get worse, I fear. As a final example of FEMA ineptitude, I submit the following piece of information: they have yet to get a single representative down here to deal with aid and recovery matters for the citizens who could not flee or be evacuated. All we have are FEMA medical personnel giving out free inoculations. Which means that we are forced to rely on what money we have in our pockets to get around on. There are currently no functional banks or ATMs anywhere in the area. As an added surprise, the hospital screwed up payroll, so those of us who worked will have to wait an additional two weeks for any sort of compensation.

Figures.

With the cheerful assistance of a nursing student I made it back to my apartment today. The water had receded from my neighborhood, leaving the earth, houses and concrete a dead gray color. In Jefferson Parish you can smell the sewage, rot, gas, garbage and other effluvium that make up the floodwaters. The smell turned into a stench as we got into my neighborhood, despite the lack of water, and I can only guess how awful it is downtown. I was able to put some more of Tristyn’s and my things in our only suitcase, but everything else will have to remain for the time being. A horrible mildew smell came from the basement when I opened the door, and fear of toxic mold kept me from going down there. We’ve already had a few cases of spore inhalation in the ER in the last two days. Phone and power were still out, and when I tried the tap something that looked and smelled like raw sewage came out.

The EPA has advised that the water contains high levels of lead and E.coli, which means that the city will be infectious and toxic even after the water is finally pumped out. Buildings will have to be razed or decontaminated before anyone can live in them, and it’ll be months before there is water or electricity available. Underground sewage mains have ruptured, many in places where crews will have to cut through large blocks of the street to get at them.

The hospital has brought in a large portion of its staff, and many closed areas of the facility that needed repairs are getting ready to reopen. We are crawling with the National Guard, many of them from Puerto Rico, a place that is not even granted the privilege of statehood yet we can recruit them into our armed forces—someone explain that to me. The facility is safe, secure, and nearly fully staffed.

My small part seems to be over. Tomorrow I take the evacuation shuttle to Baton Rouge where, thanks to an old friend, I have a plane ticket waiting to take me to Tristyn in Roanoke. After a week or so to recover and plan our next steps we’ll be driving cross-country to California to start rebuilding our life, a trip that I pray will be less eventful than these last two weeks. If there’s a word to describe the marrow-deep fatigue I feel right now, I don’t know what it is.

This will be the last dispatch.

I’m getting out.

You have just left work for the night, backpack slung over your shoulder as you make your way back to the car. It is 4:30 a.m. and still dark, the early spring air already laced with the coming summer’s humidity, and as you walk a fresh patina of sweat fills the void between your T-shirt and your back. Although the nightclub you work at is closer to the Canal St. side of the French Quarter, you habitually park on the far side off of Esplanade Ave., congratulating yourself on once again outfoxing not only the overpriced parking lots but the draconian New Orleans meter maids.

Four nights a week you make the half-mile or so trek each way down Decatur St. You find the stroll allows your mind time to unwind from the stress of work, and if it needs assistance, well, there are plenty of good bars along the way. The boisterous tourist crowds have largely vanished by this hour, and the few individuals you encounter are service industry employees like yourself, off the clock and looking for a little fun. You’ve got an early afternoon meeting with one of your professors, though, and a few blocks past Jackson Square you turn onto a darker cross-street, hoping for a short cut.

As you come round the corner a knife dances out of the dark, headed for your face.

At this point in your life you’ve been studying martial arts for just over a decade, and it is this and only this that prevents the knife from embedding itself in your cheek. Out of reflex you sidestep and the blade stabs the air where you just were. Only as it passes do you recognize it for what it is: a mid-sized hunting knife, single-edged.

Because of the darkness and the adrenaline invading your system like the Visigoths entering Rome, you get only an impression of your attacker out of the corner of your eye. The image is one of a scarecrow, dark-skinned, dirty clothes barely clinging to his scrawny tweaker frame.

He withdraws the knife and strikes again, this time slashing the edge outwards in an arc. In the movies this is always accompanied by a whistling sound effect, but in real life it is quieter than a whisper. You dodge again, backwards this time, nearly stumbling at the edge of the curb.

