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       Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina, p.1

           Rodman Philbrick
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Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Katrina

  In loving memory of Lynn Harnett, 1950–2012


  Title Page


  Map 1

  1. My Stupid Trip to Smellyville

  2. What the Old Lady Said

  3. Older than Dirt

  4. Fly Like Superman

  5. Rise Up and Go

  6. Dumb and Dumber

  7. When the Wind Screams

  8. Something Big and Bad

  9. Trapped

  10. A Face in the Window

  11. The Big Whoops

  12. Terrible Things

  13. When It Can’t Get Worse

  14. In the Dark of the World

  15. Snake City

  16. Smoke on the Water

  17. Bad Trouble

  18. Come Hell and High Water

  19. A Patch of Grass

  20. What Shines in the Fierce Sunlight

  21. Like an Animal Crawling Away

  22. Leave a Message, Please

  23. All the Way Dark

  24. Top of the Ten

  25. Broken People

  26. A Big Pile of Stink

  27. Stupid Water

  28. Wonder Dog

  29. If a Good Dog Dies

  30. About My Father

  One Year Later

  Map 2

  Katrina Timeline 2005

  Interesting Facts about New Orleans and the Great Flood

  Author’s Note

  About the Author


  Bandy is a mutt like me. He’s black and white and small enough to hide in a gym bag, except he can’t keep from barking hi-hi-hi with his silly tongue hanging out and his little tail sticking up. Bandy, short for Bandit, because of the black marking across his eyes and nose. Don’t get me wrong, he’s the best dog in the world, and what happened wasn’t really his fault, even if it nearly got me killed two times. Three if you count the tippy canoe. Later on he made up for it by totally saving my life. Of course none of it would have happened if my mom didn’t make me visit the golden oldies in Smellyville, which is what I called New Orleans before I knew better. Before the wind and the rain and the flood, and me having to pretend I was brave, even though inside I was scared to death.

  My name is Zane Dupree. I need to warn you right now, there’s some really gross stuff in this book, and I’m not talking about make-believe gross like plastic poop and vomit, but stuff so awful it made a dog hide his nose, and believe me Bandy will sniff at most anything. Other than dog food, his favorite smells are dirty socks and toilet bowls, so that should give you an idea how bad things got.

  Okay, deep breath, back to the beginning. How it started, me going to New Orleans. If you don’t already know, summers are pretty great in New Hampshire, where I live. The sky is blue and clear and the days last almost forever.

  This one perfect summer morning Bandy and me are out in the yard fooling around for a while. Playing this game where he tries to guess where I’m going to throw his ball, which I do with my eyes closed, and most of the time he guesses right and is waiting there before the ball hits the ground. Mom says me and Bandy have some kind of boy-dog mind-meld thing, like we can read each other’s thoughts. I don’t know about that, but for sure that little dog seems to know what I’m going to do before I do, which is maybe kind of weird but also really cool.

  Anyhow, when we come back inside that perfect summer day my mom is sitting in the kitchen with the phone on the table and her eyes all red.

  “Did somebody die?” I ask, because that’s how she looks.

  “No, no. Nothing like that,” she says, sniffing back a tear. “The opposite. Somebody I didn’t think could possibly still be alive.”

  Oh yeah, I forgot to mention about my father dying before I was born. Mom and him met when they were in the Air Force, and then they got married and moved to New Hampshire and started a new family — me. My dad happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some old gumby had a stroke and ran him over.

  For the record I really hate it when people feel sorry for me because my father is dead. It’s too bad he died and everything, but I never knew him so I never missed him, okay? Because you can’t miss somebody you never knew, can you?

  Anyhow, back to my mom. She’s all weepy because she finally managed to locate one of my father’s long-lost relatives.

  “Her name is Beatrice Jackson. They call her Miss Trissy. She’s your great-grandmother and from what she told me she pretty much raised your father. In New Orleans, Louisiana.”

  “New Orleans? You said he was from Mississippi.”

