Rainshadow is proud to present an excerpt from Infinite Tenderness by Port Townsend based Mark Clemens, a novel he wrote that drew on his experience working on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the autumn of 2005. On August 29 of that year Hurricane Katrina slammed into Mississippi along with Louisiana and Alabama. At the time, Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in American history.
Clemens was loaned out by his regular employer—Washington State Emergency Management—to support the federal government’s recovery effort in the Gulf Region. He was a public information officer in his regular job—that is, a spokesperson who provided information to the media and the public—so was assigned to do that on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in Mississippi, specifically Hancock and Harrison counties.
In this chapter, “Jackson Square,” we meet Hershel Prall, a father looking for his son, Landon, in New Orleans on the night Katrina roars ashore. Mark is currently looking for a publisher for the book.
Jackson Square, New Orleans, Sunday, August 28, 2005 10:02 p.m.
Wind rocked the pickup and rain pounded the roof, sheeting down the windshield. Hershel cracked his door open and was inundated. Slamming the door, he shoved his hair back and flung rainwater off his face. He turned the wipers on and dialed up the radio extra loud.
“…thousands of residents have streamed out of New Orleans yesterday and today. Mayor Ray Nagin finally issued what critics called a long overdue evacuation order this morning, saying “this is going to be an unprecedented event.” That echoes the national hurricane center, which reports Hurricane Katrina winds are now blowing at about 175 miles an hour, making it a potentially catastrophic category 5 storm…”
Hershel snorted: no way it’ll be Cat 5 at landfall. The curls of his flame-red hair made a wet jumble on top of his head and continued dripping. He was 44 years old, a commercial diver who knew there’d be as boatload of work after this storm. When the wipers cleared the windshield for a fleeting moment, he could make out the hulking silhouette of St. Louis Cathedral across the square, its spires dark in the darkness. Hershel pulled on a dangling curl, wringing water down the front of his yellow slicker. Watching the rain for an unlikely pause, he drummed the steering wheel.
“…the eye of the storm is currently about 250 miles from the mouth of the Mississippi,” the hurricane center said in an ominous tone, “some levees in greater New Orleans could be overtopped. The rate of traffic exiting the Cresent City decreased as night fell, but with the torrential rain and rising winds, a swelling number of citizens, many on foot, are converging on the Louisiana superdome for shelter.”
Might be Landon was headed there, Hershel thought, hoping for some luck. He would find his son on his way to the Superdome or already there. Hard looking for him in a crowd, but better than the whole damn New Orleans.
Hershel pushed his curls back and pulled up the hood of the slicker. A rush of wind and rain buffeted him when he got out of the truck. He only had a t-shirt on under the slicker, but it was like stepping into a warm bath.
The air was bloated with rain. Millions of drops saturated everything, pouring down, pummeling, swelling with the pressure of a dam about to burst, unleashing a load that would drown them all.
Hershel began walking along the edge of Jackson Square toward the French Quarter, bowed under the weight of the rain pelting him head and shoulders. He was underwater as if wading across the ocean floor now, sucking air between the myriad drops through a pocket of air beneath his chin.
Bowed like him, people crept across the square toward the edifice of St. Louis in the night. With the power off, the cathedral loomed dark above the small group of people, sodden penitents in the storm come to watch the coming hurricane, communal and amphibious, reveling even, a gaggle of storm gawkers out in the lashing downpour. Even though it was still miles out on the Gulf of Mexico, why chase the hurricane when it would come to you?
Hands twitching with muscle memory, Hershel resisted the urge to run back to the truck for his gear. He’d get ready to dive, pull on the tank and respirator and flippers for when the warm water rising all around was deep enough. Then he spotted someone about a hundred yards away, the posture unmistakable, the hair, the way the kid turned his head. Landon, Landon, we’ve been looking for you. Hershel splashed into the square, winding around the few individuals and pairs. He called out his son’s name, but he didn’t hear. Time to come inside, boy. Where have you been? But when he came panting and sloshing up, the kid turned around and it wasn’t Landon.
