A year after Katrina swept across the Mississippi Gulf Coast and destroyed everything in or near its path, Vaughn Williams was spending a quiet fall afternoon with the television, waiting for his new girlfriend, Greta Del Mar, to get home from work. It was raining and out the window of Greta's bungalow, where he'd been living for the last two months, he could still see the devastation of the landscape--everything was gone, vanished, flattened. Three houses on this block of Mary Magdalene Street survived, a few others spotted the landscape here and there, but the rest were leveled. Waveland looked like one of those unpopulated atolls in the Pacific people were always doing TV specials about. Bombing range stuff. By now, a year after the storm, there were a few trailers up on concrete blocks, some tents hooked onto pickups, but that was it. He and Greta were like shipwreck victims washed up on some -blown--out shore. Vaughn was ten years older than Greta, both of them split from their spouses--he by divorce, she by the still-unsolved killing of her husband, Bo, a half-decade before. He'd been shot in the head in his sleep. Their marriage hadn't been pretty, stuffed with Bo's infidelities, abuse, ridicule, and embarrassment, but worse was the aftermath, when Greta was indicted for the crime. She was exonerated, of course, and the charges were dismissed; but too much damage was already done.
Vaughn was padding around the house in gray-bottomed athletic socks that slid a little with each step on the hardwood floor, a floor where dust could be seen when hit at just the right angle by sunlight slanting in the double-hung windows of the place, which was not quite arts and crafts (more like Sears & Roebuck), but still attractive, charming, a soft place to land if you had to land somewhere. Vaughn had needed just such a place after his wife, Gail, invited him to gather his things and go. "Why don't you just move along," she had said one day a month after Katrina, giving him the most dismissive flick of the wrist, as if the gesture itself, less pronounced than the shooing of a fly, said all that needed saying about him, about her, and about them, after twenty years of marriage.
Since that time he'd done little work of any kind, holed up in a couple of dinky apartments, stayed to himself a good deal, bought a trombone, then a drum kit--a modern one, all rubber pads and pickups, wired directly into an amplifier and from there into a set of very fine headphones. He tried going to bars, restaurants, clubs--wherever there were other people--but that hadn't worked so well. Finally, in summer, he met Greta at an Escaped Women's Slave Narratives lecture at the Gulfport College for the Demented (not its real name) where he sometimes taught a course in architectural appreciation, architecture having been his lifelong interest, not to mention occupation, not to mention downfall.
He had just moved from the wooden chair at the small table where the laptop computer sat to the sofa across from the old-fashioned "big screen" TV, a rear-projection unit of about fifty inches inches he reckoned, though he'd never measured, when the phone rang. It was his ex-wife, Gail, calling.
"Your dangerous girlfriend is in the newspaper," she said. "It's the anniversary of her notorious moment and they're revisiting the case. She's prominently featured--a wedding photo, a court photo, the infamous bracelet."
"You always have such good news," Vaughn said.
"I didn't pick her," Gail said. "Is she there? Can you talk?"
"I can always talk. And no, she's not here."
"The photo doesn't look much like her. That's a plus. I mean, she won't be recognized from it. I wouldn't recognize her. But the story is crazy. Jesus."
"I explained the story already," he said.
"Yeah, but you left out the gory details. It's totally ick."
"It is, but it had nothing to do with her. The guy was a creep. He had creepy friends. He got shot one night. They tried to get her for it and couldn't come up with anything."
"I know," Gail said. "The newspaper carefully says, 'Investigators found insufficient evidence to link Mrs. Del Mar to the crime.' Still, I mean, who ever knows about this kind of thing?"
"Gail?" he said. "State your business."
"Okay. Sorry. It's just nervous-making, you know? People you run into and all that. So forget I mentioned it. What I was calling about was your birthday. I was thinking maybe we could have dinner. You know--celebrate."
"This is only the third time you've called in a year," Vaughn said.
"I am aware of that, Vaughn."
"Last time was when the grinder pump in the sewage lift station went."
"I know. I'm sorry. But we really should celebrate your birthday," she said.
His birthday was a couple of weeks away, but she wanted to set up the dinner sooner, in the next few days, because she was thinking she might be out of town later. She said, "We ought to carry on at least one tradition from our marriage, which failed so abruptly."
"I remember that," he said.
"C'mon," she said. "It'll be fun."
It wasn't something he wanted to do. He was thinking that once you get through with people, you really don't want to get involved with them again.
