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Tomorrow morning, the construction company will arrive at our hundred-year-old home in mid-city New Orleans, and some strong men will move out shiny black kitchen appliances and the world’s heaviest television and truck them over to Common Ground where they’ll be used by Lower Nine families who are rebuilding after Katrina. Then the contractor will stage our house for what we hope will be a five-month renovation. Back in our new and updated kitchen just in time for Christmas dinner is what we’re hoping for but everyone I talk to tells me to multiply the months by 100%. Right now I don’t want to think about ten months and I’m going to err on the side of optimism and good ju ju because we haven’t started yet and already I want my house back.

We bought the place in August 2002 after falling instantly in love with the little reading room downstairs, and we thought at first that it was a Sears home, but the Sears kit house historian, after I sent her a photo, told me it was too fancy. It still has the feel of a house that was shipped in pieces. Lots of kitschy details that look like junior versions of columns and moldings you might find in an Uptown mansion. It’s 3,500 sf counting the recently converted (by owners before us) attic where our son, Andrew, spent his teenage years and where his father and I will live for these next few months. Until Andrew leaves for college in late August, we’ll all be sleeping and dwelling up there together. (We used to call sleeping in the same room “the family camp”, but that was before Andrew started coming in at 1 a.m. after being out with his girlfriend or his buddies. Once he’s in the house, safe, I imagine it’ll be that same complete peace I feel when my boys are resting just inches away from me.) The attic is a nice space, almost 1,000 sf, but it’s taken twenty sessions of hands-on-hips to get Andrew to move his piles of clothes and CDs and PS3 games and shit off the floor where he swears, “It’s easier to find them, Mom” and into the boxes he’ll use to carry those things to the University of Texas. I will miss him, but I’m ready for him to go as long as he doesn’t forget to come back home and not just for holidays like the first Christmas we will have in our new and improved house. (Think it, say it, will it.)

For the last three weeks, we’ve been slowly tossing towers of New Yorkers and Harpers and Atlantic Monthlies and Time and Men’s Health and shelter magazines, and going through clothing and shoes and toys and books and CDs, the worn out furniture from our first marriages, and what wasn’t ruined or thread bare we gave to Goodwill and Malcolm’s older sons. A storage container on Carrollton is stuffed with the less valuable things that will be put back into the house. Things it wouldn’t grieve us to lose if another hurricane hits and the levees fail again. The living room is piled high with art and photographs and Important Papers and sofas and tables and chairs, lamps, tchotchkes, whatever we could fit in there, because it’s the one room that isn’t going to be worked in so the contractor’s assured us that everything in there will be visqueened and then sealed off and that sheetrock dust won’t get into our stuff.

Our house is on Esplanade Ridge and we didn’t flood during Katrina but our neighborhood did – from a few inches to ten feet – as the bowl that is my city filled with dirty water. Mid-City was under water for three weeks, and when Malcolm checked on the house in late September, (with a special access pass he’d been issued from the governor’s office), he had to empty a refrigerator and freezer that had been sitting in high heat. We’d taken the meat with us when we evacuated to Jackson. Malcolm said it was rotten ice cream and frozen vegetables that left a smell in his brain that he still can’t forget. So we don’t keep much in the freezer anymore, and we won’t ever leave town during a hurricane again with food in the fridge, or just the clothes on our backs, because from Jackson we went directly to Houston for four months so Andrew could go to high school there with 400 kids from his flooded high school. This much I know: You don’t always know when you’re going to get back home.

The editing that Malcolm and Andrew and I have been doing is a privilege; our friends and family who lost everything to water didn’t have a choice about what to pitch, donate or save. I didn’t lose Andrew’s baby pictures, or the VHS tapes of his first hair cut, Pre-K graduation, first Holy Communion, which I can’t watch, formatted like they are, but I have them to convert. I have my memories of my life with this family I love so much, but I also have artifacts, images, drawings, macaroni Christmas ornaments, proof that marks the years together, evidence that we did the things we remember doing.

