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There were no birds Bill Johnson noticed. The power lines and the majestic oak trees that lined this Gentilly street on this hot muggy August day in New Orleans were empty of birds. After noticing the odd sight, Bill turned to his brother John and asked, “Have you ever noticed that the birds leave before a storm?”
“Of course. They ain’t stupid like us,” John said.
“Where we gonna go?” Bill replied. “We got no car, and I ain’t taking no bus, and I definitely ain’t going to the Superdome.”
Bill, who was 75 and used to the frequent tropical storms, shrugged. “We didn’t leave for Betsy and Camille, so why leave now for Katrina? I heard that Nagin can’t decide on a mandatory evacuation, but how can he do that? Not like it matters—I ain’t going anywhere. We got food, beer, and a tub full of water. Besides, we have Scrabble to keep us busy.”
The Johnson brothers set up a coffee table on their front porch, just as they had done hundreds of times before, although this day was different. Several cars drove past their house on St. Roch Street with the passersby staring at the two elderly men in total disbelief. Wanda Green called out from her car, “What are you guys doing? You need to get out of here.” As she sat in her vehicle, she was visibly shaking.
“We ain’t going anywhere,” the Johnson brothers responded loudly in unison.
“Don’t y’all know that this place will be under water, just like in Betsy,” said Wanda.
“This place only flooded then because the white man blew up the Ninth Ward levee to save his precious Uptown and Garden District,” Bill replied sharply.
“That was never proven, Mr. Johnson,” Wanda retorted as she shifted in her seat. “We are going to Baton Rouge to stay with my sister. You guys are welcome to come.”
Bill stared at Wanda with his arms crossed tightly across his chest and replied, “No, we are going to stay. We have our Scrabble and enough supplies. See ya now, Wanda.”
John brought out a bowl of peanuts and two Budweiser longnecks to the front porch. “Nothing like a cold brew on a hot day.”
“Sit down, John, and let’s play,” Bill said as he grabbed a handful of peanuts. He proceeded to open the Scrabble box and place the board on the coffee table while giving a squinting stare at his brother.
“Cut that shit, Bill, and pick your letters.” The brothers picked their letters and stared at them intensely, as if they were about to make the most important decision in their respective lives.
“I’ll go first,” declared Bill.
John rolled his eyes. “Why do you get to go first again? You always go first.”
“I’m your big brother, and that’s why I’m going first. So, shut up. It’s good to get off to a good start.” Bill smirked as he began to place his tiles on the board. “That’s why I’m playing the word ‘punnet.’”
John squinted at the letters on the board with a confused look plastered on his face. “That’s not a word!”
“Yea, it is!” replied Bill. “It’s a container for strawberries or fruit.
“How do you know that word?” John looked at his brother quizzically. “I’ve never heard anybody from this neighborhood describe a bowl of fruit as a punnet.”
“For your information, John, I ain’t no dumbshit ol’ vet. I subscribe to dictionary.com, which sends me e-mails every day with a word of the day. I have been doing this for years. Why do you think I always kick your ass?” Bill chuckled as he calculated the score for his first word. “That’s 11 points.”
John stared at the word punnet in disbelief. “Where’d you pull that word from?” he asked, still doubting the existence of his brother’s first play. “I got one for you that’ll blow you away. I will use your p and spell ‘parvenu.’ Double letter for p and double word. So that’s 30 points.”
“You must think that you’re hot shit now,” said Bill. Where’d you get that one?”
With a grin across his face, John looked and his brother and pointed the index finger of his right hand toward him. “Many years ago, I worked as a sous chef at a restaurant in the Kenner Rivertown area that was called Parvenu. The word’s used to describe a person who has recently acquired wealth or importance but doesn’t act according to their new status. It describes us to the tee; we have acquired so much knowledge about life over the years, but look at where we are now.”
“Do you mean sitting in this shithole waiting for a hurricane to hit?” joked Bill.
John let out a chortle. “Absolutely! However, there’s no way the hurricane is hitting us.”
Bill paused a moment to take a big gulp of his Budweiser. “What are you saying, John? Every weatherman has said that Katrina is going to hit us directly.”
“Nope. Ever wondered why Camille veered away from New Orleans and hit Mississippi? It’s the Mississippi River that pushes those storms away. You see, the storms see all of those chemicals coming down the river and they want no part of it, so they go to Mississippi.”
“Are you serious, John? How many beers have you had already?”
