There was a moment, right before the man’s plane hit the water, when time behaved strangely. That it did so didn’t surprise him—he’d once flipped in a canoe and nearly drowned as a boy, and his memory of the experience had been like a cascade of photographs spread out on a table, the details poking out at different angles each time he looked at them. His canoe had slipped over in less than a second, but he could still describe the halo of sun through the cypress boughs. The mulchy, bitter burn of duckweed in his nostrils. The tiger-striped legs of the banana spider he’d leaned over to avoid.
That he’d frozen up wasn’t surprising either. Losing control of an aircraft was terrifying. He had earned his commercial license that same year, was still in his first month with the company, had rarely flown alone in foul weather. He’d only just registered the squawk of the stall warning when he was suddenly entombed in sound. The alarms overlapped in the cockpit, high and low, punctured by snare-drum bursts from Nassau Island Tower Approach, a thousand decibels pressed into a long, oscillating wail.
What surprised him was the clarity that came when his plane crossed into an unrecoverable spin. This was a separate space. It was a wick of time that bridged the bracing with the letting-go, and he recognized it for what it was so intuitively that the noise and the lights and the chaos around him simply dropped out of view. And there, instead, was a time capsule he’d buried with his 3rd grade class. The kids had collected trinkets and toys, and with them, notes to their future selves. Some were lists of crushes, catalogues of best-friends, and his, a confession that he’d triple-folded so his teacher wouldn’t be able to read it. The capsule was then sealed and buried beneath the garden behind the recess yard. Or perhaps, it was buried at sea. Or it was buried in the coal-colored water that was rushing up to meet him, for here was that capsule opening once again, now below him, now around him, and within them both an echo of voices, one of which was his own.
His confession: when he was young, he’d dream of disappearing. Like walking without footprints across wet concrete, or leaving a crowded room without anybody noticing. Once he was alone he’d get lonely, and then he’d dream of warm returns, of clingy hugs from his mother and confidential admissions from the older kids in school that his absence was itself a presence, something everyone felt. He wanted to be there but not there. He wanted it both ways. Sometimes, while the cat prowled back and forth through the flap in the screen door, now inside, now out, he’d wonder if the ghosts of dead relatives watched over the spaces where they used to live. Then he’d stare long and hard at the high corners of the room and think twice about picking his nose.
That cat was named Batman, born to a stray they’d given shelter to after his father left home. His mother had called the stray Miss Woo. She left bowls of water on the back porch, along with little cans of Fancy Feast the roaches would swarm at night, but Miss Woo was no more governed by Fancy Feast than she was by his mother’s sing-song calls from the porch after dinner, Miss Woo, Miss Woo, come home little girl.
Batman was the sole survivor of the litter, and after she’d given birth, Miss Woo came less frequently, then seasonally, then not at all, until the boy and his mother would only imagine spotting her in the yard amongst the azaleas when the afternoon shadows spread across the garden. Batman fattened up, stalking roaches that slipped through the AC vents. The boy’s mother gained weight too. She grew morose, rolled her own cigarettes and left the loose tobacco on the table. A carousel of men moved through her life, and the boy learned to avoid them by constructing little escapes that orbited further and further out before swinging back home.
When the hurricane came they rode it out with Hugh, the man his mother was dating at the time. The boy liked Hugh. Hugh had skin the color and thickness of belt-leather, and had taken an early retirement to become a beekeeper. Together, Hugh and the boy had scaled the eaves and gutters of the house, wiring storm shutters closed and cross-taping windowpanes. From the roof they watched a parade of cars heading out Carrolton Avenue towards I-10. Hugh let the boy take drags on his cigarette until the first squall lines rolled over the city and the cars dissolved into a winding red glowworm in the dark.
Later, they sat in the living room next to a canoe Hugh brought over from his place. Hugh told a story about paddling on the Big Bogue Chitto, about the river coming up suddenly in the night, about hitching his boat to the trunks of trees as black water hissed and sucked through the branches around him. The boy’s mother told Hugh to stop scaring everybody. The power went out. The house moaned. The boy held Batman in his lap, sitting cross-legged in the bow of the canoe, feeling the claws knead his skin, little flashes of pain that bobbed like lights on a dark ocean.
