Preview of “The Shoe Burnin': Stories of Southern Soul”

Boots

by Ed Southern

What those college kids wore on their feet was their second amazement. Did they neither know nor imagine that this ground was thick with weapons of infection, with rusty nails and metal shards sharper than X-ACTO knives, with splinters and screws and broken glass?

And that was just in the ground, in the churned-up yards and the street; no one wearing shoes like those could wade sensibly into the wrecks and ruins and heaps of shambles in which they were there to work.

Yet they were come among it shod in nothing but old tennis shoes, or even—Jesus!—elaborate sandals, nothing but thin strips of rubber, canvas, or imitation leather between them and punctures, staph or lockjaw. Aaron and Jason realized that these college kids, in the run of their lives, never had a call for serious boots like Aaron’s Red Wings or Jason’s Justins, but that did not lessen their amazement. Did they think they’d float above this damage all about? Were they not intent on the task they’d volunteered to do?

Jason and Aaron talked about that second amazement that evening, after they’d worked till dusk. They sat in plastic chairs, outside the cheap room they’d found in an America’s Best Value Inn, with a sack emptied of Krystal burgers and a five-dollar Styrofoam cooler full of ice and Natty Light between them, smoking Camels. They looked out across the parking lot and the power lines and the highway, watching the traffic come and go and stop at the Exxon opposite them, the trucks and the cars rolling as if nothing were different than before. That sort of surprised them, as breathless as the cable news had been.

They talked about their second amazement, and how little the college kids seemed to know about anything useful like masonry or wiring or plumbing, until talk of flimsy shoes led to talk of flimsy clothes, and talk of flimsy clothes led to talk of female legs.

“You pick you out a pair yet?”

“Shit fire, son, that ain’t what we’re here for.”

“Yeah, I knew you had. I saw you talking to her.”

“Psssht. Hell.” Aaron went inside the room to piss.

When he came back, Jason was holding out a can and saying, “No, but I’ll give you a beer,” to a man dressed in the rags of an Army jacket and polyester work pants. He wore flip-flops on his feet. His stink of rotten food and smoke, of having soiled himself, hit Aaron as he reached his chair.

The man took the can and raised it in a toast. “You a gentleman.” He popped the tab and took a long draw. “Where you gentlemen from?”

“Rock Springs, North Carolina,” Jason said.

“North Carolina. I been to Charlotte, North Carolina. Is Rock Springs close to Charlotte?”

“Closer than it used to be.”

“I’ll come visit next time I’m there. What brings you gentlemen to Birmingham?”

They answered him, sort of; they could have answered longer or shorter than they did, but they told him what they could and would. They told him what they wanted to tell, and what they thought he’d want to hear, the way anyone, anywhere, tells any kind of story, though maybe a little more so.

“Well,” Jason said, “I mean, we saw all about it on the TV, like I guess everyone did. I finished up a rotation and went by Aaron’s, and he said, ‘You know, we’d be like a Dream Team for something like this.’ So we were like, ‘What the hell,’ got in the truck and came on down.”

Jason left a dawdling and plotless shift at the firehouse to find Aaron watching YouTube, image after image, twister after twister, rampage. They threw a few clothes into duffels and gathered what they thought were appropriate tools: bow saws, hacksaws, Jason’s hand-me-down chain saw, sledgehammers, claw hammers, crowbars, shovels.

“My man here’s a firefighting professional,” Aaron said. “I’m just a lowly volunteer, but I’m EMT-certified, too. I’m apprenticing with a general contractor, so I know a little bit about everything to do with a house—the wiring, the plumbing …”

“So, yeah, we thought we could help out some down here.”

They were not long back from the service, from the Sandbox, and it complicated their feelings about disaster in ways they had not yet noticed, much less put into words.

“We just got in his truck and drove,” Aaron said. “I mean, we didn’t know, like, where we were supposed to go to volunteer, who we should report to. We figured something this big, we’d figure it out.”

They left on a Thursday evening. They drove through the night, crossing into Alabama at one in the morning, coming into a place called Irondale at two. They found a Wal-Mart and parked the truck and went inside to piss, and slept in the truck until after dawn.

“We just got lucky, and ran into a fella that was getting together some volunteers to clean up a few houses.” They spent the morning wandering, until they stopped at a firehouse, where the firemen sent them to a clearinghouse, where they would have been brute force on a loading dock if a professor from a college had not noticed Aaron’s Rock Springs V.F.D. T-shirt. The Professor was from North Carolina himself, once, and knew of Rock Springs. (They never did quite catch his name, so they just called him the Professor.) They told him how they were like a Dream Team for something like this, and he invited them to come with him and his crew of college students who’d volunteered. Aaron and Jason climbed back in Jason’s truck and followed the Professor’s car, and the line of his students’ cars, through the city, north of the grid and the gray and the hollow industrial hulks, and over a ridge and onto a cul-de-sac carved into the sharp north-facing slope, half its houses ruined by the storm.

