Five days since the levees broke. I sit cross-legged before the television set in my swamp-green painted room, watching CNN on mute, searching only for Carl’s white cotton socks pulled up high, size 13 feet. In the day-to-day, I neglect serious consideration of any newspaper article except to scan for names and faces of my beloveds—Michael, Carl, Ivory, Karen, Melvin, Brittany.
Imagine this being all that you can do. It is as paltry as it sounds.
They finally come get us, some white guys from Texas. They pulled up in an airboat to the pitch of the roof.
Seven days had gone by.
Carl was deposited on the interstate right before the point where the bridge rose. This was not the quiet of the roof. Carl saw many people he knew, people from all over, out of the East, out of the Lower Ninth Ward, out of the Desire Projects.
Army trucks were taking people from the bridge to the Convention Center, which had become an impromptu shelter, but there were the old and infirm who needed to go first and Carl was in good health with legs he could use. Mindy and them wasn’t on no leash. I had some Adidas tennis on, but they was so tight. I took the shoestrings off and made leashes.
He took the dogs on a long walk to the Convention Center, joined by several men, bending his six-foot-three-inch frame down to better grasp the strings. From New Orleans East, they walked the five miles to Martin Luther King Boulevard, then back around to the Convention Center, a long route to avoid Orleans, St. Bernard, and Claiborne Avenues, all of which were underwater.
The walk took all day. But Carl never went inside the Convention Center itself. He stayed on the perimeter watching the clamor. For him, nighttime was not for sleep: a certain time of the night dogs would run loose from sleeping owners, sprinting through the dreaming masses.
Harry Connick Jr. appeared with TV cameras and buses showed up.
I wasn’t worried about getting on no bus, Carl said, opening another beer. Look like a movie, like the world coming to an end, people was just running. People just trying to get the fuck out of Dodge.
After days as part of a growing crowd that seemed to go nowhere, Carl set out from the Convention Center with two men he knew from the Grove. They headed toward the interstate where they found a boat with paddles sitting at the base of the ramp at Claiborne and Orleans Avenues, close to where Carl normally spends Mardi Gras day.
Whoever left it must have kicked ass. I said, Let’s take that mutherfucker and get the fuck.
Me and the two dudes pattlin.
The men paddled down Orleans away from the Convention Center, away from Canal to Broad Street.
The water was so high you couldn’t even much see Ruth Chris Steak House.
Carl and the two men moved through the watery city, one boat among many, down Broad Street sand back down Canal before night.
You thinking that’s mannequins floating by you, but when you get by it that body smell so bad, it then swoll up big. Man that ain’t no mannequin, that’s a dead body.
Now water leaking in the fucking boat. One dude got a bucket throwing it out, two of us pattlin.Can the body feel the crossing of a state line, even if the mind does not grasp? Was Grandmother’s forgetfulness like drinking from the River Lethe?
They headed down Canal Street toward the Regional Transit Authority building where Monica worked, but by then it had already been evacuated. That night the men stayed in the boat, tethered to the massive metal rollup gates in front of the building’s parking lot, stranded cars and buses just inside.
Just like we were fishing somewhere. We just sit up in the boat all night smoking cigarettes and talking. Nodding off, fighting sleep.
That next morning they woke to the same watery city as the day before, but now there were boats with motors. That was the sound that woke them.
From the boat, Carl tried to see the next stage of things. The Dome—wasn’t nobody moving out. Convention Center, same. So now we all the way up Broad Street and Tulane. Now, what you think is there? What’s there, Mo?
I hesitate. It’s a geography test. I don’t know.
Orleans Parish Prison where inmates—some of whom were evacuated four days after the water rose to their chests—waited on top of the Broad Street Overpass in orange jumpsuits. Carl pulled his boat up to the bridge where other boats idled.
After the helicopter took all of the inmates, Carl headed to the top of the bridge instead of milling about at the foot with the others.
Helicopter was a big ole sucker, bigger than this damn house here. They always land at work, but I never rode on none of them hard-riding bastards. I say hey to the dude who was flying, Man where you taking us.
