from Rhythms on a Flaming Drum

by Michael Hopping

The face is weary. Xan’s flashlight sweeps across it in the wreckage of the Barboro Hotel. It stares from wood-ribbed cavities under fallen ceilings. It hovers in curtains of dust. It speaks to him. The things it says, he doesn’t want to hear. It won’t hold still. He swings his sledge at it anyway. Flying shards of concrete sting and stick. His mouth films with grit. He spits, thick, nasty. Takes another futile cut with the hammer. The dying in pursuit of the dead.

The face belongs to Lightning Johnson, Barboro desk manager and old-school bluesman. No card in his deck is a ticket to disagree and he deals them anyhow he wants. The yellowed eyes behind his sleepy lids mean business. “I leaves you be,” he tells new tenants. “But if I says a thing, hear me.” He jerks a nickel-plated pistol from his pants and thumbs the hammer. “Elsewise, Lightning do my talking.”

Xan’s first room in Memphis was on the young-buck eighth floor—Mr. Johnson tired of dragging old derelicts down from there, stiff or stroked out. Xan had 861: saggy bed, washstand, armoire with peeling veneer, shared bathroom. He also had the drummer’s chair in The Lightning Johnson Band. Mr. Johnson didn’t care how it looked, having a white boy play. But for those regular gigs on Beale Street, Xan couldn’t have afforded to rent a tiny house the quake didn’t knock down.

That first afternoon, he and his neighbors grilled and boiled food that wouldn’t keep. Clouds flickered with strange rainbows. Some said from the earthquake. Others thought it the end of the world. He slept in his backyard, fearful of aftershocks. In the morning the couple next door left to stay with relatives in Ohio. Xan walked to the hotel to check on Mr. Johnson.

Few vehicles attempted the obstacle course of the streets. Those that gambled and lost could be unstuck for a price. Several commercial buildings displayed signs of instability or collapse. People congregated where it seemed safest, or kept company with injured folks waiting for medical attention unlikely to arrive.

Mid-morning sun glared on the rubble of the Barboro’s east and north wings. Anyone in 861 when the quake struck lay buried under tons of brick. The west side of the horseshoe, including the main entrance, stubbornly refused to fall. No one loitering on the street admitted to seeing Lightning Johnson but those who knew him were sure he survived. Said one, “Devil booted his black ass out of hell three, four times already.”

Two days later, with Mr. Johnson still unaccounted for, Xan has returned to the Barboro with a sledgehammer, to lend the devil a hand. The gloom that faded to black in the lobby existed in a reality now lost to him. He has wakened to a darker dream. His body follows a maroon stripe painted on the wall of the service corridor. It delivers him to a dead-end reeking of gasoline and corpses where the parking garage should be. Mr. Johnson’s face stares from between broken slabs, advises him to reverse course. His fingers bump along the maroon line back toward the lobby.

Walls begin to shake and a thunder fist of dirty air drops him. Somewhere above, a landslide. Rats streak by in the dust, too panicked to concern themselves with another body.

He picks himself up and starts forward again. Beyond the laundry room and kitchen the painted lifeline disappears in the chaos of a fresh cave-in. His route is sealed. The kitchen doors to his right are heavy-gauge steel, pinioned shut top and bottom, warped in their jambs. He takes off his pack, props the flashlight, trains it on the doors. Hammering at them makes his ears ring, but a gap opens. He squeezes through it into a tangle of girders, conduits, tables and scraps of putrid, powdered flesh. The upstairs ballroom is in the kitchen. Mr. Johnson’s face is here too.

There’s no hope of reaching the dining room, already trashed before this last shock. He hears keening. Not steam. Not rats. Not the face of Lightning Johnson. Not from the dining room. The other direction. He scrambles to investigate. He shouts. It quits.

It begins again, this time accompanied by a voice deeper than Mr. Johnson’s. “Praise you, Jesus. We’re here.”

“Where?” Xan yells.

“The walk-in,” the voice replies. Albert Griles says he and his daughters, Shawna and La-trice, are trapped in the kitchen cold room. “Until the food thawed, my babies like to froze.”

Steel, concrete and close quarters hamper Xan’s approach. He almost gets there. The nearness of the voices tells him that. But no gap in the rubble takes him the entire way. At the spot where the crying is loudest he delivers that news and an alternate plan.

Albert tells his daughters everything will be all right, begs Xan to memorize his mama’s phone number.

