Brothers Katrina by Bradley Wester won the Fresher Writing Prize for Creative Non-Fiction 2016. Bradley’s story, along with all of the other shortlisted entries, can be found in the Fresher Writing 2016 anthology which can be purchased via our Books page.
In the bed of his truck were several large oil drums filled with gasoline, dangerously exposed but a necessary risk to have enough fuel to get us there, run a generator for five days, and get us out. Kevin knew there wouldn’t be a gas station open from middle Mississippi southward, and across three states. To the truck he hitched a covered trailer and filled it with the generator, power tools, containers of fresh water to last five days, tent, sleeping bags, large tarps, cooking equipment, a refrigerator stocked with food and beer, and a selection of his knives and guns to “protect our property from looters.”
Some years earlier, Kevin had an unusual side job of impersonating the conservative American actor Chuck Norris, with whom he shares a remarkable likeness. He even got an agent, after being a finalist in an Atlanta lookalike contest, and got a Harley Davidson commercial. He would also show up as Chuck Norris’ “Delta Force” character at charity events, with his two micro Uzis strapped to his shoulders, posing with the donors, one Uzi in each hand, just like the movie poster. Now it had become real.
Dressed in camo, he timed leaving his rural home outside of Chattanooga with picking me up at the Birmingham airport, the furthest south I could get from New York. Starting just north of Hattiesburg the pine forests started to look like fields of broken matchsticks. For the next several miles there was an eerie silence between us as we anticipated the worst. Suddenly Kevin swerved violently, nearly toppling the trailer, his quick reflexes averting our exploding into a fireball by dodging a still-lit cigarette that had been flicked toward our combustible payload from the car just ahead.
“It’s because I held you back,” my mom used to say to me, her reason that Kevin didn’t do well in school and began to resent and hate me, his baby brother. Kevin went to kindergarten. I was to follow the year after, but skipped kindergarten because mom wanted her baby one more year. I excelled when I finally got to school at first grade, becoming teacher’s pet and winning awards. For Kevin, mom imagined, school was an exile. When he finally failed the fifth grade, it put us in the same class, a pivotal moment that forced us together while pushing us irrevocably apart. It would take years, well into adulthood, for me to realise that being the brother of one of the school’s tough guys had protected me against the abuse that I would surely have suffered at the hands of others like him.
What my mother left out of her theory was that she favored me, entering me in the baby beauty pageant circuit and dance school at the age of three. One bathing suit competition is a particularly vivid memory, of having to walk across a stage’s edge with those giant TV cameras from the 50’s staring me down in a skimpy latex suit. I won several trophies and blue ribbons. I remember one clearly, a golden statuette of a baby in a diaper with his thumb in his mouth atop a white marble base with a brass plate with something inscribed. It lived with my other trophies and ribbons on my mother’s bookshelf next to her bed. It was many years later in New York, in my first therapist’s office, that I sobbed at the realization that they had never been my trophies but hers.
The further Kevin went his way the further I went mine, and the further I went mine the further it separated me from everyone—my parents, my family, friends and neighbors. My childhood soon felt like a prison, the obstruction to all my deep longings and desires which seemed to lie elsewhere. I sat on fences alone dreaming of one day being in a big city filled with educated, cultured, liberal people. My superiority and pretension alternated with a desperate need to please and be loved, which when rarely received was met with layers of shame and humiliation for desiring it from people I felt better than.
By the time we started at Archbishop Rummel High, an all-boys Christian Brothers Catholic school, Kevin and I had long been on opposite sides of any argument or political persuasion. I was excelling in all things creative, acting in plays, winning speech tournaments, drawing cartoons for the school paper, and painting our mascot on the winning basketball locker-room door for coach. I majored in Art in college and finally left New Orleans to get an MFA and move to New York City. I became the family snob, better educated and cultured than everyone, and traveled the world. Kevin “knocked up” his girlfriend at 17 and dropped out of our Catholic high school in his junior year to find a job. The pregnancy ‘scandal’ took my mother years to get over. She did not allow me to go to the ‘shot-gun’ wedding and kept the secret from my little brother Richard until I eventually told him everything. Mom’s resentment of Kevin continued even after the baby was stillborn. Vicky, his 17-year-old wife, who’s teased and dyed black hair and black eyeliner made her look older than her years, showed up once to the house, late in the pregnancy, with a bruised and welted face. She pulled me aside to say that my brother explained the reason he had hit her was because he was used to beating up his brothers. Kevin would deny ever hitting Vicky again during their five years of marriage, saying he felt monstrous when he did that once.
Years later, divorced, Kevin would meet Pat and move in with her and settle down in a small house in the woods on top of a mountain in eastern Tennessee, where he shoots any number of his many guns right from his front porch at various targets, including at the constant flow of beer cans set up across the street atop the metal housing of a remote telephone cable terminal. Never wanting to marry again or have kids, he has spent most of his adult life with Pat working in rural Georgia and Tennessee successfully selling and renting heavy equipment to construction sites until his recent early retirement.
