by Greg Mook
The highway is alive tonight. Not in a busy-traffic sense, but in a way that makes you want to believe in ghosts. I’m driving on I-10 heading west into Louisiana, which was probably once a charming southern drive. Now it just looks like an abandoned warzone lined with tall, broken palms and other dilapidated shrubs instead of torn buildings. If the highway is this bad, I don’t look forward to seeing what it looks like in residential communities nearer to the Gulf.
I sigh and steady the steering wheel, watching as the windshield wipers clear a path in steady rhythm. The one on the driver’s side is leaving one of those annoying streaks. The spring rain has been coming down for a little over an hour now, started when the sun fell below an already gray horizon. It’s been light but steady, and cars have been scarce on the road for a while. The drive has been long and lonely, especially these last few hours. I left that run-down motel just outside Nashville early this morning and only made a few stops for fuel and food at chain gas stations and family-owned diners. It all makes me wonder if my mother is right.
“I just wish you’d come back,” she said. “I don’t understand why you don’t just stay here and go to school.”
“We’ve been through this,” I said. “You know that’s not what I want.”
“Well what do you want then, Isaac? You can’t just run off alone with nothing and expect it to turn out okay.”
I was silent then, not really knowing what to say. I still don’t, although I’ve had time to think about it.
“Your father saw on the news that they’ve sent in the national guard because of the crime,” said my mother.
“He’s barely spoken to me since I decided to go. Why is he so worried all of a sudden?”
“Don’t talk about your father like that,” she said, pausing. “He means the best.”
I was silent again on the other line, driving my tiny foreign car into Kentucky from Cincinnati. After a while she let out her trademark exasperated sigh.
“At least tell me you’ll consider coming home,” she said finally. “Promise me that if it doesn’t work out or you run into trouble, you’ll come right home.”
She’s called a few times since I left Ohio, but I’ve mostly refused to answer. The few times I have, it’s been more of the same.
As the city draws closer, the signs of destruction become more pronounced. It’s not fully dark yet, and the pale light allows me to see the roadside attractions. Stacked and bunched together for long stretches on my left are hundreds of trailers that don’t appear to be in use. Bare buildings with faded logos and tilted signs inhabit the plazas off the road to my right. There are piles of rubble in parking lots and whole sections missing from many of the structures. Some show signs of rebuilding and life while others look untouched and ready to collapse after months of abandon. Beaten and left for dead. Soon a body of water looms into view and I’m driving along a seemingly endless bridge. Lake Pontchartrain, the signs indicate, is currently surrounding me.
As more miles are left behind and the rain slows to a stop, I see towering, toothy buildings in the distance and an end to the bridge in sight. The city approaches to my left and I’m taken aback by the life and lights here. More cars begin to fill the highway despite the late hour, and I begin to search for my exit. When I get closer, a huge dome looms next to the overpass I’m traveling. It has a sign with large letters, saying:
After taking a series of exits and roads, I’m level with the city and following a small canal that splits the street down the center. There are fewer cars now in what appears to be a more residential area. Nobody is outside. The businesses that I pass are all dark within, although they look operational. I turn onto a small road off of Carrolton and follow it to the end, where my destination is in sight.
There are lights on in the apartments lining the streets surrounding Hope Christian Center. I park my car along the street. Getting out, I stretch my legs and approach the gate of a chain link fence that surrounds the facility. When I reach to open it, there’s a heavy padlock denying my entrance. The lights are on, so I try calling the offices. A voice message system tells me calling will do no good, and I briefly consider climbing over the fence as a dog barks in the distance. Deciding against it, I re-enter my car, lock the doors, and tilt the seat back. Just before my eyes close, I can see the glow of a street light through the window and I am lulled to sleep by soft music in my head.
I’m startled awake by firm knocking on the window to my right. When my eyes focus there’s a tall, husky guy wearing a navy baseball cap peering through the glass at me with a look of concern. Smiling at him I yawn, open the door, and stretch.
“Hey there,” I say.
“Dude, were you out here all night?” he asks incredulously.
“Yeah, your gate was locked.”
