Saturday
Jul262014

The Great Flood

Anne Valente


 

The water rises, ascends the shore.

Through June and the birth of summer, from the saturated ground of a snow-covered winter through spring storms that lash the trees, the rain comes and keeps coming, a torrent that batters the dogwoods and splits the power lines, a deluge of water and wind and heavy sky. It crawls the banks of the Mississippi River. It tests the red brick. It slips between the crevices of the cobblestone pavement on the St. Louis riverfront and spills through the streets, along Laclede's Landing, up through the shops and the restaurants and the raucous bars and the lone wax museum, up the staircase to the base of the Arch. The water sings toward its silver. The water laps the feet of its curve. The water ebbs against the floodwall, the only barrier between city and river, a steady stream he awaits like the slow roll of thunder.

He listens to the news and forecast from a portable headset, KTRS 550 AM, a stream that floods his ears. He has been listening for months, a crescendo of information, a build like the river's rising. He stands before the leopard enclosure at the St. Louis Zoo, the July sun radiating from a break in the sky to his skin. Humidity beads upon his brow. His jaw tightens. He listens to the fall of dominoes: that the landing has closed. That the riverboats are inoperable. That there are boil orders. Sandbagging. That another thunderstorm will arrive this week. Every domino in a row.

He lifts his eyes to the snow leopard, its fur the color of ash. He presses a palm to the metal bars and extends his fingers, a five-point star. The leopard raises its head, regards him. He hears the newscaster say, With the coming storm, the water will rise.

He meets the leopard's gaze and smiles.

He whispers through the bars: Soon.

 

The brick shotgun walk-up where he lives, an apartment his parents once helped him find, is only three blocks from the St. Louis Zoo and its free admission, across Oakland Avenue and the overpass above Highway 40 that connects Forest Park to the rest of the city, a bridge he walks every day above the roar of passing traffic. The highway, an artery: shuttling people from the sprawled suburbs to the center of the city, a gridlock of exhaust and waste and roaring horns and blaring speakers. He walks with his headset, always, a stream of chatter to deter the noise though sometimes he can still hear the hum of cars, drivers yelling at one another, the bass thrum of stereos blasting.

He steers himself on the same path each day, three blocks across the overpass and into the city park, then through the turnstiles of the zoo's south entrance and on to the primate house, the bear pits, the large cat cages, the sea lion harbor. This week, he walks to the center of the overpass and halts. He looks out over the city, the skyline to the east, the sun high above and beating a sheen down upon the buildings, upon the glare of metal cars moving in a pack. Sunshine slowdown, the newscaster murmurs in his ears, a traffic report for the morning rush east that drops window visors, summons sunglasses, reduces visibility and the steady flow of cars. He squints across the traffic, toward the hazed outline of the city, the river out of sight but creeping toward downtown.

Rise, he whispers. He imagines storms. The floodwall holding the river at bay.

Every wild animal according to its kind. He looks to the zoo's entrance and imagines the polar bears, the ring-tailed lemurs, the giant anteaters and wallabies and king penguins. And the floodgates of the heavens were opened.

 

He makes his way toward the elephants, the fields of grass and dust made to emulate the Asian plains. He wipes the sweat from his brow, the headset crackling the forecast, only 9 a.m. and already 90 percent humidity and 85 degrees. The sky above spans blue but carries a haze, the air laden with moisture. He feels his collared shirt sticking in damp stains to his back as he walks past couples, parents with strollers, children standing guard for a glimpse of tunneling prairie dogs.

When he reaches the elephant habitat, he leans against the wooden dividers and watches three pachyderms lumber through the grass. One is far smaller than the others: Raja, the baby born last December, the first elephant ever born at the St. Louis Zoo. Still only the height of his mother's belly, the baby threads himself through the pillars of her legs. A crowd of families watches as Raja gallops to the edge of the habitat's pond and pulls water into his trunk, sprays it in pellets that sprinkle the surface.

The man remembers Raja's birthday well: December 27. A date he remembers not for the birth but for a rupture. Two days after Christmas. His first day to work after four days off. He had just put on protective earmuffs, prepared to sit down at the abrasive spinner, when his supervisor approached and stood over him, his mouth a grim line. He knew before his supervisor spoke: he had seen coworkers plucked away slowly, a wave of recession, had seen them pack up their tools. He knew what was coming in the exact way that customers always came to their product: grave monuments, granite and marble they'd seen all their lives in cemeteries. Granite and marble they knew one day awaited them and their loved ones, headstones they saw but ignored until an inevitability was already upon them.

