December 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
Flood debris lines the sidewalks of West Pittson and spills out into the road, a stark reminder of the damage that has occurred here. It’s a strong statement, made in the silent language of bulging trash bags and ripped-up carpeting: that the effects of the September flood are still very much in evidence. I snap photos of the detritus of people’s lives as Danny and I make our way through the quiet neighborhood to his old house. There’s no need to hurry and so I walk slowly, allowing the memories of that weekend to rush over me. Army trucks on the streets. Gas fumes rising. An ache between my shoulder blades. Danny’s mother crying. Above all: water, whether gushing or splashing or stagnant or oozing. Oily water. Muddy water. Hose water. Flood water.
An odor of decay and mildew hits us when Danny opens the door to his apartment. I walk in, my hesitant footsteps sounding oddly loud in the empty downstairs. I’m not even sure I want to be in here, looking around at the desolation of the past three months. There are too many memories and emotions still waiting inside this house for me. They creep out from the corners and leave me gulping, with tears in my eyes. Mold is growing on the side of the walls. The downstairs is echoing when we talk. The table against the wall holds vivid reminders of the awful flood weekend: a flashlight, some iced tea bottles, soap, discarded rubber gloves that never made it to the trash heap out front. An abandoned push broom looks forlornly out at us from the kitchen. Danny warns me not to step in the mold on the kitchen floor as we cut through there and head out the back door. The open basement doors gape up at us, a pair of mute mouths giving testimony to the destruction inside. The fallen autumn leaves curl in on themselves in the backyard. They don’t even crunch properly because of the mud still caked on them. Autumn leaves that don’t crunch. For some reason, the wrongness of that hits me, hard. I sit down with a thump on the back porch and drop my head into my hands. The wrongness, the unfairness of all this damage is too much for a minute. I want everything back the way it was. I want it, I’d take it all, Abby running around and getting her paws dirty, the kitchen with stacks of dirty dishes, the empty beer bottles in the living room, even that (dirty, stained) old couch. I just want the house to be lived-in again, with noise and people and pets and television. I want- I want… I sound like a child. When I raise my head, my world is still the same: Dead leaves. Dried mud. The scent of warped wood and mildewed walls.
Back out front, I turn around and snap a picture of the front porch. I catch sight of the fence behind Old Mill Pine’s lot, the one Danny and I climbed over to get to the alley by his house when it had a foot of water in it. Then the long lines of trash arrest me again, with their overflowing mess of possessions. Bags and piles and stacks of people’s lives are out in the cold on the side of the road. Can it really be condensed to this? A garbage heap almost spilling into the street? There are random spots of color amid the bleak browns and grays of winter. A muddy bouquet of fake roses sits atop a pile of wooden boards. I see children’s brightly colored toys, a pink rug, blue Tupperware, the shimmer of broken glass. But most of it is just junk: wood, stuffed trash bags, carpeting, peeled wallpaper, bits and pieces of unidentifiable material. There is no rhyme or reason to the flotsam. It merely rots there, a silent reminder of the swift river’s rising.
Danny and I make our way carefully back down the block to his parents’ home and into the backyard. Once beautiful enough to win the West Pittston landscaping contest, it’s now patches of mud and torn grass. Bailey isn’t outside, chasing the soccer ball and pretending to be as young a dog as Abby. The tool shed is still tipped on its side like a capsized raft. There are gaps all around the old gray wooden fence where the force of the rushing water knocked it down. Danny tells me that the grill and the smoker were both ruined that weekend. I stand stock-still in the backyard, thinking again that maybe if I wished hard enough, it would be summertime and this would all be back to normal. I want a sticky hot July evening with the dogs lazing around, a cold beer in my hand, mouth-watering scents rising from the grill. Green grass, mosquito bites, Danny arguing about something. Just then, he comes up and taps me on the shoulder and my all-too vivid daydream shatters. When we walk around to the front of the house, the water line is still clearly demarcated on the windows. Danny’s father has been cleaning up the mud and debris, but you can see the thick piles that have solidified into dirt.
The house’s back door is swollen and sticks on the floor when Danny pushes it open. Inside, the rooms have been stripped down to the original brick and beam supports. It’d be much more interesting to explore the foundations of the house if I didn’t have the image of them covered in four inches of oderous flood mud stamped into my mind. When I begin to snap pictures, I feel like I’m being distasteful or intrusive. It’s like taking a picture of someone in the midst of a private grief, like I’m capturing emotions that were never meant to be witnessed, the bare bones of sorrow. Cold air crawls under my skin as we wander through the rooms. They echo the same way as the rooms at Danny’s apartment. After one last photo, we head upstairs to the heat and comfort of the second floor. I want so badly to know that someday warmth and sun will spill across these empty rooms again. They will be filled with laughter and chatter, and the smell of food and wine.
What do I want? I want to believe that West Pittston can revive itself, that the town can be made beautiful and welcoming again. After all, a town is nothing more than the people living within it, and it’s been very evident to me that the people of West Pittston have both the heart and the courage needed to rebuild their town.