I first came here in late August. Not used to the heat. I sat alone in an air-conditioned bar drinking High Life, hoping to make a new friend, hoping someone would catch my eye. I flirted with a stranger. Little crinkles formed around his eyes when he asked:
Do you live lakeside or riverside?
Have you been to the End of the World?
Take me, I said.
We walked the levee in the 9th Ward until we came to a small beach. I took my shoes off and dipped my toes in the river. He warned me I could get a rash sticking my bare feet in the Mississippi like that, but I didn’t care. I needed to feel the water on my skin. A big, fat moon hung above us in the sky and we could smell the fuel coming from the cargo ships passing along the river. I don’t remember the stranger’s name anymore. Did it start with a ‘B’? It was a long time ago and that bar’s closed now. One thousand mosquitos sampled my blood and later that night, when I undressed for him, my body was covered in swollen pink hills.
Foggy mornings riding my bicycle from the Mission District to SOMA to serve cappuccinos and americano’s to the techies who worked at Twitter headquarters on Market Street. Waiting around for the MUNI bus to show up, if it did at all. And that time I saw a lady sitting in our dive bar wearing Google Glass get punched in the face. It felt like a distant memory. An incoherent dream. I wanted to forget.
I wasn’t living in New Orleans for very long when I googled:
Local Realtors Near Me
My favorite time of year in New Orleans is the summertime, June to Halloween. People think I’m crazy when I tell them this. I don’t mind crazy, call me whatever. I love the heat, the afternoon thunderstorms. I love the feel of the city after a hard rain. Earthy. Alive. The slick pavement. I’m Dorothy entering technicolor as I walk my dogs to the levee post thunderstorm. This time of year the city feels intimate. Mostly locals. This time of year, the tourists have stopped flooding the streets, which for us in the service industry means less money but also less bullshit. This time of year I sweat out all of the bad decisions I made during:
November, December, January, February, March, April, May
A few summers ago, I left the New Orleans heat to take care of my grandmother. I called her Ema. I was her first grandchild and when I was born she told my mom she was too young to be called ‘bubbie.’ My mom told me she partied a lot in the 1970s and she was paying for all of it now. She was going to die soon, and I was going to California to be there with her. She had a husband, my step-grandfather. He wouldn’t look at her. I was angry with him about this. He wouldn’t go into her room where she lay in a hospice bed all day waiting for the rest of her body to give up like her lungs already had. The whole time I was there she kept asking me:
Does my husband already have a new girlfriend? I’m barely even dead yet.
I laughed. He didn’t have a new girlfriend. He was always running an errand, walking his dogs, or doing something on the computer. He made sure to always be anywhere else, anywhere but the room. I’d offer to help him and he’d refuse. What’s the point of having a husband if he won’t love on you when you’re dying?
Summer is coming to a close. It’s October, but it’s still reaching the high eighties every day. We are nearing the end of hurricane season. On Sunday, someone posts a picture on social media of a big storm heading for New Orleans. They’re calling this one Zeta. The caption says:
Please Cancel My Subscription to the Hurricane of the Month Club
There was a time when water used to scare me. I bought this house ten years ago. It’s in the Lower 9th Ward, a few blocks from the levee in a neighborhood called Holy Cross. I liked it because it’s raised 10 feet. Out front, there was a man who had the hood of his truck popped up and looked like he was working on the engine. Some older ladies were sitting in plastic lounge chairs on their porch next door watching him. I introduced myself. Told them I was thinking about buying the house. They nodded:
A lot of young people from out of town buying houses these days.
I can’t remember if I mentioned being concerned about flooding or not, but I must have because the man who was working on his truck chuckled, closed the hood, and said:
You’re surrounded by water, baby! On the one side you got the river. The other, the lake. Then there are bayous, swamps, and canals.
He’d tossed an oily rag over his shoulder, pulled a plastic water bottle from his back pocket. It made a crinkling sound when he took a swig. The ladies in the chairs nodded, mmhmm. He went on:
The water is our guide. We use the water to navigate like a shepherd uses the stars. Don’t be buying a house in New Orleans if you’re afraid of getting a little wet.
I later learned the man’s name was Darrin. We’re still neighbors. He owns the house next to mine and is known as the block’s handyman. He can fix anything, from a leaky faucet to a busted carburetor.
Today when I look at the weather map, I don’t panic. This storm is only supposed to be a Category 1. So far this summer we have had a total of six hurricane misses.
We’ve been lucky. I buy some extra dog food, water, and canned fish. Just in case.
