The dead wild hog in their front yard is drawing flies. They sit side by side Saturday in the incredible mass of rubble and ruin dumped onto their lives by Hurricane Katrina. They are shaded from the harsh Mississippi sun by a plywood board propped against a tree. They have dug a small pit in the dirt to cook supper for themselves and the dogs. They sleep under a found tarpaulin -- Patricia on a cot, Bobby on a rug, close enough to hold hands.
All around them this beach town smashed to smithereens -- ghostly streets of destroyed buildings and vanquished lives. Camped indefinitely on this spot that used to be home, Patricia Pawlak and Bobby Anderson have found the one thing that can't be swept away.
"I broke a rib saving her," says Anderson, 51, a former Marine. He wears a casino cap and under other circumstances would look like somebody who owns a bunch of Jimmy Buffett CDs. He says he has had a stroke and two heart attacks. Things weren't going so swell in his world until he met Pawlak, 58, a few years ago.
Since then life has been real good.
Pawlak has one of those great weather-edged faces that can be either tough or pretty, depending on her smile. She had a job cleaning houses. Anderson got a monthly check from the government. They pooled their resources, took in a few dogs, rented the three-bedroom, paper-shingled shotgun house at 128B Oak St., in the shadow of the Grand Casino. (The house is in the yard next door now, crumpled in the trees.)
A construction worker friend, Joe Brooks, 41, moved in with them to share the rent, which was $540 a month. They fixed the place up nice. "Every month when my check came we would do one nice thing," Anderson says. One month they went to an art gallery nearby and bought a painting of a boat.
"Oh man," says Anderson, choking up a little. "That picture was so beautiful."
They painted up the home. Fixed what needed fixing. Anderson took great pride in cleaning their home while Pawlak cleaned other people's houses. Now she doesn't even know if there are any houses left for her to clean.
Anderson says: "I was like Hazel."
Brooks says: "Mr. Belvedere is more like it."
Sometimes Anderson and Brooks took their small blue skiff out in the calm Gulf waters and caught fish for frying. When 128B Oak St. was finally decorated the way they wanted it, the friends celebrated with a barbecue. That was last Saturday night. Two days later Katrina took everything they had. Well, almost everything.
There were still the dogs. Five of them, including a little black puppy that had been abandoned. (They named her Katrina.)
The three friends watched from their window as the first grand surge of water rolled toward their house. Brooks, who had spent 13 years in the Navy, knew it was trouble. "I was in one typhoon," he says. "Winds got clocked at 210."
This time it wasn't the wind. It was the water. As Anderson describes it: "a five-foot sea of debris." Anderson helped Pawlak swim to the roof of a garage next door. "She's my baby," he says, reaching over and touching the wind-worn skin of her arm.
Brooks went after the dogs.
He grabbed the skiff that was stored behind the house. He fashioned a paddle out of an old board. He found all the dogs but one -- a little Chihuahua-type scoundrel named Buddy. But there was nowhere for Brooks to paddle -- the boat was pinned against a pair of trees as Katrina's waters banged on for hours.
Anderson says there is no way they could have evacuated. "We don't have any transportation," he says. Pawlak takes the bus to work.
Anderson: "We did not panic."
Brooks: "I generally like to play stuff down. Thirteen years in the Seabees tends to make one stoic."
Anderson believes in the power of humor. "I saw a cooler floating past," he says. "I yelled out, 'Anybody want a beer?' "
Pawlak laughs at the memory.
Turning to the setting sun, Anderson says, "We lost everything."
They eat off a found picnic table. Brooks thinks it came from the patio of a beachside bar. "We had finally got on our feet," Anderson says. "We had a little money in our pockets. We were going to take a trip to New Orleans."
Anderson wanted to see the zoo and drink in an Irish pub. He laughs at the thought that New Orleans may now be No Orleans. He's not sure he'll ever get to take that trip, for lots of reasons.
Too many shattered lives are represented in this one puny patch of Mississippi land. The yard is a vomit of children's toys, Mardi Gras beads, a fancy boat and motor, twisted iron gates, asphalt shingles, nail-riddled wood, a bicycle, coffee mugs, sneakers, a Santa Claus hat, two circular saws, two fishing rods and a waterlogged baseball card album, among other things. It looks like the bottom of a drag-line arcade game.
Joe Brooks is a wiry old boy with dark blond hair and mustache. He wears a straw hat, a T-shirt and shorts, rubber sandals,and tattered Ace bandages wrapped around an injured hand and a foot that has been cut to the bone.
Friends come by and bring food. The cops have checked on them. They even brought Brooks a scavenged lounge chair to sleep in. They think they saw President Bush's motorcade drive by on Biloxi's main drag.
Brooks says he has never seen love like that between Bobby and Patricia. He believes that their deep affection may have saved them. And that his own kindness toward the dogs saved him. "I was about like Noah loading the animals up in the ark."
He didn't get them all. Wild hogs washed in from nearby Deer Island. And Buddy was missing, until he showed up alive the next day. Unfortunately, so did the boars.
"They'll eat you," Anderson says.
Anderson and Brooks are also concerned about looters. They take turns guarding what little they have -- some canned goods, a big bottle of whiskey and a yard full of random junk.