Sometime in the mid-90’s I brought my future husband, Doug, home to New Orleans for the Christmas holidays to meet my family for the first time. It was to be one of the few times we were all together, Mom, Dad, Kevin, Pat, Doug and me, and my little brother Richard and his wife Melanie who were still in Los Angeles at that time. Pat was warned by Kevin on their drive down from Tennessee not to use the ‘N’ word around me. He explained that I was gay, liberal and a Democrat, and that I would surely attack her for being racist.
It didn’t take long, our very first night, when the brothers and our partners went out to the nearby Salt Bayou Lounge, better known as the ‘Chicken Drop’. The bar was on old Salt Bayou Road in Slidell Louisiana, a narrow strip of blacktop that dead-ended at the northeastern-most edge of Lake Ponchartrain close to the Rigolets, (pronounced “RIG-uh-leez.”) a deep-water narrow strait that empties into Lake Borgne, a lagoon at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. The unique and colorful game of chance created for the pleasure of the Chicken Drop’s patrons also gave it its nickname. You could place a bet on any number from 1-100 for one dollar, and you could make more than one bet, so long as the number wasn’t taken. Every hour on the hour the music would stop, the dance floor was cleared and a giant chess-like plywood board was unfolded on it. The board was divided into 100 squares with a different number in each. To great applause, a live chicken would appear in the hands of one of the proprietors who held it in the face of a newcomer who was asked to blow into its ass feathers before being dropped upon the board. After its bird dance of scratchings and head darts, the chicken would defecate onto one of the numbers. Howls and backslaps for the lucky winner when approaching the bar to collect the $100 dollars, after first having to clean up the excrement with a paper towel. Rounds were usually bought.
Which is what one of us did for our table after picking the winning number. It was at the bar when it slipped out. It had been all pent up inside. She had concentrated, been vigilant, but with one too many drinks it snuck out. Like a child caught with her hand in the cookie jar, her surprised and reddened face turned to register that I had in fact heard her use that word. The apology that then tumbled out of her had nothing to do with regrets for being racist but rather with letting the word slip even after my brother had warned her.
About ten years later and only three and a half miles as the crow flies from the Chicken Drop, Kevin and I would be standing in deeper shit than we, or the world for that matter, would ever have imagined. We would be living in a tent for five days, armed with guns, in the front yard of our parents’ home in Eden Isles on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain, an upper middleclass gated community in St. Tammany Parish, immediately northeast of New Orleans. Only twelve days before Kevin and I furtively arrived that hot early September, against the mayor and governor’s orders, Hurricane Katrina had all but destroyed our parents’ home, their town of Slidell, and much of our beloved hometown of New Orleans.
None of us believed this would be the one, the hurricane we had seen computer simulations of if the levees were to fail. We had survived so many hurricanes after all, and they were mostly an excuse to stay up all night and party by candlelight when the electricity went out. But then I watched the weather channel, and on the monitor the familiar trail of hurricane icons with a big arrow heading straight for the center of New Orleans and the words “CATEGORY 5” flashing large.
As the next several days went by and the extent of the devastation was reported, it became clear that with my elderly parents safely evacuated, the return and salvage mission of their home would fall to Kevin and me.
I was living then in the east coast’s liberal epicenter, Park Slope Brooklyn. My near panic attack before leaving had more to do with spending five days and nights in a tent with my ‘redneck’, gun-collecting, Republican brother, than with what Katrina had in store. Before our relationship devolved into two phone calls per year, “Happy Birthday”, “Merry Christmas,” Kevin had proven to be homophobic, misogynist, and racist. But just like I let that one fateful word of Pat’s at the Chicken Drop calcify my opinion of her for nearly twenty years, confirming my decision to never extend myself beyond the necessary courtesies at weddings and funerals, I did the same with Kevin many times over. How would I know if she or Kevin had become different people in the last two decades? To their credit they seem now accepting of my relationship with Doug. And Kevin has what appears to be a respectful relationship with Pat, who doesn’t take his shit, and he insists they both have black friends at work and the gym. In spite of a softening however, I inevitably feel bullied, whenever we move away from of his limited and highly protected zone of comfort.
Sensing my hesitation to join in a post-Katrina reconnaissance, he insisted I “man-up.”
The destruction was breathtaking as we crept eerily through the streets of Slidell, trailer in tow. The town was transformed into massive tangles of ripped wood and metal and plastic and fiberglass and wires and brick and tar and insulation, mixed with recognizable objects like toys and clothes and furniture and fishing polls and bicycles and lawn mowers and lawn furniture. Torn up strip malls and houses with boats scattered on land or miraculously balanced on rooftops or in trees. The stench was horrible, mostly from refrigerators of rotting food that had floated out of homes and grocery stores, but also from dead animals and fish, perhaps even bodies. The mix of debris, rotted flesh, and leaked chemicals made for a toxic atmosphere. There was no escape from this stew, this vision, this heat, this smell, hardly any people anywhere, and no air-conditioned Dunkin Donuts to get a cup of coffee and take a break. It was a war zone after a bombing.
