March, 1997 (Conway, South Carolina)
A River Remembered
I paused before writing out a check for the closing costs on a simple, one story two bedroom home. The dwelling was my kind of place—cheap, semi-secluded, and off-the-beaten path. The Waccamaw Drive Residence was also across the street from Waccamaw River, which meant that I could sea kayak every day, year round.
There was one drawback—Fanny Brown’s old place had been built on a flood plain. Once again, Mr. Billy, a Loan Officer at People’s Federal Savings and Loan, a Conway, South Carolina bank, recommended that I purchase property elsewhere. But certainty replaced indecision when, two days before the closing, Mary, my across-the-street neighbor, assured me that her place and mine would “always remain high and dry.”
Mary’s squat yellow house was twenty yards from the water’s edge. And my property was an eighth of a mile distant from hers.
“I’m telling you the truth,” she said. “I’ve lived here sixty years. And the river water has never, ever touched my property line.”
Six months after purchasing my home, in February, 1998, the Waccamaw crested just a few inches from the top of my side-door porch step. Rather than see this as a sign of things to come, I decided to embrace the timeworn cliché, go with the flow.
I was, at first, just an observer. I watched from my living room window, as murky brown water rushed down-road, taking neighborhood bric-a-brac with it, some of which included lawn chairs, plastic garbage cans, rounds of wood, and boat seats. But I soon became a participant. Every weekday, for four weeks, I adhered to the same routine. In the mornings I removed my sea kayak and paddle from their temporary storage area, my living room, and set both out on the carport. I put my books in the rear hatch, climbed in, paddled to the intersection, and locked my sea kayak to a nearby chain link fence. After chatting with Amy, who manned the Salvation Army food truck, I unchained my bicycle, and pedaled to my place of employment, Coastal Carolina University. In the evenings, I reversed the process.
My more leisurely weekend routine allowed for exploration-related jaunts. Instead of turning right, I turned left at the mailbox. This took me in the direction of riverfront homes. I spent considerable time talking to the local river rats, who, I discovered, were a tenacious lot. When I asked an area trailer-dweller how she was getting by, she said she’d put her bed up on cinderblocks, and wore rubber boots around the house.
“What do you do about electricity?” I asked.
“I use candles.”
“And how do you go about cooking your food?”
“I’m not cooking. I’m eating a lot of Salvation Army Pizza,” she said.
I also grew closer to my more immediate neighbors, Mary, and Sam and Dorothy. Though OUR homes hadn’t flooded, our places were surrounded by fast-moving water. I occasionally loaded my kayak with Red Cross cleaning supplies, which I passed on to Mary. In return, she gave me bread pudding. And every so often, I retrieved Sam and Dorothy’s plastic deer, which tended to surface in the swamp behind my house. In return, they kept their outside house lights on, so that I might safely paddle through their flooded yard at night.
I was disappointed when the river receded; however, I was pleased to see that no one had been hurt, nor had any of the surrounding flora or fauna been adversely affected.
If fate hadn’t intervened, I would have become a river rat. But in September, 1998, seven months after the flood, I relocated to Northern New Hampshire. My partner Pete Praetorius (who had just finished his coursework at Michigan Tech) soon joined me.
My Coastal Carolina University colleagues informed me that a new hire, Mike Ruse, was looking for a place to live. Since Mike and his wife Lisa were then in Egypt, and since I was heading north, I wouldn’t get to meet them. I was nervous about renting to them sight unseen; however, Pete repeatedly reminded me that they’d be good tenants. After all, Mike was a philosophy teacher.
“Philosophers tend to err in the direction of good,” Pete noted.
A second flood followed on the heels of the first. In September, 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped over 20 inches of rain on southeast South Carolina. Four days later, the Waccamaw River crested at 13.4 feet, nearly double flood stage. I pictured what I’d committed to memory: the river first moved tentatively across distant fields, neighboring yards, and the residential roadway. As the rain increased, the river gained momentum, coursing into the nearby swamp, my yard, and the residential roadway.
