Exercise 7 from Steering the Craft is the exercise that was as engaging as it was long. It was as if the last part of the exercise lifted a veil and showed the entire scene that had hints with the other methods. So I found myself revisiting the earlier parts based on what I learned.
The actual exercise below the fold
The actual exercise below the fold
Part One: FirstOn the rooftop, Chris struggled to catch his breath, fumbling for the inhaler in his pocket. His legs trembling from the five-flight-two-steps-at-a-time sprint to beat the sudden rush of black flood water and refuse. As he bent forward, he scanned the rooftop of a building he had worked in -- existed -- but never lived. The roof, their refuge, was a dull plane of tar paper and gravel.
His hand shook as he jammed the inhaler into his mouth and felt the mist hit his throat. The coils around his lungs loosened, and after a moment catching his breath, he could finally get a decent look at the others carelessly scattered on the roof. They had familiar, day-to-day faces he had never bothered to know better. The tall cashier from the convenience store downstairs -- always in that snug blue vest. The store probably only had one. He had tried to surreptitiously glance at her nametag when he bought his coffee, sometimes with a doughnut, without appearing like he was staring at her chest. She stood by the wall, her arms crossed. At her feet were plastic bags that crinkled in the wind, full of goods. Lugging all that all the way up the stairwell from the first floor. Impressive, he thought, wishing he could remember her name.
The man in the suit seemed familiar -- maybe from the law firm on five. He recognized his assistant, following behind. He’d seen her in the deli of the convenience store; she ordered her two coffees with a tight smile. One black, one with extra cream. Chris remembered her with glasses, but her face was bare and pale as she listened attentively to the man in the suit, responding with simple words and nods.
At least he knew Ralph -- or at least knew his name. He was folded over the edge of the wall, his head in his hands, long fingers clutching at his skull as if to keep his head from rupturing. Chris remembered him talking about a house -- didn’t he just buy one? Ralph was muddy from the middle of his chest down, silty water dripping on the roof, pattering. The couple standing next to him didn’t seem to notice and held hands as they watched the water rush and gurgle. The cashier pulled a sweatshirt from one of the bags and put it over Ralph’s shoulders. Chris was warmed by the simple kindness of the gesture.
The water continued to rise, and as the red top of a car floated by, surrounded by a plastic trash can, its refuse trailing behind like a dirty train, Chris watched his floor disappear under a swell.
Part One: SecondAmber made it to the rooftop first because she’d heard the warning on the radio. For a moment, she worried about Chet, then hated worrying about him, since he was probably, at that very moment, worrying about only himself. She forced herself back to her situation: Four bags --batteries, flashlights, bandages, matches, meal bars, provisions. There were two customers with her when she decided to bug out, and she couldn’t make them just leave, not with water standing in the street and overrunning the curb. So she told them what to put in the bags, and they hauled it all up the concrete stairwell. About the third floor, Amber tossed back her name. Breathless, they grunted their replies -- Claire and Chuck, Charlie something.
She saw Sarah and her asshole boss -- the lawyer or something. Sarah stared up at him slack-eyed as he rambled on about his appointments and how he’d have to move his schedule and that his caseload would double...uh-huh uh-huh uh-huh. Sarah tuned him out. Just another guy in a suit, throwing his arms about.
That other guy had staggered up. He looked like someone who worked here. Short, stocky. Wisps of blonde hair that deserted his hairline, and always got a latte from that machine they never cleaned. She heard him gasping as she stood next to the edge of the roof, loud, deep gasps. She wished she’d grabbed the medical kit from the wall. He pulled on an inhaler, and that seemed to help, and he leaned back against the wall along the edge of the roof, his hands on his knees.
A skinny guy in cowboy boots and mud-caked, drenched pants held his head as he looked over the wall at the rising water. He was shaking, and Amber rummaged through the bags for the souvenir sweatshirts that Claire had added to the bags. One seemed large enough. In the water, a car followed by a parade of garbage drifted by. The water was still rising. It wouldn’t get all the way up eight stories, would it?
Only a few made it to the roof when the floodwaters rose. A clerk from the convenience store on the first floor, lugging several full grocery bags in each hand, the white plastic handles mummifying each hand. The name tag on her blue vest had the name “Amber” in neat lettering. The couple that followed her carried more bags, their shoulders slumped. The woman’s face was drawn, and her jaw slack. The man’s jaw was clenched and his face pale. Their voices, when they spoke, were timid. They added their bags to the pile Amber started in the corner. They huddled in the corner, his arm over her shoulders as they watched the rising tide.