Over the last thirty years since college, I’ve collected almost 1,000 books, and they’re safely tucked into boxes where I can find them. We’re going to have wall-to-ceiling-bookshelves in the den upstairs, and those boxes will probably be the first ones I unpack because those books need an alphabetical, genre-driven home and it will have been too many months since I had them close by, not to read just then but to read and re-read one day.

So, on tap to renovate is our kitchen and three bathrooms, all of which are from the 20s, and while we’re torn up and breathing plaster dust, we’re going to reconfigure the flow upstairs because our home was once a boarding house for jockeys at the Fair Grounds, which is a half-mile away, and so the second floor is mostly a landing with lots of doors to small rooms that spin off and don’t seem to know about each other. Right now, today, everything feels like hope and promise and timeliness, but I’ll be back every few days to document the set-backs and victories and doldrums as we set out for not this, but, rather, a stiff-winded sail over to the isle of great water pressure and book-laden shelves and a kitchen that’ll be a magnet for friends and family and the returning Andrew.

Meanwhile, we drift through empty rooms, missing a place to sit and drink coffee, talk and read, but pleasantly reminded of how the house looked when we first walked in and fell in love.

Part One

A week before I left for Bread Loaf in August, our friend, Sherri’s*, daughter was killed by an ex-boyfriend. He shot her multiple times in her apartment, and then walked outside to the parking lot and killed himself. The complex has them on videotape: Daneel standing her ground, telling him “It’s over, Manny. Go home,” and then walking back up the stairs to her place, Manny in his car, getting his gun from the glove compartment, loading it with bullets kept in the trunk, walking back up to Daneel’s, then back down before putting the gun under his chin. It took him thirteen minutes to die.

I’d gotten up early that Saturday to weed the garden before the day’s heat, had run inside to catch the house phone, a call from my sister in California. I heard my husband’s cell phone ring, and he came into the den. “You need to get off the phone,” he said, “quickly.” Sherri had called. Daneel had been murdered, shot. Could he stop the autopsy? Didn’t we know the Jefferson Parish District Attorney? She didn’t want her daughter cut on. She’d been crying too hard to understand.

“Daneel was murdered,” he said to me, stunned.

“Daneel?” I said. “Murdered? No, that can’t be.”

Malcolm called Sherri’s husband. “Demetrius,” he said. “I’m going to repeat this to you so you don’t have to say the words out loud. I want to understand. Daneel . . . she was shot to death this morning at 5:30?”

Demetrius said, yes, she had been.

“The guy then killed himself?”

Yes, Demetrius said.

Daneel was twenty-six, a post-op nurse, and she lived across the street from her younger sister, Erica, twenty-one, who didn’t yet know. Daneel’s father, Pico, a New Orleans police officer, was on his way to tell her.

I sat on the kitchen floor and cried into my hands, and Malcolm leaned against the counter and wept. “This can’t be,” we said, stuck records. Our own teenage son was upstairs sleeping in his room.

We showered, dressed and left for Sherri and Demetrius’ house on the West Bank. It was almost eleven and the family had been informed at 9:30. I drove so Malcolm could make calls. The police investigator explained that an autopsy had to be done, by state law. Bullets remained in Daneel and they needed to be recovered as evidence. “I don’t want Sherri to know that,” he said to me. He phoned Demetrius to tell him what the woman had said. “She told me Daneel didn’t suffer.”

Their house is in a well landscaped neighborhood off General DeGaulle. The directions were simple, but I made two wrong turns getting there, had to wait for the same slow-changing traffic lights to cycle. “Just take your time,” Malcolm said. We gripped hands, rested them on the console. “You don’t recover from this,” he said. His father had died suddenly of a heart attack when Malcolm was eighteen.

There were cars in the garage and the driveway, a police car at the curb. Some young black guys stood outside in the heat in baggy shorts and striped Polos. They nodded quietly to us as we went inside. We’d never been to Sherri’s house before. She’d worked with us for ten years but we’d always seen her on our side of the river. We walked into despair, people in each other’s arms crying, and Malcolm and I put our arms around Sherri and cried. “I don’t understand,” I said. I don’t remember what Sherri or Malcolm said. We held each other in an awkward bear hug, a triangle of crying. But I’d never seen or heard grief that fresh. I’d had grandparents die, but not by surprise, and at the end of their lives, not on the upswing.