Xan doesn’t voice his own doubts. He retreats to the hallway and breaks into the laundry. Empty space engulfs his flashlight beam. Pale rectangles in the distance gel into canvas carts. Linens spill from a dryer. In its glass porthole, Mr. Johnson’s face bleeds. Xan ignores it. On the left side of the room are washing machines. He climbs on top of one and taps the wall.

Albert’s shout comes from farther along, in the sorting area. Xan locates the spot, but not until the dryer doors have been smashed—he’ll not have Mr. Johnson staring. The cement-filled block wall separating the laundry from the kitchen area shatters almost as easily as dryer glass, leaving a mesh of reinforcing rods. Across a narrow plumbing gap there’s a second block wall. Girls scream as he hammers it.

Albert, however, is elated. “You’re almost here, man. I feel you.”

Xan exposes a layer of moldy insulation foam he can’t reach with his hands. A sledgehammer isn’t the ideal tool for spreading rebar mesh but he makes do. The foam covers sheet metal that dents under his sledge. Doesn’t want to tear.

Then it does. But it catches the hammer. Albert frees it and a rush of foul air. Outhouse. Rotten meat.

“What did I say?” Albert tells his daughters. “The Lord sent this man. He’ll have us out in a jiffy.”

Xan attacks the tear, rebar impeding his strokes. “Albert,” he says, “if you take the sledge can you widen that hole?”

“If I could see better.”

Xan strains to hand him a long flashlight.

La-trice is first into the laundry room, then Shawna. The girls, in grimy jumpers and jeans, hide whimpering under a sorting table. Their father is a while getting through the rebar. When he does, the big man locks Xan in a bear hug, lifts him off the floor.

“Oh, Lordy,” Albert says. “Oh, Lordy.” Shawna and La-trice scurry to latch onto his legs.

He sets Xan down.

“Glad to meet you too,” Xan says, catching his breath, trying not to puke from the stench of the man’s clothes. “Is there anyone else?”

Albert pats his daughters, apparently twins. “We’re the only ones. My wife can’t be with us. That’s why I bring my babies to my job. How do we go out?”

Xan explains the cave-in, that he’s trapped too, that he came for Mr. Johnson.

“That man’s not over me, praise God. I don’t guess you found him.”

“He’s dead.”

“You seen him?”

“He’s dead.”

“That’s hard, man. Not many would come here for Lightning Johnson. What’s your name?”

“I was his friend.”

Albert arches an eyebrow. “Then we’d best go.”

Xan shows them what they’re up against. Albert pokes his head into the kitchen. They inspect the rubble at both ends of the passage to the garage. The corridor wall across from the kitchen and laundry room is featureless concrete. The hotel’s west wing is on the other side of it. That’s their chance.

“Where do we start?” Albert asks.

Xan marks the maroon stripe with his sledge. “Shine a light here.” He takes a batter’s stance, unleashes a homerun swing at the line separating the lower Mississippi mud color from the pale lemon above. The hammer gets away, helicopters into the opposite wall and caroms toward Albert and his daughters.

“Man, you whipped,” Albert says. “My turn.” He lays into the concrete like a brawler overdue at his sweet thing’s house. A twin cries out, hit by chips. He pauses to check on her, resumes whaling away, breathing hard.

“No telling how thick that is,” Xan says. “Let’s not both be tired. Take it easy like they used to when the job lasted all day.”

Albert pounds on.

Xan claps a slow cadence. “Like this. Like they did laying track for the railroad. Let that hammer ring. Whop. Sing it to the Lord. Let your hammer ring. Whop.” Singing along gives the girls something to do besides fret.

Albert listens to his babies. His strokes and breathing calm. He adds his voice to the response lines—“Let this hammer ring.”

The concrete is old, hard. Xan’s manning the sledge when they encounter a layer of rotten plywood, then brick. Albert sees a white patch at the bottom of the elbow-deep crater. “That’s a window ledge,” he says, his light tracing an upward diagonal line. “Go this way. Brick is thin where they block up a window.”

The excavation inches higher. The hammer song adds verses. They persevere until they have an Albert-sized hole. As predicted, the window brick is only two layers, backed by lath and plaster. Xan’s hammer bounces off a 2x4 stud in the opening.