Another pair arrived -- the attorney from the fifth floor and his assistant -- their suits rumpled, her black hair a tangle. He alternated between his phone and his assistant, giving orders to both. She stood close and listened, writing on a notepad. He paused. She nodded. He continued, his words -- clients, caseloads, and travel -- punctured the silence of the rooftop and dwindled over the water.
The bang of the stairwell door briefly drew their attention as another man staggered to the roof, an analyst from the third floor, the arms of his dress shirt damp, his wheezing breath loud enough to give the attorney pause. The newcomer doubled over, his hand worming into his pocket. He pulled out an inhaler and jammed it into his mouth, rocking back as he inhaled. His wheezing subsided.
The last was a man muddy to his chest, dripping as he pushed the door open hard enough for it to crash on the wall, which drew looks from everyone. He ran to the far wall and stared as a cherry-red car, along with a flotilla of garbage, drifted with the plow of water. He cradled his head in his dirty hands while Amber pulled a sweatshirt from a bag and draped it over his shoulders.
The waters rose and pressed through the streets. Those on the roof were wordless as they watched the waters overtake the fifth floor and the windows, battered by branches and debris, crack and give way to the flood.
I watched them arrive, the clerk and the two others, not long after the siren that said the flood waters had broken the levy had come and gone, their arms hung heavy with loaded plastic grocery sacks. They must have ransacked the place. The cashier -- still in her smock and a nametag that said “Amber” -- looked over the edge of the wall around the roof. She was tall, the straps of the plastic bags wrapping her fists. The other, a couple in raincoats, looked around the roof in a daze as they wandered with small, tentative steps.
The man that came after, with his assistant in tow, were not nearly as quiet. He strutted around like he owned the place while his assistant followed with a notepad, jotting notes for every instruction he barked, whether it was to her, or to that phone clutched in his hand.
A heavy guy came stumbling up next, and I thought he’d keel over, the way he squatted down, gasping for air, his breath rasping and heavy enough to make even the loudmouth stop dictating to his assistant, for just a bit, then went back to his blathering while the guy reached into his cargo pants, pulled on an inhaler, and took a big hit. That seemed to quiet him down.
The next guy was a lot taller, leaner, and caked with mud from his armpits down. He ran up, slamming the door aside, and loped to the wall. He pointed out his car, floating down the street with a bunch of garbage. Only the roof peeked out above the brown water. The cashier pulled a sweatshirt from one of her bags, and over it over his slumped shoulders.
Since four am, the waters had continued to rise long after the rain had ceased. Rain-filled gutters on buildings gushed to curbs which deluged the storm drains, forming a torrent that surged in the river, so that at seven thirty, frantic sandbag teams, even if they could keep up, were shocked to watch the levy beneath them, pulling levy and sacks away with a muddy surge. At seven forty-five, sirens began howling out the morning. But it was the radio, not the sirens, that pulled Amber’s attention from mulling over yet another pointless fight with Chet over whose parents to visit for Christmas, over stealing the covers, over money, over affections not given, over everything as of late.
Was it really the radio? Or was it the waxy, slack expressions on her own customers at the Qwik-EE Mart that drew attention to the radio? Charles Everette, still mummified in rain slicker and hat, his face hidden behind a bristled mustache. He and his wife, Clare, were on their way to Samsukeegee for the Salmon Festival -- a rainy time of year to be sure, but never like this. Clare’s face was wan, bound head and chin by a kerchief; clenched tight in her white jacket, she could have been Jacob Marley’s sister. Together they stared blankly into the bleat of the radio.
Amber tried to focus on the radio and the words that followed, but all that would register was FLOOD and HIGH GROUND. Her hands trembled as she looked into the Everette’s partially-filled bag. Hot pockets, diet Coke. She added a handful of lighters from the stand, and as Charles started to protest in a small voice, threw another bag at him and told him to grab toilet paper. Charles continued to stare numbly until Amber told him the building was eight stories high. The words ‘eight stories’ seemed to fill Clare with some life -- eight stories was HIGH GROUND to get away from the FLOOD -- and she grabbed a handful of bags and headed to the display of bottled water.
Amber refused to take the elevator; the idea of being trapped in a metal box filling with water filled her with so much terror that she ran ahead of everyone to the stairs -- just as well as the water had begun to pool on the first floor and their footsteps on the carpet squitched. They made brief, breathless introductions as they trudged up the stairs, their arms weighed down with sacks of water, band-aids, lighters, even some of those sweatshirts for the Samsukeegee Salmon Festival. Amber had looked at Clare funny when she had stuffed them into a plastic sack, and she had just shook her head, saying, “You never know.”