“Did you call us?”
“Yeah, I got an answering machine,” I explain, scratching my head. “It’s alright though; I got a good night’s sleep.”
The man shakes his head and smiles. “Sorry about that, we lock our gate and doors after 7:00. There’s this city-wide curfew. You’re lucky no one bothered you out here.”
I shrug and walk toward him.
“Name’s Donny, by the way,” he says, holding out his hand. “You must be the new guy.”
“Isaac Andrews,” I say, shaking his hand. “Maybe I should have told you guys when I was coming.”
“Yeah, that would’ve helped,” he says with a chuckle. “Let me show you to the office and you can meet Frank.”
Donny leads me through the open gate and to a side door where a handful of workers, college-aged, are inside at a table eating cereal and talking. All of them are wearing the same gray shirt as Donny with the circle AmeriCorps logo on the front. A few glance at us as we walk by, but no one says anything. I notice as we enter a hallway that most of the walls are bare and white with primer. The floor is concrete and there are tools scattered everywhere. Donny sees me examining the building and chuckles.
“We’re still under construction here too,” he says.
“What happened here?” I ask. Probably a stupid question.
“Same thing that happened everywhere,” he says, shaking his head. “Frank will tell you more.”
We round a corner and come to a set of stairs and a series of doors. Suddenly someone bounds down the steps and stops in front of us, nearly knocking us over.
“Hey, watch where you’re going,” says Donny with a smile to a girl about my age.
“You watch where you’re going,” she says with a giggle. “I woke up late again, so sue me.” She turns to face me. “Hey, is this the new guy?”
She’s slightly shorter than me with long brown hair in a red bandanna and deep green eyes full of energy. Her smile has me nearly speechless, so I return it with her firm handshake.
“Isaac,” I say.
“Hello Isaac, nice to meet you,” she says cheerfully. “I’m Olivia.”
“You’ll see more of her than you want to around here,” says Donny with a chuckle.
Olivia playfully punches him in the shoulder, sticks out her tongue and heads down the hall behind us.
“See you around, Isaac. Nice to meet you.”
I wave back at her and turn around to a smiling Donny.
“She’s cute, ain’t she?” he says.
I shrug and try to hide my smile. “If you say so.”
“Be careful with her,” he says, lowering his voice even more as his smile disappears. “She’s really nice but she’s got a fiancé deployed in Iraq. Loves him to death, and it’s killing her to be so far away from him. Sometimes she goes through rough spells, but she’s mostly chipper like that.”
I nod and we continue down the hall to the end and into an office on the left. Inside it’s mostly bare like the other parts of the building, but there’s a shelf with books and miscellaneous items and a desk with scattered pens and papers, a phone, and a computer. Behind the desk is a black man in a blue t-shirt with Hope Christian Center’s logo. He has short hair, glasses, and flashes a friendly smile when he looks up from his computer.
“Hey, you must be Isaac,” he says in a confident southern drawl. “I’m Frank Gatlin, director of Hope Christian Center. Please sit down.”
I take a seat in a comfortable chair across from his desk as Frank thanks Donny, who leaves and shuts the door behind him.
“So I hear you got left outside last night,” he says, sitting down. “My apologies. We just gotta follow that curfew for the time being.”
“It’s okay,” I say. “I never did tell you guys when I was coming down.”
Frank’s laugh is deep and from the belly. “It’s alright man, you made it just fine. Let’s just go over a few things about the center and what you’ll be doing, then you can get something to eat.”
For about 10 minutes, Frank tells me about AmeriCorps and the center—what my living allowance will be, vacation time, rules, and some history. AmeriCorps was created during the Clinton administration to basically give people, especially college-aged kids, the opportunity to serve in community service projects for a year or two while earning money for school. Frank laughs a lot, but takes a serious tone when explaining his life and the center’s history. He was once a pastor in a Baptist mega-church in the Atlanta area but moved to urban New Orleans 11 years ago when he realized that he and his huge congregation lacked passion and a purpose. He started Hope Christian Center to serve the youth in the area, but after Hurricane Katrina the center expanded to help with the relief effort. The building was severely damaged during the storm, but he vowed to repair it and continue serving the community.