The man then asked, so they told him, no, they didn’t know a soul in Birmingham; they just wanted to help.

The man raised his can in another toast. “Y’all is gentlemen.” He offered them blessings and promised them prayers. He closed his eyes and raised his hands (and the beer) to God and prayed for them right then, asking the Lord to look down and bless these His servants for their goodness and kindness of heart in this, their time of need. He said Amen and drained the can. “Y’all sure you can’t spare a dollar for me?”

Jason shook his head. “We weren’t even sure we could get a room for the night.”

“Alright. Shit. Y’all have a fine evening.” He threw the empty into the bushes, and walked away along the highway. They watched until he left their view.

“You know he’s just the second person down here who’s asked where we’re from?” Aaron said.

*****

If anyone, then or later, had asked Aaron what he’d expected to find in Alabama in those days, he’d have shrugged. Probably he’d have said, “Me and Jason, we were like a Dream Team for that sort of thing.” He had put little thought or imagination into what they’d find at the end of that long night drive; he had no experience to frame it by. He’d been a baby when Hurricane Hugo hit, and though he’d heard his mama’s stories enough to believe sometimes that he remembered it, he couldn’t really tell you what a natural disaster looked like. He knew that all the state wouldn’t look like the land tore up on the cable news and YouTube, but those were the only images he carried to Alabama with him.

But if anyone had asked Aaron what he’d expected to find, and then held him down and not let up until he told the truth, he finally would have admitted, maybe even screamed, that he needed to do something good.

*****

They were early to the cul-de-sac Saturday morning, staying as they were so close to the interstate, and being there for no stated purpose than to help, and feeling no need for orientation or campus meet-up. The motel’s free coffee was still warm in the cups in their hands, and biscuit crumbs fell from their Carhartts when they stepped out of the truck and into the risen sun and the silence.

They could point to piles of debris they’d helped to heap at the curbs. They could identify the jagged gutters and trim that Aaron had wrenched and pried from the house before they fell, and the logs that Jason had cut with his chainsaw to reduce the fallen trees into manageable parts. They could walk freely around back yards that yesterday had been choked with ruin. But for all that they could do, when they stood by the truck and looked around in a sweep, took in the totality of the cul-de-sac and the scar that ran across the ridgeline, they could not see as how they’d made a scratch, a ding, a dent in the comprehensive finish of the destruction.

That had been their first amazement. Gaping and bating their breath, they’d stepped from the truck and stared at the line, the scar, at its precision, the demarcation that came so clearly to the eye. On the hillside above they could see, with no effort, where the tornado came over the crest and raced downhill to pass where they stood; turning, they could see where it raced on and down through the pines, and up the subsequent ridge, and on. All inside that line was broken; the ground itself was churned. On the cul-de-sac, the houses standing to either side of the line still stood, maybe mussed, but no more than after a rager or a simple thunderstorm. Next door, the houses inside the line now lay—heaped, or half-eaten, or de-constituted into building materials, hurled and spread about like the toys of a spoiled and angry child.

Aaron and Jason had seen houses—houses here, Stateside, American homes, secure and well-built—destroyed. They had watched them burn before their eyes and despite their best work. They’d seen the walls collapse around them while they raced the fire to get out. They’d torn down houses themselves, wiped them stud by joist from the earth, so they would neither fall on some poor soul nor impede new construction. Soon, then, that Friday, Jason and Aaron had stopped gaping, breathed as usual, and almost felt at home. First they’d had to admit their amazement that wind, not fire, that nothing but common air, had done all this.

Saturday morning they had to do it again, admit and process their amazement, break it down and discard every element but one, before they could get to work.

*****

Before long the cul-de-sac crawled, being a Saturday, with volunteers. Many wore matching shirts, advertising their church or school or civic club, and they segregated themselves by worksite. Each group had signed on for, and attached themselves to, one or more street numbers, and those lots were theirs, and no other’s. Jason and Aaron stuck to the yard they’d left the day before, and watched the yards around them fill. Minivans and SUVs parked and let out Boy Scouts and Sunday school classes, even a corporate staff. A bus belonging to a well-publicized international ministry pulled up across the street.

