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September 7, 2011

Page 4


pails of mud against her chest up from the cellar all day long—her father right behind her. One young, thin man’s pants got so heavy with mud, we had to find rope to hold them up. In the driveway, two lines of women washed china, pots and pans, talking with an effortless intimacy, among them a friend from Bronxville who I hadn’t seen for twenty years. Occasionally I’d tear up at what I saw—strangers carrying wall paper from my childhood to the curb or setting down my mother’s recipe drawer in the garage. This world felt full and close to the bone and I was falling deeply in love with it.

So many volunteers came we had to organize our lists, offering various levels of dirty and hard—from packing dishes to cleaning cabinets to scraping stud bays to pulling up floors. Or joining the endless bucket brigade from the basement. Which was medieval. After the buckets of rot-ridden mud came the cement blocks—a wall had fallen in. And after the blocks, came the stuff—skis, Christmas decorations, bags of Depends, paint cans, tools—covered with a chocolate-icing consistency but with a foul, sewagey smell. And after the stuff came the dismantled closet, and after the closet, came, piece by piece, the old, regulation-sized pool table. Then the power-washing began.

Everybody, even the National Guardsmen, talked about the smell. One evening, the water had gone a bit brown but I didn’t believe it entirely when it came time to shower. I was so filthy and thought perhaps the new hot water heater was working. It wasn’t but what was one more cold shower. In the middle of the night I woke up wondering why I could smell manure. Were the town’s sewage lines broken again? Then I realized the smell was coming not from the window but from my own skin.

Each evening we said the same thing, “Today was huge,” and in the morning we’d start again. We felt lucky. The closer you are to the nadir point of a disaster the luckier you feel. One person loses a car but feels lucky her home is safe, the next loses a home but lives are spared… So while scraping mud I kept thinking about the people in the next town of Prattsville losing so much—their cars,

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