"It might be kind of awkward," he said. "You know, Greta and everything."
"I'm fine with that," she said. "I won't say a word about anything. It'll be good to see you again. I think about you a lot these days."
"You do?" he said, thinking how dumb that sounded, how What? Me Worry?, wondering why he couldn't at least fake something appropriate.
"I'm taking you guys to the Palomino," she said. "You been there?"
"We saw a TV show about it," he said. "It's the new place in the Beau Rivage, right?"
"It's nice," Gail said. "I mean it's garish and stupid, but as nice as, you know, garish and stupid gets."
The Beau Rivage was the first casino to reopen after the storm. It had escaped pretty much unharmed, and the rebuild was quick and easy. A year after Katrina most of the casinos were still shut up tight.
"How about eight-thirty?" Gail said. "Monday? Oh, and have you heard from Newton?"
Newton was Vaughn's brother, and Vaughn had not heard from him. He never heard from Newton. They didn't get along that well, which she knew. Gail had dated Newton before she and Vaughn started seeing each other. That's how they met, through Newton. Then they got married and she didn't talk about Newton, even when Vaughn asked.
"I haven't heard a peep out of him," Vaughn said. "I guess he's still succeeding a mile a minute up in the Great Northwest."
"Oops," she said. "I forgot. Things are no better, huh?"
"Same as ever," he said.
"I never forget your voice, you know? I mean, calling today you sound just like you. It's great. You know how people sound different when you haven't talked to them in a long time? Not you, Vaughn."
"Good to know," he said.
"We'll be there," he said, and then, when he heard her disconnect, he replaced the receiver and lifted his hands to heaven.
Vaughn flipped over to a cooking channel and stared at the food on the big screen of Greta's big TV. They'd been together since mid-summer and he had started to think of her as his first girlfriend since the marriage. She had this difficult past. The dead husband shot in her bed--a single shot to the head, twenty-two caliber. She inherited a good deal of money. No one was ever tried and the case remained unsolved. She'd shown Vaughn the newspaper clippings from the time of the murder. There were plenty of clippings. It was a big deal in the coast newspapers then, but she was matter-of-fact about it now. How she came home, how she found him, how she felt seeing him dead. What it was like being the prime suspect, the target of endless police interviews, the topic of idiot newspaper stories that got almost everything wrong. Later she sold the house, moved west along the Gulf Coast, set herself up in the bungalow in Bay St. Louis that she'd gotten through her family. The odd part was that she missed the husband, Bo, even though he was a rat of a guy.
Vaughn and Greta were starting slow. He was older, not in such a rush, and she was pretty in a beat-up way, kind of a casualty. Their romance did not scorch the sheets, but they had a good time together. They were calm, they were quiet, they went easy, which freed them from many imperatives.
The rain had gotten louder. It was splattering against the windows, great swaths of water coursing down the glass in pretty ways. The sandwich on TV was the size of a wheelbarrow. It was bright and smeary. He got a fresh Coke from the kitchen, then settled in at the computer and started Googling things--"Del Mar murder" pulled up a few things, then "sex crimes" produced three million hits, including one that offered to "map sex offenders in my local area" and "find registered sexual predators in our free national registry." Then he tried "Macao" because it was in a movie they'd seen recently, and after that he read something about Leonardo DiCaprio, then looked up the Palomino, found the menu online. The baked potato was thirteen-fifty.
He and Gail had split up a couple of months after Katrina, and ever since he'd been trying to be friendly to everybody, across the board, because it made him feel better. He didn't know why, it just hit him that way. He had known the marriage was gone before it went, but actually splitting up gave him this whole new appreciation of things. He wanted to be easygoing and relaxed. He didn't want to feel so apart from people. That had been okay when he and Gail were together, but not after. And when Gail asked him to leave, he realized how important it was going to be to be nice. He had a hard time with her resolve, the sense he had that it really was done between them, there was no going back, no cooling off, no changing of minds, none of the usual ways out of hard moments. She was done and it was clear. There were no options.
She said she needed to find herself, needed to move on with her life, and other things people say when they can't bear to say what's bothering them; but worse than that was the not letting up. Usually people said the bitter stuff first and got it out, got it on the floor there between them, and then stepped away, allowing a little room, and pretty soon everybody had a chance. This wasn't like that. They'd been married a long time and this was steely. She wasn't kidding; she wasn't giving. There was no room. Seeing this unreachable part of her after all those years terrified him.
