In the first part of Infinite Tenderness to appear in Rainshadow Journal, you met Hershel Prall, who was looking for his son Landon on Sunday, August 28th, 2005, the eve of Hurricane Katrina. In this second part, we meet Landon’s mother, Dewey Bassett, on that same night, practically at the same time but in a different place. The previous evening—Saturday—she and the rest of her family, except for Hershel and Landon, had fled New Orleans on the last train out of the city. Late Sunday night, they made it to her sister’s home in Fountain, Colorado. Now Dewey is trying to settle down in a strange new place, too wired to sleep. She and Hershel have been estranged for years, but are still faithful, full-time parents to Landon. They’ve been desperate to find him, but back home now, Katrina is poised to hit the Gulf coast and Landon’s already been gone five days.
From Infinite Tenderness, a novel by Mark Clemens
Last Train Out
Sunday, August 28, 2005
9:12 p.m./mountain time
Orchid gorgeous all alone. Dewey thought that was admirable about the flower, envied it. The orchid sat in a tiny pot in the sun window in Leola’s kitchen, the stems of deceased orchids barren beside it. Pure white tinged with mauve so faint it made something sharp in her chest, its petals leaned toward Dewey where she stood at the sink, as if the lonely orchid knew it had a secret admirer and was peering into the house to see.
Dewey marveled at what it must have taken the orchid to survive, given her sister: Leola was notorious for killing house plants. Dewey chuckled: Leola Bassett-Hopkins. Wanted for murdering flowers in Mississippi, Texas and Colorado. Dangerous—Do not approach.
Dishes done, Dewey looked out the sun window as she wiped her hands on the damp tea towel. Beyond the orchid, pitch dark in the backyard, except for the board fence in the dim light from the kitchen. Beyond that, lights from a few homes scattered here at the edge of Fountain, Colorado. Beyond that, lowering clouds all the way to Pueblo, Dewey knew, their coal gray bellies made pale by the city’s lights. And beyond that—she knew where they were—she’d looked at a map on the train to Denver and looked again on the drive down to Fountain, them all packed in Mack’s SUV with him and Leola. Way south and east of Colorado, she knew, Landon had to be somewhere in New Orleans, wandering alone.
She knew all about where they were, just not where Landon was. That had been the terrible thing about the night before, Saturday night, when the train whistle blew and blew until they pulled out of New Orleans.
It was a little after 9 p.m. and the train was about to pull out. That’s what was happening, but what Dewey would always remember was how torn she was, the whole world ripped and rent and wrenching in her guts. She saw Hershel felt the same. Landon nowhere somewhere. She kept turning around to see if their son had snuck up behind them, quiet as you please, that’s how close she felt he could be and at the same time so far away, God knew where. But where?
The train hissed steam and clanked, a mountain of iron lurching an inch forward, back two. The clash of couplers rippled through the cars and on down toward the end that was out of sight. You could not hear a thing, people calling out all around. Mothers cried at their children stay close, hang on. Fathers bellowed at their loved ones time to go, climb on up there. The conductors echoed over all, hollering up and down the line, all aboard, all aboard now.
Hershel helped Dewey herd her family toward the train—Daddy Royal Bassett, Dewey’s brothers Melvin and Junior, her sister Paulette and husband Ricardo and their children Tonia, 5, and Aldrich, 3. Horse in a barn fire, Paulette was crazed, eyes wild, teeth bared white, nostrils flaring. ‘Cardo kept his arm around her and gripped the hands of their kids with his other hand. Melvin and Junior hefted Daddy Royal by his arms and Royal let them. Hershel and Dewey helped them all, slap patting the kid’s fannies when they faltered, pushing Royal and Dewey’s brothers along. Dewey jumped in front and waved them on—come on! Hershel watched the knot of them wedge on through the crowd.
Melvin bent to talk in Dewey’s ear and she helped him and Junior get Daddy Royal up and in the car. They got him seated and she came back to the door.
“Hershel!” she yelled, waving over the heads of everyone trying to get aboard. “Not leavin’ without him.”
“Not takin’ you to the Superdome,” Hershel yelled back from the middle of the crowd. “Gonna be a goddam zoo.”
“Landon,” she screamed, hanging off the train from one hand.
“Stay-with-your-daddy,” Hershel spit the words like bullets. “Your family,”
“I can’t . . .” she called and found she was sobbing.
“I’ll be here lookin’ for him, Dewey.”
“Find him,” she cried and pointed at him. “Find our boy.”
“Gonna find him, Dew. Got to.”
That had been the last she could hear Hershel. Hand over her mouth to hold her heart in, she watched him recede through the sea of people at the Union Terminal till he waved and was gone. It was the last train out of the city before the hurricane.
Now, in her sister’s kitchen in faraway Fountain, Colorado, Dewey leaned back against the counter. Only a baby spot above the sink lit the kitchen, the house otherwise dark around her, still strange. Everyone asleep, even Melvin, Junior and Daddy Royal in the darkened living room—she’d looked in to find her three men slumbering her brothers on the leopard-spot sectional and Daddy slumped in Mack’s recliner. The light on them pulsed dim then bright from Mack’s big TV screen that was alive with pictures of the hurricane swirling in off the Gulf of Mexico, alive with the caterpillar of headlights crawling over the causeways out of town.
Curious, how a hurricane close to landfall meant the news would be about nothing soon. All those people hunkered, watching as their roofs blew off or maybe dying in the wind or surge, and no news to be had, breathing stilled around the world, waiting to see what happened after. What was happening in New Orleans? Storm moving in, buckets of rain, people going to ground, and where was Landon?
Dewey’s little niece Tonia wandered into the kitchen. She stopped when she saw Dewey and rubbed her eyes.
“You sleep walking?” Dewey said. She laid the tea towel over her shoulder and crossed her arms.
“Is sleep walking when you walk with your eyes closed?”
“It’s when you sleeping, but your body’s awake, wants to see what’s goin’ on.”
“Like you want to be somewhere else?” Tonia said.
“Like that, yes.”
“I want to be home.”
“Git over here, scamp,” Dewey said, opening her arms. “Want to show you something.”
Tonia padded across the kitchen into her arms. Dewey turned the little girl around to look at the orchid. She told her niece how the flower was looking at them, watching them watching her. Tonia nodded when Dewey said it was time for bed, she knew just the place, snuggling right in with Paulette and Ricardo and little Aldrich. That was her home now.
How I love your writing, and this story in particular. Masterful in all the ways.