by Moshe Dann (April 2013)
Sam stood on the levee, water splashing against his high rubber boots, another useless sandbag at his feet. They had been trying to hold back the South Fork for days, but each time they’d built the levees higher the river crested again, spilling over the sides, threatening to sweep away everything in its path.
A soft rain continued to fall as it had for several days, soaking his sweat-stained jacket. Weak with exhaustion, his arms and legs aching, he tried to balance himself. Through the gray light of dawn, clouds heavy with rain, he could see other men standing along the banks, mostly farmers and ranch-hands from the area, shapes hardly visible in the semi-darkness. Trucks from the Army Corps of Engineers moved slowly back and forth, their headlights piercing the thick fog. ‘Gonna lose this one too,’ Sam muttered, wiping his face with his sleeve.
Across the road, where the highway turned for no reason at all, tired of its straightness, the lights of a gas station illuminated darkened buildings and pumps like an interplanetary spaceship. The cafe next door hadn’t opened yet. Perhaps the bridge had washed out, he thought, and the old woman who owned the cafe couldn’t get through, or her car might have skidded out of control into a mud swamp, burying her the same way her husband had died six years ago.
He thought about Maggie, a woman he'd met after his divorce, the warmth of her embrace, the jangle of her earrings and the small apartment he'd rented, stairs smelling of disinfectant, a broken railing that led to the second floor, the lamp on the small table in front of the window that faced the street, ugly beige nylon curtains, a yellow dresser with cigarette burns, the bed that creaked, remnants of someone else’s life. It had been almost two years since the divorce. An obsolete anniversary.
He’d considered moving farther away from the river, closer to the farm he'd bought when he got married, where he'd raised his family, but running a farm was difficult for an older single man. His ex-wife had taken the youngest children and moved to Albertstown several miles away where her sister lived. He missed the kids and the house he’d built, working the land, its fullness in him, a lover's sweet strength. Thirty years ago, he remembered when they'd first moved in, standing in front of fields spread out before him, waiting for him. Shit, he said and kicked one of the bags, watching sand spill out.
Rubbing his eyes, he tried not to remember the fights and her unforgiving silences. He wanted to sleep for days, to be hugged, to plow a field, run a harvester, ride down the road in his old pickup to the hardware store and rummage through shelves of tools, odds and ends, things to be mended and built. He wanted to be needed, to fix something that was broken, to do in his own way what had to be done. He wanted to hear, “I love you,” and curl up next to a good woman, to eat with his family at a table filled with platters of food, listening to his children talk to each other and afterwards sit on his porch and look out over what he'd planted. He shivered as a sharp wind hit him like a chain saw cutting into the belly of a tree.
Men shouted to one another, their voices scattering in the mist as they hauled sandbags from army trucks, wheels spinning in mud, covering everything around them with slime. “Damn,” he muttered and waited, as if there was something he could do against the force of the river. A Corps truck backed up the embankment near him, lights on its tail gates banging as two men stood in the opening holding leather loops that hung from the roof to steady themselves.
“Hey, wake up,” one of them shouted as the truck jerked to a stop. “You here alone?” Sam nodded as they began tossing bags out towards him. “We’ll try to send some help.” The truck slid away with a roar, hurtling into the thick fog. Sam dragged a bag through the mud and swung it into place. Water splashed over the top of the bags. ‘Nothing I can do,’ he said to himself.
“Nothing you can do…” he remembered his wife bitterly shouting. “You don’t know how to love!” She was erratic like a sudden electrical storm and when she didn’t get her way she lashed out against anyone around her. He felt helpless against her accusations, perhaps because sometimes it was true. Memories of her anger echoed like a dull pain in his back. He remembered his futile attempts to calm her down, which usually made her more upset.
“Get out,” she growled at him after the divorce and waited impatiently for him to leave. He held himself against the memory of that silent shriek that gutted him like the knife of a drunken butcher.
A hundred yards up river a section burst suddenly, water heaving swiftly over the top, breaking through a larger hole and gushing through the breech onto the narrow side-road. Men shouted to one another as they rushed to fill the gap.
