A River Remembered

Alys Culhane

© Copyright 2005 by Alys Culhane


Alys Culhane lives in Palmer, Alaska, in the vicinity of both the Talkeetna and the Chugach Ranges. She's currently working on two manuscripts in progress -- Headwinds: The Memoirs of a Cross country bicyclist, and Raudi's Story: Two Years in the Life of a Backyard Horse Owner. Alys is currently preparing to horseback ride from Canada to Mexico, on the Continental Divide Bicycle Trail.

I paused before writing out a check for the closing costs on the simple, one story, two bedroom home. The dwelling was my kind of place – inexpensive, semi-secluded, and off-the-beaten path. The Waccamaw Drive Residence was also across the street from Waccamaw river, which meant that I could sea kayak every day, year round.

There was one drawback—Fanny Brown’s old homestead had been built on a floodplain. Once again, Mr. Billy, a Loan Officer at People’s Federal Savings and Loan, a Conway, South Carolina bank, recommended that I purchase property in town. Certainty replaced indecision when, two days before the closing, Mary, my across-the-street neighbor, assured me that both our places would “always remain high and dry.”

Mary’s squat yellow house was twenty yards from the water’s edge. My property was an eighth of a mile distant from hers.

I’m telling you the truth,” she said. “I’ve lived here sixty years. And the river water has never, ever touched my property line.”

 Six months after purchasing my home, in February, 1998, the Waccamaw crested just a few inches from the top of my side-door porch step. Rather than see this as a sign of things to come, I embraced the timeworn cliché, go with the flow.

 At first I was just an observer. I watched from my living room window, as murky brown water rushed down-road, taking neighborhood bric-a-brac with it, some of which included lawn chairs, plastic garbage cans, rounds of wood, and boat seats. But I soon became one with the landscape. Every weekday, for four weeks, I followed a set routine. In the mornings, I removed my sea kayak and paddle from their temporary storage area, my living room, and set both out on the carport. I put my books and papers in the rear hatch, climbed in, paddled forward, turned right at the mailbox, stopped at a nearby intersection, climbed out of my boat, chained my kayak to a nearby chain link fence, and removed my cargo. I chatted briefly with Amy, who manned the Salvation Army food truck, and unchained my bicycle, and pedaled to my place of employment, Coastal Carolina University. In the evenings, I reversed this process.

My more leisurely weekend routine allowed for exploration-related jaunts. Instead of turning right, I turned left at the mailbox. The current took me in the direction of riverfront homes. I spent considerable time talking to the local river rats, some of whom had been adversely affected by the flood. When I asked an local trailer-dweller how she was getting by, she said she’d put her bed up on cinderblocks, and wore rubber boots around the house. “What do you do about electricity?” I asked.

 “I use candles.”

 “And how do you go about cooking your food?”

 “I’m not cooking. I’m eating a lot of Salvation Army Pizza,” she said.

 I also conversed some with my more immediate neighbors, who’d fared better than the trailer court dwellers. Mary lived within hailing distance. And Sam and Dorothy lived next to Mary. Though the interior of their homes hadn’t flooded, the exteriors had been surrounded by fast-moving water. I occasionally loaded my kayak with Salvation Army cleaning supplies, which Mary used when she set to scrubbing her carport. In return, she gave me bread pudding. And on more than one occasion, I retrieved Sam and Dorothy’s plastic deer, which surfaced in the swamp behind my house. In return, they kept their outside house lights on, so that I might safely paddle through their flooded yard at night.

I was disappointed when the river receded. Unlike the riverfront residents, I had not been inconvenienced. I was still able to commute to work. And the receding river left my foundation intact. If fate hadn’t intervened, I would have become a river rat. But in August, 1998, seven months after the flood, I took a teaching job at Plymouth State College, in Plymouth, New Hampshire. My partner Pete (who’d just finished his graduate coursework at Michigan Tech) soon joined me.

Before leaving, I put the house in the hands of Betty Squatriglia, who billed herself as “a competent and capable realtor.” It was vacant for a month, that is until my Coastal Carolina University colleagues informed me that a new hire, Mike Ruse, and his wife Lisa, needed a place to live. I was nervous about renting to the pair sight unseen; however Pete repeatedly reminded me that they’d be good tenants. After all, Mike was a philosophy teacher.

Philosophers tend to err in the direction of good,” Pete noted.

 * * *

 A second flood followed on the heels of the first. In September, 1999, Hurricane Floyd dumped over 20 inches of rain on southeast South Carolina. Four days later, the Waccamaw River crested at 13.4 feet, nearly double flood stage. I pictured what I’d previously committed to memory: the river first moved tentatively across distant fields, neighboring yards, and the residential roadway. As the rain increased, the Waccamaw gained momentum, coursing into the nearby swamp, my yard, and the residential roadway.