  She nods. “That’s what he always told me. Biloxi, Mississippi. Didn’t ever have much to say about his family, or what happened in the years before we met, but Gerald was living in Biloxi when he enlisted in the Air Force, I always knew that for sure, it’s right there on his induction form. So when he — when the accident happened, I called every Dupree in the book down there. My own father, bless him, he even hired a local investigator. But it was a dead end. Never could find any of your dad’s relatives in the state of Mississippi. We thought they were all gone.”

  “You already told me that stuff like a bunch of times,” I say, dropping into a kitchen chair.

  Mom gives me this pleading look. “Don’t be angry at me, Zaney. You’ll be thirteen on your next birthday and I thought you should know something about your father. Whatever there is to know. Something besides photographs and me with my stories. So I tried this new website for connecting families and what do you know, it worked.”

  “Okay fine,” I say, making a bored face. “So now I know. There’s an old lady with a funny name that used to know my father.”

  “Raised him! She raised him!” Mom says, excited and talking fast. “She’s your blood, honey. From what I can tell, she’s all that’s left, and she never even knew you existed until she picked up the phone this morning. She sounds really lovely, and very old, of course, and more than anything in the world she wants to see you before … you know.”

  “Before she dies.”

  “Don’t say that.”

  “It’s what you mean, isn’t it?”

  “Zaney, listen to me,” she pleads. “This is important, okay? We need to get this right.”

  Fine. Whatever. At first I figure the old lady will visit us in New Hampshire and I’ll have to be nice and everything, but it turns out she’s too old to travel, and since Mom can’t get time off from work she thinks I should go down there on my own.

  By myself. Without Bandy.

  “Totally no way,” I say, folding my arms. “Never going to happen. Never, never, never.”

  Never is a bad word to use on my mom. She also hates it when I say “totally no way.” She’s never hit me, not ever in my whole life, but that day we have a big yelling fight that ends with her slamming her bedroom door. I can hear her sobbing, which totally ruins everything because it wrecks me when she cries. Maybe it isn’t cool to say this, but she’s the best mom in the world and I’d never on purpose make her cry. Are we clear on that? Good. So eventually we come to an agreement: if the old lady lets me bring Bandy I’ll agree to visit her for the last week of summer.

  To call that bad timing would be, as Mom later said, the understatement of the century. Because I fly down to New Orleans on a Monday in late August. The very next day something called a tropical depression forms near the Bahama islands, almost a thousand miles away. A day later they give the storm a name. They call it Katrina, and it’s coming to get us, but we don’t know that then.

  We don’t know much, me and Bandit the Wonder Dog. All we know is we don’t want to be there.

The truth is, when me and Bandy first get off the plane and this old lady is waiting there with her two canes, one in each fist, I’m kind of scared of her. She’s so wicked old and the canes look like weapons. Like hitting sticks. This really ancient lady, small and hunched with her hitting sticks. Her skin like the skin on milky hot chocolate when you blow across the top, all wrinkled and folded back on itself. Even her perfume smells like old flowers or something.

  More than anything I want to get back on the plane and go home, but then the old lady says something that changes my mind, at least a little bit. Standing there kind of wobbly on her canes but smiling like the sun peeking through a cloud, she goes, “Young man? Seems I been waiting all my life to meet you, though I didn’t know you existed, or what yo name might be. The Good Lawd has given me a great gift. Thank you Lawd! Praise be! Zane Dupree, you are welcome in my home today and always will be. Mmm, mmm, mmm.”

  You can’t be afraid of a person who says that. You just can’t. Plus Bandy likes her — right away he rolls over and shows her his tummy, so that’s another thing in her favor.

  “Hello to you, too,” she says, scratching behind his ears with the tip of her cane. “Let me guess, this dog part terrier and the rest nobody quite sure, is that about right?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I say.

  “Can you drag your bag and that little dog, too? Taxicab waitin’ on us.”