John could only laugh as he pretended to cast his fishing line toward his brother. “Gotcha!”
“Yeah, I got your gotcha right here,” said Bill grabbing his crotch. “My next word is ‘rabbi.’”
John shook his head in disbelief. “Why would you play that word, Bill? It doesn’t have a lot of points there, and besides…”
“Besides what?” barked Bill.
“A Jew man by the way?”
“Let me tell you something, John,” Bill slowly leaned back in his chair. “One of the nicest men I ever met was this rabbi who helped me when I came back from Nam. Nobody was helping Vietnam vets, especially black ones. Rabbi Nathaniel Share helped me. I was at the VA, and I was just lost. I needed a job to forget about all of the shit I saw in Nam. Kids dying for what? The rabbi said he needed an assistant around the temple to keep things in order.”
“What did you know about keeping a temple in order?” questioned John.
“Nothing. I told the rabbi as much. Although there were two Jewish guys in my platoon—maybe this was why we got along so well. Anyway, I worked at the temple for seven years until the rabbi died. He was really involved in the civil rights movement. Rabbi Share spoke out against acts of violence and bigotry. However, the board of the temple feared being attacked from the Klan, so they asked him to stop speaking out as the rabbi of the synagogue.
John leaned in a little bit closer to Bill. “Really?”
“Many synagogues in cities like Atlanta, Nashville, Jacksonville, and Miami were bombed or threatened, and the rabbis in these communities received death threats,” Bill continued. “Do you remember the movie Driving Miss Daisy with Morgan Freeman?”
“Absolutely, but I hated how Morgan Freeman said, ‘I am driving you to the store, Miss Daisy.’”
Bill shook his head in agreement.“Me too, but that’s the way it was back then. Anyway, it was that big temple in Atlanta that exploded in the movie. Speaking of Atlanta, do you know what Dr. King said about the Jews?”
“No, tell me.”
“Dr. King said, ‘It would be impossible to record the contribution that Jewish people have made toward the Negro’s struggle for freedom, it has been so great.’”
John began to laugh. “Bill, you’re providing me with quite a history lesson! What else can you enlighten me on the civil rights movement?”
“Do you remember those freedom riders in Mississippi? They were brought to this prison in Parchment, both black and white kids. There was this rabbi from Jackson who went to console them and sent messages back to their families.”
“That was one brave dude,” John interjected.
“That was Rabbi Perry Nussbaum. Rabbi Share admired him greatly. As a result of Rabbi Nussbaum’s actions, the Klan bombed his home and his temple.”
“No shit, for real?”
“Yup. And did you also know that a rabbi spoke just before Dr. King’s ‘I Had A Dream Speech?’ Rabbi Joachim Prinz, a Holocaust survivor, spoke out against racial injustice. Rabbi Prinz believed that Jews couldn’t remain silent about racial injustice like so many countries did during the Holocaust. Rabbi Prinz said, ‘The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.’”
“You don’t have that problem, Bill, as there’s nothing silent about you.”
Bill flashed a smile at John. “You got that right, brother. Now it’s your turn. I’ll be back in a minute. You want another beer?”
The wind began to pick up a bit in squalls. John saw some garbage cans being pushed up the street as if there was an invisible person rolling it.
“Wow, it’s really coming,” Bill observed as he stepped out onto the porch. “It’s still your turn.”
“Ok, my next word is ‘crime’: c—r—i—m—e.”
“I think we have seen our fair share of that,” said Bill.
“Agreed,” replied John. “I read an interesting article in the Times-Picayune the other day. It said that only 5 percent of convictions in New Orleans were for violent crimes. In fact, the majority of convictions weren’t even for felony offenses—60 percent of convictions were for misdemeanors, and about half of those were for narcotics or drug paraphernalia possessions. That will never change. Even now in 2005, the violent criminals aren’t being locked up. Only the users are, and how stupid is that?”
Waving his arms in the air and staring at the Scrabble board, Bill exclaimed loudly, “If I only had a couple extra letters I could play the word ‘disrespect.’”
“You sound like Aretha Franklin,” laughed John.
“That’s r—e—s—p—e—c—t, you dumbshit,” said Bill with a smirk on his face. “Speaking of disrespect, it reminds me of a letter to the editor in the T-P. This lady ranted about the journalist Maureen Dawd who was critical of President Bush taking a vacation. She said maybe Dowd should research how much vacation time former President Clinton took while in office. She also said it was disgraceful the way Maureen Dowd used such disrespectful names for President Bush like ‘the Bushies’ and ‘Bikey W.’
