Mercedes was a master at the art of the mercy fuck. She stared at the pictures on the nightstand during sex – the picture with her and Jeffery at the beach, smiling, arms locked, windswept hair so “JFK-and-Jackie like”, kneeling by a big heart written in the sand with the words: “Jeff + Merc 4 Ever” with the word “forever” written with the numeral “4”. The words in the sand had an etched out look, like a petroglyph. They sported ghostly smiles in the picture; ghostly in the way they seemed fleeting even in the hard stillness of a photograph.
After sex, Jeffery bounded up and began whistling like he had just designed a new Internet search algorithm; one that Google would purchase and one that would make him a multimillionaire. Software engineers were like that. They tended to whistle through the ecstasy of life as though it was something ordinary and Jeffery was more like this than your average software designer. The sublime was predictable, totally able to be planned for. Jeffery never let the sun set on an unaccomplished goal. To him, everything needed to resolve neatly, without fuss.
Mercedes reached for a cigarette that she had vowed to quit on many occasions, her torso intersected by the steep Southern California morning sun, her legs splayed across the bed; her arms open as though she was on a cross. She was naked and leaned her head over the edge of the bed to feel the blood rush to it. Jeffery’s lanky, hairless body and bony angled ass looked funny upside down. He was making coffee naked, except for a dishtowel over one shoulder. His long sideburns, tight curly hair – Mercedes noticed it all. She looked at him like he was a stranger, seeing him for the very first time. What was it she loved about him? She rubbed her temples as if that would help her remember. Mercedes smoked upside down staring out the long casement window next to their two-acre waterbed. The smoke spiraled up from the end of the cigarette but to Mercedes it appeared to go down.
“Punkin’ I got coffee brewing!”
She hated it when he called her “punkin’”. She hated that sing-song voice he used even more. He put up with her, no doubt about it - no other man would; she knew this. But still, she hated the pet names kind of relationship they had developed.
“Eggs! You need eggs,” Jeffery percolated. He wrapped himself in a robe but failed to close it. His muted brown penis hung out bordered by the brillo-like pubic hair that made Mercedes think of Groucho Marx. She wanted to yank it, give off a loud “honk” and go right into her best Groucho voice, “was that you or the duck?” but she resisted. Still, he could have at least tied the goddamn bathrobe.
“No eggs – just coffee – maybe just a splash of vodka?” It was a command dressed up as a question. Mercedes only recently started putting vodka in her coffee. She clicked the T.V on, still naked, still covered in the scent of his cologne. She still felt his whisker burns on her face. Moving the cigarette from hand to hand, like a juggler, alternating the T.V. remote and the cigarette she ran her other hand through her thick black hair. Some ash dropped onto the soft skin of her thighs and she brushed it off with a movement, as if a bug had landed on it, brushing with a panicked flail using the hand that held the remote. She mumbled expletives in the direction of her lap. Jeffery brought over coffee and the two just stared at the large screen plasma T.V.
Jeffery looked outside and thought about going for a run. He wondered if he should even bother to ask Mercedes if she wanted to go. All she wanted to do was sit wrapped up in her Frette sheets, spin up some daiquiris, eat handfuls of Froot Loops and watch cartoons. She leaned on the channel changer like it was the accelerator pedal of a car. The channels blurred as Jeffery came out of the shower, scrubbing his short, nappy hair with a towel.
“How can you possibly tell what you are surfing through?” He shook his head. He was annoyed but in that typically passive-aggressive manner that left him some protection if she lashed back at him. He hated to fight, she knew this about Jeffery, but she just didn’t care enough. She shrugged her shoulders and stopped on the Weather Channel. She had a passing thought, like a weather front that moved from the northwest of her brain to the east, following the trade winds of her discontent. “Maybe I should just have an affair,” she considered. An affair was such a cliché and Mercedes hated clichés more than living with Jeffery.
Jeffery walked into the bedroom to get dressed as Mercedes’ eyes followed him. What was she thinking? She wanted to slap herself. Here was this wildly successful software engineer: straight, smart, handsome, non-abusive, monogamous (as far as she could tell) with no “mommy-issues” and she wanted out. Mercedes twisted the idea in her head like it was a Rubic’s Cube, trying to make all the colors line up. Her life was enviable, in her gated community, with her gated friends, attending the requisite gated social events. Wasn’t this everything every woman wanted: commitment and freedom? She could be maternal and have a child if she wanted. She knew Jeffery wanted one. He would be supportive too. She could have the mini-van with the soccer ball bumper sticker and the leather satchel with full access to the corporate boardroom; all with a partner who would not feel threatened by this; with a partner who would break his balls to see that she got whatever it was that made her happy. Still, she wanted so much to push him off the balcony of their home when he stepped outside to check on the potted flowers.