  When we first walk out of that terminal into the heat of the city it’s like whoa, are they kidding? This has to be a joke. I’ve never been anywhere that’s so unbelievably hot and humid. Like the sky is sweating and everything smells kind of stinky and moldy and wet.

  That’s when I start to think of New Orleans as Smellyville. I didn’t know it then, but the wet and stinky part was about to get much, much worse.

  Okay, that’s settled, how me and Bandit happened to be in New Orleans when the hurricane hit. The other thing you should probably know is, I’m what they sometimes call biracial or multiracial or whatever. White mother, black father, okay? Except if you go back to everybody who came before me there’s way more than two races. There’s African and English and Saxon and Celts and Creole and Cherokee, and that’s just for starters. I bet there’s even some Chinese ancestors if you go back far enough.

  Turns out Trissy Jackson has strong opinions on the subject of race and color. “Multiracial? Naw, that don’t say it. That don’t get the true flavor. You of mixed race, boy,” she says, studying my face and humming to herself, which she does all the time. “Yup, you mixed, same as me. Let me explain. My daddy was a light-skinned Negro, call him ‘high yaller’ in his day — that was a insult — but he did think very high of himself, come to that. See, one of my daddy’s grandfathers was white and his own momma was a Creole of color, which is partly African blood and partly French blood, descended by way of the free people of color. A whole class of they own. So you all kinds mixed together. But it don’t matter who was my daddy’s people, my daddy was colored because African blood made you colored, even if half yo ancestors was white. Mmm, mmm. Them was the rules. Them was the laws. Sounds complicated, I know, but in the day we all knew what was what, who was who.”

  “Hardly nobody says ‘colored’ now,” I point out, in case she doesn’t know, being so old.

  “I just did,” she says, and laughs. “For your information ‘colored’ was a polite word back then, when I’m speaking of, when I was a little girl. Long, long time ago. You and me, we gotta lot of catchin’ up. All your life and some that came before. Oh my, yes. From the look of you, yo momma’s got true blond hair, that ’bout right?”

  I nod.

  “And you gots her straight hair, mostly, ’cept yours is darker hair. See, hair is what folks see first. Folks don’t know no better might glance at you and see only the white part, on account yo hair. White boy with freckles and thick straight hair and them green eyes. Oh, but I see Gerald in you, too, yes I do. Gerald’s chin, Gerald’s skinny nose, Gerald’s freckles. You got his same mischiefy look about you and that’s a fact. Oh, oh, Lawd have mercy, yo daddy looking at me from outta yo face, yes he do. No doubt, no doubt, mmm, mmm, mmm.”

  The humming, the mmm, mmm, it isn’t regular humming, it’s more like church singing. Hymns. Miss Trissy still sings in the church choir every Sunday, even if it takes two canes to get her there. She says she has the voice of a much younger woman and I’m to go to church with her this coming Sunday so I can hear it for myself.

  “Much younger,” she insists, proudly. “My singin’ voice so young it still go out dancin’ on Sat’day night. There, I made you smile.”

  When I say Miss Trissy is wicked old, I don’t mean she’s wicked like a bad person, because she’s the opposite of that. I just mean really really old. I ask how old, exactly, which apparently is an impolite question, and she leans on her canes and gives out a little snort and goes, “Zactly? Zactly is it? I tell ya zactly. I’m zactly older than dirt, chile, and that’s all ya need to know,” and then she softens up and explains how it’s bad luck to brag about her age because the Good Lawd might be listening and have cause to remember that she’s long past her sell-by date.

  “Ya got no idea what that means, do ya, young Mr. Dupree? I can see by yo face ya don’t. Sell-by date is what dey stamp on a caw-tun of milk. Sell-by such and such a date because after that it go bad.”

  “So you’ve gone bad?” I ask, trying to be funny.

  “Oh, you a terrible child,” she says, but her eyes are smiling. “Terrible, terrible. Most of me gone bad, and that’s the troot!”

