On the morning of Wednesday, September 6, 2005, some three hundred miles west of the breached levees that a week earlier had submerged the city of New Orleans under water, Linda Hunter had an idea. She was driving home from the dry cleaner, clucking over the terrible news reports on the radio, when, just like that, with absolute, Category 5 certainty, she knew exactly what she had to do.
She snatched her cell phone off the passenger seat and punched “2” to speed-dial her husband. “Mike!” she cried without waiting for his hello. “Mike, forget Maureen—go on back there and start cleaning out the LaRussas’ mess. We’re going to do Houston proud and get ourselves some refugees in there!”
Mike didn’t answer: a waste of breath. By this point, thirty-three years into marriage, he knew better than to oppose his wife when she had an idea. Once Linda’s wheels were in motion, nothing, but nothing, could stand in her way.
* * *
After a summer of teasing out plans to establish her athletic-rehabilitation business in the space behind Mike’s office, Maureen McNabb was giving them the runaround again. In early August, she’d agreed to sign a two-year lease by Labor Day, for a move-in date of September 15. But as the first of September approached, Maureen had waffled, not for the first time, and asked to postpone the lease-signing for another month. Another month!
The Hunters were losing patience with Maureen, who rather than acknowledge her wavering commitment pleaded unanticipated equipment costs and relocation expenses. As an independent businesswoman, she needed to iron out the details before putting down any rent—could the Hunters possibly understand that? And speaking of details, as a condition of the lease, would they mind carpeting the downstairs area? Nothing fancy, Maureen assured them; it’s just that wheelchairs had a tendency to slide on concrete.
Linda had disliked that gray cement floor from the day the brewery guys had poured it, but honestly—Maureen was impossible, her list of demands just endless! She had incredible gall, especially considering that the Hunters hadn’t yet seen a penny of her security deposit, which Mike, spineless as ever, had already reduced to half a month’s rent.
When they confronted Maureen with their misgivings, the surly and undoubtedly lesbian physical therapist had shrugged, told them fine, go ahead, the best of luck finding a better tenant. If one month’s rent meant that much to them, so be it; Maureen offered the Hunters her blessing. If, on the other hand, they could hold their horses for another month—one measly month!—they’d be guaranteed a trustworthy, long-term tenant who worked mostly in the evenings, meaning Mike could see clients during regular business hours without suffering interruptions from paraplegics aerobicizing behind the wall of his law library.
The problem, as Linda saw it, was that she and Mike really did need that extra month’s rent, it really did mean that much to them, as for the last several years, rent from that building provided the steadiest income they had. It was true that their situations had incrementally improved these past twelve months, what with the kids finally out of college and Linda taking the part-time teaching job at Wright Academy. But the grave they’d dug was deep. She and Mike were saddled with huge debts, paying sky-high interest on a half-dozen credit cards each.
Then, in early May, came the impossible setback. La Russa’s Texas Spirits, the family-owned microbrewery that had occupied the shop for the past seventeen years, went out of business, abandoning the property with three months arrears on the rent. While Linda would by no means mourn the sticky, beer-splattered floors or the yeasty stench that hung in the air during the brewers’ long tenure, she understood that the La Russas’ defection had come at the worst possible time for her husband, just as he was easing off the Wellbutrin and permitting himself a little optimism again.
Five years earlier, Mike had closed his struggling legal practice downtown and set up shop in the Village, only a few blocks south of La Russa’s Texas Spirits. When she’d engineered this cost-cutting move, Linda had scarcely anticipated that even the austere, windowless room on Chaucer Street would soon prove beyond her husband’s means, that every month he would struggle to scrape together eight hundred dollars for rent—eight hundred dollars!
Poor Mike. Against Linda’s better judgment, he had settled on a cavernous redbrick house tucked behind that limestone Presbyterian church on Greenbriar. Only the Deitches, a man-and-wife Chasidic practice, shared the converted residence with him, and they spent nine months of the year schooling their young daughters in the more Orthodox state of New Jersey. Mike was lonely, Linda knew, passing every day all by himself in there, with a dwindling number of lunch engagements and a secretary who only came in three mornings a week. She had taken to worrying about her husband, his habit of conducting lengthy conversations with himself, in the difficult years since he’d moved to Chaucer Street. She worried, too, that the crumbling exterior of the house, together with the silence that reigned inside it, put off prospective clients. Surely there could be no other explanation, as Mike’s business continued to trickle off, more and more every month, until returning to that fortieth-floor corner office was no longer even the punch line of a bad joke.
Right after school let out that summer, less than a week after the brewers’ disappearance, the Hunters were enjoying a dinner of homemade chicken fajitas with green bell peppers (she had wept, just wept, right there in the produce aisle, when she first understood that they could no longer afford the red) when Linda outlined the idea that had come to her earlier that afternoon. What if he gave notice on Chaucer Street and took over the shop himself? “It doesn’t make sense to rent an office when you own a perfectly good space just a few blocks away,” Linda had said.
You can’t deny you need a change of scenery, Linda continued over Mike’s faltering protests, and it’s not as if you’re sacrificing any great camaraderie with the Deitches there. Redoing the shop will be a snap—it’ll take two weeks, tops, and cost next to nothing. They’d simply divide the building back into two sections, situating Mike’s office in the original construction, which had been a blue-hair beauty shop when he’d inherited it twenty-five years ago. Where the old building ended, they’d throw up some drywall and partition off the two-story storage warehouse that the brewers had added on a decade ago, then find a new tenant to rent out that section.
Mike’s desk would go in the bright little room where they used to do the manicures; he’d really benefit from working in a space so flooded with light. People need light, Linda told her husband, they’re drawn to it like flies to the flame. Get some sunlight in your office, and the clients will come flocking back, just you wait.
Mike lifted his shoulders with a sigh. “Sounds fine,” he said, and took another bite of fajita.
