|Hurricane waters flood Interstate 40 through North Carolina|
For Mrs. B.
Short Story by Randall Kenan, 2020 National Book Club honoree for his short story collection “If I had Two Wings.” The short story below is from Kenan’s earlier works. It most recently appeared in Oprah Magazine.
Mrs. Streeter was down in Barbados being chased by monkeys when the storm struck. Her son, Aaron, had sent her on vacation with his daughter, Desiree. The two had been returning from a trip to the caverns—the spooky Harrison’s Cave with its stone pillars hanging down and sticking straight up—when the hooligans showed up, green monkeys, but a brownish gray they were, with white furry breasts and menacing red eyes.
Desiree had found it amusing at first, but at eighty-two the widow wondered about the promises her son had made about the recuperative powers of Caribbean sun and ocean breezes. As she listened to the monkeys hooting and howling and grunting, she felt it might be better for her to be at home tending her okra and string beans.
Desiree, only 18, a college student at Spelman, pushed her scooter faster than the monkeys ran. (Mrs. Street had a problematic back and couldn’t do a lot of long-distance walking.) The mischievous bandits seemed to have no objective, no reason, just causing trouble. But this did not inspire solace. Desiree kept just ahead of the troop, and made it back to the shuttle safely, and helped her grandmother climb aboard. “I was so scared, Nana.”
“I was worried, child.
I’m glad I wasn’t on foot. Lord have mercy.”
“Nobody told me there would be monkeys!”
When they got back to the resort, murmurs were going on all about the lobby from other guests, mostly Americans. Clearly something was afoot. Two hurricanes were in the forecast: one headed to Barbados, and one headed for the North Carolina coast. Home.
In truth the Barbadian encounter with wind and rain felt like a mere thunderstorm—it came and went the next night in a hurry, leaving little damage—but the news regarding the North Carolina coast was not so benign. Category 5, they were predicting. The governor was calling for evacuations.
It looked like Mrs. Streeter would not be going home, but that is where she longed to be, deep in her heart, floods and wind be damned.
Back to the States two days later, Aaron met them at Dulles International Airport, and insisted his mother stay with him until conditions at home were safe. His town house was in Alexandria, and the sun was shining. Hard to imagine how different things were at that moment back in Tim’s Creek, where the storm was supposed to hit land the next morning.
“Girl, it’s been raining hard for the last two days straight, and I mean a hard rain too. All the creeks and rivers are about to spill over.” Mrs. Streeter had been on the phone with her sister back in Tim’s Creek several times each day.
“Are y’all gonna leave?”
“No, child. Clay says we’ll be just fine. You remember in that last flood we stayed high and dry, and the water got pretty high that time around town in the lower spots. So we’re gonna take our chances.”
Mrs. Streeter’s days were largely CNN and the Weather Channel and talking on the phone, from the time Aaron left for work until he returned. Some days she’d cook his favorite meals—her special spaghetti, smothered chicken, oxtail soup—it was nice that he did all the shopping.
Or, he would take her out to a nice restaurant. She really enjoyed that place called Busboys and Poets. They had some really nice shrimp and grits, and she enjoyed their Cobb salad. These young folk today sure wore their hair in some peculiar styles and colors.
After a week she worried more and more about home. They said miles and miles of Interstate 40 were still covered by water. Her sister told her their power had been out all week. “And you know that great big oak tree in front of Mama’s house? Girl, it snapped in two. It blocked the road for three days before they could get to it and haul it out of the way.”
That tree was truly massive, too tall to climb, probably close to two hundred years old. It had been there when her great-grandfather built the house. Mrs. Streeter fondly remembered playing on its great gnarled roots as a girl. Something twanged at the bottom of her heart. Now she was even more worried about her vegetable garden, a thing in which she took enormous pleasure and spent a lot of time and effort cultivating. Her doctor had once told her, her longevity and robust health—even when considering the back problems and mobility—were surely aided by her daily exertions in that great big plot of earth, a third of an acre large.
