The Well of Souls
Ocean Springs, Mississippi.
Sunday, August 28, 2005.
Stoked on his third Red Bull of the morning, Eric Zala, thirty-five, focused and wired, his natural state, adjusts his squirmy toddler, Quinn, whom he’s tucked under his left arm like a football, aims the camcorder he holds with his right hand, and pans the living room of his childhood home. He trains the camera on every square inch of the hardwood floor and every piece of furniture—the couches, armchairs, coffee table, armoires—lingering on the fine china, ornate vases, and artwork, taking the care he took when he was a student at NYU film school nearly fifteen years earlier. He films the room meticulously, as if this were a postgraduate directing project that he was doing for credit. He swivels slowly, grins at Quinn’s contented gurgling, and double-checks the room to be sure he hasn’t missed anything. He starts to head upstairs, pivots, considers the room from this offbeat angle, decides he should shoot from here, too, get some coverage. When Eric agrees to do something—anything—he commits 100 percent. When I say I’m in, I’m in. Even if what he’s in for is documenting the furnishings in his mother’s house for insurance purposes.
Looking over the living room, he decides he actually prefers this perspective. He likes the placement of the camera, and the noon rays from the sun bounce off the water of the Gulf and bathe the normally dark interior with a soft warm light. From here, he appreciates the choices Mom and Dave made when they arranged the room, how lovingly and thoughtfully they placed each piece of furniture, not to mention how Dave, world-class carpenter and renovator, rebuilt and refinished all the walls and floors himself. The living room feels both comfortable and decorated, even staged, as if for a magazine spread. In fact, this room and many areas of the house and grounds had been photographed only a few years earlier for an article in Vanity Fair, although only one photo, a view of the front of the house, mostly blocked by Eric, Chris, and Jayson posing in costume, made it into the magazine.
Eric takes the stairs two at a time, jostling Quinn, who howls happily, and films the hall and all the upstairs rooms. It takes some time. The house covers a good six thousand square feet, not including the small porch outside the master bedroom where Dave keeps his bonsai tree collection and Mom her dozen or so orchids. Eric stands above the plants and tracks the camera over the cluster of leaves and flowers, then pulls away and wonders if he should move the plants inside and put them in the bathtub. No. Not practical. Later, Dave will fill the tub with water in case the storm that’s predicted takes out the plumbing.
Outside, Eric jogs down the front steps and lowers Quinn onto the lawn, larger than a football field, facing the Gulf of Mexico. Behind him, David Jensen, thin, fit, seventy-plus who could pass for fifty, stands on a stepladder and hammers a sheet of plywood over a pane of a living room window.
“How’s it going, Mr. Spielberg?”
“Done, I think,” Eric says. “Except for the outside. I assume you want that, too.”
“You might as well get everything. The oaks, the plants, the azaleas, all of it.”
“Right. All the vegetation. And the cottages, of course.” Screening his eyes with the flat of his palm, Eric blinks into the Gulf. The sun lasers off the placid, barely rippling water and causes a sudden shimmering glare that strikes Eric right between the eyes. The sun hits something else, a pair of glistening gunmetal hulks just to Eric’s left. He blinks furiously. “What are those?”
Dave, a nail tucked into the corner of his mouth like a toothpick, scrambles down the ladder and stands next to Eric. He squints and strokes the bottom of his full white beard.
“Harvey Ellison’s twin eighteen-wheelers.”
“The fishmonger? He’s constantly leaving rotting fish carcasses in the sun, outside his plant. The stench. Doesn’t care what complaints are registered.”
“A lovely man,” Dave says. “I crossed him off my Christmas list again this year.”
“He has to move those things.”
“Went over to talk to him this morning, but he’d already gone.”
“Son of a bitch left two semis right across from the house.” Eric exhales and scoops up Quinn, who, engrossed in something crawling in the grass, starts to cry. “Come on, little man.”
With Quinn now bawling, cradled into his side, Eric heads downhill to shoot up at the house so he can get it all in. He sweeps the camcorder and the word “grand” pops into his head. That’s how you’d describe this house: a grand two-story colonial-style antebellum mansion perched on a hill, eight white Doric columns at intervals on the wraparound porch, a porte cochere at the side entrance, a long twisting driveway spilling out to the main road where stout twin brick pillars announce MANYOAKS. No mystery why the house earned the name, Eric thinks, as he walks toward the rear of the house past one of the many oak trees that dot the land. Eric steps off a fair distance and pans the five small cottages that Dave and his mom rent out, one to a close friend of Eric’s, a Mississippian, who spent time in Los Angeles and returned to Ocean Springs, much more his speed. And mine, Eric thinks as he pans the camcorder over the last two cottages.