He rang in the New Year as a number, part of an all-time high statistic.

As Bill Clinton took office that January, the city's unemployment rate skyrocketed to 7 percent.

He watches Raja run back from the water to his mother, an instinctive ease that knifes him to watch. He knows that elephants can sense tsunamis and earthquakes, a danger sunk deep into the creases of their skin. He wonders if they can feel disasters less natural: the storm of crashed stocks, the tide of impossible desert wars. He thinks of his own mother, if she could sense the rising gale of terminal disease.

He runs his hands across the wooden fence, a texture far rougher than the marble he once carved. He'd been an artist, like his father. Both of them stonemasons. Monuments of grace. Curved letters, arced angels. Hands joined in the solace of prayer. His last paycheck: six months ago. Then unemployment. Government checks that slowly dried up without new work, and then what money his parents left behind, dwindled to nothing past their quick departure from this earth as the new year came. He took to walking, around the block and across the overpass and in to the free zoo, months of nothing but walking and radio static and reading the word of the Lord, the only book his mother and father left him, the only word to light the way.

He watches the elephants, their thick hides. The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become, he murmurs to himself, beneath the static din of the headset. He stands so long that families move in and away, children standing beside him until their parents glance at him and pull them away. He watches Raja kick up dust, a newborn, set apart from the faults of this world.

Every kind of clean animal, he whispers. He looks to the elephants and nods.

 

In the evening, a dinner of bologna and white bread, he slats his blinds shut and sits on a folding chair, the Bible open on a card table, the radio crackling through his hot apartment from the blown speakers of a boombox. He listens to the news: there is no potable water in Alton, Illinois, just across the river where his mother once worked. Volunteers have arrived by the busload from neighboring states to sandbag. The Burger King boat, one of several commercial riverboats along the Mississippi, has unmoored itself from shore and crashed into the Poplar Street Bridge. Its top level has been shorn off, says the newscaster, but rescue workers have towed the restaurant to the floodwall.

The floodwall: fifty-two feet of concrete to protect the city against disaster, a tall hedge of aggregate and mixer, of cement and limestone and granite, so many of the materials he once used.

Another storm tomorrow, the newscaster reports. Wind, lightning. More rain.

He knows the floodwall's capacity: 52 feet. He knows the water has risen to 49.5 feet, cresting toward its limit. He knows that only one more heavy storm will force the water across the levee downtown. He looks to the Bible, resting open upon the weathered threading of the card table. The animals, just streets away: harbor seals, red pandas, Grevy's zebras. He thinks of his mother: a sickness of construction and buildings and the thousands of sharp fibers that shredded her lungs as she inhaled them, an epidemic of asbestos-caused cancers burying both shores of the Mississippi, the citizens of Illinois and Missouri swallowed in the name of progress and monuments. The same monuments he and his father once constructed, concrete and sand, the shaping of stones from blocks of granite. To bury the dead, as the floodwaters would, a deluge of silt and waves.

And I will wipe from the earth every living creature I have made.

 

The northern bobwhites are cooing, a soft lisp. He walks the Zoo's historic flight cage early, just after the turnstiles open, the morning bright and the afternoon promising the rain he awaits. As he walks along the cage's boardwalk, a domed remnant from the 1904 World's Fair, the quails bunch together at the edge of the pond beneath him. Low calls, a quiet peeping. Not the shrill whistle they can make, a howl of territorial claim.

He knows the sound from hunting with his father as a child, calls that would shoot up from the forest floor as they stalked through the trees. Coveys, his father told him. Groups of ten to twenty quails that roosted together and foraged for seeds, social birds that rarely left the ground. He watches the quails huddle together and peck at the pond-damp mud and he feels a flicker of yearning, this clustering, what grounding binds them irretrievably to one another. It is the same questioning he had as a child, as he sat in the pews of their family church while the minister spoke. His parents beside him, their hands folded, while he scanned the backs of an entire congregation of heads and wondered what it was that brought them all here, this bald sheen and those strands of gray, what it was that made them all an assembly of God.

A family passes him on the boardwalk. Two parents. A small girl with a head of blond curls. She runs ahead and kneels at the edge of the boardwalk, extends a hand toward a snowy egret.

