“Should I stay or should I GO?” Scrawled in black marker on a T-shirt, the message loomed under the yellow streetlights at the Midsummer Mardi Gras parade. Yes, there was a storm, but there was always a storm. Late August and we were already up to K.
Only a sad case would ride out a storm without provisions—junk food for me and beer for Boyfriend—so on our way home, we stopped at the 24-hour Winn-Dixie. A security guard told us to leave. Ten pm on a Saturday night—prime beer-buying hour—but they were closed.
I still wanted to stay. I’d wanted to stay for the others, the ones that changed course and did no damage, but my nerves had got me every time. This one, I would see.
The next morning, I awoke to find Boyfriend throwing clothes in a bag. “Mayor called a mandatory evac,” he said.
Boyfriend had grown up in hurricane country back when people didn’t leave. They shuttered up and hunkered down in the dark, dank heat, listening to the freight train in the sky. After Camille, his parents drove all the kids out to the coast where only the live oaks stood, their great branches decorated with doors and boats. These memories gave Boyfriend an advantage. He had experience, while I only had my outsider’s lurid curiosity. “We’ll be fine here,” I said.
“What about the rats?” Boyfriend asked.
“What rats?” I said, my stomach dropping.
“The dead ones floating around our house when the waters come.” His eyes twinkled because he knew he got me.
Later, when Boyfriend went to help his sister board up her windows, I drove uptown to get my carless Friend who was leaving with us. The streets were quiet. Almost all businesses were shuttered. One corner store was selling groceries out of the top half of its doorway. Mobbed, a desperate tangle of dark arms reached inside, passing cash, grabbing bags. At a gas station, waiting cars formed a line that extended into the street and wound around the corner. On the radio, Parish President Aaron Broussard warned: “If you stay for this one, you better have an axe to hack out of your roof.”
Friend had one suitcase and a carrier with Cat inside. She would leave the strays, the ones who swirled around her living room and tore through the kibble on the floor. “We could probably take a few more,” I said, noting the streaked mascara on her face.
“No. This is the only line I can draw,” she said. Cat was declawed. “We’ll take the mean one,” she said with a sad little laugh.
Cat would ride with us in my car; our two dogs would go with Boyfriend in his truck along with our three chickens. We’d considered leaving them behind, but I protested. “Maybe if they were ducks,” I said. “But chickens can’t swim.”
First we had to catch them, the girls loose in our courtyard where they clucked and darted among the ferns and leggy rose bushes. Boyfriend got down in his high-school wrestler’s stance to pounce. He missed and then he missed. When Friend and I finally stopped laughing, the three of us—me, Boyfriend, Friend—drew closer together, and our tight little circle eventually succeeded in getting all three into a laundry basket.
Boyfriend and Friend returned to the pre-Apocalyptic chores of stacking items up high and cleaning out the fridge, while I wandered through the house. What else to save from impending doom? The notes for my hundreds of half-written stories? My old journals? Mardi Gras costumes? There wasn’t room for the trunk my grandfather had carved. There was no room for the porch swing Boyfriend and I had bought together.
I was breathing too fast and my hands shook. Why was I, the one who took head meds and did yoga, the only one succumbing to panic? By the time Boyfriend dragged me to the car, I could barely speak.
There were no cars when we left the city sometime around four. None in the road, none parked. Soon we would be stuck in dense evacuation traffic, but we left a city that was silent as a tomb.
Friend drove my car. In the passenger seat, I set my ceramic Buddha up on the dashboard. He was fat and stylized into an egg shape. I’d brought him to remind myself that it’s our attachments that bring suffering. We sped out of the vacant city, passing a woman and her two children waiting at a bus stop. The mother sat in the middle, her dark hand resting on each child’s shoulder. My heart seized. They were waiting for a bus that might never arrive.
Our attachments also bring relief, I noted as I pulled out the pipe that Boyfriend had packed for me. I’d been to sobriety meetings for two months, but now I lifted the pipe to my lips, the only real relief I would have for months to come.
Friend checked her rearview mirror as my lighter flicked fire. “Here we go,” I said.