* * *
Over the next two days, when she wasn’t at Wright, preparing lesson plans and lecturing over-privileged and incurious tenth-graders on World Geography, Linda was launching her search for some top-notch refugees to install in the back of the shop. But this was not, she soon learned, half as easy as it sounded. Wednesday afternoon, when she drove over to the Astrodome, she was irritated to discover that the police had blocked off every entrance to the immense parking lot, so that no matter how many times she circled, she couldn’t even get close enough to differentiate among the hunchbacked figures thronging from bus after bus.
Back at home, Linda dialed every toll-free help line that scrolled across the television screen, the Red Cross and FEMA and so on, only to be stonewalled time and again by busy signals and unintelligible touch-tone instructions, automated Muzak and Thank-Yous and Please Try Again Laters. Next, Linda went down a list of churches and synagogues in the area, but here, again, beeping machines thwarted her at every turn. By the end of the day, she’d called nearly forty organizations and still hadn’t made contact with a single living human. “Who’d have guessed do-gooding would be so difficult?” she mused to Mike on several occasions that week. “These places are worse than the cable company.”
It was seven o’clock Friday morning before Linda received the first acknowledgement of her efforts, in the form of a phone call from a volunteer coordinator at First Methodist out on Memorial Drive. “The congregation’s been swamped all week with offers from generous folks like you,” the woman explained, and right away asked if Linda’s housing offer still stood.
“Of course, and why wouldn’t it?”
Well, super, the woman said, then First Meth had just the family for her. The Johnsons were great folks, about the kindest anyone could ever hope to meet—“and extremely spiritual, too,” she added, with an emphasis that Linda could only take to mean “black.” Any shelter that the Hunters could provide for them, for any length of time—a month, a day—would truly be a godsend, an act of Christian mercy that the Johnsons, and First Meth, wouldn’t soon forget.
“Fine, so when can they move in?” Linda broke in. “I still have quite a bit of tidying-up to do back there.”
Mike had left inconveniently early that morning to arbitrate a case in Laredo, not to return until Monday evening at the earliest. While Linda certainly applauded any good paying work that came her husband’s way, she did wish he’d hauled the rest of the La Russas’ storage barrels out to the curb like she’d asked him at least a hundred times.
“How about tomorrow morning?” the woman suggested. “Would that work for you? At, say, nine o’clock?”
“Tomorrow morning would be fine,” Linda said. “I’ll be ready and waiting.”
She gave the shop’s address and was about to hang up when the volunteer coordinator cleared her throat. “Oh, and Mrs. Hunter, there’s one more thing,” she said. “You should be aware that some members of the Johnson family, a handful of the brothers, stayed out in New Orleans to help clean up a bit, see what they couldn’t save. Seems like Mrs. Johnson said they’ll be joining everyone in Houston sometime next week, Tuesday maybe.”
“I see,” Linda said. “So exactly how many people are we talking about here?” Utterly unlike her, she realized, not to have inquired straight off the bat.
“Well, let’s see here, hmm . . .” The woman laughed nervously. “I’m afraid I can’t give you an exact figure at this juncture, Mrs. Hunter, but I’d say we’re talking in the range of fifteen to twenty-one, certainly no more than that. Right now, only about twelve of them have made it to Houston, but like I said, the rest of them will hopefully be driving in next week.” She clicked her tongue against her front teeth as if summoning cats to dinner. “Now try to remember, Mrs. Hunter, that we’re talking about a good family of humble, God-fearing Christians, the likes of which you don’t come across every day. Staying together’s a real priority for them, after all they’ve been through . . . ”
Twelve people, fifteen? No more than twenty-one? Linda staggered back into the couch, thinking: What on God’s green earth have I gotten myself into?
The add-on behind the shop, where the La Russa brothers had stored their brewing supplies, measured almost two thousand square feet, but surely even two thousand square feet was inadequate to house a family of fifteen to twenty-one—and to judge by the CNN coverage, these weren’t the thinnest people in the world, either.
She’d watched the coverage for hours on end, staring slackjawed at those dingy castaways lined up outside the Superdome, their life’s belongings stuffed into a single plastic garbage bag, waiting to get drunk and raped and who knows what else. She’d seen other pictures, too, the whole country had, pictures too horrible to believe, of boys barely old enough to count sloshing through streets of shit and storm water with shoes of sopping cardboard. She had gaped at shot after shot of shriveled-up old grandparents splayed across military cots, or slumped over unconscious right in the middle of the Interstate. And all those arms, too, arms flailing from those dune-buggy cages suspended off helicopters, or signaling from the windows of sinking tenements, September 11 arms, disembodied and doomed.
And here, for the first time, Linda considered how suffering on that scale must smell; conjured the concentrated odor of fifteen to twenty-one different poverties in the back of the shop, their shop—all they had left. Mike’s brand-new office, where he hadn’t been installed three months before business started to pick up, and with it, his confidence, his hopes for the future, and now what—no more than twenty-one humble, God-fearing refugees? Poor, poor Mike, she could just see his face, that terrible, muted resignation so characteristic, these days, of her husband’s face.
Correctly interpreting the silence on the other end of the line, First Meth’s volunteer coordinator said quickly, with another little tongue-click, “Now, Mrs. Hunter, they’re nothing like that. The Johnsons have their own truck and got out first thing Sunday morning. You know, most of those people who’re still stuck out there have never even driven a car, and the Johnsons, they own theirs. They’re good folks, the Johnsons, everyday people just like you and me who happened to have run into a little bad luck. Mrs. Hunter, are you still there?”
Linda sucked in her diaphragm and nodded to no one. “Yes, but fifteen to twenty-one people in a family? The same family?”
“Well, in point of fact it’s three different families,” the woman said, “a grandmother, her kids, and their kids. You know, extended. Not everyone’s the same generation, if that’s what has you worried.”
“No, of course don’t be silly,” Linda said brusquely. “I’m not in the least worried; I look forward to seeing all twelve, or fifteen, or however many Johnsons there are, tomorrow morning at nine.” And as she spoke she almost believed it.
