by Evan Johnson
A flood rips through a small town and destroys most of it. The town rebuilds and remains.
Like I said, true story.
I came home from Ithaca, New York last night, driving east across county lines and through towns with names like Utica and Oneonta. Fall came a few days earlier and suddenly the woods dropped their leaves and the usual dampness began to creep across upstate. It was my fall break and I was driving home with my father, another kid carpooling with us, and our dog, who was in the back. She had decided four hours into the return journey that she’d had enough of the car ride and become whiny and agitated. I was tired too, and all I wanted was to watch the World Series on my couch and drink a beer before sleeping in my own bed.
Last month, a hurricane came up the coast and hit Vermont with intensity never before experienced. I was at school and my entire knowledge of what had transpired came from the community newspaper I had mailed to me. The coverage had been as good as citizen journalism ever gets. There were gritty accounts of houses and property lost, rousing letters to the editor about people’s courage, determination and will to overcome the devastation, not to mention color pictures to accompany it all.
This was my first time returning since the flood. It was after dark and the rain and wind had picked up as we entered the town on a new road. The stream to our right had washed out the old one and ripped it downstream. The defrosters were failing so we had to creep toward the stoplight shining green through the fogged windshield. It was dark and the streaked rain on the window kept me from seeing clearly. Maybe the poor visibility was for the best because all that stood out were the sheets of plywood over windows and doors, the empty gravel lots where the buildings once stood, the vacancy and the bleakness. I didn’t want to know what it might look like in the daylight.
The stoplight turned red and we stopped in front of the diner where my father went the day I was born. As the story goes, he sat at the counter and when the waitress came to take his order the first thing he said was “I have a son.” She gave him his breakfast for free. No more pink neon sign now, as we sat at the intersection – just a wet American flag blowing in a strong October wind.
We stopped at shopping plaza and let our passenger out to meet his ride. In front of our parked car, a streetlight shone down on a white building with peeling paint and a sagging roof, topped with a sad looking cross. When the storm came, the water swept down the inclined parking lot and pooled around the low-lying church where I was baptized as an infant. Recently, the congregation gutted it of anything salvageable and now it was an empty hulk, ready for the bulldozer.
I let my dog piss on the lawn.
Dad and I walked to the grocery store for pasta and milk. To the left of the Shaws in what was a Rite Aid months ago, was now the town office. The records, I was told, were mostly intact. Apparently someone had the foresight to evacuate them before the rain. Cubicles were set up on the linoleum floor and a sign was taped to the window reading: WILMINGTON: WHERE AMAZING HAPPENS.
I wasn’t sure if it was ironic, but I smirked thinking about that sign, while we bought two bags of frozen tortellini and a gallon of skim milk. We got back in the car and drove seven more miles home. Dad filled me in on the other details, the ones I didn’t read about – about dead animals floating in the street, a high school soccer field covered in silt and full gas containers floating downriver towards a power plant. I couldn’t confirm any of it, so I took the story at face value, sat in the car and made it safely to the driveway. At home, most things in the basement were placed on card tables to keep photo albums or my mother’s childhood doll collection safe and dry. We live high on a mountain. We were the lucky ones. I dropped my bags in my room, ate the pasta and sat on the couch. I drank that beer and watched baseball like I had planned. After everyone had gone to bed, I stayed up and started writing. I knew what I had seen, but I didn’t believe it, so I wrote as I would write fiction. It couldn’t have been true. It was a trick, like something seen through so much rain, blurred as I moved by in the cold, wet dark.