“I just got one question that I ask everybody before you sign off and start here,” he says, staring into my eyes with his smile gone. “Why are you here?”
I pause for a few moments, returning his gaze. Finally, I admit that I don’t know.
He stares for a moment, trying to read me. After a while he breaks off into a small grin.
“That’s all right,” he says. “You seem like a good kid—I think you’ll figure it out. As long as you know that our center is out not just to rebuild homes, but to rebuild hearts with hope and the knowledge that there’s a God who loves us.” He pauses and nods.
“Just love people, man. Just love.”
After my meeting with Frank I unload my car and settle into my new home. Everyone is gone at job sites, so I use the time to explore the two-story building and think about what Frank said. My father always gives money to charities, but it’s mostly because he can rather than because he wants to help people. It’s sort of a mechanical giving—doing it because it seems right—and it’s a kind that I see everywhere in the world. I’m starting to think that maybe I came down here to find a new type of giving. Maybe it will be fulfilling. I’ve always been okay with God, except for the fact that I don’t understand him. I don’t get how Frank could say there’s a God who loves us all when such a disaster struck this city and ruined the lives of thousands of people. Maybe I’ll find that out too.
At around noon, a few of the workers including Donny and Olivia return from work early, and I join them for lunch. There’s no kitchen in the center yet, so we eat lunch meat and chips. I find out that Donny is from Iowa, where he played football but blew out his knee. He came to help pay for college and because he felt like he could help. Olivia is from Virginia and came down when her fiancé was deployed, just like Donny said.
“We thought he’d only be gone for a year,” she says between bites of a turkey sandwich. “But not even halfway through it got extended by another year. I decided to come down here to pass the time while he’s away.”
“Sounds like a good way to pass time,” I say.
“And why are you here, mister?” she asks with a smile.
“So they don’t put me back in prison.”
Everyone pauses, and Donny is holding back a laugh.
“Are you serious?” Olivia asks.
“Yeah, I was wanted in all 50 states for armed robbery.”
“You mean for lying!” she says, throwing a mustard packet at me. “No, really. Why are you here?”
“I’m not real sure yet. I tried a couple different colleges, but nothing seemed to fit. I’ve lived in the same town for my whole life and I kind of wanted to get out. My dad owns an investment firm in Youngstown, and he kind of wanted me to go into the family business like my 2 older brothers.”
“So you’re like, rich?” inquires Donny.
“Well, my family is well-off,” I say. “I really don’t care, though. I just want to figure out what to do with my life.”
“That’s really fascinating,” says Olivia, squeezing my arm gently. “I hope you figure it out while you’re down here.”
“Before you figure that out, how about we figure out what to do this afternoon?” says Donny, pushing his chair out and picking up plates. “Do you want to see the ninth ward?”
We’re in one of the center’s vans, driving south toward the levees. Donny is driving and talking about the hurricane.
“A lot of people evacuated in time,” he says grimly. “But some folks stayed it out. Either because they thought it was better to do that or because they didn’t have nowhere to go.”
“Why would someone think it’s better to stay?” I ask.
“A lot of reasons. People were worried about looting. Some have stayed through other storms and thought this one wouldn’t be that bad.”
We pass a National Guard tank on patrol and the houses start to show more damage as we continue down the road.
“When Katrina hit, it wasn’t so much the wind and rain that did it,” he continues. “There was flooding from that, but the big hit came when the levees broke.”
“Yeah, I heard on TV that they weren’t built to withstand that much pressure,” I say.
“That’s right. A design flaw or something. And the ninth ward is closest to the levees.”
Donny parks the car on the side of the road and the three of us get out. We walk around and survey our surroundings. What I see is total devastation.
There’s wreckage and trash everywhere. Cars are left mangled on the sides of the road with broken windows and gnarled frames. Telephone poles are bent and twisted like flowers leaning toward the sun. Whole houses that aren’t collapsed are completely missing from their skeletal foundations, washed away to a new location. In one case, the front end of a pickup is jutting out from underneath a capsized home while another residence appears to have crashed into it. Even the trees left standing and growing new leaves this spring look pale and gray.