 Mike called and informed Pete that he’d just evacuated the premises. My partner’s pained expression indicated that Mike’s answers to his questions were in the affirmative. Yes, the water had spilled over the doorsills. And yes, the water pump was non-functioning. And yes, the foundation had shifted.

As I listened in on Pete and Mike’s conversation, an essay that I’d recently read, one by Toni Morrison, entitled “The Site of Memory,” came to mind. In her piece, Morrison makes a connection between rivers and memory. Using the Mississippi as an example, she relates that some time ago, the river was straightened in places, in order to make room for houses and livable storage. Morrison adds that the term used to describe this and other water-ravaged areas, flooding, is a misnomer. She contends that what rivers are doing in attempting to return to their original pathways is remembering. “Water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back where it was,” states Morrison.

 A comparison came to mind. The Myrtle Beach area, which in many sections borders the Waccamaw, is one of the fastest–growing parts of the country. Strip malls, restaurants, and housing developments now line its straightened-out banks. Consequently, in our haste to claim space for ourselves, we humans had changed the contour of the waterway. Like the Mississippi, the Waccamaw wasn’t forging new pathways, but instead returning to areas that it had previously inhabited. This wasn’t flooding. Rather, this was remembrance. And I’d experienced it. I’d presumed that this had been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’d been wrong. Once again the Waccamaw was reconnecting with its past. If, I thought, I played my cards right, I could again watch this happen.

Pete hung up the phone. I looked at him expectantly. He informed me that he was driving down to Conway, to begin house clean-up and repair. This, he added, was timely – he’d sent the final draft of his dissertation on to his committee members—and wouldn’t hear back from them for another two weeks. I volunteered to head south with him. Pete reminded me that this would take time away from my teaching duties.

I can accomplish a great deal in a weekend’s time,” I replied.

But,” he countered, “you can’t afford the cost of a last-minute plane ticket.”

We’ll just have to be more frugal.”

 “All right. But you’ll have to hold off on buying a new sea kayak.”

 “I’ll make do with my old one,” I said.

Pete drove and I flew south. Three days after Pete left, we met up at the Myrtle Beach Airport. The water level was higher than the height of the car hubs, so we parked our truck at the Highway 501-Waccamaw Drive Intersection. It was déjà vu all over again. The Salvation Army food truck was again parked next to the chain link fence. Amy was again tending to the coffeepot. And like before, garbage was everywhere.

What a mess,” I muttered.

 Amy said that compared to other Horry County residents, I was lucky—the majority of area flood victims still had water in their homes.

I, who wanted to stay on the good side of my Amy, my flood-time bagel source, refrained from saying what I was thinking – that I felt anything but fortunate. Now I too was staggering under the weight of a major financial burden. I’d become the proud owner of a house no one in their right mind would buy. Not unless they want to live ON the water. The house wouldn’t be marketable unless I had the foundation raised. This would cost a few thousand dollars more than I had in my bank account. And since I was a homeowner, I was ineligible for Flood Emergency Relief Assistance (FEMA) funds.

 I looked over at Sam and Dorothy’s place, which was kitty-corner to mine. Murky brown water surrounded their large white, three-story ranch home. Someone had tied two overturned two pale green port-a potties to their submerged dock.

You talk about unlucky,” Amy said, “A month ago Sam sold his side lot to Best Western Motel Corporation. He was going to sell them his house lot, but the company bowed out when the hurricane hit. He’s going to have to put the side-lot money into home repairs. “I don’t empathize with him,” I said. “Anyone who sells out to a developer should be hung by their . . . ”

Pete, in an attempt to avoid what he rightly knew was coming – a more heated discussion – touched my arm.

Your tea’s getting cold,” he said brightly.

Here, have some bagels,” Amy said, handing them to Pete.

 Together, we slogged through the knee-deep water and returned to the house, bag of baked goods in hand. Pete entered the house, and I followed at his heels. Although Pete had described what the interior of the house looked like, I was taken aback by what I saw. Gooey gray mud and moldy straw clung to the once-clean floors and walls. Pete had noted that before leaving, Mike (for reasons that remained unclear to both of us) had sprinkled straw in all the rooms. This, he added, could easily be dealt with. Pete had since taken it upon himself to instead tackle a carpentry-related task. The floorboards had buckled, resulting in numerous V-shaped humps. I wandered into the kitchen.

Pete picked up the circular saw.

 “Uhh, where do I begin?” I asked.

 “You can start by mopping out the back bedroom.”

