Pass Christian, Mississippi
Catch stepped out of his trailer and saw the girl alone on the beach across the highway. She was wading ankle deep in the gulf, wearing a light brown bikini the color of her skin. Catch hadn’t seen anyone on the beach in a long time, not since the hurricane, the one most people in town couldn’t stand to call by name anymore.
The bulldozers were still going at it next door. Several of them had come to tear down what was left of a house, moving the debris toward the split-open highway, beeping as they reversed, filling the air with diesel exhaust. You couldn’t complain though. You were supposed to be grateful. Blue tarps still diapered some roofs, and everywhere Catch turned were the white portable storage units called “pods.” A black man Catch did not recognize was painting the big iron gate next door, even though the gate’s house was gone.
It was almost summer, more than eight months after the storm, and still the population of Pass Christian had not achieved the critical mass necessary for a grocery store. You could get cereal, milk, coffee, and bread at the Quik-Stop, but no eggs. It was hard to stay supplied, and Catch was out of everything — food, booze, weed.
He swatted something on the back of his neck. The flies had gotten fatter; the dragonflies and wasps, too. From the bottom of his bare foot, Catch peeled a torn page from a book. None of the sentences on the yellowed scrap were whole, but he played at trying to make sense of them: A liaison with . . . greatly as well. He is a . . . man. His enthusiasms are . . . generous with his women . . . money from Anna . . . and the will to survive. He shrugged. She vibrated. . . . Johnny. He laughed to himself and put the page in his pocket with all the scraps he’d picked up the day before. There was paper everywhere: mail, Bibles, maps, grocery lists, a library’s worth of books.
Catch situated himself on a tree swing to put on his socks and boots. His trailer was in the Zimmers’ yard, near what was left of their home. He had worked for the Zimmers as a yardman and handyman for the better part of fifteen years. They’d evacuated before the storm, but he had stayed behind to take care of their house.
A small guesthouse — really a former slave quarters — behind the main house had saved him. It was on high ground, farther back from the beach. He’d waited out the storm in it like some trapped animal, standing on top of the toilet, watching the water rise, listening to the whole town come to pieces outside in the dark. He’d waited hours for the winds to die down. Only then had he stepped down into the swirling black water to unshutter the door and see that everywhere the ocean was receding from a world that had been blown apart. For days afterward his skin had been covered with a thin layer of salt.
Catch had lost his home and everything in it. The entire Gulf Coast — everything he knew, really — had been flattened. He’d remained on the Zimmers’ property to keep looters out and deal with the utilities and the inspectors and such. The Zimmers had decided to rebuild on the same lot, not a hundred yards farther back from the beach. Catch thought they were nuts. He didn’t know what he wanted to do himself. He had to consider his options. He planned to look up his ex-wife, Norma — if he could learn where she was. He had seen her once in passing the previous Christmas, but otherwise they had not spoken in ten years. Last he’d heard, she had an apartment in Gulfport.
Catch was hungry, but he hated to cook at the community grill, where people came with their plastic containers or Ziploc bags or slippery packages of raw meat. The men and women would stand shoulder to shoulder, sharing survival stories and lists of complaints while they pushed their meat around on the grill, careful not to touch anyone else’s.
Remembering that the Sonic drive-through had reopened in Long Beach, Catch got in his truck — a rental from a place in Hattiesburg — nodded to the black man still painting the gate, and pulled out onto the torn-up highway. Parked beside the road was an unfamiliar car that he figured belonged to the girl in the bikini. It had a Louisiana license plate and a bumper sticker that said, JESUS IS COMING. LOOK BUSY. The back seat was loaded down with what looked to be all her personal effects. Catch had picked up that expression — “personal effects” — along with “critical mass” and others, since the hurricane: The population has to reach critical mass before rebuilding can begin. And Sir, you need to get all your personal effects out of here so we can begin the bulldozing.
Beside the highway Catch saw the signs saying, “We’ll be Back!” On one house someone had spray-painted, “I will lie down to bleed awhile, and then I will get up and fight again.” Then there were the signs offering mold removal, demolition, and Jesus — and some newer ones advertising palm trees for sale, for property owners ready to rebuild and relandscape.