It was a rough ride. Mindy and Tiger bucked and pulled. Tiger was Mindy’s son and they acted it.
I’m home free now. I’m there now, said Carl, placing himself in the landscape. He knew exactly where he was: Int’national Airport.
Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport.
A yellow school bus full of ailing nursing home patients made its way down the highway, which highway? Van Gogh said yellow is the color of divine clarity. Was Grandmother sitting on a seat, was it plush, was it fake leather like on school buses where when you sit the air releases, or was she lying on pillows on the floor? What of her arthritic knees? Were they hurting at all, did she say a single word, did she sing like normal, did she look around, did she have a flash of clarity?
That is the thing I want to know: Did she have a moment of lucidity in her Alzheimer’s-ridden mind? Can the body feel the crossing of a state line, even if the mind does not grasp? Was Grandmother’s forgetfulness like drinking from the River Lethe? Did it cast her into oblivion, I wonder, erase the landscape of her former life, and is this the only condition, this unknowing, under which one should cross over state lines, leaving your familiarity behind? Is this the only way to properly leave home?
September 29th–October 2nd, 2005
St. Rose, Louisiana
Before the Water, I had six siblings outside of Louisiana and five in or near New Orleans. In the After, there were two siblings in Louisiana; neither resided in New Orleans. Now ten people had to fly back home instead of six. Most all of us came for Grandmother’s funeral, as if on pilgrimage. Grandmother’s burial would be the last time for a long time that this many of us—ten of twelve children—were gathered together in the same room.
Michael arrived from San Antonio where he had already found work as a life insurance salesman, his days spent driving up and down roads where “it would stop being pavement, start being dirt, and then turn into water,” for US Credit Union, which “wasn’t government, but sounded like it.”
Byron and Troy and Karen and Herman drove from Vacaville together, 36 hours straight. They retrieved Darryl from his home in Southern California along the way.
Grandmother’s funeral marked Darryl’s second time back in Louisiana after leaving New Orleans eight years before when I was a senior in high school. It was my second time seeing him and talking to him since, the first time that I could remember meeting and holding his eyes.
Our eldest brother, Simon Jr., drove the 13 hours from North Carolina.
Lynette and I flew in together from New York City.
All of us children, which is who we adults became in the presence of our mother, stayed together in Grandmother’s house. This was the house that used to receive us regularly on weekends, for holidays and birthdays, for celebrations of all kinds. It was not lost on us that Grandmother’s house, which she had bought and intended as a family home, was the very place that would keep us now.
Michael kept everyone fed. When visitors from the neighborhood stopped by to pay condolences he always asked, “How y’all flied through the storm?”
We wanted to memorialize Grandmother in the newspaper with an obituary, calling the Times-Picayune frantically, day after day, at every mundane moment, on our way to the grocery store or seconds after pulling into the driveway, just before getting out. But the line stayed busy; no one ever answered.
Far fewer people came to Grandmother’s funeral than would have if an obituary had run. My mother mentioned this over and over. It felt wrong to me, too, not to have Grandmother’s death in newsprint for someone other than those of us in the family to know or for someone to dig up years later, just as I have found evidence of my father’s having lived—and died.
The evening before Grandmother’s burial, I stood watching my brothers from the hallway of Grandmother’s house. They paid me no mind, or they did not know I was there. Byron pushed against Darryl, his arms making an X across his chest, the movements less brusque, more tender.
Michael was drunk and outside the house peering through the glass doors into the garage, my brothers pretending not to see. Carl, already a twig, was gaunt eyed, socks to his kneecaps, his face hiccupped in an ongoing laugh. I can still hear him laughing at everything, Simon Broom’s shadow.
Suddenly a sound—deep, guttural—rang out through the house.
The noise seemed to come from someone who had not spoken for a long while. The whole house ran to the back bedroom. Mom was on her knees pulling the sheets down off the side of the bed. None of us children had ever heard her cry.
