A story of youth and age, coming together in a time of crisis
In the end, bad weather turned out to be what pierced the veneer.
Two uniforms pounded on the door, demanding entry and using her name like they had a right. She remained frozen, barely breathing, her stroke-addled leg throbbing, finger twitching on the trigger of Daddy’s rifle.
"Bam bam bam! “Mizzus Heidway!” came the door-muffled call of Sheriff Dander, his voice a rumble under that drone of wicked downpour shotgunning the tin roof. “Now, y’alls got to come with us! They’s evacuatin’ the whole valley!”
Twenty years since Mama died and left her the house, twenty years since Iris came back to live the South Alabama life she’d fled hoping never to return, twenty years running all her errands in nearby towns to avoid in-yer-business local busybodies, yet now these uniforms had the gall to come uninvited right onto an old woman’s property.
“If you’re in there, you’s got to come out now!”
Nothing is what she ever got to do, especially for two bullies with badges. She’d seen Sheriff Dander on the news a few times, always under investigation for some kind of brutality. Seems like the kind of person who wants to be a cop is the one who has no business being one.
Letting her screen door slam, the intruders retreated into a frenzy of rain. Iris Heidway hobbled to the window and peeked through the curtains. A county van packed with busybodies turned around, then rocked and swayed its way back up the hill, splashing through a frantic gravel-washer streaming down the rutted road. She couldn’t see herself climbing in with that mob, or wedged between all those so-and-so’s at some makeshift shelter, everybody grabbing and hugging, you’ll be okay honey this’ll be over soon anything you need just let us know . . . Touchers pretend they’re doing something for you, but they’re the ones tricked by a fool’s notion of connection. Anybody lays a hand on Iris Heidway, he’ll be lucky to get it back.
Once the taillights disappeared into swirls of dense downpour, she checked the TV again, same panicky story, storm of the century, worse coming when the hurricane lands tonight, several old dams and earthen-berm reservoirs threatening to fail. Iris Heidway intended to ride this out just fine, thank you very much. Somebody needs to protect what’s hers.
Looting would break out when the waters receded, especially down these out-of-the-way country roads, unattended homes. Convinced they can get away with it, people will do anything. Scare them, and they’ll turn on each other. Thrust them into adversity, hungry and cold and homeless, they’ll go savage, predatory, murderous. It’s true what they say:
The veneer of civilization is very thin.
Rifle in hand, she limped out to the covered back porch. It did look bad. Normally a tortuous climb several hundred yards downhill to its bank, the river had risen even with the overlook where Granddaddy built this old two-storey tin-roofer some hundred years ago. Muddy water lapped at the back wall of the windowless smokehouse, now converted to her garage.
She sat in the chain-swing and watched a debris-bobbing rager rushing down the main channel beyond the old tree-line. Backwash spun off eddies rolling into her yard and nudging the footings of her house. The rain refused to slack off, even as sky-patches of green and gray dimmed to the purple bruise of dusk. That river never had the gumption to rise even half this much. Worse, it seemed to be having too much fun to stop now.
Surprisingly scared, she headed back inside, but still didn’t feel any safer. Surely there wouldn’t be enough current to pull down the house if floodwaters backed into this holler. Need be, she could retreat to the second floor, even the attic room with that small dormer window overlooking the slope of corrugated tin.
The power flickered a few times and went out. She worked the panel loose to fetch her only kerosene lamp from that hidey-hole behind the pantry. Stick-matches cluttering a knick-knack tray on the middle-bedroom dresser proved sufficient to light the wick. Relieved to find its eight-hour reservoir full, she regretted never buying that intended can of refill.
A series of bangs, several loud cracks, and a walloping thump hurried her from window to window. The fading glow of dusk silhouetted swaying trees and flailing branches. A portion of hillside across the clearing had collapsed like puddin’ cake into the roadway. She stepped outside, fouled her shoes in mud the uniforms had tracked onto her covered porch, got sprayed by gusting rain, and retreated to the doorway. Everywhere, sky reflected off the ground . . . water.
From the converted garage, another thump! Out the kitchen window she saw him, a figure moving around the roll-up door, pounding the padlocked hasp with something—a rock, maybe—now pushing the door open—
One emerged and splashed his way toward the house. Iris grabbed Daddy’s rifle and hobbled to the hidey-hole, then closed herself in and slid to the floor. Trying to catch her breath, she aimed the barrel and wished she’d brought the lamp.
Must be quiet.
Wait . . .