My friend told me this story once. Years ago she worked at a bar in the Marigny called Lost Love Lounge, corner of Dauphine and Franklin. One afternoon before her shift, she was sitting outside having a coffee and smoking a cigarette when this guy dressed in a slick three piece suit came strolling down the street.
He looked good, she said. Really good. Like so much swag. It was intimidating.
The man stopped when he saw my friend. Not surprising. She’s beautiful. Men must stop for her often. But then she said the man asked her if she could tell him where Franklin Avenue is. She said she smiled at him, told him he was standing on Franklin Avenue. He looked around. Waved his arms in the air. Shook his head, No, no this can’t be Franklin Avenue. She said yes, yes, and pointed at the street sign that read Franklin Avenue. The man shook his head again and said:
No. This is not Franklin Avenue, you bagel eating cracker bitch.
Then the man dressed in the slick three piece turned on his heels and continued to stroll down Franklin Avenue in the middle of the street, cackling.
My grandpa had picked me up from SFO. He heard I was coming to California to take care of his sick ex-wife and wanted to spend alone time with me before I went to her condo for the weekend. We went out to breakfast at a café on Valencia Street. I ordered huevos rancheros and my grandpa ordered some sort of hash. We traded plates halfway through our meal.
My grandmother divorced him nearly fifty years ago and I’d always thought he didn’t care for her. But over lukewarm eggs and burnt coffee, he told me about how much he loved her. How they met in Berkeley when Ema was visiting her cousin. They were only teenagers. They fell for each other fast, got married as soon as they could. He understood she was too young when they settled down, had kids. She didn’t want to be a housewife. She wanted out and got out.
He had asked me about my love life. I didn’t tell him about the guy who sent me a text before my plane took off:
Everyone’s grandma dies. You need to buck up.
My grandpa told me I should start thinking about getting married. I should stop being so afraid to commit.
I asked the server for our bill.
I wake up Wednesday morning and look at the weather map again. For the past few days it’s been unclear if Hurricane Zeta is actually going to pass through New Orleans, but now I see it is coming straight for us and will hit in the early evening. There are two texts on my phone. One from my friend:
Are you ready for Hurricane Catherine Zeta?
The other from NOLAReady:
Zeta now expected to be a Cat 2 at landfall, which means stronger, damaging winds. Finish prep this morning & be sheltered by 2pm.
There are memes on the internet of Catherine Zeta Jones dressed as a 1920’s flapper girl from the movie Chicago sliding into New Orleans. I go outside and check on my neighbors to make sure they don’t need any last minute things before the storm comes. They all say the same thing:
We’re alright. It’s just water, my baby.
I don’t know what I could offer them anyway. Sometimes I bring them fresh baked cookies or pasta, but I don’t have those things right now.
Darrin’s out on his porch with a tool belt strapped to his hip setting up a ladder. I wave and walk over to see if he wants a hand. He shakes his head, no, tells me he’s good.
You worried about this one? I ask.
Naw, we’ll be alright. Darrin starts to climb the ladder.
I guess we’re lucky to be so close to the levee. We’re on highground.
There is an awkward silence between us. He looks like he is about to clean his gutters. I’ve interrupted him. I leave Darrin’s porch and head back up the stairs to my house. Then he says:
This city was built in the shape of a crescent, along the sharp curvature of the Mississippi. It took years for settlers to figure out how to drain the swamps so they could further expand the city.
Another neighbor from down the street rides by on a bicycle and hollers at Darrin. Two jugs of water sit in his basket. We both wave, yell:
How you doing?
Alright! The neighbor says over his shoulder before he disappears around the corner onto Flood Street.
Darrin pulls some rubber gloves from his back pocket and slides them on.
New Orleans has been sinking ever since. Ever since. It’s only a matter of time ‘till we’re all under water. Better grow us some gills. Hope I’m gone by then.
He doesn’t look at me, he’s focused on the gutters. I mumble, me too, before going back inside my house.
I eat dinner standing over the sink. Canned smoked Mackerel soaked in olive oil with a baguette. I tear off little pieces of bread at a time, dip it in the can, drench it in oil, using it as a utensil to eat the fish. Think about the colonists who built the embankments along the river and dug the drainage ditches. A sinking New Orleans. One day we will be an underwater kingdom. I imagine we will look exactly like Atlantis, but rows of shotgun houses instead of castles.