The thought of leaving Jeffery intrigued her so that she could not put it down. The obsession with the thought grew with unexpected stealth deep within Mercedes.
Meanwhile, some thirty five hundred miles to the east, over the Caribbean, about 175 miles southeast off the coast of Nassau in the Bahamas and well off the coast of a tiny hamlet in Florida called Hallandale Beach, tropical depression number ten died an unobserved death. It brought wind and rain to the coast of Florida and the Carolinas. It toppled trees and dumped a small ocean of rain onto Dade County, Florida. Its death gave birth to tropical depression number twelve. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had very strict rules about how these things were named and numbered. From the remnants of tropical depression number 10 – named Ivan - tropical depression number 12 would resurrect itself as a new storm. As the winds gathered, churlish green waters below it swelled with seismic rhythm, suckling the warmer water below like a breast-feeding baby. As this happened, the depression began to amass corporeality.
Mercedes lived in LA all of her life but she never dated men with the intensity of waves like these. She might someday have an affair with some force of nature but she would never meet the kind of gray clouds, which now took shape over these waters; waters that now glowered with sterile lust at the small town of Hallandale Beach, Florida. By the following day, this bastard child of tropical storm Ivan had consumed enough warm water and heat to be renamed by NOAA as tropical storm Katrina. Then like a sleepy infant struggling to clear her eyes for her first view of the world around her, hoping to be part of Jeffery and Mercedes’ world, hoping to make an impact, hoping to change things – Katrina popped open that one clear, round, perfectly formed eye: it was haunting and full of fury. Even from the satellite pictures at NOAA, you could see this. Storm trackers there also saw the eye and dutifully upgraded the nomenclature: she was now hurricane Katrina. A technician at NOAA stared at the photo and for reasons even he could not have verbalized, felt compelled to reach down and touch it.
Hallandale Beach, Florida braced for a category 1 hurricane as Katrina cut her teeth on these hurricane veterans. The people of Hallandale Beach would later remark how there was something different about this hurricane when it hit them, before it moved on, before it bloated, feasting on vast amounts ninety-degree water from the Loop Current of the Gulf. She picked up objects, got bored with them and then tossed them aside for something else to keep her interest, just as Mercedes tossed things around later that evening while looking for something to wear before she went out to dinner with Jeffery’s friends. Picking up the wrong shoes and then throwing them away in an un-categorical rage: “Fuck him – Fuck him!” The warm waters swirled in Mercedes.
Katrina leaned hard on the folks of Hallandale Beach but it took a lot out of her. Her rage apparently spent, they believed she would go gently into that good night but no one – not a single person - ever suspected the kind of anger that would “rage against the dying of the light” that was coagulating within Katrina.
Did hurricanes possess souls? Did they share some sort of atmospheric consciousness? Was Katrina lashing out? Would she settle for a gated kind of life? Did Katrina regret things? And is it possible – just possible – for a hurricane to be a malevolent force, just to assert her willfulness in the chaotic world of meteorology? Katrina knocked back a couple of tequilas and had an itch for a handful of Froot Loops. She figured, what the fuck and changed direction from the certain death of due north over land and decided instead to skim off the circumcised tip of the Florida peninsula, westward out over the gulf. Here, the Gulf bathwater was like cocaine to a hurricane. It made Katrina feel invincible. It made her believe that she could live out her dream of traveling north, over land. She would be the first, she thought flush with warm winds and water. She would march that perfectly cold eye straight up the Mississippi River to Minnesota where this goddamn river starts and show them all what a hurricane can really do.
On that Saturday evening after dinner, Mercedes just wanted to watch T.V. Jeffery had drunk too much red wine and designer microbrew beer at dinner. He would probably ask for sex tonight for sure. The idea turned her stomach turn sour. Jeffrey flopped down face first onto the bed and snored a flatulent tone that made Mercedes bury herself deeper into the double wide armchair. She turned on the Weather Channel and by this time the hurricane was the only story they were playing over and over as if on a tape loop: the same stories of the same interviews with the same experts using the same stock footage ad nauseam. Mercedes watched the large, red, circular blotch on the weather map consume what once was the gulf region of the United States. Katrina was maybe a day from landfall but the deep, red, orbital motion of the storm on the weather map, first forward then backward, with that clear funnel-like eye that looked so reasonable, just mesmerized her.