At the Sonic, Catch ordered a toaster sandwich from a roller-skating waitress. Some old eighties song was playing, and he tried not to stare at the woman eating in the car parked next to his. Her face was swollen and bandaged, and she was having a tough time chewing. After his food came, he rolled up the windows and drove back while he ate.
As he approached the Zimmers’ house, Catch saw the girl in the bikini coming up the beach with a plastic bag full of clothes in one hand and a dog, a black Rottweiler, following menacingly at her ankles. She looked like a zombie out of some old horror movie, walking slow and steady with her arms out in front of her. She should have kept on that way, but she panicked and ran, and then the dog leaped, and she was down, the dog straddling her chest, going for her face and neck.
Catch stopped his truck in the middle of the highway, got out, and ran to the girl. He kicked the sweet Jesus out of that dog. He kicked it hard in the ribs with the toe of his boot, and it let out a yelp and backed up but didn’t go away. When Catch bent to help the girl up, the dog came charging.
Catch could see only its teeth and eyes and broad chest and black cinder-block head. There was a powerful smell of dog crap, piss, and dead animal. Catch kicked the dog again, harder this time, aiming for the chest, and with a whimper the dog fell back.
“Can you stand up?” Catch said to the girl, his eyes still on the dog. He heard her moan, and from the corner of his eye he saw her rise, then fall back down. Clutching the plastic bag to her chest, she whispered, “Help me,” as if she didn’t want the dog to hear.
He backed over to her and picked her up in his arms. The dog growled and bared its teeth as Catch walked away with the girl.
“Yeah, that’s right,” he said to the dog. “I’m leaving with supper.”
A high moan emerged from the bloody, sand-covered girl in his arms.
When Catch got to his truck, he put her in and shut the door. The dog followed close, sniffing the ground where Catch had walked, the blood that had dripped from the girl. Catch turned his key in the ignition, and the dog trotted to the highway, lifted its hind leg, and pissed on the asphalt, as if to say, This is my highway, my beach. Any other time, Catch would have laughed, but now he wished he had a gun.
The girl’s ankles were bleeding, and the dog had bitten her forehead. She shook and cried and whispered over and over, “Thank you. Thank you.”
“I’m taking you to a FEMA tent in town,” he said. “You’re going to be OK.”
Catch felt as though his bones were being ground to bits each time he drove by the rows of army tents on Second Street. The sight put him in what he called his “Vietnam mode.” He pulled up next to a tent with a red cross on it and helped the girl inside. Right away a fat, pale medic came to them, snapped on his gloves, and started cleaning the girl up, dabbing at her wounds with antiseptic. None was so deep that she’d need stitches. She’d had a recent tetanus shot, she said, right after the storm, when they were giving them out for free. She said that the dog hadn’t looked rabid, but who knew? They gave her the first shot anyway. She was small-boned and thin, but not frail, maybe thirty, with big eyes and freckles across her nose. Her lips were badly chapped. There was a tattoo of the sun on her right forearm, and her eyebrow was pierced.
“It’s good y’all’s trees are coming back,” she said to the medic.
All around them the army green canvas walls flapped in the breeze. Catch eyed the needles and syringes and the bottles of pills in the medic’s box.
A policeman came to ask the girl questions. She whispered her name: Mary Cunningham. When he asked her address, she said, “My house is gone. I live in my car.”
The medic wrapped her ankles while the cop, whose name was Martin Ladiné, talked into the walkie-talkie strapped to his shoulder. He and Catch knew each other from back when Catch had been married to Norma and she’d gotten into trouble with drugs and run off with her dealer. Catch asked Martin what the hell they planned to do about that dog, and Martin said animal-rights volunteers were quarantining stray dogs.
“That dog bit her ankles to get her down,” Catch said. “Then he went at her head. That was an attack.” The wind was picking up, making the tents flap louder. “That dog’s hungry and mean, and it’s gonna kill someone.”
“Come on now, Catch,” Martin said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “All this mess would drive any animal to madness — or maybe to bite at a pretty girl’s legs.” He winked.
Catch mumbled, “The hell.”
The girl named Mary Cunningham stood carefully, then sure and straight. The medic gave her a handful of “samples” — pills packed in neat rows of plastic and foil — and told her to take one whenever she felt any pain. As he said this, he looked at Catch. The medic reminded her the pills were for medical use only.
