Wes Boyd's
Spearfish Lake Tales
Contemporary Mainstream Books and Serials Online

Winter Layoff
a novel by
Wes Boyd
2011, 2013

Chapter 4

“That’s still more hope than anyone has offered us so far,” Rita said. “Actually, I shouldn’t say that. Sharon and Floyd have been good to us, but the insurance settlement was very frustrating. We were told we were lucky to be offered twenty cents on the dollar, and we haven’t got it yet. It may be a while before we do get it, if we ever do. From what we can tell, the insurance company is going to go broke if they have to pay more than that. At least that’s what’s on the news.”

“That sort of makes me wonder a bit,” John said, speaking loudly so as to be heard over the blaring TV set that no one was paying attention to. “They’re quick enough to ask for their premiums, but they sure take their damn time paying off on a claim. But then, it’s a regional company, and I guess they took a real beating on the storm, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. It sure leaves us hanging out in the cold, though.”

“Along with a lot of other people,” Rita sighed. “At least we have a place to stay for a while, which beats what we had before Sharon and Floyd offered to take us in.”

“You don’t hear as much about it on the news anymore,” Jim shook his head. “But from what I understand you guys aren’t alone. I hear there’s quite a bit of rebuilding going on.”

“Oh, I’m sure there is,” John shrugged. “The problem is that there’s so damn much to rebuild that it’s going to take years. You can’t believe how much of a mess things are down there until you’ve been there and looked.”

“Look,” Jim said, “I don’t know much about it since I don’t watch the news much, but when I do there are stories about how the government is offering low-interest loans to help people rebuild.”

“Yeah, I see those and they make me laugh,” John replied sarcastically. “Ignoring the fact that they’re coming from the government so things take forever and there’s all kinds of strings attached, the bottom line is that they’re still loans. Rita and I may not have had much, but what we had was paid for before it was blown away. I suppose we could get one of those loans to rebuild, but let’s face it – we’re both in our sixties, and dealing with a house loan of any size is going to be more than we can possibly afford. I had a pretty good business down there, but it got blown away too. Rita’s job was blown away. I’ve still got my military disability and SSI, so we can get along, but it’s not enough to make house payments.”

“Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that,” Jim said.

“My business wasn’t huge, just small businesses and tax stuff, but it gave us enough to live on what with Rita being a cashier at one of the casinos. If we can get back home, I’d guess that there are still a few people in the area who could stand some help with their books and their taxes after this mess, so that would be a little income – not what we had before, but something. But there’s no way I can do it from here.”

“We thought that maybe after the first of the year John could get a job helping out with a local tax service up here,” Rita suggested.

“The problem is that there’s no guarantee of that, either,” John sighed, the frustration evident. “From what I can find out, this is not a rich town, and there doesn’t seem to be much need for an extra tax preparer. At least back home, I know some people and have a good reputation, so that might help. But there’s no way we can go home now since there’s no home to go to, and even if we decided to rebuild and got that government loan, there isn’t going to be a home for a while.”

“I imagine construction people are at a premium down there,” Jim said.

“No fooling,” John replied. “I’ve done what I could to find out just calling around, but there’s not any hope of getting anyone to rebuild the house anytime soon. I mean, not for years. I haven’t talked to everybody, but everybody I have been able to talk to is already scheduled tight for years. When Mary called and said you were coming down to look at the situation, well, it gave us a little hope where there hadn’t been any.”

“I can’t make any promises,” Jim said. “There are just so many problems, one on top of another. To top it off, like I told you, I’m not really a construction guy, I’m an excavating guy, but I work around construction a bit, so Mom thought I might be able to get an idea or two.”

“I’m not so sure that even just being an excavating guy couldn’t be a help,” John said. “I haven’t even seen the lot since the storm since we couldn’t get to it with me in my wheelchair. Rita hiked in and said it was pretty bad, though.”

“It’s pretty bad,” Rita said. “There’s debris all over the place, and the storm dumped a lot of it right on top of where the house sat. Everything is mashed flat, and I can’t even tell if there’s any of the house underneath it or what.”

“Right, and the debris clearing is a whole separate issue,” John said, expanding on her thought. “Most of the construction people want it out of the way before they start, so if you could even do some of that, it would be a big help.”

