The call I never expected
would actually come came at 4:32 one Tuesday morning. I hung up and went to the closet for
my bag. It had been in there, packed, for well over six years. Karyn sat propped in bed
watching, eyes huge. She knew what this meant, and not to ask more. "I'll call when I
can," I said. After a moment, the space between us growing ever larger all the while,
she nodded. Half an hour later I was in a military helicopter thwacking its way out of the
city over rivers and inlets and down the coastline. There were four of us aboard. The
pilot had a scrubbed, pink, midwestern look about him. You could have impaled olives on
his brush cut.
"So you're one of the doctors."
I wasn't, I was a nurse with some very special
training who with the phone's first ring had gone from being one among thousands of
faceless health-care workers -- in my case, taking care of terminal cancer patients,
children mostly -- to Authority. But those who trained us down in Virginia taught us that
people were happier thinking what they wanted to think and it was to our advantage to let
them do so, so I nodded.
Outside Washington we joined a dozen or so others and
enplaned for the long haul. Boxed chicken lunches and sacks of little bottles of booze
were passed around. Cans of beer in a full-size refrigerator and fresh-brewed coffee in an
urn half as large waited our beck and call, we were told. A few had brought books: Forensics
for the General Practitioner, Getting Along with Heart Disease, a Tom Clancy
thriller, a novel whose bright white teeth and drops of blood looked as though they might
slide off the slick cover into the reader's lap at any moment. The rest of us sat staring
into space, minds as full as expressions were empty. I found some back corner of my brain
providing words for the music playing quietly over the sound system.
Since you went away, the days grow long....
Our training was as
specific as it was thorough. Four, five doctors in the whole country might be able to
identify, say, bubonic plague if they saw it. But every last one of us would immediately
recognize signs and symptoms of anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, Ebola and half a dozen others.
Incubation times, vectors, previous outbreaks or occurrences, possible vaccines and
treatments were engraved in the very folds of our brains. We came on the scene, it got
handed over to us, baby, bath water and all. Local police and officials, medical
personnel, military -- everyone deferred.
I'd been in New Orleans a couple of times before, once
back around century's end with Karyn for the Jazz Festival, once during training. The
country's sole remaining leprosarium was in Louisiana, and instructors brought us down to
see things firsthand. The city had always looked ancient, blasted, and at first there
seemed little difference: abandoned, half-gutted buildings, heaps of trash, mattresses and
dead animals at curbside. Then you realized almost no one was on the streets.
Military trucks carted us in from the city's outskirts
along water's edge to Camp Alpha. Off to each side all the way, close by and in the middle
distance, black smoke rose from fires. The few civilian vehicles we encountered pulled off
the road to let us pass. The city had become a patchwork of camps, this the largest of
them, acre upon acre of tents, lean-tos and sheds running over the low wall right up to
Lake Ponchartrain and back onto what had long been the city's dearest real estate.
Officials had set up HQ in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was bone white, a
thing of curves, and looked like a huge ship, complete with foredeck, gone aground among
trees. Autodidact James K. Feibleman, a millionaire without formal training or degree
who'd become head of Tulane's philosophy department, had lived here, as had writer wife
Shirley Ann Grau and writer son Peter. Tulane's campus, meanwhile, along with that of
Loyola and adjoining Audubon Park with its hundred-year-old water oaks, had become another
sprawling tent city.
Briefing took place in what was once the kitchen of
Feibleman's home. Dozens of folding chairs had butts holding them down. The rest of us
spilled out, sitting, standing, propped against walls, through sliding doors onto the
patio as Dr. Fachid Ramadan, all four-feet-six of him, bustled to the room's front, by the
monolith of the refrigerator's stainless-steel door.
"We do not know what it is," he said without
preamble, eyes large as globes behind thick eyeglasses, "though of course we are
hoping all of you will be able to help us with this." His phrases had an intrinsic
rhythm to them, a quiet rise and fall, as though he were reading poetry. "This could
scarcely be more confusing, more difficult to get a handle on. Yes -- as I know many of
you are about to ask -- at this point we are assuming a seeding. Undifferentiated
flulike symptoms at first. Slow gather, sudden crash. By the time you admit that you and
loved ones are sick, it is too late." He went on to detail our small fund of actual
information, providing a long, intricate list of possible signs and symptoms, a checklist
of similarities and divergence from disease processes with which we were all familiar.