Finished filming, he returns to the house to say good-bye to his mom and Dave, who appear on the back porch. Mary Jensen, silver-haired, soft-spoken, her eyes clear and filled with kindness, holds a tray with three glasses.
“No, thanks, Mom. Got a lot to do.”
“I know you do.”
“You sure you don’t want to stay with us tonight? We’re a lot farther inland,” Eric says.
“We’ll be fine,” Dave says, and arches an arm around his wife’s shoulders.
“We’ll call you if we need anything,” Mary says.
“Okay, then. Quinn, say bye-bye to Grandma and Dave, bye-bye.”
Quinn, hungry, tired, and probably wet, huffs and whams his head into Eric’s chest.
Eric straps Quinn into his car seat and zips the camcorder into its faux leather case. He heads to the driver’s side and waves at his mom and her third husband, a catch, a blessing.
“Third time’s the charm,” Eric has said more than once.
He starts to fold his six-foot frame into his tiny foreign-made hatchback, and stops. He has one more thing to do. A visitation. He steps onto the wide expanse of lawn on the side of the swamp and walks about twenty yards to a massive six-foot-high boulder at rest between cinder blocks that serve as stops. The boulder comes up to his hairline. He cranks up a smile because he knows Mom and Dave are watching and rubs the top of the boulder in a small reverent circle, for luck. Head down, he slouches back to the car, ducks inside, and backs out of the driveway.
That night, when the dark comes, Katrina hits.
* * *
Monday, August 29, 2005.
Through the large bay window in his den, which for some reason he’d foolishly neglected to cover with plywood, Eric watches sheets of rain batter cars on the street and neighbors’ houses and sees, with horror, the ungodly winds bend back whole trees and shear off their limbs. All night he lay awake as the rain and wind pummeled the small house, fearing that the windows he covered might shatter and that the bay window would explode. The wind now comes in surges, and at times the small house sways. Then, suddenly, a funnel of wind rises from the roof and all is calm.
He has not heard from his mother or Dave all night. He picks up the phone and hears an eerie silence. He pads through the living room and checks with the rest of the family: Cass, his wife, seven months pregnant, Quinn asleep in her arms, nods at him. He cruises by the family room where Cass’s parents, both awake, have spent the night, their house dangerously close to the shore. Eric flashes what he means to be a reassuring smile and reenters the living room. He hauls on his boots and his raincoat and edges out the front door.
A tangle of tree branches lies crisscrossed on the front lawn. He steps over and between them and finds a jumble of larger branches and limbs piled up on the street, tied with a ribbon of power lines. Impossible to drive. Treacherous to walk. He flips open his cell phone and punches in his mom’s number. Nothing. Dead.
He begins to walk. He negotiates the tree limbs in the center of the street, climbing over some, rolling over others, crawling by the power lines. He becomes aware of an ominous crackling sound overhead: limbs ripped away from oaks about to crash to the street. He picks up his pace. After a half mile, he veers toward the Gulf and his boots sink into a trough of mud—formerly the sidewalk. Eric swears, slogs through the muck, a thick chocolate sludge, and passes a dazed-looking man pacing on his lawn as if he’s not sure where he is. Eric keeps going. People begin to come out of their houses, a few at first, then more, then a steady flow silently walking with him, all of them drawn toward the Gulf. A comic book collector from an early age, he can’t help thinking of them all, himself included, as zombies from The Walking Dead.
Approaching the water, Eric stops, astonished. The hurricane has blown apart the bridge that yesterday spanned more than a mile and a half from Ocean Springs to Biloxi and left it in shreds. He turns toward Front Beach, in the direction of Manyoaks. He passes groups of people, hugging, crying, wandering, lost. And then he sees his mother and Dave. They see him, stare. They don’t move. He reaches them and holds out his arms. His mother recoils momentarily, then allows her son to lock his arms around her.
“The house is gone,” Mary says.
The words don’t connect; they float right past.
“What?” Eric says.
“The house,” Mary says. She pulls away and shakes her head.
“It can’t be.”
“It’s gone,” Mary says again.
“Come on,” Dave says.
They walk in silence. They pass stragglers, some of whom Eric recognizes, none he can, for the moment, acknowledge. They cross the road and climb the hill toward the front of the house, which looms ahead. Eric’s mouth drops open. He walks closer.
