Kirk Curnutt

Down in the Flood

 

for Pete Rainwater

 

A dead man's face tells you all you need to know about his life.

That's what my dad told me the first time I was around to see the Chattahoochee bust the levee and drown up Eufaula. I was maybe twelve, I think. I know I wasn't older, because I was still young enough to think that a flood could be a four-square thing. For starters, it got us out of school for two weeks. It was Easter time then, and all the churches in town took on water, but nowhere near as bad as our school. The flood slicked over the hallways with red mud and made the gym smell like wet crackers. There was no place to hold classes in all that mess, so as soon as the fellowship halls of the churches were drained and dried, they sat us down in folding chairs, and, for the rest of the year, we studied with our books on our knees. But it was worth it, because for those two weeks when they were deciding where to stick us, I got to ride around in a skiff with my dad and fish for bodies.

See, my dad was a volunteer fireman; that's how I was able to go out in the flood with him. Volunteers back in those days, the sixties, worked under fewer restrictions than they do now. If my dad'd been a real fireman with the city, I know I'd never end up seeing the things I did. And it was those things that brought me to my current line of work. I'm a paramedic stationed at one of Eufaula's three full-time firehouses. Before Dad passed away last fall he'd drop by the station to check out our trucks. "Nothing more fancy than what we ever had," he'd say. I think he was a little jealous. He was a cotton farmer, so about the only excitement he had was when a call for the volunteers came over the shortwave.

If I remember it right, the flood was a few days old the first time he took me out in the skiff. At first, the water only rose knee-high, so the public safety people could wade through the streets in their hip-huggers checking on folks. But then on the third day the levee broke, and the river flushed up past the second story of the storefronts. Even though downtown Eufaula sits at a lower elevation than the rest of the city, a second-story waterline still meant that the rich folks up the hill would be up to their friezes in flood, with all kinds of muck dirtying up their colonnades and porticos and belvederes. It also meant that the leantos and trailers on the outskirts would be completely submerged. Most of those living on the outskirts were poor blacks who either picked cotton or worked as domestics for the few wealthy families in east Barbour County. If there were Red Cross shelters back then (I can't remember), people from the outskirts didn't go to them. They wouldn't leave their homes for fear that they'd get looted. So as soon as the levee busted and the rain showed no sign of letting up, the county called in the volunteers. A lot of those old boys, my dad included, owned either a rowboat or canoe, and one or two had bass boats, so it was their job to trawl the outskirts and pick the stragglers off their rooftops. I'm sure doing their part by saving folks made those volunteers feel real good, but I'm also pretty certain that each of them was wanting to haul out at least one corpse, just so they could say they had.

For a lot of years, I reckoned my dad carried me with him because he thought he was teaching me some sort of lesson. Then when I came to be an adult I realized I was there for a more practical reason: he needed my help pulling the dead weight from the water. See, a flood looks steady enough when it's sat for a while. It usually lies flat like it's sleeping, but then, when there's quiet, you can hear a gurgling rumble from deep down in its belly, sort of like vibrations from a faraway train. The runoff has all kinds of crosscurrents shoving and tugging each other, so if you try to stand or squat in a boat—even a flat-bottom boat—you're a fool to trust your balance. There was no way Dad could yank his bloated cargo portside without a counterweight to keep from spilling. He was nervous about me being there, I know, even though he'd never confess it outright. We wouldn't even make it past the gravel roadway that led to our house before he'd have me trussed up in a life preserver.

The volunteers put their boats in the water at a makeshift landing where a canteen had been set up under a long awning of tent. We barely made it out of the truck when the rich smell of coffee hit us. It was almost strong enough to drown out the gas from the diesel generators that doused the landing in light. The light cast eerie shadows on the men while they struggled to keep from slipping in the muck as they lugged their skiffs to the bank. Just a few yards out from shore, though, the beams dissipated so nothing could be seen but an occasional flicker from a kerosene lamp. Dad was a big coffee drinker, so as soon as we got the boat to the landing (which was nothing but a jerry-built ramp of plywood) he knotted the gunwale to a cypress trunk and tramped to the tent to fill two thermoses. The most I ever drank was maybe a half-cap's worth, enough to keep me awake. But Dad would down and down that coffee until, when he had to, he'd lean his knees against the backseat to take a long piss over the stern.