 “Please,” I snapped, “don’t tell me what you think I should do.”

 “No way. This the Ruse’s responsibility. They’re hanging out in a motel room smoking cigarettes and watching television. Let’s head back to town, call them, and tell them to come and give us a hand.”

We should cut them some slack,” Pete said.

 In the above two statements lay a major difference of opinion. The fact that the Ruses’ abandoned my house, leaving behind (among other things) dirty dishes, a crusty stovetop, an unplugged refrigerator full of food – confirmed my suspicions that they cared little about MY place.

Pete further reminded me that while the Ruses’ weren’t domestic, that they’d always paid their rent on time.

 “What harm can it do to give others the benefit of the doubt?” he asked. “All right. You win. I’m too stressed out to argue with you right now. I’ll clean the refrigerator.

I yanked open the appliance door, gagged, and reeled backwards. The smell of good food gone bad replaced the sweet smells of cut pine and Murphy’s Oil Soap.

This refrigerator is a biohazard,” I muttered.

 Pete turned off the saw.


 “Listen up. This refrigerator is a biohazard. Look. Moldy T-bone steaks. Can you believe it? The Ruses abandoned their meat stash. If I was a carnivore this is the first thing I would have grabbed. If you’re going to buy dead cow, you should eat it. And look here. A pot of beans. It’s all white and fuzzy on the top, just like Mt. Everest.”

 “Ugh. Take it outside and put in the . . . ”

Look here. Chopped liver. This stuff contains bile. Bile’s the stuff your body is trying to get rid of. Anyone who thinks that liver is good for them has the brains of a termite.”

 “Please,” Pete said. “Shut the refrigerator door. You’re smelling up my work area.” I slammed the appliance door, wandered outside, and tossed the bean pot on top of a pile of bulging black bags. So as to get further afield from the odors that had wafted outside, I sat on the bottommost step.

A now brown, once white domestic duck waddled out of the swamp, onto the front lawn. A few days after the house flooded, Mike returned, to rescue this duck, and its five siblings. As he attempted to grab this one, the sixth, he fell and sprained his ankle. Much to Pete’s surprise, the duck stuck around.

 I reached into a Piggly Wiggly grocery sack and grabbed a handful of the duck food that Mike had left behind. As I flung the pellets out onto the water-sodden lawn, the duck quacked. I quacked back.

 Our conversation was interrupted by the appearance of Mary, who had stepped out of her house, onto the carport. She was wearing a faded blue sweat shirt, torn cut-offs, and rubber boots. Her swollen legs looked like tree stumps. She waved. I averted my gaze. On the left, a riverboat, the Born Free, had come to rest in the field adjacent to her house. I speculated that the vessel, which had several gaping holes in its side, would never again ply the Waccamaw. Amy had mentioned that Glen, the boat’s owner, was car camping in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

How’s it going? Mary asked, twice.

 Her greeting was my cue. I was supposed to cross the road and converse with her. This, for one person, would be a time-consuming task. If someone else accompanied me, I’d more quickly be able to make a break for it. I wandered back inside and stood next to the refrigerator.

 “What’s up?” Pete asked.

 “Mary wants us to come over for a visit.”

 “We should go over and say hello.” he said.

 “Well, okay, but remember, we’re pressed for time.”

 We donned rubber boots and waded across the road, all the while keeping an eye out for fire ants, nasty stinging insects, who, when they find themselves in high water, roll up into baseball-sized balls and latch onto unsuspecting prey.

I asked Mary how she was doing.

Honey,” she said in her thick South Carolina accent, “my carpet is ruined. Some Red Cross volunteers were supposed to come and remove it but they’re two hours late. I’m late. I have a standing appointment at the Horry County Nursing Home. My mother’s doing poorly you know.”

 I volunteered my services—and Pete’s.

 “Thank you,” Mary said, wiping her bloodshot eyes with a crumpled piece of pale blue tissue.

 The damage in Mary’s knick-knack strewn house isn’t as bad as I’d first imagined. Someone had put the kitchen table legs on overturned mayonnaise buckets, and placed the couch, television, chairs, and china cabinet on cinderblocks. I wanted to ask if anyone helped her with the heavy lifting, but held off because I wanted to believe that she’d done it herself. If Mary could, in two and a half hours’ time, do all this work, then young, healthy thirty-five year old Mike Ruse had no excuse.

 Pete and I pushed Mary’s furniture up against the livingroom wall and removed the cinderblocks. Pete, with utility knife in hand, slashed the blue-now-brown carpeting into moveable chunks. Mary and I dragged the sodden, muddy pieces out onto the carport. Done, we stepped back and assessed the damage. Mary's floors had also buckled.