“Come on,” Catch said to Mary. “I bet you’re hungry.”
When they got into his truck, Mary put on her clothes — the ones she’d been carrying in the plastic bag — over her bikini: worn bluejeans, flip-flops, and a yellow shirt that she tied into a knot at her midriff. Her brown bangs covered a good portion of the bandage across her forehead. She brought her feet up in the seat so that he saw her gauze-wrapped ankles and her dirty feet.
“You feel OK?” he asked.
“You don’t have to feed me.”
“There’s a place up the road,” he said, starting his engine. “They serve a good dinner.”
Catch drove up Second Street and turned onto North. Near Henderson Avenue they passed the boat in the tree and the boarded-up house spray painted, “Nationwide 911 Help.” He parked in a gravel lot beside a corrugated-tin building.
“What’s this place?” Mary asked.
He pointed to the sign on the door: KAFE KATRINA AND THE AFTERMATH LOUNGE. WE’RE COOKING UP A STORM.
“That’s funny,” she said, not laughing.
Catch opened the restaurant door for her, and people looked up when they entered. He’d forgotten what that was like, walking into a place with a woman. He ran his fingers through his hair. He wasn’t half bad looking — old, but not too old. No gut yet. The diners were the same people Catch saw every day: the volunteers, the builders from Hattiesburg, the Yacht Club folks taking a break from the double-wide that now served as their clubhouse.
Captain Smith, who wanted to be mayor, came over to tell Catch they were looking for people — vets, especially — to help clean up the veterans’ cemetery in time for Memorial Day. Before the storm Smith had never spoken to Catch. Now everyone raised their hands to each other, relieved, it seemed, to see a fellow survivor. Catch said he didn’t care about the cemetery or Memorial Day. He was in no mood for remembering war. He had been through that and then some, and he told Smith as much.
Smith put his arm around Catch’s shoulder and said, with a glance at Mary, “That’s OK, Catch. I see you got your hands full.”
Catch sat down with Mary, and she ordered the catfish with Creole tomato sauce. They drank cold beer, and her food came fast. Catch liked watching Mary eat. She alternated bites of everything on her plate — catfish, potatoes, greens — saving her square of corn bread for last. Then she ordered blackberry cobbler with vanilla ice cream for dessert. By God, she could eat. Catch didn’t order anything. His teeth hurt. He would have to drive to Jackson to see a dentist, and the thought made him sour.
When Mary had eaten everything on her plate, she leaned back and said, “Yeah, all that anger has to go somewhere,” as though Catch had asked her a question. Maybe she had gotten like him, he thought: talking to herself.
“These volunteers, they’re just tourists,” she said, leaning in closer to him. “They come and want to eat seafood and drink all night, and I’m thinking, Now wait a minute. You can’t come here and act like nothing happened. Fix it, paint it, move on. You know? Like, the world can’t just keep going — not after this.”
“I hear you.”
Martin and the medic came in and sat down.
“How come that cop didn’t go out after that dog?” Mary asked.
“He will at some point. I guess a dog’s the least of his worries. He’s seen a lot.” Catch told her about how Martin and his men had holed up in the county library during the storm, and when the water had gotten too high, they’d had to shoot out the windows so they could swim away. They’d held on to the tops of trees until the storm had subsided.
Mary said she was hoping to find work at one of the casinos that were reopening on the coast. Catch said he guessed all the casinos would come back even bigger soon enough. She asked about his place, and he told her it was gone too. He shrugged and said it was just stuff, anyhow. No loved ones. He thought of how loved ones was beginning to sound too much like personal effects. He told her about the old couple he worked for, the Zimmers, and how for a while he’d lived in a tent inside their ruined house. Now he had the FEMA trailer.
“So you’re not unhappy here in Pass Christian?” she asked, pronouncing the name of the town the way a Northerner would: Chris-chen. He taught her to pronounce it like a local: Chris-chan.
“It was named for Nicholas Christian Ladner, who settled at Cat Island in 1745,” he said.
“You know a lot.”
He couldn’t tell if this was a good or a bad thing.
