“I feel like I’m in a third-world country,” Parker said, breaking a silence that had endured the entire distance from the Iwo Jima, moored at the Riverwalk in downtown New Orleans.
“Haiti,” Helms said. She looked around with the same expression of bewilderment she’d worn all day. “Where is everyone? There should be ambulances and helicopters and—and police cars.” She looked back at the two officers, almost pleading. “It can’t be only us. It can’t be.”
Everything in St. Bernard Parish was backwards, if not upside down. The cars were in the water. The boats were on the land. Enormous barges, stripped of their containers, were beached hundreds of feet from the nearest canal. Trailers had been forcibly separated from their tractors and were scattered haphazardly across drenched and flattened fields like so many giant Tonka toys. Electrical transmission towers lay on their sides, half-submerged in bayous much deeper and wider than they had been not twenty-four hours before. The houses, those that remained standing, were minus doors, windows, roofs.
The landscape was not improved by the almost total absence of life. Once they saw a woman peer out at them from behind a tree. It didn’t make any of them feel better when she screamed, a high, thin, terrified sound, and went crashing headlong through the underbrush, getting as far away from them as fast as she could. Once they saw a dog, a pit bull, emaciated and hostile, who growled menacingly at them before it, too, ran off. Cal would have shot it if he’d thought to bring a gun.
He realized with a faint sense of shock that they might actually need one.
The dog had been savaging the body of a woman. In spite of the swelling and the decay after a week’s worth of lying in the sun, it was obvious that she had not died in Katrina, but afterward, and that she might have found her death a merciful ending to what had come before. And like all the other bodies they had found that day, she was black.
Cal had never before been quite so conscious of the whiteness of his skin.
Parker got a poncho out of the back of their jeep—they had run out of body bags—and covered her, holding his breath so he wouldn’t retch. He backed off and stood looking down at the olive green bundle for a moment. “Animals,” he said.
“Americans,” Helms said, in such disbelief it was almost a question.
Parker raised his head and looked at Cal. “I was stationed in D.C. in 2001. I thought I’d never see anything like that again.” He shook his head. “I hoped I wouldn’t. But this—this is—” Words failed him. Parker was in his forties, in the Coast Guard long enough to work his way up to chief warrant officer, a veteran of patrols in the Caribbean and the Eastern Pacific and the Bering, like Cal, a cutterman.
On 9/11 Cal had been in New York City, testifying at a UN hearing on international maritime regulations. He had been in a cab on the way to the United Nations building when the first plane had gone in. It had been a beautiful morning, he remembered, clear, cool, the streets of New York filled with parents taking their children to school, people headed to work. He’d reported to the scene as soon as news of what happened had penetrated his meeting, and worked three days and nights helping to dig people, mostly dead, out of the debris. He, too, had never wanted to see anything like that ever again.
“Where is everyone?” Helms said. A yeoman with much less time served, still in high school when the planes went into the towers and the Pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania, she had watched the response on television with the rest of her peers. There had been a massive response of fire and rescue personnel and equipment to that disaster. She looked around now, expecting a line of response vehicles, ambulances, fire trucks, heavy equipment to begin the process of recovery to roll up and disgorge the people who were supposed to be doing this kind of work, people who were trained in it. “I was just here to see New Orleans,” she said numbly. “I wanted to hear some good music, eat some beignets, walk around the French Quarter.” She looked at Cal again, imploringly. “Captain, where is everybody?”
He couldn’t answer her.
They waited with the body. The bad news was that it was their twenty-first body that day. The good news was that the Disaster Mortuary Affairs team wouldn’t be that far behind them, so they wouldn’t have to wait long.
And they didn’t, the pickup driven by the same two exhausted men whipsawing around the wreckage on what was left of the road and skidding to a halt a few feet from Cal’s knees. This time they didn’t even say hello, just went for the stretcher, stained with unmentionable substances from previous retrievals, muscled the body onto it and into the pickup, the back of which was getting crowded.
No one asked for the poncho back. The men didn’t say good-bye. The three of them stood watching as the pickup careened around an overturned midnight blue Buick LeSabre with three of four tires missing and rattled off.
