Chapter 6 of the unpublished novel “Infinite Tenderness” by local author & Rainshadow Journal founding member Mark Clemens. It’s the end of August 2005, and we’re on the eve of Hurricane Katrina. Still searching for their missing son in New Orleans, Hershel and Dewey are pulled apart in the chaos of the approaching storm, driving him home in nearby Mississippi and exiling her to far-flung Colorado. Links to previous chapters posted in Rainshadow Journal are at the end of this chapter or listed on the lower right side of Rainshadow’s home page.
Monday, August 29, 2005
1:59 a.m./central time
After crossing The Rigolets, Hershel followed Highway 90 through the Pearl River delta, swamp and bayous flanking him on either side of the way. He slowed to a crawl where water was axle-deep over the pavement, feeling his way to keep from plunging into the overrunning ditches. At the Pearl River, he pushed across the wind-whipped bridge into Mississippi and the town of Pearlington, its streets swept bare, the houses low and dark, all the power out. He waved to Paddy Molina, the town’s lone patrolman, and they idled next to each other for a talk in the middle of a deserted intersection, windows cracked. Paddy had alerted everyone in town, blasting their homes with his megaphone as he drove by, warning them to get to high ground.
Hershel asked Paddy if he’d seen Landon. He and Landon had moved their vacation to the far side of Louisiana, but Hershel figured Landon would have been as likely to come back to this area as he would where Dewey lived in Chalmette. Paddy knew about Landon and the times he’d run away, but he hadn’t seen any sign of Landon this time.
Hershel thanked him and asked him to keep an eye out. When he said he was headed to his place in Ansley, Paddy shook his head. “Ain’t no high ground out there in the marsh.”
“I’m just grabbin’ some gear,” Hershel said.
“Hope you’re not plannin’ on ridin’ out the storm,” Paddy shouted. “That surge would ride you all the way to Picayune.”
“I’m ridin’ it out, but at the Rooster over in Waveland,” Hershel yelled out his window. “They’ll have a party goin’.”
“Take that Toucan Harry with you,” Paddy shouted, louder this time.
“You know he won’t go.”
“Crazy bastard,” Paddy said. “One of these times…”
Hershel waved Molina off and rolled out into the marshlands along Highway 90. Just before Lower Devils Swamp, he swung onto the winding road to Ansley, gripping the steering wheel against the wind, the windshield view swept clean then whited out as walls of rain flared in the headlights.
The little marina community of Ansley was lights out, the channels and waterside cabins, shacks and double-wides dark and deserted. Inside his 16-foot-square fishing shack, roof sagging with saw grass, the wind whistled and creaked through the walls. He lit a lantern and hung it over the kitchen sink, then bellied up on the sink to look out the dockside window.
Rain rattled the glass like birdshot as he watched a host of dirty white caps scud along the waterway into his boat. The Yellowfin 24-footer was lashed up at the dock, right where he’d asked Fred and Kev to leave it. It bucked and twisted against its moorings in the wind, smashing the white caps into bits of froth that flew away. When the surge came, the boat would get sucked under. Looking up and down the waterway, he saw his neighbors’ boats were gone or floating free—he’d cut the Yellowfin loose before he left. He lingered on a house at the end of the waterway, a pill box of corrugated tin mounted on high pilings like some misshapen alien from War of the Worlds. Besides his lantern, a dim glow in the pillbox window was the only other light in Ansley.
Hershel piled diving equipment and fishing gear on the floor, then stuffed a few clothes in a duffle along with cans of beans and tins of spam in a garbage bag, essentials he’d need till he came back or if the shack was gone and he’d be living out of the truck. The wind was a steady gale now that he had to lean into when he lugged his possessions out of the shack. He shoved it all in under the topper on the pickup, trying to keep things organized, but time was short, and the wind strove to blow everything away and him with it all. He slammed the tailgate shut and went back inside.
Snuffing the lantern, he set it by the door to take with him. He popped a beer and swigged in the howling dark, once, twice, then pulled long. He lowered the can and found himself gazing in the sink. He studied the rusty stains in the pitted enamel around the drain, but what he saw was Landon washing dishes the last night they’d been here. Sunday night a week ago—seemed like a year. While Hershel whipped up a mess of red snapper fillets and waffle fries, Landon had groused about the finger he’d scraped peeling the potatoes. But Landon had wolfed the fresh hot food like a champ and Hershel wished he’d whipped up more. Landon groused about washing the dishes, too, but by then Hershel had his finger wrapped water-tight in a wide band-aid.
Looking at the sink, Hershel slumped inside and wondered if he should cry, wondered if he could. Landon had made it through the dishes, Hershel drying beside him, and when they turned in, Landon hadn’t even resisted taking his meds. He had also washed dishes before they took off diving the next morning, headed for the waters around Half Moon Island. Hershel looked at the Red Brick calendar on the fridge. Last Monday, August 24—he and Landon had started their week together—diving, fishing, living on their catch, bonfire out in the yard, neighbors dropping by to join in.
