The car and everything in it radiates a dull, sick heat. Neither my aunt nor I have put on our seatbelts yet because they are too hot to touch. She drives with a damp towel over the steering wheel and I sit on mine to protect my sun-bitten legs from the seething leather. I’m still in my swimsuit and we are tired. We’ve spent most of the day at a water park outside of St. Louis. In the wave pool I saw a pretty, stern lifeguard pull a child out of the water from between two inner-tubes where he’d gotten stuck like a seal below ice. I think next summer I will become a lifeguard. I don’t know yet that next summer, the summer of the first flood—this one distant, more of a nuisance because of road closures than a reality—my parents will announce their separation and my father will leave. I am thinking on that small, tanned arm stuck up between the rubber floats, how the lifeguard grabbed and yanked it so fast, how the boy hung, shimmering above the pool for just a moment and how the lifeguard paused, surprised, as if she’d just pulled a rabbit out of a hat. I am thinking how I would like to know that kind of magic when my aunt points to an overgrown patch of forest along the highway. “Time’s Beach” she says, and already the name has a cloudy cast to it. “That’s the place where the town dumped agent orange all over the streets. They didn’t know the mixture was toxic. Kids started getting cancer. They ended up bulldozing the whole place. Worst environmental disaster in Missouri history.”
I look back at the wild copse of trees we have just passed and imagine a disaster like Vesuvius, lesion-riddled citizens suddenly buried alive by the dirt pouring over them from giant bulldozer buckets. That night, I will dream of an orange ocean beach littered with bones. I will see a small, tanned boy wade out into the boiling water and I will not follow him in.
I grab dresses, pants, shirts and jackets off of hangers. I grab shoes. I try to remember to grab both shoes, the pair, each time. I don’t know yet how many complete pairs make it into the garbage bags we are stuffing in my mother and stepfather’s humid bedroom. I don’t even know how many garbage bags make it out with us on the boat. They disappear down the fireline of neighbors and relatives posted down the stairs and standing in the living room, where the water is threatening to creep past the tops of their waders. The waters are rising very fast now, and another storm has started to whip the pontoon boat around the porch railing, where it’s tied and anchored.
It’s June in Iowa City following a wet spring and record snow melts to the north. Though we’d been preparing for a flood, suddenly it seems this flood will be much worse than predicted. My mother’s on vacation with some girlfriends in Florida and I’m living downtown, six miles away, far above the flood plain, enmeshed in the same tiny dramas as everyone else: a job I don’t like, a relationship in wane.
My stepdad’s been monitoring the daily news from the Army Corps of Engineers. Floods are part of river life. He hears two feet and thinks, Hell, I’m built up four. He hears four feet and thinks, So the garage will take a little water. Then the evacuations begin and no one wants to say how bad it might get. Iowans are slow to panic, which turns out to be a problem. When Mom finally returns, the only way to their house is by boat.
My mother sits on her bed picking through her jewelry drawer in the black lacquer bedside table my stepdad, Jim, had bought because it reminded him of the furniture he’d seen in southeast Asia, when he was a Navy cook in Vietnam. She looks up at me and says, “I don’t know.”
I take the drawer out of the dresser, wrap it in a garbage bag and pass it to a cousin who is waiting on the stairs. “Don’t tip it,” I say. Jim shouts from below. It’s time to go. My mom hears him and says, “Towels.” And then she is in the bathroom, pawing through the bathroom cabinets. He shouts again and she comes out with a ten-dollar hairdryer and a washcloth and a half-empty bottle of hand soap.
Neither of us look back to see if we’ve left anything important because of course we have. It’s like the opposite of checking out of a hotel room. Almost everything we’ve left is important, somehow. Right now, we’re just trying to snag clothes and bedding and anything else my mom and Jim will need to set up a temporary home elsewhere until the waters recede.
In a few more minutes, a storm will be over us and the waters that overflowed the riverbanks will be too difficult to navigate with the small pontoon motor. All too easily, we might be swept downstream and dumped over the dam, a typical scenario which kills boaters every year in good weather. In the living room downstairs, Jim is shoving wine bottles into milk crates. He is very tall. He has a gray beard and large hands. His hands are too big for slotting the wine bottles into the space available in the crates. He sticks a bottle in a back pocket of his workpants and stacks two crates on top of each other. They must be heavy but he lifts them like toys. Tools from his workshop are piled up on the kitchen counter—a sandblaster, a jigsaw, a few sharp and rusted things I can’t even guess at. The kitchen looks like the operating room of a mad surgeon.
