The most cracks I’ve ever gotten out of my knuckles is twenty-seven. The woman at the next table (who was doing something with technical pens and graph paper, and I probably would have made her explain it to me eventually) was cringing with each pop (which probably reduced my chances of hearing about her work) when a ten- or eleven-year-old boy sat down across from me. “Let’s go,” he said.
I pushed my chair back and half-stood, cracked my neck and stood the rest of the way. “What’s your name?” I asked.
“Loot,” he said. “We’re going to see my aunt.”
I made him wait while I folded and stacked dollar bills house-of-cards style. He stuck his finger into some leftover Tabasco in an oyster shell and licked it. The waitress scowled at us.
The soup outside was so cool and thin it was almost like air. I pulled my shirt away from my chest and ran my fingers through my hair. “Clanking chains?” I asked. “Glowing bones? Moans in the night?”
Loot was balancing up on a retaining wall and ignored me.
It was a two-story house with a tiny brown fringe of lawn. An emaciated woman—perhaps thirty—with deep bags under her eyes stepped down off the porch and held out a hand. “I’m Grannie,” she said. “Thank you for coming.”
I shrugged. I had oyster juice on the front of my shirt.
“They came in the storm,” she said, leading us inside. “We were staying with my cousin in Montgomery. When we got back it was awful. The roof was gone, the front wall was gone, half the windows were broken.” At the top of the stairs she handed Loot a key on a green plastic fob and he unlocked a door. “And,” she said, “they were here.”
The room was empty except for an eighteen-foot fishing skiff lying on the bare-plywood subfloor. Sitting bolt-upright on the boat’s one bench were a man, woman and tiny boy made of cracked, wrinkled leather. The man looked at us sadly and raised an arm a few inches in greeting.
“Do they talk?” I asked.
“Not to us,” Grannie said. “I hear them whispering to each other in Spanish sometimes.”
“They blew in!” Loot said. “A flying boat!”
Grannie smiled patiently at him. “We don’t know whether they blew or floated. The wall was gone and everything was wet. I’ve never seen such a mess.”
“Were they dead when you found them?” I asked.
“Yes, they were just like they are now. All alone in that storm in an open boat. No food, no fuel, no water, no shelter. Can you imagine? I’m so sad for them!”
“Did you offer them something to eat?” I asked.
Grannie’s jaw dropped and several seconds passed. “I never thought of that!” she said. “Loot, just look at me! Your grandmother would have smacked me raw.”
“She never smacked me,” Loot said.
Grannie hurried away down the stairs. I moved closer to the boat and shook hands with the man and the woman. It was like shaking a couple of empty gloves. I patted the boy gently on the head and chucked his chin. He frowned. It creaked.
Grannie thudded back up the stairs. She burst into the room with a crazy-waitress stack of plates, sandwiches and cans. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.” She passed a can to the woman in the boat, and one to the man. “This is all I have. I hope it’s okay.”
The woman stared at the can and then pried up the tab. A miniature cloud hissed out and Pepsi ran down her hand. She raised the can to her lips and drank, then passed the can to the boy. He stuck his forefinger into the hole.
The man had finished the Pepsi and moved on to one of the bologna sandwiches. He bit and chewed slowly and rhythmically, like a machine. The boy was drawing in Pepsi with one finger on his other palm. The woman inched out her hand for a sandwich, noticed Loot looking and offered him the first half. He bit it into a smile shape and held it up in front of his mouth. The woman did the same, although it was impossible to tell whether her sunken eyes were smiling. The boy had a half-sandwich spindled on one finger and he turned it as he ate. Loot nodded his approval.
The man burped into his hand. It sounded like a rock falling into dust. Grannie handed out napkins.
“This way,” I said. I motioned toward the door.
The man lifted his son from the boat and held out a hand for his wife. She looked unsteady but seemed to lighten. Her husband followed her out, and we made a slow, shuffling parade down the stairs and out onto the porch. I held the door open but the small dry family was nowhere to be seen.
“Thank you,” Grannie called after me as I walked across the yard. I shrugged and thought of gumbo.