I had already moved away when disaster struck. I saw the images on the TV news. The water moved slow, and the buildings crumbled slow, and animals perched still on the ruins. The people were gone, mostly.
It was the next afternoon, I think, that the Mayor announced that there had been no fatalities. He shared a stage with the Governor, and with the people from FEMA, and you could tell that he was excited by it all. Not that he wanted this to happen, not at all, for surely he cared about this town like no other. But he felt important with all the attention. He was wearing a big hat and a checked shirt and he spoke slow and forceful.
The stage was set up on a rise to the east side of town. The area had been spared the flood. Buildings stood strong still, and the ground was wet only with dew. The elevation gave a commanding view over the worst of the destruction. You could see the pooled water and the fallen buildings. Debris drifted around, drifted slow, with no current and no wind. On the stage the Governor fanned himself with a thin brown folder. He spoke into the microphone, said it was record levels of heat. You got the feeling that the heat was part of this all.
The heat pulled fog off the still water. Cloaked the whole town in it. Made the scene feel all the more dramatic. I was there then, god knows why. After seeing the images on TV I felt I had to return.
The town wasn’t far, not really. Four hours or so on an empty highway, passing through green hills and small mountains. Summer made the whole area so bright with life, made it feel full. About halfway to town I pulled off into a state park for lunch. I had brought a sandwich, and I ate it at a picnic table towards the entrance of the park. It was a small and isolated park, serene but unremarkable. There were hiking trails, and there was a big pond towards the parks’ interior, but nothing real majestic. Nothing to draw tourists. I counted seven cars.
As I sat there, I thought back to the last time I was in the town. I couldn’t remember the year, but I could remember the scene of my last night. I had friends over to the apartment. We drank and talked and they combed through the kitchen supplies and furniture that I didn’t want to bring. I remember feeling worried that I’d made the wrong choice.
I had left the town for no reason in particular. There were two options, leave or stay, and I chose to leave. I had already stayed for a while, for longer than I usually would stay in a place, and it only felt right to move along. And then time passed. I moved over and over again in those years, and with each move that town seemed more distant. When I mapped my route, I was surprised to learn that it was only a four-hour drive. I expected it to be much farther by then.
I don’t mean to suggest I forgot about the town. In truth I often thought of it, and I continue to place great importance on my time there. Memories of that town lingered in my mind, and I frequently considered returning to visit, but I never went through with it. It was only when I saw the town on the TV news that I got it together to travel there.
I was a bit disturbed to find that I didn’t recognize the place. Surely the destruction played a role in my confusion. But I don’t think it accounts for all the changes that occurred. Even in the part of town to the east, the area untouched by water, I felt like something of a stranger. I had lived in that part of town once, and many of my friends or acquaintances had, and surely I should’ve felt more familiar in those surroundings. But the truth is that I didn’t.
Upon arriving in town, I found that the press conference had been delayed. They didn’t provide many details on the delay, and they hadn’t yet announced a new time. But I figured that I had a few hours to kill, and so I searched for Elm Street, where I had lived for maybe two years, maybe three. I knew that it was off Main Street, that it was somewhere to the western side of that eastern part of town. It was somewhere midway up the hill, I thought. I walked and walked, and this place wasn’t big, not really, but I couldn’t find Elm Street. I ended up circling that whole dry section a few times. Still I couldn’t find what I was looking for.
I considered asking someone for directions. But the place was mainly empty, and the people that were around were press from out of town. I thought it was unlikely that anyone could point me to where I wanted to go. And so I tried to focus. I tried to picture the street in my mind, and I thought it was narrow, and that potentially it was a one-way, and that it was crowned by a large yellow Victorian with spindly turrets. A big front porch, too, and the people who lived there would sit out front. It was an old man and an old woman, I think, and they would drink from ornate little glasses, and they wouldn’t speak much.
The place I lived in was rather drab in comparison. It was small, and it was gray or it was white, or perhaps it had been gray and then it was painted white. I remember thinking that things would improve significantly if the house was painted some cheerful color. I believe I suggested that to the landlord. But I don’t think that house ever was painted something cheerful, only that it was painted gray or it was painted white.