The sun was setting behind a gathering bank of low-lying clouds, leeching the light from the destroyed landscape and rendering everything suddenly more sinister. It began to drizzle, and a moment later the drizzle increased to a steady rain. If anything the sense of menace increased.
“Let’s get back,” Cal said.
The yeoman looked up the road. “There have to be other bodies,” she said.
Cal knew how she felt, but he could feel the presence of many eyes trained on them, and again felt the acute lack of any kind of protection. “Tomorrow,” he said.
But the next day the FEMA representative mercifully asked, “Who here knows about ships?” Cal put up his hand and found himself deputy director in charge of three cruise ships brought into New Orleans to provide temporary shelter for those left homeless by Katrina. He brought Parker and Helms with him, and the three of them gladly left the collection of bodies to other authorities.
He found himself reporting directly to the Coast Guard vice admiral, who was acting as the principal federal officer for Katrina response, and for perhaps the first time in his life didn’t rue the fact that the old man was a friend of his father’s. Between the Port Authority, the stevedores’ union, and the ship’s agent, all of whose offices were a shambles, it was a challenge just to maintain the ships’ water reserves, which entailed finding sixty tanker trucks to deliver eight hundred tons of water per day per ship.
Finding them was one thing, keeping them was something else again. Across the six most affected parishes potable water was in short supply and tanker trucks capable of delivering it were in high demand. When he found one, it was all he could do to hang on to it before it was lost or stolen. One was hijacked right off the dock before it had even managed to offload its cargo, and when eventually the truck was found again the hijacker was apprehended in the act of selling said cargo for a dollar a gallon. He could have gotten five, he explained to the arresting officer, but he didn’t want to price himself out of the market.
Initially Cal had no staff except for CWO Parker and YN1 Helms, which didn’t help, and cell phones didn’t work inside the skins of the ships so he couldn’t even yell for any. Then by a rare stroke of luck he fell heir to what he decided ought to be designated the only national treasure walking around on two legs.
“Lieutenant Commander Mustafa Awad Azizi reporting for duty, sir,” the national treasure said, snapping off a very smart salute and proffering his orders.
Cal read through them. Born in New Jersey. Academy graduate four years behind Cal. BS in civil engineering. A good mix of duty stations, including two years on patrol in the Bering Sea as a JG and two years at the yards in Seattle. He looked up, and said irritably, “At ease, Commander.”
Azizi relaxed his stance. He was of medium height, with dark skin and dark hair that even with a regulation cut managed to look like the mane of a lion.
“New Jersey, huh?” Cal said.
“Yes, sir,” Azizi said, “in spite of the fact that I look like Ali Baba and all the forty thieves put together, Trenton, New Jersey. My folks are a generation removed from Trinidad, and six generations before that the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.”
Cal gave him a sharp look. Azizi smiled, which transformed his face, dominated by a long, broad nose with a distinct curl at the end, large flashing eyes, and a lot of teeth that looked to have received the assiduous and unstinting care of an attentive dentist from early on. “Yes, sir, Iraq.”
“I didn’t ask,” Cal said mildly.
“No, sir,” Azizi said. “I can’t help my name or the way I look, but post–9/11 I’ve found it a good tactic to address it at once. Makes everyone relax.”
“A pre-emptive strike,” Cal said.
“Exactly, sir,” Azizi said cordially.
Cal handed Azizi’s orders back to the junior officer. “I could give a shit about your heritage, Azizi. Especially now. I’m one lone Coast Guard officer in the middle of one of the biggest messes this nation has ever had to dig itself out of. There are supplies pouring in and no way to get them out again to the people who need them. We’ve got a ton of first response people, fire fighters, EMS, doctors and nurses, and more on the way from every state in the union, and no place to put them to work because there is no electricity, which means no refrigeration and no air-conditioning. Hell, even the local EMS guys are sleeping in their ambulances.”
He thought of his first week on scene. “And we’ve got bodies stacked up from here to Shreveport, and more of them every day, too, and damn few resources to deal with them. We can’t bury them because the graveyards are all flooded, and even if they weren’t we don’t have any way to get them there.”
“Yes, sir,” Azizi said. “How many of us are there?”