He had wanted to serve them. This city. He had wanted his hands to etch stone, to carry every person upon his shoulders through the darkening of their sorrow. He held the word within him. But I am among you as the one who serves. He had carved it countless times across the marble of their bearing away: Love is patient, love is kind. He had imagined so many funerals he never saw, a gathering of people, an assembly he never broached but knew himself a part of. And then they had turned. The wrongs of a Gulf War and the sickness of progress and the excess of an entire decade that flooded the city only to recede, to take everything away in its wake.

A roseate spoonbill emerges from the brush, pokes its way toward the pond's shore. As he stands at the edge of the boardwalk, the blond child kneels next to him and tries to touch the bird. Her parents pull her away, from him and from the boardwalk's edge. He regards the spoonbill, its pink plumage. He imagines it in flight, a flock of crimson feathers alighting in lines, diagonals across the sky. Soon. He wants to whisper. He wants to kneel and run his hands across the water. He wants to see the spoonbill break through the halo of the flight cage and emerge over the river, a span of wing and beak and a shimmering gleam of coral as the water swallows everything beneath it.

He knows the way to the river. A bus to another bus, when he has coins to pay the fare. He went to the river only weeks ago, a reprieve from so many days of walking. Fourth of July. Fair St. Louis, the city's celebration along the riverfront, three days of air shows and funnel cakes, musicians and fireworks. A display he saw every year with his parents, the three of them gathered upon a blanket, dew dampening their bare feet beyond the edge of the quilt. His mother always told him the fireworks came from the water. Their origins are mysterious, she told him each year, as mysterious as ours. When he grew, he knew better: a barge was anchored in the middle of the river, made invisible by the night and the explosions' glare. But even still, the water held for him the mystery of fire. An origin and a spark, the key to the world's creation.

This year, he stood beneath the Arch as the fireworks lit up the sky. Just over the crest, he knew, the water was rising, lapping the edges of the Arch's staircase. His parents were gone. His mother: mesothelioma. A quick stage-four collapse that claimed her just after the New Year and after his job fell away, the result of years and years of construction work, inhaling asbestos while her employers said nothing. His father: a heart attack, only two weeks later. A death of loneliness, he knew, a life rolled out wide and gaping without her.

Beneath the Arch, he sat and he watched the sky without them. Fire reds. The burst of greens. A dusting of filaments like hands that stretched down into the night, then faded away, then disappeared entirely. He looked around at the people beside him, their faces tilted skyward, lit by intermittent bursts of patriotic light. And there shall no longer be any more death. He felt himself dissolve. For the former things have passed away. As he watched the faces, the families, a gathered assembly he would never be a part of, he felt his wickedness matched. As depraved as anyone else.

To be alone at last. To have let them go.

He had not carved their stones. 

No hands folded in prayer. No carved hymn upon a headstone. If I do not have love, I gain nothing. No one had served him and no one had served his mother, but had only populated building upon building she once constructed and had let a storm gather inside her, a storm of jagged fibers that had razored her lungs.

He watches the family exit the flight cage, the small girl herded away from standing near him, her parents glancing at him as they steer her toward the primate house. The afternoon sky still shines but clouds are already gathering. A promised storm. He watches the spoonbill spear the surface of the pond.

 

When the lightning at last ceases illuminating his apartment's windows, he waits on the kitchen floor in the eerie yellow of the passing storm's light. The sky is still dark but lifting. Sirens extinguished. The streets quiet. He listens for the sound of traffic and voices but even the newscast has gone silent, replaced by the static of white noise. Only the wind still rattles the frames of the windows and he thinks of summer storms when he was a child, when he hunkered below the basement stairs with his mother and father and waited for the thunder above to pass. A calm shelter, his mother's hand on his head, his father huddled beside him, the basement a womb.

He climbs to his feet and moves to the open door of his closet. He pulls the suit from the hanger where it waits. He removes what he is wearing, brown slacks and a faded white tee. He slides into the suit's black pants, then its jacket. He looks in the closet door's mirror and smooths his hair. In his face, he sees only his mother. A shadow of good, the nose of his father.

He takes nothing with him but his headset. Not his tools. Not his remaining money. Not the Bible upon the card table, its pages marked and tattered. He walks across the overpass, the highway bereft of traffic in the storm's passing wake. Branches litter the streets. His feet splash through oiled puddles. A tree has toppled beside the park entrance, its lush leaves a fallen sprawl of greenery.