The hurricane has ripped off the front porch, smashed the eight columns into dust, pulled up the entire floor. Splintered lengths of wood lie strewn against the side of the house or in clusters on the lawn. Even from here, Eric can make out a gaping hole by the front door. Images pierce him, television footage from earthquakes in third world countries. That’s what he thinks of now. His head throbbing, he adjusts his wire-rims as if that will improve his vision. Change the picture. He walks around to the back. Mary and Dave follow.
The winds have swept away the columns of the porte cochere. The overhang teeters, swinging like a hammock.
“Mom, Dave … how did you—?”
“We stayed upstairs,” Dave says. “It was—” He swallows. “I had the camera. I took pictures.”
Later, in the photos, Eric sees waves from the Gulf rising high as a cliff, roaring across the road, hurtling up the hill. With the force of monstrous rushing rapids, the waves slam into the house head-on. A wall of water blasts through the downstairs, uproots parts of the foundation, rips up the first floor, leaving the basement and garage packed in ten feet of mud.
“Come inside,” Dave says, one hand linked through Mary’s hand, the other one resting on Eric’s forearm. As he tiptoes up the front steps, Eric feels Dave’s fingers tremble.
Eric zigzags from one rickety floorboard to another until he arrives at what used to be the living room. The water has splintered the floor and collapsed the bricks of the central fireplace into rubble. More shards of wood, more mud, most of the furniture upended, most of the keepsakes smashed. A foul stench hits Eric, a nostril-slicing mix of rot and filth as if from a long-unattended toilet. He braces himself, forces himself not to gag. He raises his arm and buries his nose in his jacket sleeve.
He trails Mary and Dave into the kitchen. The floor tilts dramatically to the right, a section torn away, revealing the basement below.
“My God,” Eric says. “My God.”
“We were lucky,” Mary says.
“I can’t even begin…,” Dave says. He lowers his head, rests his hands on his knees.
Through a slant of the kitchen window, Eric sees that three of the five cottages have been leveled, reduced to woodpiles. Resting against one is an unfamiliar oblong metal box.
“What the hell?”
“Ellison’s eighteen-wheelers,” Dave says, his voice flat. “The water lifted them both, catapulted them toward us. They flew right past, missed the house and hit the cottages. Unbelievable. I watched it all. I thought we were dead.”
“I couldn’t look,” Mary says.
“A miracle you’re alive,” Eric says.
“This house…,” Dave says.
He sighs, a deep exhausted exhale. David Jensen, career air force, with Mary at his side, had taken this old worn-down dowager of a house and remodeled, repainted, and upgraded each room, every wall, every floor, every inch himself until Manyoaks had become a showplace, a Sunday morning gathering spot where their church often held mass and they hosted lunch afterward, the grand dame it was meant to be. And now—
“This house has a soul,” Dave says. “It really does. I feel … lucky. And I feel kicked in the gut.”
Mary rubs his arm. Her eyes fill up. “We had many wonderful years here. We’ve been very happy. We’ll be okay somewhere else. We’ll be fine. We’ll live in a smaller house—”
“Wait,” Eric says. “You can’t—”
He doesn’t finish. Dave’s eyes cloud up in defeat. It’s over. We lost.
Eric feels his legs buckle. He leans against the kitchen counter, caked in brown dust and globs of mud, and holds on as if he is trapped in a flimsy boat about to tip. He has heard every word, especially his mother saying that they will move, and yet he cannot absorb it, cannot allow these words to penetrate, cannot allow this life change. He cannot allow—
This house. The house of his childhood.
This house was his childhood.
His comfort. His constant. The house withstood divorce and bankruptcy, survived fire and ice.
His home. And Chris’s.
“No,” he says.
He bursts out of the kitchen and stumbles onto the lawn.
* * *
For the next three days, Eric lives in what feels like both a dream and a disaster movie. He returns to Manyoaks the morning of August 30 with a digital camera and the camcorder and he documents the aftermath—the devastation, the muck, the three slabs where the cottages stood, the blown-apart porch, the tenuously hanging roof over the nonexistent porte cochere, the rubble inside and out—all while holding his breath against the rancid odor that nearly swallows him. As he aims his camera, he imagines himself a crime scene photographer taking autopsy photos of a corpse. Finished, he kneels on the grass on the side of the house near the swamp and surveys the landscape and the damage.
Only then does he realize that the boulder is gone.
He shudders, stands, begins to scan the lawn trying to find his bearings, and then Dave appears, coming toward Eric.
“Eric, listen,” Dave says. “I can’t imagine how you feel. I only know how I feel. I feel so … tired. I’m not a young man. I celebrated seventy years on this earth a while ago.”