The saltiness of the mackerel only makes me hungrier. I could open another can of fish. There is smoked Rainbow Trout with lemon, Sardines, wild Kippers, and Yellowtail in the pantry. But I shouldn’t eat all my snacks before the storm even hits. I put the baguette back into it’s paper bag and set it on top of the fridge, throw the empty Mackerel can into the trash.
An hour goes by and it starts raining hard. Water gathers in the front room like it always does when it pours. I take all the towels in the house and lie them under all the windows and the front door. One of my dogs paces, howling. The other one hidesunder the blankets in my bed. From the window above my desk, I see siding fly off the house next door.
I sit in a bubble bath, close my eyes, pretend I have gills. When we turn into an underwater city will someone can me? How would they prepare me? Olive oil or water? Who will eat me with a baguette? Or would they spread me on a fancy cracker? One of those ones with rosemary and raisins. I hate those. A loud crack of thunder shakes the whole house. The power cuts out.
When my grandpa and I arrived at Ema’s condo, my step-grandfather was waiting for us on the patio with his two small, white, fluffy dogs. He seemed too happy for someone whose wife was going to be dead soon. He wore khaki shorts that showed off his tanned legs. He’s one of those old guys who still has toned calves. My grandpa has forever worn a lapis lazuli and silver pinky ring and his shirts are always slightly unbuttoned, revealing a forest of gray chest hair and a gold chain with a scorpion charm. I got on my knees and let the dogs sniff and give me kisses for a moment while the two old men shook hands. When I rose, the bigger dog, a Shih Tzu, ran back inside the condo, but the other one, which looked like a stuffed toy you could fish out of a claw vending machine, cried and barked at me.
Don’t mind Teddy. He just needs a lot of attention, my step-grandfather said.
I picked up Teddy, cradled him like he was a baby, and followed the men inside.
The room had light grayish blue walls, a couple of matching pine dressers. On top of one of them sat a photo of middle-aged Ema and her husband at the courthouse on the day they were married. In the photo she wore a white skirt suit. She looked professional or like a politician. A nurse in blue scrubs sat in a chair next to Ema reading a magazine. As soon as we entered the room she ran over to me, wrapped her arms around my body, squeezed Teddy and I as if we were her own family.
You must be the granddaughter. She leaned back to look at me and smiled, We are so happy you’re here.
Behind her was the hospice bed and in it lay Ema and the other dog. There was also a big tank next to it that looked like scuba diving gear. I don’t know what it’s like to have lung cancer, but I read on WebMD that it can feel as though you’ve just swam 100 miles, always out of breath.
I thought about the waterbed Ema used to have back when she was a single lady. I loved sleeping in that bed. I was floating in the ocean. I was a mermaid. This thing though, looked like an adjustable bed from an infomercial. Mattress Genie. I used to fall asleep on the couch in front of the TV and wake up to a loud enthusiastic male voice saying:
Just can’t get comfortable in that flat bed? Too bad adjustable beds cost thousands. But wait! Now you can make any mattress adjustable without spending thousands with the amazing Mattress Genie! You’ll be so comfortable you’ll never want to leave!
For a few minutes, I’d watch clips of people with synthetic grins as they pressed buttons on a remote controller that moved the mattress up and down before wrapping my fleece blanket around myself and going back to my regular, flat bed.
Ema didn’t look like the people in the infomercial and I was shocked to see how small she had become. This woman who had such chutzpah could barely open her eyes when we came into the room. She couldn’t leave the bed even if she wanted to. My grandpa sat in a chair next to her. She whispered his name. He took her hand and said her name back.
She kicked everybody out of the room, even the nurse, so she could be alone with my grandpa. I went to look at the bookshelf downstairs and found her old copy of Hannibal by Thomas Harris. This book was once left on the nightstand next to the waterbed. It had terrified me when I was little. I took it to the couch and tried to read.
Clarice Starling. Quantico. FBI. Special Agent.
I’d already seen the movie by that point. I closed the book, couldn’t focus. On his way out, my grandpa kissed me on the top of my head like I was a little girl and slipped me a twenty.
The first year I owned my house a big storm hit New Orleans. I didn’t think a house raised 10 feet could flood. I quickly learned that when it’s raining sideways, water will find its way inside. By the time the storm was over, there was half an inch pooling on the porch and by the front door.
Later I told Darrin and he said:
You need to get yourself a water vac. I have a water vac. My water vac is so good it could suck up the whole Mississippi if I wanted it to. Get yourself a water vac.
Now, whenever it rains Darrin asks me if I’ve gotten myself a water vac yet.
Zeta’s eye passes directly over the Lower 9th ward and for a moment the wind subsides and the rain stops.
