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Too Little, Too Late
The elderly black man laying in bed watched the television, a rare intensity burning in the rheumy blue-brown of his eyes. Over and over again throughout the day, on every station, he'd heard the same words repeated.
On August 28th and 29th, video from a teleconference showed National Hurricane Center Director Max Mayfield expressing concern that Katrina might push its storm surge over the city's levees and flood walls.
"I don't think anyone can tell you with confidence right now whether the levees will be topped or not, but that's obviously a very, very great concern."
Mr. Samuel De Long, the elderly gentleman nearing his eightieth year of age, listened to every repeat report; he showed no signs of reaction to FEMA Director Michael Brown expressing concern over the possibilities of a levee breech. The same Michael Brown who'd taken pretty much all the blame for everything.
Samuel had realized months ago, Michael Brown had only been a fraction of what went wrong. He wasn't the only one responsible for the death of his Etta. They all were. Every last one of them. "Mr. De Long, that's enough of that now. Let's pull the shades, shall we? You can have a nice rest before dinner."
He didn't answer, he never did. The plump blonde nurse turned off the television and pulled down the shades on his two windows, leaving him in darkness as the door quietly snicked shut after her.
Darkness was fine. He'd stopped being afraid of it and even a man of his advanced years didn't care to have everyone in the world who didn't matter to him, witnessing the tears that spilled down the leathered brown stretch of his cheek. It wasn't their pain to share. It didn't belong to anyone but him. He'd lost his Etta and she'd been his everything. His alone. So, he did what he did every evening, every afternoon. He dreamed of her.
* * *
He shifted carefully on the unstable roof, much of it sodden and rotting, slowly sinking into the water that rose two stories as far as the eye could see. Below them, inside, fifty-two years of memories were either gone or deteriorating in the thick muddy waters.
"We gonna die up here, Sammy."
The words tore him apart inside. He clutched her closer, his arthritic fingers combing back the gnarled gray curls of her hair. "Now hush that talk. They gonna come. They know we're up here. They gotta know, by now."
"It's done been three days. It's all gone, Sammy. We gonna be gone with it."
His wife began to cry and Samuel rocked her as best he could. The thing was, he was starting to feel the same way. They both needed their medications. Etta had cut her leg badly crawling up to the roof and it was beginning to show signs of infection. The jug of water he'd managed to bring up with them, was almost empty. He'd never thought they would still be up there, still be waiting.
"Tell me something, Sammy. Take me away from here. Take me back to the good things." She pleaded.
He closed his eyes, allowing himself to sink back through the years, his thready Louisiana accent rumbling like warm bubbling honey. "I still see you as I saw you that very first year. You were standing there at the doors to your fancy integrated college. You had on a blue skirt and a white blouse with pearl buttons. You were wearing your mothers finest gloves; they had matching pearls at your wrist, like the ones on your blouse. You had on them fine stockings and high-heeled shoes. I thought you were the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on." He smiled, seeing her again in his mind as if he had just seen her yesterday. Before children, before surgeries, before age.
"You were working on the campus parking lot, with them other boys from town."
He grinned in the dark night, his first in days. "It only took me three months to convince you I wasn't just a roughneck boy. But, I did."
"You did at that, Mr. De Long."
He felt the soft pat of her fingertips on his forearms and he hugged her closer. "Remember our first kiss, Etta? I had taken you out by the lake for a supper picnic. The stars were out and you were prettier than all of them combined. I couldn't resist you, Etta Marie. You still have the sweetest lips."
"Tell me we're going to get off this roof, Sammy. I don't want to die up here."
"We're going to get off this roof. I'll get you off this roof, baby."
But two days later, the sun beating down on them, Etta was burning with fever and there was no relief in sight. The young man on the roof down the way had stopped calling out to them a day ago; Samuel didn't tell Etta he'd seen the man's body float past in the night. He'd heard helicopters and planes flying closer by than before, but still no one came. The water was gone. He'd used the last of it for Etta. The heat of her fevered body against his made him nearly nauseous with worry. Sweat beaded on his scalp, trickling down his face and chest.
He thought about jokes he'd heard saying black men couldn't get a sunburn, but he could feel it in his skin, his lips, even his eyes. When this was over, when this was over, he'd take Etta up north for a while. Maybe Alaska. Now wouldn't that be something? An Alaskan cruise for her seventy-ninth birthday next month.
"Sammy! Tell those children to quiet down. I can't get the baby to sleep. Take them outside."
He looked down as his wife began to call out in her sleep again. She'd been doing it for the last twenty-four hours. He stroked her face, his will alone keeping the tears at bay. Soothing her with love words and promises.
"Sammy? Where are you? Sammy...come on to bed. Make love to me. Don't let me go. Stay with me..."
"Forever. My darling, I won't let you go. I won't ever let you go, Etta Marie." His whispers, mouthed against her hot scalp, went unheard. "I love you."
That night, when the roof gave away, Etta had already been dead for three hours. Samuel held onto her body with all of his remaining strength, sucked into the blackness of the voracious waters. Plunged downward, he felt wood pierce his side, slamming against the back of his head and into his thighs. Still, he held onto his wife.
They floated that way for endless hours. He didn't know how long he could do it, but he would do it until he died. Instead, in the first hours of light, a boat finally made its way into his neighborhood, cutting through bodies and broken buildings, and a million memories stolen by careless mistakes and one horrific storm, to pull him aboard with the body of his wife. Four strong hands gently prying his fingers away from his wife's body, he cried.
* * *
Artificial light flooded the room and the television snapped on before he'd even managed to open his eyes. He blinked slowly several times, looking at the young night nurse who'd carried in his dinner tray. On the television behind her, one of those self-important government types was responding to the new evidence that the President had known about the high risk of levee breeches.
"Everything possible was done to prepare for Katrina. No one could have guessed that the water would break through the levees in the manner they did. However, we are still continuing to research the matter of how Katrina and the aftermath were handled. We will..."
Samuel De Long couldn't listen anymore. It didn't matter now, what they found. They couldn't go back and undo anything that had happened. They couldn't bring back all those people. They couldn't bring his Etta back to him. It didn't matter to him, what they said, it was all too little, too late. There would be another Katrina in the future. But if God were kinder than he'd been six months ago, he wouldn't be here to know anything about it. He'd be with Etta. Somewhere cool, underneath the stars, sharing an eternity of first kisses.
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