I probably suggested that my landlord paint the house blue or green, those being my favorite colors. I imagine I elaborated on the proper shade of blue, which would be a somewhat dark shade of slate. I imagine I elaborated too on the proper shade of green, which would be the color of an emerald in dim light. It would have a slight shine offset in the mornings. Things would have improved if the landlord took my suggestions.
I noticed then that many of the streets were named after people. I assume they were notable residents of the town, but I didn’t recognize any of the names. They must have been before my time, or after it, though I think that before is more likely. I hadn’t been gone so long that so many new notable figures would arise, I thought. But then, thinking it through, it came to mind that perhaps I had. The unfamiliarity of the place made me think that maybe I had been gone longer than I thought. I tried to remember where this town fell in my sequence of moves, but I couldn’t place it.
It occurred to me that perhaps the town changed the name of Elm Street. I should instead search for my specific house, or those houses surrounding it, and so I began again to walk the area. I tried to focus my eyes, to scan slowly the streets surrounding me. I tried to find some clue. I ended up deciding to go one way purely on gut instinct. I kept my eyes alert, and I looked for the house in white or gray, and also in slate blue or emerald, in case the landlord had taken my suggestion after all. I looked too for the yellow Victorian, and for a number of other houses that stuck in my mind. There was a large Tudor, I believe, as well as a small cottage with a thatched roof.
Thinking back over that street, I was intrigued by the variety of architecture. It was an idiosyncratic combination, but the result was something beautiful. There was some great charm in the accident of that street. I can’t quite remember my decision to move there, but I imagine it had something to do with that charm. Surely Elm Street was the most beautiful street in town, or nearly so.
As I was wandering through town I kept picturing the images I saw on the TV news. They had a helicopter flying above, and I spotted my old house from that view. The helicopter was hovering above it, just on the edge of where the water was. I was able to place it in relation to that yellow Victorian. Wandering through town, I kept trying to bring that image to life, to map out where I needed to be.
It then occurred to me that the yellow Victorian had been the mayor’s residence. Or perhaps it had been the private residence of a former mayor. I thought of the man who sat on the porch, and I tried to decipher whether he had been the mayor, or whether perhaps he was a relative or a friend or a future owner. I couldn’t figure it out, but surely that was information that the current mayor would know, and perhaps the current mayor was even the same mayor that had been in office when I lived in town, and I would be able to ask him the question at the press conference.
I hadn’t planned on asking a question, but this now seemed important. I would make sure to return to the place where they set up the stage. I looked at my watch and realized that I had been wandering for nearly two hours, and so I made an effort to hurry back up the hill, back to where the stage had been assembled. I followed Main Street in the direction I needed to go, but I soon found myself blocked by a large worksite. Nobody was working there, and there seemed no way to traverse it, and so I took a right and endeavoured to walk around it all. Upon doing so I couldn’t again find Main Street, and I think perhaps that Main Street had ended, and I tried to search my memory for some marker of where that stage was.
I felt disoriented. As I have said before, it was ridiculously hot that day. I was dizzy, and I could feel the sweat slick my forehead, and I was worried that perhaps I would faint in my search for the stage. But this was not a good place to rest, and so I decided to retrace my steps. Even with the convoluted route I took, I could surely find my way back to where I needed to be. And so I turned back, and I again found the worksite, and I proceeded to walk back down the hill. I knew that Main Street ran into the floodwater, and that the floodwater would be downhill, and so that was where I decided to reorient myself. From there I could find my way back to the stage.
The walk down the hill took longer than I imagined. I didn’t remember the hill being so large, but it is true that I was a younger man when I lived in this town. Perhaps I was just more athletic then, and surely I walked faster than I do now. That was before the arthritis. Back then the hill wouldn’t have been a problem. But on this go I had to brace myself on the descent. I was worried of stumbling. The fog hung low over the town that day, even over that side of the hill, and it gave the cobblestone a slick edge. It would have been easy to fall. I made sure to walk slow and careful, and I continued my descent.