I see through the living room window that everyone else is back on the boat, perched on top of the few pieces of furniture they could drag out through the water. The house is almost unbearably humid and it stinks like fish and sewage. There’s a distant metallic tang. It will smell even worse when the water is gone. We have to jump from the porch onto the boat, which has begun to crawl downstream, despite the motor, despite the anchor, pulling the rope tight. No one looks back. Jim steps to the helm—a reticent captain. I know he wants to stay there in the house he built. I know he would if he thought we would let him.
These are some things we didn’t take with us: my mother’s piano, which had been her mother’s, and her grandmother’s before her; my grandfather’s ice chest from the farm, which he used until the horse-drawn ice carts gave way to mail-order refrigerators from Sears and Roebuck; twelve family photo albums, ten Snow Villages, high school graduation tassels, birth certificates, crayoned drawings of a long-lost nuclear family, with dog—twenty years of pieces and papers. The junkyard trail of a family, of all those lives.
My sister and her husband, Mark, hold out for three more days. When I get to the river, I don’t know it’s them at first. At first, they’re a small red speck in the distance. They could be DNR or a sheriff or the media or high-ground gawkers. But as their canoe gets closer I can make out their tired faces. They slide with a crunch onto the asphalt of the gravel road-turned-boat ramp and splash out, unceremoniously, in their waders. I say hi and give then both a hug. Though they have called me here to help them load and move the boxes they’ve ferried from their house by canoe, my sister, Jen, won’t meet my eyes. She is upset, partly with me, because I don’t live on the river. I am not watching the water gobble my home before my eyes. The cat carriers shift slightly in the bottom of the canoe, beside the last box from their apartment.
“We were on the news last night for being the last out,” Jen says. “I thought we should try to stay on the top floor through all this, but Mark said he heard you can get e. coli in your lungs just from the air.” They live down the street from my mom and stepdad, on the second floor of their building. They had bought a canoe and decided to wait out the crest.
“Come stay at my place. You can stay as long as you want,” I say.
“Well…but the cats,” she says, meaning that they may not get along well with my two pet rabbits. I look at Mark. “I thought you were taking the cats up to our uncle’s farm for the summer?” Now he won’t meet my eyes.
“They’re all we have right now. I am not splitting up my family because of this fucking flood!” My sister, spitting mad now. Normally I would tease her about her excess of love for her cats. Instead, I say, “Mom and Jim called and said they can get cots into their motel room if you want to stay with them.”
“We saw one of Jim’s cookbooks in a tree,” she says.
“Did you get it?”
“The current was too strong. He wouldn’t want it anyway. Not if it smells like this,” my sister pauses and looks at her husband who responds in his usual monotone: “Like pure, unadulterated evil.”
It’s the first time I’ve seen her smile since the flooding started. A few days later, she has a mild nervous breakdown and checks herself into the hospital.
I have left work to help my mom put things in storage, and for a few days, I just don’t go back. When I finally call my supervisor, I tell him I’m aiding with recovery and clean-up, although the water is still too high to do either of these things. Instead, I carry damp boxes to a storage shed for a couple of hours, then retreat to my bed, to my high-ground apartment, and watch terrible movies, like “27 Dresses.” And there, suddenly, briefly on screen, is my mother’s wedding dress: the beautiful silk and satin bell-sleeved wedding dress my grandmother had hand-sewn for my mother’s wedding in 1968. The famous story about how my grandfather had carelessly and accidentally drawn a foot-long line of ink on it during the last fitting, the night before the wedding. How my grandmother had stayed up half the night trying to get it clean. She had succeeded. The dress was beautiful, timeless. My mother had saved it for me—even gently put off my little sister three years ago before her wedding. I imagined it now, emerged from its cedar trunk, flailing like seaweed and muddied by the brown waters of the Iowa River.
When the dress appears again on screen, I see it’s nothing like my mother’s wedding dress. I watch the rest of the movie but don’t remember it. I fall asleep for fourteen hours. For three days, I continue to sleep a lot and don’t make myself available for any form of assisting. The water has crested, but it has also only just begun to recede.
Then I’m back at work, where my presence is minimally useful, and therefore I am on the Internet. I don’t want to read anymore about this disaster. I want to read about another, worse disaster, one similar in scale.
I find the EPA website:
The 1-square mile Times Beach site is located 20 miles southwest of St. Louis. The site is a formerly incorporated city whose road system was sprayed with waste oil for dust control in the early 1970s. The oil later was found to be contaminated with dioxin during an investigation by the EPA in 1982. During the same period, the nearby Meramec River flooded the city, and residents were forced to evacuate their homes.
In 1997, cleanup of the site had been completed. The site was restored to a State Park that opened in 1999. Most of the site lies within the 25-year flood plain of the Meramec River.