The rooftop gurgled as it disgorged the last of the rain in pipes and gutters. Puddled spattered the asphalt. The sight of the ragged bundle of plastic holding a human form startled the Everett's, but Amber was actually hoping to see old Rufus hiding up here. At least the old coot was safe and in a way, she was just as homeless as he was. They all were.
On the third floor, Sarah was relieved that could finally get Arthur off the phone. It seemed impossible ever since he’d made partner. She’d even written FLOOD on a large piece of paper from the printer and waved it in front of him to get him to finally look out the window. The first thing Arthur realized, watching the waters engulf the cars in the parking lot was that he would have to reschedule all his appointments. When he told Sarah such, all she could do was stammer; had he lost his mind, or like herself, felt a small amount of comfort in the familiar tasks that didn’t involve sirens and torrents of sludge and water. Words from the radio came to her mind as she struggled to digest Arthur’s words. High Ground. Yes, High ground. Get to the roof. But she couldn’t determine how to tell Arthur, trapped in his appointments and messages.
The power decided for them as the lights flickered, then went out, casting the office in a moments-before-twilight gray. The roof. She said, blurting it out as he paused in the dim. Arthur registered the words and nodded. Yes, the roof. He had a direction, and he would go. Long strides to the elevator and a pause. No. The stairs. Boldly, two at a time. Sarah followed, their coats in her arms, wishing she could go back and slip into her running shoes, but Arthur barked her onward, still about his schedule and plans when everything was sorted.
Neither of them had been on the roof, Sarah saw an alien landscape of tar and gravel; pipes and conduits. Arthur saw his new office and claimed his space, surveying first the roof, then the rising waters beyond.
For Chris on the fifth floor, the stutter of the lights elicited a brief stream of curses, and a sudden sense that he wasn’t prepared. No emergency food, no water. The flashlight was alone in his apartment; the batteries no doubt corroded. Every website he’d been trading this morning covered the basics of emergency preparedness, and he’d absorbed every word, yet done none of them. He now had just enough knowledge to despair. At least he had a spare inhaler, that he tucked into his pocket, and galloped up the stairs after slapping several times at the elevator call button; his lungs tight on the seventh floor and constricted as he staggered up the last set of concrete stairs and shoved at the door, ignoring the sign: AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
He was smothered in cool, wet air, and couldn’t force enough down his lungs; his vision speckled as he groped for his inhaler. Amber wished she’d grabbed the medical kit downstairs, though most of the supplies within were outdated, and it didn’t contain an inhaler. Arthur paused at the sound of the wheezing, and when he realized it was yet another situation he was ill-equipped to handle, focused back on his appointments, simultaneously helpless and irritated. Sarah’s attention brought back to the snap in his voice as Chris found his inhaler and sent a jet of salbutamol into his lungs, and his breathing eased.
While the others tried to make sense of their surroundings on the roof, Ralph waded his way downward through the first-floor stairwell, shoving himself against the cold, dark flow of water, his breath echoing off the water as he felt with his feet for the next hidden stair. Each splash bringing the water higher. Knees, waist, belly. When he reached the ground floor, it was just under his armpits, and his car, and more importantly, the cocaine in the trunk, several hundred flooded feet away. If the triple say of baggies would keep the shipment dry, he’d be lucky if Kepler only took his house, and that the stories of him taking fingers with a curved set of tin snips were made up. He hoped, but didn’t count on it and shoved himself into the murk, only to feel a harsh yank of current as he pushed himself out of the stairwell. His legs went out from under him; he gripped the door and flailed, then pulled himself slowly onto the stair. The water was rising, a Fiat at the end of the curb, its top just cresting the flood, shifted and slid slowly downstream. Ralph cursed the waters, the rain, fortune -- his and Kepler’s -- with each lurch of his cherry-red Mercedes along the parking lot, until the lurch steadied to slow trawl. Ralph struggled back into the maw of the stairwell, feeling each step with his foot, pushing upward, stumbling on the landing and searching out the next set of steps. He cleared the water by the fourth floor and tried to run, his legs limp and weak. If he could make the roof, he might see where his car went. It might get stuck in an alley or against a building. Each step brought a new, increasingly improbable fantasy of fate which brought the cocaine back to Kepler until he burst through the door to the roof. The gray sky burned in his vision, and he scrambled to the edge and leaned against the wall, searching for a glimpse of his car. Amber pressed a sweatshirt on his soaked back. Charles and Claire looked at Ralph and saw a drenched, dirty survivor. Charles took Claire’s hand and gave a reassuring squeeze.
Together they watched the water continue to rise as debris orbited the drifting cars pushed by the rising floodwaters. In Marmont, seventy miles to the north, the rains continued, pounding down on the streets of Hammonford and the surrounding suburbs, making a concrete funnel which gushed down to the river.