I was a bit shocked to find the stage there, on Main Street, just up from where the floodwater stopped. Perhaps that accounts for the delay in the press conference; somebody decided to change the location. In truth this location seemed preferable, although it lacked the commanding view over the city. I think that by placing the stage so close to the water the viewers at home would better sense the imminence of this all.
Dozens of reporters were gathered. It was clear that the press conference would soon begin. I took notice of the attire they were all wearing, and I felt a bit embarrassed by my lack of any sort of official garb. I felt embarrassed too that I had missed the stage earlier, as I remembered walking right by this very place. I guess I do have the habit of tuning things out, and perhaps I was lost in thought as I passed by.
As I stood there, I kept scanning the crowd for familiar faces. There were a handful of people I recognized, but I couldn’t quite place any of them. I thought that surely I couldn’t have known any of those people well, or else their names would have jumped out at me. But, at the same time, I tried to think of the people I had known well, and the names were few and uncertain. I remembered that there had been a Julian, and I think his last name was Wells, but I couldn’t summon a face for him. And there was Amy, and I believe we were dating at some point or another, and she was small and her hair was red. I scanned the crowd and there were no small women with red hair.
Though certainly she would be older now. And so would Julian, and so would the others. I realized I had been searching for them all in their younger iterations. There were a number of others, and we’d gather often at a bar with a red door and a red sign. I think that bar was just around here, actually, maybe on the next street over. I thought then that I would maybe go have a drink there after this press conference, though I was unsure if it would be open now, given what had happened over the past few days.
There were a number of others, and their names were coming back to me. I remembered a Valerie, and an Andy, and a Pat. In slow succession their images returned, too, and I stood there for a moment, taking it in. Reminding myself to keep an eye out. It was then that the press conference began, and as I believe I said before, the Mayor was there and so was the Governor and so was FEMA. I found it odd that the only people from FEMA I saw were those four standing on stage. I hadn’t seen any moving through town, doing the sort of rescue operations that were to be expected. But perhaps they had been in a different part of town, or maybe I had just missed them. I get lost in my head often, and it’s not unusual for me to miss something in plain sight.
The press conference proceeded. The Mayor announced proudly that there had been no fatalities. He did look familiar, and I thought that perhaps he had indeed been the mayor when I lived in town. In that case, the man in the yellow Victorian would have had to have been a former mayor. I mulled that over for a moment, but I couldn’t be certain either way. My thoughts were clouded, and I tried to focus on the question I would ask the Mayor. But I was unable to ask it. The press conference moved quickly, and the other people had badges and they had microphones and they had cameras, and even though I raised my hand, the Mayor never turned his eyes towards me. I would have to find him afterwards, as hopefully he would mill about, available for additional questioning and all.
I was preparing my approach when I felt a hand tap on my shoulder. I raised my eyes and I realized that the man had been trying to get my attention for a moment or two. I had been deep inside my head, and I hadn’t heard him call to me, but I now knew that he had been saying my name over and over again. I recognized the man. I think I looked startled, and the man spoke loudly. I think he thought that I had lost my hearing.
“It’s you, isn’t it? Oh, how many years have passed?”
It seemed that this man had been one of my friends. But I was confident that he wasn’t Andy, or Pat, or Julian. I felt self-conscious about my inability to place him. I tried to mask my embarrassment. I thought that the memories would return as long as I continued the conversation.
“Yes, yes! And it is you!”
“I knew it was you,” he said. “I saw you walking earlier, passing just by Elm Street. I tried to catch up but I couldn’t reach you. You must have disappeared around a bend.”
I was confused, and I was certain he must have been mistaken. It seems that the years have taken their toll on us all.
“I was just thinking I would run into someone from the old days,'' I said.
“Well, it’s really just me these days,” he said.
Surely that couldn’t be true. I thought that perhaps he was exaggerating, or perhaps he was referring to some strange and forgotten feud. I now thought that there had been some rift in our group in those final days before I left, but I couldn’t remember what it concerned. We spoke for a bit more, and I had the intention of asking about the rift, and about what had happened. I thought also that that context would give me an idea of who this man was.
“It’s brutally hot out here,” he said. “How about we go for a drink?”
