What Irene Found
The couple stands six inches apart, on the sidewalk, hands in the pockets of army surplus slickers, her shoulders hunched, his squared. She is wearing boots that are too big for her small, slender body. He has on a blue hat with the words “Who Dat” in white lettering. On the side of the red brick building just behind them to their left is a large faded sign that advertises, “Zora’s Inn” with a large Italian Mama-face staring out, her mouth curved into a toothy, vapid smile. To the right, in another red brick building, a coffee shop advertises fresh donuts and 20 different kinds of hot beverages.
Their backs are to this and to the crowd behind them, gathering on Water Street, some silent and grim, some talking and holding one another. The couple is as close to the barrier of orange traffic cones and yellow caution tape as they can stand without falling into the murky, frothing rush beyond.
Where there had been a hollow in the land, there is now water that won’t go to bed, a river unbound by a dam that couldn't take the storm for another day, another hour, another moment. It crumbled like stale bread, and the water it released swept out en mass, flicking boulders like they were marbles, the current clutching and dragging at the foundations of houses, of shops, of the roots of trees that had been there when Washington held his first ax.
The couple is engulfed in the roar of a cannonade that will not fade. On the opposite rise, across the torrent of water, is half a house. The contents of a living room are now open for public viewing—a TV dangling, a green couch teeters, arm chairs, book cases, a china cabinet already gone ahead. The basement is a ragged mouth spewing forth retired furniture, a furnace, boxes, a lawn mower, and rusty old bicycles.
They are both thinking about the basement more than anything else. More than the loss of her grandmother’s china, his computer with all their business records, more than where they’ll sleep tonight, more than their neighbors’ homes being carried down river, one cross beam, one floor board, ten bricks, one stick of furniture at a time. Even more than their dog, who they last saw paddling in the current, looking back at them expectantly.
There is a loud crack, a groan, and a nearby house gives into the incessant, nagging water. The crowd behind them whimpers as one and they can feel the group withdraw and clutch one another. Someone, probably the owner, moans. The house topples and pieces of it join the boiling exodus of debris. The trees on the opposite bank are falling in two and three at a time as though they’d made a lover’s promise.
But the couple is still thinking about the basement—or more specifically-its contents and when the tarp covered bundle inevitably appears in the water, they stop thinking about the basement and start thinking about it.
They both gasp, she points at it.
Look, she mouths.
His expression shifts from startled to blank, stares through her as though he sees nothing but more river. His message is plain: Stop confessing.
He is hoping the tarp doesn't come off, that the bundle will float safely down river and settle in the recesses of some deep pool. Or the emergency crews will accidentally bulldoze it in with the boulders and the smashed trees. Maybe it will remain hidden. Maybe it will smell like the river and no one will notice it at all. Or perhaps will notice it, but assume it’s a dog that finally lost the fight with the current.
She half-hopes that someone will find it, wants to answer questions, wants to tell someone—anyone really—what they did. And why. Mostly she wants to tell someone why. That they weren't bad people, just people—who when they traveled the length and breadth of themselves—came to the crest of the best part of themselves only to find an empty mason jar and little else*.
Just down from them is an old woman dressed in a yellow rain coat, tightly belted around her narrow waist, a matching hat atop her head. Her home is further up and she already knows that it will be fine. She feels for most of those around her— they've lost because they did not listen when she advised them to build higher—but why would they? No one ever listens to the person who tells them no, do they? People like yeses so much that they don’t care if they learn the yes was built on a lie. She says words for them anyway. White light. White light.
When the bundle rises and bobs in the current. She looks at the couple next to her. She knows what it is. Has known all along. Did they really think no one at all would wonder? She has no light for them. There is no light bright enough to illuminate the darkness they live in. The best she can do for them is to wish that they find their way out.
The young woman is wishing for dry clothes and warm food. Salvation. Be it a car to drive away in—certainly no one would wonder why now. Or discovery. She almost doesn't care which.
The man wants the river to snake up over the banks, drag her under before she can cry out, and carry her to where ever the bundle is going. He wonders if he has the courage to push her in the next time the river takes another house and everyone is so busy crying about it, they can’t see the human among in the wreckage. Failing that, he wants to slink away into the crowd and act like he never met her. He doesn't care which either.