Even after hanging up, Linda remained just sitting there, the cordless going cold in her hand. What’s done is done, no use regretting it now, she told herself, and what goes around comes around and all that. Besides, had an idea led her astray yet?
It took a few minutes of concentrated meditation, and a refreshing glass of cool water, for Linda to regain enough composure to punch Diane Lawson’s number into the phone. Registering the panic in her friend’s voice, Diane right away volunteered to come over to the shop, just as soon as she got off work that evening. Preparing the disused storage area for fifteen to twenty-one visitors would require some heavy-duty lifting, but Diane, bless her, asked no questions. Linda laughed to think what her other West U. friends would’ve made of the request. They would’ve asked: Why not just hire someone to do it? Get your maid to bring her sister or something, wouldn’t that be easier?
Only Diane no longer asked such questions. Since getting reamed in her divorce settlement, Diane had also learned that sometimes, life gives you no alternative to scrubbing out your own toilet.
* * *
Linda ducked out of school an hour early that afternoon and headed for the baseball diamond at the intersection of Auden and University. West U. Field was the heart and soul of the neighborhood where she and Mike had lived for twenty-six years and raised both their sons, and it was also, for the next week, among the temporary collection posts announced on the radio that morning, where Houstonians could drop off donations for Astrodome evacuees.
Linda had spent every free moment between classes drafting impossible lists, inventorying everything she needed to do—and buy—before nine o’clock the next morning. By early afternoon, she was on the verge of cardiac arrest. Even with Diane’s help, how could she possibly swing it? And how in the name of God would she pay for it? Restarting life from scratch, Linda knew well, was an extremely costly enterprise.
The Little League field was her only option. Linda hated to be seen begging by her former neighbors, most of whom, in the years since the Hunters’ financial reversal, had revealed themselves to be superficial snobs, but the other collection posts were miles outside the Loop, and Linda’s time was limited. Besides, in a moment of national emergency, she could swallow her pride. She had to, for the sake of her refugees—what were their names again? The Johnsons. For the sake of the Johnsons.
Some two blocks from the field, she let out a gasp—what, were they holding a rock concert or something? The curbs were jammed with cars, the battered old sidewalks swarming with citizens of every possible description. It was the kind of mob scene you’d expect to find in Midtown Manhattan, or maybe in a National Geographic spread on Tokyo, but never, ever in the residential pocket of southwest Houston where she’d spent the bulk of her adult life. It took her a good fifteen minutes to improvise a parking place in her old friend Caroline Hutchinson’s driveway, and even longer to reach the field on foot. Linda had a quicker time than most, too, since her fellow pedestrians were laden with big grocery-store bags and towering pyramids of toilet paper.
Once on the diamond, she paused for a second to admire the organizational system in place, with every field position designated for a different category of donation. Canned goods went to first base, clothing to second, “toilet needs” to shortstop, and so on, all the way to home plate. Having entered the field behind the visiting team’s dugout, Linda thought it logical to begin at the perishables station in right field.
There, perched behind a large folding conference table piled high with vegetables and Wonder Bread, Linda recognized Eileen McClintock, whose daughter Jennifer had graduated from Lamar the same year as the Hunters’ youngest, Matthew. Eileen was buzzing around her station, separating the oranges from the grapefruits and stacking Styrofoam egg cartons into neat pyramids. Linda knew Eileen only vaguely, from the occasional P.T.A. meeting, and as she called out, “Yoo-hoo, haiii there, Eileen!” she tried to recall why she’d found the woman so unpleasant all those years ago.
“Well, if it isn’t Linda Hunter, it’s been an age and a day—how are you?” Eileen burst forth.
Could Linda detect a note of condescension in her voice? No, no, she chided herself: Remember the refugees.
On her left breast, Eileen wore an official-looking badge with the words “ASK ME HOW TO SHARE” printed underneath her name. “What can we do for you today? Need some help bringing in your donations from the car?” she asked, aiming her clipboard at Linda’s conspicuously empty arms. “We’ve got plenty of able-bodied young men to spare.”
Ah, yes, it was all coming back to her now. Eileen McClintock was one of those meddlesome, over-involved parents who fretted about the school’s standardized-testing policies and the alcohol content of mouthwash. The self-important busybody, Linda thought—what did a lifelong housewife like Eileen McClintock know about charity?
“I’m actually not here to donate anything,” Linda said. “Mike and I’ve decided to do something a little more meaningful this time around, so we’re taking in some folks of our own. Tomorrow morning,” she said, “twenty-one refugees from Hurricane Katrina will be moving in to a vacant piece of property we own.”
Linda waited, shifted her weight as Eileen McClintock’s squinty, suspicious eyes bugged out.
“Why Linda,” Eileen gasped, “how—well—how just wonderful of you! My goodness, I’d never have expected . . . What an absolutely terrific idea. Gosh, I sure wish Chuck and I had the—the courage to do the same.”
Courage? Eileen spoke the word with such gravity that Linda had no choice but to lift her shoulders in humble acknowledgement. “It’s nothing,” she said lightly. “Mike and I just happen to have some vacant real estate, and in times like these, it seems just criminal to let an empty house go to waste.”
As Linda spoke, the petty deprivations of the last few years, the endless tabulations and shaming private economies, vanished—poof!—as if in a fairly tale. “Vacant real estate” . . . “an empty house . . .” How thrilling those phrases sounded, how careless and easy and just, well, rich. Linda thought of the so-called friends who’d sold her down the river for a bit of idle gossip about Mike’s business, and the Hunter family’s sudden move from West U., and Linda’s late-in-life reincarnation as a “working gal.” As Michael Jr. and Matthew would say, Up Theirs.
“So,” Linda went on, “I hate to trouble you when it’s such a madhouse, but I must confess I came here with something of a selfish agenda.” With every word she willed her old sense of entitlement to return, the West U. pedigree she’d spent over a quarter-century cultivating. She knew these people; had she not been one of them? “Would it be possible for me to collect a few provisions to take over there later—just a few extra odds and ends? I’d get them myself, but they’re showing up bright and early tomorrow morning, and I’m crunched for time.”