Jason with his chainsaw went after another tree, a tulip poplar fallen across the back of the lot, so the college boys would have something to do when they arrived. The tree had been old, so the boughs were thick and took a long time to saw through; once sawn, they fell to the earth with a deep, percussive whump. He sawed the boughs off, and then into logs that could be barrowed or carried, until the only boughs left on the tree were those the trunk rested on. He was about to start on the trunk itself, at the skinny end that had been the top, when he heard another chainsaw whine. He looked next door and met the eyes of a sturdy, gray-haired man who’d taken his station by a fallen pine, a troop of teenage boys in line behind him. The man nodded and Jason nodded, and they went to work slicing the trees away.

Aaron, trusting to his Red Wings, entered what had been the house. He didn’t need a door. With balance and care he ascended bricks, both fallen and standing, and stepped into the kitchen. Half the house’s eastern wall lay crumbled on the grass; the other half was just gone, taken away. Aaron, the day before, had felt an old, silly shame at seeing so much of rooms into which he’d never been invited, whose owners he did not know or see or know to be alive; the sight made him feel like a thief, as it had before, and it made him feel sick to feel that way again. This time he stepped into that room, that kitchen, with balance and care, feeling the floorboards before he gave them his weight. Whoever lived here, or had, loved Jesus, or had. Jesus, and decorative salt-and-pepper shakers. Small pieces of ceramic or plastic or glass, molded and perforated on top, sat unmoved and ignorant where they’d sat for years, on pressboard shelves nailed to the wood-paneled interior walls. This house stood half-naked to Aaron, to all the world. Yesterday their mattress had lain sodden in the street; they had seen the sheets on which these people had slept. Aaron stepped from the kitchen into the den.

He was trying to find the source of the stench. Yesterday, as they’d worked their way through the scattered debris closer to the house itself, a foul smell of decomposition rose to them. It could have been sewage; it could have been a varmint; it could have been a pet. It could have been some fabric, waterlogged and rotting from exposure. Aaron did not relish the search, much less the prospect of success, but he knew he could handle it, and he knew it was something he could do to spare the others. He knew he had smelled worse smells from worse sources. He felt sure they had not.

He was intent and heard a man holler “Hey,” and holler some more, before he thought the hollering might be at him. A big man, so bearded and sunglassed he might not have had a face, stood in the street.

“You’re not supposed to be in there,” he hollered at Aaron.

Aaron nodded. “I’ll be alright.”

“You ain’t supposed to be in there.”

“I ain’t just hanging out. I’ll be out before long.”

“You need to come on out of there now.”

Aaron stopped, planted his feet shoulder-width apart, straightened his legs and his spine to reach his full height, and turned to face the man full-on. His hands hung at his sides, the fingers curled halfway to fists, his shoulders back and squared.

“You need,” he said, “to find someone else to be an asshole to.”

The man stared, or Aaron guessed he was staring, behind the sunglasses.

“I’m trying to do a job here,” Aaron said, “a job I don’t see you or anybody else stepping up to do, and I’ll be …”

The man didn’t wait for Aaron to finish, didn’t bother listening. He threw up an arm in something like dismissal and shouted, “Fine, you little punk, bust your ass and see if I care,” as he walked to the yard next door. Aaron watched him walk away and stood, still, for a long moment, seething and ashamed.

Volunteers continued to come onto the cul-de-sac and the streets around it, cars and pickup trucks covering the curbs, their windows and bumpers demanding that God bless America. The Professor arrived, and the college kids, some new, some of the same, almost all of them ill-shod again. She did not come, the long-haired, coltish girl Aaron had talked to yesterday. He saw that he did not see her, and wondered if he was why.

“Hey,” the Professor called out to him. “Good morning. Glad to see you back.” He came to the edge of the pile that had been the east wall, checking the ground where he set his feet like he was toeing a mark.

“Um, Aaron, hey, when they assigned us this site they told us not to go into the house itself. It’s a liability issue.”

“It’ll be alright. I’ve done this a million times,” Aaron said. “In houses in even worse shape than this one.”

“Oh, I’m sure you have and all, but still.”

“I’m just trying to find what’s making that stink. It might be a health hazard for all of us.”

“Oh. Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that. Okay. Just, please, be careful.”

“I will. And I won’t loot nothing, neither.”

With balance and care Aaron stepped toward the back of the house, toward the bedrooms and the space where the stairs had gone down to the basement. The back of the house was a crumble and a ruin, the basement become a catchpond for the cinder blocks and shingles. Aaron sniffed and tried to follow his nose, but the stench was faint and shifting in the early-morning cool. He was pretty sure the smell came from where the basement had been, from underneath the pile, where anything that lived and had any sense would have gone and been when the tornado struck above. He was pretty sure he could get to it, though he’d have to move a few dozen blocks and parts of blocks, and whole clouds of pink insulation, and nail-studded beams, and what looked to be a navy blue three-piece suit, and a few floral-print church-going dresses, and a brown teddy bear.