“Won’t work.” Sam watched the river tear into the wall that they had repaired. Rain dripped down his neck. He remembered the way his youngest son had cried when he left, holding him tightly, smearing tears and words that would not comfort either of them.
“Get out of the way,” he heard someone scream. He looked around as several men slid down the embankment in front of him. A stream of water broke through the opening, cascading wildly into the ditch and covering the road. He could see flashing lights of police cars in the distance. “Sam,” he heard his name, “for chrissake, get the hell out of there.”
He jumped off the sandbags, slid down the embankment and turned to watch water swirl over the place where he’d been standing. A small group of men gathered near a truck packed with sandbags and tools. Exhausted, no one said anything. Someone passed around a bottle of home-made whiskey as they leaned wearily against their pickup trucks watching what they could not prevent.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Howyadoin?” Jim said. He’d worked the farm near Sam’s. They’d been friends until the divorce and then, like most of the others, drifted apart. Sam had moved into town and taken a job at a garage repairing cars and tractors. It wasn’t what he wanted to do, but it was steady work. “Good to see you,” he said, extending his hand and smiled warmly.
“Hey, Jim,” he replied. “How’re things going? The wife? The kids…?”
“'Bout the same, Sam. Ya know how it is.” Silence stretched between them like a storm in the open prairies, filling the horizon like rage with nowhere to go.
Sam remembered a Sunday dinner with Jim's family just after the divorce. Although he knew everyone at their table he felt like a stranger, an intruder to himself, missing his own family. After they'd finished eating he stood with Jim on the porch, fields of soft brown and green, the sweet smell of things growing. Running his hand along the wooden railing, he steadied himself among things he knew, a splinter of absence.
“It’ll be alright,” Jim said, putting his arm around him. “Takes getting used to it, though, don’t it?” There was distance in his voice Sam hadn’t heard before.
“Yep,” Sam answered, wishing he were somewhere else. Jim offered to take him into town, but Sam shook his head and started down the road. He looked back and waved, tears blurring his sight
He remembered the first time he'd walked past the diner where Maggie worked. She’d been married twice, had three grown kids; it showed in her face, her wide hips and her breasts and buttocks that drooped. But she was kind and possessed a wisdom born from pain.
“You’re just afraid,” she’d said to him, noticing that he was stirring his coffee too long. She rumpled his hair as if he was one of her kids. “Give it some time. Give yourself a chance.” She’d brought him an extra piece of pie "on the house." Grateful for small kindnesses, he was wary of what she offered. He watched the way she walked between tables, the sway of her skirt, the slope of her shoulders, the arch of her neck when she turned and smiled.
He remembered the night he had first taken her to bed. He’d been the last customer that evening. Having just moved into his apartment, he didn’t want to be alone. She was convenient, he thought, and maybe she snookered him. Loneliness is as hard as a mule’s back, she said when they left the diner together. Plain wisdom, he thought, isn't so bad, especially when you're mostly talking to yourself.
There was no place for them to go, except to ride out one of the roads between towns, past farms he recognized, old neighbors, some friends and a sky filled with stars. He suggested a drink and she knew what he wanted. They ended up in his room grappling with each other, hungry for a closeness that neither of them could offer. He called her name as if jumping off a cliff and she held him until they fell asleep. Awakened suddenly in the middle of the night, splotches of light floating across the ceiling, the sound of rock music from a car on the street below, he felt adrift, unable to hang on to anything, except her.
"Status quo isn’t the worst thing and maybe a whole lot better than what was before." She rubbed her face into his chest and then, moving away, propped herself up with a pillow. "Maybe you don’t have to figure anything out,” she said softly.
He looked at her in the semi-darkness, wanting to be held, the knots he'd carefully tied, undone.
“You’re fightin' so hard for what’s gone, for what you don't have, can't see what you've got.” She slapped him playfully; he held her hand. “Life sort of accumulates, in piles. Sometimes it’s filled with shit, but good things can grow there too.” She smiled. “Gotta go now, my friend. Work tomorrow. That’s life.” The rustle of clothing as she dressed, he didn't open his eyes when she kissed his forehead, covered him with a blanket and closed the door behind her.