“Now Linda Hunter, don’t be ridiculous!” Eileen protested. “Take absolutely everything you need and then some—you’re the one doing the real community service here!” Eileen was already transferring provisions to Linda’s arms: loaves of whole-wheat bread, bushels of carrots, squishy ground beef past its expiration date. “Between you and me, I think these donations will do a lot more good going straight to the source. You know how these charities are, always skimming off the top of everything…”
“Stop, Eileen—please, slow down!” Linda cried. “I have to figure out some way to organize this first. I still have about twelve stations to visit, and only two arms.”
“You’re right, you’re right,” Eileen said, tugging a referee whistle out from inside her shirt. “I always get so ahead of myself, don’t I? But don’t you worry, we’ve got armies of junior high schoolers volunteering all afternoon, and their only duty is to help move stuff. One blow of this whistle, and they’ll be lining up for their assignments. But first why don’t we get Marley here—” Eileen gestured at a frizzy blonde sorting through a box of sweet potatoes—“take over this station for a while? That way, I can help get you organized. You wouldn’t believe how hard these charities make it to do good.”
“I’ve thought the same thing myself,” Linda murmured.
“Now, c’mon, Linda, tell Marley here what you’re doing. Marley,” Eileen lowered her voice confidentially, “Linda here is putting the rest of us just to shame.”
“Oh, Eileen, hush,” Linda demurred, then with a tad more prompting repeated her plan to Marley, and then to Janice Smith, and then to Lynne Robinson, and then to Frances Ballenger, and then to a bunch of younger mothers she’d never laid eyes on before. At center field, again in left, at third, shortstop, second, and first, Linda quietly revealed her reasons for swinging by the field that afternoon. “You see,” she’d say, “my husband and I have some unoccupied residential property, and we just thought to ourselves, if we can afford to help, why not just go for it?”
If we can afford to help: like swallowing a magic pill. The very sky above turned glittering and golden above her.
“Mike and I are taking in over twenty refugees at this property we have,” Linda would say, as seigniorial as Donald Trump himself, as if the shop were just the tiniest most insignificant toothpick in their sprawling real-estate empire. And time and again she’d read the majesty of it all, her courage and generosity, plainly across the women’s brightened expressions.
If we can afford to help: like swallowing a magic pill. The very sky above turned glittering and golden.
“Mike and I are taking in twenty-one refugees at this property we own,” Linda would say, as nonchalant and seigniorial as Donald Trump himself, as if the shop were just the tiniest most insignificant toothpick in the Hunters’ sprawling real-estate empire. And every time she’d read the majesty of it all, her courage and generosity, plainly across her audience’s features.
As they exchanged goodbyes, Eileen said to Linda, “Well, we’d sure like to see how everything turns out over there! I don’t know, maybe you’d all like a little welcome wagon?”
“Well—of course,” Linda said, a little taken aback. Then again, the shop’s location was excellent, right north of Rice Village, in a much more prestigious ZIP code than the Hunters’ current residence. “Maybe you and some of the other girls would like to come over tomorrow afternoon sometime? We could have a little barbecue, kind of introduce everyone to their new neighborhood, something like that?”
“Well, Linda, we’d all love that!” Eileen exclaimed. “What fun—I don’t think any of us have met any actual refugees yet! We could also see what’s still missing and try to fill in the gaps—you said there are kids, didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure,” Linda admitted, “but anything you can bring will be a great help. What we’ll really need, I think, is stuff for sleeping. You know, mattresses, sleeping bags, stuff like that. Chairs, too, if anyone has them.”
“Consider it done—we’ll rustle up mattresses by the dozen!” Eileen cried, and though the women had never exchanged more than a few polite words before that afternoon, she impulsively threw her arms around Linda and murmured, “You’re on the side of the angels for this one.”
But Linda didn’t feel much like an angel right then. She felt anger, and resentment, and immediate regret at having been tricked into issuing such an invitation. Eileen was a self-important busybody, too pushy for her own good. Who did she and all those other women think they were? Not one of the so-called “emergency volunteers” had the faintest clue what “emergency” even meant. Most of them had never worked a day in their lives, these women in their gleaming professionally tidy McMansions; they’d never thought twice about how hard life could be, or what it could cost. None of them had ever experienced middle age in a poky, one-story ranch-style on the wrong side of Buffalo Bayou, or lost sleep over the rising cost of gas, or refused a dinner invitation rather than admit the impossibility of returning it.
For a long time, Linda had lived in that same darkness, and as she led a half-dozen eighth-grade football players to her car, she couldn’t help but reflect that she had a lot more in common with the refugees of Hurricane Katrina than with the complacent housewives of West University Place, where she’d nevertheless passed the happiest twenty-six years of her life.
* * *
Just after five o’clock, Linda turned her certified pre-owned Taurus into the driveway of the shop, pulling right in front of the little bronze sign that she’d had custom-made for Mike: Michael P. Hunter, Attorney At Law. Her trunk overflowed with provisions of the most diverse sort: paper towels, maxi-pads, Fig Newtons, condensed milk, Graham crackers, Van De Camp’s Pork and Beans and Mixed Vegetable Medleys. Linda had accepted two air mattresses from Judith Kramer and the used microwave that Gayle Moyer had brought from the “back-up kitchen” in her garage apartment.
“In our all too comfortable lives, it can be easy to forget,” Gayle had offered philosophically, “how much we need just to get by.”
All told, Linda was only out about ten dollars, spent mostly on bleach and ammonia and a new mop. Her terror level was still high, though, since the indispensable Diane had called to say that she was running late at her job as a hospital administrator. And the storage area, when Linda let herself into it, was far worse than she remembered it, an absolute appalling wreck. No wonder Maureen McNabb had been reluctant to put down any cash on it! How had Mike even dared put this dump on the rental market?