“Well. I’ve got a chief warrant officer and a yeoman, although I don’t know how long I’m going to hang on to either. The yeoman was on vacation in New Orleans when Katrina hit, and the CWO was changing planes from Atlanta to Dallas–Fort Worth en route to his next duty station when they closed Louis Armstrong Airport. But for the moment anyway, there’s four.”
Azizi looked at him for a moment. “I see.”
Cal smiled. “And that, Commander, was the good news.”
Azizi digested this in silence for a moment. “What’s the bad news, sir?”
“I’m the boss.”
Azizi looked delighted. “Really, sir? Well, then, let’s get started.”
It turned out that Azizi had an almost preternatural ability to hotwire anything on wheels; fork lifts, pickup trucks, even a motorized shopping cart liberated from a nearby supermarket. After a day of watching him in action Cal said, “So, you can hotwire anything, can you?”
Azizi shrugged, grinning.
“Does that mean you can un-hotwire anything, too? Make them impossible to steal?”
Azizi considered. “Well, sir, like I told you. I’m from New Jersey.”
Cal had no further trouble hanging on to the tanker trucks.
Azizi also proved to be a first-rate scrounger, which as anyone who has ever served on a battlefield will attest is a skill to be cherished. The food on the three cruise ships improved markedly almost from the day of Azizi’s arrival, and CWO Parker, who liked his grub, was moved to say that Lieutenant Commander Azizi ought to be put up for a medal.
The four of them did not long remain the only Coasties on the scene but Cal was indisputably the one with the most stroke, including the direct line to the old man, which he tried not to over-exploit but which proved to be a significant asset. When the police parked their cruisers so that they blocked access to the docks where the ships were moored he had six of them towed so the water tankers could offload, and no one so much as blinked in his direction. Had to be a first in relations between an East Coast intellectual elitist in Coastie blue and a bunch of brawny downhome Louisiana cops, most of whom were living in their cruisers at the time and so had a right to be a little cranky.
They were probably hoping they’d get a room on one of the ships. Everyone wanted a room on the ships. Short of presidential visits, of which there were two, both unwelcome and both so far as he could see productive of nothing more than a massive logistical headache for the people on the ground (and after the first visit he wanted to fall to his knees and give thanks he didn’t work for the Secret Service), Cal gave first priority to those Louisiana residents who had lost their homes. He held staterooms even for those who had been evacuated out of state and had to be repatriated. When he turned down his third flag request (this time a Navy admiral whose dog robbers threatened to write to Congress if he didn’t let them overnight on board) he was summoned to Baton Rouge, from where the vice admiral was running relief operations for Katrina and Rita. A helo took Cal off the ship and set him down in the parking lot of the commandeered office building that was serving as HQ. He was escorted promptly to the vice admiral’s office.
The vice admiral looked at him over the tops of half-glasses. “I hear you bounced Jim Levy off the Aurora Princess.”
Cal braced himself. “Yes, sir.” He offered no explanation and no apology.
The vice admiral’s face relaxed into a grin. “Never did like that asshole. How about a drink?”
They spent a genial half hour with rather more conversation about Cal’s father and his slam-dunk re-election prospects than Cal would have liked. At one point the vice admiral gave him an overall assessing look and said, “You look older, Cal. And taller, somehow. You’re not growing up on me now, are you?”
At the end of the audience the vice admiral shook his hand, escorted him personally to the door, and congratulated him in a loud, penetrating voice on a job very well done within conspicuous earshot of some thirty loiterers. “Amazing what the U.S. Coast Guard can do to get the job done with no resources and no experience in disaster relief on this scale, isn’t it, Cal?”
“Gives a whole new meaning to search and rescue, sir,” Cal said, returning the handshake with interest, and then got the hell out of there.
The helo took him straight back to the Aurora Princess, still moored at the Riverfront, where a delegation from Princess Cruises swarmed around him on touchdown. The chief complaint seemed to be his continual unavailability to discuss the use to which their ship was being put. They had what they obviously considered was a brilliant solution to this problem. They wanted him to take occupancy of the owner’s suite, which had the latest in state-of-the-art communications, the inference being that with him in residence there they could reach out and touch him whenever they wanted.