You spent some time on Maui when you were sixteen, learning Filipino knife-fighting techniques from an older Hawai’ian gentleman, methods to intercept and disarm, to cut your attacker’s throat or slash the femoral artery with his own weapon, but those blades were only hard rubber, the instructor only simulating fatal strikes and cuts. This is a total stranger trying to knife you to death on a dark street, unprovoked. His strikes are clumsy, but what he lacks in training he makes up for in aggression.

If he really knew how to fight, you’d be dead already.

You have a knife of your own, a two-inch lockback with a serrated edge folded away in the front pocket of your jeans. If you could get it out it would even the odds significantly. If only there was time, and you weren’t at this point operating entirely on adrenaline and muscle memory.

He lunges in and stabs again, this time aiming for your torso, and this is when your body slips into the defense. You get the footwork right, stepping off to his outside, raising your right arm to block the blow and entrap his knife hand even as your left comes around to strike the humerus.

This is not a fantasy fight, or a video game, or the carefully choreographed ballet of an action film; this is spontaneous, brutal violence in the real world, and nothing goes perfectly. Your block is textbook, but as you lock his wrist up you feel something slip against the meat of your forearm and a trail of warmth sliding towards your elbow.

His wrist feels almost like a chicken bone in your grip.

Your aim is a bit off on the counterstrike as well. Meaning to hit the pressure point just above the elbow, you bring your left arm down in a hammer strike dead on the center of the bone, and there is a sickening crack, more felt than heard, as it shatters. Your grip on his wrist must be stronger than it seems, because at the moment of impact it breaks as well. You hear, but do not see, the knife clattering to the pavement.

Your attacker screams, a cry of pain almost childlike in intensity. It’s loud enough to be heard for blocks. Clutching his ruined arm, he bolts away in the general direction of Bourbon St., deeper into the Quarter.

The entire encounter has taken maybe a handful of seconds.

You stand on the street corner, watching the space where he vanished, forcing yourself to take slow, measured breaths. Your chest feels as though a young Ginger Baker is using your heart for a drum solo, and you need it to stop, it has to stop, it’s actually starting to hurt.

Your hands, to your mild surprise, aren’t shaking.

While bending down to retrieve the bag you don’t remember dropping, you retch up the minimal contents of your stomach in a nasty green sluice. It is only now you realize you are bleeding, crimson drops mingling with the other bodily fluids at your feet. The cut on your arm appears shallow, but there is a slick of blood running from your elbow to your fingertips.

Fumbling with your cell phone to call the police, you notice it has been less than five minutes since you last checked the time. You rush through your report to the dispatcher, your mouth trying to move as fast as your heart. She tells you to wait, a unit will be coming as soon as one is available. When she asks if you need medical attention you tell her no.

While waiting for the police to arrive you step into the bar on the opposite corner, a place you frequent enough to be on a first name basis with most of the staff. The bartender gives you a beer without being asked. When you try to give him some money he tells you to go fuck yourself, then hands you a clean bar towel with ice for your wound. You drink the beer so fast you hardly taste  it. After two more your heart finally begins to slow down.

It takes the cops half an hour to arrive. They are both overweight and ruddy-faced, and behave as though it’s an inconvenience to be dealing with you. One takes your statement while the other collects the knife in a plastic evidence bag. When you describe your attacker the one with the bag snorts. “Fucking junkies,” he says. They have you sign your statement, tell you that they’ll keep an eye on the hospitals in case someone with a broken arm comes in, that they’ll contact you if there are any further developments. You never hear of any.

You make it back to your car without further incident, sticking to the well-lit streets. On the drive home you realize you have just survived your third–and most violent–mugging since moving to New Orleans. You wonder what that means.

In your apartment you sit in the shower until the hot water runs out. The retreating adrenaline has left your body feeling sacked and pillaged. You clean and dress your wound with the first aid kit you keep under the sink. The cut is shallow, and you close it with adhesive butterflies and a large bandage. It will heal into a thin but noticeable scar.

Your hands will remember the echo of human bone snapping like a twig between them for years to come.

My stepfather–who we’ll just call G.–sat across the dinner table from me. My mother sat to my left, silently pushing her food around the plate. I assumed this was because she’d discovered G.’s latest affair and was dealing with it in her usual silent denial. G. discussed what he’d be doing if it were his sophomore year in college instead of mine, Things I Would Have Done with Your Opportunities being a favorite topic of his. I’d only come to town to retrieve a few things I had left behind when I moved into my apartment, and I was eager to get back on the road as soon as possible.