Gray-black dust, wooly and opaque, hung in clumps off the walls, and a viscous liquid of unknown provenance shimmered in puddles across the floor. The rotten storage barrels Linda had begged Mike to remove still stood stacked beneath the windows, each of them ringed by fecal flecks of something-or-other; best not to think too hard on that one. Crowning it all was the stench, which had greatly intensified since Linda had last visited the shop in mid-July to put the finishing touches on Mike’s new office. It was an odor indescribable in its foulness: at once yeasty and septic, cheeseburger and fermented orange juice and soiled diapers shoved inside a broken refrigerator—not unlike how New Orleans must smell these days, Linda reflected.
Why hadn’t she thought to bring a change of clothes? This was no job for the burgundy pantsuit she wore to Wright every fourth day! How did Mike stand it? Working just one wall removed from this rot. Of course, Mike never noticed a thing until it was staring him right in the face, and sometimes not even then. But, Linda reminded herself, this was her idea, and it did no good to curse her too-good-for-this-world husband now, not with all this work she had to do.
There was no time to lose. After hauling out the storage barrels, fourteen in all—no easy task for a 52-year-old woman—she plugged in the La Russa brothers’ industrial vacuum cleaner and set about attacking the first layer of grime. Linda had always enjoyed the instant gratification of vacuuming, watching whole dancing colonies of dust bunnies somersault a few inches off the ground, then vanish inside the machine’s hungry red jaws. But of course, in housekeeping as in life, the devil was in the details: the ancient cobwebs clinging to the AC vents; the coffee mugs doubling as ashtrays; the puddles of stubborn syrupy gunk congealed after a beer spill who knows how many years ago…
To spare her lower back, Linda decided to wait for Diane to heave the vacuum upstairs. She’d mop the first floor instead; maybe a good dose of bleach would blast away that smell. She was using the hose out back to fill up a plastic bucket with water when another snag—a big one—hit her: the bathroom. Through all its incarnations, the shop had always been used as a commercial space. So while the property boasted a grand total of three toilets—one in Mike’s office, and another two in the annex—it had nothing even in the ballpark of a shower. Did Linda really expect her poor refugees to rely on a garden hose for their basic hygiene needs? No, it wouldn’t do at all.
The hose was still dribbling out water when another great thunderclap of an idea hit Linda: Thomas Butcher, who had been the Hunters’ trusted plumber in West U., could surely figure something out. Twenty years ago, Mike had loaned Thomas—or T.B., as he rather disconcertingly insisted on being called—$6000 to start his plumbing business in Bellaire, and though T.B. had paid back the money promptly enough, Linda knew he’d never forgotten the favor.
First thing tomorrow morning, she’d call him up, see what he couldn’t do to help. Anything that needed fixing and T.B. could do it; the man was no ordinary plumber. He was an engineering genius, capable of no end of marvels: not just unclogging drains, but fixing cars and even (if the stories he’d told Michael Jr. and Matthew were true, as Linda suspected they were) building homemade bombs. Surely he could rig up some sort of shower no problem. Yes indeed, Linda Hunter had the whole situation completely under control, provided her back held out. She hoped Diane carried Advil in her purse!
* * *
But Diane never came. When she took the call, Linda felt no anger, no resentment toward her old friend. How could she? It was the same old story, or the same old story as of very recently: There’d been a crunch at the hospital, something to do with all the sick folks pouring in from Louisiana, and Diane was getting time and a half for staying on at the desk until midnight, and what screwed-over divorcée in her right mind refuses time and a half? No, no, don’t even think about coming by here at midnight, Linda insisted. I’m doing just great; I’ll have long since gone home by then.
While on one level Linda was lying through her teeth (she most certainly was not great; there was no way she’d be done by midnight!), she was also speaking to a basic truth she’d learned over the last few years: Like it or not, we are all on our own in this world.
Linda had many occasions to reflect on this lesson over the next hours, as, in her determination to remove every last olfactory trace of the La Russa brothers, she rolled up her sleeves, began running hot water in the sink, and set about mopping the vast concrete floor. She mopped until her knuckles went white around the handle, and she kept on mopping until, just like that, in one great whoosh, the strength went right out of her.
She stopped, panting, and let her eyes flutter shut. For all her efforts, that indefinable stench had only sharpened in the absence of competing odors. And so Linda kept at it, and as she mopped on into the dark, she wished (too late, too late) that, like so much else in her life, she had taken charge of this mess at an earlier, less out-of-control stage. If she’d tidied up the place regularly, if she’d bothered picking up one of those Oprah books about women’s financial freedom, maybe the shop would’ve appealed to more prospective renters; maybe she could’ve been there for Mike when he crashed and burned, or even prevented the crashing and burning to begin with.
She saw no choice but to haul the vacuum upstairs on her own, a decision she—or at any rate her back—right away regretted. And the smell that had greeted her hours earlier grew more pungent and nauseating with her every labored step up that staircase. It persisted even after another round of vacuuming and mopping, sharpening in the absence of competing odors.
Right then she noticed, in the corner of the La Russas’ bookkeeping office, the narrow door that led into a makeshift utility closet. Linda, abandoning the vacuum, strode over and flung it open. And there, with a strangled scream, she registered the source of the terrible stench. Right beneath the electrical breakers was the decomposing corpse of what was surely the largest rat in Texas history. For a second Linda just stood staring down at the creature, which was plumper than most toddlers, with ants zigzagging its insides.
Everyone had to draw the line somewhere; here was hers. Linda bolted back down the stairs. Once safely outside, she dialed the number she’d memorized so many years ago and incoherently confided her crisis to his voicemail. Between apologies she begged him, if at all possible, to meet her at the shop at 7 a.m. the next morning. It was a long shot, she knew, but then T.B. took pride in his irregular hours. Maybe, just maybe, he’d make it there before the refugees. Otherwise—well, otherwise she had no idea. She couldn’t possibly expect even the most desperate refugees to sleep in the company of that gigantic sci-fi rodent, but then nor could she clear out its remains on her own; no, not for any price. Everyone had limits, even when there was nothing left.