Mike soon called Pete and informed him that he’d just evacuated the premises. I could tell by Pete’s pained expression that Mike’s answers to his questions were in the affirmative. Yes, the water had spilled over the doorsills. And yes, the water pump was non-functioning. And yes, the foundation had shifted some.
As I listened in on Pete and Mike’s conversation, an essay that I’d recently read, one by Toni Morrison entitled “The Site of Memory,” came to mind. In her piece, Morrison makes a connection between rivers and memory. Using the Mississippi as an example, she relates that some time ago, the river was straightened in places in order to make room for houses and livable storage. Morrison adds that the term used to describe this and other water-ravaged areas, flooding, is a misnomer. She contends that what rivers are doing, in attempting to return to their original pathways, is remembering. “Water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back where it was,” states Morrison.
A comparison came to mind. The Myrtle Beach area, which in many sections borders the Waccamaw, is one of the fastest–growing parts of the country. Strip malls, restaurants, and housing developments now line the river’s straightened-out banks. Consequently, in our haste to claim space for ourselves, we humans had changed the contour of the Waccamaw. Like the Mississippi, it wasn’t forging new pathways but returning to areas it had previously inhabited. This wasn’t flooding. Rather, this was remembrance.
Remembrance. The concept intrigued me.
Pete hung up the phone. I looked at him expectantly. He informed me that he was driving down to Conway to begin house clean-up and repair. It was because I wanted to experience river remembrance that I volunteered to head south with him. Pete objected by reminding me that I couldn’t afford to take any more time off work.
“I can accomplish a great deal in a weekend’s time,” I replied.
“But,” he countered, “you can’t afford the cost of a last-minute plane ticket.”
“We’ll just have to be more frugal.”
“All right. But you’ll have to hold off on buying a new sea kayak.”
“I’ll make do with my old one,” I said.
Pete drove and I flew south. Three days after Pete left, we met up at the Myrtle Beach Airport. Since the water level was higher than car hubs, we parked our truck at the Highway 501-Waccamaw Drive Intersection. It was déjà vu all over again. The Salvation Army food truck was again parked next to the chain link fence. Amy was again manning the counter. And like before, garbage was everywhere.
“What a mess,” I muttered.
Amy said that compared to other Horry County residents, I was lucky—the majority of area flood victims still had water in their homes.
Because I wanted access to the free bagels, I refrained from saying what I was thinking—that I felt anything but fortunate. Now, I too, was staggering under the weight of a major financial burden. I was now the proud owner of a house no one in their right mind would buy. Not unless they want to live ON the water. The house wouldn’t be marketable unless I had the foundation raised. This would cost a few thousand dollars more than I had in my bank account. And since I was a homeowner, I was ineligible for Flood Emergency Relief Assistance (FEMA) funds.
I glanced at Sam’s place, which was kitty-corner to mine. The Waccamaw had relocated several stacks of plywood and 2 x4s and overturned two pale green port-a potties.
“You talk about unlucky,” Amy said. “Sam over there sold his side lot to Best Western Motel Corporation. They closed on it. He was also going to sell them his house lot, but the company bowed out when the hurricane hit. He was planning to retire and build a larger place about 20 miles inland from here. Now he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.”
“I don’t empathize with him,” I said. “Trying to selling out to a developer like that. This is one of the last undeveloped pieces of property in the area. When it’s gone, it’s gone.
“You aren’t being very realistic,” Amy said, “You know . . .”
I pulled away, as Pete, in an attempt to avoid what he rightly knew was coming—a more heated discussion—tugged on my arm.
We slogged through the knee-deep water and returned to the house, bag of bagels in hand. Pete entered the house, and I followed at his heels. Together, we entered the living room. Although Pete had described what the interior of the house looked like, I was still taken aback by the sight before me. Gooey gray mud and moldy straw clung to the once-clean floors and walls. Pete had noted that before leaving Mike had sprinkled straw in all the rooms. This, he added, could easily be dealt with. He’d since taken it upon himself to tackle the more challenging task. The floorboards had buckled, resulting in numerous V-shaped humps. I wandered into the kitchen.
