The truth of things is this: my town was ripped in two parts last spring.
On the one hand, as a writer, I was compelled to write about it. And on the other hand, I didn’t know what could I possibly say.
Lately, I’ve been particularly drawn to the compression of story and how the psychology of a character can be reflected by a fragmented narrative. In smaller stories I’m particularly interested in all that remains unsaid.
The unsaid, here, that void, seems important as the only way to make sense of the randomness of things. The fractured structure, the repetitive nature of the divide, seemed the only way I could accurately convey the sense of survivor guilt.
Marsha McSpadden lives and writes in Tuscaloosa, Alabama—a beautiful town filled with a generous and determined spirit.
The trees in my part of town shelter both sides of the road. Sweeping shade over sidewalks. Joggers and strollers. They shelter still. Twisted, arthritic.
Weapons. Not to be trusted.
The other ones, the ones on your side of town, rest against houses. Still as death. Gaping holes big as cars ripped into red clay. Cars flattened like cockroaches.
Even they have gone away.
In the houses that stand, families huddle—not talking not ready not yet—around the glow gifted from power companies far away. The white hardhats of Louisiana linesmen blinding in the sun. The Detroit team hide beneath orange. Their eyes dark with pity.
The houses on your side of town aren’t. They’re severed, split, slipped from slabs, splintered like kindling. Dark and ruined. Dripping still. Baby booties, kittens, and pictures with Bear Bryant plucked from shrubs. Preserved. Like fruit.
That first night I pulled all the blankets from the closet and quilted the bed. Thick and stifling. Layers and layers of ticking and wool pressing down on me. It wasn’t enough.
When the phone lines finally connect, it’s my uncle from New York. The one who attends the Church of Life After Shopping.
He wants to know if all my shit’s messed up. He wants an easy answer. He wants a lie.
“Whole town’s downsizing,” I say.
I pretend his laughter is a fit of coughing. TB. Something terrible and debilitating.
At night I kill the lights and grope about. Take a baseball bat to the airconditioning. I bear the dark and bear the heat because I can. I would drive a nail through my foot were the hospital not past capacity.
Pickups prowl the streets. The beds burdened with salvaged furniture. With ladders and generators and busted lumber. Fraternity boys with dusty visors and workgloves winking from back pockets shuffle in their boots, waiting for the next Ford. Waiting to load it with cases of water or soap or amputated tree limbs. And while they wait, they whisper about houses they almost rented. Rubble now. Street signs speared through.
On my side of town, children smile for dollars on the corner. A lemonade stand for neighbors in need. They are learning of disaster all too early.
"Chuck E. Cheese is gone." A kid says. His eyes bounce about.
I swap him twenty dollars for a sticky Dixie cup.
"I don't know what I'm going to do.” He says. And spills on my sneaker.
None of us do.
On your side of town, the order goes to boil water. People barter with ice.
On the news they talk of terrorists. No one here cares. God and rain the fear.
On my side of town restaurants open. Young and old huddle over plates, whiteknuckling knives. It’s all quiet funeral chatter, handshakes, pats on back. Even for the neighbor who called the cops last year. Yes, yes, we're fine. All with a war story. They watched the towercam. Buckled bike helmets on. Listened to the weatherman's voice break. Finally shake out significantly wicked. Then blackness. Crawled to a safe spot. Tried to remember the pose from grade school. In the bathtub, under a mattress, in a room without windows, on hands and knees, praying and crying as the monster feeds. Everyone with a story and no one to tell.
On your side of town, the stories here worse. Earrings sucked from ears. Infants from arms. Husbands from wives. The gravest of tailgates. Red tents and gameshirts out of season. Hugs and barbeque. All there is to do.
Seven days since the radio’s played any music at all.
Seven days of constant needs and prayers.
The body count ticks up.
Seven days of curfew, of streets barricaded, camoflauged Guard confirming: war zone.
Seven days of darkness and tears.
Eight days since we fought. The leftovers still in my fridge. Untouched.
Eight becomes ten becomes twelve becomes forever.
On my side of town, people speak of blessings and survival. They feel lucky. Spared. They evoke scripture and song.
Disaster, they say, brings people closer.
Had we been speaking, you would’ve been here. On my side of town. With me. Then. With me. Now.
Last night I got drunk and screamed your name into the clouded night. Somewhere a dog barked. And a siren wailed. I threw up memories.
Your side of town—tarp blue—smells of pine, like burnt wintergreen candles. Like Christmas in Hell. Chainsaws cut the quiet. Not a stitch of shade. No green at all. And not a bird to chirp. Everything mudcovered, dirt streaked still.
But on my side, life tries. The sky pink with sunset and giggles. The Derby runs. Girls in sundresses sip juleps, flipflops dangling from painted toes. I do my best but the ice pops and cracks under my bourbon like trees snapping. Windows giving way.
In the bookstore that still stands, a book of photos. Day of Destruction. A little something for those blessed with amnesia.
Nights, I walk the park. Brown girls splash in the fountain happy for the wet on their skin. If their houses were leveled, their pets mangled, their cars compacted, it doesn’t show in their laughter that peals and carries over the ridge and down the slope to the party tent thrown down for the worried and bruised to file papers. Everyone worth the same $8800.
I wish for a truck full of soap and baby wipes and denture cream to lose control, to careen through the gates and spare us status of survivor.
The homeless woman, the one who bridges my side of town to yours, sometimes quietly, sometimes railing against the sky, still walks the street. There’s a bandage across her eye and new shoes that fell from above. In a week or two, I’ll pick her up. Lock her in my car until she can tell me why she’s here.
by Marsha McSpadden