That was an angle that Jim hadn’t thought of before – and it was an area where he could help, depending on how bad things were. It might not be all that bad, he thought – Aunt Rita might have seen things as being worse than they were. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to go see,” he said. “After all, the whole point of my coming down was to sort of evaluate the situation and see what I could do to help. Could you give me directions or a map to the place? There’s still some daylight left, I might as well spend it on the road.”

“I’m afraid it’s not going to be that easy,” Rita sighed. “The area is such a mess that in places it’s even hard to see where the streets go. I had to leave John in the car and hunt around to find it myself. I lived there for years and years and it still wasn’t easy to find. I’d almost have to go along and show you where it is.”

“Why don’t you go with him?” John suggested. “It shouldn’t take that long.”

“But John,” she protested. “It’s most of a day’s drive one way, and that means we’d have to be gone overnight. I’m not even sure there’s a place we could stay around there anymore.”

“Not a problem,” Jim smiled. “I drove my pickup with the camper on the back. It’s kind of primitive, but there are bunks in it. If you don’t mind living a little rough for a day or two, we’ll just park where we can.”

“It can’t be as bad as the gym floors where we had to stay for weeks,” she said. “But I don’t know that I should leave John here by himself.”

“Oh, go on,” John told her. “I can get along by myself for a day or two, at least if I have a little help from Sharon. Honey, Jim is the best hope we’ve had yet in getting something done, even if it’s not all the way done. Heck, just in finding out if anything is possible. If it takes you going along to help him find the place, then it seems to me that you’d better do it.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she sighed. “At least as long as you’re sure you’re going to be all right.”

“I can survive if I have to,” he replied stoically. “If nothing else, Jim can take a look at the problem with an experienced eye and maybe see a solution. That might be as big a help as anything else.”

“All right,” she said. “Jim, can you give me a few minutes to pack up a change of clothes and a few other things?”

“Sure,” he said. “We’re not in all that big a hurry. I don’t really need to get back until after spring breakup when construction gets under way again, but I’d just as soon know what I’m dealing with and if there’s any hope that I can do anything.”

It didn’t take Rita long to get ready. In only a few minutes she was having a few final words with John. Soon they were in Jim’s pickup, heading for the Mississippi bridge. “Good God,” Rita said almost as soon as they were moving, “am I ever glad to be out of that place, even if it’s just for a day or two.”

“Been hard?” Jim asked, having gotten the impression that things were a little less than absolute sweetness and light around Sharon and Floyd’s house. He wouldn’t have wanted to live there, in that crowded little run-down house with the kids running around raising hell all the time.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Rita sighed. “All I can say is that it’s better than what we had. It was nice of Floyd and Sharon to take us in, and they’ve put out a lot for us. But Sharon could give dumb lessons to fence posts, and Floyd is one of those people who’s just generally obnoxious. I mean, not just to us, he’s simply one of those people who’s normally a pain in the ass. Lots of beer, lots of bad jokes and just generally crude. Jody, she’s their daughter, isn’t a lot better. At least she has a job in a convenience store, so she’s gone a lot of the time, but she leaves her kids behind. They’re all hyperactive and about as out of control as kids can be. They’re about to drive us up the wall most of the time, but there’s not much we can do but take it the best we can and try not to say anything.”

“I noticed they weren’t very quiet while I was there,” he commented.

“They were for them,” she shook her head. “I don’t know what got into them. You must have caught them at a quiet time. Jody just lets them run wild, and Sharon and Floyd don’t feel they can do much to settle them down. At least, they don’t try very hard.”

“I can understand,” he said. “Kids like that in a little house would drive me nuts, too.”

“It would help a lot if Sharon and Jody didn’t feed them on solid sugar. No wonder they’re wound up like that all the time. At least it wasn’t quite so bad while they were in school, and they will be again in another week, so that’ll take a little of the pressure off John. He’s used to things being quiet, and between the kids and the TV being on from the moment Sharon gets up in the morning until she goes to bed at night, it’s coming close to driving him nuts. He can’t even get away from it since the house isn’t barrier-free. If he has to go somewhere, Floyd has to lift him up and down the steps, so he’s pretty well trapped where he is. It doesn’t help that they had to move Jody into the kids’ room to make room for us, and she’s snippy as hell over it. It doesn’t seem to matter that she’s mooching off Sharon and Floyd as much as we are. Well, more than that. We’re helping out with the food and stuff, mostly out of John’s disability and SSI checks, but Sharon and Floyd don’t see a cent from her, not even help with the food. To be fair, she’s got a lot of bills from her marriage to pay off, but she sure manages to keep herself in beer.”