The sun sets and the sky is a dark reddish purple. The old hippies across the street are calm for people who’ve just had a tree fall on their house. Some window panes on my house shattered and one of the storm shutters blew off. Darrin is going back and forth between houses asking:
Wow! You good? That was crazy! Wow! You good? That was crazy!
Every night, after the moon disappears, the river slowly passes the sun back to the lake. In my dream, the Lower 9th floods and Darrin’s water vac doesn’t work. But it’s okay. We all turn into cobia.
In the morning, I still don’t have power. It’s about twenty degrees cooler. Fall has officially arrived in New Orleans, right on time, only a few days before Halloween. Darrin gets everyone together to help the old hippies remove the debris from the fallen tree and set it out on the curb to be taken away by clean-up crews. I call Service Glass Repair and make a trip to the hardware store for firewood, ice, and more flashlights. I’m looking for batteries when I pass a written sign that says:
Water Vacuum Sale! 50% Off!
I wander around the store searching for the discounted water vacs, but I never find them. At the checkout, I ask the clerk if she knows where they are, if I could buy one. She says:
Water vacuums? What’s a water vacuum?
The hospice nurse told me it was important that Ema move around a little bit every day. I planned to make her sit at the dining table with us for dinner. I made spaghetti with summer squash and a big garden salad. Ema didn’t want to leave her bed, but I begged. The nurse, my step-grandfather, and I carried her down the stairs in her wheelchair. She yelled at us:
Then she laughed, and we laughed. When we all sat at the table, my step-grandfather complained about the food. Ema told him to stop being a meshuga. Later in the kitchen, after we got Ema set back up in her bed, the nurse told me it was a good thing she was still eating and drinking.
I loaded the last dish and grabbed three single serve plastic cups of vanilla chocolate swirl ice cream. One for me, one for Ema, and one for the nurse.
By Halloween, I still don’t have power, and now it’s cold. One of my neighbors invites people over for a fire. I bring a bottle of red wine I got for cheap at the corner store and a couple of mason jars. His place is nestled right up against the levee. If the river is ever to top the levees in the Lower 9th, his house will be the first one to turn into a fish bowl.
It’s a blue full moon. Friends I haven’t seen since March are here. A guy dressed as a pirate gives me some mushrooms. He tells me they are strong and to go easy. I eat a cap and a stem and go sit by the fire, wait for the mushrooms to kick in. Talk to the host about the weather. Guitars are passed around. I still don’t feel anything so I eat another cap. A woman plays the song “Summer’s End” by John Prine. Everyone stops talking and listens. I am uncomfortable because it seems like everyone is going to cry together and the mushroom guy is attempting harmonies when the woman sings: Just come on home, come on home, no you don’t have to be alone, just come on home, and I can’t tell if I have to pee or shit. When she finishes the song, the mushroom pirate guy grabs the guitar and I decide that I only have to pee. I sneak off out to the levee where no one can see me.
I walk up the grass and make my way down some rocks, closer to the river. The moon reflects off the Mississippi. It’s easy to feel like water is punishing New Orleans. Submerging our streets, cars, houses. Always getting contaminated so we can’t drink it. But it was people who built the levees that broke. And it was people who decided not to fix the pumps or the failing sewage system. If the world drowns, it will be our own fault. We can’t blame the water.
There is a burst of laughter in the distance coming from the party. I find a good spot and pull down my pants to pee. Something splashes around in the water. Crawls on the beach. Rolls on its back in the sand. It looks like a little white fluffy dog.
Hey! I pull up my pants and stumble down the rocks toward the puppy.
I whistle, cup my hands around my mouth, Hey! Hey! Come here!
I start to walk toward him and he books it to the top of the levee.
Teddy! Come here! Come back! Teddy! I am climbing back up the rocks, trying to get to Teddy, but when I reach the top, the mushroom pirate guy is waiting for me.
You okay? I heard yelling.
I brush some sand off my jeans and look around for Teddy, but there is only fog and levee.
Yeah, I’m fine. I just thought I saw something by the water. Did you see a little dog run up here?
He looked around.
Naw, I didn’t see anything. I told you they were intense. You probably just saw a nutria.
For the rest of the night, my eyes dart around my neighbors’ yard and back to the levee looking for Teddy, but I don’t see him again.
