Carla, Swept Away
By: Casey Robb
The storm is blowing in all black and swirly. I am dancing in the street, twirling, like the clouds. Carla has arrived. Her wind lashes my back, my yellow slicker flapping like a feral thing. Her skies let go. Heavy drops hammer my cheeks like marbles. The distant ditch is spilling dark water across the county road. The murky stream steals up our street and drowns our lawn.
I splash. I wade. My red rain boots flood. My toes slosh around inside, all silky. Stunned frogs swim around and leap at my legs. I scoop one up, but cannot grasp the small slimy thing, and it slides back into the mucky water with a plop. My hair is swirling at my face, stinging and tingling my cheeks, all drippy and slick. A gust wallops me, knocks me to my hands and knees. I stand again, drenched, plant my feet on the pavement and brace against the wind.
“Come on in!” Mama yells from the front door. “You’re fixin’ to wash away!”
“Oh, Mama, not yet,” I shout against the wind and whirl again. The street is a lake. The stream has flooded to my knees. I scrape my boots along the gutter to find the curb, and park my hands firmly on my hips. I will not come in. After all, I am ten now, no longer a child. And Carla has made me wild.
“Allie. You come in. Now!” Mama yells once more. I spin again… stop… then gasp and jerk around like she’d hauled a slap.
“Mama, I’m not Allie. I’m Sarah. Allie’s gone.”
Mama marches out, dunking her shoes and stockings. Her close-cropped frizzy hair is speckled with raindrops that drizzle down her face. Her eyes narrow to puffy red slits, her lips pulled taut and lean. Trouble. She grabs my arm and yanks me in through the front door. I stand dripping on the hard wood floor. Mama tramps down the hall, leaving a wet trail to her bed. My own wet trail leads to the bathroom, where I peel off soggy clothes, slip into pajamas, and pour boot water down the sink. I head to my room.
Allie’s pink tasseled bed sits wedged against the wall, all smothered with piles of boxes and bins. I turn and sit stiffly on my own unmade bed by the door.
A quiet whimpering echoes down the hall. Mama’s crying makes me cringe. My fingers twist and lock together, tight.
Dad tiptoes into their bedroom. “There, there,” I hear him mutter. And everything goes silent, except for the raging storm.
Thunder slams the house. I run to the living room, scoot behind the sofa beneath our big, wide windows, and stare at racing clouds, whipping trees, battering limbs. A branch splinters—craaaack—and crashes into the lake that is our neighbor’s yard. The glass panes rattle. If Mama were still… well, like she was last year, before it happened… I’d whisper, Mama, we’re not in Texas anymore, and she’d laugh. But now I am standing alone. The wind roars like a runaway train. I panic and sprint to my room, then return to the sofa dragging a blanket, and burrow down deep where I am hidden and safe. I lift a corner to peek. The house and the heavens are an eerie blue-black.
That night in bed, I half-hear, half-dream Carla colliding with our roof, howling, sucking air from the house. And, just as I am entering Oz, morning breaks open and a chorus of chirping erupts from the tired trees. Carla has moved on up to the north country to die a whirling death. Man, if only Allie could have seen her, or heard her moan. Or touched her tears.
A year before the hurricane, we all went down to Galveston together. Dad packed the car for crabbing, poured chunks of chicken bait in a bucket—slimy necks and gizzards—and hauled it to the back seat on the floor. The stink of it mixed in with our memories of hot wind and wonder all the way to the coast.
Allie crowded me, pulling away from the smell, until I pinched her.
“Stop it!” she yelled, then pushed me against the door and pinched me back, harder.
“Not fair!” I howled. Allie was strong for a kindergarten girl. But the causeway was coming up ahead, and that’s when I had to be strong. For Allie.
Mama lowered the window and let the wind rush in. Her reddish-brown hair, huge and frizzy and wild, waved back at us in the rear seat—a massive mane on a short mama. So short she could park her little feet on the dash while whistling Eating Goober Peas to distract Allie as the bay appeared in the distance. We hit a bump in the road and Mama bellowed, “Yee-haw!”
I reached over for Allie’s hand. “Dad! Tell us about Jean Lafitte!” I had my own ways of distracting her.
“Oooh,” Dad said. “You wouldn’t want to run into that Frenchman.”
“How come?” I asked, though we’d heard the story a million times.
“Don’t let him fool ya, just because he and his band of buccaneers won us the Battle of New Orleans. Why, he’s the worst of them slimy pirates. He and his Campeche thieves could still be drifting around that pirate’s den at the old Maison Rouge.”