* * *
Linda hadn’t seen or spoken to Thomas Butcher in over five years, not since before the Hunters’ problems began. She hadn’t avoided him exactly, but she no longer had much use for his services, free maintenance being one of the primary, or only, perks of renting from a dim-witted peroxided girl half her age. And yes, Linda also felt ashamed of the different paths plumber and employer had taken. T.B. was now the best-compensated handyman in West University Place; Linda and Mike were veritable paupers.
T.B. was what the buttoned-up residents of West U. and Southampton called a “real character” and sometimes “a real nutball.” No one quite knew what to make of him, this Beaumont-born Cal Tech graduate who’d spent his twenties racking up a serious “rap sheet” before settling down in Houston. His outlaw handsomeness helped, and so did the appealing naturalness of his manner, but mostly T.B. just knew his business better than anyone else.
T.B. was also reliable, so maybe, just maybe, he’d make it there before the refugees. Otherwise—well, otherwise there was no otherwise. Never any backup plan: the crux of the problem after Mike’s financial meltdown, too.
But when a half-dead Linda drove back up to the shop the next morning, she saw that T.B. hadn’t forgotten his first friends in the neighborhood. There, parked at a haphazard diagonal in front of the begonias, was a gleaming Harley-Davidson motorcycle that said Thomas Butcher all over it—who else in a five-mile radius would drive such a thing? Linda glanced at her watch. It was only 6:42; he’d come 18 minutes ahead of schedule, sweet thing. She rushed to the backdoor, no need to keep her old friend waiting longer than necessary.
But to her surprise, the back door was wide open; all the windows, too. “T.B.?” Linda called out, sniffing at the air. The rat smell was gone, replaced by… Paint, was it? But how—?
Then Linda stepped inside the annex and she just couldn’t believe it. T.B. was high on a ladder, dabbing at the crease where wall met ceiling. But the real shocker was the room he was painting, which was a flawless linen white from top to bottom. No more smudges or blotches or stains, just—perfection. The place looked more like boutique hotel or trendy new downtown restaurant than an unrentable former beer-storage facility.
T.B. turned when he saw her, dropped the paintbrush, and hopped off the ladder. “Must’ve just missed you last night,” he said, nodding lightly in greeting, as if he and Linda saw each other every day. “I was at a gas station in Kemah when I got your message—don’t ask—and my night was already a bust, so I turned right back around. And damn, you weren’t lying—that rat stank to high hell and back. I gave it a respectful burial right in the back there; you shouldn’t hear no more from it in this lifetime.” He shook his head. “But I’ll tell you one thing—I haven’t seen a rodent that size since ’Nam.”
Linda was as close to speechless as she could get. “W-what time did you—how did you get in here?”
“Oh, that.” T.B. winked. “Now don’t you worry—I’ll get you a new lock before the day’s done. Y’all needed an upgrade anyway, especially if you’re going to have people living back here.”
Linda remembered, then, T.B.’s frequent boasts about the arrest warrants out for him all up and down the West Coast, his youthful habit of hotwiring cars, a habit she and Mike had discouraged him, without success, from sharing with their then pre-adolescent sons.
“But—but how did you do all of this painting on your own? Isn’t it—I mean, I was only gone five hours!”
“I’m good, but I’m not that good. I had a few guys from the Marquis come over for a couple of hours and pitch in. It wasn’t too bad a time, either,” T.B. said, gesturing at the four empty cases of Budweiser that littered the concrete floor. “Might want to do another once-over with that mop before everyone gets there, though; just in case.”
“Well—I—of course.” Things like this simply did not happen to her, or not in recent years.
“Oh, and I’ve already measured up the shower—I think it’ll fit right in here,” he said, indicating one of the many large utility closets on the first floor. “But I’m still short most materials, and those suckers at Home Depot wouldn’t open up at midnight for me. For the paint, I just used some old crap I had in my garage—hope you’re a fan of Antique White.”
“It’s perfect,” she said.
“So just as soon as I finish up in here, I’ll head right over to the Depot and get a nice shower going. We’ll have it all set up by lunchtime no problemo.”
“No—no, I couldn’t ask you to do all that yourself,” Linda said quickly. “I just wanted an estimate, you know, an idea of how it might work. We’ll get you the money you need just as soon as you tell us how much. It’s just that Mike’s in Laredo till Monday and I didn’t—”
T.B. cut her off before she could supply one of her now customary excuses: I left my debit card at the health club (that I no longer belong to). I’m just waiting for a transfer between two of my accounts (that have no money in them) to go through. “Lady, don’t even think of it,” he said. “I’m a rich man, hadn’t you heard? I’m fixing to retire in high style out on Galveston. Besides, I’ll bet I can get all the materials for $300 tops, and that’s including the curtain.” He had re-ascended the ladder and was diligently putting the finishing touches on the paint job. When Linda had hired a painter to do the front of Mike’s office in June, the guy had taken about three days per wall, and charged an arm and a leg for the honor. T.B. was a miracle; one of the many that had vanished in the ether of their wrecked lives.
“I guess I’ll unload the car then,” she said. “Lots of food in there—I didn’t get a chance to take care of it last night.”
She followed him out to the drive. “I’ll see you in a couple of hours, then,” she said. “And T.B.—thank you so much.”
“Think nothing of it, madam,” he said. “And before I forget—how the hell’ve you been lately?”
Without waiting for a response, T.B. winked and hopped back on his hog. But Linda answered him anyway, smiling as his silhouette disappeared around Morningside. “I’ve been better,” she murmured, “and I’ve been a whole lot worse.”