“This is terrible,” I say at one point. “We won’t be working in these, will we?”
“No,” says Olivia, who has been almost silent since leaving the center. “Most of these will be demolished. We’ll be working mostly in our neighborhood down by Carrolton.”
“There’s not many houses collapsed there,” says Donny. “But the insides are just as bad. What you’ll notice is that most of the rich neighborhoods are getting gutted already. We’ll be working in the poor neighborhoods. Some might say it’s a racial thing. Black and white.”
“What do you think?” I ask.
“I think there’s a lot of merit to that argument.” He looks around and frowns. “We’d better get out of here before we get in trouble with the Guard, though. The rest of the crew should be back soon anyway.”
I start working on houses the next day. Our main job is to ‘gut’ houses. We start by removing all the furniture and belongings with water damage and throwing them out in front of the house by the street. There’s rarely anything worth salvaging. Next we take down walls, ceilings, and even floors with significant water damage and remove the boards behind them. Any pipes and plumbing fixtures are removed, and nails are torn out. When framework is all that’s left, we scrub the wood with a mixture of bleach and cleaner. This kills the mold. Finally we use a special spray to prevent the mold from coming back. The whole process usually takes a couple of days for each house with a crew our size. We wear masks so that we don’t inhale too much mold, and the whole job is dirty and tiring. I get used to it after a while, though.
As the months wear on, I become closer to the crew and especially to Donny and Olivia. We take trips to the French Quarter, where everything was quickly rebuilt and ready for tourism soon after the hurricane. It seems unfair that tourism takes priority over the homes of residents, but then again, the local economy needs some sort of boost. Like Donny said, Olivia is cheery most of the time but goes through times of depression. Sometimes it lasts up to a week, but her happy personality always returns. She keeps letters from her fiancé, Matt, and reads them at night when she wants to be alone. She rarely talks about him, but she always gets serious when she does, like a cloud is rolling over her so you can’t see the sun that’s usually there in her face. I learn to be careful during these times. The most delicate word or touch can send her away crying.
This one time we’re doing a normal gutting of a two-story house and laughing like usual. Donny and I are arguing Big Ten football and Olivia is doing her best Lil’ Wayne impression with the radio. When we get to the back house, the stench is so bad we can smell it through our masks, used to the mold as we are.
“Good lord, what is that?” says Donny.
“It smells like the guys room,” Olivia says, pinching her nose under her mask.
Donny snaps the back of her mask and she yelps as I look around. There’s this door that leads under the stairs. The handle’s nearly rusted off, and I try turning it without success.
“You really want to open that?” says Donny. “Smells like a dead dog or something in there.”
“Really? I thought they got all that out in the months right after the storm.”
He shrugs. “It’s probably impossible to get all of them. You ever see something dead before?”
“Can’t say I have.”
“Well I,” Olivia says, putting her hand on the door, “don’t think you should look. Why ruin such a beautiful day by making that smell worse?”
“Come on,” I say, trying to pry her hands off and twist the knob. “You’ve got to be a little curious. What if it’s something cool? You scared?”
“I laugh at the face of danger,” she says. “Ha!”
When she gives that laugh, the knob pulls off and the smell increases dramatically. Burying my face in my dirty sleeve, I swing it open before she can stop me and some water rushes out onto our feet. The sight inside makes us all stop though.
There’s cans of vegetables and meats strewn over the floor all around this big brown lump of soggy rags. Just as I’m about to step in, I see a dark, corroded human skull sticking out of the top of what must have been its clothes. A closer look shows hands and a few ribs poking out of the mess. I turn to Donny, who’s got this disgusted look on his face. Olivia is another story. Her face is pale and, strange enough, she’s got this scared look in her eyes.
“You all right?” says Donny, moving toward her. He reaches for her elbow and when he gets there, she jerks back and gives a quick scream. I’m about to ask what’s up when she follows the first scream up with a longer, more terrifying yelp that makes us flinch. Next thing we know, she’s running outside and we’re frozen in place. Donny’s the first to move, and he closes the door without looking at that skinless face smiling back at him.