Meteorology today is more of an actuarial art than a real hard science. Statistics, probability and interpreting computer models are the skills required of a meteorologist. The capacity for intuitive thinking might be of more value. The best meteorologists sense things about storms that aren’t necessarily laid out in a chart of computer model. Training to be a meteorologist requires a college degree in one of the physical sciences or mathematics. Specialists sometimes focus on studying weather for agricultural or urban areas. Some chase tornados for the adrenaline rush and the fact that it these are phenomena of which we know so little. Still, others choose to study hurricanes. The slow unfolding of events convinced Mercedes that no college course could prepare the residents of the Gulf for what was about to happen. Nothing in any course catalog could prevent the tracking of Jeffery and Mercedes’ path.
Two hundred and fifty miles later, Katrina decided to take matters into her own hands. Off the coast of the mouth of the Mississippi River, Katrina ballooned into a category 5 hurricane with winds exceeding 175 miles per hour and gusts of over 200 miles per hour. When Mercedes tried to imagine something that powerful, a part of her sank further into the chair, all coiled up in the sheets.
New Orleans was a city built below sea level. Mercedes really knew nothing about this but it was quickly becoming a widely known fact. The truth is, most people probably knew this at one point or another, but this forgotten fact was now being pushed at 175 miles per hour to the forefront of everyone’s brain. She knew nothing about how hurricanes worked or about levees or sea walls. She remembered after 9/11 how they talked about the sea wall in lower Manhattan being damaged and what would have happened had it given way. Living by the ocean she knew about storms and water but could not imagine the type of flooding that Katrina would bring. She knew about how to protect things though: her heart had levees all around it, to protect her from the sadness of her life, to protect the thriving space that was now building up in her like a tropical depression. She had never been to New Orleans, but the barometer of her soul told her there was hurt heading that way.
She turned the sound off and watched the T.V. long into the morning. Grabbing a couple of beers out of the refrigerator, she popped them open and tilted her head back to drink without taking her eyes off the screen. Katrina filled up the screen now appearing on the weather map redder than a Simi Valley sunset. She felt herself get angrier and while there was no causality between her anger and this storm, somehow Mercedes knew what was about to happen down in the gulf.
Hurricanes are measured in barometric gradients of pressure. The lower the pressure, the more intense the storm. They are usually measured in the height in millibars of mercury that fills a small tube marking atmospheric air pressure. In 1935 before they started naming storms, a hurricane hit the Florida Keys that was rated as the most intense storm ever, baring barometric teeth of 892 millibars. There was Camille at 909 millibars, then Andrew at 922. There was another unnamed storm in Texas in 1919 that achieved a nadir of 927 millibars. In a country that prides itself on top ten lists, Katrina was fast approaching her trough barometric pressure of 902 millibars making her very nearly the most intense hurricane in recorded history. This turned Katrina into the subject of historical, ecological and physical study all at once. Katrina wore this fact like a badge of honor as she eyed the mouth of the Mississippi with a spreading hunger just like the one spreading through Mercedes’ own body.
There is some argument as to whether or not global warming has affected the number and violence of these storms in recent years. Many scientists intuit that since warmer waters are needed to give rise to these storms, it seems only reasonable that there is some sort of connection between gradually warming oceans and these monster storms. But hurricanes serve a purpose too. They redistribute atmospheric heat from the lower latitudes to the upper ones, essentially balancing the global air temperature around the world. It is the Corialis Effect – the rotation of the earth – that gives the hurricane that first twist, that starts sending the air spiraling around and around giving it such great power. The spinning pulls water up from below and when fed by the stream of water that travels through the Gulf of Mexico known as the Loop Current, this water evaporates. Evaporation creates heat and energy and the winds that now threaten the coastal gulf – the same winds that threatened Jeffery as he slept.
Over the next few days the papers and T.V. would repeat the lessons about the physics of hurricanes over and over again. Learning this earth science was unavoidable. The T.V. news was filling every second of dead air with experts to explain the physics of the whirling disaster about to hit.
When Katrina did make landfall early that Monday morning, Mercedes had a dream that it was a half dog, half woman creature with long spiky hair, obese with a protruding soft belly. The eye was hollow and stood out even in her dream. She imagined Katrina throwing her corpulent body around like a beach ball onto the defenseless shores of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. First she would knock over boats small structures and then old firmly rooted trees but then the storm surge tossed about riverboat casinos like they were made of styrofoam. Katrina’s body gathered the storm surge in her ample lap as she waded ashore, loosening a shrill scream; making a sound something like a knife tearing through bed sheets. She watched Katrina’s elbows pointed upwards, as she hoisted the rest of her ugly body onto shore.
When she woke and after the worst of the storm passed, Mercedes sat and watched the dreadful aftermath play out on T.V. She watched the human disaster uncoil like a snake. It happened glacially.