Good God, another Carolyn, Jim thought. Except with kids, which made it even worse. “I somehow got the idea that things were a little harder than Mom said they were,” he replied sympathetically as he turned south on a main road. Helena wasn’t a big town – bigger than Spearfish Lake, from what he could see, but not a big city by any means.

“I really shouldn’t complain,” Rita sighed, “but putting up with all that and not knowing what we’re going to do, and really not being able to do anything at all has gotten pretty wearing. I don’t know what we’re going to do, Jim, but I want to get out of there so bad it isn’t funny, and I want to get John out of there even worse.”

“Like I said earlier, I can’t make any promises, but I’ll see if I’m able to do something,” he said, looking to change the subject a little. “So what was it like trying to ride out the storm? I’ve never been near a hurricane.”

“Terrifying,” she said, obviously glad to have something else to talk about even if it wasn’t a pleasant memory. “At first it looked like we weren’t going to get hit square, and we’d decided to ride it out, but then the course changed track a little and we decided we’d better leave. We’re not real close to the beach, but they were calling for an awful big storm surge, and that helped change our minds. That may have been the best decision we ever made. I got John into the car with a few clothes and some valuables as the wind was coming up. We decided to head inland to ride it out and wound up in a town to the north, ending up at the high school.”

“Sounds like it must have been better than home,” he said as they headed out onto the bridge over the Mississippi, the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge, he noted, thinking that half the public structures in the country must have been named after him. It was an old steel girder bridge that showed some dignity with its age and gave a great view of the river. He glanced upstream, to see a tug boat pushing hard to get its big collection of barges upstream. That must go on all year, he thought. Wonder what it would be like to take a ride on one of those things? He tried to drive carefully as he listened to Aunt Rita tell her story.

“Oh, it was, but not a lot better. I’m sure glad we didn’t try to stay home. We’d probably have been killed. There are a couple neighbors who I’m told tried it and the last I heard, not that I’ve heard very much, their bodies have yet to be found. Well, anyway, the school was pretty full of people, there weren’t any cots or anything at that time, and they had us in the gym since there weren’t any windows there. The whole building was shaking, and there were times I thought the roof was going to come off. The noise was deafening. I mean, the wind was howling and screaming, and right in the middle of everything the power went out, and then it was really scary. That was inland and supposedly it wasn’t as bad as it was down in Pass. I can’t imagine what it would have been like trying to ride it out down there. It went on for hours, and every minute I thought we were going to die. Then, well, finally, the wind began to go down a bit and it looked like we were going to make it. I’ve never been so continually scared in my life.”

“I’ll bet,” Jim said, trying to imagine what it must have been like. In one sense he could understand it, but in another his imagination wouldn’t quite stretch that far. “I rode out a tornado once when I was a kid and it tore things up pretty bad, but that had to have been a whole lot worse. I saw stories on TV of what had happened, mostly in New Orleans. I got the impression that things were pretty bad there, especially after the levees went down, but at least from what the people on TV said Pass Christian got it even worse.” He pronounced it Pass Kris-chee-ANN, having picked up the pronunciation from Rita and John.

“It did,” she said. “Well, I can’t say that, I haven’t seen New Orleans since Katrina, but I’m under the impression that it rode out the storm pretty well until the levees went down, and it was then that things went to hell. Towns on the coast like Gulfport and Pass Christian took the full hit from the wind and the storm surge. I’ve found out since then that every building in the Pass took damage, and something like only one out of ten houses remained livable. Anyway, that was later. Once the storm passed, I went back outside to see what had happened. The car had taken a hit from some flying debris, it got dented up and some of the glass was gone, and the interior was pretty much soaked, but it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t drive it. So, John and I headed back home to see how bad the damage was.”