Pete picked up the circular saw.
“Uhh, where do I begin?” I asked.
“You can start by cleaning out the refrigerator.”
“Please,” I snapped, “don’t tell me what you think I should do.”
“No way. This is the Ruse’s responsibility. They’re hanging out in a motel room. We should find a phone, call them, and tell them to come and give us a hand.”
“We should cut them some slack,” Pete says.
In the above two statements lay a major difference of opinion. The fact that the Ruse’s abandoned the house, leaving behind (among other things) dirty dishes, a crusty stovetop, an unplugged refrigerator full of food—confirmed my suspicions that they cared little about MY place. Pete had remained noncommittal because he liked Mike, the fellow philosopher.
Pete further reminded me that while the Ruses’ weren’t domestic, that they’d always paid their rent on time. “What harm can it do to give others the benefit of the doubt?” he asked.
“All right. You win. I don’t have it in me right now to argue with you. Cleaning the refrigerator. Sounds like a plan.”
I yanked open the refrigerator door, gagged, and reeled backwards. The smell of good food gone bad replaced the sweet smells of cut pine and Murphy’s Oil Soap.
“This refrigerator is a biohazard,” I muttered.
Pete turned off the saw.
“Listen up. This refrigerator is a biohazard. Look. Moldy T-bone steaks. Can you believe it? The Ruses left behind their meat stash. If I was a carnivore this is the first thing I would have grabbed. If you’re going to buy dead cow, you should eat it. And look here. A pot of beans. It’s all white and fuzzy on the top, just like Mt. Everest.”
“Ugh. Take it outside and put in the . . . ”
“Look here. Chopped liver. This stuff contains bile. Bile’s the stuff your body is trying to get rid of. Anyone who thinks that liver is good for them has the brains of a termite.”
“Please,” Pete said. “Shut the refrigerator door. You’re smelling up my work area.”
I slammed the appliance door, wandered outside, and tossed the bean pot on top of a pile of bulging black bags. So as to get further afield from the odors that had wafted outside, I sat on the bottom-most step.
A lanky, once white domestic duck waddled out of the swamp, onto the front lawn. A few days after the house flooded, Mike returned, to rescue this duck, and its five siblings. In the process of attempting to grab this one, the sixth, he fell and sprained his ankle. Much to Pete’s surprise, the duck stuck around.
The bird’s feathers, stained by tannin, were a dull brown-gray. I reached into a white plastic bag and grabbed a handful of the duck food that Mike had left behind. As I flung the brown pellets out onto the water-sodden lawn, the duck quacked. I quacked back.
Our conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Mary, who had stepped out of her house into the carport. She was wearing a faded blue sweat shirt, torn cut-offs, and rubber boots. Her swollen legs looked like tree stumps. She waved. I averted my gaze. On the left, a riverboat, the Born Free, had come to rest in the field adjacent to her house. I wondered if the vessel, which had several gaping holes in its side, would ever again ply the Waccamaw. Amy had said that Glen, the boat’s owner, was car camping in the Wal-Mart parking lot. “On the right.”
“How’s it going?” Mary asked, twice.
Her greeting was my cue. I was to cross the road and converse with her. I went back inside and mentioned this to Pete, who agreed to accompany me across the street. We donned rubber boots and waded across the road, all the while keeping an eye out for fire ants, nasty stinging insects, which, when they find themselves in high water, roll up into large balls and latch onto unsuspecting prey.
I asked Mary how she was doing.
“Honey,” she said in her thick South Carolina accent, “my carpet is ruined. Some Red Cross volunteers were supposed to come and take it out of here, but they’re two hours late. I was supposed to be at the nursing home an hour ago. My mother’s doing poorly you know.”
I volunteered my services—and Pete’s.
“Thank you,” Mary said, wiping her bloodshot eyes with a crumpled piece of pale blue tissue.