Once we arrived, it took us an hour just to move the amount of shredded lumber, siding, roofing and tree limbs from my parents’ front lawn to set up the tent. For the first couple days the only other people we saw were the occasional National Guard soldiers in their military Humvees cruising the neighborhoods offering bottled water and MRE’s to the ‘crazies’ who had waited out the storm and for the early returners like Kevin and me.
The ambitious development of Eden Isles was started in the early 70’s by reclaiming nearly four square miles of marshland, home to snakes, alligators, nutria, ducks and seagulls. The ‘Isles’ were formed from a network of man-made bayous so that each house was on waterfront property and had its own boat dock. Like all of the nearly 1000 homes eventually built there, my parents’ suburban house of 2×4, brick and mortar construction rested on a slab. Dirt from the digging of the waterways made for higher ground to build on, up to twelve feet from water level to slab. So people like my parents who owned their houses outright did not have flood insurance. No matter, it was ‘storm surge’ that Eden Isles had experienced, so the insurance companies weren’t paying out for flood anyway. About six to seven feet of water was pushed into every home then eventually subsided. This means that the storm rose from the lake a wall of water as much as nineteen feet high—boats on top of houses.
The brick and frame stood strong, but the surge and wind and rain destroyed the roof, gutters, the enclosed patio, the dock, much of the landscaping, nearly every interior sheetrock wall and ceiling, every appliance, every stick of furniture, every piece of clothing, every object, every photograph. The inside looked like the interior of a sunken ocean liner that had been pulled up from the sea and left on some sweltering equator shore to rot. Southern Louisiana is a fecund and primordial place, especially in late summer’s hurricane season, a free-for-all of opportunistic life forms. In the old Victorian house I lived in during college, without central air and heat, I remember a wild vine grew from under the slightly raised house, through the floorboards, into the stove and out one of the vents near the burners, and onto a shelf. My leather shoes grew thick with mold in the closets during summers. What of my parents’ property that was not destroyed by the storm was destroyed by mold.
In the twelve days it took us to arrive, it had grown onto just about every surface making it impossible to save anything that wasn’t a stainless steel pot or the odd unbroken ceramic. We quickly assessed that we needed to empty the house of its dank and ruined contents, and secure a tarp on the roof. It was Kevin’s and my immediate job then for the next four nights and five days in that heat to cover every inch of our bodies with clothing, including hats, scarves, rubber gloves, and respirators to go through every room and closet, every drawer and container, every nook and cranny, looking for something salvageable. Not only did I “man-up,” but insisted on working longer hours to get more done faster. I was incredibly focused and organized, making decisions quickly, to toss out even what Kevin wanted to keep for sentimental reasons. There was no time even to browse through old wet and stuck photos for the last time before becoming indecipherable with mold in a matter of hours or days. So we carried out every photo album, every piece of soggy carpet, curtain, linen, clothing, furniture, and appliance. We carried out every item ever owned by our parents, including family heirlooms, to the front curb in a sorrowful moldy broken heap, to be picked up months later and carted to a toxic landfill.
Kevin and I had little time for our old grievances during these days. We worked like dogs, surprisingly coordinated, and under immense physical and emotional stress. I don’t think we argued once. Not even about sleeping with guns under our pillows, especially after Kevin shot a deadly water moccasin that slithered out from under something in my parents’ bedroom. I hated sharing a room with him as a child and continued to have anxiety into adulthood if I had to be in the same room with him for long. Now, under more stress than I could remember since living through 9/11, we simply had to deal with an intimacy we had not shared since early childhood. Each night before cooking, we stripped down on our parents’ driveway and attempted to bathe the filth off each other by starlight. One would stand on the truck’s flatbed tipping a large container of fresh water and trickle it over the other’s naked body while he soaped up and rinsed, then changed places.
Slowly a mutual respect was earned and for perhaps the first time we began to see each other as equals. On the final day, when all that we could do was done, after neatly arranging what was salvageable on a mere two folding tables in the garage, and after packing up the truck and trailer with our supplies, we rather clumsily lingered around the mountain of ruined things that had made up our parents’ lives. The heap spanned the entire width of the suburban lot, was about fifteen feet deep and stood higher than us. It was to be one last look at what were once the symbols of home. But catching us by surprise, it transformed into a first look at the profound irrevocability of the storm’s aftermath. We both convulsed simultaneously at this realization, then looked up into each other’s knotted faces as we defenselessly fell fast and hard into each other’s arms, and sobbed.
Lasting under a minute, we pushed ourselves apart again looking down as we climbed into the idling truck to head back toward our lives at opposite poles.