With a small outboard motor it took maybe a half-hour to make it to the outskirts. We'd set out in a formation with three or four other skiffs, but pretty soon each of us would be out of the others' sight, and only the churn of a wake or the throttle of an engine a few yards away told us we weren't alone. I don't remember any talk going on. Dad and I didn't even speak until the time came for him to get out the grappling hook, and he'd order me to the outboard's tiller. All that silence meant that as we rode there was nothing to do but watch as scum and flotsam slid past the prow. Mainly the water was choked with twigs and tree limbs, but every once in a while, a shoe bobbed by, or a baseball cap. Once I saw what I thought was a long cattail slither along with the current, but I wasn't certain. Sights like that made you wonder what'd never made it to the surface.

It was the sound of the animals that told you you were nearing the outskirts. The air was thick with the anxious squabble of chickens, their feet tapping on the corrugated tin roofs, and dogs howling for their masters. But the worst were the cows. They let out this unholy moan, their pitch starting low and then wrenching itself up in a high shriek that boomed over the leafless trees. One night, as we rode through a pocket of silence, one of them cried out from nowhere, and because I was steering at that moment, I saw the unexpectedness of the bellow bring a shiver out in my dad. His shoulders rippled, and he immediately shot his eyes in the direction of the noise, thinking, maybe, we were about to plow right into the cow's flank. A second later he was looking over his back at me, his stiff expression telling me not to speak of what I'd seen.

Here's another odd thing about a flood: people rarely get stranded in one by themselves. They end up clutching chimneys and peeking out haylofts in groups of four or five. Most of these groups are composed of family members. Every so often, we came across a cluster of neighbors who'd made their way to the nearest tall structure when their one-story went under. Another strange thing is that people always insist on carrying one personal possession with them when they flee rising water. They weigh themselves down with the family Bible, or with a pile of quilts, or with photograph albums—almost never practical things such as flashlights or radios. Dad's skiff wasn't big enough to rescue more than two at a time, so when we came upon some people, Dad would call for reinforcements with a bullhorn he kept stashed under the bow seat. We carried a little throw light that we'd send over the brown slosh, and slowly the tips of the other skiffs would ride into sight, manned by silhouettes whose shadows evaporated as they pulled into the arc of our illumination. As they approached, the motors would cut off, and the skiffs drifted up to the roofline as though they were lining up for gas. One by one, the boats' drafts deepened as the exhausted bodies loaded themselves onboard by gripping the prams and lowering themselves to the wet floorboards. But loading up the living was the easy part.

It was much harder when we came across a body.

The first one Dad and I retrieved belonged to a black pastor. He was minister to a little country church, one of those that's more shanty than cathedral. He'd gotten his wife and kids out of harm's way by breaking through an attic wall with a ball-peen hammer, but the water shot up into the attic entry too quick for him to hoist himself onto the slippery shingles, and he'd been sucked back into the murk. We put the wife and her babies—she had two, one a toddler and the other an infant that she held tight to her breast—in a separate skiff and headed them back toward the landing before we began looking for him. When the family was out of sight, Dad slipped the grappling hook into the water and began poling through the hole. My job was to keep the skiff steady by holding fast to a dangling fascia board, but with each thrust of the hook, the boat curled from side to side until I was sure we'd dump over. I figured Dad was crazy to think he could catch more than a floating hymnal or broken pew, but when the pole struck something that seemed to strike right back, I knew we had the man. Dad drew the hook to the surface, and we saw that it'd caught the shoulder of a black frock coat. We let the skiff drift away from the church so our floating towed the body out of the wall hole. Then Dad took the shoulders and I grabbed the legs, and we jerked the body up and over the side, dumping it without delicacy onto the ribbed boat bottom. Then we sat for a time, not talking again, staring at the pastor's open eyes.

"This boy had a lot of redemption on his mind," Dad eventually said. This was back when a lot of Civil Rights problems were going on up in Montgomery and Birmingham, and over in Selma, too, and I'd be dishonest if I didn't admit that my dad wasn't too fond of the blacks. At the time I wasn't aware enough to know what it meant to call a black man a boy. All I knew was that I was looking into a pair of vacated eyes. That and that I couldn't look away. The pastor's mouth was frozen open as well. Water drooled out his lips, streaming down both cheeks to puddle at the back of his ears. I was aware enough to understand that there did indeed seem something desperate in the man's expression. It wasn't at all what you'd expect from a minister, who you'd think would be jubilant to be heading heaven's way. Staring at the corpse was what made Dad come out with that line: a dead man's face tells you all you need to know about his life.