He passes through the turnstile, makes his way to the row of bear pits. His headset crackles to life, a sputtering of noise and a faint human voice. He walks past the grizzly bears, the Malayan sun bears, the two sloth bears curled together beneath a rock shelter. He moves to the last habitat in the row of pits, where two polar bears float in the blue of their small lake. Polar bears: swimmers. Enlarged feet for traction on ice and in water. He leans toward their enclosure, rocks painted white to emulate snow.

He stands before their pit. Eyes closed. His face tilted toward the light. He waits for the flood to come, through the breached wall and across the six miles of buildings and highways, to reach the zoo grounds at last and to sweep them away, to wash them clean.

But instead there is only a sputtering: his headset come to life.

That was close, the newscaster says. We'll have more information in a moment, but the floodwall is fortunately intact.

He opens his eyes. He looks at the bears. He pulls the headset from his ears.

He balls his fists until the metal of the headset cuts his palms.   

 

At home, he removes his suit.

He runs his hands beneath the kitchen faucet.

He watches the water turn pink and swirl a circle down the drain. He slides against the kitchen cabinets to the floor and feels the laminate beneath his skin.

A close call, the newscaster reports through the headset. The Mississippi has risen to 50 feet. Just two feet below breaching the floodwall. Two feet separating the city from the entire weight of the river. We are dangerously close, the newscaster says, and there is a world of damage out there regardless.

The radio speaks the storm's destruction: downed power lines. Twenty-thousand people without power. Trees collapsed across houses, branches smashed through windows. A sandbag levee breached in Grafton, Illinois, barges sent by the Army Corps of Engineers to evacuate its residents. Small planes floating in floodwater at the Spirit of St. Louis airport in Chesterfield. The USS Inaugural, a World War II minesweeper, a floating museum along the riverfront: detached from shore in the storm, floating downstream.

He waits for the newscast to reel around, to return to the forecast and the river's ascent. A paper towel clenched between his palms. Red soaking through paper pulp. Fifty feet, the newscaster says. Two more feet and this city could go under. He waits for the forecast. For another storm. This one, surely not what he waited for. But as the sun emerges from the heavy clouds and streaks cut through his blinds, he hears the newscaster's words and feels his stomach constrict. We are in the clear for now, the voice says. Enough time, with hope, for the floodwater to recede.

Enough time, he thinks.

His mother and his father gained nothing of time.

No time for reprieve. Not for stillness, to feel the earth move along its axis. Not for dewed grass, a damp blanket, pinwheels of light haloing the sky. Not for his mother to feel air through her lungs in any inhalation apart from gasping, to take in breath as smooth as the stilled surface of water, to know for sure her body would stop short of failing. Not for his father to feel blood in the conduits of his chest, to know there would be more days and more nights and more and more and more, more skies full of rockets and the safety of basements and the hushed light of the forest floor.

The newscaster speaks: Mercifully, there are no more storms ahead.

His fingers fumble over the kitchen floor behind him.

They find the handle to a kitchen cabinet. They stretch through an opening. They pull out etchers. Stencils. A small sandblaster. Useless tools. Tools his father gave him. Tools he hid away. Tools for a skill, for an entire city. Tools he drags from the cabinet and scatters across the laminate floor, tools he sifts through, his fingers seeking purchase. Wedges and shims. A hand grinder. Diamond blades dormant for months. He casts aside the sandblaster, the stencils. Tools he will not need again.

He finds the hand chisel and its hammer.

He stumbles to his feet. He drops the paper towel, shoves the tools into a bag. Fifty feet, the river's highest stage. A will he has waited to be done. A will imagined for months bringing so much water, a tide rising over him and every animal of its kind.

A will that did not bring down the wall.

A will, he sees clearly as sunlight, he has not understood until now.

A person justified by works and not by faith alone.

A will that gave to him a skill.

He walks to the card table. He closes the book. In the apartment's streaked light, he pulls on his suit. He leaves the headset behind. He slings the bag over his shoulder and steps into the light and closes his eyes to the sun, his vision backlit in fire.

He whispers to himself: Mother.

He looks in the mirror, a reflection made right.

He does not bring change. He does not take the bus. He walks straight down Oakland toward downtown, sidestepping branches and overturned wastebins and the scattering of wet leaves. He hums to himself. He feels the growing humidity seep through his suit and dampen the backs of his knees. Cars begin to emerge from their driveways, navigating around the downed limbs and clusters of foliage speckling the streets. The sun breaks full from the clouds and glares down upon him, a light that slants gradually behind him as he walks further and further from his apartment.