The following night Sam found himself on her doorstep. She didn't seem surprised and invited him in. He stayed with her off and on for months. Being lovers was uncomplicated. She demanded nothing and since both of them worked late there was hardly time to talk. When he came into the diner she would greet him as usual, take his order and tease, “Anything else you want?”
He tried to avoid the clumsy remarks of friends and his own ambiguities. He liked Maggie's openness and her willingness to accept him as he was, but he was unsure of what he wanted from her, and from himself. Sometimes he felt trapped, confused, feeling that he was betraying her and something in himself as well. Struggling to protect his independence, he would walk the streets just to walk, ending up at Hank's gas station to play gin rummy or solitaire until the diner closed, filling loose ends with the pettiness of time. It wasn't that he didn't care for Maggie, but he longed for family and Maggie was no substitute. His kids didn't need him; he needed them. Maggie, he thought, came afterwards; maybe she needed him and maybe he needed her. Was that enough? Was anything?
Maggieee, he sighed aloud, as if trying to hold on against a storm that crashed against him, weariness pulling him out with tides of mistrust. Downstream a crew had begun to repair a breach in the levee. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand tasting salt and sand on his lips, barely able to make out the lights of the diner. He wondered if Maggie was working night shift and if she would stay with him when everyone else had left.
“Damn this rain," Jim slapped his pickup and then turned to Sam. “Gotta get some sleep. Gotta get home. The missus, she’ll be worried. Heard there was some damage at the nuke plant at the Point … Corps said they'd bring in some new men, but I don’t see anyone … Hell …"
Climbing into his truck, Jim waved as he drove away. Farther down the road, a few men got into their cars and drove off, half-skidding through the mud, horns blaring, headlights wavering in the drizzle.
Lucky to get out, Sam thought just as a torrent of water burst through the side of the embankment, toppling sandbags and opening a huge gap where he'd been standing. Water swirled around him as the river smashed through more levees. He turned to run, shouts around him, but wasn’t sure which way to escape. He slipped and fell, got up, covered with cold mud and tried to run again, but this time the force of the water threw him down, surged around him, dragging him along with debris. A huge log smashed into his back as he tried to hold on to something, but everything tore out of his hands as torrents of water swept him away. He tried to grab a wooden platform, but his hand caught on a sharp chunk of metal, ripping it open. His head banged against rocks as he tumbled into blackness.
“Didn’t think you’d make it,” he heard someone say as he opened his eyes and slowly focused on the hospital room. He looked around, barely moving his head, feeling as if his body was covered with weights. When he moved, spasms of pain twisted through his legs and back. Against the light from the window, he made out shapes. He felt a hand on his face.
“Howyadoin, buddy?” he heard.
“Maggie?” he tried to focus. “Where am I? What happened?” he whispered, his lips dry. “Maggie?” he moved his head towards her.
“Howdidya know?” he heard her laugh softly. “Thought it was a secret,” she said as if they were children playing.
“Alleycat,” he said, remembering a bedraggled half-dead piece of life that he'd found shivering in the hallway after a storm. He’d put a small container with milk outside, but when he returned, the cat had gone. Who would protect her, he wondered.
“What?” she asked, confused.
“Just an old alleycat,” he sighed and saw in Maggie's dark eyes a reflection of his face. A sharp pain shot through his body as he tried to move. “Could’ve saved her…” as he let himself fall back.
“Take it easy,” Maggie said. “You almost didn’t make this one.” She brushed the top of his head with her hand. “Want something?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, closing his eyes. “You,” he sighed, but even as he said that, he wasn’t sure why.
“What?” she bent her head closer, earrings dangling like bells, breasts pressed against his arm, the smell of her perfume tickling his nose.
“Is it over?” he whispered. She smiled and kissed his lips.
“We saved what we could,” she said, drawing the last word back inside, on the edge of silence, as if that could atone for what had happened. “And you,” she added, touching his nose. “That’s what’s important. Hey, I might even take you dancing with me one of these days.” She laughed. "You've got visitors," she said as he watched her turn to leave. Don’t go, he wanted to say.