They managed to muscle him into the glass elevator leading to the suite—he had to admit to a certain curiosity to see it—but when they got there he took one look at the Jacuzzi, which could have slept five, and the bed, which could have slept ten, not to mention the phone with six lines mounted at the head of the bed, and made a polite but very firm refusal.
He was ushering them kindly but firmly down the gangway when a motorcade only slightly smaller than the president’s pulled up. The driver got out and opened the rear door, and a tall man in his early sixties climbed out. His hair was the white gold some blond men were gifted with as they age, he had a smile whose teeth could be seen to flash all the way from the deck of the ship, and he was dressed in a three-piece gray pin-striped suit that anyone but a blind man could see had been lovingly cut to display his broad shoulders, his still-slim waist, and his long, muscular legs.
The cruise ship people, momentarily dazzled by this vision, stopped short. One of them said, “Hey, isn’t that Senator Schuyler?”
Another one looked from the senator to Cal and back again. “You’re that Schuyler?”
Cal was spared an answer when the senator caught sight of him and waved. His long legs ate up the distance between the car and the bottom of the gangway. The cruise ship people forgot Cal and trotted down to meet him, hands out. The senator, never one to neglect an opportunity to gladhand a potential campaign contributor, shook hands, slapped backs, and all in all seemed to be delighted with his new best friends. There was a reason he kept getting re-elected. There were, in fact, many.
Cal was essaying a soft-footed retreat until his father looked up and raised his voice. “Cal! Come on down here!”
Cal, caught, reversed course and stumped grimly down the gangway.
His father embraced him, beaming. “I see you’ve all met my son, Cal. That’s Captain Cal Schuyler to all of us peons, of course.” There was a dutiful laugh. The senator, now looking suitably grave, said, “Cal and the Coast Guard are doing a heck of a job down here. I venture to say they’re the only federal agency that is being of any help at all. I don’t know where these poor folks would be without them.” He shook his head. “Tragic, just tragic some of the stories I’ve been hearing. Washington has really fallen down on the job. There will have to be an investigation, of course.” The senator, not currently a member of the majority party in Congress, tried not to look overjoyed at the prospect. He wasn’t entirely successful.
He turned to his son and only child. “Cal, these good folks tell me there’s an empty room on board with my name on it. You mind showing me up there?”
There wasn’t a whole hell of a lot he could do at that point, so he said baldly, “Sure, Dad,” and led his father and his father’s entourage to the owner’s suite.
“What are you doing here, Dad?” he said when they had a moment alone.
His father raised an eyebrow. “Why, I’m serving my tax-paying constituents, son, by getting a firsthand look at what’s going on down here. You should see the newspapers, they’re saying Louisiana might as well be Bangladesh for all the federal help they’re getting.”
“That’s true enough,” Cal said.
“Billy tells me you’re doing a hell of a job,” the senator said. “How did you get here, anyway? I thought you were in Alameda, bossing cutters around.”
“I was. The vice admiral asked me to fly in ahead of him, give him a good picture of what was going on, what was needed. Then he asked me to stay on for a bit. I’ve got a good second in Alameda, so . . .” Cal shrugged. “How long are you staying?”
“Just the night, I’m afraid, I’ve got a fund-raiser in Amherst day after tomorrow.”
They ate in the owner’s suite that night, the senator’s aides staving off starvation with a deli spread they’d brought with them from D.C. Cal invited and then ordered Azizi to join them. “Azizi,” the senator said meditatively, ladling out an assortment of pâtés. He handed Azizi a basket of crusty bread. “Where’s your family from, Commander?”
Azizi trotted out his American by way of Trinidad and Iraq family history. If the senator noticed that the litany was a little rote, he didn’t mention it. “I see you wear a wedding ring, Commander,” he said instead. “Tell me about her.”
A bleak look crossed Azizi’s face. “She’s dead, sir.”
The senator looked concerned. “I’m sorry for your loss, son,” he said, and with his usual effortless social charm led the table talk away from any dangerous personal topics to the latest Hollywood date movie, inevitably starring Cal’s mother as a glamorous grandmother determined to see her estranged daughter and granddaughter reunited and wed, not necessarily in that order.
They were lucky Azizi came from New Jersey and not Massachusetts, Cal thought, or the talk would have been all about the senator’s re-election campaign.
