Today it’s time to use Dex’s “happy” pic. You’ll see why in a minute… Not sure I’m totally happy with the whole hurricane thing (I should probably move the lighthouse rescue up the stairs and away from the rising waters, etc.), but this is first draft, so there’s always time to fix it! And yeah, there were Red Cross shelters after all, so I’m okay there.
Dex froze at the sight of his neighborhood. What he thought was his neighborhood. What he was pretty sure was his street, from the curve of it. But he couldn’t see his house.
That was because a whole casino barge, formerly anchored at the waterfront, was in the middle of the street, obscuring his view. The storm had pushed it inland like a gigantic piece of flotsam. He walked towards it, afraid of what he’d find, sure that his house, his family, was flattened beneath it.
As he rounded the corner of what was left of the barge, he saw his mom, standing in front of a tumbledown thing that looked like their house.
“Mom!” he shouted, running toward her.
She looked up. “Dex! Oh, God I thought you were dead!”
He ran to her, hugged her with an animal ferocity. “Is everyone…”
“Yeah, we lived, thank God.” She looked to the side. “The barge pushed the house off the foundation, about thirty feet down the road. Oh Jesus I thought we were all dead then.”
“Where is everyone?”
“Trying to get into one of the Red Cross shelters. They’re full up though. I came back for your daddy’s asthma medication. I thought I could…” She looked at the house, began to sob.
“You can’t go in there,” Dex said. “That’s gonna fall down completely any minute, you know that.”
“I know. Our whole life is in there… Oh shit, Dex, what are we gonna do?”
“We’re gonna get you clean and dry and we’re gonna…we’re just gonna go from there.”
Dex had seen them on TV, of course – war refugees in far-away places, their faces in shock, huddled together, waiting for relief. Now he was one of them.
They couldn’t get clean, or dry. They lived outside their house because…there wasn’t anywhere else to go. There was no way out of town they could use to get to relatives, and they’d have to walk, anyway, because even if the roads were opened, who knew where the car was now. There was nobody to stay with in town, because nobody had electricity, running water, anything. Thank God it was August, anyway, and they wouldn’t freeze to death at night.
Somebody said there was a Salvation Army truck on the way. How it would get through, he had no idea. There was nothing to eat. No water to drink. The Federal government could conquer Afghanistan faster than it could get relief to Biloxi. What he heard about New Orleans made Dex shiver. The levees were gone, a whole city was just…lost.
The National Guard came in, to maintain order. Looting was the only way to find food and water, and Dex had turned his family into scavengers of the first rank. When they’d found a case of bottled water under some wreckage near the Quickie Mart, it had been like finding a chest of gold.
“Don’t,” he said, silencing their whoops. The law of the jungle was in effect, and any cries of triumph could bring bigger, stronger predators down on them.
It didn’t take long for folks to grab onto any strand of hope, however thin. The sight of a helicopter, could it be full of supplies? Or was it just the President, gazing down on them as someone took his picture, making sure he looked concerned? No, not yet – he’d only just cut short his vacation in Crawford, Texas, to return to Washington.
Then a rumor, a story, grew in dimension, as the cable news reporters descended. The hook to the story, the easy lead, was written for them, and they spread it like wildfire. There were over a hundred people dead in Biloxi, but the story became about four who lived.
Two grandparents, their grandchildren in tow, who’d been caught in the storm. A man in black, hooded in a rain slicker, had led them to safety in the Biloxi Lighthouse. The old man had cataracts and his wife had lost her glasses, and of course the children weren’t watching the man’s face. So they couldn’t say, who he was. A stranger, who’d risked his life to save theirs.
The media coined the phrase “The Angel of Biloxi,” of course, and the people of the city ran with it, embraced it, because it gave them what they needed – a miracle.
“It was an angel,” his mom said when she heard the story from a neighbor. “A real angel, from Heaven. That’s why they can’t find him.”
Dex froze. An awful sense of doom came over him. And he prayed, silently. Dear God, do…not…let anyone know it was me.
He couldn’t say why, yet. Why it would be the worst thing in the world, to be the Hometown Hero.
Lyrics started writing themselves in his head. “Hometown heroes are never alone, hometown heroes can never leave home…”
Yeah. They had to stay. Forever. Frozen into statues on green civic spaces, the arms that would hug him, the hands that would shake his hand, slap his back, would hold him here.
No. He would let them believe it was an angel. That was better anyway, wasn’t it? To let people think God himself had come down and saved those folks. With all the evidence around them that God could give a shit, they would cling to that story instead. It would give them hope. It would give them a little faith in the future.
“Yeah, momma,” he agreed. “It was an angel, for sure.”
“Oh my god, you’re alive,” Alex said with nearly gasping relief.
Dex had finally gotten his turn to make a call. It had killed him, knowing that Alex knew the death toll in Biloxi, and that it was entirely possible that Dex was one of the dead.
“Yeah, man. I’m alive. Fuck all if I know how.” He told Alex about the storm, up to the point where he found the grandparents and grandchildren. Then he hesitated.
“So…I wanna tell you a secret,” he said, hunching over and whispering, making damn sure none of the others waiting for the phone could hear him. “And you have to promise to never, ever tell anyone.”
“You got it.”
Dex recounted the story of the rescue. “And I just…you know, if I come forward, it’s over for me. I can’t…look, I can’t move to Athens now. I have to stay here for a while, to help my family.”
“Absolutely, no question. But what do you mean, it’s over for you?”
“I’ll be stuck here. They’ll…lionize me, they’ll bronze me, I’ll be like…”
“A fly in amber.”
Dex sighed. “Yeah.”
