Cameron Parish, Louisiana – September 23, 2005
I need to pay more attention to my instincts. And to my father. Hurricane Rita was just offshore. Closer to Texas actually than Louisiana. But they kept saying it would move north before nightfall. My father said it would take the same path as Audrey back in 1957. I was surprised when he told me that. But, while his Alzheimer’s seemed to be getting worse, occasionally his memory would let him call out stuff from way back when. Regardless, we were right in the storm’s path. That always sounds so cliché and dramatic, but, in this case, it was more than true. And frightening.
This is just what I need right now, I kept telling myself – a hurricane named after me. Katrina had just hit a month earlier, and now, we have this bitch bringing in the second act. How many other storms were looming out there in the Gulf or the ocean? Just waiting to come in and finish us off. What did the state of Louisiana do to deserve this?
I’d managed to pack my father, Tara, James, both dogs, the computer, the safe and as many clothes and old family photos into my SUV. Thank God the dogs were small. But I still couldn’t believe James, all of 15, managed to wheel that damn safe out to the SUV and shove it into the back by himself. Well, his sister helped – more or less coordinated. “Just stay out of my way!” he kept telling her.
My husband, Eric, was halfway across the globe, stuck in Iraq. My oldest, Carla, was up at Illinois State. They’d each called the night before; frantically telling me to get the hell out of there.
I just told them I was monitoring the storm. The CPA in me was taking a meticulous view of things. I was calm – on the outside. But, inside, I was petrified.
“We’ll be okay,” my father mumbled.
Several years ago he’d said Black people don’t often die in hurricanes because we know what wind and rain do to our hair. People would laugh, and my mother would roll her eyes. But he was actually kind of serious about it. Dealing with his condition now was frustrating – and heartbreaking. It had been four years since mother passed and nearly eight months since I made my father move in with us, until the family could figure out what to do with him.
I looked out the patio door. The dogs stood behind me, trembling. The only good thing about Rita was that it could end this heat wave and bring lots of rain. The bad thing is that folks on this side of the state wouldn’t take it seriously – like folks in New Orleans didn’t take Katrina seriously. Everyone had put too much faith in the levees. And the state government.
“We need to go,” my father said. He donned his gray hat and grabbed an old family bible.
By then, it was getting darker, and the rain was coming in stronger.
I guess we were the last ones out of the neighborhood. But, once we made it to the highway, it looked like we were also the last ones out of the parish. Then, a few cars and trucks made their way past us.
“Mother, let me drive,” Tara said at least twice. She sat beside me.
“No,” I told her. “I’m okay. We’re not going to stop just to switch seats.”
I first headed north, eventually passing under I-10, which sat above us like a parking lot, and then west. There was nothing for us east of Cameron. That part of the state was still a wreck. If we made it to East Texas, I hoped we’d be okay. Please, Jesus, I kept saying to myself. Get us out of here safely.
“We will,” I heard my father mumble.
It was getting darker and wetter. Traffic had thinned considerably. I stayed to the right. The constant thump of the windshield wipers and the heavy beat of the rain were the only sounds. I always loved rain at night. Who doesn’t? Eric often made love to me when it rained – okay, focus on the road, focus on the road.
A thin ribbon of blue-gray hovered in front of us; the remnants of the sun. And the one thing that kept me steady. If we could just make it to that light…just make it to that light.
And, through the dimness, James suddenly jutted his hand over my right shoulder. “What’s that?”
I looked at the dashboard – the engine light had come on. I felt my stomach drop into my pelvis. I didn’t need a hurricane named after me and I damn sure don’t need this shit!
“Watch your language,” my father said.
“Oh, my God!” Tara said, leaning over, almost far enough to block my view.
“Everyone, calm down!” I hollered.
The dogs moaned.
“Are we running out of gas?” Tara asked.
“No, I have a full tank,” I said.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter; a way of saying I was starting to get scared. I wasn’t good with cars. No one in the family was, except for my father and Eric. That’s why they got along so good. James hung out with them, not so much because he liked cars, but mainly so he could get away from the womenfolk.
The engine light remained on – glaring bright orange against the onyx backdrop of the dash. It was staring right at me; like a demon taunting me to do something.
Tara kept leaning over to look at it.
“Tara, would you please stop,” I said.
“But, mother, I’m worried about that,” she said.
“I know. But we need to keep going.”
“Let’s stop at the first gas station we see.”
“Oh, Lord, no! No gas station is still open around here.”
It was just after 6:00 p.m.
Then, a deep rumble came up from beneath the seats, and the entire vehicle began to shudder. Tara gripped the dashboard and looked towards me. I kept my eyes straight ahead; hoping no one would notice if every organ in my body failed at once. My hands were getting moist still holding onto that steering wheel.
The SUV kept rumbling and shaking. And then, started slowing down – while my foot was on the accelerator.
“Mother, just pull over,” said James.
“No!” I told him. “We need to keep going.”
“It’s not going to go much further!” He never raised his voice at me.
The thing was slowing down more and more. Then a loud clanging sound felt like the bottom of it had fallen out and took my sanity with it. I managed to veer off to the right, the windshield wipers still thumping madly. I was surprised to see a few more vehicles come up from behind and then, pass us. I flicked on the emergency lights. Oh, God, this can’t be happening, I screamed to myself.
“We’ll be alright,” my father muttered.