Sam closed his eyes, following the sound of her footsteps. Holding his breath, he counted heartbeats as he did when he was a child, hiding among the dust and cobwebs beneath the wooden porch, dreaming of castles and wars, listening to distant calls for him to come home. Even alleycats, he thought, need a place to call home.
He heard his kids down the hall and moments later they burst into his room. He struggled to move, as they jostled each other for a place near him, asking questions he couldn't answer. His ex leaned against the doorway.
"Ask your mom to come in if she wants," he told the kids.
She walked slowly to the foot of the bed. "Glad to see you made it," she said. "The kids wanted to see you. They miss you. Rains' stopped and the river's down. Did some major damage, but it'll get fixed. Most things can be fixed, sooner or later. Just takes time."
He felt a thin quiver of longing and resentment and then took a deep breath. "Thanks for bringing them."
She nodded. The kids looked at both of them and smiled. Sam knew it wouldn't last long, but it was enough, a moment unstuck from its watch.
"Hey, what are you doing in here?" A doctor entered the room and asked them to leave.
He listened to their chattering, scattered crumbs of sound in the hallway as they left. A cold night wind battered the slightly opened window, banging a Venetian blind against the glass. From the window he could see cars parked near the entrance to the hospital. Jim was talking with his ex. They hugged. A kiss.
"So that's it." he said to himself. "Good old Jim." Sonofabitch.
The next day he was moved to a room by himself and a doctor came down from the state medical center to examine him. Tall, thin, his black heavy rimmed glasses seemed to stick out from his long white coat.
“MacArthur” he introduced himself in a deep voice. “Special projects”
“Am I going to be OK?” Sam asked.
“Sure,” he barely smiled. “Just a routine check.”
“Long way to come for routine,” Sam wasn’t convinced.
“Just taking precautions,” he said as he left.
Outside his room he spoke quietly to several staff. “Isolate him. We don't want it to spread. No one goes in or out without permission. Gloves, specially treated uniforms at all times. Bubble-wrap him if necessary. We're in touch with Disease Control in Atlanta and we should know in a day or two how serious it is. Or at least could be. But we're not taking any chances."
"Plague?" The word shivered in the corridors. "Shit," someone whispered.
"What if he gets out?"
"Unlikely. He's been injured and we've alerted the guard. Maybe he had contact with something from the nuclear plant. Not sure what. Anyway, unless someone helps him, he'll never get out on his own."
"And if it is… if he has…"
"He'll be isolated. If he doesn't die soon, he'll stay locked up somewhere. We don't want anyone to know. No panic. This is serious. The whole town could be clamped down. Maybe the county. They'll quarantine us too."
Hardly able to move, Sam listened and taking a deep breath, resigned himself to whatever would happen.
He was awakened in the middle of the night by a nurse wheeling a large office chair towards him, her white silhouette like a ghost near his bed. Suddenly he recognized her.
"Maggie," he whispered. "What're you doing here?"
"Peggy, the night nurse told me what happened. The doctors think you might have something serious. Some kind of contamination. Don't know."
"Yeah, I heard. But how'd ya get in? This place is guarded."
"Dressed in my waitress uniform. Dummies can't tell the difference from a nurse." She peeked into the corridor. "Okay, listen. We've got to get you out of here. I got my car by the service entrance down by the basement. I used to work here in the cafeteria, so I know the place. Let's go. Onetwothree. I'll help you into the chair, into the elevator and out the back way."
"Yeah, but what if I have…"
"Then we both have it. So shut up and move your ass."
He tried to shift his weight, grimacing with pain as she pulled his legs over the side of the bed and helped him into the armchair.
"Nice," she patted the upholstery. "Took it from the chaplain's office," she said as she covered him with a blanket and wheeled him towards the elevator. A single light glowed at the end of the corridor. Floor numbers lit up above them, and then in the sudden burst of light Maggie pushed him in, alongside pails and mops. When the doors opened, she eased the chair through the service door, into the parking area, sloshing through puddles to her car.