October 3rd, 2005
New Orleans East
Those of us who wanted to see the Yellow House crowded into Byron’s car for the drive to New Orleans East. It felt like an out-of-state trip; there were roadblocks everywhere. But because Carl had returned to work at NASA not long after the storm, his work ID procured us entry. When we arrived at the checkpoint on Chef Menteur, Carl pressed his work badge up against the window. “I got a Michoud badge,” he said to the officer through the closed window. “I’m legal.”
Even with windows rolled up, the post-Water smell (chitlins, piss, stale water, lemon juice) forced its way through the air-conditioning vents. We drove on, along Chef Menteur Highway, where instead of working traffic lights there were stop signs planted low to the ground. Like flowers. The actual flowers were now dead. We drove past Lafon nursing home where Mom used to work.
The lot was full of abandoned cars, the building empty inside. I don’t remember the rest of the sights on our way to getting there. Remembering is a chair that it is hard to sit still in.
We arrived at Wilson Avenue and made the right turn.
Mom wore a white surgical mask. I glimpsed her through Byron’s front windshield, her body parallel to the Yellow House, facing Old Gentilly Road, her shoulders slightly tilted, sunk in the buttery leather front seat, a hand cradling one side of her face. We, her children—Byron, Lynette, Carl, Troy, and me—jolted to the house.
Birds were now living in our childhood home. When we approached it with its broken-out windows, they flew away, en masse.
The house looked as though a force, furious and mighty, crouching underneath, had lifted it from its foundation and thrown it slightly left; as though once having done that it had gone inside, to Lynette’s and my lavender-walled bedroom and extended both arms to press outward until the walls expanded, buckled, and then folded back on themselves. The front door sat wide open; a skinny tree angled its way inside.
And the cedar trees: once majestic, at least 25 feet tall, and full of leaves that I hid in as a small girl. An impossibility now, for the sole surviving one was puny and on the way to dead.
We poked our heads through the house’s blown-out windows—peered into the living room through the wide-open frames. Walked along the side and stood in front of the new entrance, a fourth door designed by Water. The house had split in two, the original structure separated from the later addition that Simon Broom, my father, built.
On the original section of the house, the yellow siding hung off like icicles, revealing green wood underneath. That was the house of my siblings, a green wooden house, not the Yellow House that I knew.
We did not enter, even though the house we knew beckoned. We stayed outside, looking through the one big crack.
Somehow, standing as we were—spaced perfectly apart—made me think of the time, a few days before Grandmother’s burial, when I wandered through Providence Memorial Cemetery with Lynette and Michael. It was an impromptu trip. Michael said he knew where our fathers were. “I got two daddies in one cemetery,” he bragged as we turned into the graveyard on Airline Highway.
Michael gestured toward one of the only trees in sight. Webb, his birth father, was buried over there, he seemed to know. It was a month after the Water; everything was still ruined. There was no grave tender to ask.
We walked and walked. Over to the tree then past the tree to the rows of graves beyond it.
“My daddy not buried too far from your daddy,” Michael kept saying. It was strange, his separating us out as siblings. It felt unnatural.
When we did find the men, they were nowhere near where Michael thought, but they were close together in the ground. I had never seen the burial spot of my father, Simon Broom. I learned his birthday—February 22nd—for the first time on that day and saw that he had died on June 14th, 1980.
The three of us stood apart saying nothing whatsoever. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do.
At the cemetery that day, there was little to look at, unlike this moment outside the Yellow House where there was too much detail for the eyes to make sense of: The white plastic art deco chandelier dangled from a white cord in the girls’ room. A pair of Carl’s pants in a dry cleaner’s bag hung from the curtain rod. The white dresser that was painted over so many times that the drawers were permanently shut, the dresser Lynette and I used to pose in front of, where I would make rabbit ears behind her Jheri-curled head.
I felt that old, childish shame again. I did want the Yellow House gone, but mostly from mind, wanted to be free from its lock and chain of memory, but did not, could not, foresee water bumrushing it. I still imagined, standing there, that it would one day be rebuilt.
