You wait forever to read this:
“We are pleased to inform you that your manuscript, The Swamps of Jersey, has been accepted for publication!”
Imzadi Publishing, LLC
Thanks to all who offered support and to Diane, Devorah, Sue and others who read the manuscript and offered helpful comments.
They had seen heavy rain before, they said. The weathermen were always wrong, even with their satellite photos and computer projections. The storms always turned east, bounced off North Carolina and ran toward New England.
Instead this one arrived like a freight train, a wall of water doing eighty miles an hour; horizontal, slashing rain that crashed into windows, smashed into walls, driving wind and water that wrenched homes from their foundations, tossed cars into trees and yanked down power poles like matchsticks; for good measure, if anyone thought they were safe, the rain forced itself through tiny cracks to pool on the basement floor, to drip under the windows, to violate like a silent thief the very notion of safety.
Rain measured not in inches, but feet; not in days, but years, centuries. A storm measured in thousands of feet per second. Rain that washed away memories and histories, awakened in moistened ground the seeds of despair and bitterness that lay dormant under a veneer of calm.
The roadside ditches filled. The creeks and streams boiled up and overflowed, and in the hills above the city they joined forces and crashed past the rocks, dragging saturated hillsides along for the ride; water filled depressions in the woods and in backyards under the swing sets in the crushing fall toward the river.
The churning brown water, fearsome in its wanton fall, smeared cellar windows and car doors and red flower boxes filled with marigolds as the flood rose and splashed against locked front doors, seeping under the carpet while frantic homeowners ran sump pumps in their basements two at a time.
In the downtown, in the bottom of the bowl, the residents stood on rooftops, huddled in third floor attics as their world was swallowed and the sounds of doom battered the walls around them. They searched the sky for light and their souls for words of comfort and salvation. If the walls gave out, they each wondered whose hand would reach out for theirs.
The river took it all, swelling beyond its banks to slam into homes and bridges and roads, scouring stones and soil from foundations, ripping the mere constructs of society away like so much wishful thinking. It roared with a life of its own, its voice growing deeper as the water gained depth and weight while above, the wind shrieked as it ripped at roofs and porches and tossed away all the insubstantial things in its path. When the water slammed into corners, it formed dark, deep whirlpools that sucked below the surface all that it grabbed, all it had claimed.
The footballs and basketballs came first, bouncing atop the current along with a few aluminum chairs as if a backyard game had been interrupted. A chunk of plastic fence surfed along, curving and dipping as the water rose, the full grape arbor from Mrs. Girardi’s garden dipped in and out of view taking with it the Christmas wine she gave as gifts to her family, followed by an acre of Sam Johnson’s newspapers that had been blasted out of his shed when the door caved in and the editions of all the days of his life became flotsam; then it in its last turn, the flood lifted the Salvatores wood frame greenhouse from its cinderblock foundation and carried it along, suspended like a parade float until it was thrown into a telephone pole where it splintered and left the plastic sheeting fluttered loudly in the stream.
When the flood finally crashed into the middle school and swirled and pooled into a menacing lagoon at the bottom of Berry Street, the city looked like Venice the day after hell broke loose and someone held a rummage sale.
It left behind silence, an oh-my-God, can-you-believe-it-silence that comes from souls empty of grief and fear. They stared at trees and poles tangled and wrecked, at cars upended, at roofless, windowless homes and asked themselves, where are my neighbors? “Are you okay?” they asked each other, the voices soft and shaky, words in a vacuum; they shook hands, held one another, touched. Retouched.
After the storm cleared Nagler was put in charge of a crew assigned to examine each home and building on several blocks on the east side of Ironton. Everything, including the investigation into the death of the woman in the bog, was put on hold, on order from the mayor, who said finding possible flood victims, buildings in danger of collapse, broken water mains or sewer lines and natural gas leaks took precedence for at least twenty-four hours. So along with an ambulance squad, two firefighters, a code officer and utility company workers, they knocked on doors, stepped over broken porches and fences, noted where trees had smashed through roofs, counted broken windows and logged the number of dogs running in the streets and hungry cats inside the broken homes. East Ironton was one of those “traditional low-lying flood zones” the newspapers always wrote about, a mile-square of flat streets bounded on the north by steep hills and undercut by a brook whose watershed had been rearranged by two hundred years of construction. The city in recent years had tried to force it into large underground channels, but the brook persisted in finding its own way, and after spring rains was often found flowing through cellars and popping up in backyards in small geysers.
