The stuff oozed between my fingers. Gritty blackness gumming the lines of my palm. It felt potent. Some elemental memory of what it had once been like to move, run, live. Gull cries piercing the humid air. The waves crashing brown on the sand. I pinched the tar ball between my fingertips. Launched it as far into the ocean as I could. You sons of bitches.
Glass shattered. A hoarse GODDAMNIT roared from the foyer. George had been scrubbing the salt tarnish from a chandelier that must have been old in his great-grandfather’s time. I’d stepped over his bucket of brass polish, cloth, rubber gloves.
“It’s not so bad. We can get another one.”
“You think they make these anymore Ellen? Who makes these?”
“You can’t get upset over every little thing.”
“The damn thing shouldn’t have fallen. I can’t replace that. We don’t make anything anymore. We’re too busy destroying our own country to make anything anymore!”
Squatting in the sand, watching the sickly color of the sunset roll across the waves. The rotting shoreline. Brown measles strung across the beach. How many arguments with Celeste before she finally left? I’d rather be anywhere else, she’d said. Katrina was the best thing that ever happened.
At dinner, Ellen made an étouffée. Thin shrimp straggling through my rice. I paused with one on my fork. Ellen flushed with something like embarrassment. But it hadn’t been my idea for the spill. George cut tracks across his plate, thinking impotent thoughts. He chewed with a stubborn rattle of his jowls, black horn rims glimmering.
The phone rang. “Oh, from FEMA!” Ellen curling her finger around the cord, then wilting. “Yes, we’ve seen it here too. No. Yes. Oh, from Maine? I’ve never been that far North.”
Clipboards and ties passing along the shore. If you stood on the back porch, you could see a tattered banner on the concrete shell of the first few floors. Luxury Beach-Front Condominiums. Delivering February 2010! I’d thought that line would add punch. People liked to know deadlines, when they had to commit.
“You came for business?” Ellen asked.
“You’ve been spending all day out on the beach.” The tines of George’s fork at eye level. “What happened?”
“The business dried up.”
A BP crew swept down the sand in a new pickup. Rivers of them, from Texas, London, all around the Gulf. They stayed in their own custom-built trailers. On the news they talked about hundreds of millions spent on the cleanup. A woman with a green blazer had come and pressed a rake and bucket into my hand. “To help you do your part,” she’d said. Ellen offered her a glass of sweet tea.
The phone rang.
In the morning I woke to George’s ladder banging against the brick beside my window. They’d given me the top room and the key to the dry-rotted kiosk where they’d rented umbrellas and chairs. A group of volunteers in orange vests and white coveralls, shovels slung over their shoulders.
“Indonesia, Haiti…” one of them listed.
“I just don’t know how they’ll come back.”
“Where do you think they’ll send us next?”
“Chile. They still need a lot of help down there.
The men dwindled on the horizon. Cell phones on their belts. Their hotel rooms paid for. George came out later and saw their bootprints. I could watch his mind, wondering where this group went. Why they didn’t stop at his beach. Or, at least, for lunch.
“What do we need them for George?”
The sun swam in his glasses. “You come here to give up?”
The phone rang four, five times a day.
The somewhere else people. The Yankees with deep rings of sweat under their arms. The Texans, with their own twang and roll when they talked about capping and skimming. Bankers calling from St. Louis, telling me there was nothing they could do. Speeches about disaster relief, redevelopment loans, aid applications. And then they packed up and left.
George up on his ladder, chipping away at bolts driven into the brick. Turtles washed up and baked in the sun. Everywhere the smell of decay. The gulls circling, feasting.
The phone rang. “There will be a fifty dollar charge,” Ellen said. “I’m sorry, but it’s our new policy.” She bunched the blue flowers of her dress in her free hand. “Well I know about the spill, but we’ve got a business to run.” She left the phone off the receiver. I picked it up, hours later. The dial tone hiccupping in the empty house.
The breeze was still hot, an hour after sunset. Slick humidity and damp skin on the walk back from the bar. Seaweed broil, the briny rot from the sand. They were sitting on the glider, holding hands. I could hear George from the kitchen. “We’ll get through this.” Over and over.
They can ruin you and walk away. All we’re good for is being left behind.
On television they showed the underwater camera. Gleaming metal in the deep blue. The well cap holding.
“Well,” George’s voice wavered.
“We could use some help, getting this place ready.” Ellen, gray hair curled on her shoulder.
“It will pick up.” George’s eyes magnified, hopeful.
The phone swam in front of me.
That night I stayed drunk. Stumbled up the steps and fell into the soft bed. Heat lightning bursting through the curtains. The sheets sticking to my damp chest like a shroud. I imagined girders, concrete. Skeletons stirring with life. They fixed it, like they rebuilt the city. For the cameras and the news stories, and then they would move on. Locusts, hunting for the next disaster.
Someone had put a flag on top of one of the stagnant cranes. Every day I’d watched the reds and blues burn away in the sunlight. What this country did to us. What it asked.
In the morning I left the key on the front desk. Disappeared, like everyone else.