They could take whatever they wanted. Meaning, expecting, intending to defend her property, now at the critical moment she just wanted to be left alone. Things is just things, she decided, blinking through the blur of tears, but 72 is way too young to die. Nobody would remember Harold, killed forty-odd years ago. Nobody would remember Cynthia, their baby girl, a wonderful young woman who never saw twenty-five.
In the house now . . .
“Mizzus Heidway!” came the muffled voice, hoping she’d gone. “Mizzus Heidway!”
Room to room, then up the stairs, moving faster now—
Extra words, can’t make ’em out.
Sounds in the kitchen, fifteen, ten feet away. “Mizzus Heidway! I know you’s here! The lamp in the bedroom’s full up, just been lit!” An occupied house wouldn’t stop him from robbing the place, doing an old lady harm.
She stifled a sob, stared into blackness, decided she’d not been ready for this after all. The footworn Linoleum floor squeaked.
Her muddy footprints had led him right to her. Too late, her fatal mistake settled about her shoulders, weighing her down.
Scraping on the wall, gentle raps, hollow echoes, silence . . . and the hidey-hole door slid open, white eyes against a dark face, the blinding glare of kerosene flame moving into the opening, her rifle barrel fixed on his forehead.
Eyes wide now, his free hand up, he backed away. “Mizzus Heidway, it’s me.”
“I know who y’are,” she said, recalling the gangly teen, seventeen, eighteen maybe. Struggling to her feet, she held the barrel steady, her composure fueled by rage over unrighted wrongs. “You’re Caroline’s boy, but you ain’t about to get away with stealin’ from me again.”
“Whatchoo mean again?”
“You know why I fired you and yer grandmaw.”
“First off,” he said, feigning indignance, “Mamaw’s the one worked for you, not me. Ten years, she worked hard, lookin’ out since you done had that stroke, and not for much money, neither. All I did was help out sometimes ’cause I wanted to.”
Iris Heidway knew better. Anybody offers to help for nothing, count on him to come back expecting something later. Same with people trying to give to you: Man with a crust of bread won’t offer half unless he figures next time you’ll feel guilty about eating a whole slice in front of him. “Help yourself, you mean.” She brandished the rifle, backing him and the lamp through the dining room and into the front parlor.
“I never took nothin’ from you,” he argued, setting the lamp on the table. “You broke Mamaw’s heart, and never give her no reason why.”
“Either you or her, maybe the both of you, took my granddaddy’s collection.”
“That old box of coins you was allus hidin’ here and there?”
“Many of them coins went back to the Civil War. Shop over to Birmin’ham offered me thirteen-thousand dollars, meaning really worth three times that, at least.”
“If we stole ’em, then why did me and Mamaw keep livin’ in that shack upriver? Why didn’t we just light on out of here?”
Water squirted around the front door jamb, rivulets snaking across the hardwood floor. More sloshed from the back door into the kitchen. Rain continued shotgunning that corrugated-tin roof. The lamp’s flame guttered.
“You need to go,” she said, trying not to panic. “Ain’t no call for you to be here.”
He shook his head, then turned to gaze out the window. “Was planning to say you’s going with me, but now it’s too late.”
“You can wade. Wade back up to your place.”
Genuine surprise creased his features. “That’s all washed down the river now.”
“What about your grandmaw?”
He moved to another window, pulled back the curtain, and gazed out; then turned to face her, a deep sadness rising in his eyes. “Stroke. Lived two months, been gone a couple weeks now.” Louder, he added, “Didn’t see you come up to help her like she did you after yours.”
Stung, Iris backed up, sat in the overstuffed high-back. “I didn’t know,” she said quietly.
“She didn’t want you to know—didn’t want you to see her like that.”
“But—but I was her—” She lowered her eyes and watched muddy water creep across the floor, wishing for some way to wash away regret. Finally, she took a deep breath, raised the barrel again, and said, “You can still head up for the road, get a ride.”
He shook his head. “Upriver, the bridge is washed out. Downriver, the road’ll be under water by now, too dangerous to wade.”
“So you did have time to go,” she accused, standing again, “but you figured I left in the sheriff van, so might as well come loot my house first.”
He snorted. “No way you was leavin’ in that van, that I know.”
“So you broke into my garage to see if I drove out on my own.”
He crossed the room, stopped before her, then carefully reached out and pushed the barrel down toward the floor. “That part you got right,” he said, heading back toward the window, sloshing through the spreading pool formed by front-door and kitchen streams connecting.
“But you did find my car out there,” she said, exasperated now, “and you broke in the house anyway.”
“I broke in because I found it.”
“But that means you knew I’d be—” She stepped back, lost in the moment, then retreated from the spreading water to sit in the corner rocking chair, her knees up, feet off the floor.