Later, when guests and staff had left them alone for a few minutes, it was. “Dad,” Cal said, trying to stave it off, “you know I have no interest in politics.”
“I’m not saying you have to run for office, Cal, but you’ve got your twenty in. Isn’t it time you moved to shore for good? I could use you on my staff. It’s no secret that my relationship with the armed services isn’t the best. I could use a liaison who speaks the language.” He paused. “And we haven’t been able to spend a lot of time together, not since you graduated from the Academy. Not since you joined up, really.”
Or ever, Cal thought, and braced himself. His father had first played the patriot card and then the father-son card. He waited for it. Here it came—
“And although she’ll never say it, your mother misses you, Cal. She was saying to me only the other day she couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen you for more than a flying visit.”
There it was, the mom card. Although Cal’s mother had never allowed him to call her anything but “Mother,” and the moment he’d entered high school she’d insisted on “Vera” henceforward.
“She sends you her love,” the senator said. “She wanted me to remind you that we’re going to the Cape Cod house for Christmas this year.”
Maybe Vera was mellowing. If she was playing grandmothers nowadays, maybe she’d finally come to terms with having a grown son. “Maybe I can make it this year.”
“And,” the senator added fatally, “she told me to tell you she’s inviting the Whitneys to join us.” His father winked. “Including that cute little Bella. You could do a lot worse, Cal.”
Every hair on the back of Cal’s nape stood to attention. “I can’t promise for sure I’ll be there, Dad,” he said, and tried to turn it into a joke. “You know I don’t have any graven-in-stone plans beyond my next ship.”
His father blinked at him benignly. “Well now, Billy’s not sure you’ve got anywhere to go in the service but ashore. After Alameda you’re headed for a 378, the biggest cutter in the Coast Guard fleet. Your tour will be, what, two years? There really isn’t any place left for you to go in the Coast Guard after that, not at sea, not if you want promotion.”
“Then I’ll get an icebreaker,” Cal said.
“Now, Cal, there’s only three of those, and you know only two of them work.” The senator winked again.
Cal felt his chin push out. “Then I’ll put my name in for one of the new Deepwater ships.”
“Billy tells me those ships have captains four or five years out.”
“The vice admiral tells you a hell of a lot, doesn’t he?” It was his first sign of temper, and a warning sign for both of them. He gulped down the rest of his coffee and got to his feet. “I’m dragging, Dad, I’ve got to turn in.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow before I leave,” the senator said, bloody but unbowed. The senator always knew when to back off.
“I’ll try,” Cal said from the door, “but I’ve got an early morning and a full day.” It wasn’t a lie. His days in New Orleans ran from 0600 to 2200.
He pretended deafness to any last comments he might or might not have heard, and retired to the four-bed stateroom he was sharing with Azizi and a couple of civil engineers from Boise who had shown up out of the blue one day looking for somewhere to volunteer their services. He was the first one in that evening, and he commandeered the only comfortable chair and got out his cross-stitch, which was admirable at soothing the savage breast. The current project was the Alki Point Lighthouse with the Seattle Space Needle in the background and a seagull on outspread wings against the blue water in the foreground. He’d just finished the browns and greens of the rocky point in the midground when Azizi came in, who examined Cal’s cross-stitch with a critical eye. Azizi had just gotten out his knitting when the two civil engineers staggered in from a day spent surveying the levees.
The civil engineers exchanged speaking glances. “If you were ever on a three-month EPAC patrol waiting on a go fast that never came, you’d learn how to cross-stitch, too,” Cal told them. There was enough of an edge to his voice that the civil engineers decided that in this case discretion was the better part of valor and retired without comment.
The next morning, to avoid a prolonged farewell Cal timed his arrival at the head of the gangway to coincide with his father’s departure. The senator waved from the limousine, and Cal threw him a bone by way of a snappy salute. The senator beamed, was tucked tenderly into the limo, and the long black car moved off in stately fashion. Cal heaved a sigh of relief and got back to work.
He was back at the head of the gangway that afternoon when another batch of what he had come to think of as his refugees left the ship to return to their lives ashore. They had boarded the ship with all they owned in a plastic garbage bag and a thousand-mile stare, and they were leaving with a look of life and returned hope. It was amazing what clean sheets, three squares, a night’s sleep in a secure area, and above all air-conditioning could do for your outlook.