“Wasn’t he a hero?”
“A slave-stealer he was. And always looking for little girls for his special collection.” Dad reached back and grabbed our legs with a loud, “Aaaargh!” and we slid down in the backseat, tumbling in a frenzy.
Mama sighed. “Come on, Edwin. I’ll do the tickling. You watch the road.” She twisted around and grabbed at our jerking feet.
As we approached the causeway, the chatter gave way to an edgy silence. I tried to pinch Allie again, hoping she’d laugh, but she pulled away and sat upright, squeezed my hand hard and peered out to the mud-green bay below, her eyes wide.
“Mama, is the bridge gonna crack?” Allie leaned away from the window. “Is our car gonna go sliding down? I can’t swim.” What an imagination she had. Then, “Sharks?”
Little sisters are like that. I wasn’t scared. I was big—almost nine that year. She was only five, and a feisty little red-haired thing. I cupped Allie’s hand in mine till we finally reached land.
That was way back before… well, before Allie got hurt, bad. Well, worse than bad. I almost don’t want to say it, as if the words could make it happen all over again.
Off the bridge, we drove up Broadway a bit and found a place to stop the car. We all got out and stomped our shoes on solid ground so Allie could breathe again—a ritual—and then Dad drove us on down to the south side, to the Gulf of Mexico. He let us out on Seawall Boulevard right at the pier, and left to park. Allie and I ran squealing down the dock, hanging onto our bucket of meat. We wormed our way through a swarm of fishermen and found us a spot next to an old man in overalls with a leathery face. He crouched down to his buckets with two tall boys—his sons, I guessed—baiting their hooks with bits of shrimp.
“Uh, ’scuse us!” I pushed in alongside the two sons, poking out my elbows so we’d seem bigger than we were.
Mama buckled a belt around Allie and fixed it to a rope. She unfolded her lawn chair and sat close, clutching that rope. I tied a chicken neck to a string and waved it in Mama’s face.
“Yum.” Mama puckered her lips. “Nice and slimy.” She batted it away. “No, you eat it.”
I swung the dripping neck in Allie’s face. She scrunched up her nose. Then she pinched the string with her fingertips and sat down on the edge of the pier, her feet hanging near the surf. I sat close and wrapped my arms around her waist too, just in case, while she lowered that chicken chunk way down into the dark water.
“Where’s Dad?” I glanced at the seawall where dirty white waves climbed and crashed against a long line of boulders. “He’s got the net.”
“Don’t know.” Mama shook her head. “Probably at the snack bar loading up on fried fish and beer.” She sounded annoyed. “He’s never here when you need him.”
“Not true!” I huffed out a breath. “He’s always here. And he’s the funnest dad ever.”
“Yeah, loads of fun,” Mama countered. “But two kids are enough for this mom.”
I stared back at the shore feeling stung. For Dad. “Look. Seeeeeee?” I said. “He’s coming.” I stood up and pointed to Dad, who was strolling up the pier with the net in hand. When Dad spotted us, he embraced the net like a lover and waltzed it down the pier, bumping into a few fisher folk. Allie giggled. Mom turned her head away, just sat in that lawn chair and gazed out to sea. Dad snuck up behind Mama and covered her eyes.
“Yuck! You smell like fish!” She twisted and took a swipe at him. The chair tipped over. Dad grabbed to catch her, but Mama spilled onto the wood planks and he fell on top of her, their legs a tangle. I gasped.
They both sat up. The old leather man in overalls turned and stared.
“Are you hurt, sugar?”
“Got a splinter.” Mama sighed and shook her head. “And you?”
“Just a bruise.” He felt his elbow; his mouth turned down in his best clown frown.
“Tsk, tsk.” Mama turned to Allie and me. “Girls, catch us some dinner.”
I handed the net to Allie and sat back down, and we let our legs dangle. “Now, watch.” I raised the cord, as slow as a sea slug, out of the murky green water. A pink crab appeared at the surface; it pinched at the meat with scissor hands and looked up at us with its beady eyes. Allie gave a shriek. I rolled my own eyes and grabbed the net from her, hard, with my strong right hand, ready for the big scoop-a-roo. Big sisters know how to hold onto things. Most things.
The day it happened, Mama was at the house. She didn’t know Allie and I had snuck off from the yard, that we were roaming by the thicket near that two-lane county road looking for tadpoles and toads in the roadside ditch. Allie had just wandered onto the shoulder, gathering glossy rocks, when the screech of tires burned into my mind like a scream that would never end. The pickup careened around the curve and hit her like a massive fist and she flew, as if a gusty wind had lifted and carried her, slowly, steadily, up and up, then dropped her into the ditch with the tadpoles where she vanished. Not her body—it was still twitching—but she was gone. I knew it. Sisters know these things. The pickup truck was gone too. The sheriff never found who’d hit her.