John almost fell off his chair laughing. “Of course he needs a vacation with the war in Iraq, and I am sure he’s watching the weather channel from either the Texas ranch or his father’s house in Maine.”
“I feel better already, John…”
The Johnson brothers stared at one another with looks to kill while the skies in their Gentilly neighborhood began to change rapidly. The wind picked up so that it was difficult to determine if the howls were caused by the wind or nearby police sirens.
“I’m going to play my next word. “Po—lice. Police,” said Bill.
John looked straight at his brother. “Quite a word you chose.”
“Yeah, it seems like you can almost substitute criminal for police—at least there’s a hazy line between the police and the criminals. You know, I read about this 22-year-old cop who was accused of rape and kidnapping.”
Bill’s face contorted with a look of disgust. “Yea, he was accused of pulling over a bicyclist under the guise of a police stop in the early morning hours in July. He detained the woman, drove her to a remote spot along the Industrial Canal near Deslonde Street, then raped her. The woman called police for help immediately after the incident. Can you believe that she actually called the police about one of their own?”
“What happened to the cop?”
“He was reassigned to desk duty for six weeks while they investigated the complaint. Apparently, they found enough evidence to charge him, and he faces up to life in prison.”
“I hope he gets convicted…” John’s voice trailed off as he shifted his eyes toward the gray and darkening sky. After a moment, he turned his eyes toward Bill, “Any other depressing stories? Seems to fit the weather and all.”
“Well, back in April, another cop was booked with aggravated rape after identifying himself as an officer in order to enter a woman’s Treme home and forcing her to perform oral sex.”
“Man, these cops have a real problem with forcing themselves on women,” said John.
“That’s for damn sure. Last year, a 16-year veteran cop was booked with kidnapping and extortion after he was accused of threatening to arrest a woman unless she agreed to have sex with him. Crazy, huh?”
John stood up and gazed out from his spot on the porch. “So, these are the people who are sworn to protect us. It doesn’t reassure me, Bill.”
“You’re telling me! Did you know there were eight other officers arrested during a six-month stretch last year on charges that ranged from theft to conspiracy to rob a bank? Do you know what the police chief said about it?”
“No, but I bet you’re going to tell me.”
Bill got up and stood next to his brother. “He said it was ‘a good day for the Police Department that the citizens of this city should be proud that when problems do arise in this agency, they can be assured that swift and decisive action will be taken.'”
Bill nudged John with his elbow and said, “I am soooooo reassured” while trying to keep a straight face. John couldn’t help but crack a smile as he turned to see the goofy look on his brother’s face.
As dusk approached the Gentilly neighborhood, the weather began to deteriorate even further. “I think we better get inside now,” cautioned John. “I’ll fix us some dinner, and you better bring in the Scrabble board and chairs.”
“Will do,” replied Bill as he stood up and grabbed his chair to bring inside. “By the way, our score sheet blew away in the wind.”
“That’s okay, Bill, we can continue the game for fun.”
The kitchen of the Johnson home had dishes piled high in the sink and the cabinets were filled with canned food. “I am going to heat up some red beans while we still have electricity,” said John. “I bought those Blue Runner beans since I thought they would be easy.”
Bill walked across the creaky wooden floors of the old Gentilly shotgun house and made his way to the kitchen, being careful not to drop any of the Scrabble pieces. He laid the game board on the kitchen table and proceeded to light a candle just as the power went out in the house.
“Perfect timing,” said John as he shuffled over with two bowls of beans. “How do you like them?”
“They’re good, but not as good as Mamma used to make. By the way, it’s my turn now,” said Bill with a mouthful of beans spreading his cheeks as if he was saving it for the winter.
Bill inspected his letters closely in the flickering candlelight of their small kitchen. The rain fell harder on the house, and it sounded like someone was knocking. But the brothers knew no one was at the door; St. Roch Street was empty of all of its inhabitants except the Johnson brothers.
“I can’t believe what I see,” said Bill. “My next word is ‘casualty.’”
“You’ve seen your fair share of those.”
“You’re right about that. I don’t like to talk about it; Nam was too painful. It seemed like my platoon got all of the shit missions. We had boys—not even men—who were killed or severely wounded and for what? A piece of land that was full of jungles and mosquitoes!”