Poorly spelled and unchecked in the rush, copies of the lists floated onto a projector
screen behind him as he spoke.
I held up my hand:
"We do not know. Not airborne -- we are fairly
certain of this. Direct contact, bodily fluids. Insects have yet to be ruled out. A
handful of cases may be traceable to rodents. Squirrels, nutria."
"Staff?" I asked.
"None yet. But we barely have our feet in the
door. I was on site in Malaysia, was fetched by Air Force officials and flown here. This
was forty-six hours ago. I have been a stranger to pillows since. We have no idea what the
incubation period might be."
First rule: Expect the worst.
And we did -- though ultimately expectation and
imagination proved as unequal to the challenge as did our knowledge.
Having gone through the program together and been for
the duration propinquitous friends, despite a dozen or so dinners and wine-soft evenings
in the mix, Sara Freedman and I had little reason ever to anticipate seeing one another
again. Now we walked along the river's slow curve carrying kebobs bought from street
vendors where Café du Monde used to be and a bottle of Chilean Merlot. Carrying lots of
things. And talking with a freedom and absolute lack of self-consciousness I thought left
behind forever, shed skin of adolescence, telling one another secrets, fears.
"Not a good idea under the circumstances," I
remarked when Sara dangled feet, sandals and all, in the water. But when she pointed out
that every day we were smack among the actual as opposed to the theoretical, I relented,
"This river used to be filled with boats," I
said. "Coming in from the Gulf, heading up to Natchez and Memphis and St. Louis. For
three hundred years."
No boats now. Only trash, dead fish, bloated human
bodies. They floated, careened spinning from bank to bank, lazily, as though in a dream.
"I don't think the word change covers
what's happening now."
"Maybe nothing does."
It was fall -- have I mentioned that? Leaves gone
crimson and gold on the trees even this far south. I hungered for New England autumns,
feet shuffling through layers of ankle-deep leaves. Our bodies have those same changes as
voids within them, waiting.
"I've thought of you, you know," Sara said.
"Often, and fondly."
I passed her a kebob. A chunk of cucumber. Levered out
the cork and poured wine into plastic cups. We sat without speaking. At water's edge, a
line of ants methodically dismembered a sphinx moth's body and carried it off. Two others,
one pushing, one pulling, steadily moved along a chunk of celery easily twenty times their
size. Stew for dinner?
Maybe it was their time now.
We'd lost a dozen or more the night before. Toward
dawn I was awakened by one of the nurses, knowing as I opened my eyes that it wasn't yet
daylight, knowing little else. I'd been asleep just under two hours, she told me, and she
was sorry, but the boy was having trouble breathing. The boy was nineteen. We'd watched
other members of his department go down one by one, till he was the only one remaining, de
facto sheriff. Terror in his eyes. Just past dawn, the terror passed as he joined the
Later that night, both sleepless, Sara and I wandered
at the same time into the kitchen. Without speaking she turned and leaned across the
counter. I pulled down her shorts just far enough, ground into her soundlessly from behind
as she watched our single shadow on the wall, but could not stay hard. Around us
everywhere the cries and moans of those in our care.
Two months later I'd fly out by copter, hauled above
and across the dead city by the machine's brute force, New Orleans now like nothing so
much as the still, crumbling husk of an insect. I'd remember how, as I came here on the
plane, Autumn Leaves was playing: Since you went away... In memory, in the
weeks I had left, Sara's face would look up at me again and again as she struggled for
breath, and again and again I'd place a hand on hers. I never called Karyn. She was gone
by the time I got back. Gone like Sara.
That morning in the copter I would remember an old
song by Woodie Guthrie, something I'd not thought of in twenty years. Field workers had
been brought in from Mexico and, their job done, put on a plane to be sent back. But the
plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon.
Who are these friends who are falling like dry
The radio says they're just deportees.
We're all itinerants, shipped in, trucked away once
the work's done. Dry leaves. Autumn leaves. Everything leaves. Everything leaves,
everything changes. Treasure the margins while they last, treasure everything that sinks
into the blur, treasure it all.
Treasure it all.