He opened the door, letting several inches gush into the room, then stepped outside and held up the lamp. The door framed an unexpected scene, several trees all the way down, debris bobbing in the front yard, branches flying through the rain.
“Time to head up,” he pronounced, rushing to the pantry to fill a sack with snacks and drinks from her fridge and cabinets. Setting their supplies on the stairs, he handed her the lamp, then started several times as if he would lift and carry her. Instead, he dragged her to the stairs, chair and all, so she could step up. “Water’s cold; better stay dry.”
They hustled their cargo up to the front bedroom. She set the rifle aside and perched on the bed while he pushed a cedar chest over to the window where he could watch the rising water.
Quietly, she asked, “Is this bad as it’ll get?”
“Water’s already topping the dam. Ground around it gives way, a whole lot more water’s coming through here in a hurry.”
“Will that pull down the house?”
He bit his lip, then cautioned, “We’re not in the main channel, so I’m more worried about what’s in the water. Floating trees and what-all push up against the house, that’s a lot of push.”
As if his words vibrated the very earth, a sustained rumble rose in the distance, echoing thunder growing louder and lasting too long. Soon a higher-pitched roar overpowered it, drowning even the tin-roof onslaught.
The entire house groaned, following that with several shudders and loud bangs. It sounded like a mountain slamming into the walls.
She hobbled to the window, steadied herself against his shoulder, and watched the lamp’s glow highlight the churning water now rising faster.
He hurried to look down the stairs and blurted, “Oh God.” He yanked down the attic access and unfolded the wooden ladder steps, then helped her climb. He handed up the food bags, then bedspreads and sheets. By the time he joined her, the second floor had disappeared under several inches of brown water.
“Hurry!” she warned. “Pull up the stairs!”
“No, no,” he said. “If water’s coming anyway, don’t make it come all at once.”
And come, it did, an inch at a time over the next forty minutes, finally leveling out five steps from the top. Another half hour of sitting on each side to stare into the watery hole, and they seemed to hold back the flood by sheer will alone.
The lamp guttered again. “You got matches to re-light it?” he asked.
She pulled some from her pocket, agreeing they should preserve their oil. Once he extinguished the flame, darkness closed in around them. Neither said much beyond, “You hear that? What’s that?” She thought of so many things to say, but never found the words. They stared toward each other, blind yet somehow unraveling twisted truths, and still she couldn’t even recall his name.
Finally, he broke the spell. “How come you to be such a hater? And how come you’s all alone out here?”
The pain washed over her again, weighing her down. She never told anybody her business, but words in the darkness didn’t seem meant for anyone in particular. “They killed my Harold.” She paused, and he said nothing, refusing to help, the work now hers and hers alone. “We’d been living in Detroit ’cause Harold worked at the Cadillac plant on Clark, but we had just got us a house in the suburbs. 1967, hot hot summertime, and what broke loose in Detroit they hadn’t started calling a riot yet. When Harold got off work he drove down Hastings to get Emma, the old woman who used to babysit when Cynth was little. He was gonna bring her out to our place till the trouble passed, but he never got to her.” Tears filled her eyes again, and her voice broke. “Found him bludgeoned, they said. Blamed the rioters, but Emma said out her window she could see uniforms swinging billy clubs. Ain’t nobody did a proper investigation.” She wiped her eyes, her nose. “Ain’t nobody cared.”
A new wave of rain pounded the tin roof even harder, then eased up after a few minutes.
“Where’s your daughter?” he said quietly.
Iris took a deep breath and sighed. “Twenty-four, pretty as a peach, engaged to be married . . . she stopped beside the road to help someone broke down. A car skidded into the whole mess, run her down—run her—” She cried openly now, that image she’d avoided picturing for decades begging to be seen, the infinite blackness now a velvet canvas on which to paint truth. “Took off, left her to die right there in the road.”
“Oh damn,” he said quietly, a voice in the dark. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry nothing,” she snapped. “Ain’t your fault.”
“Not yours, neither.”
“Ain’t nobody gives a damn anymore.”
“Mamaw did,” he insisted.
She buried her face in her hands, his words too true .
After a few minutes, he said, “I better check the water.” He felt for her hand, then gently opened her fist and took the matches. The lamp revealed water at the top step inching its way higher. “It’s time,” he said.