I thought that was a good idea. He led me down a maze of small and tight streets. I didn’t remember this area of town, and I was fascinated by its architecture. Those buildings felt almost gothic, with heavy stone construction and intricate detailing. It was odd and enchanting, and I felt comforted to be following someone. These streets didn’t seem to adhere to any grid or plan, and I doubted whether I would have been able to navigate them alone.
After about ten minutes of walking, we turned a corner to find that bar with a red door and red sign. I was surprised at its surroundings. The neighborhood must have changed, or perhaps the bar had moved locations. Or perhaps it is a different bar from the one I remembered, sharing only the color of door and sign. We stood out front and the bar looked like it was closed. Given the destruction of the past few days, it made sense that it would be closed. My companion twisted the doorknob, and at first it seemed not to budge, but with the second turn the door pulled open.
It took a moment for our eyes to adjust. The lighting was dim, and the walls were dark, and the whole place seemed slow. It felt almost like a cellar, with thick cool air welcome in contrast to the heat of the day. We sat at a booth and I scanned the space. There was a heavy hardwood bar, and there was oak panelling on the walls, and there were no windows. There weren’t too many people there, and the people that were there were alone. Looking around I felt a glimmer of recognition, and I believe it was the same bar we had frequented years ago.
The bartender approached our table with two beers. I think that my companion must have ordered them in the time I was surveying the space. I had in mind that I would order a bourbon, but with the beer in front of me I felt glad to have it.
“Have you lived here all this time?” I asked my companion.
“Yes, yes. I thought of leaving, over and again. But there’s something about this place. I guess there was nowhere I’d rather go.”
“And where are you working?”
“Same place as ever, if you’d believe it. Up until a few years ago, that is. These days I mostly come here, or read at home, or else go to play boardgames with my son.”
I was surprised to hear he had a son, and I was going to inquire further. But then a couple other men sat down at our table, and they seemed to recognize me as well, or maybe they seemed only to think that they should, and after a brief greeting the three of them launched into a conversation about something I couldn’t quite place.
“Well, you wouldn’t guess what happened. You wouldn’t guess.”
“Oh, but I did guess. And you two owe me for it.”
“I don’t owe you shit. I don’t owe you shit.”
“That was the agreement. You both owe me, and that’s that.”
“No, he owes you.”
“Neither of us owe you shit right now. The agreement was contingent on the outcome of this all. And I don’t think we can say the outcome is set in stone yet.”
“Oh, it damn sure is.”
The three were silent for a moment. I meant to jump in with a clarifying question, but as soon as I gathered my words they began to speak again.
“There’s nothing left, not really. And so if you think I owe you something, then you owe me just as well.”
“No. No. The agreement was an agreement. We shook on it.”
“It’s just wrong. It simply is just wrong.”
“It’s not about wrong or right. It’s about the agreement. A deal is a deal.”
The other two men shook their heads. They continued on like this, and I couldn’t follow their conversation, and there seemed to be no way to catch up. It felt futile to listen. I instead thought more about this place. I continued to look around the bar, expecting to see somebody else that I recognized. I thought that then I would be able to connect it all. But nobody else arrived at the bar, and after a few more minutes of that I grew dizzy again. I tried to right myself, but my mind stayed cloudy. I decided to go for a cigarette. I offered my pack to the others, but they all demurred. They continued talking, and I walked out of the bar.
I found myself alone on that narrow street. I lit my cigarette and stood there for a moment. I looked towards the building across, studying the detail in its facade. It was magnificent, really, with gargoyles and angels and all sorts of precise carvings. I was still confused by my lack of recognition of this place, especially considering how memorable it seemed to be. I thought that maybe the memories would all return to me with another walk around the block.
I started off in the direction opposite from where we came. I turned the corner to the left. It was another narrow and wobbly street. There were no shops or businesses on the street, and no pedestrians around. I walked with my head towards the buildings above me. I couldn’t shake my astonishment. The detailing was incredible. The place seemed commensurate to the old neighborhoods of Paris, perhaps even more magnificent. I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe that I had missed this neighborhood in all the years I lived here. Or, I couldn’t have missed it. For I had frequented that bar, in this very neighborhood. I had thought that perhaps that bar was just a facsimile of the one we’d patronized, but the more I mulled it over the more certain I was that that was indeed the bar we’d visit each evening.