He moved to a motel in town for a week or two, then to an apartment. Then he went back to the house and she had already divvied everything up--his stuff was in the dining room and the garage. She'd done a good job. He rented a truck and got two good-natured students from the architecture program to load and move the stuff.
The separation made a believer out of him. Almost immediately he tried to put the nice-guy thing into practice. He started having conversations in stores with strangers. Not elaborate conversations, just a few words here and there, shared recognition, that sort of thing. That was new for him. Mostly he had been quiet and removed. When he had worked in architectural firms, he was always looking out for the details of whatever was being done; he was the guy who was interested in the work and not the people doing the work. That went out the window.
He was teaching the semester after the storm, and he spent a lot of time at the school, which was some distance inland. It had been hit, but not hard enough to shut it down for longer than a week or two. He cleaned up his office and hung some new pictures, talked hurricane with the other faculty, delivered food, checked houses, helped with various recovery projects, went to a couple of school functions. He had conferences with his students, who he didn't know that well. He kept telling them to come by for conferences. He kept way more office hours than made any sense. And he spent some time in his office at night, which was odd, because the offices at the school were the worst--old, endlessly repainted, too bright. He found the place consoling somehow. It was stark, but there were trees outside, and it was wonderfully deserted at night, so it was like living in a bad painting, slightly surreal. He didn't know what was going on. Maybe he was trying to change his personality so Gail would get the idea that there were possibilities after all. He didn't plan that, but that's what it looked like in hindsight. It didn't work. But the students seemed to like the new Vaughn better than the old caustic and chilly Vaughn, so the change was half a success.
Even before Katrina, when Waveland was all there, it wasn't a high-toned beachfront town; it was more like ten miles of down-on-its-luck trailer park. After the storm it was ten miles of debris, snapped telephone poles, shredded sheets in the trees. More than a year later there were only a couple of new houses on the beach highway where doctor-types had picked up the distressed property, the better to spend a couple of weekends each summer looking at the Mississippi Sound, a muddy sump you could walk straight out into for a mile and the water wouldn't rise much above your ankles. The town was mostly empty lots, loose rubble, FEMA trailers sprouting yellow extension cords, tents, garbage, and lots of photo opportunities--boats standing on their noses, cars jackknifed, garages flattened like cardboard boxes. The media people had stayed maybe a week or two after the storm before fleeing for the sexier story in New Orleans--death on the rooftops, Sean Penn in the water up to his pecs. On the Mississippi coast recovery was ridiculously slow, almost non-existent. There wasn't much to recover since there wasn't much there anymore, just flattened houses and empty lots piled with rubbish and wreckage. The Waveland city elders were talking about becoming part of Bay St. Louis, the next town east.
The beach road curved out to a dead end ten miles west. There were a half-dozen stilt houses still on the road; the rest had been blown to smithereens. A mile inland another highway slanted up to Interstate 10 in the west and, going east, ran across the bay to Pass Christian, Gulfport, and Biloxi. Only now the bridge was all pilings and no roadway. Waveland was like Baghdad if the Air Force had hit it really hard--gone. Where property had been spared by the storm, most businesses were boarded up. The nearest gas station had one functioning island, clogged toilets, and soap dispensers half full of pink goo and dripping. There were no locks on any doors, where there were doors.
The divorce was as pristine as could be. A delicate trading of papers conducted through lawyers they picked out of the Yellow Pages. When they saw each other, Vaughn wept, and Gail did not weep. She was the poster girl for lack of affect. She wasn't nasty, though; she was sensible as they went about the division of things, but this made him feel worse. He was shocked at everything--at being alone, shunted back to living as if he were twenty-five, at how much time there was in a day, at the way the air went still if he wasn't disturbing it. Occasionally he went into frenzy mode, cleaning everything in sight in his apartment, straightening furniture, polishing silverware, vacuuming the floors again and again, and that was satisfying, but it didn't last. He liked things clean, so there was always plenty to do, but his enthusiasm waned.
They set out to make the divorce simple, but the way it actually went off, by mail and telephone, with lawyers they barely knew, it was like a drive-through deal, almost as though they'd never been married in the first place. Before he knew it, the legal stuff was over and he was in his second new apartment and she was at the house and three months had gone by. Papers came in the mail. He signed them and pushed them back into the return envelope. The envelope was gray. The world was different. Days were longer, nights were unbearable. Sleep was a paradise.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Waveland by Frederick Barthelme. Copyright © 2009 by Frederick Barthelme. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.