He turned from the gangway and found Azizi watching him. “Something up, Azizi?”
Azizi hesitated. “Permission to speak freely, Captain. And without prejudice.”
Cal shrugged. “Go for it.” He even managed a grin. “What happens on the Aurora Princess stays on the Aurora Princess.”
Azizi squared up in a stance that wasn’t quite belligerent. “I’d heard about you, sir.”
It wasn’t what Cal had been expecting, and it wasn’t welcome, either. “Lieutenant Commander, I—”
Risking a slap down, Azizi ignored him. “You’re quite the golden boy of the U.S. Coast Guard. Callan T. Schuyler, child of privilege, old money from Boston, a three-hundred-year American pedigree that includes three signers of the Declaration of Independence, one Civil War general, a Roughrider, and a Navy nurse who was killed by a Japanese kamikaze off Okinawa in World War II. Got the Academy appointment and after graduation all the plum jobs because his dad’s a U.S. senator. Got all the ladies because his mom was the most beautiful actress of her day and he got her looks.” He stopped, waiting to see how his boss would take such plain speaking.
Cal, resigned, made a come-on motion with his hand. At some point in every duty station this conversation or one like it had to be endured. He’d learned fast that getting mad only exacerbated any preconceptions people had, and to suffer through and move on.
Azizi took a deep breath. “Smart, nobody denies that, but the general consensus is too lazy to try very hard. And why should you? It’s not like you had to work for anything, it was all dropped right into your lap.”
He paused again. Cal was frowning a little, but he didn’t say anything.
“Your crews love you, especially the women, although in spite of all the rumors you’ve never been accused of dipping your pen in the company ink. Word in the fleet is that your COs, even if they do wish you’d be a little more enthusiastic, rate your job performance as consistently good. One even called you brilliant after that incident on the Maritime Boundary Line in the Bering Sea—” Azizi stopped obediently when Cal raised a hand, and then resumed. “—and you got an award for the volunteer work you put in at the World Trade Center after 9/11. Although you don’t like to talk about either, and I hear tell you’ve had to be reminded to wear the ribbons.”
There was a brief silence. “You know a lot about me,” Cal said finally, “for a guy I met less than a week ago.”
Azizi shrugged. “You’re one of those people who get talked about, sir. Have I offended you?”
Cal gave a tired laugh and pulled his cap off to run his hand through his hair. “Like none of that’s ever been said before, to my face or behind my back. Tell me something I don’t know, Commander.”
Azizi looked over Cal’s shoulder at the stream of people heading down the gangway; men, women, children, all of them moving with a new sense of purpose in spite of the months and years of rebuilding their city, their community, their homes that lay in front of them. There were infants in arms, toddlers, kids from grade school to high school, parents, grandparents. Some of them had been through the nightmare in the convention center, some had lucked out and survived the deluge after the levees broke in their homes and later been evacuated. Most of them were black, and much had already been made in the national and international press of America’s neglect of its Southern minority population in the destructive wakes of Katrina and Rita.
Azizi was as dark-skinned as half of the people going down the gangway, which, Cal thought, might have been why they were having this conversation.
“They call me Taffy, sir,” Azizi said. “Mustafa’s a little too much for most Western tongues to get around, and I’ve never liked Ziz, which is what I get stuck with when I don’t tell people I’ve already got a nickname I can live with.”
“Taffy,” Cal said, trying it out.
“That’s right, sir. Taffy.”
After a moment Cal held out his hand. “Hello, Taffy.”
“Hello, sir.” Their hands met in a firm grip, quickly released before either man could be accused of overt sentiment.
Taffy consulted his clipboard. “One of the water tankers threw a rod this morning. I’ve got a line on a mechanic but in the meantime I’ve got a rumor of a couple tankers over in Alabama. I’ll need the helo to get the drivers there, and we’ll need drivers we can trust—have you ever driven a tanker truck, sir? No? Well, it’s fairly easy, once you master the gears and figure out just how high your ass is in the air, you shouldn’t have any trouble . . .”
Copyright © 2008 by Dana Stabenow. All rights reserved