Friday August 27th 7: PM.
The smells of jambalaya fought with the gumbo. “Mama, don’t put in any okra.” A useless request, there would be okra in the gumbo, but there would be so much more food to eat that it wouldn’t matter. The smile appeared on her face before she could stop it, and Torrie relaxed for just a moment to enjoy the different aromas. Taking a deep breath, she inhaled. The scent of catfish wafted throughout the house. The hush puppies were piled high on a platter, waiting for the hurricane party.
“What if this one’s for real?” Torrie turned toward her sister. “The weather reports say it’s going to be bad.” As expected, Kimmie, her sister, laughed at her.
“There’s no need to fear. How many times have we been through this, a million?”
“Not a million.” Torrie stopped and swayed, putting her hands on her hips. “Besides, this one feels different. I’m scared.”
“There is nothing any different about this storm than from any other. We’re going to have a party. There’s going to be some rain, maybe a little flooding, but nothing major. Come on, Torrie, you know how it is.”
Torrie turned and stared at the gathering crowd. She walked toward the kitchen. The smells pulled on her, and the laughter filled her heart, but something loomed in the far recesses of her mind. Doom. She shook it away, but it came back. Something was wrong. This was a party same as any other. The ninth ward had huddled and prayed through this many times. She wasn’t sure if it was the governor and the mayor or her constant dreams, or a combination, but she was truly worried.
A warm hush puppy was shoved into her mouth. Torrie bit down, savoring the taste. Her stomach growled, alerting her to the hunger she denied. “Everything looks good,” she whispered. “Look everybody,” she reached for a glass, then hit it several times with the back of the butter knife, stopping the swarm of voices and laughter. The sea of brown faces turned toward her.
“What’s up?” more than one voice inquired.
“We have time to leave New Orleans before the hurricane is scheduled to hit. Let’s do the party tonight, but tomorrow let’s just go somewhere else, maybe Lake Charles, maybe… maybe…I don’t know, but I’m going to call around and try to find someplace to go for a few days until the hurricane passes. I don’t feel safe? What if the levee breaks?”
Laughter rang out, a dozen voices drowning out her words.
“Please, the levees will never break,” said Auntie Mattie. “They will hold regardless. We are blessed by God, his favored people. God don’t have no doing with the poor, only the rich. He will not touch our homes don’t worry.”
“Have you spoken to God?” Torrie insisted stubbornly. “Did he tell you that he wouldn’t destroy our homes?” She turned to face her Auntie Mattie and waited patiently for the answer.
“The Bible said it wouldn’t be water but fire next time. The hurricane, honey, that’s water, and I’m not afraid. Hurricane Katrina is not gonna bother me none.”
“What if it does, Auntie?”
“Look, if you’re scared pray about it, and God will put your mind at ease. But we’re trying to have a party here, baby, you’re putting a real damper on it.”
Try as she might, the feeling wouldn’t leave, then the chills started, and she was taken back as she always was to when she was four and huddled in a corner at nursery school. Torrie could remember Jake’s face as plain as day. Only a few months older, he’d come to the corner where she was cowering and had removed her hands from her face. She’d stared into his golden brown eyes, and he’d smiled at her.
“Hi, my name’s Jake. I’ll sit with you,” he’d said. “You don’t have to be afraid. I’ll protect you.”
The two of them had sat hand in hand, looking at each other until the storm passed. When Torrie cringed at loud claps of thunder, Jake smiled and squeezed her hand. “I won’t let thunder hurt you, Torrie,” he’d boasted, puffing his chest out. And somehow, she’d believed him.
Torrie had gone though many storms with Jake. She’d even had her first kiss with him, during the middle of a thunderstorm. They’d been to a mall and had gotten caught in a thunder storm, her body had trembled at the sound, and Jake had put his arm around her, laughing at her, telling her as he’d done a hundred times in the past that he’d protect her. Only that time something was different, the way he’d held her was different. His voice had become husky and low, and she’d suddenly felt hot, unable to breathe. The storm was forgotten when she’d turned to stare at Jake. His eyes held a look she was unfamiliar with and had never seen, but she had some inner knowing of what was coming.
She tilted her head up at the same instant his lips came down. He kissed her tentatively at first, then bolder. Things she had no way of knowing their meaning surged through her. Heat shimmied down her spine, and she felt Jake’s body harden as he pulled her close.
