Notice the sand which is somehow both inside you and beneath you. —LORRAIN DORAN, Phrasebook for the Pleiades
On Sundays during the summer of the 1991 flood, men and their cigarette smoke circled our card table, which my father had made himself with wood left over from the ongoing remodeling he did to our home. Sundays were roll-your-owns; hand-carved pipes stuffed with tobacco; squishy, pocket-size packs of Camels; piles of Jays potato chips on the green felt tabletop next to piles of quarters and dollar bills; and cans of bronze-rimmed Stroh’s that my dad let me sip when my mom wasn’t watching.
School was about to let out. Unlike the more haphazard schedule the summer months would bring, the rhythms of my school-year days began and ended with my neighbor, Corey. In the morning, we met at the bus stop and he let me get on first. At night, after his bedroom light went out, I put his wristwatch to my ear and let its quiet tick-tock lull me to sleep. He had given it to me one night when he had stayed over. I’d been scared about a storm and held his hand to my cheek as I lay in bed. “You can have it,” he said as I fell asleep. When the water began to rise at the start of the summer, I started wearing it all day.
I always wanted a reason for the floods. I thought that they might be a sign from God, that perhaps we were suffering a punishment for the sins of our forbearers or for sins of our own. During a flood, the end of times seemed to barrel toward our small enclave of riverfolk, while land beyond the floodplain was unaffected. During a third-grade field trip, I had learned about the over 800 Potawatomi who in 1839 had been marched at gunpoint from their land in northern Indiana southwest to Kansas. Our class had visited the nearby historic marshes containing the ruined ancient burial grounds of the Potawatomi and their lucrative trapping territory, and I came to believe that times of flood were the Potawatomi’s revenge. President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 had instituted the right of the American government to negotiate land exchanges with Native American groups via treaties. Under the act, lands held east of the Mississippi by Native American tribes could be confiscated in exchange for undisclosed lands in the “west,” sight unseen. Tribes that refused to negotiate, which included the Potawatomi under the leadership of the unwavering Chief Menominee, were often forcefully removed. The Potawatomi’s violent extraction from their homeland in the Kankakee Marsh, though by comparison it was not as massive or as deadly as the more widely noted Cherokee Trail of Tears, was known as the Trail of Death.
The farmers had been gauging heavy rains for a week. They then made phone calls to those who lived in the old riverbed, or along the new river’s banks depending on your terminology, to report on the probability of a flood. That gave the residents two or three days to prepare for the water, which the farmers had determined would surely rise. After the necessary phone calls were made, the news burning up the wires, two dozen anxious men—my usually gregarious neighbors—set their faces to stone and hauled load after load of sandbags to dam the weak banks of the young river. Their sons and daughters—including me and Marcus—watched from their porches. Someday, we would be the ones to haul the sand. We needed to know how it was done.
The men labored silently in a long line, passing the weighty bags from man to man to man like a crew of sailors loading a ship with provisions. The last man in the line threw the bag on top of the last bag until the stack was man-high. They prepared the riverbed itself first, adding height and breadth to the banks, then the crew filled the eroded hollows between the houses of the little riverside hamlet that we called home. After that was done, they helped each other secure their own homes until every home was ready to receive the rising water.
Most folks could see the river from their porches. Everyone could smell it. When a flood was coming, an ancient stench of mud and fish and scum hung in the air—the scent of the river amplified, swollen and ready to burst. The flood itself, though, the water’s tipping point, always arrived in the middle of the night.
When this one came, our phone rang around midnight on Friday. My dad put on his waders and sloshed over to his pickup truck. He pulled two more sandbags from the bed of the truck and hoisted one onto each shoulder, looking like Atlas in the moonlight to my wide eyes, and then he put them on top of the line of bags near our front door. For good measure, I guessed. Though I had the feeling that if the water got that high, sandbags wouldn’t much matter.
In a question-and-answer session after reading aloud his story “On the San Juan,” Ron Carlson addressed the topic of water short- age in the American Southwest in a way that only a writer can— with personification: “You get the sense that the heat wants to hurt you.” It was all he really needed to say. He was talking about the violence of nature. Violence like the hot, slapping hand of the sun. Violence like cracked earth and scorched vegetation, of prolonged thirst and hunger. I thought of the Kankakee and its opposite problem. I thought of the river that taunted us each year as it crept up and spilled over its human-made boundaries toward our homes. I thought of drowning, a swifter aggression than drought.
A flood was a call to the strongest and ablest among our tribe of riverfolk, but it never stopped anything important. Not school, not work. Definitely not poker games.