She tuned into CNN and the Weather Channel. She sketched the image from her dream. She penciled in the awful details: the hollow eye, the thin arms, the large body and beneath it she scribbled in psychotic jagged script the word “Katrina – 2005”. Jeffery took one look at it and whistled. “Christ, Merc - this is fucking creepy,” and tossed it onto the coffee table. Mercedes hadn’t been to work for two days now. She had been sitting in front of the T.V. for four days. Jeffery was one part worried and another part angry. Mercedes said nothing of any real significance to him in all this time. Communication was reduced to what was needed to be said: things relating to food and water and excreting – the sort of stuff necessary for survival. He ate at the table while she carried her food back to the couch and T.V. and watched the gulf events.
The buzz from the T.V. drowned Jeffery out. He became background noise in Mercedes’ life. New Orleans was sinking – Mercedes could see this. What she could not see was how she was sinking. Nothing in her could be measured, plotted or forecast in a computer model. The desperation was becoming part of normal life.
When Katrina finally left the region, laughing haughtily on her way north to her eventual death, the levees gave way and Mercedes watched the surreal sights of roofs with no houses, car tops with no cars. Streets became rivers and street signs marked no boulevards or roads rather became ways into a toxic misery. The effluent backfilled into this bowl of poverty - for this is what New Orleans had become – a festering bowl of the miserable.
What happened next could not have been forecast.
During a CNN story, a camera panned the devastation of the flooded Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The faces were desperate and black. Many would not leave their homes, and some drowned in their attics as they frantically sought to avert the rising waters by rushing up to the attic. This must be high enough, they thought. Just like Mercedes, who sought refuge from her life with Jeffery, they suffocated. The camera paused for one moment on the face of a young black man, waist high in sludge water, no tee shirt; his high cheeks pulled the black skin of his face smooth. His eyes were the deepest black, two subfusc jewels set deep in the man’s head. While his close shaved head and three-day growth made the man look feral, the scared look in his eyes made him all too human. Mercedes sat up when she saw the close up of this face. It was only a few seconds, but it seared an after image into Mercedes’ brain more detailed and more intense than these weather maps. His wide nostrils flared; a desperate look beamed out from his face like a lighthouse both waving and warning at once. It was a profile in loss. The pictures traveled through the air, bounced off the satellites used by CNN’s camera trucks and made their way into Mercedes’ home. This man somehow spoke directly to Mercedes. She heard the voice in the face of this young black man who wore his loss like one of those bright orange Coast Guard collars used to pull stranded evacuees off the tops of submerged houses into helicopters.
When Jeffery arrived home from work that evening, Mercedes was locked in the bedroom. He tried the door and when it was locked he asked for her. When no sound came back, he grew worried. He was set to break the door in, but he didn’t really know if he could do such a thing. He saw them do that on T.V. once, and he figured he could try it. In his head, he carefully balanced the doubt in his ability to be protective with his concern for Mercedes. When the door opened, Mercedes stepped out now dressed in jeans and a white tee shirt. She seemed so plain dressed this way. He could see she’d been crying. She held her hand up as he started to speak, trying to force the words he was going to speak back into his mouth.
“I’m leaving Jeffery,” was all she said. “I have to leave.”
She stuttered. The moments between each word seem like a century to Jeffery. His head was spinning. Nothing seemed real to him right now. Not what Mercedes was saying and not what he was able to understand.
“Where are you going?” was all he could say. “What will you do? Why are you doing this?” These were all valid questions and Mercedes knew it/
“I don’t know Jeffery. I just don’t!” She had no plan, she was opening the gates and was prepared to operate from outside for a change. This was territory she felt drawn to but still uncomfortable in, like wearing oversized rain gear it felt safe but terribly troublesome at the same time.
“ I have to find someone,” was how she finished it. Like a gust of wind knocking over a 100-year old tree. It came and went completely unpredicted and now Jeffery was feeling the blow. What could Jeffery say? He spit out his words, biting them off like beef jerky. But nothing could be done. Or rather, it already had been done. All that was left was the moving out.
Jonathon Swift wrote that you cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place. Mercedes was gone just like that: just like Katrina, and the damage left behind was just as encompassing.
Mercedes was heading to the gulf now. The face that haunted her tugged at her to go down there; something told her to go. She decided in that deep place inside that she would burn down her life for the few good things left in her. That unknown black man could be dead. She had no idea how or even where to look for him, but she would start, for that is one thing Katrina did bring in full supply: beginnings. She had no idea what she would do if she found him.
In the center of that twisting eye of the storm was the calm that Mercedes sought: she had lost things over the years – she knew this now. Things were falling apart. Her center was not holding at all. Slouching now in the direction of New Orleans, great and terrible things were waiting for her beneath the water, the mud and the toxic slime left by Katrina.
In the spirit of loss everything would be negotiable too. She would travel to New Orleans and look for this man and she knew full well why she was doing this. She could just never in a million years explain it to anyone else.
-- M C Biegner