Mary had come from New Orleans, and he told her he’d spent time there when he was young, before he’d gone off to war.
“The Gulf War?” she said.
He laughed. She was young. “Vietnam. Two tours. I’m fifty-eight.”
He said he had liked going to hear jazz in New Orleans. One night he’d taken a woman to hear the Dukes of Dixieland, and she’d asked them to play some old standard, and they wouldn’t play it. He’d felt bad for her, because she was so disappointed.
“What song was it?”
Catch shrugged, not wanting to admit he remembered. “Some old song they used to play a lot. I don’t remember the name.”
“I just had to get out of there,” Mary said, shaking her head as if she could still hear the wind.
“You could’ve picked a better vacation destination,” he said.
“Y’all got it better here. At least you have the sand and the sunshine. New Orleans is trashed worse than New Year’s Eve, and no one’s coming to clean up. It stinks.”
“It can get to a person.”
They were silent for a while. Catch had not talked like this in a long time, and he had not been with a woman for even longer. Cleaning up at the Zimmers’, he’d gotten to where he could decide quickly what could and could not be fixed; what was damaged beyond repair and what was salvageable. When he came into town and saw people, he found himself sifting through them the same way.
Catch got up to go to the bathroom and ran into Martin. “Hey, Catch,” Martin said. “I forgot to say earlier: I was sorry to hear about Norma.”
“Hear what?” Catch asked.
Martin dropped his head. “They found her and three others who tried to ride it out in an apartment complex in Gulfport. It wasn’t a sturdy place. Not many of those Gulfport complexes made it. They found her body. I’m sure there’ll be services. I’m real sorry,” Martin said, putting his hand on Catch’s shoulder.
When Catch returned to the table, the waitress laid the bill in front of him and mentioned that karaoke was starting up in the bar.
“They serve booze?” Mary asked, popping two painkillers. She put two more pills in Catch’s hand. He looked at them, then swallowed them with his beer.
“Lemme buy you a drink,” Mary said.
“We’re crazy tonight,” a drunk woman Catch didn’t recognize said to them on their way into the bar. She was pushing tables back to make room for dancing. A construction worker danced alone in his work boots, leaving little piles of dirt on the linoleum. Black ceiling fans whirred, and the muted TV glowed with the evening news. Volunteers, probably from New York City, stood at the bar with their goatees and their weird little eyeglasses. The locals sat around tables crowded with half-gallon bottles of vodka, cans of pineapple juice, and buckets of ice.
“Jesus,” Mary said.
“We know how to party,” Catch said, trying to sound game. “Eleven dollars gets you a bottle, a bucket of ice, and a mixer. In New Orleans, for the same price, you can get, what, maybe one drink with a stupid name?”
Catch saw Jed Sancier messing with the karaoke equipment, pressing buttons to make the lights flash. Jed was a high-school dropout and a lousy shrimper, but since the storm he’d bought a karaoke system with lights and was traveling with it from shack to shack up and down the coast. He’d told Catch one drunken night that these sound-and-light machines got him laid and were going to make him a millionaire. Some girls in scuffed high heels were dancing with each other and singing, “Rub it in, rub it in.” Jed made a red laser light squiggle on the ceiling and switched to a new song, something about talking dirty in Spanish.
“People have changed,” Catch said, feeling a need to apologize to Mary.
“You seem OK.” Mary touched his arm; then she touched the bandage on her forehead and looked at her hand.
“You all right?”
“I feel a little dizzy.”
He could see a circle of brown-red blood on the bandage.
“Come on,” he said. “This is bullshit anyway. You should be lying down.”
They rolled down the truck’s windows on the drive back toward the gulf. The air was cool and perfect, and the sun had just finished setting. Catch pointed out a light near the shore, a lone fisherman spearing flounder. The evening was beautiful and calm, the sky already full up with stars the size of prawns. A few boats were harbored at the docks, where some men tonged for oysters. How could it have ever been anything but this? It was hard to imagine all that water coming up so high and so far. Twenty-two dead in Pass Christian, and they were still finding bodies. Norma. He hoped she hadn’t suffered.
He turned in at the Zimmers’ house and helped Mary out of the truck.
“Man,” she said, looking all around her. “How did this place survive?”