None of that mattered with this storm: the streets had been awash with six feet of water for three days after storm drains backed up and the debris collected in intersections had become dams; small boats were used to evacuate residents.
Nagler stood in the kitchen of a Riley Avenue home and noted the damage. The first floor doors and windows had been smashed open and the living room furniture had been arranged in a manner that would give a Feng shui master a migraine. Kitchen chairs were piled in the corner trapped by an overturned table and the small appliances rested in the sink. The still air stung his nostrils with the deep, moist scent of rot. A wavy brown line on two walls showed the high-water mark. The slight, slow tick-tick-tick of the kitchen clock was the only sound as the tail of the red-and-black cat figure marked the passage of the seconds.
Nearly half the homes had been damaged. On the sidewalk Nagler compared lists with Dan Walker, a fire fighter who had canvassed the opposite side of Riley.
“We were here during the height of the storm, Frank,” Walker said. “Some of these people wouldn’t leave. Especially the older ones, whose families built these houses. It’s everything they own. What a damn shame. One old lady slapped me when I tried to lead her out, but I told her if she didn’t come now the next time I saw her, she’d be dead.”
“What house was that?” Nagler asked.
Walker nodded his head toward an intersection half a block away. “The red one on the corner. It had an old field stone cellar foundation that washed away and the wall on that side of the house opened up, which let in a lot of water. The center stairwell washed out and brought down part of the second floor. If she didn’t drown, she would have been crushed.”
Nagler shook his hand. “Good work, Dan.”
Walker said thanks and turned to examine Berry at the next intersection.
The storm hid all this destruction, Nagler thought. There was so much water in the air it distorted any view of the landscape hidden behind the swirling, grey mass, rotating, stinging, shape shifting so often it produced vertigo. We knew it was bad, he thought; now we know how bad.
Some homes in East Ironton that were not flooded were struck by trees or tree limbs, some by power poles toppled like Lincoln logs, one after the other, broken and strung together by the nest of wires. Roofs, porches, patios, sheds, cars, fences, satellite dishes, propane tanks, all damaged, crushed, tossed; histories and lives rearranged in one crashing, wet instant.
In the darkness of the torrent, Nagler imaged what was happening beyond the scope of his vision, beyond the range of his hearing. In the full warmth of daylight, it was worse that he imagined.
“Hey, Frank, we got a problem.” It was Dan Walker running toward him. “It’s Sam Rothwell. He’s up in the attic of his house pointing a rifle at the guys in the street. He says he’ll shoot if they try to enter the house.”
Nagler shook his head. “Damn it. That old fart.”
Sam Rothwell’s house was half a block away and Nagler could see three or four of his crew ducking behind cars in the street. Nagler was surprised the house was still standing. Half the porch posts were torn away and the porch roof was threatening to pull down the front wall. Windows had been blown out and the chimney was missing.
Nagler sighed. He’d been at this house what seemed like a hundred times in his career. If it wasn’t Sam Rothwell threatening to shoot up the neighborhood, it had been his father, Max, who had to protect his still where he brewed high-octane grain whiskey. Sam just needed to protect his right to drink.
Nagler scanned the upper floors for a peek at Sam.
“What the hell are you doing, Sam,” he yelled. He motioned for the other in the street to move away. “Sam? You up there? How much you been drinking?”
Nagler flinched when the barrel of Rothwell’s rifle emerged through the window. “If you shoot at me, Sam, I’m gonna be really pissed,” he yelled.
The rifle was withdrawn, and Nagler saw a hand reach through the window and take down a piece of ragged plywood. Then Sam Rothwell’s head emerged. “Hi, Frank. How ya been?”
“Been better. You might have noticed a storm rolled through town recently, sort of busted everything up, including your house. You need to let us help you get out before the front of the building falls off.”