“No, man,” Albert says. “I’ll show you. Hit between studs.” The laths are springier than Albert thought. They crack, but he has to snap them off by hand. Behind the plaster, a wooden obstruction. He shoves at it with the hammer handle, strains until it gives way. They hear a crash. Xan’s light reveals trolleys of folding chairs. An armoire lies face down. He wriggles between the window frame and wall stud. As he pulls La-trice and Shawna into the storage room after him, another tremor rocks the hotel.

Still in the corridor, Albert prays at the top of his lungs.

“Give me the hammer,” Xan orders. “You girls, sing for your daddy.”

Two blows finish the stud barring their father. Xan has no chance to flatten splinters before Albert rolls across the armoire onto the floor, quivering and bloody, wild with fright.

Xan tries and fails to lift him to his feet. “Can’t stop now, Albert. Hear that hammer ring? No stopping now. Help us sing.”

“La-trice,” Xan says, “take my light. See that door over there? Open it for us.”

A girl scampers to it. “It’s locked,” she says.

“Unlock it, if you can.” A stripe of gray appears. “Is that daylight you see?” Xan sings.

“Let your hammer ring. Stand up now, Albert.”

“Let your hammer ring,” Albert answers. “Raise me up, Lord Jesus.”

Flashlights are unnecessary in the carpeted hall. It’s twilight in Memphis. They run through the lobby, out onto the sidewalk.

Electric lights blind them. They drop to their knees, cover their eyes, still singing.

A voice in Xan’s ear says, “When you’re ready, we’ve got water.” He blinks and squints at the Griles family. They’re doing the same. Another voice tells him, “This way.”

He gets up, dazzled by the lights, is directed to stand beside a TV personality. “We’re live and exclusive at the Barboro Hotel,” the woman gushes into a microphone. “Minutes ago this man led three people to safety, more than seventy-two hours after a magnitude 7.9 quake devastated the city.”

Lightning’s gore-spattered face appears in Xan’s mind, shocks him to attention.

The woman says, “What’s your name, sir?” She sticks a microphone under his nose.

These people have no right. They didn’t lift a finger for this neighborhood. “I’m not here to be exploited,” he says. “All is lost; can’t you see that?”

The woman begins again. “You saved three lives. How does it feel?”

Her question infuriates him. “Got to go now,” he says and walks over to the people with the water.

They urge him to sit but the television crew is on his heels. As he passes their satellite truck a water girl catches up. “Are you okay?” She hands him a bottle.

“What are they doing here?”

“They had microphones in the hotel. We heard singing.”

“Vultures.” He rinses grit from his mouth, takes a pull of water.

“The camp I volunteer for isn’t far.”

A pedestrian points at him, says something to her companions. They’re about to approach.

“How long was I on the damned TV?” he asks.

“I don’t know. A minute or two.”

“Long enough for those people over there to ID me?”

She looks, spins ahead to face him, grabs at the sledge. “Keep walking,” she instructs, going backward. “You’re my skunk of a boyfriend.” She yells, “You like jail, Melvin? Give that to me. Give it to me.” They tussle. “Looting? You’re lucky they don’t shoot you.”

The gawkers hustle by, in the direction of the hotel.

Xan smiles, his first of the day. “Melvin?”

She falls into step beside him. “Improv. You take what you get. Here’s where we turn for camp.”

“I have a place.”

“Please, let us help.”

“I’ll be fine.” They detour around a Chevy totaled by a streetlight. “Things are weird tonight, is all.”

“There must be something we can do.”

Her eyes are innocent, concerned. She believes what she says, but he’ll help himself.

“They recognized my clothes. Can I borrow your windbreaker? Just until I change? Your camp is in the project, right?”

“The DAN camp, blue and white tents.”

“I’ve been there.”

She takes off her jacket, gives it to him. “This is on loan. I’ll be around tomorrow morning. Return it then? So I know you’re okay? I won’t tell anyone. Ask for Caitlin.”

“Tomorrow morning,” he lies.

Lightning Johnson grins. Now you learning, white meat.

Michael Hopping’s short fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in Spoiled Ink, The Great Smokies Review, fresh, the Mad Hatters’ Review Blog, and The Chrysalis Reader. A novel, Meet Me In Paradise, was published in 2007. MacTiernan’s Bottle, a collection of short stories, appeared in 2011. His new novel, Rhythms on a Flaming Drum, was published in January by Pisgah Press. He lives near Asheville, North Carolina.