Her husband Simitrio worked as a logger in the swamps. He ran heavy sawing equipment. They lived in a trailer park about eight miles away. In time Mrs. Streeter grew to like Marisol, and looked forward to seeing the girls, who would sit and watch television with her, color in their coloring books, or fiddle with their phones. She remembered the day Ines asked her sister, “Can you itch my scratch for me?” and how it made her laugh out loud.
Surely they had gotten out in time. God knows. That trailer park was awfully close to the Chinquapin River.
Finally, eight days after returning to the States, she caught a plane home. Her sister had told her the coast was clear, the water had largely gone. Her brother-in-law Clay picked her up at the Raleigh-Durham airport. She had already been filled with something like dread, though darker, about what she would find at home. Once she’d pulled off the interstate into York County and driving down the country roads to Tim’s Creek, the dread grew thicker.
The roadsides along the way, in front of a great many houses, were littered with piles and piles of ruined and soggy Sheetrock, waterlogged mattresses, useless refrigerators and other appliances, and all manner of refuse. Such a sight made a person wonder about the hours of work done and to be done. Her mood lightened a little when Clay turned into the driveway.
The brick ranch-style house her husband had built for them back in 1972 was standing proud, the flood had not budged it. Now for the insides. Clay came with her. As soon as she opened the garage, the foulest odor she had ever smelled greeted her.
It smelled like death itself: a profusion of fish and shrimp, spoiled.
Even closed, the two freezers kept in the garage reeked from the spoilage. Also gone were all the corn and okra and butter beans and squash and collards and cabbage she had grown, not to mention the blueberries and pears and peaches and sweet potatoes she had frozen for pies. The water did not enter; the lack of power had struck.
The widow rarely swore, if ever, but this was one of those occasions.
Clay took her luggage to her room. The lights were back on. The water was running. She inspected the refrigerator, which was of course in bad shape, as expected. Otherwise the house seemed intact.
As for the garden, it had indeed become a total loss. All the plants had drowned. The water had caused most of the rows to erode and melt away. There was little green left, mostly yellow and brown and black. The sweet potatoes had commenced to rot. She knew it would be weeks before the ground would be dry enough for replanting.
She let out a frustrated sigh. “Jesus help me.”
After many hours on the phone, arranging for someone to come help her clean the freezer and the garage in the morning, filling in Aaron and Desiree, and catching up with her sister and all the news around town, she finally went to bed in her own bed for the first time in two weeks, and she slept like the proverbial baby.
Mrs. Streeter woke to the sound of a vacuum cleaner, and the sounds of little girls’ laughter.
Marisol! She let herself in. She’s okay.
Mrs. Streeter took her time but was eager to see mother and children and to tell her all about her trip and to hear about the storm and how they fared. But when she rounded the corner down the hall into the family room, she was met by no vacuum cleaner, no little girls, no mother.
The room was silent and empty, save for the light pooling in through the sheer curtains. The sense of bewilderment in her breast was a thing akin to her dead garden out back. How could she imagine such a thing? Why?
It took two cups of decaf coffee and the entire Today show to get her relaxed finally.
One of her cousins, Noreen, showed up to help her empty and clean the stinky freezer, and to mop up the leakage that had spread all over the two-car expanse. This was a nauseating task, full of elbow grease and discarded once-deliciousness. It took several cleanings to get rid of the stench, which somehow lingered faintly for days.
Still no word from Marisol. No one was answering her cell. The widow decided to take a drive. The small community where the trailer park was located was known locally as Scuffletown. No one she spoke with knew how the tiny huddle of farms and homes had fared, being so low and so close to the river.
Many trees had toppled over in the woods on either side of the road. As she approached, she witnessed more and more damage. When she got there, she saw trailers off their mounts, floated into odd and strange configurations; some overturned; many light poles down and wires downed and exposed. Surely the Cifuenteses got out. Surely they were okay. Lord knows.