The beer had been stocked early that week. On Saturday, families tended their properties for most of the day. They secured their porch furniture with chains and ropes, waiting out the rise, periodically lowering the end of a two-by-four into the water to see how much it had gained on them. Half inch by half inch. On Sunday, a couple of the men came to our house by canoe and tied it to the handrail with a mud-caked yellow rope. The other men trekked through the marsh in waist-high rubber waders, hauled themselves over the sandbag barricade, and stripped down to their clothes on the porch, which had become a peninsula, surrounded by the river’s water. Once inside the house, they pulled apples and boxes of raisins from their overall pockets for me and my brother, smiling as if nothing was out of the ordinary. They handed over the treats on their way to the card table, while my mom hung their waders on metal hooks and lay towels on the linoleum beneath them to catch the brown water. The men took their seats, the same ones they hunkered into each week. My dad sat right across from Uncle Tom; Slims sat to my dad’s left, Slick to his right. They began to smoke.
“Shoo-ee, young lady. You see how high that water is?” Uncle Tom said through his near-toothless smile, rubbing his flannel-covered chest with grease-stained hands. He was from a little piece down the road. Though he wasn’t my real uncle, he’d have made a good one. Kind as you’d want. Much kinder than Ralph, who was cold and brusque with children. A drinker like my pops, but a different type.
Slick leaned toward me and held out his palm. “Blow on this quarter.” A fella called Slick had gotten such a moniker for good reason.
I blew. That was for luck. I hope Slick does good, but I hope Daddy does better, I thought, my fingers crossed under my leg.
Then it was one up, one down. Bring in, ante up. The dull clank of quarters kept time over the game as the men flicked the edges of their cards with dirty fingernails and hummed to themselves. Five different tunes were going at once, none of them a recognizable melody.
I chomped apple after apple down to the core while I watched the game, juice and seeds running down my chin. My dad let me sit on his lap and watch them play, even though by his word I was too old for it at nine years old, so long as I promised not to mention which cards I saw and kept a straight face. What you couldn’t do when you were playing poker was conflate the language or give yourself away. You couldn’t bid when you meant to call. You couldn’t fake anything. Even if you were bluffing, you had to mean it, believe it yourself. And I got real good at bluffing. Even better than my dad. In the mirror, I learned not to trust my own expressions. I could look like nothing, when I felt everything. When our dog died, my brother cried while my face stayed ordinary. Dimples and bright, dry eyes. I found myself smiling at my father all the more, bidding his favor in spite of my own aching heart while my brother crouched by his knee and sulked. When Corey walked into the room, I pretended my insides weren’t ablaze. When the river flooded, I played cards with the men and it was no trouble at all.
The Kankakee River’s course was significantly restructured through- out the first half of the nineteenth century. The river had once crept through one of the largest wetlands in the United States, the Great Kankakee Swamp. The swamp spread for over 5,300 square miles of dense marshland, the river jutting through it, until the Swamp Land Act of 1850 was passed. Before the Swamp Land Act and the Indian Removal Act, the Kankakee had been an important waterway for the Potawatomi and early European settlers, who trapped riverine creatures and traded their fur. Over the course of the next several decades, the Swamp Act straightened the bends of the river, one of many measures taken to drain the mega-marsh in order to turn the Indiana soil into mineral-rich farmland. In the mid-nineteenth century, Americans had begun to populate the heartland. Its rivers aided in transporting the goods produced by an impending regional industrial boom—including grains, iron ore, coal, and lumber. By the end of the nineteenth century, the new Kankakee River no longer meandered, but rather cut somewhat adroitly across Indiana and Illinois. Its new path was fortified with drainage ditches, leaching even more of the marsh’s excess water outward in rigid grid patterns that fed the new farmland. The drainage system fed what was left over westward to join with the Iroquois River, eventually emptying into the Illinois River. Though I could never believe the river had looked any other way but straight, every few years the water proved me wrong and the river reclaimed its natural course, filling in its original sediment bed behind our house and throughout our neighborhood as if the very ground itself had called it back home.
Like rivers, people are always folding back on themselves, and then straightening again. Contradicting themselves. Pulling off a bluff even as they try to begin anew, and then collapsing back onto the past. Acts are passed, then are repealed by government bodies. Human progress is a bendable substance. It moves half inch by half inch. But water must go somewhere; the laws of science rarely bend.
I raked in the pile with my sticky hands when my dad won the pot. I got to count the stack, and he peeled off ones every so often and gave them to me and said, “Good work, baby girl.” It was early afternoon, and he was still generous with his kindness. Then I folded the bills and put my cut of the winnings into my pocket, where the ones dampened and tore a little at the edges.
For card games, my dad wore his tattered carpenters’ union T-shirt and his lucky blue trucker’s cap, his curly brown hair peeking out at odd angles around his neck. On the front of the hat, a voluptuous cartoon woman stood next to a caption and looked sideways over her shoulder, blond hair tumbling midway down her back. The caption read “Tight butts drive me nuts!”
