She created for Ronald a tiny, exquisitely textured world, like one of the snow globes that Walter brought home from sea. Ronald didn't cross a street on his own until first grade, and even then the known universe extended but a few blocks. She would send him as far as the dago's on Claiborne Avenue with a nickel for a stick of butter, but she'd spit on the floor and say, "That better not be dry when you get back." There was laundry to stomp in the bathtub and run through the wringer, a garden to hoe, chickens to feed, and always plenty of dishesLord help Ronald if he left them in the draining board. If word came up the street that he'd failed to say good morning to Mr. Butler or Miss Pie, Mama would send him out back to cut her an alder switch "as long as you are" and wear him out with it.
Dad passed when Ronald was eleven, and it was left to Mama to see to it he come up a man. She watched from the screen door the day husky Euliss Campbell came round to bully, and called Ronald inside. "Either you beat that boy," she said, "or I'll beat you." From that day on, Ronald was more likely to get a whipping for not fighting than for fighting; she'd rather have him bruised than fearful. As for the white world, she'd come home from doing day work for the white ladies a block away on Tennessee Street and tell him: Look how I do. I do their work, but I don't sing and dance for them.
Mama was only five feet tall but solid as brick, and she strode his world like a colossus. But on the night of September 9, 1965, Hurricane Betsy whipped in across the Lower Ninth Ward, and Ronald watched her confront something bigger than she was. They all huddled together on the couch, screaming to drown out the wind, feeling the shudder and crack of their wooden bungalow in their bones, keeping their eyes on the TV till the room went black and the picture shrank to a glowing pinpoint. Then came the pop and hiss of the oil lamp and its pale yellow halo. Larry banged through the front door, voice cracking, "Water in the street!" and a dark parabola emerged under the door and stretched across the living roomRonald would remember that as long as he lived. They crossed Deslonde Street, shoulder deep in inky black water, faces bent low to the stinging wind, and clawed their way up the steps to the Alexanders' second floor apartment. When Ronald awakened in the sunshiny calm of the morning and looked out the window, there was the roof of their home poking through a shimmering floor of green water and a family of mallards swimming calmly around it. Mama, sobbing on the Alexanders' sofa, looked to Ronald half her normal size.
The weeks after Betsy were a miasma of heat, discomfort, and irritating little injuries from exposed nail heads and sharp linoleum edges as the family struggled to set the house rightgobbling cold suppers on the porch, sitting hunched up on nail barrels. Mama never stopped moving, as though standing still would allow despair to reach up through the floorboards and drag her under. It was usually well past dark when she'd turn off the hissing oil lamp and they'd retreat across the canal to rented rooms at the Crescent Arms on Poland Avenue.
Lawless Junior High had flooded with the rest of the neighborhood, so Ronald spent most days riding around the ruins on the back of a city owned flatbed, loading up sodden furniture, fallen oak boughs, and floppy sheets of lath coated in wet plaster. The city paid him ten dollars a day, but he'd have done the work for free; it was better than hanging around the wrecked house, mining mulched clothes from the bottom of a closet, or pulling up wet carpet under Mama's grim stare. With no radio, the silence in the house was awful.
Ronald knew the people across the canal looked down on the Lower Ninth Ward, with its hogs and unpaved streets and its hodgepodge of square bungalows and skinny shotguns on brick stilts. It was as far downriveras far down the social ladderas you could go in New Orleans. That Betsy had broken only the levee into the Lower Ninth Ward had only confirmed the rest of the city's sense of superiority. Well, he told himself, we just got to live with that.
Excerpted from Nine Lives by Dan Baum Copyright © 2009 by Dan Baum. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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