"White Water" by Leslie Muzingo
The weather felt tropical. Old Mama Fontaine had been saying so ever since late April. “It’s like when Hurricane Fredrick hit us,” she said over and over again. Then she'd go on and on about how 1979 felt tropical until the hurricane hit in September and how scalpers sold ice in Mobile for fifty dollars a bag. Fifty dollars. That's a helluva lot of money for ice today, so I can only imagine what it would've been like in 1979.
“There's a storm coming! I can feel it!” Old Mama Fontaine bleated from her sick bed. True, things felt different that summer. There was a wetness, a simmer. The flowers smelled sweeter at nighttime. Jasmine, honeysuckle, gardenia all stewed together in the twilight; lilies and wisteria provided perfume before the bake of day. Being a guy, I didn't usually notice such things, but the air was definitely tropical.
Classes started, and my friends came back to town. Soon the usual suspects were hanging at my place where they could do their laundry and get a home cooked meal. But for our private business, we went to Old Mama’s house.
One night we were on Old Mama's back porch toking on a pipe while her caretaker cut out to buy herself some beer. The ceiling fan mixed our smoke with the flower's fragrance into a sweet heat. Maybe it fired something in Old Mama because “tropical” comments started rolling through her bedroom window screen and out onto the veranda.
“It's coming!” the old woman ranted from her bed. “I smell another Camille!” Georgia, a journalism major who considered herself the South's answer to Barbara Walters, jumped at the chance to hone her skills. She went inside, pulled up a chair next to Old Mama, and did a microsecond primp. We all grinned and pushed our way closer to the window frame that provided our reality TV.
“Tell us, Old Mama, why you believe a storm is imminent.”
“White water. A wall of white water,” Mama muttered.
“When will it happen?” Georgia persisted.
“High tide,” Mama mumbled.
“What should we do to stay safe?” Georgia said, leaning in close.
“Get a rope and an ax!” the old woman cried shooting up in the bed. Georgia screamed, and we all fell over laughing.
The next day Judson, my best friend and a computer programming major, called to say that Hurricane Lucinda had entered the Gulf.
Judson, Georgia, Mary Lee, Brent, and I met at the student union to discuss it. There was a crackling kind of energy between us.
--that old woman knew what she was talking about -
--it's not here yet, just in the Gulf-
--so, what are we going to do if it comes here-
--I'm not scared are you scared I'm not scared-
--let's go to the beach!
--we'll follow Jim Cantore!
--do they deliver pizza during a hurricane?
Since I was the only local kid, I was deemed leader. I'd never been anyone's leader before. Hell, my folks didn't trust me to live on campus. I tried to be cool, yet scientific, about it all even though I'd never experienced a major storm.
“Judson, you're our computer guy. You track the storm.”
“Yes'm boss,” he said, giving me a salute.
“Georgia, you keep up with the news.”
Her breasts practically heaved with excitement when she realized that the weather channel's tropical updates came every four hours.
“Brent, you get flashlights and batteries.”
Brent nodded. “What about the rope and ax?”
“Sure, sure.” What else could I say since I didn't know what they were for?
“Mary Lee, you--”
“Hey, I want to help, but I've got a cousin from Nebraska visiting. She wants to do all the tourist junk.”
The rest of us burst out laughing at the idea of Mary Lee's damn Yankee tourist cousin visiting during a hurricane. “You better be nice to my Cousin Cindy!” Mary Lee cried. A half second of silence and we guys were rolling on the floor of the student union while Georgia choked on her Coke. It was too funny that Cousin Cindy had come south what with Hurricane
Lucinda heading straight north.
We quit laughing when we saw her. The girl was fucking gorgeous.
Tourists are supposed to look stupid with brochures in their hands and t-shirts that with dumb sayings. Cindy had the brochures and the stupid shirt. She also had the blondest hair, the longest legs, and the bluest eyes any of us had ever seen. I think Georgia would've hated her except Cindy spent more time with the girls than with us guys. She linked arms with Georgia and Mary Lee and giggled, “Tell me how you girls do your hair and makeup, so I can be pretty like you for the boys back home.”
So, while we fellas were drooling over Mary Lee’s cousin Cindy, the real Hurricane Cindy, or rather, Lucinda, was pushing her way up into the mid-Gulf, and the forecast cone put us right in the middle of her path.
About this time Old Mama quit talking. She'd been yapping since spring about tropical weather and white water, but suddenly our oracle was silent.
We tried renting a beach condo. No go. Hotels were transporting people out of the area, not allowing them in. Then Cindy asked whether the houses on the beach would be vacant, and couldn't we break in if we didn't damage anything? “I wouldn't dream of it if I thought any of you would hurt someone's stuff,” she said with her eyes wide. “But I know you can be trusted to act like Christians.”
That's when it was decided that we Christians would commit a B&E, so we could watch the storm.
Lucinda was predicted to come in at high tide somewhere around Gulf Shores. “Even if it doesn't come in exactly there, I imagine we'll get to see a lot of white water if we find a place with a big picture window.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I remembered Old Mama's saying “white water-a wall of white water” and I felt this sense of foreboding. But hell, nothing bad ever happens to you when you're young, right?