I turned it over in my mind as I continued down that narrow street. I had a difficult time conjuring memories from that time. But I was certain that it was the correct bar. It must have been. Still I had no confirmation of it. And this neighborhood felt foreign, and that continued to unsettle me. Not only was it foreign, but it was spectacular in its oddity. Impossible to forget, I would’ve thought. I took the next left, intent on completing my circle. I thought that I would have to take note of the bar’s name. Maybe once I knew its name I could match it up to the bar from years past.
I took the fourth left and expected to find the bar, but it wasn’t there. I must have taken a wrong turn at some point. These streets seemed to shift and meander, following nothing of a grid. There were so many alleyways and so many different pathways. I noticed then that the buildings, too, were built in strange shapes. It had been an ill-conceived idea to circle the block, given that there was no block as such.
Still I remained calm. I hadn’t gone far, not at all. The bar had to be within close proximity. I continued searching, but I couldn’t seem to place it. I again retraced my steps, and I was near certain I was on the right path. But evidently I was not, because after four right turns I failed to arrive at the bar. The fog had grown thicker and the sun was beginning to fall. I grew frantic in my search. I was worried that my companion would think I deserted him, and I was conscious of the cruelty of that. After all these years, walking out an old friend!
It would be obscene. And so I continued my search, combing the streets for that red sign. I had my mind set to ask the next passerby for directions, but I didn’t encounter anybody. It then occurred to me that I hadn’t seen a single other person in this entire neighborhood. Even before arriving at the bar, as I was trailing my companion, we didn’t encounter anyone else. They must have all evacuated.
I sat down on the steps of a large and ornate building. I had initially assumed it was a church, but there were no markers or signs. The door was heavy and wooden and it was locked shut. Sitting there I tried to design a plan to get back to the bar. Without the bar as bearing, I wouldn’t be able to return to my car, either. I had thought I would be able to see the hill upon which my car was parked, but in the fog and the waning light I couldn’t make it out. In my frenzied search I had turned myself around, I feared, and there would be no way to guess the true direction of that hill. I then thought, for the first time, that it was odd that this part of town wasn’t submerged. The TV news had made it clear that, with the exception of that one hill, the whole town was underwater. But there I was. On dry ground. Perhaps this was some far-flung portion of that hill. That would make sense.
I gave myself a headache trying to imagine the route we took from that stage on Main Street. I believe my companion had led me towards the north west, but we had taken so many turns. We moved quickly, and I couldn’t guess beyond the general direction. I tried to trace that map in my mind, and I thought again to that helicopter view I’d seen the prior day. But I couldn’t figure out where this area of town was.
I grew frustrated, and I let my mind wander. I thought again about the trip here. I’m not sure why I decided to come, not really. Something called to me in the wake of disaster. It felt important. Not in the way of service or charity. I hadn’t even thought of doing something for the community. And I didn’t imagine myself a hero, wading through chest-high water to save dogs or whatever. I guess there just seemed to be something significant in coming here. After all this time, the disaster brought me back.
I thought too of my journey here. I’m not sure why I had initially believed the journey would be so long. Maybe it was that mistake that kept me away. I hadn’t considered that my numerous moves had offset each other, or nearly so. They weren’t bringing me farther from the town, not to any significant degree. And so now I was finally back here, for the first time in ages, and I found myself in a place I couldn’t remember.
Sitting on those steps I was struck by a memory from years ago. I was certain I had been here before. I had been sitting in that very same place with somebody, most likely it was Amy. We were talking about our future together. It was here, I think, that I told her I was going to leave. But I was unable to put that memory into context. I couldn’t be certain of the architecture then, or of the scene on the street. Most likely it was the same. Most likely we had just come from the bar with the red door and the red sign. Most likely we’d left the group there, taken off on our own. Most likely the bar was just around the corner.
Most likely the buildings were always so magnificent, but I couldn’t be sure.
I sat there for a while. The place grew dark, fully dark, and against the purple black of the sky those buildings shined bright.