Catch laughed. “Survive’s a funny word for it.” He had cleaned the house and yard up quite a bit from what it had been. The only time he’d out and out cried was when he’d cut a child’s twisted blue nightgown from the crepe myrtle.
The shell of the big house looked eerie and sad in the dark. The roof and outer walls were still there, but everything inside — the mahogany tables, the cypress settees, the marble sideboards, the needlepointed chairs — had been torn up or washed away altogether. The place wasn’t much more than an empty wreck in an empty, ruined town.
“It was the second-oldest house in the Pass,” he said. “Now it’s the oldest.”
“It’s so sad,” Mary said.
That’s what they all said. Sad. He thought on that itty-bitty three-letter word. There had to be a better word for this feeling.
Catch told her about how deep and wide the porch had been and how the wind and water had ripped the boardwalk from the beach and crashed it into the house like a battering ram.
“From where I was, out back, it sounded like the world was coming to an end.”
“That’s what I thought too,” she said. “Where I was.”
He explained how the water had gotten into the sand and undermined the foundation, dooming the house to collapse. “They still have that guest house out back and enough land to build on,” he said. “We’re just waiting to put a crew together to get started.”
“How come you have to wait?”
“Permits. It’s complicated.” Together they looked at the house again. “It was a hell of a house,” he said, as if he felt a need to defend the wrecked edifice. “I put that roof on myself.”
“And it held,” she said.
“Yeah, it did. And I’m gonna stay and help them rebuild.” He felt as though he had decided this right then, after she’d said, It held.
They heard a loud bang, and Mary jumped toward him, her hands on his chest. Her chin touched his shoulder, and her hair smelled of crayons. He put his arm around her.
“Was that a gunshot?” she asked.
“Probably just somebody’s car backfiring.”
There was a time when he’d liked a scared woman, had even liked scaring women himself, just so he could play the hero to his own bad guy. It was getting dark.
“You can stay the night,” he said. He moved his arm from her shoulders, opened his trailer door, and turned on the lights. The electricity was steady again. She looked at the ground.
“It’s good the trees are coming back,” she said.
Already a cluster of crepe myrtles were blooming pink, and the banana trees had survived. The pink hydrangeas he’d planted around the back of the house had even started to bloom. The salt water hadn’t killed everything like everyone had said it would. Most of the live oaks were green. So many trees had come down, but the Zimmers had lost only one. The trees looked different now, though: more gnarled and twisted.
“I wonder where that dog is now,” Mary said, sounding sleepy.
“Probably long gone.” Catch bent to pick up a scrap of paper, this one from what looked to be a children’s book: Then and only then I understood the reason. Her fears had been for my safety. The serpent had bitten me just above the ankle. “Must I die?” There were bits of yellow and red left of an illustration, and the tail of something, maybe the serpent. He put the paper in his pocket.
“What do you think would’ve happened to me if you hadn’t come along?”
Catch thought he smelled the stench of the dog on his fingers. “Come on.”
It was tight quarters inside the trailer. There was the kitchen with its toy-sized plastic sink, a table with two attached seats, and then the bed in back, taking up almost half the space. Spread out on an empty flour sack on the kitchen counter was a sea of broken bits of blue and white china, and next to it a stack of glued-together plates. Catch saw Mary looking at it.
“Crazy, I know,” he said.
“I’ve seen worse,” she said, putting her hand on one of the plates. He wanted to ask her not to touch it, wanted to explain that the stuff was not his. He wanted to tell her that this was how he spent his nights. Each time he passed the counter, he might see how one piece fit into another, and day by day, week by week, he’d glued plates, bowls, cups, and saucers back together, working through four tubes of Krazy Glue.
“Do you think they’ll ever use them?” she asked.
The dishes all had cracks and chips he could never fill. Sure, this made them more delicate and likely useless, but didn’t it make them more valuable in some way too?
“They belonged to her mama’s mama.”
Once upon a time, in a U.S. Army hospital in Japan, he had lain next to a man blown apart by shrapnel. An officer had come around their beds and pinned them with Purple Hearts, saying words Catch couldn’t remember. Now here he was standing at the counter of his FEMA trailer, Krazy-gluing old china plates back together. The world seemed even more dangerous now than it had back then.