On the way back home, Mrs. Streeter stopped by the local shop, La Michoacanita Tienda Mexicana—“the getting place” for the Spanish folk. She had never set foot in there; for some reason she just didn’t feel comfortable going in there. She reckoned they didn’t sell anything she couldn’t get at the IGA or the local Dollar General.
But she knew it had a particular reputation among the local folk for its extra-thick pork chops. Her sister swore by them. (“I mean to tell you, it’s the best pork I’ve ever put in my mouth. They say he buys his hogs whole from a little farm over near Kinston. Talk like the farmer only feeds the pigs mostly on fruit. That’s some sweet meat, girl. You hear me?”)
The place looked to be like any other convenience store, except for the many colorful signs and banners advertising in Spanish, and all about were phone cards for sale, and even some cell phones. The place was quite orderly and kempt. She didn’t know what she had expected.
“Hello,” she said to the young woman behind the counter. “I’m looking for Marisol Cifuentes. Would you happen to know her? Or Simitrio Cifuentes or their children?”
The young woman, a girl really, shook her head no. “I’m sorry. I do not know this woman.”
Mrs. Streeter briefly considered leaving a message or to ask for some other type of help but thought better of it. “Thank you.”
After a pause the young woman said, “The owner, Mr. Garcia, he might know her. But he’s in Greenville. His son is in the hospital. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”
The widow thanked the young lady and returned to her car and went home.
Weeks passed. Things got better, bit by bit, inch by inch. Eventually Mrs. Streeter was able to replant her garden with a few items, mostly cabbage and collards and mustard and kale. It being August, the growing season was going to be mighty short. It would start to frost in about six weeks. You could already sense fall coming.
The community slowly rebuilt. Very slowly. Many homes still remained gutted and vacant. Some stores had opened and restocked. The county and groups like the Red Cross and church associations were still showing up in trucks loaded with free bottled water and canned goods; one crusading minister was famous in eastern North Carolina for driving to the aid of hurricane victims with hammer, nail, and a strong back.
Yet places nearer the coast were still impassable.
Most of the schools had finally reopened after weeks.
Wilmington was essentially an island, the governor said. “Did you hear about Malcolm Terrell, Percy’s son, you know the one with all them factory hog farms? You hear what happened at his walled-off country club and golf course? You know, that place over near Crosstown? . . . Well, you know he’s built that big old house right smack plumb on the riverbanks, that place they call Biltmore East, with all that old expensive timber they found at the bottom of the river? I ain’t never been in there, but folk talk about how it is some kinda fancy. A real palace like. Great big . . . Well the place flooded, and you know the hog lagoons with all that hog shit spilled over into the river, along with dead hogs from his farms. I was told when his mansion flooded, not only was the first floor filled with shit, but with dead hogs too! Now ain’t that something? God don’t like ugly, I’m telling you!”
A week before Thanksgiving, Mrs. Streeter heard her doorbell. She wasn’t expecting anyone at this time of day.
It was the postman. “Good morning, ma’am. This letter came for you. It’s foreign. I didn’t want to leave it in the mailbox. It looks important. I figured you’d want to see it right away.”
She thanked the man. The letter in hand had a fancy, colorful stamp and the postmark read: Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua.
Mrs. Streeter returned to her chair and opened the handwritten letter. The printing was very neat.
That night she dreamt of her late husband, now dead ten years, and she dreamt of her grandchildren and their parents and all their various pursuits. She dreamt of her little friends, as she thought of them, and of their mother, who worked so hard, and she dreamt of a way to raise them all and make them a new part of her family.
She dreamt of the howl of green monkeys and the sound of their claws against concrete. In the dreams the pain felt camellia-petal soft and bearable, and her heart was eased. Somewhat.
The next morning, widow Vanessa Streeter was awoken by the sound of a Weed Eater attacking her front yard edges. The telltale whirl was somehow comforting. She had slept late, for her, but Herman Chasten liked to start his yard work on the early side. As she lifted herself and thought about the day ahead of her and of what she was planning to cook for supper, it occurred to her: this would be a great day for pork chops.