When the storm passed, they inspected the damage. A tree was down, some shingles had pulled off the roof, but the house was intact. They grilled all the meat from the freezer and burned deadfall in the backyard while Hugh played The Everly Brothers on his harmonica. The following morning they saw smoke on the horizon. The fridge had started to sour, and when he hauled the garbage to the curb, the boy heard little firework pops on the breeze. The water came that afternoon. It was slow, a lava flow that crept up Carrolton from the lake, swallowing front lawns and politely collecting garbage as it came.
There was panic and indecision in the house. Hugh wouldn’t leave. The boy’s mother stacked furniture into towers, grabbed a milk crate of photo albums, and got the Jeep started as water pooled in the drive. They couldn’t find the cat. The boy called and called. He tossed the house searching, but the yard was already filling up, and Hugh finally pulled him off his feet and carried him to the Jeep. Hugh said it would be alright. He said he would find Batman. He said he would keep the house safe, pulled a .38 from the back of his waistband and waved it in the direction of the highway, smiling. Hugh stayed on the lawn, ankle-deep, until the boy and his mother drove off. They drove with the water at their heels, followed the river to the Crescent City Connection, and then out through Bridge City, Avondale, and the rusty clay high ground of Baton Rouge.
They never saw Hugh again, but he wrote them a letter, addressed to the boy’s mother at her sister’s house in Shreveport two months after the storm. The water peaked five feet at the house. The looters never came. Hugh was picked up by the National Guard, though he’d pleaded for more time to find the cat. They took him to a camp—just a row of tents in a parking lot up by Tickfaw—but he landed with a volunteer crew doing house-to-house searches in the city soon after. To his surprise, when he returned to the house he found Batman there, just a sack of bones at this point, mewing on the steps by the porch. He took the cat and nursed it back to health, kept it with him in Tickfaw and then Hattiesburg. Batman had been happy, Hugh said. He was grateful, always close underfoot, even sleeping on the bed at night until he escaped out an open window one morning and was run over by a car. The letter concluded with an apology to the boy and an address for correspondence to the boy’s mother. Below the last typed line he’d scribbled there is a home for all lost things in a strange, sloping cursive.
By then, however, the boy’s father had re-entered the picture. He was living with them in Shreveport, and after a cookout one evening the boy watched his mother slip out the back door and burn the letter on the grill.
Many years later, a month before the man’s pilot exam, his father called out of the blue to talk about a Pete Seeger guitar lick he’d once learned but now couldn’t quite remember. It went wana wana wana wah, his father said, knocking his fingertips on the receiver of the phone in little pops. His father had been drinking, ignoring doctor’s orders about his upcoming surgery. He kept with the wana wana wanas, saying you know the one right, you know the one, until his son finally said I know it, yeah, and then they each listened to the fingertips tapping the receiver, in even beats now like the clip of tires on concrete seams in a long, straight highway.
After he passed his pilot’s exam, he drove back down to New Orleans. His father was in hospice there, but the caretaker said he was too sick to take visitors. Unsure of what else to do with his afternoon, the man holed up in a bar until he couldn’t drive himself home. He was joined by another man in a sweat-soaked linen suit. He watched the newcomer’s fingers do a spider walk on the bartop while waiting for his scotch, and realized he knew him somehow. His name was Garret, or Garth, or something with a G; the older brother of a classmate, though he seemed decades older now, whittled down and sharp at the corners. Eventually they shared a cigarette outside, and while G exhaled, his eyes seemed to rest on the man for the first time. They shook hands. They asked sincere-sounding questions, and now loosened up, followed each other back inside with the fuzzy glow of alcohol spreading warmly around the room.
G did most of the talking. He said he’d been a photographer with the Picayune when the hurricane came. He’d stayed in town through the storm, slept on porches, shot pictures of the dead and the not-quite-dead. The day after landfall, he’d linked up with a pair of staffers from the paper living out of a news van. They tailed national guardsmen, siphoned gas from cars, slept in shifts. There was a features editor, an older woman with sandy-blonde hair who ran ultramarathons, who left for New York City soon after G joined them. The other staffer was a creole, barely old enough to keep a beard, who, like G, was a photographer.