"Now a boy like this—" It was a minute later, and we were trawling slowly, so the motor barely let out a hum—"He's always got him a woman on the side. Even when he fancies himself close to Jesus. That's why you'll need to keep your conscience clean. Because the first person that sees you dead'll be privy to your secrets."

As we approached the landing, I could see the wife silhouetted by the lights in the tent. She was standing ankle deep in the water, the toddler at her hip, the infant braced against her shoulder blade. The whole family was motionless; they might have been a set of stumpy bridge spiles if it weren't for the aura of anticipation that they radiated. As we slid up to the bank, I cut the motor and then jumped behind the stern to shove the skiff onto the shore. I hadn't even gotten the bow out of the water before the woman was leaning into the boat, screaming and clutching at her dead husband. She laid the baby on the pastor's stomach as she pressed herself to his chest. All I could do was hold the stern steady while her heaving rolled the skiff side to side. Dad jumped to the shore, not looking. "Need a leak," he said over his shoulder. "When she's done you tie up the boat and come get you some eats." The woman was wailing now, the sound scarier than any human voice I'd ever heard. For the first time since we'd found the pastor, I couldn't bear to look.

Eventually, some of the Red Cross men tiptoed into the water and took the woman by the arms. One led her to the medic station; the other carried the infant a few steps behind. The toddler followed on its own, not sure what else to do. I guided the boat to the bank and knotted the line just as Dad said. When I made my way to the tent, I poured some sweet tea from a pitcher in a cooler and started in on a sandwich from a donated tray of food. I was sitting in a folding chair, drying my feet by a campfire, when I heard one of the Red Cross people talking to my dad.

"You couldn't have covered him up with something?"

"I didn't think to pack a tarp or a blanket," Dad answered. "I coulda pulled that frock coat over him to hide his face, but I figured the woman'd be mad if I'd been wrestling with him."

"He was a minister, you know—"

"He wasn't nothing but dead when I met him."

From the corner of my eye, I saw the man park his hands on his hips.

"Just make you sure you've got some sort of wrap before you head back out. We got enough problems with them these days without giving them reason to say we been disrespecting their dead."

So before we took to the water again Dad borrowed a wide sheet of plastic pool liner from another volunteer and wadded it under a middle seat. We didn't unroll the liner that night, nor, if I remember right, for the next couple of days. But then one afternoon we came across a woman— a white woman—hanging upside down from a tree limb. One leg poked straight in the air, while the other dangled at a crooked angle over a fat branch. It was the oddest sight; she reminded me of how kids'll stand on their hands and walk the shallow ends of pools. Her calves came out of the water just above the kneecaps, and it scared me a little to think that if the water were just a bit shallower her most private part'd be exposed to anyone riding by.

We guided the skiff up to the tree trunk, and Dad started snapping off branches to free her. When the body came loose, it slid under the surface and probably would've disappeared if Dad hadn't grabbed an ankle and tipped the woman sideways so she floated horizontal along the starboard. When we first hauled her in the boat, she lay face down. We decided it was more respectful to turn her.

"What are you thinking?"

We were halfway back to the landing, and neither of us had yet spoken.

Dad said, "I'm thinking we better get her covered up so we don't get chewed out some more." I unfurled the liner and tucked it as far up as her chin. That left her face still exposed.

"Tell me what you're thinking about her—about what her face says. Tell me her story."

Through the moonlight I could see his eyes draw across her corpse and settle on her head. Her features were bloated and distorted from being under the water for so long.

"I s'pect this one was wanting to live. She don't look scared or worried—just determined. I figure she'd a baby she was trying to hold fast to. Maybe she thought she could save it if she couldn't save herself—can't tell that part. But she had something she was fighting the current for. I'm sure there's a husband somewhere out there looking for her. When you get right down to it, there's not that many different stories to separate folk. There's the love and there's the hurt, and everything else is a shade of in-between." His jaws worked the gum that popped between his teeth. "Best get her face under that tarp, now."

So it became something of a game, something to kill the time. My Dad and I only found maybe two more bodies, but each time I pushed him to guess for me just where in that space between love and hurt the faces told him those people'd lived. It was a game I kept playing long after the flood receded and I grew up to join the paramedics. My partner Carl and I, we've been teamed together nine years now, and we know each other well enough that when we get called to a fatality, one of us is sure to pop the question. Over the years we've come up with some pretty farfetched stuff—the heart-attack victim who died believing a lost letter would turn up in the mail, the woman in the car wreck who ran the stop sign racing to confront her husband's mistress, the old man who was relieved to die because his wife had gone before him. No matter what the circumstance, though, what Dad said rang true: those faces, however frozen their expression, were at least in some small part alive with story.