The damage in Mary’s knick-knack strewn house isn’t as bad as I’d envisioned. Someone had put the kitchen table legs on overturned mayonnaise buckets, and placed the couch, television, chairs, and china cabinet on cinderblocks. Mary’s usually full refrigerator was empty. I wanted to ask if anyone helped her with the heavy lifting, but held off because I wanted to believe that she’d done it herself. If Mary could, in two and a half hours’ time, do all this work, then young, healthy Mike Ruse had no excuse.
Pete and I commenced work. We pushed Mary’s furniture up against the livingroom wall and removed the cinderblocks. Pete, with utility knife in hand, slashed the blue-now-brown carpeting into moveable chunks. Mary and I then dragged the sodden, muddy pieces out onto the carport. Done, we stepped back and assessed the damage. Mary's floors had also buckled.
“I don’t have homeowner’s insurance,” Mary whispered. I’ll have to hire someone to replace the insulation under the floorboards. I can’t afford to do this. I’m going to have to move.” She paused, and then added, “I don’t want to leave this place. I’ve lived here all my life.”
Before Pete or I could comfort her, Mary made another request. “Can you open my front door?” she asked. “The water swole it shut. I need fresh air. I can’t open it because of my heart. My doctor told me to take it easy.”
As Pete unloosened the door hinges, it dawned upon me that change was imminent. The flood victim wouldn’t be able to move back into her house until the floors and insulation were replaced—and this would be expensive and time-consuming. And while Mary might be able to handle the monetary losses that went hand-in-hand with this flood, she’d have a harder time handling the expenses that might follow in the wake of another storm.
Mary would probably have to head for higher ground. I doubted that she’d go willingly. The Red Cross volunteers had had a tough time convincing her that she should evacuate. The long-time Horry County resident had repeatedly insisted that at any minute the water would subside. However, she’d agreed to leave when she found herself standing in ankle-deep water. Mary was also the first area resident to return home. After hearing that the water level had dropped and that the power had been turned back on, she returned the way she’d left, by motorboat. A Red Cross volunteer brought her back at 2 a.m.
At noon, our neighbor Sam appeared at Mary’s side door with a cardboard box full of sandwiches in hand. Since I’d last seen him, the stocky South Carolina native had put on an additional twenty pounds. His burgeoning belly made him appear to be a prime victim for a heart attack. I didn’t, as is the custom in the south, exchange long, drawn out pleasantries. Rather, I asked him if the rumor that I’d heard was true.
Sam stumbled backwards, onto the mound of carpeting.
Did you, or did you not sell your house and side lot to the Best Western Motel Corporation?” I asked.
“Spit it out,” I said.
“Yes,” I sold the side lot. But I haven’t sold the front lot. The closing on it is supposed to happen next week. I think they’re going to bow out.”
Sam handed me a wrapped ham sandwich, which I tossed to Pete, and Pete tossed to Mary.
“What a shame,” I muttered.
I turned on my heels and headed back in the direction of my property. Pete trotted alongside. Like the river, I took the path of least resistance. I sprinted across the road.
Pete and I sat on the topmost porch steps, where we both sat thinking our own respective thoughts. Remembrance: The Waccamaw had pushed its boundaries a bit farther than it had before. The Waccamaw’s actions had made me realize something important. Sure, I’d initially been annoyed by The Ruse’s irresponsibility, Mary’s wheedling, and Sam’s greed—but it was only momentary. I felt for them because we had a great deal in common. The Ruses, Mary, Sam, and Dorothy had all been attracted to the supposedly staid tidal river. And now, we were all being repelled.
Pete pointed across the road.
“I don’t see anything,” I said.
“Look over there,” Pete said, grabbing the sides of my head and tipping it slightly.
My eyes were drawn to movement. Two Great Blue Herons,
who’d been sitting on a pile of Best Western planking, rose into
the still air, and then slowly flew down-river. I sighed. The smell of
rotting meat reminded me that I still had a refrigerator to clean.