Water, Water Everywhere
The Tennessee River has swollen again, and nothing stops it. Not the locks or the dams. Not the TVA. I know that it was different once—that Chattanooga was a crossroads, alive and healthy; a place of promise and opportunity. But like all things left wet for too long, it warps. It rots. And now it would drown us all to keep us.
The great gorge fills, and the city sinks behind me.
In 1973 when the river last rose like this, my aunt Louise was fourteen years old and my mother Leslie was eleven. They lived on the north shore of the city, but this was back before the neighborhoods were renovated into quirky suburbia. There was no sprawling green park or blue-topped carousel with vintage-look horses.
On the very spot where the lion fountains spit water streams in the summer, there once was a closed-up armory. Like all things utilitarian and military, it was gray and smooth with no hint of ornamentation. It was a work building—a barn for the army’s cast-off supplies, surrounded by a chain-link fence.
Lu said she never saw anyone come in or out of the place, and so far as the neighborhood kids knew, it was deserted—and therefore a target. This is a story I had to drag out of her throat, word by word.
She’s never liked to talk about my mother.
By the time the girls reached the armory, it had stopped raining and the river lapped up against the rocky bank at the bottom of the short hill. The chain-link fence was twisted open in more than one place, and any of those holes was big enough to fit a teenaged girl through.
It was a neighborhood game: who could get inside fastest, who could find the coolest souvenir. Who could stay inside the longest without getting scared.
“It’s empty,” Lu assured her little sister. “There’s nothing in there but a bunch of old equipment, and most of it’s covered up. I don’t know why you’re so keen to get inside.”
“Because you and Shelly went without me last week.” Leslie sulked, peeling the fence back and holding it tight. “That’s why.”
Lu ducked underneath and took Leslie’s hand to bring her through the hole. “If I’d known you’d make such a stink about it, I’d’ve brought you sooner. Now’s not a good time. It could start raining again any minute, and things are flooding up.”
“It’s got to be now, while Momma’s asleep. You were the dummy who got caught. If you hadn’t got caught, we could go on Sunday.”
“We could still go on Sunday if you really want.”
Leslie sniffed. “Can not. You’re grounded.”
“Only so long as she knows where I’m at.” Lu pointed up at a broken window. “That’s the best way in. There’s—” She cut herself off. A fat raindrop splashed down onto her cheek. “Jeez. Hurry up. It’s starting again.”
Though the girls looked much alike, Lu was the older, taller, and stronger of the pair. Her hair was knotted into black braids and her jeans were ratty around the knees, showing brown skin and scabs where she’d fallen one time too many. She put her shoulder against a sopping wet crate and shoved it hard. It inched its way to a spot beneath the window. “Hang on, it’s high. I’ll get another one so you can step up.”
“No, I got it.” Leslie hoisted herself onto the crate and poked at the broken bits of glass. She glanced down at her cutoff shorts and wished they reached farther down her legs.
“Don’t touch those. Look. Someone reached inside and unlocked it.” Lu pushed the frame and it scraped against the sill. “Hurry up and get inside. Aw, shit.”
“That’s a quarter for the swears jar.”
“Not unless Momma hears me, it’s not. Get in, and get your look around. We’ve got to be fast.”
“Look at the river.”
Leslie glanced over her shoulder, out to the south and to the bridges. “Wow. I’ve never seen it like that before. It’s right at the edge of the building. Usually it stays down by the rocks.”
“Yeah, it does. This is way too high, and I think it’s getting higher. Look at that boat over there. It used to be tied down at the dock. Look where it is now.”
Lu shoved at her sister’s bottom. “Go on. For real.”
“I’m going. What are you, scared?”
“Not of anything inside, no. But I don’t like the look of that water. It shouldn’t be so high.” Even as she spoke, gray waves knocked themselves against the south end of the old armory. They beat a slapdash time there, creeping up along the cin-derblock walls.
Leslie’s legs popped over the windowsill and she dropped herself down onto something below. “What’s this?” Her voice echoed loud against the high, corrugated metal ceiling.
“I don’t know. Something to step on. Climb on down, if you’re going to. It’s raining again out here, and I’m getting soaked. And the river . . . I don’t like the look of it. It’s too full. And . . .”