“The girls spent all yesterday with my mother across the lake,” Sherri told us. “It was my father’s birthday.” Sherri’s dad had been buried six months before. They’d lost their home in New Orleans East when the levees broke, and had just moved into a new place in Covington, close to Sherri’s brother, a doctor. Her mom sat on the sofa with Erica in her arms. I sat beside Erica. She let me hold her, and we cried. “I can’t believe this,” I said. “Manny didn’t like me,” she said. “He was harassing Daneel.” “Physically,” I said. “Never,” Erica said, “but with text messaging and the phone. She’d been broken up with him since January.” It was August 11th. “I was with her until ten thirty, until she told me to go home, she wanted to turn off the phone and sleep.”

“He had a gun?” I said.

“His dad got robbed after the storm, so he bought one to have,” Erica said.

Malcolm came to her and she jumped up into his arms. He’d known Sherri’s girls since middle school. When they walked into the office, his heartbeat stuttered. They were astonishing, Creoles with creamy skin and pale green eyes, graceful and lanky in their tiny jeans and t-shirts. A few weeks ago, they’d both showed up in his door, but he’d been on the phone. By the time he went down the hall to find them, they’d gone to their respective jobs, and he’d regretted that chance to visit, so the next time they came in and he was on the phone, this time with me, he’d said, “I gotta go, there are two beautiful women standing in my doorway,” like I’d understand. I hung up quicker than I needed to, not wanting to yield even though we hadn’t been talking about anything important.

Sherri’s brother got up with his wife to leave. They were going to the funeral home to begin arrangements. “Do you have a priest?” I asked Sherri. “Not one we’re close to,” she said. “Do you want to use ours?” I offered, and she said she did. I stepped outside the front door to call Father Hermes, a Jesuit, and left a message on his cell phone. Our son, Andrew, called from Subway to see if his dad and I wanted a sandwich. “Sweetie, something terrible’s happened, but not to Dad and me,” I said, and I told him about Daneel. He stayed quiet until he said, flatly, “Miss Sherri’s okay.”

“Not okay, but she’s with family. I’ve never seen crying like this, Andrew. It’s the saddest room.”

“How’s Erica?” he said.

“Not good. She was with her sister until late last night. I think she knew things had turned bad between Daneel and the guy.” I didn’t yet know his name.

“She’s gonna feel guilty,” he said.

“I don’t know. We’re finding stuff out slowly.” I told him graphic details to keep him on the phone, to bring him into this grief with us because he’d been out late the night before, missed curfew by a mile, and I’d gone to bed pissed at him. “I don’t trust you,” I’d told him in the kitchen that morning when he’d stumbled downstairs with a lame excuse. “Go back to bed.”

“When’s the funeral?” he said, but it was too soon to know. My flight to Vermont was on Friday. “I hope before I go,” I said. It was Sunday.

“It’s gonna be crowded,” Andrew said. He sounded so sad, unschooled in the protocols of grieving. So was I.

“What do we do?” he said.

“You offer help, you make yourself available,” I said. “Maybe later you can bring over Popeye’s?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I will.”

“Our family’s tight again,” I said, worried that he might not take how much his dad and I loved him for granted.

“I know,” he said.

(*The names of the family have been changed to protect their privacy.)

I’m tutoring the Moorhead sisters twice a week at a charter school that opened five months after the levee breaches flooded 200,000 homes in New Orleans. There are 319 kids in the school, and the Moorhead sisters get there by city bus. The apartment they relocated to is on Elysian Fields. Their mom was an RN at Touro Infirmary, but she’s recently decided to open her own catering business. The sisters are both in the 7th grade because LaDell repeated. She’s quiet, serious, with a smile that trips up my breathing, it’s that lovely and deserving of more time. Brianna’s wiley, outgoing; she giggles if I ask her to explain what a skeleton is, or when she’s telling me how the kids – because we’re writing a sentence with the vocab word derisive – at first made fun of her last name. “Head is a boy’s . . . private, and more is more of,” she points there, “there.”