Looking around in the dark, Hershel toasted the good times the shack had seen. He toasted Landon wherever he might be, then Dewey and her family off safe in faraway Colorado. He repeated his vow to Dewey and to himself: he would find Landon or die trying. He’d do that much. Make her happy for once if he never did another thing.
All the neighbors’ shacks or cabins were dark save that one at the end of the waterway, Toucan Harry’s elevated home that stood sentinel over Ansley. Hershel decided to follow up on Molina’s request and knock on Toucan’s door on his way out of town. He had a question, besides. But as he climbed the last steps up to the pillbox, the door opened and Toucan himself was looking at him down the twin barrels of a shotgun. The gleaming gold bead welded between the barrels was centered in Toucan’s eye.
“It’s me Toucan, Hershel Prall from down the waterway.”
Toucan Harry lowered his shotgun and chuckled. “You’re getting a late start, sonny, if you think you’re gonna beat Ka’tina outta here.”
“I’ll be okay,” Hershel said.
“Better come in here now.” Toucan grinned through the gun metal bristle of his beard, revealing black gaps where an upper left incisor and lower right canine had once been. The only time she’d visited Ansley, Dewey had met Toucan Harry. She told Hershel she had offered Toucan some free dental maintenance on the spot, but he’d quickly ducked back in his door.
“I would Toucan, but I’m heading to the party at Rooster’s.”
“Drivin’ right into the teeth of Ka’tina. Boy, I don’t know.”
“People say it’s going to get ugly,” Hershel said. “They say this could be the one that takes out Toucan’s Castle.”
“Them people ain’t worth a fart in hell.” Toucan looked at Hershel. “I replaced them old poles with concrete pillars this summer, all new, 18 inches thick. Come on inside, Mr. Prall. I got a bottle of whiskey or two.”
“No sir, but let me ask you, have you seen Landon around here the last few days?
“He took off again, middle of last week.”
“That boy is persistent,” Toucan said. “You know he’d come here to say hello if he was around. He likes me, likes my graham crackers, too.”
“Well, he shows up, sit him down with some graham crackers and milk and call me.”
“You betcha.” Toucan ran a hand over his crew cut prickles. “You’re a good daddy.”
“No,” Hershel said, shaking his head. He looked out over the dark buildings and frothing waterways of Ansley and back at Toucan. “Hey, take these for me, okay?” Hershel held out a six pack of Red Brick with one bottle missing. “Good for chasing your whiskey.”
Hershel rolled into the parking lot and smiled when he saw Trudy’s car. Wind driven rain whipped the beam of a lone pole light, its reflection wavering dim then bright on the cars and trucks huddled in the lot. Business as usual for patrons of the Red Rooster, hurricane could go to hell. Hershel wedged his pickup into the narrow slot between a flatbed truck and Trudy’s Impala, its dirty pink chassis covered with dings and craters as if it had been hit by a meteor shower. He turned off the engine and cracked his door. Under the slash and thud of wind and rain, he could hear the steady hum of Barry’s generator out back of the Rooster. That explained the pole light still working out in the lot: now he saw it was a halogen work light lashed to the pole, its beam streaked white with rain slanting across the hood of the Datsun.
The beer signs were dark in the windows, but a low light flickered inside—Marianne had the bar festooned with candles, no doubt. She had done the same thing for the only other hurricane that summer—Dennis, Denise?—and they’d guzzled beer and danced to The Doors, Hendrix, Etta James coming around on the juke again and again till they were holding each other up and cheered bleary when dawn seeped dim into the bar, riders on the storm.
Barely visible through the sheets of rain, the Rooster’s ramshackle outline blended into the railroad bed behind it. The long steep embankment made a black wall between Waveland and the Gulf of Mexico. Like everyone who lived here, Hershel knew the railroad was a phantom bulwark—the Rooster on the ocean side. Camille had rushed through the Rooster six feet high and rising, then overtopped the railroad. Tonight, tomorrow—this one could be the next Camille. Big One or a big fizzle, who knew? Better to boogie the night away.
Trudy could be anywhere. How many times had she called him for a ride back from a party or a girlfriend’s house to the Rooster or the Back Bay or wherever she’d left her car? Trudy, a friend, a pal, someone to dance with every time he saw her and sleep with when they were inclined. Bacon and eggs in the morning, but often he had to leave for work before first light, Trudy snoring softly in the rumpled sheets, long blonde hair draped over her pillow. She knew better than to bother him if she was stuck at some guy’s house without her pretty pink Impala. Then that sucker could give her a damn ride. Otherwise, call Hershel.
What the hell, Hershel knew Trudy was inside, that’s where the party was. He got out and splashed across the parking lot to the front door. Music thumped the Rooster’s walls, quivering the steaming windows. He flung the door open and pushed his dripping hair out of his face. The din of friends and music poured out of the Rooster, everyone and all oblivious to what was coming their way from the Gulf. Hershel turned back to the Datsun: he wasn’t going to find Landon tonight—the kid would have to take care of himself—but he’d find him. He would find him.
Infinite Tenderness – Chapter 1
Infinite Tenderness – Chapter 2
Infinite Tenderness – Chapter 3
Infinite Tenderness – Chapter 4