Lu murmured the rest. “And I don’t think it’s supposed to be that color”
“It’s always sort of gray and blue. Maybe it’s just the clouds or something.” Lu slung her leg past the broken glass and climbed inside to stand beside Leslie. Together they were perched atop another set of boxes, or possibly a large piece of machinery—it was something covered with a khaki-colored canvas that was thick like a tent.
Leslie stamped her feet. “It feels solid.”
“It is solid. Look at all the footprints on this thing. We do this all the time. Come on down then, if you’re coming. Let’s get this over with. The river’s rising, and Momma won’t sleep forever.”
“Shelly will cover for us.”
“She’ll try.” Lu hopped down to the cement floor and brushed her hands off on her jeans. “But there’s no telling if it’ll work or not. I’m grounded, remember?”
“Forever and a day. Do you think she meant it?” Leslie stepped down beside her, and copied Lu’s hand-wiping gesture.
Lu shrugged. “Probably. But that don’t mean she can make it stick. Well, this is it. You happy now?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “I guess. It’s dark in here. Did you bring a light?”
“No. It’s still daytime. We don’t need a light. Your eyes’ll get used to it. Come on. I’ll walk you through and then we’ll leave and you won’t make a big stink about it anymore. Deal?”
“The whole thing. I want to see everything you got to see with Shelly.”
“Fine, yeah. The whole thing. But we’re going to do it fast.”
By then the rain was not so much falling as plummeting. Louder and louder it came down, and Leslie was right—it was dark inside, despite the afternoon hour. Within the disused armory, all the space was filled with veiled gear and shrouded military tackle. From floor to ceiling the ghostly monsters stood still and silent, lumpy and lame.
“What’s underneath the sheets?” Leslie wanted to know, but Lu didn’t know and nobody else did either.
“Stuff. Army stuff. Big machines and trucks. Boxes of junk. Most of those sheets are tied down, and it’s too hard to pull them up.”
“What? I can’t hear you.”
The rain was too much, the echo was too hearty. Water poured onto the old metal roof as if the river had overturned to empty itself. It drove so steady that the sound fuzzed out to a harsh white noise.
“Hurry up,” Lu said, ignoring Leslie’s request to repeat herself.
“We’re going to have to ride our bikes home in this, aren’t we?”
“It’s only getting worse. This is stupid. Les, this is stupid.”
“Not getting scared, are you?”
Lu looked back up at the window, and down at the floor.
“Les, the water’s coming in. We’ve got to go.”
“Shit,” the younger girl whistled, lifting her sneaker up and splashing it back down.
“Quarter for the swears jar.”
“Not if Momma doesn’t hear it, right?”
They stared back and forth at each other, and held their breath while the sky dropped down outside. “Les. Let’s go. It’s not letting up. It’s just getting worse.”
“Can’t get much worse.”
Lu took Leslie’s wrist and tugged her back towards the window. Leslie’s token resistance was feeble. “We can’t ride in this weather. Maybe if we wait it’ll let up,” she protested, but the water was climbing up her ankles, and the fight was leaving her.
The older girl reached the makeshift exit first and scaled the now-soaked tarp with a couple of well-placed footholds. She used her arm to shield her eyes from the blowing rain that gushed through the broken window.
Leslie prattled on below. “We’re going to have to run for it. We’ll have to walk the bikes and we’re going to get wet in the rain.”
“Jesus, Les,” Lu said. “We’re going to have to swim for it.”
“What? Don’t say that. It’s just rain.”
“No, it’s not just rain.”
“It is rain—I’m standing in it right now!”
“No, Les. It’s the river!”
More water squeezed through the cracks beneath the doors, and the tide crawled up past nervous ankles, past the hems of jeans, up along skinny shins. “Lu? Lu, I don’t like this. Lu?”
“I don’t like it either. Get out of that water. Get up here, now. Come on. You’ll catch cold.” She sent down one hand and Leslie grabbed it, pulling herself up.
“Let me see out the window.”
“No. It’s just water, but it’s coming up fast and I bet we don’t have bikes anymore anyway. They probably washed away by now.”
“You’re just trying to scare me,” Leslie accused, but she didn’t push past Lu to look outside. She reached down to her feet and squished her shoes to let out some of the water. She twisted the bottom of her jeans and wrung out more. “It’s getting cold in here. And the water—where’s it all coming from, Lu?”