“Every son who is born you shall cast into the river...” - Exodus 1:22
I yanked my bag out of the seat to my right, and stood up. Spoke to my roommate, Evie Estevez who was nowhere to be felt. “We need to go, Cher.”
Evie now knelt near my legs. Couldn’t see her face in the dark except for the whites of her eyes and her Kool-Aid-smile. Her skin reminded me of my grandmother’s chinaberries that pelted and cursed the chickens in the backyard. Brown leathery. Cool; hot- an enigma to me. And the fact that she wore a cross around her neck and carried both a gris gris bag and rosaries in her purse added to her mystery, charm, and my decision to not believe in any of her religions.
She yanked my leg until I stumbled back a bit. “Bebe(sounded more like Baby,) get your smart-behind down here before you get shot.”
“Tttt…I’m fix’in to leave. You need to get off that filthy floor and come on.”
“Nada.” She flipped her wrist and popped her tongue to the roof of her mouth. “I’m staying right here. Didn’t they tell us this was the safest place to be?”
“Who?” I looked around the dark to see the police and army. “They can’t help us.”
“Ahi, va…It don madda…” She grumbled a hodgepodge between Creole and Boriken. “But something does stink in here besides the trash. It’s not safe here and not safe out there. That’s the God’s honest truth. Madre de Dios.” She crossed her heart and kissed her cross necklace pendant.
I looked up. More stars. Either a bullet or three punctured the roof, or Hurricane Katrina stuck a fork in it to see if we were cooked.
I stepped in the aisle. “Oh. Uh-huh. If God’s confused, then I really need to bounce. Tell, Him. I’ll take my chances outside. Thank you very much.”
“Outside with the locos, broken levees and the gators? I guess Tulane hadn’t rubbed off on you, yet. Besides, Diva Chica, they…” She pointed toward the guards standing near the 30, 40 and 50. “Won’t let us leave.”
My nose turned up at her, this situation and the stench of where we had been sitting the past forty-eight hours: soiled diapers, musty underarm funk, urine, and bodies rotting from the inside out. I leaned down toward my baby’s mouth and listened to his breathing. His cooing comforted me.
So I took a step up. “At this point we’re all crazy gator people.”
“I’m neither. I’m just too scared.” Her smile fell. “I-I-I’ve never been shot at before. ”
I reached for her. Felt her fingers trembling. My body shivered. “Neither have I.”
The guard standing at the top of our aisle shouted. “We’ll allow some of you to spend the night outside on the concourse where its cooler, but you can’t go any further than that, because you’ll be evacuated in the morning and water still floods the streets.”
My body relaxed. The baby’s feet wiggled against my chest. But my shivers remained.
I removed my hold of Evie’s hand. “That’s my cue, Cher.”
She jumped up and grabbed me. “Don’t leave me. God’s gonna take care--”
But I slipped from her grasp before she told me what God would take care of. Other people were pushing themselves around and through us toward the exit. I shuffled upward with them and lost the sound of her voice. But it was okay. I didn’t care to hear her talk about God anyway. If God was so caring, then why was Madear dead, our home flooded, and my man overseas fighting for some unbeliever’s freedom? Obviously we’re not free here, packed away like slaves aboard a ship. Didn’t make sense to me. The only thing that made sense right now was that I needed to take care of my baby. Period.
The night stank, but was breathable. I saw wet, souring trash bags, browning diapers, broken glass, gray milk puddles, and an occasional dead body covered in a corner. The living found mildewed cardboard boxes, cots, and vinyl ripped from the stadium walls to sleep on. And I found a crevice near where a bench used to be. Or so I thought until I saw an old friend, whom I swore I would never speak to again.
It wasn’t until I laid my receiving blanket down to sit on, that I noticed the tag. A graffiti marked in a signature pink jagged text that belonged to only one man, Delroy “D-Rock” Fontenot, “Thug Nasty” to the Lower Ninth Ward.
I’ve called him D-Rock since we were mud-pie babies, ever since he used to put cooled river rocks in his mouth and suck on them like Now/Laters candy. We were five then. He was my first boyfriend and best friend until he went away to juvie four years later for commandeering a Frito Lay truck from the driver with a plastic water gun. He changed his name and converted to thug life--Thug Nasty Life. Foolish.
I gasped when I saw him. He turned around slow just like in a movie. My mouth wide open. He still turning, muscles rippling against the moonlight and his eyes staring down my new mom’s body. His eyes lit up. Crocodile grin. My mouth closed.
He licked his lips and stopped moving. “Cher, Baby Doll. How you been?”
I nodded. Knees knocking. “It’s all gravy.” Hated for him to call me Baby Doll.
“Sorry about Madear. But no worries. I got you and lil’ man.” He nodded his head in the direction of where I stood. “Take a squat.”