"Want me to drive?" Sam asked and smiled.
"Yeah, sure," she grunted, helping him in and then drove off.
"Where we headed?" he asked as she turned on to the highway.
"I've got family, Cherokees and some other folk up in the mountains on the other side of the canyon. Haven't seen 'em in years. Maybe they're dead. Maybe not. We'll see."
"It's desert out there. And no roads."
"Well, I can't walk. I can hardly move."
"Don't worry," she said. At the edge of town she stopped at Tony's All Nite Bar and came out a few minutes later with two burly guys.
"This is my friend I told you about," she said to them as they got in. Sam tried to turn around, but it was too painful. They sat in silence for nearly an hour, until Maggie turned off the main road and headed across rock flats to a creek where the hills began.
"Far as we can go," she said. "We need to carry you now." They helped Sam out, one on either side and carried him along a narrow trail between the shrubs up into the dark hills. "Careful," she said slipping in the mud. After a short walk they came to a wooden cabin and two sheds.
"Set him there," she pointed to a chair on the porch. "Take the car back and park it in the garage behind Tony's," she instructed. "And don't say nothing to nobody," she warned, handing them some bills and the keys.
"How ya feeling?" she asked, sitting on the stairs next to him, a grey dawn beginning.
"Not so good," he said, "and hungry."
"Yeah," she nodded, "Thought so," and reached into a bag. "Salami. A loaf of bread. I took what I had in the fridge. And beers," she pulled out two bottles.
"Not cold," he said and reached for one.
"Suffer," she teased as she got up and rapped gently on the door. "Anybody home?" She listened, rapped again and waited. The sound of shuffling of feet, like a whisper, hesitant as the door opened.
"Shit, girl, whatchyoudoin here?" a raspy voice leaked out. He looked at Sam. "Who's he? You runnin' from the law?"
"No, just need a place to hang out for a while…"
"Think you got a resort here? Who's he?"
"A friend, just a good friend. Sam this is Walt; Walt, Sam." They nodded. "You still cutting booze?"
"Okay, come on inside. Wasn't expecting company, but we can put a mattress on the floor. We'll work things out in the morning."
They helped Sam inside and placed him on a straw mattress.
"Help yourself," he pointed to a jug on the table. "I'm goin’ back to sleep," and swayed into a room in the back.
"Who's that?" Sam asked as Maggie lifted the jug and drank.
"My ex," she said wiping her lips. "Have some," she held it for him. "It'll be good for you," and sprawled next to him on the floor. The last thing he heard was her snoring.
Sam awoke to the sound of wood chopping outside and raised himself to the window. Maggie and Walt were talking between powerful blows of splitting logs. They began to argue, Maggie stood in front of him with her hands on her hips as he swung the ax over his head. Stepping back suddenly, she seemed part of a dance as Walt moved towards her, the ax glistening for a moment above them and then hurtling down at her feet. She grabbed the handle with both hands and swung it around, catching him in the chest with the blade. Blood spattered her face and her rumpled uniform. Stunned, he seemed to call out to her, his mouth open, a silent scream, and then one hand on his chest, the other reaching towards her, he took a step and collapsed.
Standing over his body, Maggie leaned on the ax. Shoulders drooping, she shivered and wiped her face with her sleeve. She turned and walked back to the cabin, dragging the ax and left it propped against the wall.
The door creaked as she closed it and slipped the lock into place. "What happened?"
"He said he'd rape me or kill me. He doesn't take 'No' for an answer." She sighed and dropped into a chair. "He had it coming," and took a sip from the jug. "Didn't want to…thought it would be okay to come here … maybe I should have known better …" she moved her head back and forth. "Sonofabitch," she repeated slowly several times and then buried her face in her hands. "Didn't want to…" she whispered and then suddenly sat up straight and looked at Sam. "No," she said clearly, carefully. "I wanted to, I wanted to for a long time."
Sam closed his eyes and lay back on the mattress, remembering the way she'd bent her knees and swung with the ax's weight, her arms and the handle glistening in an arc of sunlight.