We stocked Judson’s car with beer, snacks, and flashlights, and headed to the beach.
Zigzagging to avoid roadblocks, we finally found a stretch of empty houses on stilts facing the surf.
“So how do we do this?” Georgia asked.
“Just leave it to me!” Cindy cried, jumping out of the car and running up the stairs of the first house.
Cindy fiddled with the doorknob while the rest of us waited in the car wondering what was wrong with this picture. “Bingo!” she yelled from the top of the stairs, and suddenly she was in the house. By the time the rest of us had hauled our stuff up the stairs Cindy had changed into a bikini, found the liquor cabinet, and made a pitcher of margaritas. Apparently, Cindy's idea of not hurting someone's stuff didn't include not stealing their booze or wearing their bathing suits. Mary Lee didn't seem surprised, Georgia started to open her mouth and stopped, and Cindy looked so good in that bikini that none of us guys cared what she did.
After we'd drunk enough to be on Margaritaville time, we moved our party to the beach. It sounded like a good idea then, but when we got outside the gulf was churning angry white caps, and the wind had picked up so that it was either chug your drink or lose it. “I'm not in
Nebraska anymore!” Cindy cried as she danced next to the water's edge.
None of us were ready for that big wave of water. It seemed to just roll in and grab Cindy like a sacrifice and then take her before she could even cry out. She was gone before we could think to even warn her let alone save her.
“Somebody do something!” Mary Lee screamed, the wind whipping her long brown hair in a north-easterly direction.
Any other time it would've been funny the way we drunks fell as we tried running against the strong wind. You'd have thought we'd become cartoons or something because our fight against the weather was so slow and our movements so exaggerated that we didn't seem like real people anymore. Usually we would have laughed at Georgia being part of the mad dash for the beach and how she kept falling more than the rest of us put together. But we couldn’t laugh. Our watching the hurricane come in wasn't supposed to go this way. We were supposed to be having a good time.
Judson was almost to the edge when another big wave started coming in. He saw it in time and turned around and ran back to us. Luckily, running with the wind was a lot easier than running against it. He made it back to us before being swallowed like Cindy had been.
Mary Lee wasn't wanting to give up.
“What are we going to do?” she half demanded, half begged.
Judson reached out to comfort her. “Mary Lee, I'm sorry, but you saw that wave of water.
There's nothing we can do. I really am sorry.”
“No!” the poor girl screamed. “You don't understand! She's our family's favorite! I'm nothing! I can't go back without her!”
Georgia tried to hug Mary Lee. “I'm sure it's not as bad as that.”
Mary Lee pulled away from Georgia's embrace. “You don't know my family. You don't know what my life will be like if I go back without her. You don't know what they'll do to me, what they'll say. I can't do it. I won't do it.” Before we could stop her, Mary Lee ran to the churning Gulf waters and jumped in. A second later a big wave took her away.
Georgia scream was almost silent against the wind's cry and then she collapsed. Judson lifted her up and said, “Let's get her inside.” I felt rather faint myself, but I nodded, and together we helped Georgia up the stairs.
That's when I realized Brent was gone.
“Where's Brent?” I asked. Neither Judson nor Georgia knew. I felt sick to my stomach. I was the leader, so it fell to me to look for Brent, but the idea frightened me. Still, he was missing, and it was my job to find him. It wasn't like Cindy and Mary Lee. They had surely drowned, but Brent might be alive and in trouble. The wind grew stronger and still no Brent. I shivered as I replayed the girls' disappearance into the sea, and I imagined Brent in the water calling my name.
I downed a shot of tequila and took a deep breath. “I'm going out for Brent,” I announced.
“Good,” Judson said. “I'm going with you.”
“No!” begged Georgia. “Don't leave me! You might not come back!”
I tried to sound brave. “Georgia, if you were missing, you'd want us to look for you.” I patted her knee. “We'll be back soon. Just sit tight.”
As we opened the door, I had to question which was louder—Georgia's weeping or the wind. Once the door was closed nothing could be heard but Lucinda's howl.
“Where do you think he might be?” Judson asked, yelling to be heard.
Shrugging seemed the best means of communication what with the wind being so loud.
Debris was flying in the air. I pulled Judson to the side of the house. “It's safer walking close to the buildings! Less chance of getting hit by something!” I yelled.
Just then Judson tripped and fell flat down flat on Brent. Our friend was lying on the ground unconscious and covered with sand, with a rope wrapped around him and a small hatchet in his jeans loop.
“Grab an arm,” Judson yelled.
It took us a while, but we got Brent back up the stairs and into the house. Georgia stopped crying long enough to make an ice pack for Brent's head. It wasn’t long before he opened his eyes.
Brent was apologetic about the whole thing. “I'd forgotten to bring the rope and ax. I found these in a garage a couple of houses down. It's not an ax, but it should do the job.” “But why risk your life for them?” Georgia wailed.
Brent didn't meet our eyes as he spoke. “Because I realized we needed them when I saw the waves take the girls. We have to get to the highest place we can.”
I was confused. “I don't understand.”