The EPA site says nothing of the bulldozing or the cancer. I think about visiting the state park, located along old Route 66, just to see—it’s not that far. Eventually, I will begin to write this essay and then I will feel some sort of journalistic or essayistic responsibility to see Times Beach. You can’t just talk about it tangentially, like it’s a footnote to your flood. Like it’s even related at all. But still I resist. There is something so nightmarish in the childhood memory of my aunt’s story, in the way Times Beach gets tangled up with that other, earlier flood—when we lived on higher ground—and my parents’ divorce. Maybe even the doggy pant of my burgeoning teenagerdom. Times Beach has become a personal myth. To visit the park, landscaped, well-groomed…All that nothing that’s there now would make it very easy to forget the horror of what happened. Instead, I want to preserve it as a chemical fairy tale, a warning. Go into the woods alone and the witch will eat you.
I watch everyone live through this flood. That’s the difference. There is no lesson. Just damage and damage and damage.
The Mennonites come—tall, strong-boned young men in overalls and flat straw hats. They drink Mountain Dew by the case, and when they run out, Jim runs back into town for more. He is glad to have something to do that doesn’t involve watching strangers rip apart the home he’d rebuilt himself after the last flood in 1993, before he’d met my mom. That first time he’d loaded up the pontoon too, put all his tools and wine under a tarp and hoped his knots would hold. Hoped for no more rain. The flooding was slower that time. He’d had the luxury of making decisions. The Mennonite Disaster Service had come then too, had moved with quiet purpose among the confused and the grieving. I watch them. They seem to need neither answer nor direction. They show up. They get to work.
The house has already been stripped to the studs and bleached by the men when the women Mennonites come in. It is their job to pick through the mud and find anything that might be important or salvageable. They scuff through the toxic gray sludge like diviners. One of them hands me a small painted porcelain cow. She has rinsed it off, but mud still clings to it and it smells like shit. It was my grandmother’s. I haven’t seen it since she died. For a moment I think somehow the river has swept it down here from the family farm, a hundred miles away. The woman doesn’t say anything, so I take the cow, afraid it will break apart in my hands. When I get back to my apartment that night, I take a bath and wash the cow in the bathtub with me. I rub it softly with a washcloth. I never tell my mother that I have it.
We are lucky—that’s the refrain. Just 23 miles away, the city of Cedar Rapids has been swallowed whole by the river. They say Columbus Junction is gone.
Four weeks after the crest, the water starts to recede.
Mom and Jim find an apartment and a contractor.
My uncle is diagnosed with prostate cancer that has spread to his bones.
My sister and her husband stop going to work.
I continue to live my guilty high-ground life of excess sleep and bad movies. I spend less and less time with the person I tentatively refer to as my boyfriend.
It’s just one of those things that happens.
“We’re all still here,” my mom says.
“Shut up!” I think.
Times Beach, Mo.–1985 (AP) All but one elderly couple, who are seeking more money for their home, have left the town, which had 2,242 residents three years ago.
Floods linger. They are not tornadoes or earthquakes. They ruin everything and then they stick around. The weeks after the day on the pontoon and the crest shortly after that are hazy at best. In August, I visit my mom and Jim at their apartment. Mom cracks jokes. Jim disappears outside to smoke and doesn’t return while I’m there. Mom calls the next day.
“He’s moved into the Honey,” she says. She means Jim. She means the ancient RV they’d bought together last year in anticipation of her retirement.
“Where’s it parked?” I ask.
“Down there. Above the water line.”
After work I drive to the river road. The water’s gone back to the banks. Everything is still covered in mud. I wonder when it will stop being that way. Jim’s at work, but the Honey is parked on the hill. There is a view of the house and the settling river beyond it. There are three empty wine bottles sitting on the aluminum step to the back door of the RV. I don’t know what I’m there to see, so I drive past the Honey, down to the road—what road there is—and into the driveway, afraid, the whole time, that I’ll get stuck in the mud. I don’t go into the house, which is just a frame now anyway. Instead, I make my way to the back porch, where a refrigerator tilts against the siding, waiting for salvage. It’s another cloudy day, hot and humid as hell. There is no lawn to look out over. Just mud drying to cracked clay and that fucking river—gray-brown and so, so fast. I sit on the refrigerator and smoke a cigarette and try not to enjoy the eagles nesting on the opposite river bank.
Jim and Mom move back down to the river in October. They clean up the second floor of their house, which was left intact and which has a separate entrance connected by stairs up to the porch, so they don’t have to pass through the bleached bones of the first floor. There is news of a buyout from the state—the price of the home and the land with interest and then some. They pretend to be excited at the prospect of leaving, but I see the way Jim looks out the window over dinner. My mother is the voice of reason: their neighbors are all gone, they’re so far out of town, there’s nothing here really, but waiting around for another flood, and who knows, maybe the dam will break next time. My mom starts to speak of “the river.” She never again refers to it as “home.”