* * *
She was standing there, awestruck and silent, when her phone rang. She gave a little jump and squinted down at the unfamiliar number. Maybe it was the refugees, calling from a local pay phone to announce their arrival. It was so considerate of them really; she just couldn’t wait to welcome them into the fold of her family. “Hello?” Linda said
“I’m so glad I got you!” Eileen McClintock exclaimed. “Right after you vanished yesterday, Georgia Nicolson stopped by with a $200 gift certificate to Home Depot that she won in a silent auction at the Briar Club this summer, and I grabbed it for you. I wanted to let you know, but you scampered off without leaving your number, and no one else had it, either! I finally found it this morning on the Internet of all places. And oh! I hope it’s not too early for you, I’m sorry I just got—”
“Oh, no, of course not, Eileen, and thank you,” Linda said, because $200 was real money with which she could compensate T.B. for his incredible work. She felt a rush of something very close to love for this annoying woman who’d once wasted an entire hour of a PTA meeting fretting over the alcohol content of Binaca breath spray. Eileen McClintock was truly one in a million; how had Linda ever doubted it?
“I’m just overwhelmed,” she went on. “You’ve all been just so generous, every last one of you. Last night I realized—can you believe it?—that this place has no shower, and in the snap of a finger Thomas Butcher came over to set one up.”
“The Thomas Butcher?” Eileen let out a whistle. “Wow. How’d you get him on such short notice?”
“What can I say, T.B. and I go way back,” Linda said with maximum nonchalance.
“Well, lucky you. Anyway,” Eileen went on, I wanted to run one more thing by you. A bunch of the neighborhood girls and I were talking about what we could do to make the refugees really feel at home in Texas, and Caroline had the brainstorm to throw together a little barbecue for them. How does this afternoon sound—we’ll all come by with provisions and some fresh-cooked goodies? They all must be just starving after all that travel.”
Linda thought of those CNN stills again, the ragged defeat on face after face, and then, glancing around the room, she thought of those women coming over here. To her property! “That sounds wonderful,” she said, then they proceeded to go over a list of other provisions Eileen had stockpiled: towels, sheets, even feminine hygiene products…
“Thank you,” Linda kept saying, over and over again. “Thank you so much, Eileen.”
They agreed that the welcome wagon should pull up around noon, which should give the refugees ample time to get their bearings at their new home. Once she’d put down the phone, Linda again surveyed the add-on with satisfaction. No one would be mistaking this place for the Superdome anytime soon, that was for sure.
For the next two hours, Linda took out T.B.’s trash and re-organized the donations in the LaRussas’ former “tasting room” until, at long last, there was nothing else she could do. At ten to nine, just in time for her guests’ arrival, she sat down Indian-style on the floor—that was another item Eileen had promised, some comfortable chairs for refugee downtime—to take stock of all she’d accomplished in the last, was it only sixteen hours? Just amazing.
T.B. had certainly helped a great deal, she’d never deny that, but was the one who’d thought to call him. Would she have taken such initiative with Mike in town? She really was the worker bee in the family; what a shame the world they lived in had consigned her and her husband to the exact wrong roles all these years. He should’ve stayed home raising the kids while she’d been out conquering the corporate world or whatever those stylish businesswomen on television did.
With a sigh, Linda stretched out on the floor and let her eyes flutter shut and her body sink heavy into the concrete. Beer and paint and Mr. Clean mingled pleasantly in her nostrils, and the hard ground felt soothing to her gnarled back. For years now, she’d been urging Mike to invest in a firmer mattress …
Her eyes snapped open. Linda didn’t know where she was. She stretched and glanced down at her wristwatch—a Cartier, and one of the very few luxuries she’d been allowed to keep—to see the minute and hour hands contracting at the top. 11:52—really? But how on—? She jumped up, ran over to the side door that was still wide open, and scanned the driveway for signs of the refugees. No one. Had she somehow slept through the Johnsons’ arrival? Could they have hightailed it out of there after stumbling upon the white lady sprawled across the floor? But surely New Orleans had held far more disquieting images over the last week?
A metallic clink came from the utility closet, and Linda jumped.
“T.B.,” she cried. “When did you get back in here? Was anyone here when you came in—any of my refugees?”
T.B. removed the wrench from his mouth and shook his head. “Not that I’m aware of, ma’am. And I would’ve heard, because I’ve been pretty quiet. Didn’t want to disturb sleeping beauty.”
Linda, blushing, peered into the little room, hardly big enough for that vacuum cleaner before, and saw that T.B. had removed an entire wall of plaster and installed all the plumbing necessary for the shower. “How long have you been back again?”
“Oh, long enough,” he said with an inscrutable wink that deepened Linda’s blush.
She backed out of the little room and patted herself down until she found her phone. No missed calls, not a one. But did the refugees even have her number? She scrolled through her recent calls menu—Matthew had taught her how—until she found First Meth’s number. She dialed and dialed but couldn’t even get through to the voicemail system. What an idiot she was; why in God’s name hadn’t she taken down that volunteer-coordinator woman’s name and phone number when they’d talked?
Well, maybe the refugees were late. It happened to the best of us, and the refugees certainly had every excuse. Maybe their truck had broken down. Maybe those poor kids had to push it miles down the blazing-hot Texas highway. Any number of things could’ve gone wrong on the long trek down I-10. Linda touched at her armpits. It was hot this morning, wasn’t it? She wouldn’t mind sitting down and thinking out the problem in one of the nice armchairs Eileen had promised to bring.
And then Linda stopped, and something caught in her throat. The chairs Eileen had promised to bring. The air mattresses, too, and the $200 gift certificate she’d already mentally handed over to T.B. in appreciation for his hard work. Eileen. No, no, no. But. It was too late to tell Eileen that there’d been a mistake, that the refugees weren’t coming, that they might never have existed outside the First Meth volunteer coordinator’s imagination. It was always too late for everything.
Why in God’s name had Linda succumbed to Eileen McClintock’s transparent little ploy in the first place? Why hadn’t she, for once in her life, just left well enough alone?