“Thought something was going on,” Rothwell yelled back. “They shut my power off a month ago, so I’ve been sort of living up here. Had some bread and bologna, but it’s gone. Just got half a case of bourbon. The place was rockin’, I tell you. Shit was bouncin’ off the roof and walls and I heard glass breakin’ and then a tree landed on some house out back…”
“Look, Sam. I’m gonna call a ladder truck and we’ll get you out of there,” Nagler said.
“No you ain’t,” Rothwell said and jammed his rifle back into the window. “There was already someone here from the government that said they would take my house and throw me out on the street.”
Nagler knew that the city had issues with Sam paying his taxes and keeping the property up to standards, especially years ago after they found the still, but as far as he knew, no one had been out doing formal assessments on damaged property. Hell, it had just stopped raining, so crews were out doing what his was doing — some basic inventory of the damage.
“Sam, when was the last time you had something to eat?” Nagler yelled up.
The rifle in the window wiggled up and down. “Why, you delivering pizza? I’ll take pepperoni and sausage.”
The ladder truck that had been called to the scene turned the corner at Berry Street and slowly and carefully rolled past the fallen poles and trees. When it was two houses away, Sam Rothwell fired a shot that shattered an attic window across the street.
“Fuck you, Sam,” Nagler yelled. “You do that again and I’ll shoot you myself. Now empty that rifle and toss it out here.”
After a minute or two, the rifle was dropped out of the attic window, followed by a handful of shells. Rothwell tore of the rest of the plywood out of the window and stuck his head out. “I’m sorry, Frank. I’ve been drinking all week and haven’t eaten in two days. I’m fucked,” he said and started to crawl through the window.
“Sam, don’t!” Nagler yelled. “You can’t see it, but half your porch is in your neighbor’s yard.”
Rothwell jerked back and looked down. “When’d that happen?”
Later, when Rothwell had been removed from the attic, placed in the back of a rescue vehicle and fed coffee and sandwiches, Nagler asked him how he was doing.
“You gonna arrest me for shootin’ at that house?” Rothwell asked.
Nagler shook his head. “No. Accident.”
“What am I gonna do now, Frank?”
“City can put you up in a shelter for a few days. A place to sleep, shower, regular meals.” Nagler looked over at Rothwell. “No booze. Where’s your sister live?”
Rothwell stared straight ahead. “Morristown. Ain’t seen her in a while.”
A silence settled in. Rothwell drank his coffee and ate quietly. To Nagler he seemed like a man finally knocked flat on his back. Even when he was wrong Sam Rothwell was a spit-in-your-face defiant son-of-bitch, like his father, like a lot of Ironton’s families who knew the good times and the bad, felt the success of the mills and the pain of their closing, but still walked on, cared for their children, schools and churches. Rothwell’s lined face held eyes that jittered and withdrew; his hands clutched the coffee cup like it would be his last.
“Can I ask you something, Sam?” Nagler said.
“When did that city guy threaten to throw you out of your home?”
Rothwell focused his eyes on the ground. “Day or two after the storm hit, I think. There were people all over the street getting people to leave.”
Nagler nodded. A mandatory evacuation for East Ironton had been ordered. “So maybe this guy was just trying to get you to safety?”
“No,” Rothwell said. “It was different. It was a threat. ‘We’re gonna take your house and sell it to someone else.’ The house wasn’t damaged and the street wasn’t flooded. It was something else. I know I owe taxes, but I’ve been through that before and I know how that goes, and this wasn’t that. This was, ‘Leave, we’re takin’ your house.’ I don’t how to fight that. Family’s been in this town for a couple hundred years. Family names are on the war memorial. Like all the neighbors. Seems wrong someone could steal that out from under us. That’s when I got the gun out. Damned if they were gonna steal my house.”
“I’ll bet,” Nagler said. “Your father would have done the same thing.”
Rothwell smiled and looked off.
“He took a shot at me, too,” Nagler said. “Told him if he ever did that again I’d take a shotgun to his still.”
“No, you didn’t.”
Nagler smiled. “Something like that. Tell me, you sure that guy was from the city and not just some scam artist?”
“I’m sure,” Rothwell said. “Was driving a city car.”