I work with them separately, either shadowing them in class, or taking them down the hall to the Resource Center. Tulane work-study students pass us with their reading buddies. Before the storm, New Orelans had the lowest test scores in the country, and $12,000,000 had been stolen from the school board’s coffers by workers faking pensions, or cutting checks for dead relatives. 80% of the kids are behind. When I first started with them, Brianna was reading close to grade, but LaDell tested at 3.4, a third grade level. Neither of the sisters knew the multiplication tables, so we’ve been triaging the remedial work, which is quickly becoming their regular grade work. They don’t need real time to catch up.

A few months ago, their class was reading The Skeleton Key, a story about three Frenchmen who work in a lighthouse off the coast of Spain. A derelict ship crashes into the rocks of the key, and ravening rats swarm the island and drive the men inside an airless tower. “Ravening comes from ravenous which means starving,” I explained to LaDell. “Like I am.” I unwrapped the Pop Tart in my purse because I’d left the house without breakfast, and offered her some. “I’ll wait for the cafeteria,” she said. We’d been sharing a box of orange tic tacs tic tacs. Brianna only likes white tic tacs . . . Basque, hordes, phosphorescent, maritime. These were the vocab words.

“My cousin caught a rat in our backyard,” LaDell told me. She’s prone to stopping in the middle of a sentence she’s reading when the text reminds her of something. “He put him on a shovel and chased me.”

“How’d he keep him on the shovel?” I said.

“He dead.”

I don’t correct their grammar. When we read a Langston Hughes story earlier about a woman who fixes a meal for the boy who tried to snatch her handbag, they stumbled over the black dialogue. “That’s wrong,” they said. “I know,” I said, “but it’s how these characters speak.” Verisimilitude. A word I barely know myself.


Henry_holt_reader


This creepy adventure story was making me uncomfortable with its allusions to The Flying Dutchman, a man v. nature folktale that seemed the opposite of apt. The library had books about the underground railroad, Martin Luther King, Booker T. Washington. I’d forgotten that as a girl I liked characters who had nothing to do with me, because irrelevance got reality off my back, and gave me more places to roam. Maybe the Moorhead sisters didn’t need to be reminded again that they were once slaves.

LaDell read about the sailors’ bodies, eaten clean by hordes of rats. “Rats look for water,” she said. “I saw them in our street after it rained. The house beside us never got cleaned out since Katrina. The furniture’s in it.”

“These are maritime rats,” I said. “Not city rats.”

“They’ll come in our apartment,” she asked.

“No, no,” I said. “They don’t like the noise your family makes.” I shook out orange TicTacs and she picked one off my palm. “That man should clean out his house, don’t you think?”

“He sick,” LaDell said. “My aunt might take some things from there. The man said she could. My grandmother thinkin’ about movin’ in.”

The Moorhead sisters evacuated Katrina late – in a rainstorm – and saw the car in front of theirs drive over the spillway. Everyone in it died. A week earlier, a woman had been shot and died on the corner beneath their window. It was their mom who called 911.

I walked LaDell back to class and picked up her sister. Brianna arranged her papers on the table and asked to borrow my purple pen. “Choo!” she sneezed, and a half-dissolved tic tac flew onto the page. She giggled. “I can’t eat that!”

“Sure you can. Paper’s clean.”

Back it went in her mouth. Brianna wants to be a nurse, like her mom. LaDell wants to be a singer, like Beyonce. They tried out for the school’s dance team and got cut, but last week they found out they’d made the cheerleading squad.

Photos of real rats were scattered through The Skeleton Key. Brianna squirmed in her chair. “Their eyes aren’t red like that,” she said. She’d finished the story, so we were reviewing a chapter on problem verbs – lay/lie, raise/rise, may/can, sat/set – and I had to keep flipping to the back for the correct answers. After thirty six-years, they’re still not clear to me. She corrected me on a couple of fill-ins that I guessed wrong, shook out white tic tacs, and lined up an hour’s worth in the crack of the book.