So last summer the Chattahoochee came over the levee again, the first time in thirty-six years. The water crested at forty-seven feet, which meant Eufaula got swallowed up even more than it had in the spring of '65. Carl and I were assigned a city skiff, and this time we weren't allowed to go out at night unless an emergency call came in—the insurance liability's too high. But even though the flood rose taller than before, the town was evacuated early this time, and we were left trawling for stranded pets, not people. The chickens still tapped their claws on the corrugated rooftops, and the abandoned cows still let out their unholy moans, but in the daylight, the animals sounded more sad than spooky. For the better part of a week, I didn't think we were going to have any opportunity to guess a few secrets. But then we got sent to look for this woman on the outskirts who was said to run a puppy mill, and let me tell you, it turned out to be one hell of a story.

Our skiff had a bigger motor this time, so me and Carl made it to the outskirts in about half the time. It wasn't too easy to find our way around because the road signs were all under, and landmarks were few and far between unless you happened to know the patterns that the shingles on the tallest barn tops made. Still, we managed to get to what we assumed was the general vicinity of her address, thanks to a helicopter that circled over our heads. We did our own circling, too—around the trees that could reach the surface, the gables and roof lines poking up, even around the drifting clusters of wood. We were looking for anything buoyant enough to keep someone afloat. Something thick enough, at any rate, to hold a corpse steady against the current.

It took a few hours, but we found her. The water had shoved her along the overhang of a shed, where she'd gotten caught up on a protruding nail that kept her bobbing face first in the flood's lapping. Carl ripped the nail out of a knot in her jacket shoulder, but when he tried to hoist her torso up, he realized something under the surface had hold of her, too. Carl dipped over the port far as he could while I kept the boat balanced, but it was no good. "Whatever's got her," Carl said, "is too fond'a her to let go."

"So which of us is going in?" I asked. I was smiling at him; the sleeves of his shirt were sopping from his arms going into the water. He rolled his eyes and started unlacing his shoes.

A second later he was stripped down to his trousers. We tied a line through a back belt loop just in case the current was stronger than what it looked. The water was cold, but there was no easing himself in. Old Carl had to jump over all at once. He let out a yell when the water hit his chest.

He stayed under less than twenty seconds. We didn't have goggles with us, and Carl wears contacts, so he wanted as much as possible to keep his eyes closed. When his head broke the surface, his lids were pinched tight.

"You're not gonna believe this," he said. "She's got her fingers jammed in some kinda crate. One of those kenneling crates, I guess. They're shoved clean through the bars. They're not coming out."

"Well, let's just bring the crate in with her."

"Can't. It's either weighted down or wedged against something. Whatever the cause, it ain't budging."

"She got those fingers between them bars. There's gotta be a way to get them out."

Carl exhaled loudly so the water under his nostrils rippled. We both knew what it'd take to get her free. We'd worked enough accident scenes to know that you often gotta break bones to get a body loose.

Carl went down and then came up a few times. He was having to dislodge the woman finger by finger, and it was taking all his strength to yank at her hands and to frog kick to keep his place beside her. Finally, the woman bounced a little, and the hump of her back rose high out of the water. I knew then Carl'd busted her loose.

Once I helped my partner pull himself back in the skiff, we took the woman by the wrists and ankles to lift her up. This time it was my arms underwater. I had to shove them in and feel around because her legs were tucked up as if she were kneeling. "Jesus," I said. "She's stiff as starch. Rigor's got her already." Now it was Carl's turn to laugh at me. I had to lean so far over to find her feet I could have been washing my face in the water.

"She looks like she's praying," Carl said. It was true. Even though we had her on her side, her bent knees had her looking like she was bowing at an altar, and her arms met in front of her chest as if she were trying to clasp her hands. There was no way she could, of course. The tips of her blue, creased fingers jutted at awkward angles from her knuckles from where Carl'd had to break them. "You know the only way her hands could'a gotten jammed in that crate, don't you?" he asked me.

"Sure." We were both staring at her. I took a deep breath that seemed to drop my lungs into my stomach. "She shoved them between those bars. She was holding herself under."

