When the Hometown You Wrote About Is Changed Forever By Disaster
Scott Gould Wonders If the Floodwaters Will Ever Recede
Not long after I finished a book of stories set in Kingstree, S.C., my hometown drowned. The stories in the collection Strangers to Temptation take place in that town and on the river that runs through it, during the 1970s—back when I was a kid. In the fall of 2015, Kingstree sank under the Black River’s muddy floodwaters. Turns out, the town is still struggling to return to the surface. I just didn’t realize how much until I went back for a visit.
You’ll find Kingstree just west-of-center in Williamsburg County. By most measures, Williamsburg County is the poorest county in the state. The county got a little poorer and a lot wetter when the hard rains came. During a five-day period in 2015, beginning late on October 1, Kingstree was sledgehammered with a deluge of biblical proportions. A low-pressure area lumbered in from the west. In the east, Hurricane Joaquin churned up warm water when it came to a dead stop just off our coast. When those two things collided, the result was a firehose-dump of precipitation on top of South Carolina. The rain finally subsided on October 6, after nearly 25 inches had fallen in Kingstree. The Black River had turned ugly—swollen miles out of its basin, covering roads, destroying bridges, taking lives. It didn’t crest until nearly a week later, but really, the flood never went away.
The Black River may be the most valuable thing in that poor county. And it’s an important character in the book I wrote. In fact, in the cover art (a cool illustration by Maggie Chiang), a kid launches himself from a cement-buttressed bridge into the Black River where it skirts the edge of town. Just another slow-moving, cola-colored river wandering through another slow moving, Southern town. I decided to set all of the stories in Kingstree, on the banks of that river, because it’s a place I know well enough to tell some lies about. Years ago, when I first started writing stories about Kingstree, I never imagined one day that river would crest at a thousand-year high and put most of the town under water.
I finished the last of the stories just before those wet days in October. The Kingstree I wrote about was the town during the early 1970s. Sure, a lot of things were hitting Kingstree at that time: desegregation, post-Vietnam politics, Motown, post-Woodstock religion. And I put all of them in the book. But the flood hadn’t hit. You won’t find a flood in Strangers to Temptation. In fact, the river I remember when I was growing up was always shallow enough to walk across at Scout Cabin, sometimes just a dark trickle through the white sandbars.
I have to admit, when the book came out, I had this whole gauzy fantasy of returning to Kingstree a conquering literary hero, where the sun would shine special on a native son, and people would lap up every word in the book. I know, I know, I realize I’m an idiot, and that’s why they call those things fantasies. What I didn’t realize is that in my old hometown, the flood still lies there just out of sight, and you can never tell a story good enough to do battle with waters that might rise again.
But I had to go back, of course. I had borrowed (maybe stolen?) so much from the town to write the stories. Perhaps I wanted to return to the scene of my crimes. I stole the smell of the river, the feel of the sand bars, the swamp, the schoolyard, the streets where I had delivered papers four decades ago. And though I created completely fictional characters, I appropriated most of the popular, traditional surnames in the area, especially the Scotch-Irish “Mc” names: McClary, McIntosh, McFadden, McGill, McElveen. I felt they were as much a part of the setting as the water and the railroad tracks and the Esso station. When I finished writing and the book became real, I knew I needed to return to Kingstree—to talk with the people, to drive my old paper route, maybe even walk barefoot across the river at Scout Cabin. But I wasn’t prepared for what the town—and Black River—looked like.
The return to Kingstree came quickly on the heels of publication. The director of the local museum contacted me about reading at their historical society’s annual meeting. “We’ll be outside, I think,” he said on the phone, “but the forecast for Sunday afternoon is beginning to look like rain.” That should have been my first clue—the way he said “rain.” He gave it an edge, like a relatively new cuss word he was auditioning. “If it rains,” he said, “we’ll have to move things inside.” He wasn’t so much planning for me as he was planning against the rain.