At 11:59 exactly, she heard the rumble of a car in the driveway and her chest clenched up. So this was it, then. Now West U. and beyond would know that the worst whispered speculations about Mike’s financial meltdown had been a generous interpretation of the truth, which was that the Hunters hadn’t paid their taxes in four years, that they could barely make rent on that pokey ranch-style or even really afford to go out for ice cream anymore.
What would Eileen and all the other women think of the Hunters’ courage when they realized it had all been a lie, perhaps even a scheme hatched by Linda to steal the donations for her own personal use? At the field yesterday, she’d boasted and bragged and made her Christian charity a matter of public record, and now what—there weren’t any refugees to begin with?
It was all her fault, everything was. If she’d been a more sympathetic spouse, Mike could’ve come to her earlier, confided his difficulties before they’d spiraled so out of control. But still, this—did even the refugees have to rub the unrelenting humiliations in her face? Need life turn even her most generous intentions into another pathetic joke? Resources, what a joke. Never let anything go to your head, that was the lesson from all this, but how many lessons must one woman learn in a lifetime? Suddenly Linda wished that Mike were back in town, standing right there next to her, telling her that everything would be OK, even when he didn’t believe it himself, and he never did.
Linda wondered if maybe it’d be best just to cut her losses and leave. Maybe Eileen and the rest of them would think she’d given the wrong address. That wouldn’t be the worst crime in the world, would it? Then, before anyone knew better, Linda would’ve found a whole new set of refugees to install; she’d be more careful choosing the next time around. Oh, but the damn nameplate! And how could she possibly explain to the notoriously chatty T.B., who had just wandered innocently into the driveway in the mistaken belief that he was helping real people?
Linda plunked down on the bottommost step and let her head hang between her legs. She was breathing out and in, taking in all those poisonous paint fumes, when she heard a voice behind her.
She whipped her head up. She knew her eyes were bloodshot both from the tears and the fatigue, but in that instant she didn’t care what Eileen McClintock or any of the rest of those diamond-solitaire harpies whispered in her absence.
“Mrs. Hunter?” the voice came again. “Are you Linda Hunter?”
Linda nodded somehow, her eyes frozen on the elegant (and slender!) African-American woman standing before her. She was about 30, with a photogenic toddler balanced on each hip, and looked nothing at all like those folks on the news. She was wearing sandals, real sandals, and pink toenail polish, and might even be a college graduate.
“My name’s Jasmine Johnson,” the woman said, “and these are my daughters Jamaica and Jada. The people at First Methodist said you were expecting us, but if this is a bad time …”
Linda’s brain was wiped entirely clean, save this one thought: Jasmine! Jada! Jamaica! Mike would absolutely love it!
“I’m just…” Linda was still struggling to find words when a broad-shouldered and completely un-terrifying black man appeared in the doorway behind Jasmine. “Jazz,” he said. “Should we—” He broke off, seeing the disheveled white woman open-kneed on the bottom step. “Oh, hello there. Are you Mrs. Hunter?”
Linda managed a nod as Jasmine continued to scrutinize her hostess with concern. “You look exhausted,” Jasmine said, as if Linda were the one who’d recently been flooded out of the Slidell home she’d used her life savings and then some to buy, and spent five consecutive nights guarding exhausted toddlers on the back of a flatbed truck on frontage roads along I-10. As if thinking the same thing, Jasmine winced and stooped down to release the girls. They took off in opposite directions, whizzing in little figure eights over the floor.
And somehow their long-suppressed animation brought Linda back. She catapulted to her feet and walked briskly to where Jasmine and the man stood, and she opened her arms and folded her refugees into an embrace of welcome.
“Come in, come in,” Linda cried, pulling Jasmine and the man toward her. “I’m so glad you’ve made it, and we hope you’ll be very happy here.” Then, releasing the startled pair, Linda peered out into the driveway. “Where’s everyone else?”
“They’re out in the truck,” Jasmine said. “We weren’t sure this was the right place, so Bill and I thought we’d come have a look first. There’s kind of a funny man out front? He’s not wearing a shirt and has a bunch of metal parts attached to his motorcycle?”
Linda laughed heartily at this. “Oh, don’t worry about him. That’s just our resident wizard Thomas Butcher. He’s working on building y’all a shower. I’m afraid this place is still lacking a few amenities, but we’re doing our best.”
“Not at all,” Jasmine said. “I’m sure it’s all absolutely wonderful. I am just so sorry we’re so late. We had to drive out to pick up one of my brothers all the way at the Louisiana line—he’d gotten a ride only as far as Lake Charles, and once we got there we had some trouble finding his exact location. Our cell phones haven’t been fully operational for a few days now, which is the same reason we couldn’t call you.”
Linda made a clucking sound. “Oh, don’t be silly—I honestly hadn’t noticed if you were late. I’ve been too busy getting the place ready to watch the time. I just hope you found your brother.”
“We did, thank you,” Jasmine said, beaming a beautiful fashion-model smile at her hostess. “Now c’mon out front, I want to introduce you to everybody. Jada! Jamaica! C’mon, let’s go get your toys out of the truck.”
They were all hustling out onto the driveway when suddenly Linda felt a tug at her wrist. She looked down to see one of the girls sliding her brown hand inside hers. Linda gripped that precious little hand back hard, and as she followed Jasmine and the other girl out to the curb where the overflowing truck waited, her eyes unaccountably filled with tears.
“God bless you for doing this for us,” the older woman at the end of the line murmured into Linda’s ear. “I know it’s a lot, but we’re good people, I promise you we are, and we just can’t thank you enough.”
“No, God bless you,” Linda heard herself saying, and she suddenly felt, for one brief flashing instant, that everything might still be possible again, that it wasn’t yet altogether undoable. “Thank you for coming, for—oh, I just can’t tell you how grateful we are, for, for—”
A few feet away, a brand-new SUV pulled into the drive, with Eileen McClintock waving as she tooted her horn in welcome. And Linda’s heart was so overcome that she wasn’t even thinking eat your heart out, Eileen; nothing half so uncharitable ever crossed her mind.