He was pretty sure he could get down there, could pick his way across and down the pile, down to, and then below, the level of the earth. He crouched at the lip, creaking the last load-bearing floorboard, and considered his possible paths.

Don’t wonder if they lived or died, he told himself. You know, you know, it don’t do a bit of good. You know it’ll only drive you crazy. Don’t wonder. Don’t ask nobody. Don’t mind and don’t care.

He stood, shifted to his left, and reached out his foot to a block that seemed stuck fast and stable. It was as it seemed, but few others were as he descended. They teetered with his step, tossing the foot that held his weight to and fro. He still was young and his joints were limber, and even in his heavy Red Wings he could let his bones and muscles move as they needed to keep him upright. When he steadied, he continued. When he felt like he was close, he took his gloves from his hip pocket and worked his hands into them, pulling the Velcro straps tight around his wrists. He knelt and took hold of a cinder block, and flung it from him. Then another; more.

*****

Jason sawed the last reasonable length from the tulip poplar’s trunk and let go of the chainsaw’s trigger, a tiny bit enchanted, as always, by the motor’s soft decline. As it eased he began to hear the Professor yelling—behind him, up toward the street—and he turned to look.

The Professor had raised one arm to the remains of the house, like some kind of ancient salute, and waved it every now and then. “Whoa—hey!” he shouted. “Hey! Whoa! You can’t do that! We’re not supposed to be doing that!”

Jason followed the Professor’s line of vision. He saw all manner of debris fly through the air in crazed, inconsistent arcs—a sheet of tar paper jerking up and swaying down, the back of a wooden chair spinning on an axis as it traced a parabola. In the center of all the arcs somebody hunched, head down to the task, and Jason knew it would be Aaron before he saw that it was so.

Everyone in that yard, and in the yard next door, was looking at him. The Professor continued shouting from just beyond what had been walls. Jason set down his chainsaw and started toward him, and as he did he saw the sturdy man next door confer with a big, bearded man in sunglasses. They started toward him too.

“I told him he wasn’t supposed to be in there,” the bearded man said.

“Hey,” the sturdy man shouted at Aaron, “you’re gonna get yourself or somebody else hurt doing that.”

“I told him he’s not supposed to,” the Professor said.

“Little punk thinks he knows better …”

“Y’all calm down and back off a sec,” Jason said. He climbed into the house the same way Aaron had, and approached him from six o’clock, and started talking to him well before he was near him.

“Aaron, man, what you doing there, honcho?”

“Trying to find whatever’s making that stink.”

“Cool, man, that’s a good idea. Well, hell, actually it might be a terrible idea, since personally I wouldn’t want to lay eyes on whatever’s making that kind of a smell.

“In fact, I think that idea sucks. I think that’s about the damn stupidest idea you’ve ever had.

“And that’s saying something.

“’Cause you’ve had some stupid ideas.”

At last Aaron said, “Fuck you.”

“Can I pull you away from your shitty idea long enough to help me with something?”

“What you need help with?”

“I want to start on something over here, and I don’t think any of these college kids pack the gear for it.

“At least, I’d feel better if it was you working on it with me.”

“Sure,” Aaron said. He stood and looked at Jason. “What you wanting to start on?”

Jason looked back, at the limit of his imagination.

“What the fuck, man,” Aaron said. He turned his back to Jason, hunkered down. “I got to find whatever it is that stinks so bad.”

Jason stepped off the last load-bearing floorboard and skipped down the pile, with more quickness than care, to get to Aaron before he flung more of the house into the air.

“Buddy—shit!—Aaron, man, listen—fuck!—Aaron.” He reached his friend and held onto his shoulders, as if he had caught himself from falling. He spoke just above a whisper into his ear. “Everybody’s looking. They’re all having a shit-fit over this. They’re all looking over here at you like you’ve snapped, and pretty soon they’re going to start whispering about PTSD or some shit.”

Aaron turned, and his grin scared Jason, but only a very little. “I ain’t snapped.”

“I know it, but they don’t.”

“So? Screw them.” Aaron looked at the three men standing at parade rest beside the ruin of the east wall. “Screw you.” He looked straight at the bearded, sunglassed man. “Screw you, especially.”

