He slept in a discarded pup tent and had to curl himself up to half his length. The tent provided only an illusion of insulation, with an opening at the top where mosquitoes and flies could get in. But his body temperature probably remained too low to attract many bugs. Wrapped in an old blanket, he tried to goof around and pass the whole thing off as some big post-Katrina sleepover adventure. But I would sob after I left him. It all seemed beneath human dignity.
When the storm hit Gulfport, we dutifully joined the long line of unmoving cars on the freeway. I sat in the back seat under the mound of bedding Dad had whisked me off in, still in my pajamas, and we listened to the reports of the hurricane on the radio. It was scary but kind of exciting to see the families in other vehicles, and the state guard there trying to keep everyone moving, sometimes bringing out a tank of gas to a stalled car. We eventually made it to a Red Cross Center and were given vouchers for a hotel. That was fun too, since I had never stayed in one before. There were lots of other kids like me enjoying the strange holiday from school.
Then I would catch a glimpse on TV of our coastline and some of the houses and get a bad feeling that I would never be able to go home. I was right. When it was safe to go back, we only found swamp where our neighborhood had been.
After seeing me off to the school bus stop, Dad would sometimes go down and chip mud off our roof or crack open the stuck windows in the hope that would dry out the house. He also made a game out of treasure hunting, promising to look for lost toys and bring back anything he could. I was young enough to appreciate every musty-haired Barbie or stuffed bunny or plastic ball, fascinated with their war-torn condition, even though each kid in the trailer park had been given a donated toy after the storm and again at Christmas. But I accepted my father’s finds as the gifts they were rather than as hard-won mementoes of my own lost childhood. He soaked all the toys in a bleach bucket. That would get the dankness out, but leave them covered in black spots.
Dad not only lost his home in the storm but also his job, at a factory that would never reopen. Maybe if he had abandoned his house-salvage project earlier or if we had progressed further through the rings of FEMA assistance, he would have found it possible to get back on his feet. As it was, he would waste hours landscaping around the trailer park or helping the volunteers to unload trucks, feeling better that way about receiving assistance, or hoping to advertise his usefulness among them and to come into a job that way.
Then he got sick, he said from all the chemicals in the trailer park, and before he could ever quite get back on his feet, the assistance had run out and we were being evicted.
I’m not sure of all the logistics, but I’ve never doubted that my Dad loved me and did everything he did out of concern for me. I know he fought to get us on a list for public housing with the Mississippi Regional Authority but was told that the federal funds had dried up and the wait list included over five thousand names. Then after he got sick,
he started talking with the volunteers about putting me into foster care, just until he got himself back on his feet. He probably pictured himself showing up at my new home soon with a new car and bundle of packages. I know he never foresaw a change like that becoming permanent; he just wanted me to have a house and a yard and a stable life.
So I eventually went to live with Mrs. McIntire, a widow, in her mansion in a brand new subdivision. And I started high school.
Twice a month, my dad drove out to visit. He still had the car, which would noisily announce its arrival and make Mrs. McIntire look doubtful, but I would hop in and try not to notice the lived-in smell it had, because it provided us the freedom of some father-daughter space. We would head to a state park and walk around, and Dad would always bring something to eat.
He could even become jocular, firing questions at me about school and Mrs. McIntire’s and looking mostly satisfied with my answers. Or teasing me about boys and being old enough to drive in a couple of years, and how the roads would no longer be safe for him. I tried to solicit information from him, whether he had found a new job yet, whether he was taking care of himself. Then he would become defensive or change the subject.
This went on for about four months. One day Dad didn’t show, but I got a call on a borrowed cell phone. He told me the car had broken down en route and he’d been forced to abandon it on the highway. He couldn’t afford a tow. But he was not too far from my area and said he’d think of something. He asked to speak to Mrs. McIntire, who agreed, under the circumstances, to a late visit that day. And my Dad did show up in person at the door, dirty and unkempt. Then we went on a walk around the subdivision. He made appreciative remarks about the neighborhood and its natural borders and became a little gruff only after I asked him what he intended to do.
That’s how he first came to be living in the woods near the Poplar Stream subdivision.
The neighborhood is gradually being hewed out of a no-man’s land on the edge of town. It really does live up to its name by having a stream that cuts through the middle and into a wooded area, past the gate, builder’s dumps, and honeysuckle vines.
Dad’s visits at the door stopped when Mrs. McIntire started to object. He had nowhere to take me, no car to drive me in, and there was nothing but highway connecting us to anywhere else. Perhaps Mrs. McIntire feared that she would eventually be forced to invite him in, but Dad himself seemed equally alarmed by that possibility and the questions which might ensue. Besides, he was Mrs. McIntire’s biggest fan, always singing her praises and reminding me how fortunate I was (though he didn’t really know her).
A couple of weeks later, he caught me when I was out in the back yard reading a book and motioned me over. He whispered that he was now living nearby—quite close—and that I should drop by and visit him when I could. I grew excited and tried to ask him where, but he hushed me, worried that Mrs. McIntire might catch us. Then he pointed toward the far line of pines and my heart fell.
After finishing the dishes that night, I excused myself to Mrs. McIntire and went out for a walk. I never went out past the edges of the subdivision. None of the neighbors ever did; actually, they rarely even walked down the block. They just commuted back and forth between their workplaces and McMansions and led comfortable lives indoors.
It was kind of eerie stepping into the woods alone. There were briars that were a little hard to see and fire ant mounds to avoid. Vines covered everything else.
I did not walk quietly, and as soon as I thought I was deep enough in, I tried calling softly, “Dad?”
Almost immediately I heard an equally soft, “Lissa Honey?”
A lanky figure emerged out of the wall of green and gave me a rare, embarrassed hug.
I saw Dad at least once a week after that. I told Mrs. McIntire I was taking up jogging, and she accepted this part of a teenage girl’s obsession with her appearance. She might have grown a bit suspicious, however, when at the same time my appetite seemed to increase, and leftover buns and cheese and fruit began to disappear. I tried to keep my thefts as petty as possible, and Dad was too proud to accept food that didn’t look like leftovers.
Building had started up again on the edges of Poplar Stream: Phase II.
“What will happen to you then?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “Might not reach this far. Or it might. I guess I may have to leave you for a while. See if the economy’s started to pick up.”
That was two years, three months ago. Driving school, tests and dissections, high school cliques–I survived them all, though without making a lot of friends. I often feel like an old lady hanging around Mrs. McIntire, her cats and her garden. Though she’s always been a gracious guardian, especially after Dad left, I sometimes feel resentful of her, too—not rich, but living in a house that could easily shelter a large family, and probably spending enough on cat food alone to feed several third-world kids. I know it’s not her fault. She was kind enough to take me in, much more than most would do.
Although it is the Deep South, it does get cold here in the winter and we have sudden squalls. When a flood hit our county this past summer, the Poplar Stream stream rose, flooding basements and knocking over trees in people’s yards. Of course I have lived through much worse. And I know that no act of God ever would or could separate me from my father. Only shame could do that. I wish we could banish shame forever along with port authorities, hurricanes, and gated communities.
I know that wherever my father sleeps, he is dreaming of our little bungalow in Gulfport. And he is always ready to get up at any time of night to bring me a glass of water or to comfort me from bad dreams.
M.V. Montgomery is a professor in the Atlanta area. He is the author of two recent collections of poetry, Strange Conveyances (Plain View Press) and Joshu Holds a Press Conference (Conversation Paperpress). His fiction will appear soon in Cafe Irreal, Weirdyear, and Two-Bit Magazine.