He whispered to one of his thugs. They brought me a pack of diapers (in the right size no doubt,) two large t-shirts, a water bottle, a box of cookies and some canned evaporated milk. Should’ve known Thug Nasty were behind the break-in down at the food service entrance.
I mouthed. “Thank you.” And took the corner.
They fawned over me as I changed my boy, ate, drank, and gave the baby sips of water. I’d feed him before morning, but not in front of those fools. I took the t-shirts and made a makeshift pillow. Leaned my head on it. But didn’t sleep. Held my baby tight and my gaze on D-Rock even tighter. See. You pay a tax to hang with Thug Nasty. The minute they nodded off, we’d leave. And if God took care of us like Evie said, now was his chance to prove it.
Three buzzards breezed above us the moment my head slid off the pillow. I opened my eyes to dawn. Checked the area. D-Rock asleep, but his crew was not. They watched me closer than the birds above. God sucks big time.
Imagine my exhaustion, the stiffness of my neck and back, and the tightness of my arms from clutching the baby and clinching my fists through each night-doze. All night my mind sat in an infinite loop and kept rerunning the same script over and over: What am I going to do? What am I going to do? Then Imagine me sitting crumpled in a corner searching for someone, anyone to rescue me from these hungry men, while no one—I mean no one-would look my way. Maybe they thought I now belonged to Thug Nasty. Maybe I did.
Then all Hell broke lose. People ran past me screaming. “Buses.”
Thug Nasty bolted and joined them.
I crooked my neck to see for myself. “Dear God.” Could it be He heard me?
I turned around to see. On Interstate 10 just above the Hyatt hotel a caravan of chartered buses gleamed in the sunlight like Madear’s chariot vision she cross-stitched on the blanket. I scrambled off the ground. Something dropped out of my pocket, Evie’s rosary. I put it back in my pocket and squished through the mob in my soggy shoes. I found a safe spot near two guardsmen. They wore army green fitted tees, camouflage pants and boots. I wanted those boots.
I stood there rocking the baby, sorry for leaving Evie and doubting God. I looked around to see if she was here. But everyone looked like her. Packed tight like sardines. Catholic Voodoo Christian sardines, to me.
I tapped a guardsmen’s shoulder. He turned toward me. Nice smile. Yankee. “Ma’am?”
“Have you seen a woman…?”
Sh ...raa…oar… A roar far worse than the sound of the surf breaking against Madear’s chinaberry trees made the hairs on the back of my arms stand up. The soldier grabbed me. He thrust us behind him. I peaked around his side and gasped. A riot had ensued.
The charter buses had stopped a few yards short of us. Hyatt hotel staff and guests piled into the buses. We-- the dirty and dehydrated watched them peel away to Heaven. My shoulders slumped. I clutched his t-shirt’s back and moaned.
We were left behind...
My heart sank, but I couldn’t dwell on it then. The baby had awoken and he was ready to feed. So I took one of D-Rock’s t-shirts and put it over my old one. Lifted the shirt I had on underneath and slid the baby under there. I walked around the mania like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, while the baby nursed.
Then I saw Thug Nasty pushing through the crowd. My chest tightened. God, you gotta be kidding me.
I jumped behind a wide pillar and held my breath. My baby’s feet wiggled against my chest again. I loosed the swaddling for air. He smiled at me in the same bright-eyed way he did the day he was born, as if he held all my answers.
I kissed his cheek and whispered. “Mama’s gonna get us out of here or die trying.”
Someone tapped my shoulder. I spun around. The only thing I saw were droves of people lining the interstate for miles. My knees buckled. I could feel my crying bubbling up my throat. Why was God doing this to us?
The baby cried as if my decision to walk back toward Madear’s house sealed our doom. But my heart began to feed me a faith in something greater than all that was around me. So I stomped through slimy water, around Canal, through my Hood. Have faith, baby. I told him. Can you believe that?
The water was not as high as I had imagined in the Ninth Ward. The superettes hallowed out except for trash. Washaterias exploded into the streets. But it was pretty quiet for noon. I became worried.
A helicopter chopped through the air. It hovered low. And scared me, so that I leaned toward the nasty water and vomit liquid.
“Baby Doll, you sick?”
I jumped out of my shoes and turned around. Thug Nasty waded toward me, but D-Rock--he walked on water. My feet prepared to sprint.
He reached for the baby. “Give ‘lil man here. I’ll hold him until you’re better.”
I pushed him away. “Uh-huh. It’s all good.”
“Don’t look like it, Baby Doll.”
His men surrounded me. I stepped forward, stumbled back, tripped over those same shoes. Fumbled the baby right into his arms. Where was God?
I wanted to curse upside Monday through Sundays, but my heart only allowed me to whimper to D-Rock. “Give him back, please.”
He croc-grinned and shook his head. “Tax is due, cher.”
I looked in his eyes, in all of their eyes. “What do you want with my boy?”
He smirked through his gold teeth. “Don’t want him. I want you.”