“You little shit punk …”

Aaron probably would have made it, probably would have gotten out of Jason’s reach in time, if he hadn’t been standing on a jagged, crumbling pile. As it was, Jason got a hold of Aaron’s T-shirt, enough to get his other arm around his chest, and he struggled to keep a hold and keep them both upright.

“Aaron, man, stand down. Stand down!

“Come on, buddy, let’s take a walk. Let’s take a walk, man, come on.”

Jason pushed him toward the bottom of the pile, and they had to jump a gap between it and the foundation. They walked around and behind the intact west wall, away from the men and most of the watching crowd, and up to the street. The college kids pretended to work so they could watch without staring. In pockets of them here and there, within the knots in which they’d gathered, one guy among them would say something he thought was funny, and other kids would spurt laughter, and stifle more. Once Aaron walked beyond the yard they returned to their appointed tasks: mostly carrying, toting limbs and Jason’s logs to one pile at the street, toting house wares and house pieces to another pile that completed their transformation into trash. Some of the students worked with donated rakes, gathering the nails and paper and tiny scraps out of the torn and weedy grass. They did what they could do, and they didn’t have to be doing it.

If Jason hadn’t left his chainsaw down by the poplar, he’d have put Aaron in his truck and just left. Instead he got Aaron started walking, up the ridge, toward the cross street and the next block. “Yeah, I’m good,” he got Aaron to say, and when he had, he started back. He didn’t know if he was walking back to get to work again, or to collect their tools and go. That depended on the others. Jason expected that, one way or another, he was walking back to calm and to explain. He expected that he could; he’d seen and heard sergeants and fire captains do it. He figured the Professor would understand, or pretend to, but he’d probably ask them to leave either way. Jason could see the situation from the Professor’s position, responsible as he was for all those cared-for kids (kids, Jason thought, goddamn; we’d have gone to high school together) and their well-being. Those two men from next door might understand; they looked the right age to have served in Vietnam. Or they could have dodged it, and already Jason had learned that those were the least likely to give two shits. The two men seemed severe and hard-working, prosperous enough in whatever fields they’d chosen, and life had justified them at least to themselves. They were, in fact, just the kind of men that Jason and Aaron expected to be. That’s why they’d joined up; that’s why they were here now—so they could deserve some justification on down the line.

*****

Aaron kept walking, and knew that walking was supposed to drain the temper from him, but he was just getting angrier. He could feel it whirring around inside him, spinning faster and faster and growing, straining against the confines of his skin. He could feel it crowding out all thoughts except of shame and injustice. He walked those residential streets, emptied of all the residents, between rows of volunteers’ cars, stuck up and marked with team colors and yellow ribbons and the red, white and blue, and what the hell did they know, all of them assembled here to help and to be seen helping, and what could they do, what could they really do?

They’d shamed him. They’d talked to him like a damn child, like one of those college kids who didn’t know or care what kind of shoes to wear into destruction. No, worse; they didn’t talk to rich-ass college kids like that. What did they know about him, about who he was and what he’d done and what he deserved? All he’d been trying to do was something useful, something good.

He came upon a corner lot and noticed that no crew worked in it. The debris lay ungathered in the yard. The damage was near complete; the house had failed against the elements. Aaron heard a scurrying, a shifting from within the bricks. A man was in the pile, as Aaron had been, rummaging, searching, but without gloves, method, or heed.

Aaron watched for a minute before he said, “Buddy, you need some help?”

“You believe this shit? You believe this shit?” The man was frantic, digging at the bricks and boards with his bare hands. “I don’t believe it. I don’t. Jesus God.”

The man stopped, stood. He shook his head. He laughed. “I wasn’t feeling good. I didn’t feel good, so I came home early. I came home early, and I went to sleep. I kicked off my shoes and stretched out and went to sleep. I woke up, and it was like … it was …” He shook his head again, laughed again. “It wasn’t just the house shaking. It was the Earth. It was the Earth that was being shook. My poor old house just happened to be on it.” He bent again to the pile.

“It’s a genuine miracle. A miracle. I know. But now …”

Aaron had not the slightest idea of the right thing to say. The man flipped over a board, examined whatever was underneath, and put his hands to his head. “It’s no use. It’s no goddamn use. I can’t find it.”

“What are you looking for, sir?”

The man pointed across the pile. A single brown leather boot sat on a stack of bricks. “My other boot. How the hell can I get started on this without my boots?” The man clamored, stumbled, out of the pile. He sat on the grass with his legs splayed out before him and began to cry and cuss.

Aaron breathed as if he’d been struck. He climbed into the remains of the house and began to shift each constituent part.

Front cover of The Shoe Burnin': Stories of Southern Soul.