That had also been Torrie’s first brush with classism. A man, Jake’s neighbor Torrie later learned, had snatched Jake away from her and asked what the hell they thought they were doing. He’d threatened to tell Jake’s parents that he was kissing on a Thibodeaux girl from the ninth ward out in public. Name and skin color meant so much in New Orleans. Not as much as it had in the fifties but the tentacles still remained.. It always amazed Torrie that strangers, like Jake’s neighbor, could look at her face and know that her name was Thibodeaux.
The abruptness of being pulled apart by a stranger surprised Torrie. Jake’s face had turned red. His eyes, which had had that funny look right before he’d kissed her, changed. He was angry. Torrie had cringed. Jake was in trouble for kissing her, and when he moved further away from her, Torrie had seen another look in Jake’s eyes. Shame.
She’d stood for a moment, looking as his eyes darted back and forth from her to the man who had broken them apart. Fury blazed from Jake’s eyes. Whether his emotions came about because of her or his neighbor, she wasn’t sure. With a sob in her throat, Torrie ran from the mall and hadn’t stopped running until she got home.
Her friendship with Jake changed that day. They no longer laughed as easily or shared their secrets, and eventually it almost stopped. Two years after their kiss, Jake left town, and Torrie only heard from him occasionally: on her birthday, Christmas, and when it stormed. Of course there had been the call to tell her he was in love and the one a year later to tell her he was getting married, and the call five years ago telling her he was divorced, that it hadn’t worked out.
Torrie glanced toward the phone, wondering if Jake was listening to the news, wondering if he’d call. She smiled; of course he’d call. He always did, and she’d assure him she was no longer a child, no longer afraid of storms. But they’d both know it was a lie, but a lie between old friends that could be accepted. After all, they lived in different worlds, and Jake could no longer protect her from the storms.
“Damn,” Jake swore as he looked at the weather report. He’d called Benjamin, a meteorologist for the Mississippi Times, and asked if he thought the possibility of a major hurricane was imminent. He wanted to affirm if all the reports he’d heard were true. After all, the Big Easy was always threatened with such news. The news from Benjamin was grim. Yes, yes and yes. This time the authorities had it right. The mayor was not just blowing smoke up anyone’s behind, and the governor had done the right thing in ordering the populace to evacuate. Jake immediately thought of Torrie and her dire predictions and the dreams she’d had since early childhood that New Orleans would be destroyed. He’d always told her she was too pessimistic, waiting for the shoe to drop, that nothing would happen. He glanced again at the television, remembering how many times he’d promised to protect her, to not allow any old hurricane to destroy their town.
“Damn,” he muttered as he paced his office. Why the hell did he care any more? In the twelve years since he’d left home, she’d never once initiated a conversation, had never sent him one letter, one card, not on his birthday, not at Christmas, nothing. If he didn’t keep in touch with her, she wouldn’t care.
He groaned, feeling the ache deep in his chest. He still cared about her. He’d cared about her when he was five, and he cared about her at thirty. When he’d called to tell her he’d fallen in love, he’d cared. When he’d told her he was getting married, he’d cared. And five years ago when he’d called to tell her that the marriage hadn’t worked out, he’d cared. But in none of the conversations he’d had with her through the years, had she ever shown him more than the little polite conversation one has with an old friend. If it hadn’t been for the one incessant vision he’d had of the two of them, perhaps he would have stopped calling her years ago.
The only time Jake saw glimpses of the friendship he’d valued so long was when he heard there was a storm coming. On these times Torrie seemed genuinely glad to talk to him, even expectant. He’d calm her down, and they’d laugh over her silliness. The only time since he’d been gone he’d not called her during a storm or threat of hurricane was when he’d been married. He had the first year, then he’d stopped, saving his calls to Torrie on special occasions. He’d decided he couldn’t worry any longer about talking her through the storms.
Once his divorce was final, he’d slipped back into his old pattern as easily as one slipped into a comfortable pair of loafers. He knew Torrie. He knew she was probably watching the weather reports like a hawk. And he knew she would be scared, but he also knew she wouldn’t leave New Orleans, wouldn’t seek safety. That knowledge made him sick with worry. For once he was the one taking Torrie’s dreams seriously. Damn, he thought for the third time and dialed her number.