His men took my arms behind my back. Then he gave my baby to a retarded-looking thug. That fool put my boy on a piece of cardboard floating atop the flooded water. I kicked my legs, swung my hair until it fell out of its ponytail, but I couldn’t break free. “No, idiot!”
D-Rock smacked him. “Get him up, Keith.”
But Baby drifted down the street before Stupid Keith could catch him. I cursed Christ when Baby was no longer in my sights; then fainted. I hoped I would die before God took whatever was left of me, since my best just washed away.
Someone placed a moist cloth over my forehead. “Ma’am, are you awake?”
I opened my eyes. Focused. Soldiers standing up? Their rifles pointed toward the sky?
I sat up. Looked around. I’m inside a five-ton truck. A black woman with golden skin, light hair and hazel eyes dressed in green fatigues knelt near me, holding my hand. From what she told me her name was SPC Lepret Parker of the Army National Guard, Mobile, Alabama. They drove up on Thug Nasty. D-Rock’s scatterbrained-behind panicked, dropped me in the water and ran. Stupid fool... I heard someone call SPC Lepret “Lemonade.” Wondered why.
I reached for my baby; then I remembered. God hated me. I turned over in Lemonade’s lap and cried until I slept some more.
The next time I woke up I’m feeling like my older self except the usual feeling of being Mother-mugged and moving in a big open top truck. Lemonade stood by another soldier with an automatic rifle in his hand. He was tall, bronze, Adonis. He looked down at me, shook his head and muttered something to Lemonade.
I sat up again. “Hey?” I called the snooty rifleman. Tried to stand up, but the vehicle was in motion. “Could you shoot me, please?” Why wait for Hell when I’ve been living in it most of my life?
God hated me now. I understood that. But my boy… the only good thing I’ve ever done, my only reason to be in college, was dead. Dead! I flung my head over the truck and heaved everything, but the pain.
The truck stopped. I fell backward.
Lemonade caught me and laid me back down. She put her hand on my forehead and spoke to the Rifleman. “She has a very high temp.”
He moved his gun toward his back. Knelt. “What’s your name, Ma’am?”
“It doesn’t matter just let me die with my baby.”
He looked at me. His eyes touched me somehow. They mirrored my baby’s, not by color, but by my soul’s connection. Could it be the same connection I saw in my boy? No. I tried to shake it off, but his gaze wouldn’t let me. His face, Lemonade’s, the Yank’s, Evie’s, Madear’s all held the same sweetness and care. Why hadn’t I saw it before?
Oh, God. My heart raced.
Madear was right. She would never leave me. She couldn’t if she still lived. Jesus. He really did it? He really died and lived again? Madear. My baby. All living. All waiting…
I grabbed the Rifleman, and spoke to God through him. “Please tell me my baby’s safe with you. Please change me, so that I can’t hurt like this again. I’m tired of feeling so bad. If you took my boy, then give me yours. Give me something good.”
I know I scared the man.
And just before I passed out again, something inside me said aloud. “It’s already done.”
My head bobbed as the rifleman carried me up a flight of steps upon a clearing in the middle of nowhere. It was night. Something exploded nearby. I grabbed his shoulders. We stepped onto the tarmac. Whoop. Whoop. Whoop. Heavy helicopter wings rotated above our heads.
The Rifleman smelled like old New Orleans, sweet and salty. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered.
My fear stopped.
He placed me into the chopper with two other people. They were not Army, but Angel Flight, according to their t-shirts. The rifleman threw up some gang signs to the pilot. But he didn’t get on with me. I reached for him, but they laid me on the cot.
I stretched out toward him again. “Don’t leave me.”
And then he smiled. I could see what my son could have been in him.
He yelled back to me. “You’re in good hands.”
Then the plane began to rise. My eyes widened. I clutched the cot, tried to stand.
The rifleman waved at me. “Stay down.”
I screamed myself hoarse. “But I don’t know your name.”
He cupped his hands and shouted. “It’s the same as your son’s.”
My neck popped. I snapped around toward the men. “What’s he mean?”
One spoke. “You’re Moses’ mom aren’t you?”
All my nerves stood up like a cat on her tippy toes. “My baby?”
“Yes. Apparently he floated up to one of the Army convoys over in Holy Cross like a scene from the Ten Commandments. Your friend, Captain Moses McDonald identified your son by the blanket he was wrapped in. Your information was on it. We couldn’t find you, but your mother was on the Atlanta news--”
My throat choked. “Is he—?”
“He’s fine. Your mother has him. And we’re taking you to Atlanta…”
Something in my pocket rubbed against my skin. Evie’s rosary. I rubbed it and cried. I looked down. Moses had gone. N’awlins gone, but not forever. Just like Atlanta it would rise from its ashes. Resurrect. Become Jesus. And that fact wasn’t an enigma. It was the God’s honest truth. Madre de Dios.