“I know,” Eric says.
“I can’t do it,” Dave says. “The cleanup alone—”
“You won’t have to do it yourself. We’ll help. We’ll get help.”
“There’s no point.”
“I’m sorry,” Dave says. A whisper. His legs unsteady, he heads back toward the demolished front porch.
* * *
For three days, they are cut off from the outside world: no phones, no television, no electricity. The nearest airport, in Gulfport, has been wrecked, runways torn up, buildings smashed. Late the second day, in Ocean Springs, a few scattered stores open. Lines at gas stations snake for miles from the small business district all the way to the highway. Broome’s Grocery, the local market, opens on the third day, cash only, and crowds line up for hours. Stories, some tragic, some triumphant, begin circulating from nearby Biloxi and Gulfport, and from New Orleans, only ninety miles away. Eric hears of a neighbor, a man in a house a few streets away, who fought to hold on to his wife’s hand as water raged through their living room and then swept her away into higher water where she drowned. Other neighbors tell of looters cleaning out stores, even in Mayberry-like Ocean Springs where no one ever locks a door. Signs begin appearing in store windows: YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT. Eric borrows a loaded handgun and keeps it with him at home. He has never fired a gun in his life. He—and everyone he knows—stumbles through the day on edge, jittery, on the verge of some kind of communal breakdown.
Day four, cell phone service returns.
Eric calls his brothers Kurt, Michael, and Jeff, and his sister, Cynthia. They have all been panicked, sick with worry. He tells them about the house. Kurt, closest in age to Eric, and the sibling who grew up in the house with him, promises to leave his home in Boston the next morning, pick up Cynthia, who has also settled in Boston, and head down to Mississippi to help. Michael and Jeff, construction guys, say they will load up their truck and trailer with all the supplies Dave needs to start the cleanup. They’ll leave in the morning from Denver.
“It’s no use,” Dave says. “It’s impossible.”
“Tell you what,” Jeff says on the phone to Eric. “Have Dave make a list of everything he needs and fax it to us. We’ll take care of it.”
Eric cups the phone, relays Jeff’s message.
“I don’t know.” Dave swallows, then allows himself a small, appreciative grin. “Okay, I guess. Fine.”
As Eric answers Jeff’s questions and fills in details, Dave begins writing a list. In characteristic David Jensen style—careful, thoughtful, complete—as Eric talks on the phone, Dave scribbles a list that goes on for three pages. When he sees it, Eric smiles. This is the first sign of life he’s seen in Dave in almost a week.
A few days later, Michael and Jeff, from Denver, hauling a trailer (they’ve spray-painted TEAM AMERICA—KATRINA CLEANUP on a crate of supplies), and Kurt and Cynthia, from Boston, arrive at Manyoaks just before dusk, within one hour of each other.
* * *
Finally, Eric calls his other brother in Los Angeles, his non-blood brother. “Chris.”
“Eric! Holy shit. I am so glad you called, man. So fucking relieved to hear your voice. Man. I’ve been worried sick. I’ve been calling like every fucking hour. There’s no service. I finally got through to my mom in Gulfport. She’s okay. Shaky, but okay. What is going on down there? What is happening?”
“We’re okay. But Mom’s house…”
“It’s gone, man. It’s gone. The house is gone.”
And then Eric starts to sob. Safe on the phone with Chris, he allows the loss he’s been keeping squashed inside him to gush out and ravage him. On the line in Los Angeles, Chris loses it. He cries along with Eric.
“I feel like it was my house, too, man,” Chris says, pulling himself together.
“It was your house,” Eric says. “It is your house.”
“I’m coming down to help.”
“Good, great, come over and help.”
Come over and help.
Come over. As if it’s a summer day twenty years ago and Chris still lives at the Riverhouse five minutes away.
* * *
Maybe it’s the makeup of this family or maybe it’s the natural energy that courses through them as they pull together for this unique purpose, but their collective spirit never sags, never darkens, never dissolves into self-pity. Typical of most family reunions, everyone congregates in the kitchen. Except this kitchen tilts sharply to one side like the floor of a funhouse and sunlight streams through a widening gap at everyone’s feet. They convene in the kitchen to share drinks from a cooler, to escape from the mosquitoes, to catch their breath, to check in with each other, and, remarkably, to laugh despite the brutal early September heat that bakes the inside of the house and carries with it the nauseating stench of hardening marsh mud. Between the smell and the lack of electricity—meaning no air-conditioning—the family bonds in the kitchen but sleeps on the lawn.