I shuffled the extra deck as the game went on, warming it up in case they needed it. I wanted badly to be useful to the men and be noticed by them—especially by my father, but also by Corey. Sometimes Marcus, Corey, and I would play our own poker game, gambling Chips Ahoy! cookies and Doritos. We were always practicing at being adults.
The men laughed their gravelly laughs and took another drink from their cans of beer. I didn’t know what made the cap lucky, but I wanted to look like the woman with the tight butt. I wanted to drive a man nuts, to form curves in the right places. I was waiting for mine, and I wanted to know what to do with them when they arrived. Driving a man nuts had to be better than being someone’s ol’ lady, which is what my dad called my mom when he was at the poker table. The old lady, his old lady, our old lady. Like something owned. My mom brought cold beers and more food. She stayed in the kitchen, wearing a sweat suit that was a decade old, as the game progressed and the men grew drunker. She clanked pots and pans so hard you’d have thought she was trying to break something.
In poker, you didn’t get to hang back and stew about what to do. That’s what I liked about it. I did enough of that already, and this was a lively game that forced motion. A poker player led with thought-out action—you didn’t just think, and you didn’t just act.
You decided, you faced the consequences, then you got another go at it. Maybe you got lucky the next time. Maybe you broke even the whole time. But you kept perfecting your game and your bluff, thinking and acting, until the two were one.
As the game went on, the piles of money grew higher and lower as the pot shifted. I listened to the men’s stories about how high the water was and who was stranded this time. Bruce from the other side of the river was making stew that everyone was welcome to, even though he’d lost his cat Buckles and his car was flooded. Penny from down the way was all alone. Some of the men helped make sure her place was taken care of, trading off hours of work for beer or fresh-baked peanut butter cookies.
The men around the poker table told and retold stories of prior floods, ones I had never seen, the water higher each time they spoke of it.
“Three feet that year we canoed the whole way down a road with them bottles of Wild Turkey,” said Slims. “Floated ’em over to some right thirsty folks on Frisbees. Shoulda seen their faces light up. You’d think they’d seen Jesus walk on water.”
“Five feet,” said Slick, shaking his head. “And one year Willie had his motorboat out, too. You never seen a supper delivered like that.”
“Nah, six feet deep if it was an inch.” Uncle Tom was the big- gest tale-teller of them all, once he got enough beers down. Who knew what was true? But telling the stories brought them together more than it kept them apart. It balanced the loss, which they rarely inventoried. And I liked listening, weaving myself into their history, belonging with them to something bigger than me in my own head.
When the phone rang, my mom brought it in from the kitchen—stretching the thirty-foot cord until it almost snapped. Sometimes she’d do that so you were stuck talking in front of her while she waited for you to hand it back. The phone was her territory. She handed it to my dad and then folded her arms, the sleeves of her sweatshirt pushed up to her elbows, exposing tan wrists and forearms.
My dad mumbled what sounded like an agreement and then handed the phone back. “Looks like some sandbags aren’t holdin’. Said I’d give it a look after we call it a night here.”
My mom nodded and walked away, the cord snagging on her way to the kitchen. She slammed the phone back onto the hook so hard it rang back at her. Everyone looked up from the poker table expectantly for a moment, then returned to the game.
My river was not the only river moved for the convenience of humans. An act of government can move a mountain if it wants to. It can move buildings and communities of people. It can build a bridge that connects two slips of land or, as in the case of Alaska’s Bridge to Nowhere, it can connect one strip of land to absolutely nothing. An act of government can move a river. It sounds simple and swift when it is boiled down to words: “Move the river.” But speed and ease are feats not readily scaled to a body of water. How vast the human need must be to unbend a current.
In his essay “Rivering,” Dinty W. Moore discusses one such river, the Hockhocking in Ohio, which was also strategically rerouted to suit human purposes. “The engineers managed a rather graceful curve in the new riverbed,” he writes, “but it doesn’t feel natural. It can’t bemistaken for the unpredictable, sometimes elegant, sometimes abrupt, always idiosyncratic way that a river actually cuts through a landscape.” Without a current propelling it and banks to guide it, a river is only water. Moore draws a parallel between determining what’s crucial to include in a narrative’s undercurrent and the way that rivers are directed and controlled—both by their natural paths and by the ones that have been carved by people. The boundaries must be tempered, or else the water will burst forth and drown us all.
Later that night, well after the men had made their way through the water and back to their homes, I sneaked out of my bedroom to the card table and put a cigarette butt in my mouth. My brother was asleep, and my parents squabbled about something in the distance. Stir crazy was what we called it. Stuck inside, stirring around each other until someone went crazy. Usually, my dad.
The refrigerator door opened and closed. I heard a can pop open, and I tried to count back how many times I’d heard that pop since the card game had started. Back and back, all day. Double digits, easily.