I drove the three hours to Kingstree on a cloudy Sunday afternoon, early enough I could ride around town before the reading. Down the long straightaways of Highway 527, faded orange signs warned of still-washed-out side roads and bridges that collapsed almost two years ago. The sky was a little dark, but I had the windows down and couldn’t smell rain on the air. I did a little private anti-rain dance in the car as I sped past soybean and cornfields in bright, full-spring bloom. I drove directly to the bridge that figures prominently in two of the stories in the collection, not to mention the cover.
And that’s where the river first surprised me. It hadn’t rained in a couple of weeks; I knew that, but the level was weirdly high—not high enough to prevent a couple of jon boats from tying up under the bridge to fish—but more full than what I guessed was normal. The sandbars that usually showed up at the bend were far under the surface of the black water. I knew it had been much higher though, back in 2015, when it flowed over the top of the bridge and closed down the highway. But the Black River, at least the one I remembered as a kid, always moved low and quiet in its banks. I couldn’t imagine it ever roaring over the rails of this bridge. I was beginning to think that maybe I didn’t know what normal had become in my old hometown.
I drove next to the landing called Scout Cabin, along a road that sloped gently toward the river. I’d written about this specific stretch of road in the story “Joy to the World.” Scout Cabin (now a municipal park) was where I learned to swim, where a buddy and I pulled a disabled kid from the current when we were only twelve, where the more exploratory high school kids went parking. I remembered the whiteness of the sand on the beach where my parents planted their lawn chairs and watched my sister and me wade in the syrup-slow current.
Now, the houses at the head of the road—at the top of the slope a half mile from the river—displayed ugly watermarks high on their porches. Like a strata of rock in a deep canyon, the watermark designated a specific time, October 2015, the days when the river flowed uphill and filled living rooms and dens and garages. A number of houses looked abandoned. Some were in the midst of renovation. A few were for sale. I saw a man emerge from one with a surgical mask on his face and a hammer in his hand.
Scout Cabin wasn’t the same either. The water was up, exposing only a slice of beach. Not a sandbar in sight. And the beach was no longer white and sandy. Dark muck covered the entire thing. I sat on the hood of my rental car and watched the current go by. Like I said, it hadn’t rained for days and days, but the river looked as if it was perched on some sort of limit, some extreme, waiting for a reason to defy gravity and head uphill again. I didn’t notice the firetruck pull onto the small bridge that led into the landing. They aimed the firehose from top of the truck into the backwater slough that fed the river. I guessed they were emptying their tanks because they shot a constant, loud stream of whitewater into the swamp. It seemed to me there were a lot saner places to discharge a few hundred gallons of water. Anywhere but into a river already filled to its brim.
While I sat there, I began to think I had made a huge mistake, that coming back to Kingstree with a book about my somewhat idealized 1970s might be considered an affront to people who had to wear surgical masks to renovate their moldy houses, who had lost every grain of sand on their beaches. I felt the wind pick up while I debated what to read. It still didn’t smell like rain. Should I even mention the flood? Should I even talk about the river? Should I rip the covers off every book I had in the cardboard boxes?
At the reading, the museum director had already semi-surrendered to the dark clouds and moved all of the chairs inside. Forty or so people sat in the small front room of the historical house and listened to me read about a Kingstree four decades ago. They were wonderful and attentive, laughing in all the right places, nodding in others. I sat in a chair with my back to the front windows, and I thought how silly I’d been to worry. Then, a stiff breeze blew through the open doors, the kind that springs up on the leading edge of a storm. I glanced from my page and I could see people looking beyond me, craning a little to see if the rain had arrived.
After the reading, I spoke with men and women I had not seen since the early 1970s. We had plenty we could have talked about: our lives, our children, the chunk of years between us, my new book. But that’s when it happened, when I realized that all of our conversations would ultimately wind their way back to the flood, to the high water. That’s when I realized nothing would ever be more interesting or more important or more tragic than that flood.
“You know when you talked about Scout Cabin in that story? Our house is two bends downriver from there,” one man said to me. (People on the river give locations and gauge distance according to the number of bends on the Black River.) “We’re right on the river. The house is on ten-foot stilts, and the water came up eight feet into the house. Eighteen feet total.” He looked toward the sky outside. “We stood on the stairs and looked down and saw our furniture floating in the dining room. That’s a sight you don’t see much,” he said.