  Bandy’s ears perk up whenever he hears her voice, especially when she laughs. And he likes it when she scratches his tummy with the tip of her cane.

  “You understand what we speaking of?” she says to him. “Ears that big, you don’t miss a thing. Oh! You a good one, you.”

  Miss Trissy has a story about everything in her little white house. How the rug in the hallway came from Algiers — not the city in Africa, but a neighborhood in New Orleans where her father had a store. And how the glass figurines on the shelf in the dining room came from her mother, who collected them, and the bowling trophy on top of the TV set is from her second husband, Henry, that died thirty years ago. There are lots of framed pictures on the wall, and a drawer full of loose photographs, most of them really old. She shows me a small, faded snapshot of two boys about my age. They have their arms around each other’s shoulders and they look real happy.

  “They come into my care after their momma passed. This yo daddy,” she says, touching one of the boys with her thumb. “James was his little brother, by less than a year. They both in heaven now.”

  I ask why my father ran away from home.

  “I expect he had his reasons,” she says, not meeting my eyes.

  “So his brother would have been my uncle, right?”

  “Had he lived, uh-huh, but he passed before you born.”

  “What happened?”

  “James got hissef killed, like so many other young mens.” The old woman shakes her head, eyes brimming with tears. “Later child. We talk on that bye and bye.”

  Fine by me. I was only asking because I thought she’d expect me to. “Got hissef killed,” though. Hear that and you can’t help wondering. If it was an accident, like happened to my dad, wouldn’t she say “died in an accident”? “Killed” sounds like somebody killed him, which makes me wonder how it happened, and who did it, and like that.

  But Trissy changes the subject. “So yo momma got her a job with the US Post Office. That good,” she says, sounding bright and cheerful again. “That a fine thing.”

  “My father did, too,” I tell her. “He was delivering mail when he got run over by the old — by the person that hit him.”

  “Uh-huh, yo momma said. Terrible thing. Terrible. By any chance do you like ice cream? There’s ice cream in the freeze box. Myself, I love ice cream.”

  That’s another thing I like about the old lady. When she wants to change the subject s
he usually mentions ice cream.

  When I was little, me and Mom went on vacation to a bunch of theme parks in Florida. One of the coolest rides was called “Back to the Future” and I liked it even though I hadn’t seen the movie yet, which I did as soon as we got home. It’s about this kid that goes back in time before he was born and tries to stop bad stuff from happening to his parents. A totally cool idea, even if it can’t happen in real life.

  Anyhow, that’s what it’s like at Miss Trissy’s house, like the airplane that took me to New Orleans went back in time, and everything is from fifty years ago. Her little kitchen is clean and shiny, but the appliances could be out of a museum, if they had a museum about old kitchens. The telephone is this big black thing with a rotary dial instead of buttons, and a receiver so heavy she has to lift it with both hands. The old tube-model TV only gets one blurry channel because Miss Trissy doesn’t have cable. Mostly she listens to gospel songs on an old table radio and sings along, which sounds kinda stupid but is actually sort of beautiful, once you get used to it.

  The other thing that’s like going back in time is that she doesn’t have AC. Air-conditioning might as well never have been invented, as far as Miss Trissy is concerned. She doesn’t believe in it, says air-conditioning will give you wetness of the lungs.

  “That’s what made me a widow,” she says. “Wet lungs took my poor husband Henry.”

  I almost say it was probably the heat killed her husband, but I don’t have the energy to smart-mouth. That’s how hot it is. And that’s mostly what I remember about the first three days in Smellyville. The heat that never stopped. How it was too hot to go outside in the daytime because the sun would hit you like a hot fist. I took Bandy out for his walks, of course, but we never went much farther than the empty lot at the end of the street because he’d whimper from the heat and want me to carry him back into the shade. Mostly he wanted to lie on his belly on the linoleum in the kitchen and pant and give me looks like the weather was all my fault.

  “Nothing I can do about the temperature, you silly dog. Want a treat? Does that help?”

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