Thursday, August 29, 2013

Mrs. Martineau's babies (a moment from The Hurricane Lover)

Eight years ago today, Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, bringing flood waters that destroyed most of New Orleans and caused a mass migration of evacuees into Houston. While I was helping with relief efforts, carrying water to evacuees who waited in the 100+ heat to be processed into the Reliant Center, a New Orleans police officer told me, "This is great for con artists and media people."

That offhand comment was the initial inspiration for my novel, The Hurricane Lover. My prime directive is always to tell a good story, but this book was a soul project. I wanted readers to really feel what happened here that summer, to see the human faces and be reminded that, while both government and mainstream news media failed us spectacularly, We the People came together with strength and compassion.

As part of my research for The Hurricane Lover, I slogged through thousands of emails to and from Michael Brown, who was head of FEMA at the time. (Remember GW saying, "Heck of a job, Brownie!" Yeah. That guy.) A prominent figure in those pages is Craig Fugate, who was appointed by President Obama to take over FEMA in 2009. Fugate, director of Florida's Division of Emergency Management at the time, was one of the unsung heroes of Katrina. It wasn't his responsibility, but he understood the magnitude of what was happening, and more important, he cared, and he seriously stepped up. Brownie... not so much. The fact is, he'd already quit the job, but was prevailed upon to wait with his official resignation until after the holiday weekend. (The irony makes one's teeth hurt.)

The day after Katrina, while Fugate frantically scrambled to mobilize ice and body bags, Brown and his secretary exchanged the following email, which was later made public through the Freedom of Information Act. This was one of many exchanges that literally brought tears to my eyes. My goal in this particular chapter was to place it in a more personal context. The character Ms. Martineau was inspired by an elderly lady I sat and talked with at a shelter in Houston.

From The Hurricane Lover:
..................................
Tuesday afternoon August 30
From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:43:17 2005
Subject: U ok?
..................................
From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

I’m not answering that question, but do have a question. Do you know of anyone who dog-sits? Bethany has backed out and Tamara is looking. If you know of any responsible kids, let me know. They can have the house to themselves Th-Su.
..................................
From: James, Tillie
To: Brown, Michael D
Sent: Wed Aug 31 05:49:23 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

No I don’t know anyone. Want me to see if my son is in town and can do it? D---- was looking for someone recently too. Maybe he knows someone.

Don’t answer my question then. Still working on project today from home. It’s crazy I hear in the office.
..............................................
From: Brown, Michael D
To: James, Tillie
Sent: Tue Aug 30 22:52:18 2005
Subject: Re: U ok?

Sure, if he likes dogs. Check with David, too.

I should have done my announcement a week early.
..............................................
“I know folks think I’m outside my mind, but I won’t ever leave the house for a hurricane. I can’t leave my babies.” The old woman in Shay’s viewfinder thoughtfully stroked the little French bulldog in her lap. “If the Lord wants me home, he calls me home, and I’ll be glad to see him. I never got afraid. Not when I was a child and not last night. Was it last night?”

“Yesterday morning, Ms. Martineau,” said Shay.

“Oh, yes. Yes, the darkness makes it like black night.” The old woman nodded with her whole body. “Like a great wild animal swallowed up the sun.”

Shay was afraid to breathe, the shot was so perfect, the old woman so unbearably beautiful. From the little balcony outside the second floor bedroom, she was able to frame Ms. Martineau with a trace of wrought iron railing behind her and the massive river of slow-moving trash and branches traveling past in the shady street below. It was only ten or twelve inches deep, but in the shade of the broken oaks, it appeared as dense and unknowable as the Mississippi.

“You were saying…you weren’t afraid…” Shay prompted gently.

“Oh, no. I don’t get afraid. I always know that my mama is praying for me.”

Shay blinked back the sting that came up behind her eyes. “Me too.”

“If you see my granddaughter,” said the old woman, “you tell her I’m all right. This house is a good house. Never takes water above that third step right down there.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Shay.

“Oh, longer than I been alive. I baked my bread and had my babies in this house. My nephew—he’s passed now—he put in the new water heater…oh, three years ago. Was it three years? Maybe it was seven. I wasn’t driving anymore. I know that. We enjoy sitting out here when the mosquitoes aren’t too bad. My great-grandchildren have a sandbox down there.”

She pointed a knobby finger toward the surface of the water that had crawled from the curb to the porch steps in the short time Shay had been sitting with her.

“I’ll stop talking now,” said Ms Martineau. “I get dry and these new teeth, they rub.”

“Thank you so much for visiting with me, ma’am. Do you have water set aside in the house, Ms. Martineau? It’s hot. You have to drink lots of water.”

“Yes, my nephew put in the new water heater last year.”

“Here, drink this.” Shay handed the old lady a water bottle she’d been hoarding all day, along with the last MRE. “I want you to stay up here and eat this tonight. Don’t go downstairs to your kitchen.”

“Well, you’re too sweet,” said Ms. Martineau. “Did you bake this yourself?”

Shay packed her camera in her tote bag, then took off the white shirt from Corbin’s closet and tied one sleeve to a scrolled frou-frou at the corner of the balcony rail.

“I’m putting this here so they’ll know someone needs help, all right, Ms. Martineau? Don’t take this down. Somebody will come along in a boat and see it. The National Guard or the police.” Shay tried not to think about the possibility that the white flag might be under water by morning. “If someone comes for you with a boat, you go with them. They’ll take you somewhere safe. Your granddaughter will know to look for you there.”

“Oh, no, honey child, I have the dogs. I can’t leave my babies.”

“Ms. Martineau…” Shay bit her bottom lip. “I’ll come back and check on the dogs.”

“Oh, would you, dear? And feed them?”

“Sure. Of course,” Shay lied, caught in one of those horrible Chinese finger puzzles where anything you say is wrong. “You stay upstairs until the boat comes. Promise?”

“All right, dear. So long as I know my babies are in good hands. If you see my granddaughter, you tell her I’m all right.”

The two exchanged a warm embrace, and as Shay made her way down through an angled stairway tiled with family photos to the front parlor that was everyone’s grandmother’s parlor in some respect, she made the conscious decision to take this sort of story with her when she left the sunshine gig. The intensely beautiful faces and voices of folks who were no one in that they were everyone. The hard core news was only a fraction of the story without Ms. Martineau’s face, soft as onion paper, alive with history.

Shay made another slow, deliberate trip up and down the stairs, with the camera on this time, knowing this history in faces, in button shoes, in old timey clothes and funeral portraits would be lost to the water within a matter of hours. The voices would last only as long as Ms. Martineau’s memory, and that was fading with the light.

The Hurricane Lover will be available on Kindle and Nook 11/11/11.

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