Ema and the nurse and I ate the ice cream with flat wooden spoons. I’d always thought dying people had some kind of magical power, like they could predict the future or cast a spell. I asked Ema if there was anything she wanted to tell me. She said:
I told her I knew about what she said to my brother, how she wished him to have lots of great sex. I was waiting for my slice of wisdom, for her to share what she was going to pass down to me, or at least for her to grant me a dying wish of one thousand orgasms. She did not. Instead she said:
You need to find someone who is going to treat you nice. You don’t want to end up with an asshole. And also, find a bra that fits you right.
I stared at her and thought of the text from the guy right before my plane took off. I thought of my step-grandfather who was never in the room with her. We finished our ice cream. I brought the empty plastic cups downstairs and tossed them in the trash, slammed the lid. I leaned against the counter and crossed my arms. What the hell. Just grant me a handful of mind blowing Come to Jesus orgasms that make me scream: Amen! Holy shit! Oh God! Hallelujah!
Upstairs, the nurse helped her with her breathing tube. It looked like she was smoking a pipe.
We started to watch a nature documentary on TV about phosphorescent light at the bottom of the ocean. Ema learnedabout a light she would never see. But I’d never see it either. Unless I became a scuba diver.
The overnight nurse sat snoring in a chair next to the bed and I lay on the bed with Ema. She was asleep but I stayed up and watched the whole documentary. Tiny organisms living in complete darkness, making light at the bottom of the ocean, the darkest place on the planet, the end of the world.
The day after Halloween there are Entergy trucks on our street. I hope it means we will get power soon. I learn the storm did more damage to my home than I first thought. I may need a new roof. Darrin said he would teach me how to patch it.
I step outside to go to the hardware store and Darrin is in his truck charging his phone. I ask him how he is doing and he says:
You going to get the shingles?
On my way to the hardware store right now!
And see if they got any water vacs. How many times I’ve told you, you need one of those.
I wave toward the Entergy trucks, tell him I think it’s a good sign we will get the power turned on. He says:
You’ll be alright!
I get into my truck and bring the engine to life. Think about Teddy on the levee. The last night I stayed with Ema, my step-grandfather forgot to shut the sliding glass door all the way and Teddy escaped. We spent the few hours before I had to leave for the airport looking all over the neighborhood for him, calling his name over and over. He was probably hit by a car or eaten by a coyote, but I like to pretend some kid found him and took him home.
At the hardware store, I stare at a wall stocked with bags of different kinds of shingles. Strip, luxury, dimensional. I forget what kind I need and text Darrin. I move some of the bags around. Behind one of them is a bulky looking vacuum thing. It has a little hose attached to it and a handle. My phone buzzes in my back pocket.
Get architectural asphalt
I grab a bag of architectural asphalt and put it in my cart with the vacuum. It’s the same girl at checkout from a few weeks ago. I point to the vacuum and ask how much. There isn’t a price on it. She looks at it, then over to a man wearing a red smock with the words General Manager stitched on the front. He talks to another guy about drills.
Eh, if it doesn’t have a price on it, just take it. I’ve never seen those in here before anyways.
Yeah just don’t let that guy see. She nods toward the man in the red smock. He’s holding a yellow drill like it’s a pistol. He pulls the trigger and the drill bit spins and spins and the man he’s with nods.
A few hours after I return home the power is restored, but it doesn’t matter because when I plug the bulky vacuum into the outlet, it won’t turn on. It’s broken.
I was in New Orleans when she died. I was getting ready to work the dinner shift. It was fall. Tourists were returning to the city and we were going to be busy. My mom called me to let me know it was almost time, that Ema’s feet were really cold.
Icy, she’d said.
She put the phone up to Ema’s ear so I could say goodbye. I stood in my kitchen, rolled an orange with my palm on the counter and stared out the window. Blue sky. I told her I loved her, that she changed my life, and promised I’d find a better bra.
At sunset, I walk my dogs up the levee and to the river. The water is choppy. It looks the way the bay did on the day we left Ema in it. You’re not supposed to do that if you’re Jewish, you’re not supposed to get cremated, but it’s what she wanted. She must have needed to feel the water on her body, the same way I need to feel the river on mine here at The End of the World. Leave me in the Mississippi.
I unleash my dogs and they trot, sniffing, alongside me. I find a stick and throw it out into the water. Watch the dogs charge towards the setting sun into the river.
Mik Grantham is the founder and co-editor of Disorder Press which she runs with her brother. She is the author of the poetry collection HARDCORE (Short Flight/Long Drive Books). Her work has appeared in New World Writing, Hobart, Maudlin House, The Nervous Breakdown, and Fanzine. She lives in New Orleans.