By the afternoon, flies began to swarm around Walt's body, a pool of blood discoloring the ground. Maggie washed the stains from her uniform and put on Walt's oversized shirt and pants that made her look like a child, rolled up sleeves and cuffs, her hair in a pony tail.
"You lived here?" Sam asked. "With him?"
Maggie looked out of the window and nodded. "Yep, some years back, after we got married, well, not formally, you understand. It was like that." She stopped, as if submerged. "I was a slave, his slave; he beat me. Finally, I just left. He came after me, but then I'd taken up with the deputy sheriff, so he couldn't do nothing, and that was it. Never heard from him again. We never even said goodbye. A bad man. He was a bad man."
She lit a fire in the wood stove, put a pot of beans on to cook and went outside. For a long time she stood alone, watching Walt's body and then, grabbing his feet, she dragged him up into the hills. When she came back the beans were almost ready.
"Coyotes will take care of him," she said, stirring the pot.
Clouds darkened, the air suddenly became still, as if a heavy blanket pulled across the sky, thundering in the distance. The first drops of rain spattered the ground and then exploded into a heavy downpour, splashing across the yard and the place where blood had soaked into the earth. Rain pounded the roof throughout the day and all night.
In the morning Maggie walked out to the porch. "Feel the wind," she said, looking out towards the hills, her shirt flapping at the edges. The sky was light grey, but the rain had stopped. Lifting her face, she stepped off the porch and opened her arms.
"Statue of Liberty?" Sam called out to her. She laughed and went back inside, knelt beside him, opened his shirt and kissed his chest, the damp smell of her hair, clothes that were not hers, the heaviness of her breasts against him, the delicacy of her mouth. Sam felt taut, caught in an undertow, his skin warm against hers, glowing as if translucent.
On the third day, they were awakened in the morning by a loudspeaker. "Sam! Maggie!
We know you're in there."
"Deputy," she sighed. "Shit."
"Come on out. We need to take you in. Now!"
Maggie went into Walt's bedroom and loaded his shotgun. She opened a window and shot a round in the air just as someone appeared at the gate, and then another into the ground, kicking up the earth around him.
"Hey, ease up," a voice from a bullhorn. "Don't be stupid. You could kill someone."
"Jim," Sam muttered under his breath.
"Look, we don't want no trouble. We come to help. We're just gonna send up someone to talk to you."
"Don't want to talk," Maggie shouted back, reloaded and fired another round into the air.
"Ok, have it your way. Here's the doc from the state. The nuke plant at Hawkeye Point was badly damaged. A lot of …contamination …" A different voice interrupted sharply, an unfamiliar accent.
"Hey, in there. Sam, it’s MacArthur. You've got some kind of disease. We don't know exactly what it is, but you came into contact with some radioactivity, probably from the nuke plant. Something in the water, too. It’s toxic. The tubes of your blood tests at the hospital glowed in the dark. You can't be in contact with anyone. Your sweat, your saliva, tears, body fluids, they're all deadly. You need to be isolated."
Words echoed in the silence around them. Maggie leaned against the door. "I wanted to rescue you," she said softly. "I wanted to rescue myself." She paused. "And here I am."
"I know," Sam replied. "Just about right."
"Well," she began, unbuttoning her shirt, "whaddaya say, Sam?" He smiled.
"Maybe we should have some kind of ceremony," she suggested. "A party. After all, something to commemorate, to honor this … opportunity … A drink, to pollution, to afflictions and curses … to you … and me …"
Moving close to the window, Maggie shouted, "We'll give you one damn minute to get the hell out of here," and shot off another round.
They waited until they could no longer hear the sound of trucks.
"They'll be back. There won't be another time," she said as she pulled off his clothes. The jangle of her earings.
"This is the last time…" Their bellies touched. "Whatever you've got, Sam, it's in me too."
A soft breeze rustled through the trees. They paid no attention to the sound of an army helicopter hovering above the cabin.
"Sunset's beautiful," she whispered as they held each other against the burning explosion of light.
The author is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.
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