Chapter 7 of the unpublished novel “Infinite Tenderness” by local author & Rainshadow Journal founding member Mark Clemens.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. This week: Back in New Orleans, things heat up at the Superdome.
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.
Crack in the Sky
Monday, August 29, 2005
2:35 a.m./central time
Later, when he wrote up his field report for the day, Travis Harney would say he thought the kid was high the first time he saw him. It was hard to tell, Harney was so far away, but he could see the kid was zoned out, staggering into people along the walkway like a blind zombie with a green garbage bag pulled over his black hoodie. Actually, Harney’s first impression from that distance had been that the kid was sleepwalking, but sleeping was extremely hard to come by in the Superdome that night. Harney left it out of the write-up.
Harney edged along the walkway, weaving in and out of the crowd, tugging his Ray Bans down now and then to look over them around the Dome. At six-feet-seven-inches, he was a head above most of the people moving along the walkway. In a green polo shirt and green ball cap with a bright yellow SparGash logo, he stood out like a lighthouse, his freckled face expressionless behind the sunglasses, except when a friendly smile emerged, depending on the occasion. He was with Rogash-Sparling, a contracting firm brought in to support the government’s emergency operations. Most of the government’s main team were patrolling the lower levels of the Dome and outside. Harney and other two SparGash hires were assigned to the nosebleed seats.
Whatever was going on with the kid, Harney had approached with care. They were on the concrete walkway that circled the Superdome at the foot of the 500 and 600 sections. It was just beginning to smell. The crowd ranged from inert to restless, the former slumped in their seats far up into the darkness, the latter walking around the arena in both directions, packing the walkway like a city sidewalk at rush hour, jostling the kid as they brushed by on either side.
SparGash had slapped a new title on Harney for this disaster: Community Liaison, whatever that was. “It’s just reorg lingo,” said Leo Wirth, his team lead. Harney had been with Wirth since the 1990s, working through a number of disasters and as many organizational transitions. Since the last disaster, their previous company had been acquired by SparGash.
“Just keep doing what you do,” Wirth had said on their last call. Harney had been enroute from Natchez to New Orleans early that Sunday, plowing toward the Superdome through heavy rain. “Management knows who you are, Travis,” Wirth said. “They love you.”
“Oh right.” Harney said. He knew Leo wanted off the phone—too many fish to fry.
“Come on,” Leo said. “They need vets like you who know what they’re doing.”
“Right again,” Harney said, though by that time he was speaking to dead air.
Getting people on the road to recovery was the goal, but for now he was just strolling around the cozy home of the New Orleans Saints. Baby steps: he was here to help.
And this kid looked like he could use it. He was built like a young man, but his hapless slouching posture fairly shouted “lost.” He was on the other side of the aisle now, a dozen feet away from Harney. He had his hood down, but Harney could only see the back of his head. The green plastic garbage bag wasn’t all the way down in back, revealing the bottom of a big gold 9 on his black sweatshirt. Absolutely stock still, he leaned back and stared straight up at the top of the Superdome.
Harney walked up on his right and a little behind him, then slowed down. The bag was bunched up in front of his sweatshirt, too, and the kid had his hands burrowed deep in the front pouch. Harney waited for the kid to notice him, but he did not notice, and Harney bent around in front of him to look. At that moment, the kid’s pale brown face was tilting up, black curls dangling into his eyes and his eyes glowing with an angelic, rapt look, consumed by adoration.
Finally, the kid saw Harney and snatched his hood up over his head, pulling the drawstrings tight around his nose and lips. One eye peeked out of the little opening that was left.
Then Harney felt something ping his arm and looked up. The reaches of the Dome were as dim as a night light in a baby’s bedroom, but he could make out banks of lights and the seams of panels at the top of the Dome. Harney spotted a drop falling from directly overhead. The kid had moved off a little and had his head tossed back again, looking up. Harney tracked the drop down until it splashed in a puddle on the concrete walkway in front of the kid. More drops followed the first drop and then all the drops were spiraling one after another as they fell through the cavernous space. Harney felt pinpoint drops hitting his arm again—the leak could not have been going long. The kid didn’t seem to know about the puddle and kept looking up at the drops, which were coming faster.
Harney stepped up by the puddle in front of the kid. He didn’t know what the deal was but could not blame the kid if he was stoned. Harney felt almost high himself, as he looked around the surreal arena, the mass of human forms piled in seats, ten thousand souls and counting. Word was there might be thirty thousand people jammed in before the night was over.
Someone came up behind Harney and he stuck out his arm. “Hold on,” he said. “There’s a slip hazard here.”
The person eased Harney’s arm down and came up beside him. It was Melvin Waters in a matching green polo, one of Harney’s partners on night shift. He had taken off on a circuit around the Dome and was back, looking down at the puddle.
“We gotta cone that,” Waters said.
“Correct you are,” Harney said.
Now Harney’s walkie-talkie buzzed, then Waters’ walkie-talkie, too. Harney snapped his unit off his belt and hit the key. “You got it,” Waters said. “We both can listen.”