Brent sighed like someone who hated telling bad news. “This storm comes in at high tide. This house will probably be crushed. It's too late to drive away. We need to chop through the roof if the house goes down.”
“This was supposed to be fun! This was supposed to be a party!” Georgia babbled.
Brent slapped her. “Stop it!” he demanded. Funny, it seemed that the wind lower to a growl while Georgia pulled herself together.
Brent was now the unspoken leader. “We won't go to the roof unless it's necessary, but we should go ahead and tie the rope around us because if we need to do this, we'll need to act fast.” He then directed us on the order of how we should be tied. I was tied first because I had a strong pitcher's arm for breaking through the roof. Then came Georgia, then Brent, and last was Judson because he was heaviest and could to act as anchor while the three of us got through the hole and tied down.
So, there we stood, all tied together, standing before the living room picture window, watching the storm come in.
Lucinda's cry rose like a banshee and fell like a ghost, but what frightened me most was the rising water. “Brent, shouldn't I start chopping that hole?” I asked. The storm must've heard me and didn't want to let us go because just then the wave rose and hovered over us for just long enough for us to know it was time to run. I'm not good with measuring, but I swear that wall of water was twenty-five feet. When it crashed, time stood still.
The luxury of timelessness didn't last more than a second before the house began to crumble. We made it to the attic despite the rising water. An adrenaline rush overtook me, and I chopped up above me like I was rowing for heaven, but my hole wasn't getting very big. Soon Brent grabbed the hatchet. “My turn.” The hole got bigger. Before long Judson grabbed the hatchet from Brent. More fast chopping and the hole was bigger still.
Georgia screamed. “The water is coming in!” Sure enough, the water was coming through from under the door—fast.
I grabbed the hatchet from Judson. I gave it a swing as if I were pitching for the World Series and a big board gave way. Brent grabbed the hatchet and jammed it in his pants loop, the three of us pulled together until we had another board free and we had our hole. I climbed on the roof. The wind almost knocked me down and to my surprise there wasn't a chimney, just a pipe which I guessed was some kind of vent. It was going to have to do. I pulled Georgia up and wound her around it. I reached down to help Brent up and just then the water pressure knocked the attic door down and the tide came rushing in.
“Hurry!” cried Judson. The water was already up to his knees.
Brent was almost through the hole when there was a loud cracking sound. The roof was tearing away from the rest of the house.
The water had quickly risen to Judson's shoulders. “I'm cutting the rope. I don't want to be dragged or pull y'all back in.”
“I got you! I cried.
“Love you guys,” Judson grabbed the hatchet from Brent's jeans loop and jumped so he could chop the rope that connected him to Brent.
I screamed, but Judson didn't hear me. The water was now over his head. The deafening sound of the roof ripping off the house would have muted me anyway. Brent managed to push through the hole, drag hysterical me to where Georgia was passed out from fright, and lash us all together as the roof completely disconnected from the house and landed on the moving water.
We rode the roof like a surfboard, bouncing along the coastline, with the other destroyed houses and debris keeping us from being dragged out to sea. Smashing into houses and trees was a rough ride. It seemed like a deathly game of pinball and we were the ball. Three people—two of my best friends ever—had already died. I was past carrying whether I lived, but I wanted Brent and Georgia to make it. I guess they felt the same because for hours we just huddled together in one big hug and braced each other for the next crash. After a while there wasn't enough roof left for us to all safely sit, so we stood and hugged the pipe and each other. By the time we were rescued the three of us stood joined as one around that pole on a six-foot piece of roof.
Things were never the same between the three of us who were left. You'd think we'd cling together like we did around that pipe, but instead we sort of drifted apart. I think maybe seeing each other made us feel guilty that we lived and that the others had died.
Georgia wanted to write a story for the school newspaper telling how Mary Lee tried to save her cousin and how Judson gave his life for us. Brent and I reminded her that we had committed a crime breaking into that house and that her story would be a confession. “You put my name in it I'll sue for libel,” Brent huffed. I don't think he would have sued; he just wanted to stop Georgia. As for me, I'm not sure that Mary Lee did jump in to save Cindy. I think she jumped in because she couldn't go home without her. But that's my opinion, and I kept it to myself.
Part of me wished that Georgia had written her article. I would have liked for Judson to get some award or be honored in some way. My best friend gave his life for me. I don't feel worth it.
Old Mama Fontaine passed away last week. Come to find out, all her family had died in Hurricane Camille. Old Mama, who had been married and had several small children, survived the storm because her own daddy tied her to the chimney before the house split apart. No one else from her family was ever found.
I wonder if when I'm old I'll be lying in a sick bed rambling about white water.
© Leslie Muzingo
About the Author: Leslie Muzingo grew up in Iowa but relocated to the Deep South years ago. She now spends her winters in Mobile and her summers on Prince Edward Island. Her work has been published by Pink Panther Magazine, Ink in Thirds, Two Sisters Writing, Mother’s Milk Books, Darkhouse Books, Literary Mama, among others. She has ridden through numerous hurricanes over the years with her husband and her dogs. However, she advises everyone to think safety first and to stay off the beach whenever there is a storm.
Find Leslie on twitter @sootfoot5
And on Goodreads