After the funeral, friends and neighbors gathered at the house. All the ladies were sniffling and dabbing at their eyes, and setting out fried chicken and green bean casseroles and yam pies. The men leaned against the wall, mute, staring at the floorboards. Mama just sat there at the kitchen table. She could have been a stone. Dad greeted and grasped the hands of all the visiting folks. The ladies offered Mama biscuits and clutched her close. One of them tried to kiss my cheek. I pulled away and crossed my arms, walked stiffly to my bed, and stood gazing at my shoes—those awful black patent leather ones Dad made me wear to the funeral. Across the room by the wall, Allie’s bed sat, still unmade. All that week, I’d been sleeping by her tasseled pink bedspread that lay crumpled across the bed board and partway along the floor. Some nights, I was sure I heard her get up. I scrunched my eyes and bit my fist.
Finally, Dad ushered the last of the ladies out, thanking everyone for the flowers and the food, and wasn’t it a lovely funeral, they said, and yes, he agreed, and then they were all gone home, and I kicked off those shiny shoes and came back to the kitchen, and that’s when Mama began to fold.
It started with our steel-blue cloth napkins the ladies had carefully laid out on the table. Next it was blankets. Then pants. And shirts and linens, and anything she could find.
“Mama,” I grumbled once, “the sheets are already—”
“No, hon.” Dad shook his head. “Just let her be.”
Last month, after Carla scraped and scrambled through our town, she raced on up north and gave out. Our bare sky turned a brilliant blue. We gathered branches and tree limbs and waved to our neighbors as they sloshed across their own soggy lawn.
Today, Dad wants to drive us down to the beach to see the wreckage and all. Since we live inland, we’re okay, but the news said it’s bad at the coast.
“I’m not going,” Mama says.
“Come on, sugar.” Dad sounds buoyant. “Let’s go see the new causeway.”
“No. Not now. It’s a graveyard. Nothing but rubbish and ruin.”
“Well, I’d like to go. Come on, Sarah.” He packs drinks and fried chicken and loads them in the back seat and we get in, Dad and me.
Mama shows up at the car, cradling a basket of rumpled gray towels and steel-blue napkins. She scoots into the front seat and sits, silent and stiff. Dad starts the motor and heads for the highway. Mama doesn’t even glance out the window, not once, just stares down at her lap at her folding and unfolding, her hands moving in a nervous rhythm. The quiet is thick and deep and fills the cracks in my mind.
We are passing the exit to Clear Lake when Dad finally moves in his seat. He shifts his weight back and makes a throaty frog sound. “Ever hear of the Great Storm of 1900?”
“Nuh-uh,” I reply from the back seat. “What was her name?”
“In those days, they didn’t name hurricanes. If they had named her, she might have been Gail: The Gale that Killed Galveston.”
“Back in those times, no forecast, no warning. On that terrible day, the rain poured and the water rose and rose. But was it just rain?” He’s gripping the wheel tightly. “Noooo. See, this woman, she walked down her porch steps and stood in water to her knees. She scooped up a handful of liquid and lapped it with her tongue and tasted not sweet rain, but… salt.”
“Salt? From the sea? Wow. Did she run?”
“She did. But too late. The wind was whipping and the whitecaps were surging against the houses. One lady tried to flee with her baby wrapped in a quilt. The wind thrashed the blanket and ripped it away. The gale wrenched that naked baby from its mother’s arms and hurled it up and up. Swept away.”
“A baby?” I give a little gasp. “Shush!” I shoot eye-daggers at Dad and glance at Mama. She is still staring at her lap. Dad’s right cheek flushes red. Perhaps he’s sorry. He reaches out and rests his hand on Mama’s thigh.
We’re getting closer to the bay and pass more and more fields thick with mud, and stores and stuff leaning over like crooked old men. We must be near Texas City. I can tell from the stink. Oil refinery tanks appear, squatting in the field like abandoned birthday cakes. “Pee-yew!” I pinch my nose and roll up my window all the way. Dad chuckles. I scoot forward. Mama has not made a sound. I lean forward and skim my fingers along her stubble-hair, all bristly now. She jerks her shorn head up and to the right, as if roused from a dream, to find herself in a moving car.