Bill took a moment to calm down. Then, in a quiet, slightly trembling voice he said, “You know what’s really fucked up? Every year, around 8,000 black men are murdered in America…each year. In Vietnam, 7,000 black soldiers died over 20 years—and that was when we were at war. There’s something wrong with that.”
The wind blew stronger as it sounded like freight trains passing as the evening progressed. Bill sat silently, preoccupied in thought, as Katrina’s outstretched arms crept closer and closer toward her victims, ready to envelop everyone—and everything—in her path.
John let a few moments pass before breaking the silence. “It’s my turn. If only I could figure out my next move.”
Bill turned his head toward John and said, “Take your time, it doesn’t sound like we’re going anywhere soon.”
After a few moments and a deep, exasperating breath, John sputtered out, “My word is c—a—n—c—e—r….cancer. That is my word, Bill. I have cancer.”
Bill suddenly became alert, stunned and confused by his brother’s confession. “Cancer? Since when do you have cancer? You never mentioned that to me.”
“I found out last week when I went to Charity. I had some bloody urine, so I went to the urology clinic. I must have waited three hours before I was seen.”
The muscles in Bill’s face began to twitch. “You know, you have Medicare, John. You could have gone to a private doctor’s office.”
“I ain’t going to no private doctor’s office. I was born at Charity Hospital and I will continue to go to Charity.”
“Well what did they say?” said Bill.
“I must have been examined by four different doctors who all looked like children and asked me the same questions. I don’t think they even spoke to each other. The worst part was that all four of them stuck their fingers up my ass to feel my prostrate.” John’s face winced as if he was still being examined.
“It’s prostate, not prostrate,” Bill interjected. “Prostrate means to bend over.”
“That’s exactly what I did, Bill. I bent over and they shoved their fingers up my ass! Finally, a doctor told me that my prostate was big and hard and that he was pretty sure I had cancer. However, he said that he needed a biopsy so he put a needle into my prostate.”
“How’d he do that?”
John stood up and grabbed his pants as if he was going to pull them down. “I don’t know how, asshole. My back was turned and he just did it. Every specimen that he took had cancer so it doesn’t look good for me.”
Bill’s face became solemn, and his eyes watered up a bit. “I am sorry to hear that. What are you going to do next?”
“The doctors offered me radiation therapy, but I don’t think I am going to do that. I think I’m just going to play it out. Maybe it would have been picked up earlier, but I skipped so many of those annual checkups. I didn’t have health insurance—it’s damn expensive.”
Bill put his hand on his brother’s shoulder. “You’ll get through this, John, and I’ll be right here with you. We just have to make it through this storm first.”
St. Roch Street was pitch-black except for the occasional sparks that came out of the power lines that straddled the street. Tree branches and limbs were strewn across the yards of the Gentilly neighborhood that once looked so pristine. The Johnson brothers squinted through the front window of their slightly raised shotgun house.
“I hope this is the worst that Katrina has for us,” said Bill.
John nodded his head in agreement. “That would be nice. I’m really tired, though, so I think I’m going to lie down.”
“Ok, but don’t touch the Scrabble board. We’ll get back to it tomorrow.”
Fatigue wrapped her broad arms around the Johnson brothers as their sweaty bodies collapsed into their respective beds. Not even the deafening screams of Katrina’s howling winds could arouse them. However, early the next morning, an explosion shook the Gentilly neighborhood that startled the brothers. Bill sensed something was not right. Oh shit, he thought. I hope they didn’t blow up the levee again…”
John rose from his bed. “What was that noise, Bill?”
“I don’t know, but it reminded me of Nam.”
John shrugged his shoulders as he said, “Yea, who knows,” before heading toward the kitchen. “Would you like some bread and an apple?”
“Sure,” said Bill as he followed his brother. “I’m going to pick a word, okay?”
“D—e—l—u—g—e is my word. Deluge.”
“It started flooding a bit last night, but it looks okay today,” said John.
“I hope so,” said Bill as he turned his head to the strange rumbling sound that he heard outside. Suddenly the front door blew open with a crashing noise that was so loud that it could burst eardrums. A wall of water entered the Johnson home and slammed the two men to the floor.
“Get to the attic!” screamed Bill. “I got the ladder down.”
Go ahead, I am going to get the Scrabble board.”
“Leave it be, John, get your ass up here!”
Water filled up the Johnson house like a fishbowl. “John, John where are you?” cried Bill as the letters that spelled deluge floated on top of the water.
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