Chapter 9 of the unpublished novel “Infinite Tenderness” by local author & Rainshadow Journal founding member Mark Clemens. Next week we bring you the conclusion in conjunction with the 17th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
After stalking the Gulf Coast for a week, the monster hurricane made landfall on the morning of Monday, August 29, 2005. In this chapter, it is early that morning and we find Landon and his buddy Jimmie hunkered down near City Park in New Orleans.
The Dark Between the Stars
Monday, August 29, 2005
4:09 A.M./CENTRAL TIME
The storm roared, punishing everything. Palms and live oaks bent along the avenue and thrashed above in the screaming wind that sent sheets of rain whipping by. Giant hands slammed the microbus, rocking it side to side. Jimmie Wye swore and gripped the steering wheel as a wave of rain dumped on the windshield and blinded them, then cleared to show Esplanade Avenue again, houses battered in the dark, trees torn and tossing.
“Ain’t much further,” Jimmie yelled. He was on top of it, in spite of driving drugged and wild in the wild night.
“Orchid?” Landon said.
Delirious when they’d fled the Superdome, Landon was wide awake now and charged up by the storm, the huge houses along Esplanade sharp and clear. “ORCHID?” he yelled at Jimmie. “Is that where this guy’s house is?”
“No. Tollie’s place is on up here on OREILLY,” Jimmie shouted. “It’s not a house, though, it’s a—GODDAM—”
“WHOA,” Landon yelled and threw up his arms.
A live oak’s huge limb crashed in front of them, its leaves and branches slashing across the windshield. Jimmie swore and swerved and sped up.
When they got there, Jimmie parked in front of an eight-foot hedge. He grabbed a flashlight that Hershel kept in the microbus, and they ran hunched over in the rain through an arbor with its bougainvillea ripped half away and flapping in the wind. Jimmie came to a door, flung it open and they went in.
“Like I was saying,” Jimmie said, “Tollie’s place is a garage, more like his dope parlor.”
Jimmie handed Landon the flashlight to hold while he lit the stub of a candle. The wavering light grew to reveal a ratty recliner and two folding chairs around an orange crate. Sitting atop the crate, the candle was stuck in a Red Brick bottle buried in wax drippings. Next to it was an ashtray full of butts and bottle caps. A bottle of George Dickel and empty bag of Cheetos were stored in the crate’s compartments underneath.
Jimmie hauled out the Dickel and uncapped it. “Bless you, Tollie,” he said and took a swig. He offered the bottle to Landon, who shook his head. “More for me,” Jimmie said and had a long hard pull.
Landon watched Jimmie, then looked away. Things were so clear, George Dickel would just mess that up. How long since it had been clear like this? For the first time in days, he wondered where his mother and father were. Dewey and Hershel. The thought of them niggled at him as he looked around.
Pruning shears and garden gloves on a work bench, window above; rake and shovel leaning against the wall; cot piled high with blankets; calendar on the wall turned to August 2005—everything stood out sharp. Wind rattled the panes of the window. Outside, what might be a candle flickered in the window of an old house across the yard. The garage creaked back and forth in the howling wind that never let up. Landon watched the walls breathe in and out.
Jimmie pulled a bottle out of his pocket and jiggled some pink and green capsules into his hand. He threw the pills down with a Dickel chaser.
“Are those mine?” Landon said.
“You’re not using ‘em,” Jimmie said. He chugged the Dickel then until it was gone. He threw the bottle into a dark corner.
“I’ve been switching off and on,” Landon said.
“Off and on. Sure thing, Spider,” Jimmie said with a laugh. “Anyway, now you’re out,”
Laughing like a hyena at that, Jimmie heeled out of his sneakers and kicked them away. Grunting, he stripped down to his tightie-whities, then flung his clothes over the bench and pranced around the recliner in a circle. He whirled and lurched, then caught himself, dizzy and laughing at that. Grabbing a blanket from the cot, he staggered back to the recliner and attempted a backward flop but hit the arm and rolled over and down to the floor, his flailing legs barely missing the orange crate.