We don’t see Olivia for the rest of that day. She doesn’t come back to the worksite and she’s not at the center for lunch. I want to go find her but Donny says she just got spooked—to let her be.
“She can take care of herself,” he says, shaking his head.
That’s about all the talking we do until she shows up right before curfew sets in as the sun is going down back beyond the basketball courts behind the building. She smiles real quick when we tease her nervously about skipping out of work, and then she mumbles “good night” and hops upstairs without eating.
Before bed I almost knock at her room to check on her, but my hand stops in mid-air when I hear sobbing from the other side of the door.
The next day, Olivia is her normal self. We never mention the body except when Donny calls the city to report it. As I continue working, I hear tons of stories from survivors of the hurricane. Those who stayed behind. One woman walked three miles in chest-high water filled with sewage and trash holding her most precious belongings above her head until she made it to the Superdome. One man moved to his top floor, but then the water reached that level so he had to bust through and live on the roof for a couple days. Just when the water was about to sweep him away, he was rescued by a helicopter. Each story amazes me, but each keeps me wondering why God would cause so much pain and death. As I work on houses, I feel a sense of pride helping people rebuild, but it’s a sort of mechanical pride. It becomes a job or chore, like my dad’s charity. I rarely meet my clients to hear their stories. Most are still away with relatives or gone altogether, not wanting to come back to another disaster.
One day as we’re gutting this house, I’m pushing a wheelbarrow full of debris out to the yard and there is a woman and a child standing in all the wreckage on the front lawn. I take off my mask and walk over to the lady, who is shaking her head and looking up at the house.
“My, my,” she says in a distinct Louisiana accent I’ve come to understand more. “What happened to our home, Hannah?”
The little girl is wearing a bright yellow sundress and when I wave, she runs and hides behind the woman.
“Well hello there,” the woman says pleasantly. “Are you working on my house?”
“Sure am,” I say. “I’m Isaac.”
“Mary Thomas,” she says, taking my hand. “And this is my daughter, Hannah.”
“How long have you and your daughter lived here?”
“Me and Hannah been here ever since her daddy died when she was just a few month old,” she says, shaking her head. “We gone to Texas during the evacuations to live with my cousin, and now we back. FEMA’s giving us a trailer next door pretty soon while the house get rebuilt.”
“Ever think about moving away for good?”
“Good Lord, no! I was born here, and I’m a die here.”
We talk to Mary during our breaks from working, while the house is scrubbed down and made free of mold. Before spraying, I take my mask off and set it on the porch.
“Would you like to see your house before we spray?” I ask.
“Of course,” she responds.
Mary and Hannah walk up the front steps, and I lead them into what used to be their living room. Mary’s got her hands over her mouth.
“Good Lord,” she says quietly, holding Hannah close to her. “My, my, my.” After walking around for a bit, I lead her back outside and the rest of the crew begins to spray.
“I wanna thank you for doing this,” Mary says with her hand on my shoulder.
“It’s no problem,” I say, staring at the ground and shuffling my feet against the earth. What can I say to that?
“I thank God for people like you every day,” she says.
“Don’t take this the wrong way,” I say. “But aren’t you mad at God at all for that happened?”
“For the hurricane?” she says. “No sir. I don’t think God wants there to be hurricanes, but he allow ‘em.”
“Why else do God allow bad things to happen? To make us stronger,” she says, grasping both of my shoulders. “Young man, I seen my share of troubles. But I learned that the blessings will always help us rise above the hurt. Without that hope, why would anyone go on?”
I want to speak, but I got nothing.
“You’ll figure it out,” she says. “Trust me. You here for a reason.”
I think about her words as we finish spraying the house. Hope seems like a foreign concept when there’s so much destruction. But what if she’s right?
When it’s all done, we stand in the yard talking to Mary and a hip-hop song comes on the tiny radio we use while working.
