Mold climbed the walls, the heavy sweet smell coating our nostrils despite our heavy-duty masks. I pressed my lips together and stayed as quiet as I could, afraid I would ingest the spores. There wasn’t much to say, anyway. We crept around the overturned sofas, tables, and chairs in the living room, the kitchen, and the dining room. Our boots squelched in the sodden carpet and stuck as we tried to lift our feet. We almost fell over with every step we took.
“Be careful,” I said. “I know we got our shots, but still...” The words were hot inside my mask. Sweat and grit rolled into my mouth every time I spoke. Grabbing each other’s shoulders to steady ourselves, we clambered over the refrigerator, pitched forward onto the kitchen floor. We lifted cabinets fallen to the ground.
We were looking for Mami’s gold-rimmed china set and my great-grandmother’s floral china and gaudy crystal goblets. Searching through the dining room, the stench of decay smothered us. Sewage had washed through the room; remnants of it lingered in the carpet and on the walls.
It was May 2006. My friend Davina and I put on gas masks, work gloves, and caving suits tucked into boots to excavate my grandmother’s house in New Orleans East. We planned to save my grandmother’s dishes and bring them to her in Olympia, Washington, where our family sent her after Hurricane Katrina. Anticipating the mold spores, the hidden snakes and rats, the rusted metal, and the chemicals in the sludge, I knew Davina and I would need protection.
I’d already gone into the house in October of 2005, when Mami asked me and my uncle to go inside on an exploratory visit. We got tetanus shots and disposable cameras, drove back to New Orleans from Little Rock (where we had first moved after Katrina hit) and went in.
Mami cried when she saw the pictures.
“Maybe we can rebuild it,” she’d said on the phone. “We’ll re-do the house just like when it flooded in ’95. Jelly, we can get an apartment, like we did that summer, while the house gets fixed.”
“Mami, I don’t think so. There aren’t any hospitals here. You would have to do dialysis at home,” I’d said. “Plus, it’s not clean here. There’s black mold everywhere. You would get so much sicker.” My heart and stomach clenched and unclenched. “I don’t think you’ll be able to come home any time soon. You’re going to have to stay in the nursing home.” I felt terrible, like I was sentencing her, like I was saying she couldn’t do it even though she’d done it before, recovering from Hurricane Betsy and the ’95 flood with strength and grace. This time, she was too fragile, but she wouldn’t acknowledge that. My throat tightened. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh, my baby,” she sighed.
That moment, I decided to bring her little pieces of home.
“I just need to focus on finding the dishes,” I said to Davina. “I can’t deal with the rest of this.”
Davina looked at me. What could she say?
A chandelier hung from a ceiling that wasn’t there anymore. Moldy strips of wall hung from the studs. Books in the window, bras on the fans, and grey yarn mixed with mud fought to hold my attention. I didn’t bother looking for any of my own belongings. With my foot, I poked a cup filled with rank brown water, slime floating on the top.
“Davina, look at this.” I picked up the cup and dumped the water onto the carpet.
We searched for as long as we could before running outside to rip the masks off and breathe cooler, less-putrid air.
“We can stop now,” I said. “I feel so disgusting. Thank you for doing this.” I wiped drops of grimy sweat from my forehead and neck.
“We can keep going. I don’t mind. I just need a little water.” Davina picked up a bottle of water from our pile of supplies in the driveway, took a sip, and handed it to me.
“I just want to get as much as possible for her.” I took a sip, set the bottle on the ground, and maneuvered my gas mask back on.
Outside, using the bleach from our supplies and the water hose, we washed and bleached the dishes as best we could on what was left of the front lawn, now really a rectangle of grey, cracked clay that blended into the driveway that once ran beside it.
We shook the dishes dry and nestled each dish in layers of newspaper before placing them inside the boxes we’d brought. Rolling my gloves off, I called my grandmother.
“We got a lot of the dishes, Mami. Some of them broke, but the curio didn’t fall, so a lot of them survived. There was still water in some of the cups.”
“Keep them,” Mami said, her voice gravelly. “You all went through the trouble of getting them out, but come up anyway, if you want to.”
I wanted very much to see her; traveling across the country with my closest friend would be a bonus.
As I hung up the phone and surveyed the yard, Davina said, “Hey, let’s camp part of the way. It’ll be cheaper and it’ll be fun!” She smiled and squinted at me; the dead trees, lacking leaves, failed to filter the sunset. “I’ll borrow some equipment and look up some state parks that are along the way. Oh my God, it’ll be so much fun.” She clapped her hands twice and looked up at me.
“It would be,” I said. I had never been camping before; I usually avoided being outside for any length of time. Nature was too disgusting, too invasive, too vicious. Davina was an experienced Scout leader who’d camped for years, but could she protect us from, say, a wild pig? “Let me think about it. Something terrible could happen to us out there.”
(Editor's Note: this story continues with Exploration.)
published 12 August 2011