It was early October, 1998. I was 19 years old.

G. was a Machiavellian bully of a parent, though one who preferred to intimidate psychologically rather than physically. My mother moved him in when I was six, and the ink was barely dry on her divorce decree before she married him. As the only boy in the house, I received the brunt of his attention. Everything was subject to scrutiny: my clothes, my taste in music, my prowess with girls, my lack of interest in team sports—all measured by some unspoken standard of masculinity I perpetually failed to live up to. That I earned a black belt in karate at sixteen made no substantial impression. I grew up in a state of quiet but pervasive fear, only finally escaping when I went off to college. I deliberately chose a university elsewhere in the state and came home infrequently.

Though not typically violent, G. hit me three times before I reached the age of 10. Once hard enough to make my gums bleed.

He largely ignored my little sister. This is the only reason she survived this period of our lives.

I finished my meal, but when I went to clear my plate my mother took it instead. “I’ll get this,” she said. “You just relax.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Each family member was responsible for his/her dirty dishes, an inviolate rule for as long as I could remember.

She cleared not just my plate but the entire table, portioning the leftovers into Tupperware containers with astonishing economy of speed. G. sipped at his beer and made a show of appearing nonchalant. Some weird, nervous energy encoded his body language, and I found it vaguely threatening. Every lizard-brain instinct told me to flee, but before I could conjure an excuse my mother returned to her seat.

“There’s something we need to tell you,” G. said. “It’s about your father.”

My father? My father had become persona non grata years ago. During the divorce he battled viciously in court to avoid owing child support, a prolonged conflict which left my sister and I with smoking blast craters marring the landscape of our youth. When the courts decided against him, he abandoned his children in favor of his new wife.

“We’ve never been completely honest with you,” my stepfather continued. He stared me straight in the eyes, his poker face rapidly abandoning him. “But we think it’s time you know the truth. You’re not really his son. You’re mine.”

Mine.

The world fell away from me like a free-fall ride at an amusement park.

G. grinned as though he’d won a fucking prize.

My mother said nothing.

When I didn’t respond, G. kept talking: about his affair with my mother; about the anecdotal evidence that “proved” I was his biological son; how my various aunts and uncles had been aware for years. Something about how this would “free” me from the pain of the divorce.

I wasn’t really listening. I felt like a  freshly branded cow, a smoking MINE seared into my flesh. My heart beat against the ragged edges of broken feelings: betrayal, violation, confusion.

And so much anger. I wanted to glove my fists in the grinning bastard’s blood.

“I have to go,” I said, grabbing my leather jacket off the chair. No one tried to stop me.

Here’s where I lose the plot a bit. Everything was scattered, my head as big a jumble as a bag of Scrabble letters. I drove aimlessly, circling around the freeways, taking whatever off-ramp or side street presented itself. The city seemed both starkly real and yet grotesquely unreal, as though I’d stumbled into some Twilight Zone simulacrum of my life.

I stopped at payphones, attempting to get in touch with my friends, but it was Saturday and they were all out. I left them rambling, nonsensical messages.

Eventually, running low on gas and inertia, I found myself at the beach. The early autumn days were still running late, and the evening sun was just setting. I sat down on the sand to watch it, jacket pulled around me like a turtle shell. It was just another sunset, the exact same image I’d seen countless times, and yet so stunningly beautiful that for a moment I was able to forget about everything. One last explosion of color before the world finished turning to gray.

My crappy little 35MM Kodak was in my jacket pocket, and I snapped a few pictures.


Later I would pick myself up off the beach, drive back to school, and with the help of my friends, begin the process of reassembling myself, fearing for years afterward that crucial pieces were irretrievably lost.

I would not speak to any member of my family, save my sister, for months.

I would learn that G. had been threatening to leave my mother for his current mistress; she had hoped that allowing him to openly claim me as his offspring would prevent him from leaving her. But G. would move out before Christmas, and they would be divorced by springtime.

And before graduation, I would publicly–and cathartically–disown him.

But those events were in the future, still waiting to happen. For now I just sat there, alone on an empty shelf of beach, watching the sun slowly dive into the Pacific as bit by bit the earth carried me away from it.