A week after landfall, up near St. Claude, the creole found a teenager carrying 2-liters of tonic water over his shoulders. Following the boy’s directions, he came to a flooded corner-store with the words Looters Will Be Shot spray-painted across the plywood covering its windows. The creole took pictures there as people came and went, including a picture of an elderly black man ferrying a case of ramen noodles on his head. Later, his pictures of this man appeared in a newspaper story about looting. He hadn’t used the word, looting, but there it was, once in orange letters across the window-boards, and now atop the headline as if he’d written it himself. He tried writing an editorial to explain that, like the man in his photo, he and G had lived for nine days off supplies they’d scavenged from the city, but this was a time when nothing and everything was true. This was when the cops were ferrying survivors to shelter, when they were shooting people and burning their bodies in the trunks of cars. The levees had been bombed, the president was in on it, and everyone lucky enough to be outside of the city was desperate for an answer that made sense, that let them change the channel before they’d lost hope entirely.
G sucked the ice from his scotch. The creole had a hard time for a while, he said, but eventually settled down in the area. He’d bought a house on the north shore, married a girl from Rhode Island. G paused. Music from the speakers revved up overhead. Then, in the flat cadence of a pilot walking through his pre-flight checks, he said the creole’s wife had come home last weekend to find him locked in the garage with the windows up and the car running. G sort of laughed, expelling all his air in a puff, his mouth hanging slightly open afterward like he was waiting for someone else to pick up where he left off.
Later, at his hotel, the man finished all his cigarettes and then scrubbed the space between his fingers with soap. He hadn’t really wanted to hear G’s story. He hadn’t asked. And because he hadn’t asked, he’d let the silence that followed it stretch out until the winds of the evening shifted, until the lights of G’s cellphone danced on the glass of his eyes, until a cab arrived and he made his exit with a soft, apologetic squeeze of the man’s shoulder.
The man spoke to the mirror about what he would’ve said, what he would have told G if he’d been asked. He tried out some words about Hugh, but couldn’t get past the part about the cat. Who cared about a fucking cat? Who cared that his mother got back together with his father, or that everyone had always treated this fact like a reprieve for which he’d never been properly grateful? Surely no one kept tallies so small.
That night in bed, he looked back at those hours following the storm as if they’d known the water was coming. Before they’d shuttered the windows, before he sat with Hugh on the roof and watched the exodus of the willing and able, he’d felt the wall of rain on its way. Every minute of their lives had been a story of that creeping tide, of its inevitability, its terrible slowness.
Eleven months later, while on a layover in Lake Charles, he visited New Orleans for the last time. He was due in Ft. Lauderdale the next evening, then on to Nassau, but he rented a car anyway and kept the thunderheads over the gulf on his right as he drove. He made the city by sunset, coming in across the Bonnet Carre Spillway with the tops of oil towers flickering fire-orange in the distance.
He parked outside the old house and sat in the dark. The lawn where Hugh had stood, pistol in hand, waving them away in the morning sunshine had been dug up and re-planted. Once a simple plot of Bermuda grass, now beds of amaranth, nightshade, spider lilies. A sapling cyprus grew from the garden’s edge, sheltering the glow from the living room windows. He saw children’s toys scattered on the porch steps—masked crime fighters, sidewalk chalk, a remote-control dune buggy. Inside, someone was tinkering on a piano.
He listened to the engine tick, slowing as it cooled, until the evening had settled to stop around him. Departure was at dawn, but there was no rush. The moon crested the eaves of the house. Junebugs tumbled and scuttled on the windshield. He held this stillness close to him, unwilling to move, imagining that when the moment finally felt right, when the air in the car smelled of pollen and rainwater and a familiar, blossoming rot, he would open the door.
Gabriel Houck is originally from New Orleans, and he holds an MFA from the University of Iowa and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he is currently a Lecturer in the English Department. His fiction appears in journals such as Western Humanities Review, Glimmer Train, Cimarron Review, The Pinch, and Mid American Review, where his story, “Hero’s Theater,” won the 2014 Sherwood Anderson Fiction Prize. His story, “When the Time Came,” was also selected as a distinguished story in the 2015 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by T.C. Boyle. He currently lives and works in Lincoln, Nebraska.
“The Wick” was nominated by NDR for the 2017 Pushcart Prize.