“I love this song!” says Olivia. She begins to dance and Hannah shyly approaches her.
“Do you want to dance too?” Olivia asks. Hannah nods and smiles. Taking both her hands, Olivia starts to dance with Hannah and picks her up, twirling her around and spinning her in place. Hannah lets out a giggle that Olivia answers and soon the whole crew and Mary are laughing at the sight. As they dance, their laughter and Hannah’s bright yellow sundress swirl and fill the air, bursting through the clouds of dust and mold. For a few blissful moments, hope is entirely real.
It’s the end of summer, and tourists are more infrequent as school starts back up for the fall and family vacations end. We’re still gutting houses with no end in sight. My mother tells me that there aren’t many stories on the news anymore about New Orleans, and she assumes that the cleanup is almost done. Nothing can be further from the truth. I still struggle with working on the houses with a purpose. The owners are returning, which helps, and I’m trying to do what Frank is always encouraging in our morning meetings: just love. But it’s a difficult process when there’s nothing but dust and mold to love. A little girl dancing in her sundress doesn’t exactly come along every day.
One Friday after work Olivia and I head out to the store for supplies. I’m driving on the way back, and she’s singing a pop song on the radio at the top of her lungs, dancing in the passenger seat.
“I’m impressed by your musical talent,” I say.
“Ha! I’d like to hear you sing this good,” she says, flipping her hair and posing like a model.
The rain is coming down now, starting slowly but soon coming down so much that it’s hard to see. I pull the car back up to the center and park in the gates.
“I’ll bet you sing like Ashlee Simpson,” she says.
“It’s closer to Jessica, thank you very much.”
“Either way, I’m way better. You can’t hit those high notes like—”
For some reason I don’t fully understand, I’m leaning over and kissing her. She doesn’t pull away, and her hand reaches behind my head and pulls me closer. I don’t know how long this lasts, but suddenly she’s crying and apologizing. She opens her door and runs out into the rain, leaving me silent in the driver’s seat. Closing my eyes, I lean back. After listening to the rain beat against the car for a while, a cell phone rings. It’s hers. She must have left it in the center console. The screen tells me the incoming call is from home, so I don’t answer, but it rings again moments later. This time I pick it up.
“Hello?” I say.
“Hello?” says a woman’s confused voice from the other end. “Is Olivia there?”
“Uh, no,” I say. “This is Isaac. She must have left her phone in the car.”
“As long as she’s okay. I’m Dawn, her mother. Are you seeing my Olivia?”
“Um, no I’m not.” I’m confused, although I leave that part out. “Just a close friend.”
“That’s a shame. She really needs to start seeing people again. Matthew’s death was hard on her, but she really must move on eventually.”
“Would you tell her to call me back? We miss her so much.”
“Thank you Isaac. Take good care of her.”
“I will. Bye.”
I hang up the phone and suddenly it all makes sense. I open the car and walk back toward the center. She is not inside in her room, but I see someone sitting on the basketball court out back. Walking down the stairs and out the back door, I take a seat on the drenched concrete next to her while the rain pelts us. She’s soaked. We sit there for a moment, just staring out over the train tracks. I-10 is in view, but it seems so far away from when I first traveled west over the lake and through the city 5 months ago.
“Your mom called,” I say to break the silence. She’s just staring ahead.
“What did she want?” she asks.
“Just making sure you’re okay.” I pause. “She told me about Matt. I’m sorry for everything.”
Olivia begins to sob again and turns to hug me. I hold her close and stare out into the city. After a few minutes, she pulls away and her eyes look into mine.
“I’m sorry I never told you.”
“I don’t blame you. That’s a lot to deal with.”
She smiles and shakes her head, turning away again.”
“There’s more to this city than destruction,” she says, taking my hand. I’m debating whether to stand up and lead her back inside where we can get dry, but we keep sitting there in the rain. I might know what she means about New Orleans, but I don’t want to think about all that right now.
Greg Mook dabbles in three fields: ministry, writing, and emergency medicine. He is definitely not the most interesting man in the world, but he does not mind Dos Equis either. Stay thirsty, my friends.