“Pretty bad?”

“Indescribable, and we didn’t even see it then. It was all blocked off, and all we were told was that the place was totally destroyed. The only thing we could do was to head back up to where we’d ridden out the storm. I won’t go into the ins and outs of it, but no one seemed to know what they were doing, and nothing was very organized, there or elsewhere. We wound up living in another school gym, this time up in Hattiesburg, for two weeks before we could drive back down to the Pass to see what had happened.”

She let out a sigh and continued, “We hardly recognized the place. Just about everything was destroyed. I mean, people were working at the mess, but it just seemed like everything was gone. Well, not everything. Like downtown, there were some places where there were some signs up along the street, but the businesses were gone, but we could hardly recognize a thing even after having lived there for over thirty years. There was still debris and rubble all over the place, and a lot of the streets hadn’t even been cleared. I drove as close to the house as I could and had to walk through the debris to get to where the house had been. The house was just plain gone, Jim. I couldn’t find anything left of it. The storm surge had come through there and dumped a lot of debris from elsewhere on it, and I don’t even know if there’s anything of the house still there.” She let out another sigh and added, “I just haven’t had what it takes to try and see again and have to go by myself. At least this time you’ll be with me.”

“If the storm surge was as bad as you said, it seems like the house could have been washed somewhere else,” Jim observed. They were across the bridge now and into Mississippi, in countryside that looked a lot different than the area around Waldenville or Spearfish Lake.

“It may be, but I looked around a little and I never saw a sign of it,” she replied. “Of course, it could be in a million pieces like so many other homes down there. Not even God could sort it all out.”

“That had to have been tough,” he replied. “There’s supposed to be a lot of aid going down there.”

“Oh, I’m sure there is,” she said. “John and I, well, we tried to apply for several things, but every time we did it meant another trip down from Hattiesburg, and then from Vicksburg after they closed the shelter in Hattiesburg and we had to move. It’s a long trip from Vicksburg, and a couple times I left John behind since it was so hard on him just to go anywhere. The last time I was down there was over a month ago, and well, I could see some improvement has been made, but I don’t seem to get anywhere in applying for all that assistance the TV says is available.”

“Plus, everything is probably new to them too, and a lot of people don’t have any idea of what they’re doing, anyway,” Jim nodded. From what he’d heard on TV, a lot of people seemed to have their hearts in the right place, but the government, at least parts of it, seemed to have their heads pretty far up their asses and locked there. He decided he wouldn’t put it that way to Rita, though.

“I’d say that was pretty true,” she agreed. “Actually, I suppose if there was some way we could stay nearby, even in a tent, we might have been able to get a little more done, but we can’t do it with John in his wheelchair. We were getting pretty tired of living in shelters after a while, and so when Sharon and Floyd offered to take us in for a while we weren’t about to turn them down. Floyd was finally able to fix the car up a little so I didn’t have to drive around with plastic duct-taped over a couple of the windows. Even though it still looks pretty battered it still runs, so at least that’s something. I’ve been thinking about trying to take another trip down after the first of the year to see if I can accomplish anything, but I really don’t want to leave John alone for that long. It’s just too far from Helena, especially to take John. And besides, I don’t know that I’d be up to dealing with it, anyway.”

“I hate to sound really stupid,” Jim said, “but there’s a part of me saying, ‘Why bother?’ I mean, you are both close to retiring. You at least have some income even if it’s not a lot. Why bother with trying to go back and rebuild in a place like that, when there’s a good chance a hurricane is going to come along again someday and try to blow it off the map again? You could go somewhere else and live with a lot less trouble.”

“A lot of people are doing that, but we don’t want to,” she sighed. “The simple answer is that it’s home. We know people there, we have friends there, we liked the life, and we liked the climate. I think we both know it’s going to be a while getting back to what it was before, but it will come back sooner or later. We moved there not long after hurricane Camille back in 1969, and it had been torn up pretty bad then. In fact, that’s part of why we moved there. It was a nice place to live, and the storm damage had driven prices down, and well, Pass Christian grew on us. We know it can come back because we’ve seen it happen before. We were a part of it coming back before, and we’d like to be part of it again, even if it’s no more than just our being there to show that we’re keeping the faith.”

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