He set the lamp in the middle of the floor, moved the groceries over by the window, and punched the transom several times to unstick the seal so he could slide up the single small pane of their dormer escape. As the roar of relentless rain filled the cramped space, he raced around, looking for supplies, not very pleased with what he found. An old wardrobe held some dry-cleaning, fancy dresses not much use in a flood. He carefully removed the fragile plastic coverings, thin veneers over a discarded past. In the bottom he found old winter clothes, including sweatpants and -shirts, and more sheets . . .
And an old, hand-carved box, the coin box.
Now she remembered.
“Put these on, quick,” he said, giving her a set of sweats, then pulling a shirt over his tee. He set the coin box by the window, but never said a word about it.
Water crept across the unvarnished wood floor. He tipped the wardrobe on its side with a crash, then shoved it in front of the window. “Get up here,” he urged, still trying to keep her dry. He carefully widened the hole in one plastic cover, had her step into it, and pulled it up like a long skirt, tucking it into her waistband. He tore two arm-holes and a head-hole in another, pulling it over her shoulders, tucking in a third to act as a hood. He repeated the process for himself, then shouldered the blankets and sheets, grabbed the coin box, and climbed out on the roof. “Hold the light out where I can see!”
She braced her good leg and leaned out the window with the lamp.
Slipping several times on the slick corrugated tin, denuded by rain, he set the coin box atop the dormer, then climbed up and threw blankets over the apex. He tied several sheets together, anchoring them to the chimney. Back inside, he crouched with her on the wardrobe, watching the water until it reached for their toes. Hooking the lamp just under the dormer eaves, he climbed out on the roof, then guided her out, putting a twisted sheet into her hands, helping her climb to the top. The blankets provided non-slip footing, a bit of cushion. Bracing her against the chimney, he tied one sheet into a loose sling.
“I don’t want to trap us!” he shouted, his face against hers. “Put your weight into it, but if the house gives way, pull free and push off. We get pulled apart, swim for something big. If it feels solid, like a tree, get up out of the water fast.”
She trembled too violently to hold on, but he settled in beside her, put his arm around her, and held firmly. After a minute, she rested her head against his chest, feeling his warmth even as cold rain washed over them.
They couldn’t see the lamp directly, but its glow across the water helped them monitor the rise. Eventually, they shifted around, finding a more comfortable position, still eyeing the water, now over the eaves and inching up the tin roof, just a few feet below them.
They wouldn’t make it, despite all this. Nothing could save them now. If they wound up in the water and Caroline’s boy tried to help, she would pull away, improve his chances without her.
Nearly submerged now, the lamp flickered and went out.
Black rain slapped at them furiously, testing their resolve. Sometimes people have no choice but to endure.
“They brought him inside,” she said, crying now, picturing the image again for the first time in forty-odd years.
“Harold. Emma’s neighbors. A couple risked their lives, grabbed him, carried him to their apartment, tried to help, called for an ambulance. Of course, none came.”
“Most people’s good,” he said, “given a chance.”
“And them two boys,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “Two boys on their bikes, they stopped and stayed with my girl. One put his jacket over her, kept her warm while the other put his sweatshirt under her head. The man at the fire department told me about it when he come by with a card and some flowers from the squad. He cried a little when he give ’em to me, said it’s hard answering a call like that, said if I needed anything . . .”
He pulled her closer, Caroline’s boy, Caroline’s grandson—called himself Edwin, she remembered now. Edwin held her tight, a selfless gesture, connection.
“Lotta people said the same thing, brought food, come by to help, neighbor kids mowing the grass . . . I figured they did that to make themselves feel better.”
“They did it for you,” Edwin said. “You just didn’t notice, is all.”
“I don’t like to scratch the surface, see what’s underneath, always expecting something bad, ugly.”
Water touched their feet, and for some reason it felt good, knowing the time had come, the way, not feeling so alone.
Secret panel left open, Iris’s submerged hidey-hole mocked her fears.
Trigger never pulled, Daddy’s rusting rifle protected none from her fate.
Scattered by currents, Granddaddy’s coins would sink forever in the river’s mud . . .
But the water pulled back, dropping a few inches. The rain tapered off, turned to mist, then sputtered out.
In time, dawn broke over the horizon, misty patches of brightness peeking through ragged trees. The water had fallen to just below the eaves, a soggy hand-carved box holding fast.
Soon, a helicopter appeared, circled, and hovered. Sheriff Dander leaned out to check on them, signaling won’t be long just hold on we’re coming to get you.
The rumble of a speedboat approached from downstream. Sunbeams burst across the treetops, firing the revelation of one very different world emerging from receding waters, a world caked with mud yet somehow scrubbed clean.
The need to protect themselves past, two survivors huddling atop an old two-storey tin-roofer tore off their makeshift veneers and prepared to face a new day.