I pretended to smoke and said “full house” in a low voice, making it into a one-syllable word like the men did. “F’ous, boys. Read ’em and weep.” Puff.
I heard a cracking sound then, and yelling. A familiar routine. Everything got loud for a few minutes, then the door slammed and the house was quiet again. These episodes tended to rattle my brother more than me. He’d wail and intervene in a heated argument, offering himself as a shield for either party, or as a bargaining chip. I’d retreat to my bedroom and wait for the talk that never came: we’re getting a divorce. If I ever cried, I did it in the shower, which made it only half true.
In the morning, there was a hole the size of a dinner plate in the wall near the kitchen. My dad was already gone to work.
“What happened?” I pulled my long hair into a high ponytail.
“You dad wanted to order a pizza. I told him we couldn’t get one,” said my mom. She was wearing different sweats—her going- out sweats. They were less embarrassing than her staying-in sweats, but I still hated them. Maybe she didn’t know my dad liked women to look like the one on his hat—tight jeans and tight butts and small waists that cinched neatly beneath their breasts. “That was his answer.” She nodded at the hole that had been punched through the wall. She said it as if it were true, unflinching, as if she dared me to believe otherwise.
I stood at the fridge and nodded, alternating bites of Pop-Tarts with drinks of milk from the jug. Anger in our family was like the water: it had to go somewhere. Rise up, sink down, or burst everywhere at once.
My mom hammered a nail into the drywall above the hole. She took six plastic pears out of a basket on the kitchen table. She shoved the pears into a random drawer and hung the basket over the hole. “The bus won’t come because of the flood,” she said in a flat voice. Her anger was the sinking kind.
But the bus would come. I knew it would. It just wouldn’t come right up to the house. It wasn’t the first flood we’d been through. When it flooded, we were supposed to get a ride out to where the water was lower, where the dead-end road met with the road that led toward town. But I guessed my mother was proving a point about the pizza, so I didn’t argue. I wanted to go to school. I would miss seeing Corey that morning, but I wanted to get to where the water wasn’t and where my chest didn’t burn like it was trapped under a heavy rock when I tried to breathe. I needed to run around some, fill my shoes with playground rocks until home seemed a vague memory, like someplace I had read about in a book and then remembered only circumstantially, or in summary. Oh, the place with the hole in the wall, yes, I remember it now.
I put Corey’s watch on my wrist, and it slipped down to my hand, even on the smallest setting. But I was determined to wear it. It smelled like him, and, what was more, it softened the distance between us. I wore my dad’s oversized cement boots to get to the van, which was parked in the garage where it had stayed relatively protected from the water due to the slight incline. As I waited for my mother to come out of the house, I stabbed my pocketknife into a sandbag. I wanted the sand to spill out like blood, like air from a punctured lung or helium from a popped balloon. I wanted to do harm to this bag. Inflict my ire quietly upon it. I’d make a sinkhole in the barrier, a slow leak that would float me away from this place forever. But it didn’t work. The whitish-gray material that secured the sand within was dense and fibrous, and it resisted the dull blade. I worked it through with a few more jabs and wiggles, dragging it lengthwise until a small gash formed. The sand inside was packed so tightly that nothing happened at all.
When my mother walked into the garage, I stashed the knife between two of the sandbags, and we set off for school. My brother sat in the bench row seat behind me, none the wiser about the hole in the kitchen wall or about the hole I’d made in our arsenal of sand. I envied his disinclination to question the world around us, to grow weary of it. His mind didn’t wake up with “Why?” in it like mine did.
My mother drove slowly along the river road, easing the front end of the blue and silver van into the water, and I watched the water filling in behind us where the vehicle had briefly parted it. I watched her face want to cry and then stop itself. Seeing this was too much for me to bear. I knew my anger would one day grow large enough to battle my father’s, even if my mother’s would not. I could not help her out of this, but how I wanted to try. Our eyes met in the rearview mirror. “You look pretty,” I said. Prettier than the girl on the hat with the tight butt. Pretty enough not to settle for being someone’s old lady, perpetually subservient and wearing sweatpants in the kitchen. When I thought I might cry, I called up my poker face. I shifted my gaze to the mailboxes that popped from the water like spring flowers. To chain-link fences half-covered in water. The roads beyond ours weren’t flooded, only the parts where the river had once been. I thought of our little house plunked down right in the middle of one of those ghost bends, and the way the bottom two feet of siding were rotting away after too many floods. From the window of the van, I saw a farmer standing in thigh-deep water in the middle of his bean field. He seemed to be having a long think about what to do. I watched him as long as I could, waiting for him to raise his fist to all that water, but he never did.
Angela Palm owns Ink + Lead Literary Services and is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, a recipient of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her writing has appeared in Ecotone, Brevity, DIAGRAM, Essay Daily, Paper Darts, and elsewhere. She lives in Vermont.