“This just in, y’all.” It was Bob Jacobsen, a.k.a. Bobbie Jake, the third member of their SparGash team. “Hurricane Center says it’s turning north towards the Louisiana coast—that’s us, ha—and it’s about 130 miles from N’arlins. Winds are 155 miles per hour.”
“That’s all?” Waters broke in, laughing through the static. Bobby Jake started to resume his report just as Harney’s cell phone rang. He held it to his ear for a second. “Hold on Leo.”
“One last factoid,” Bobby Jake said, “a weather buoy 50 miles east of the mouth of the Mississippi is registering waves at least 40 feet high.” Waters did not have a comment about that. “That’s 12 meters high, boy and girls,” Bobby Jake said, “and the night’s still young.”
“Enough,” Waters said and Harney turned his walkie-talkie off. “We aren’t at the mouth of the Mississippi.”
“No, we’re here and this is now,” Harney said. And where was Leo? He lifted his cell and said, “You there?” Next to him, Waters nodded in the kid’s direction.
“Let’s cut the crap,” Leo said.
“What’s up with the kid over there?” Waters said.
“I’m jerking you out of the Dome,” Leo said.
“Leo, one second more,” Harney said.
Harney turned to Waters and pointed up at the ceiling. “The kid appears to be fascinated by the leak.”
Waters nodded at the puddle. “That’s from a leak?”
“Anyway, I was about to check him out.”
“He looks a little spacey, but okay,” Waters said. “Block off this puddle, would you? I know where to get some cones next level down.”
Harney returned to his cell. “Leo, I only got just here. I’m still sizing things up,” he said, watching Waters lope off along the walkway.
“Reports are it’s going to get real bad in the Superdome.” Leo said.
“But things should get better tomorrow, right?” Harney said as Waters dropped down a stairway “More personnel, more supplies—it’ll start happening in the morning, right?”
“It’s not going to work that way,” Leo said. “Until shit starts to roll, the Dome’s going to need crowd control, law enforcement—not your bag, Travis.”
“This doesn’t sound good,” Harney said.
“I’m pulling you out of there tomorrow,” Leo said.
“You mean this morning?” Harney asked. “I won’t have time to do my hair.”
For a second time, Harney eased up to the kid, who was staring at the ceiling again.
“Harney,” Leo said, “report to the command center they’ll be setting up in Biloxi. They need you there.”
Ignoring Leo, Harney tapped the kid on the shoulder. Underneath the crinkling garbage bag, his sweatshirt felt heavy, wet. “You okay, fella?” Harney said to the kid.
Still craning back, the kid’s gaze swiveled from the ceiling to Harney for a moment.
“Hey there,” Harney said, motioning at some nearby seats. “Why don’t you come over here and sit down for a while? Take a break.”
“He’s all right,” a voice said behind him. “He’s with me.”
Harney turned to find another young man looking at him.
“Gotta go,” he said to Leo and hung up.
The young man was the same height as the kid and looked similar, like they could be cousins, even brothers. This guy wasn’t zombied out, though. His black eyes burned at Harney. His black hair was short and spikey and patches of white skin were peeking out. He stepped between the kid and Harney and took the kid’s arm.
“Come on, buddy,” he said. “We ain’t staying here tonight.”
The kid broke away from the ceiling. He looked around at the people up in the seats and coming and going along the walkway. He looked at his friend and he looked at Harney, his eyes huge and black, his dark hair falling stringy and wet over his forehead. Then he looked away.
“You guys ought to find a corner here and hole up for the night,” Harney said. They both looked at him, raccoons in a flashlight. “I can help you find a place, come—”
“Ain’t gonna happen,” the second young man said, grinning, his teeth brown. He looked around at the crowd disappearing up into the darkness around the rafters. “This place is a goddam death trap.”
“There’s a hurricane,” Harney said. “You’ll be safe in here.”
“Don’t think so,” he said and then, “Come on, Spider. Let’s go.”
Harney watched them work their way along the walkway and pause at the top of a stairway. The kid stopped and looked up at the ceiling again, his buddy looking with him. Then poor kid was screaming. “Get away, get away,” he screamed. People on the walkway and seated around him swiveled from the ceiling and were dead still, staring at him.
The kid’s friend tugged at his arm and started to move them away. “Not now,” the kid shrieked at the top of his lungs, head thrown back, eyes squeezed shut, plainly terrified. “Not now!” His voice howled out over the huddled masses and up into the vastness of the Dome. “Torch, Torch, not now. It’s coming, Jimmie. It’s here.”
A guttural sob moaned out of the kid’s throat. Up in the dark near the ceiling, there was a scrabbling like something alive, a clawing at the roof, then a high whistling wailing through the Superdome, a piercing screaming that would not stop. Harney’s first thought was banshee, what he had always thought a banshee would sound like. Then he zeroed in on it.
Katrina was here.
—To be continued—