A woman told me how water flowed all the way into town. “That baseball field in your book?” she said. “It was under water. Nowhere for the water to go.”
They looked at the sky and talked about rain. How, in almost two years, the water had never completely gone away, how it was always there, just under the surface, and it didn’t take much rain for the flood to show itself again. “You see the fields on your way into town?” a man asked me. “They’re so green because of all the water. That’s something positive, I suppose.”
I became fascinated with the word “rain,” the way they said it. Like with the museum director on the phone, the word took on a new tone in their mouths. It was more than just water from the sky; when they said “rain,” it was like repeating the name of a battle lost in a bloody war. Rain meant smells and snakes and mold and mud. Rain meant waterlogged wood and crumbled bridges.
I was suddenly embarrassed by my collection of stories, my little nostalgic trip back to the 1970s. In the introduction to my reading, I commented on what a strange time it was then, in the early 70s. Now I realized the memories of that time (bad or good) probably got washed away in the flood of 2015. I imagined all of the people in that room saying to themselves, You think your narrator had problems back in 1972? He ain’t lived through our flood.
The stories about the flood—about fleeing houses in jon boats, about finding water moccasins in light fixtures, about mold so thick you could hear it grow—eventually came to an end, and we said goodbye, maybe for another four decades. By now, the wind had really picked up, but nothing had fallen yet. All the way to my hotel, I watched the sky.
The rain arrived the next morning, splattering my windshield on my way to visit a local school and talk about the Kingstree stories with ninth and tenth graders. The rain had only been falling for a quarter hour, but the parking lot at the school had already transformed into a pond deep enough to seep into your shoes. Each time a new wave of rain passed outside, the machine-gunning on the metal roof grew louder inside the cafeteria, almost drowning me out. That’s when the students looked away from me and stared at the ceiling. They didn’t seem worried, just a little annoyed. Maybe with my stories, maybe with the rain.
They weren’t really listening to me, to be honest. I wasn’t really listening to me. All I could hear was the rain on the roof. I wondered what the river looked like at the old bridge. Once the reading was over, I ran to my car to retrieve a copy of Strangers to Temptation for the woman who set up my school visit. I had to wade through a few inches of water to get to my rental. When I walked back down to her office, my shoes squeaked on the clean tile floors.
She thanked me for coming. “Sorry about the weather,” she said. She asked me if I’d had time to ride down to the river. I told her I’d gone yesterday, before the rain hit.
“That’s good,” she said. “We just can’t catch a break.”
I asked her what she meant. She said that for two years, the river had never had the chance to lower all the way into its banks. “The water table is so high. And every time it starts to really look like Black River again, it rains some more. I mean, like today.”
I think she was going to say something else, but her cell phone cut her off. A shrill alarm chirped, the kind you hear when there’s a tornado nearby. She picked it up and studied the screen, then shook her head. “Flood warnings,” she said. “Can’t catch a break.”
On the way out of town, every ditch I drove past overflowed with water. Yards were massive puddles. The creeks I passed were swollen and getting larger every few minutes. It hadn’t been raining that hard or that long, but the water was already up. The highway between Kingstree and Mouzon was already gathering water. I had to slow down so the rental car wouldn’t lose its grip on the road. By the time I hit the crossroads at Sardinia, I had the wipers on high, my foot on the break, and the green fields on either side of the road swam in water and mud.
Maybe I should have returned to the river. Parked and watched the water rise. But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. My memories were already a little waterlogged, and I didn’t want to sink the ones I had left. I no longer felt like the book of stories was a mistake, an offense. It was simply the way I saw things through the mind’s eye—which never has decent vision.
I pulled to a wide spot at the side of the road and put the car in park. I looked at the weather radar on my phone. Kingstree was surrounded by dark, menacing colors and more were on the way. I listened to the rain beat on the roof.
I hope a day will come when the river won’t rise. When people won’t scan the sky like sentries, and the word rain won’t make a bad taste in their mouths. Maybe then, it will be time for a new set of stories, about when the water went down and the sandbars came back. I hope I’m around to write some of them. I want to cross that river again.
Scott Gould’s Strangers to Temptation is available now from Hub City Press.