 “I don’t have homeowner’s insurance,” Mary whispered. I’ll have to hire someone to replace the insulation under the floorboards. I can’t afford to do this. I’m going to have to move.” She paused, then added, “I don’t want to leave this place. I’ve lived here all my life.” Before Pete or I could comfort her, Mary made another request.

Can you open my front door?” she asked. “The water swole it shut. I need fresh air. I can’t open it because of my heart. My doctor told me to take it easy.” I shifted my weight from one foot to the other, hoping that Pete would run interference, and tell her that we had a lot to do in a short amount of time. He did not. Instead, he yanked a screwdriver out of his back pocket and loosened the door hinges.

It wasn’t, I thought, as I watched Pete, opposed to giving Mary an assist. I felt for her. She wouldn’t be able to move back into her house until the floors and insulation were replaced—and this would be expensive and time-consuming. I also knew that while Mary might be able to handle the expenses that went hand-in-hand with this flood, that she’d have a harder time handling those that would come with the next. My reluctance was time-based. Like Mary, we had a massive clean-up project to attend to. The difference was that we were on a tighter schedule.

At noon, ur neighbor Sam appeared at Mary’s side door with a cardboard box full of sandwiches in hand. His wife Dorothy, who was at his side, was toting a plastic milk jug full of iced tea. I’d always thought that the pair, who were in their sixties, resembled Laurel and Hardy. The image was now more pronounced. Sam’s wiry sidekick, who he called Sweet Thang, had, since I’d last seen him, lost twenty pounds. And the stocky fellow, who Dorothy called Big Boy, had gained thirty pounds. I didn’t, as is the custom in the south, exchange long, drawn-out pleasantries. Rather, I asked the pair if the rumor that I’d heard about them selling out to the Best Western Motel Corporation was true.

 Sam stumbled backwards, onto the mound of carpeting.

 “We did,” Dorothy said proudly.

 “And did you sell your house?”

 “No. The flood put an end to that plan,” Dorothy said.

Sam handed me a wrapped ham sandwich, which I tossed to Pete. Pete tossed to Mary. Mary tossed it to Dorothy. Dorothy tossed it back to Sam, who slipped back into the box.

What a shame,” I said.

Yes,” Dorothy said. “We were planning on moving to Florence and building us an even bigger place. You know, we got to make room for the additional grandkids.”

 “Additional?” Mary asked.

 “Yep. Our daughter Marnie is due to have twins.”

 Mary hugged Dorothy. Sam nudged Pete.

You two ever gonna have kids?” he asked.

 “Nope,” Pete said. “I got snipped a few years back.”

 I’d had enough. I turned and sprinted back in the direction of my property, ignoring the water that seeped over the topmost portions of my boots.

Pete followed.

 “Why’d you take off?” he finally asked.

Sweet Thang didn’t get it,” I said.

 “Didn’t get what?”

She didn’t get it when I said “what a shame.” She thought I felt bad for her and Sam. What I meant was that it’s a shame that they sold a chunk of their land to developers. Now that the lot’s been torn up, it’ll never be the same.”

No,” Pete said, “It’ll never be the same. “But there’s nothing that can be done about this now. You just have to accept the fact that sometimes, change is a given.”

As we returned to house, I let my mind wander. Quite obviously, I was upset. I hadn’t come south with big expectations. I’d just wanted to see how the Waccamaw was putting Morrison’s theory about river remembrance to practice. I had expected, as I had the first time the river crested, to remain in the background. But my expectations were swept downstream when, the second time around, I was pulled into the foreground.

Mike, Mary, and Sam and Dorothy had also been in the foreground. I had, in an attempt to remain distant and detached, passed judgment on them. Mike was irresponsible, Mary was wheedling, and Sam and Dorothy were greedy. I’d failed to see what was becoming most evident--that we were all in this together. We who had been attracted to the supposedly staid tidal river were now being repelled. A key word here was “we.” To varying degrees, all our lives had been adversely affected by river remembrance. A change in attitude accompanied this newfound perspective: as irritation rolled out, empathy rolled in.

Pete and I sat on the top porch step, yanked off our boots, and wrung out our socks. “Look over there,” Pete said, pointing across the road.

Yuh, I see it,” I said. “Hah hah, very funny. The highway sign reads “Curves ahead: Myrtle Beach Gentleman’s Club.”

No, look down,” Pete said, grabbing the sides of my head and tipping it slightly.

 My eyes were drawn to movement. Two Great Blue Herons, who’d been sitting on a pile of Best Western planking, rose into the still air, then slowly flew down-river. I sighed. The smell of rotting meat reminded me that I still had a refrigerator to clean.

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