And there it is, looming—the towering new bridge on the bay. It’s way too high, like the coaster at the carnival I refused to ride. The sight of it sets my toes to tingling. We drive along, stiff and silent, watching the flat highway rise and swell up ahead. Mama’s hands pause. By reflex, I reach out for Allie, as if her spirit hand were there to cup and caress. I can almost feel her sticky palm. The car moves faster. We reach the new causeway and climb up, and up, and up, way over the rippling green sea. I grip Mama’s seat back. I have to be scared for Allie now. Allie is gone.
Finally, over and down the hump, and onto good island land—whew!—we make our way south to Seawall Boulevard, what’s left of it. I roll down my window and sniff the salty ocean breeze. Dad slows the car to a crawl. We gawk. Grand mansions watch over the wreckage. Boats and crumpled cars lie bunched up against the busted hulls of used-to-be stores, some leaning bravely, and others just piles of cracked boards completely defeated. The bloated carcass of a black dog protrudes from a fallen wall. The reek enters the car. I roll up my window, fast.
“Look!” I point. “It’s our pier!” A bit of the walkway is left, all broken and bent. Waves crash against the phantom poles and pilings that jut up from the dirty surf. I sink down in my seat.
We continue west till the seawall runs out, and move on to the low land, where our tires crunch on shards of oyster shells from the old beach road, glistening white. The west end is a jagged seascape of mud and muck and scattered jumbles of splintered wood. To our left, the waves lap at sand on a beach as bare and undone as a naked child. To our right, five palm trees in a line are leaning, bending, swaying, as if in prayer.
And that’s when I see it, strange, sitting all alone—a concrete slab where not even a withered ghost of a house hangs on, and right in the middle sits a porcelain toilet, perched like a pelican on a nest waiting to take wing.
We park. Dad gets out, then me. Mama sits in the car while Dad and I walk to the slab and gape at the toilet. We poke around, lift splintered boards, and pick up a table leg, a curtain rod, and chips of blue-green china cups. I step over chunks of concrete. A rat scurries out.
“Careful,” Dad says, his voice muffled by the constant wail of the Gulf wind.
I move away to a distant mound of stilt-house pilings and twisted pipes, yank at a kitchen sink, and kick a crooked bed frame to watch its coiled springs quiver. A red ribbon snake slithers under a board. I jump back, then step onto a strip of busted brick wall and look over to see if Dad is watching me. He is not. Dad is staring at the ground near his feet. He crosses his arms and shakes his head. Then he sits on the grubby platform, hunches over and hangs his face. I think he is crying.
I return to the concrete slab and circle around it, pretending not to notice Dad. A minute later, I steal a glance. He is trembling. I hear a whining sound, though it could be the wheeze of the wind. I wander some more. Dad finally stands up and wipes his face on his sleeve. My shoe kicks a baby’s pink rattle. Over by a brick, a woman’s black high heel is sticking up from the sandy mud.
We don’t notice that Mama has left. Not till we see her tiny figure way out in the surf, the churning waves slapping at her chest. In her left hand, she hoists a steel-blue napkin. It flutters and whips. She lets go. It catches a rising current like a gray and white gull on the wing.
Dad and I race to the beach. The waves wash over our shoes. We hurdle and leap over the whitecaps, and wade into the murky Gulf to our knees.
“Stay back,” he calls.
I stop, my legs shaking with shark dreams, and gladly return to the beach to watch as Dad forces his body forward, cutting the roiling sea like a rudder steering a ship in a storm. From the shore, from the shallows, I see the surging breakers swish around his chest and slap at his face. Mama’s still farther out. Her hands rise and sway. Dad reaches her, finally, and binds his arms around her ribs. Their bodies lean, this way and that, with the swelling of the sea. He pivots them both as one, their faces now aimed at the beach, at the car, at me.
“Mama!” I yell into the wild, salty wind. “Come home!”
She and Dad seem tiny, that far out. They begin to make their way in, slowly, together, the foaming surf crashing at their backs.
“Mama!” I wade out again to my knees to meet them. “Dad!” As they come closer, he looks big now—tall and strong. Good. I can go. I turn and splash back to the sandy beach.
A movement catches my eye, and I scan the quickening clouds. A pinpoint bird is flapping, maybe a gull. Or is it the napkin? I drop my gaze to Mama and Dad. They are still out in deep water, but making their slow way to the shallows.
Halfway to shore, they halt. She raises her face to the sky. Dad seems to tighten his hug. Her thin arms loosen and lift—they flail, they stretch, they reach, as if begging for a plundered prize… as if yearning, pleading for something high. Something soaring.
Something swept away.