The Johnstown Flood
Words by Aidan Pollock.
The story of the Johnstown flood was passed down through the townspeople like a dark and wretched heirloom. With every telling it acquired certain embellishments; signatures of memory, dedicated to those lost, attributed by those encumbered with first-hand experience of that endless night.
Like all children her age Marie had been told her parent’s version of the story. While subdued, further details beyond what they divulged could be seen in the faces of the older townspeople and the remnants of houses that once stood upon the banks of the Conemaugh River.
In the back corner of the Old Hundredth, Marie sat wedged between the wall and a table, tracing a pair of initials carved into it years ago, her body pointed towards the door. As the hinges whined she looked up, only to return her interest to the divots before her.
Absentmindedly she pulled at the fibres of her jacket sleeve, every now and then catching the face of her watch. Had she gotten the time wrong? She pulled the letter from her pocket and read it through again;
OH. Tuesday, 11pm.
It was now twenty past, something must have happened. She shoved the letter back into her pocket and left the bar.
The sound of the countryside rebounded against the barfront as she paced the length of the veranda. Headlights from the cars driving down Mansion street scattered Marie’s thoughts. Each time one passed she tried to make out the occupants of each vehicle. Overhead, the faint sound of an aeroplane sifted through the cracks of the portico.
Gravel against gravel. Somebody was coming. She had stopped pacing now, her eyes fixed into the darkness that hung just beyond the railing, Footsteps echoed against the silence and cicadas. Marie held her breath as the footsteps ceased. A voice came low.
“Been waiting long?”
“Christ, Frankie, where have you been?”
“I needed to take care of something.” Frankie mounted the steps. “Come on, I left the truck a couple of streets away.”
Marie opened her mouth as Frankie turned, his body dissolving into night before she had time to respond.
“It was my father’s truck,” Frankie said as he ran his hands across the dashboard. “He passed a few months ago, left it to me as some sort of peace offering I suppose.”
“Shit. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright. I never even knew he was dying. From what I squeezed out of the lawyers he knew for some time.”
Frankie rolled down the window and spat onto the rolling bitumen. He turned onto a side street and eyed the numbers upon their patios, the wheels of the truck coming to a stop as Frankie parked in the driveway across from a half-destroyed house, one of the few still standing in the neighbourhood.
“Stay here will you, I have to meet someone. I’ll only be a second.”
From the passenger seat Marie gazed at the house lit by the truck’s headlights. Severe water damage had forced the left side deep into the ground, lending it the lopsided smile of a head-cocked madman. On the lawn fence posts broke through weeds like sun-bleached bones through a shallow grave.
Frankie’s figure diminished as he walked to the house, reaching its empty door frame. Marie watched as he vanished into the house’s open mouth, her hands clenching and unclenching in the dip of her lap. Above and on either side of the door frame were two windows—gaunt and sunken depressions—which peered out at Marie as she tried to control her breathing. She brought her hands to her head and focused on the rise and fall of her chest. By the time she looked up again Frankie was halfway across the street. She watched as he covered with his shirt a small object fitted into the waistband. of his jeans.
The night of the Johnstown flood occurred on May 31st, 1889. After days of heavy rain, the South Fork Dam located upstream of Johnstown broke and the veil between life and death separated. The ensuing deluge resulted in more than two-thousand deaths: Johnstown was decimated.
Years later Henri Barbusse, in his 1917 book Under Fire, declared that Hell is not the blasting of trumpets or the hush of death. Hell is water. Hell is raging torrents and a formless landscape of mirrors.
What, then, comes after Hell? What’s left when the waters subside and the veil falls back into place? For the residents of Johnstown the end of Hell is marked by those that sleep on the streets and the hundreds of crosses that line the highway running parallel to Lake Conemaugh. It is desperation clothed as hope, a cry for life that dies in the throat.
It’s Frankie’s truck as it idles in the parking lot of a gas station far beyond the edge of town.
“Are we stopping for gas?”
Frankie rubbed his bloodshot eyes.
“Frankie? What are we doing here?”
He turned and looked at Marie.
He opened the door and exited the truck, walking to the entrance of the store.
“Good morning sir, how may I help you today?” The clerk behind the counter was young, not much older than 17.
Frankie muttered a response as he browsed a pile of magazines.
“You’re lucky, those just came in today, hot off the press,” the clerk smiled.
Frankie turned to the counter holding one of the magazines.
“Birdwatching enthusiast huh?”
The clerk knelt to grab a paper bag.
Frankie reached into his belt, and as the clerk rose Frankie levelled the revolver at his head.
The clerk’s hands lay shaking by his side, his eyes pulled towards the underside of the counter, if he could just reach down and…
“Hands where I can see them.” Frankie’s arm trembled, a sudden weight covered his body, the barrel of his revolver trembling in his grasp. On the wall opposite Frankie a telephone rang. Neither man moved.
The door opened, Marie standing in its frame.
Frankie turned to Marie as a gunshot tore through the confined space. Marie screamed as he stumbled, a red patch blossoming across his shirt. Frankie clutched his chest. The clerk threw the shotgun to the floor, fleeing to the storeroom.
The pool of blood breathed and expanded across the tiles of the gas station floor, spreading through their edges and coming to rest against the yellow-and-blue vending machine.
Marie guided Frankie over the darkening patch, his arm over her shoulder. She led him to the truck, her in the driver’s seat, him in the passenger’s.
“Fuck, Fuck, Fuck. Okay, you’re going to be okay.”
The truck flew down the highway, weightless as it headed towards town.
“You’re going to be okay, just keep your eyes on me.”
Marie was forced to slow down, up ahead a procession of cars blockaded the road. From where she sat, Marie could make out the blue-and-red lights of a car accident.
Frankie coughed, blood spattering the dashboard, his arm raised. Marie’s eyes traced his arm as it pointed off into the shoulder of the road, his finger almost dipping into the trailing waters that pressed against the highway.
Frankie bled out in Marie’s embrace on the shore of the Conemaugh River, his blood mixing with her tears and the sand, before finally streaming into the moving water. Marie’s cries faded into the distance as his blood drifted downstream, his soul stretching and shimmering under sunlight and birdcall.