Alex hesitated. “Look, far be it from me…way far be it from me to want you to stay there, trust me. But. If you come forward, think of what it would do for your family. I mean, shit, look at those fucking poor fat people who took fertility pills and popped out what, seven kids they couldn’t possibly afford? And look at all the shit people just…gave them. Houses, money, everything.”
“Yeah. Yeah,” Dex sighed. The trap was closing, wasn’t it? What wouldn’t people give to the Angel of Biloxi and his family to restore their lives?
“And then, when you have all that taken care of, and the noise dies down, then you can slip away. Maybe a year from now. I mean, it’s your script, man. You’re not stuck in this script that’s gonna be written for you. Because you’re the Hero. You can get a scholarship, you can go to college.”
Alex laughed. “The Hero gets the girl, and if your girl is a career in music, nobody can stop you, Hero.”
“Yeah. Shit.” He laughed. “Thanks, man. I love you, you know.”
“I love you too. Get shit done, Dex, and I’ll…I’ll see you soon.”
“Yeah. Yeah, you will.”
He was a good boy. A good son. He would do what he had to do for his family. He walked away from the phone bank at the shelter and went in search of a TV news crew. He’d tell them everything.
“They found him!” someone shouted. “They found the Angel.”
Dex looked around. People were gathered around a TV set. There onscreen, a young man was being interviewed.
“I just did what anyone would do in that situation,” he said. THE ANGEL REVEALED was the tag onscreen.
Dex looked at him. He knew that guy. It was a kid from his high school! That little fucker!
He laughed. Rolling gusts of laughter that made people look at him funny, like he was crazy. But who wasn’t crazy, here, now?
The machinery was in motion now, without him. He looked at the faces around him. They were…alight with joy. They were riveted to the screen.
There was no way to step forward now without ruining it for them. Without making it something ugly, a dirty “he said/he said” competition for attention.
I’ll find a way, he swore. I’ll find another way to help my folks, my siblings. I don’t know how. But I will. And then…then I can live my own life at last.
Life went on, somehow. Nobody died of hunger or thirst, though it felt like it some days. They got cleaned up, they got on the list for a FEMA trailer.
A memorial service was planned. Dex stayed busy during the days, wielding a chainsaw on the roads to help clear fallen trees. But after a day of that, there was nothing to do other than sit around, killing time. Fortunately, one of the aid workers had a guitar, which he lent to Dex.
He couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said to himself just before the storm hit. How he’d wished the storm would come and take the whole town away. Well, it had. And of course that wasn’t his fault, it would have happened with or without his wish…but still.
He started writing a song. He loved John Hiatt, loved his song “Damn This Town.” It just…said everything about how he felt about Biloxi, before the storm. “Damn this town, I’m leavin’…” And then at the end, the singer reveals that he’s 58 years old and hasn’t left yet, so you know he won’t, can’t, it’s too late. It was a constant reminder to Dex that time could fly away from you, that your whole life could be over before you’d started it.
But now he looked around him, at the people who’d lost everything, who’d never had anything to begin with, for the most part. How could you damn them? How could you damn the town that wasn’t even here anymore?
He could play the music to “Damn This Town,” that was for sure. He’d played it a hundred times at least. Now he found himself writing new lyrics to the melody.
At the memorial, he swallowed hard as he went up to the stage. He’d never performed before anyone before. Other than Alex.
He looked out at the audience. They wanted something from him, some catharsis, something that would make sense of it all. He started to sing the new lyrics he’d written, softly at first, hesitantly.
It took my old school in a blast of wind
Save this town, it’s drownin’
All the buildings look like they’ve been skinned
Save this town, it’s drownin’
Then he found his voice. The voice he’d never dared to raise, singing so softly in the garage. He believed what he was singing. He believed in himself.
We had good homes and okay jobs
Save this town, it’s drownin’
Now we’re roaming, looking like slobs
Save this town, it’s drownin’
Save this town, I take it all back
Damn this town, I used to wisecrack
Damn this town, save this town
Afterwards, people congratulated him, thanked him. He walked away knowing something new about himself.
He could do it. He could sing and play and be a musician. He was a musician. Sure, they weren’t the greatest lyrics anyone had ever written. Sure, he’d had to borrow Hiatt’s structure to do it. But he had made that song what it was here, now, to those people. He’d made music, he’d made a moment.
Once that kid took credit for what he’d done, it had been like… It was his script now to write, entirely his.
For the first time in his life, Dex felt free as a bird.
When the CNN news crew approached him, his first thought was that the “Angel” had recanted. That he’d been identified at last.
“Dex? Dex Dexter?” the female reporter asked him.
“We wanted to interview you about the song you performed at the memorial service.”
He relaxed. “Yeah, sure.”
“You know that clip’s being used on news stations around the country?”
“Uh, no…” How could he? What a dumb question.
“You’re famous, Dex. What does that feel like?”
She handed him a telephone. “We have someone who wants to talk to you.”
Dex took the phone. “Hello?”
“Dex, this is Jonny Dawson. I saw your clip. You have some real talent, son.”
“Oh shit,” Dex said, ignoring the reporter’s frown. She’d hoped to get his reaction, no doubt, but not one she couldn’t use on TV.
Jonny Dawson was a country music legend, up there with Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison and the rest of the pantheon. He’d transferred from music legend to music mogul in his later years, shepherding the careers of other stars and growing enormously rich in the process.
Jonny laughed. “Yeah, no shit, huh? Listen, son. If you want it, I’ve got an apartment in Nashville for you and your family. And a record contract for you. Not just because you’re in need, neither. You’ve got something, son. Natural talent. Screen presence. All that shit. There’s a lot of development you’ll need, but I don’t wanna lose the opportunity to get you before someone else does. You interested?”
It had happened after all. It was a miracle. The Angel of Biloxi had come to save him, to lift him up and out of here. He would save his family, and himself.
“Yes. Yes, sir, I am.”