“Doesn’t this go here?” Mary asked, holding up a fragment of a dinner plate with the tail of a pheasant on it.
“You got it.” He dotted some glue on the edge of the piece she held. “Go for it.”
When she made the fit, when the blue picture in the center of a plate came whole, when the tree was a tree again and the fountain a fountain, and the bird had its tail back — well, that was better than a shot of vodka.
“I think I need to lie down,” Mary said. She slipped off her flip-flops and headed for the bed.
Catch opened all the tiny windows to let in the night air. Then he wet a washcloth with warm water and sat on the bed beside Mary and held the cloth to her head until the bandage was easy to peel off. He felt her eyes on him as he cleaned the wound and taped on a new bandage. Her face was red-brown from the sun, and he wondered, if he kissed her, what she would taste like, and if she would leave him feeling sun-warmed.
“You want another painkiller?” she asked.
He did, but he shook his head. “You might need them later.”
Catch heard the crunch of car tires on gravel and shells, and he stood up and saw the lights of a truck pulling up. He took a crowbar from his closet and opened the trailer door wide. “Who’s there?” he called. His voice sounded strange to him. He wished he had his gun, wished it hadn’t washed away with everything else.
“It’s just me.” Getting out of the truck was the man who had been painting the neighbor’s gate that morning. He stood in the half circle of light from the door, holding a flashlight and a brown paper bag. “Name is Ed. I brought you some peas I grown. Lady peas.”
Catch looked inside the bag; sure enough, it was full of newly picked green peas.
“Sorry I didn’t shell them for you,” Ed said.
“This is awfully nice,” Catch said. It wasn’t like him to say that. It was something an old woman would have said.
Ed smiled, showing his crooked teeth. “I seen what you done on the beach today. I want to show you something.” He walked back to his truck and motioned for Catch to follow.
Inside the bed of Ed’s pickup was something black and as wet as a seal: the dog, stilled now from the bullet wound in the chest, right about where Catch had kicked it. All muscle and bone, the dog was as impressive dead as alive.
“I followed him after you left with the girl,” Ed said. “It took a while, but I got him.”
The dead dog’s fur was crusted with salt and smelled of ocean. It seemed more fish than dog now. Catch put his hand on the dog’s body, near where it had been shot. He could feel the ribs and see its pink tongue hanging out.
“No place for dogs here,” Catch said.
“You got that right,” Ed said. He climbed into his truck and slammed the door. “I’m headed for the dump.”
Catch thanked him for the peas and watched him back out of the drive, the truck pitching at every pothole, the dog’s body thumping in the back.
Inside the trailer Catch put the bag of peas in the pint-size refrigerator, then went to check on Mary, who was asleep. He thought about waking her to tell her about the dog, but it was hardly happy news.
Catch reached under the bed and pulled out a shoe box. He emptied his pockets into the box, which was full of paper scraps. He thought of the words critical mass and all the words on scraps of pages he’d found, the sentences he’d saved, some of which stood out like warning signs or prophecies: Ordinarily the mean of a population is unknown. . . . When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. . . . “Must I die?” . . . The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. . . . This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. . . . To turn the light on, slide the switch forward.
Maybe someday it would all make sense.
He supposed killing the dog had been the right thing to do, but he was glad someone else had done it.
There had to come a time when all this mess would be over. This was America, for Christ’s sake. Things got done. Maybe he and this man named Ed could get together and start their own crew, get to rebuilding. Maybe he and Ed could make that time come sooner.
Catch sat down on the edge of the bed next to the sleeping girl. She stirred, and the tattoo of the sun on her arm peeked out from beneath a blue cotton blanket he’d gotten from a pile Goodwill had set out at a service station after the storm. There wasn’t much that belonged to him outright anymore.
“Somebody stole my gal,” Catch sang quietly, slower than the old jazz song was meant to be sung. “Somebody stole my pal. Somebody came and took her away. She didn’t even say she was leaving.” He hummed the next few lines of the tune the Dukes of Dixieland had never played for his new young bride, Norma, on their first night together in New Orleans. He thought of the way she used to be, the way it all used to be, and he kept humming, because he couldn’t remember the words.