I keep the hatchet close at hand. On our kitchen table, on my nightstand, in my lap if I’m sitting on the couch watching the weather channel. We’d heard of families in New Orleans who’d fled to their attics to escape the rising water, but then became trapped and drowned. The hatchet is for chopping our way out through the roof.
The driveway is underwater. My wife finds me, drenched with rain, trying to redirect the water downhill toward the street with a push broom, the hatchet clamped in my armpit. What are you doing? I could be struck by lightning, she says, before the water sucks away my broom.
At night, my wife finally asleep with the baby, I stand at the window, hatchet in hand, watching the rain pool in the swale of our backyard, submerging the grass in black. It swallows the welcome mat and laps at our back door. My ghostly reflection stares at me from within the window pane.
When the TV screeches that a tornado might touch down in our neighborhood, the digital map’s cyclone icon flashes directly over our home. We carry the baby and the cat into the guest bathroom, the house’s structural center. We have a flashlight and pretzels, two hundred dollars cash and a plastic bag with our birth certificates. A couple diapers. I have my hatchet. We’ll need these things to start our new life. The cat can’t get comfortable in my arms and scratches my neck to get away. I swear. My wife shakes her head. I hate this. The power goes out. All night we wait, thunder rumbling through every wall.
By morning, the sky is pink and yellow sherbet. Low chrome clouds race away from the silent city like a school of frightened fish. The streets are rivers now, the water deep and dark. A laminated menu from a downtown seafood restaurant floats by. I stand at the water’s edge, where the sidewalk used to be, holding a rake like a staff, Moses surveying the Red Sea. I’ve got a notion that if I can locate a storm drain and use the rake to clear some debris, it might do something.
When I step into the murk my shoes fill with water and slime. What are you doing? My wife holds the baby on the front stoop. I wade in to my knees. The rake quickly proves useless so I reach into the water thick with dirt and sewage. Something touches my palm. My fingers close around it. I withdraw from the water a plastic vodka bottle, the cheap brand I used to drink behind the garage. This I toss aside, along with the rake, and reach in again.
From the water I pull a pair of child’s glasses, a blankie, a rusty ruler, some running shoes, a dart board, a hotel key card, fencing sabers, and a popcorn bowl heavy with fried rice and kung pow chicken. I pile these on the small dry patch of our driveway. My wife and son watch. I march back to the water, waving to the baby.
I find an old alarm clock, a box of blue hair dye, an upholstered recliner that reeks of sex, an unread copy of Atlas Shrugged, a bottle of amphetamine salts, a sandwich of cold Thanksgiving leftovers, a severed cow’s head in a green bucket, an air mattress, fifty feet of silk rope, and a pot of mashed fish. I add these items to my pile. Our elderly neighbors watch from their kitchen window. They shrug at me. What are you doing?
In the water I find the hotel escalator I’d tumbled down, a hair stylist’s flabby arm, the Washington Street stop on Boston’s green line, a shoebox of handwritten notes from a dark-haired girl who nervously chewed her fingertips until they bled, the Golden Gate bridge, jars of tiny paper cranes I folded myself to serve as centerpieces at our wedding, a cornfield at night, and a dissected human cadaver. Hey, are you keeping all of this? There’s no time to reply. I need this stuff. I return to the water, excited for what I’ll find.
Out comes a wart I sliced off, a bedsheet I ruined, and a nipple I kissed. Out comes my closet full of cigarette smoke, my sister’s gleaming gold euphonium, and our father’s donated eyes.
It’s a good haul, and I consider stopping, but then something in the water grabs my hand. I pull away, but it pulls back. What is that? I take hold with both hands and lean backward on my heels, using all my weight, but it will not yield and instead pulls me forward, steadily down toward the water. Just let go. But I refuse to let go, even when the pale face appears just beneath the surface, sad grey eyes shining with pity, the fine hands drawing me down, down.