We’d managed to travel less than sixty miles from home and we were just north of I-10; sitting on the side of a state highway. I don’t even remember which one. “Oh, Lord,” I said. “This is just great.”
“Just turn off the engine and let it rest,” James said matter-of-factly. I could see him stroking his chin, like my father did when he went deep into thought.
“No, don’t turn it off!” Tara screamed. Her voice startled everyone and made the dogs bark. “What if it doesn’t start back up?!”
“Tara, do not scream like that!” I hollered.
The sound of the windshield wipers and the rain couldn’t drown out our voices.
“Mother!” cried Tara.
“Tara, stop!” I said. “Please, stop! Yelling isn’t gonna help anything. We’ll figure this out.” I caressed her shoulder, as she looked ahead. Her lips were trembling.
Deep inside my soul, mine were, too.
“We’ll be alright,” my father said.
Oh, Lord, I said quietly, please send your son, Jesus, to help us. I glanced through the driver’s side window, as a few vehicles rolled by, seemingly oblivious to our presence. I kept asking the good Lord to help us; to send his child to get us out of this mess. I don’t know why I kept saying it like that: please send your son, Jesus, to help us. But I did.
It was completely dark now. The blue-gray ribbon had fallen into the horizon ahead of us. The highway lamps on either side of the road bobbed nonchalantly; the light fading.
Tara’s left hand found my right one. She maintained her gaze straight ahead; lips still trembling.
Oh, Lord, please send your son, Jesus, to help us, I screamed into my mind. Oh, please, Lord! Help me get my father and my children out of here. My head began to hurt from hollering inside so much. Please send your son, Jesus, to help us.
I don’t know how long we sat there, alone in the darkness and the ever-increasing rain. At least we were far from the coastline. But, we had nowhere to go.
Lord, please send your son, Jesus, to help us. I let out a sigh and dropped my head down.
Then, I looked out the driver’s side window for what I thought would be the last time, before a wall of water would come rushing up and swallow us whole. And, through the blankets of water pressing against the glass, I saw a pair of headlights in the distance. They were high beams. It was the first vehicle we’d seen in what seemed like hours.
“Well,” I said, “who could this be?”
“Jesus,” I heard my father mumble.
Tara looked up into the rear-view mirror and then, turned around. “Oh, my God! Maybe they’ll stop to help us!”
“I hope so,” I said. I was tempted to jump out and flag them down; my hair be damned.
“Okay, mother,” James said, “if it’s a state trooper, just keep your hands on the steering wheel.”
“Thank you, counselor,” I smirked.
The headlights came closer.
I reached for the door handle. It was now or never. I had to jump out and try to make them stop.
The lights were upon us.
I unbuckled my seat belt.
Then, without warning, the headlights veered off to the right. Whoever it was, had pulled up behind us.
I jumped out, almost falling face down.
“Mother!” Tara screamed. But her voice was drowned out by the rain.
James jumped out of the other side. His sister screamed his name, but again, the rain snuffed her out.
Then, the vehicle – an SUV as large as mine – lurched out from behind us and back onto the road.
“Oh, Lord, no!” I yelled into the wet darkness.
The driver stop right beside me and lowered the passenger side window.
I gripped the doorframe. But, I was already out of breath.
The driver was a solitary young man, his bright green eyes grasping my attention. “Are you alright, ma’am?” he asked.
“No!” I yelled back. I hated to yell at strangers. “I don’t know what happened. This thing just gave out on me! I have my children and father – and my dogs – with me. We’re trying to get the hell out of here!”
“Okay, hold on!” he said. “Let me pull up in front of you.” He inched his vehicle forward, the emergency lights already glowing, and hopped out.
In a matter of minutes, we had everyone crammed into his truck. The back of it was filled with boxes. There wasn’t much room for our own belongings, but the young man even grabbed my box of family photos. I crawled into the back of my SUV and opened the safe, which held our birth certificates, social security cards, a .45 gun and bag of cash. I stuffed all of that into James’ gym bag, which he’d emptied immediately, as if he knew what I was thinking. The other things in the safe would have to stay. Most everything else in my SUV would also have to stay. I turned off the emergency lights, grabbed the keys and hopped into the young man’s vehicle.
Each of us was soaked. “Kind of a bad night,” he said with a chuckle and bright smile, as he moved back onto the road.
“I’ll say,” I told him. “Oh, Lord! I knew we should have left sooner.”
“Yea, me, too,” he said. “I was in Lake Charles on business.”
“Oh, okay. We live out further south.”
“I thought of heading up north. But, I thought, no – better head back to Texas.”
“Oh, okay. Is that where you’re from?”
“Thank you, sir,” Tara told him. “Thank you, thank you! We thought we’d be stuck there forever.”
“Oh, think nothing of it,” he said. “I’m glad I could get you out of here.”
“That makes seven of us,” James said.
We all laughed.
“I just had that thing serviced,” I said, wiping my face with a damp hand. “It’s only five years old.”
“Oh, I know how that goes,” the man said.
“Well, we – oh, I’m sorry! Where are my manners? My name is Rita. This is my father, William; my daughter, Tara; my son, James; and our dogs, Rocky and Bruno.”
“Pleasure to meet you, sir,” James said.
“Same here,” replied the young man. “My name is Heh-soos.”
“Say again?” I asked.
“Jesus,” my father muttered.
“Heh-soos,” the man repeated. “It’s Spanish for Jesus.”
“Oh, how nice.”