Carl needed to go back to Monica’s house, from where he escaped the flood, for his weed eater, he announced after we were settled back into the car. At Monica’s, Carl entered through a wooden fence, crumpled like an accordion. I photographed his every movement as if to save him from disappearance. Mom kept yelling from the car: Just leave the damn thing, Carl. I’ll get you another one. Come on now, boy.
Her voice was resigned, muffled by the mask.
But Carl always does what his mind wants. Next we saw, he was up on the roof walking with a loping stride.
Picture a man set against a wide blue sky, wearing a bright-red Detroit Pistons hat, blue jean shorts that fall far below the knee, and clean blue sneakers. In the first frame, he is bent down, holding himself up by his hands, entering the escape hole, a rugged map carved through the roof, feet first. By the second frame he is shrunken to half a man. In the last frame, we see only his head. Then he disappears inside.
Carl reappeared holding a weed eater in one hand, a chain saw in the other.
Now he was pointing at the hole in the roof. He was performing, his movements quick, wild but measured; he was earning his nickname. Rabbit. We formed a semicircle, looking up at him from the ground, as if poised to catch him.Water will find a way into anything, even into a stone if you give it enough time. In our case, the water found a way out through the split in the girls’ room.
Come on, boy. Carl, come on now, get your ass down now. Leave that goddamn mess behind, my mother was still yelling. It was rare to hear her curse, but still we stayed watching Carl. None of us obeyed her command.
We were here, it was apparent, as witnesses to what Carl had come through. To retrieve, in some way, not the weed eater but the memory.
Water entered New Orleans East before anyplace else. On August 29th, 2005, around four in the morning, water rose in the Industrial Canal, seeped through structurally compromised gates, flowed into neighborhoods on both sides of the High Rise. But that was minor compared with what would come two hours later when a surge developed in the Intracoastal Waterway, creating a funnel, the pressure of which overtopped eastern levees, destroying them like molehills.
Water rushed in from in the direction of Almonaster Avenue, over the train tracks, over the Old Road where I learned to drive, through the junkyard that used to be Oak Haven trailer park, and into the alleyway behind the Yellow House, which may have served as a speed bump.
The water pushed out the walls that faced the yard between our house and Ms. Octavia’s. The standing water that remained inside caused the sheetrock to swell. Water will find a way into anything, even into a stone if you give it enough time. In our case, the water found a way out through the split in the girls’ room.
“Water has a perfect memory,” Toni Morrison has said, “and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
The foundation of the Yellow House was sill on piers, beams supported by freestanding brick piles. Not an uncommon way of building in Louisiana, this foundation did not stand a chance against serious winds and serious flooding. The autopsy report testifies that our sill plate was severely damaged, that the connection was “pried or rotated.”
It could be said, too, an engineer friend told me, speaking more metaphorically than she was comfortable with, that the house was not tethered to its foundation, that what held the house to its foundation of sill on piers, wood on bricks, was the weight of us all in the house, the weight of the house itself, the weight of our things in the house. This is the only explanation I want to accept.
The house contained all of my frustrations and many of my aspirations, the hopes that it would one day shine again like it did in the world before me. The house’s disappearance from the landscape was not different from my father’s absence. His was a sudden erasure for my mother and siblings, a prolonged and present absence for me, an intriguing story with an ever-expanding middle that never drew to a close.
The house held my father inside of it, preserved; it bore his traces. As long as the house stood, containing these remnants, my father was not yet gone. And then suddenly, he was.
I had no home. Mine had fallen all the way down. I understood, then, that the place I never wanted to claim had, in fact, been containing me. We own what belongs to us whether we claim it or not. When the house fell down, it can be said, something in me opened up. Cracks help a house resolve internally its pressures and stresses, my engineer friend had said. Houses provide a frame that bears us up. Without that physical structure, we are the house that bears itself up. I was now the house.
Excerpted from The Yellow House. Used with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press. Copyright © 2019 by Sarah M. Broom.