Carl started drying his back with his wadded shirt, but I still couldn't take my eyes off that marble-gray face. "That's the goddamndest," he said. He was pulling his socks over his ankles now. "Why would she do that?"

"I couldn't say."

"Well, shit. Look at her face. Take a stab."

"I don't know."

But that was a lie. I had my guesses. See, I knew her. I didn't recognize the woman at first because of how badly the water'd drained away her coloring and matted her hair together into a thick mess. But I recognized her all right. I mean, I couldn't tell you her name, but I knew her all right. I'd slept with her once.

It'd been a couple of years. At the time I was going through a bad divorce, and I ended up in this bar over on Jackson Street. It's one of those peanut-shells-on-the-floor places. I normally avoid them, but my wife had started telling me how this new boyfriend of hers had made her feel alive again after twenty years of me, and I suppose I was wanting to show her that payback's hell. I don't know how often this lady went to this place. I guess I didn't care to know. I just happened to be ordering a bourbon when she started showing off pictures of this Weimaraner she kept in her wallet. I told her I had a rat terrier—or, rather, I told her that I used to have a rat terrier before my wife gave me the boot. I let it slip that the boyfriend was taking care of my dog now, figuring that if you mention your wife's boyfriend to another woman in a bar she'll take pity on you and be a little easier game. Soon enough, I was buying her drinks and telling her my sob story. One thing led to another, and I took her home.

Only I think she could tell I was regretting it the whole time. I clamed up pretty tight when we got to my place, and after we'd done our business, I let her think I'd gone straight to sleep. I don't know why. I guess I was afraid she'd want something from me, and I didn't know how to explain that there wasn't anything left to give. The bank had gone bust. Come first light, she got up, got dressed, and got out. I was sitting up against the headboard, watching her, not really sure, still, what I should say. On her way to the door, she gave me a half-smile and said, "See you." I don't think she figured she ever would.

So as I headed the skiff back to our paramedic post, I had to remind myself to keep my eyes on the water, not on her face. There was just something so exposed about her, though. I mean, I couldn't get over the fact that here was someone I'd twice touched, once in life and once in death, and she'd brought out more in me now than she had then. I don't know. Maybe death, even though you're dead, can still strip you down one more layer of vulnerability.

It sure felt that way when we got her body back to land. Old Carl couldn't shut up about the suicide we'd retrieved, and soon enough, all the volunteers and the rescue squads that'd come from other towns to work the flood were wanting to know what I thought could drive someone to shove her fingers through the bars of a weighted-down dog crate and hold her head underwater. Whenever they asked me, I played dumb and blamed it on the Chattahoochee.

Not long after that the flood crested. The water retreated to its proper place, leaving the folks in the wealthier part of Eufaula to spend the next few weeks scrubbing mud off their colonnades and porticos and belvederes. Those on the outskirts hosed down the corrugated tin and scavenged the drainage ditches for washed-away soffits and fascia boards. Me and Carl stayed partnered up, and we still play our game whenever we're called to a fatality. But more and more I'm loath to invent too many specifics from those faces. I guess I figure that there was somebody in those people's lives, somebody as I was to that woman, who should have been reading the signs when the dead were still around.

Some nights, the ones when I can't sleep, I find myself wondering what expression I'll be wearing when I go. I even go so far as to practice. Silly as it sounds, I'll purse my lips together and clamp my eyes shut, real stone like, or I'll just lie back and try to let the most peaceful, relaxed feeling I know stretch out my skin. I do it, I guess, because I want to believe that whatever I've been through in my life can't be summed up in a sentence or two. I want to think there's a mystery to me that's beyond observation, a meaning that can't be reduced by a glance from a stranger's eye. Maybe there's not, I don't know. But for now I'll assume that there is, just so I don't have to deal with knowing somebody's gonna claim to read me as I've claimed to have read so many others. My story's mine, after all, and I'm taking my secrets with me.

* * *

Kirk Curnutt is professor of English at Troy State University Montgomery in Montgomery, Alabama, where he lives with his son, Kip. He has previously published scholarly works on Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the American short story. "Down in the Flood" appears in his short-story collection, Baby, Let's Make a Baby, forthcoming from River City Publishing. Go to www.rivercitypublishing.com for more details.

Kip Curnutt took the photographs for his father's story. Kip is finishing his sophomore year in the Booker T. Washington Magnet Arts Program in Montgomery, Alabama, where he studies photography under Mr. Andy Meadows.