“I don’t remember when I’ve had so much fun,” Dave says, sawing through a length of wood that he’ll use as a support beam.
Yes, Dave is back. It took him a few days, but gradually he located his infectious enthusiasm and uncompromising resolve.
Day one. The family votes him foreman. He refuses. He says he just doesn’t feel up to it; Katrina has broken his heart. Refusing to accept Dave’s decision, the family waits an hour and votes again—this election is also rigged—and again, Dave wins.
“David, don’t make us vote again,” Mary says.
“Yes. I’m pretty sure I can predict the outcome of that one as well.”
So, a reluctant foreman, Dave hands out the assignments: construction for Michael, Jeff, and him, outside cleanup for Eric and Kurt, kitchen cleanup for Mary and Cynthia. Eric can’t pinpoint the moment that Dave comes all the way back, but one morning, standing in the kitchen with him, Dave sipping a cup of coffee, Eric swigging a Red Bull, Dave swipes his lip with the back of his hand and says, “You know, maybe, just maybe, we can pull this off.”
The next day, Cass picks Chris up at the closest working airport, in Mobile, Alabama, fifty miles away. Cass parks in the driveway several yards from the house. Chris steps out of Eric’s car and collapses into a crouch.
“Fuck.” He stares ahead at the front of Manyoaks, the demolished porch covered with sheets of blue tarp. “I’m in shock. I’m in fucking shock.”
Chris bows his head, removes his glasses, rubs the bridge of his nose, forces himself to stand up. When he does, he sees Eric striding toward him.
“Hey,” Eric says.
They throw their arms around each other and hold tight.
“This is fucked,” Chris mutters into Eric’s shoulder.
“Indeed,” Eric says.
They pull apart and look each other over: Eric, thicker around the waist, hair grown out, full beard the color of chocolate, wire-rims askew and streaked with Katrina dirt; Chris, looking just a little bit L.A., broad-chested, as if he’s been working out, his potential shock of wavy black hair buzzed Melrose Avenue short.
“I like the beard,” Chris says.
“Yeah? I don’t know. I’ve been so distracted I honestly wasn’t aware I had grown it, and then one day, there it was.”
“I’ll take your recommendation under advisement.”
“Nice. Okay.” He rubs his hands together as if he’s about to crack a safe. “Put me to work.”
* * *
When Mary sees Chris, they both cry. She clasps him tight, as if he is her own son. He breaks from her and hugs all the others, except for a silly improvised soul handshake with Kurt, followed by a huge laugh and a hug. Then Dave banishes Chris and Eric to the basement.
“Where we belong, man,” Chris says. “At the bottom.”
“Where we can do the least harm,” Eric says.
Chris, balancing two shovels over his shoulder, walks behind Eric, who struggles to maneuver a temperamental wheelbarrow loaded with wooden planks. They wind around to the back of the house and face the yawning crater where the garage and porte cochere used to be. A few more steps and they sink up to their ankles in muck, which they wade through until they confront a six-foot wall of hard-packed mud, blocking what was the door to the basement.
“I left L.A. for this?” They lay the planks down; Chris hands Eric a shovel and slams his into the mud. “We have broken ground.”
They begin to dig.
They lose track of time. They fill the wheelbarrow with mud, push it across the planks, dump the load into the bed of an old pickup. When the pickup is full, they drive to a divot the pounding rains dug out of the side of the hill and dump the mud, creating a landfill. Straining, groaning, progressing literally an inch at a time, they finally reach the basement itself. Their faces blotched and dirty as coal miners’, their heads swimming from exhaustion and the sweltering sun, every part of them soaked and sticky with sweat—their feet, their thighs, their eyebrows—their lips hard, dry, and split, they stop digging and stare inside at what’s left of the back wall of the basement. Water has blasted through and toppled most of it, but a small portion of the wall still stands. Chris and Eric gape at what they painted on it twenty years ago.
“The Well of Souls,” Eric says.
“Remember how long it took to paint those walls?”
“I do. Forever.”
“And as soon as we finished, my mom knocked it over,” Chris says, and laughs.
“You were not laughing then,” Eric says.
“This house is like the ancient temple. It survived Katrina and your mom,” Eric says.
Chris grunts. “Unreal. Here we are again, slaving away in the basement. We’ve come full circle.”
Leaning on their shovels, blinking into the dark of the basement, a maze of hidden rooms where they spent so much of their childhood, so much of their lives, Eric Zala and Chris Strompolos stand shoulder to shoulder and peer into their past.
Copyright © 2012 by Alan Eisenstock, Chris Strompolos, and Eric Zala