“I still dream I am drowning,” she says to me. “Some mornings I wake up and I can’t catch my breath, can’t make my lungs take in air, again.
“I can’t stand it. I still see water everywhere, how the bottoms of trees are still so dirty, even with all of this rain. And I see that other people don’t see it. I feel like I’m seeing a ghost. The empty shells of houses, the garbage still caught in fences. Everywhere I look is the ghost of water. How can they not see it?”
I had come to ask her about another ghost, a particular Alabaman who seems to haunt all over town with whom it was rumored she’d had a particularly strange run in, but this is what she wanted to talk about, for the little bit that she wanted to talk. She then bowed her head at her dressing table and squeezed her eyes shut. It felt so private that I almost turned away.
And then she sat up straight, wiped each eye with just the edge of her finger, and then followed that with the blotting of a tissue.
“Well,” she said, “No one came to see me being a big ole baby about this.” And so she stared in the mirror, fussing with her hair, trying on two or three different smiles, and finally, sliding into her sequined jacket.
And just like that, she was the singer, grateful and delighted to be performing for her audience, as if she had no care in the world, but how to best entertain you. I was struck by the thought of all the women in this city who have steeled themselves by swallowing their grief, as if showing you a sweet face, no matter the circumstances, was the bodily equivalent of “Bless your heart.”
It was an act designed to wither you, if you knew how to read it. But one you could perform in public and never be taken as rude by the clueless people you meant it towards.
She went over to the door frame with an old tube of lipstick and made a mark, right at chin level, like you would to measure the growth of a child.
“I know,” she said, “We’re all supposed to be over it by now. But I still need this.”
“What is that?” I said.
“That’s how high the water came up in my house. There’s not a place I go now I don’t leave the water’s mark.”