But he looked familiar. Hershel realized when Dewey and Landon lived in Algiers, this kid and his mom were neighbors. Eleven or twelve, the boys ran around together—they looked like brothers, twins almost, had nicknames for each other. Dewey hated those names. But Dewey and the other mom were good friends. Dewey and Jackie, Jackie Wye. The two moms could never keep up with their boys; Hershel would drop by to say hello and Landon and the kid were always off somewhere. Then Jackie had to move away and took the kid with her. This kid and Landon—the screwy names they called each other. Landon was Torch and the kid was…the name struggled to his lips.
“Spider?” Hershel said.
The kid wiped the rain out of his eyes and looked at him. He was rail thin and wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and must have been soaked to the skin. The kid said, “Wow.”
“Hey boy, is it good to see you.” Hershel clapped the kid on the shoulder, staggering him.
“Mr. Prall, wow. Landon’s dad.”
“Tell me your real name now. I just remember Spider.”
“Well, first off, Landon was Spider; I was Torch. My real name’s Jimmie Wye.”
“Jimmie, that’s right,” Hershel said. “How’s your mom? Jackie?”
“She’s okay,” Jimmie said. “Haven’t seen her for a while.”
“Listen Jimmie, I’m on the move here. Landon’s mom and me think Landon might be in New Orleans. Have you seen him?”
“Why no,” Jimmie said. “I only seen Landon a couple of times since we moved away, like, ten years ago, Mr. Prall.”
“Call me Hershel.”
“Landon’s in Nawlins?” Jimmie said.
“Me ‘n’ Dewey—you remember Landon’s mom?” Hershel said.
“Sure. Always had boiled peanuts for me ‘n’ Landon. MoonPies sometimes.”
“Dewey ‘n’ me have been lookin’ for Landon,” Hershel said. He pulled a poster from under his slicker and held it out. “Have a look at Landon now.”
“Lor-dee,” Jimmie said. Got a head of hair on him, huh?”
“He’s been gone since last Wednesday.”
“Landon.” Jimmie bent over to keep rain off the poster. “Spider all growed up.”
“He’s been sick.”
Jimmie looked up at Hershel. “He looks great, though. But sorry, like I said, I haven’t seen Landon forever.”
“We got to catch up with him,” Hershel said.
Jimmie brought the poster close to his face. “I see the phone numbers right here.”
“That’d be so great, Jimmie.” Hershel said. “I hear people are riding out the storm in the Superdome. I’m goin’ to look for him there.”
“Good idea, Mr. Prall.” Jimmie looked up with a crooked smile. “I see Spider—I mean Landon—I’ll call you right away.”
“Now you just gotta get out of town soon before this hurricane gets us.” Hershel put his hand on Jimmie’s shoulder. “You need a ride?”
“No way. My car’s right around the corner.” He motioned down Chartres Street, then let his hand drop. “Anyway, I’m gonna ride it out here in the Quarter. Be a gas.”
“Oh yeah and then some,” Hershel said. ”Keep that flyer with you, okay? Call me you see Landon.”
Hershel headed back to his pickup. When he turned to wave, Jimmie was gone. Hershel waded up to the pickup and jumped in. Cranking the truck around, he pointed it toward the Superdome and switched the radio on.
“… on the other side of the causeway in Mississippi, Bay St. Louis Mayor A.J. Holly says, “There’s a lot of new people here on account of the casinos who don’t know what a real hurricane’s like.” The mayor added, “we’re telling folks who stayed in the area to get to high ground somewhere soon.” This is WWL’s update on the hour. Stay tuned for the latest news through the night.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Katrina was the worst natural disaster in American history. The Galveston Hurricane was the deadliest hurricane in American history. Katrina was the costliest hurricane in American history.
Copyright by Mark Clemens. 2022. All Rights Reserved.