Six miles to the river. Down Oakland, across the din of Kingshighway. Then onward down Market, the thoroughfare through downtown, past Union Station, past the greenery of city parks. Past the Gateway Mall, past the fountain of Kiener Plaza, the Arch growing in size, edging closer. His suit sticks to him. Polyester drenched. His shoes soak with water pooled in the roads. He walks down the spine of the street, cars passing and honking and sloshing through puddles, their wake splashing the legs of his suit. The sun dips lower behind him as the Arch lengthens and swells, a tall glisten of metal and a waiting onslaught of water.

When he reaches the riverfront, the sun has nearly set behind him. His suit saturated, his shoes waterlogged. Even with the sun nearly gone, the heat slicks around him in steam. He stands beneath the Arch, the water rising up the stairs that lead down to the water. He glances above: the Arch a halo, its silver banding down in pillars. The river pools ahead, a landlocked ocean, the tilt of the sun scattered in points of light across the water. But I will establish my covenant with you. A gleaming flood. As if the Lord cracked the sun open against the river and watched it disperse across the waves.

Wharf Street: where the floodwall lies. He makes his way south, past Gratiot Street and the railways along Lombard, then east to the road lining the riverfront. He stands on the pavement, empty of cars and all traffic, closed for months by the threat of breaching. The wall rises before him, a span of concrete that stretches beyond his vision. The street silent, deserted. A lack of sound but for the river, a rush of water the wall keeps like a secret.

Fifty-two feet high.

Fifty-two feet he scales by grabbing the low limbs of a maple, a tree left behind by storms that tears his suit as he lifts himself to the crest of the floodwall.

He reaches the top. Thick enough to sit. He crouches upon its slabs and looks at the river and feels the breath diffuse from his lungs. The enormity of water, an ocean: a spanned sea that swells inches from his feet and the summit of the wall. The Poplar Street Bridge looms in the periphery of his vision, its once-great height only feet from the ridge of rising water. The USS Inaugural lies capsized against the floodwall only blocks downstream, on its side in the quick of the river.

He climbs to his feet. He stands upon the wall and eyes the swollen river. Every animal, every giraffe, every zebra, every antelope and flamingo, every poison-dart frog and black rhinoceros and giant tortoise.

Rise, he whispers to the water.

When the water spreads to the zoo, he knows the animals will find him.

He kneels to the wall. He pulls the hand chisel and hammer from his bag. He lets the bag fall down to the street. He takes the chisel to the concrete edge and taps lightly, a cadence, a singing. He taps until he finds a rhythm to bring the hammer down with force. He strikes the chisel. The concrete splits. A small gash that grows larger, that spiders a fissure down the length of the wall.

He holds the chisel to the crack and drives it down with his hammer. He feels the surging of the river push against the wall, a weakening. He pounds and drives the chisel, he breaks the concrete loose. Water buffalo. Orangutan. Hippopotamus. He watches the water begin to leak in drops and he brings down the hammer harder. He watches the leak become a stream and then the water breaks the concrete into rocks.

He hears a scream behind him and looks to see a woman and her dog, a small schnauzer, standing on Wharf Street. When he meets the woman's gaze, she turns and runs. She calls for help. He wants to tell her that there is no fear, that the river will flow through the streets and save them, that it will save all of them. He looks across the water. He lays down his hammer. He stands and watches the hum of the river gather and push along the floodwall, a surge that breaks away concrete, that forces apart its granite and limestone. A flood he knows will fill the city in seconds.

He watches the weight of the river pound into the wall, breaking concrete and the crevice he made, spilling over into the dry streets behind him. Micronesian kingfisher. His footing falters. Meerkat, long-beaked echidna. He hears the distant approach of police sirens as water streams across his shoes. Two-toed sloth. Wyoming toad. Amur tiger, fire-bellied newt, American alligator. He thinks of the animals, the water heaving west into the corridors of their keeping. Above him, a pink haze holds the falling sun. A sky that once held a stream of fire that he watched with his mother and father, a burst and blooming of colored sparks and a fading wash of light. His mother, his father. Their hands upon his head beneath the stairwell. A storm thrashing above them, wind and thunder, a blanket spread across grass, the quiet of quails.

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.

He hears the animals singing their way toward him.

He stands and lets the water come.