“Hooey, hurricane gonna go all night,” he said, sitting up on his butt as if that was what he intended.
“You okay?” Landon asked.
Jimmie struggled up and into the recliner. He pointed up at the celling. “Hell, big bad hurricane ain’t even here yet and listen to that.”
Landon looked up at the rafters. Gusts of wind slapped one side of the garage and shoved the other. The walls pulsed and the windowpanes rattled and Landon felt like that happened every time he took a breath. Rain pounded the roof, a volley of thumping fists. “Where’s that Dickel?” Jimmie said, then, “I’m beat.” He pulled the blanket over his head and woozed away, coughing and choking until in no time he was snoring.
Landon walked to the cot and burrowed under the covers. A moment later, he stuck his head out, gasping for air away from the wet and moldy blankets. He threw them off except for one that he pulled up to his chin. He didn’t know what time it was, but lay there, staring at the candle.
Clarity was nice. He saw things clearly, wasn’t numbed out, he could think. Pretty soon, though, things would speed up and run together, smashing in his head, jumbling his thoughts. Then the voices would come. Sometimes that was good for a while, then there would be too many voices talking and the noise blaring in his ears was like cymbals clashing and clashing again, a racket he could not bear.
He stared at the candle until it guttered out and then lay there looking at the rafters in the dark, trying not to think. Jimmie was snoring in the recliner, drunk and drugged, sleeping through everything. Landon came upon the flashlight in his blanket. He stood and moved to the window and watched the thrashing dark outside, the dark hulk of the old house across the yard.
He turned on the flashlight and shined it out the window, but all he could see was his reflection and the dim lit room behind him. His father had used to scare him and other kids on camping trips by shining a flashlight under his chin. Landon had laughed, but before it turned funny there was always that instant when Hershel snapped the flashlight on under his chin and black shadows flooded up over his mouth and nose and eyebrows and pooled in his eye sockets, an instant when Landon was truly terrified and that’s what happened now. Not thinking it through, he put the flashlight under his chin and turned it on and froze at the sight of a boy suddenly looking in the window at him, not knowing who he was.
Landon crawled back into the cot. He closed his eyes for a while, but soon was staring up into the darkness and listening to the wind and rain. He held his hand in front of his face, barely able to see it, then pointed up into the darkness of the garage, just like Hershel had pointed to the sky that night. Was it only last week, that night he’d been with his father? The moon had been almost half full, funny because they were drifting off Half Moon Island out in the Gulf. It was way late and they had jumped in to cool off because it was so dang hot. They came up and floated lazy in the water, not talking as they bobbed. Then Hershel had pointed up to the sky.
“Landon, look,” he’d said, and swept his arm across the wisping clouds and half-moon and the Milky Way. “Look at the stars up there,” Hershel had said. “That’s all yours.”
Landon had shaken his head. “It’s empty between the stars,” he’d said. “It’s all night.”
Hershel kept looking at the sky. “Okay, Landon,” he’d said finally. “But without the night, you wouldn’t have no stars.”
Landon could kick himself—smart guy—he could hear what his father was telling him now, it was crystal clear. His father had handed him the whole universe and he’d said no. He remembered then his mom always told him to wait if he couldn’t figure something out. “You already know the answer,” Dewey said to him. “Let it come to you.”
Then something moved up in the rafters. Landon watched the darkness for it to move again, but it stayed still, waiting for him. He felt the clarity slipping. A voice crowded in: You’re the void, dead space, it jeered, and another piled in, his father’s: That wasn’t what I was trying to say. They jabbered on and on and more joined in. Landon shut his eyes, but the clamor closed tight around him in the darkness.
Home, he had to go home.
Landon sat up on the edge of the cot. Wind-slammed rain shotgunned the roof and walls of the garage. He pulled on his shoes and stood up. Jimmie was still asleep in the big recliner. It was hard to tell anything in the dark, but Landon rifled Jimmie’s clothes on the bench and found the keys to the microbus. He walked to the door and stepped into the raging storm.
—Next week, the conclusion to Infinite Tenderness—