This article is part of an ongoing series by Blake Bailey, a New Orleans resident who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina. Click here to read more of his dispatches.
For the last week, my wife and child have been in North Carolina, visiting the maternal side of my wife's family. My mother-in-law, Chris, is a fellow evacuee. One of the nice things about moving to New Orleans this summer was the sweetness of her company: She and my wife would go to the farmer's market every Saturday, a beloved routine, and Chris was great about caring for her granddaughter, whose life she'd looked forward to sharing for a long time to come. But none of us will be returning to New Orleans anytime soon: My wife and I are moving back to Gainesville, Fla., and Chris isn't sure what she'll do. Before, she was a teacher in the New Orleans public schools, a system that barely functioned under the best of circumstances and now is pretty much defunct. This is a loss for Chris' students—she insisted on teaching only the lowest achievers—and as for Chris herself, she's had to apply for food stamps.
Here in Norman, Okla. (where I'm staying with my mother and various friends), I try to avoid morbid thoughts—a matter complicated somewhat by the fact that I'm working on a biography of John Cheever, one of the saddest men who ever lived. I'm fond of Cheever—as a biographer it's important to like your subjects, I think—but he can be pretty gloomy company day in and day out. "I remember standing on the terrace of your old house," he wrote his friend John Weaver, whom he visited during a dreary trip to Hollywood in 1960. "The door was open and I heard Harriet [Weaver's wife] flush a toilet and open and close a drawer. The sensation of my aloneness was stupendous." I know how he feels. I'm also thrown on the hospitality of others, and can scarcely hear some homely bit of domestic business—a flushing toilet, a friend kissing his wife—without thinking that my own wife and daughter are far away, my mother-in-law is destitute, and none of us can go home again.
One is succored by the kindness of strangers. When I first arrived in Norman, I took my car to a repair shop to have the AC fixed; after considering the matter for two or three hours, the manager told me that the AC was broken in every conceivable way that AC can break and that to repair it would cost roughly the blue-book value of my car (a 1998 Suzuki Esteem). I decided to cut my losses. The woman who wrote up the invoice for all that expensive labor—a dead ringer for the woman in American Gothic—noticed my Louisiana license plate and wondered if I was from New Orleans. I said I was and added something to the effect that I had miles to go before I sleep, albeit in a very warm car, ha ha. The woman stopped writing and gave me a rock-faced look—deploring my stupid joke, I thought, but not at all: "No charge," she said, and firmly shook her head when I fumbled for my wallet. The next day I got a haircut and the same thing happened. It's almost worth losing your house to be reminded, again and again, that people are really nice when given half a chance.
Consider the guy who rescued my cat this weekend—Chris Cole, the neighbor of an old friend in Oklahoma City. I'd met him a week ago in my friend's pool. (Like Neddy Merrill in Cheever's "The Swimmer," I spend a lot of time in other people's pools, drinking their liquor and trying to forget.) And now, my friend told me, Chris was in New Orleans on a press pass. So, I gave him a call: Amid the gulps and gaps of a bad cell-phone connection, I explained that my cat, if alive, was enduring Day 20 without food or potable water (that I knew of); could he possibly retrieve her, I asked, as well as my wife's laptop (on top of the fridge), a box full of Cheever photos (on a stack of other boxes stashed, idiotically, in a rackety old wardrobe cabinet), and all our vital documents? He was glad to do so.
Chris' cell phone cut out every 15 seconds or so—calling from New Orleans these days is like calling from Gdansk—such that his progress was reported in one- or two-sentence increments: "OK, I'm driving along Elysian Fields now, and I think the next ... You say the hide-a-key is where? Sorry, but I—oh wait ... OK, inside now. Looking for ... paw prints in your living room, but no cat. Mold all over the place. The floor's ... You there? OK, your floor's a mess. The waterline was about 18 inches, I guess, and the boards are buckled. The door to that last room won't ... cat. Listen, I'm just gonna look for the cat, OK, and I'll call you back when ..."
I fielded these calls while driving around the countryside north of Oklahoma City—what used to be the countryside, I should say, when I lived here as a child; now it is mile after mile of generic subdivisions with names like "Whispering Acres" and "Rambling Estates." Every time I return to Oklahoma there are more and more of these places, sprouting like mushrooms in dung. Perhaps the rebuilt New Orleans will resemble Oklahoma City someday.
Chris called me back. "I have good news and bad news. The good ... Sorry. You there? Hello? OK, the good ... found your cat. But ..."
But.Oh, God—I thought, waiting for my cell phone to ring again—the poor old cat is dead: She'd survived a car backing over her head, a hurricane, a flood, the receding of the flood, and finally had padded into our empty, moldy living room and despaired. After five or six more calls, though, Chris had established the following: He'd found our cat, alive, under a waterlogged couch; at first he'd tried enticing her with a can of tuna—no dice, in spades—and finally he'd pulled the sofa away from the wall, whereupon our cat had bolted into the kitchen and, Chris thought, out the door. Well, I sighed, at least now she'd have a fighting chance to forage among the ruins. In any case it was getting dark; Chris said he'd put food and water both outside and in and resume his search in the morning.
The next day I worked on an endless Disaster Home Loan Application from the U.S. Small Business Administration—this courtesy of FEMA. I had to keep calling my wife to ask her, say, for her father's address in Fayetteville, Ark. ("CLOSEST RELATIVE NOT LIVING WITH JOINT APPLICANT"), or the balance owed on her Sallie Mae loans. At one point I got a call from my friend Alfred, a New Orleans lawyer who was back in the city, with the mayor's blessing, to retrieve files and clean out his fridge ("solid maggots"). He offered to check on my house, and I told him to go ahead, the more the merrier, etc., and returned to my SBA application. ("Unsure," I wrote, in reply to the prompt "Year Mortgage Pays Off." "Vital papers lost in hurricane and Chase website currently unavailable. Chase will provide info on request.") Every now and then either Alfred or Chris would call: The cat was in the house! She'd eaten the food! And finally the best news of all: