Sunday, July 15, 2012

Scriptic Prompt Exchange: "Storm Front Coming"

[For the Scriptic prompt exchange this week, Jester Queen gave me this prompt: "The shutters slapped against the house with every gust of wind, and I felt the house watching me. This was alone. This was bad." I gave kgwaite this prompt: " 'The thing about life that gets me crazy is that by the time you learn it all, it's too late to deal with it.' -Ozzy Osbourne"]

{Author's Note: I feel once again moved to note that what follows is foofaraw and nonsense. I also feel obligated to point out that I disassembled the quote I was given, sprinkling it throughout. Feel free to look.}

I woke up early. This was normal. I slept when I was tired, and I woke up when my brain decided it was tired of sleeping. The morning sun was occluded by hard, scudding gray clouds that rushed by like they had somewhere else to be. So there was light, but a gray light that had bad intentions. I looked at it for a moment, then turned on the couch and put my bare feet on the floor. No use in waiting any longer.

My son had insisted that I have a television, partially to assuage his Internet fueled ADD when he came to visit, but nominally so that I would have easy access to weather reports. I really didn't have any need for them. I walked everywhere, and if it rained, I sought shelter and sketched or wrote or read until it got calm enough for me to resume my travels. Or, I just got wet. But my son and his pretty wife insisted, and I could never say no to a pretty face. So I let him buy it and install it. It was easier than arguing with them.

I grabbed the remote and flicked the set on. I kept it on NBC, mostly because I had a crush on the morning news lady. Once in a while I would flip around, looking for a movie or a ballgame, but it generally stayed silent. I sometimes considered hurling the thing into the ocean, but I didn't want to do that to the fish. Sometimes you needed noise, though, even artificial, annoying noise, so I turned it on to keep me company while I decided on breakfast.

My crush was on, her brown face filling the screen, her dark eyes round and serious. I saw the colored crawl at the bottom of the screen. It was listing counties and locations, blank, featureless capitals describing potential wind speeds, areas of damage, counties that should evacuate, counties that were being forced to do so. I knew the storm was coming- you didn't live somewhere for too long without learning where the weather came from, and where it generally went afterwards. I knew it was going to be bad, that much was clear from the preparations that were being made in town, and the increasingly frantic calls from my son and his wife.

I went to the refrigerator, removing one of the bottles of water I had prepared, and took out a half sandwich from last night. I added some mustard to the sandwich and ate it, chewing slowly over a paper towel as my girlfriend continued talking about directions and wind speeds and timelines, standing next to a blonde meterologist who was much taller than she was. They kept cutting to the satellite imagery, the stutter step march of clouds whipping around that tight, perfect circle at the center. I knew the more beautiful they looked, the more terrifying they were. Just like women, I thought, stifling a chuckle and almost choking on the sandwich.

I remembered the old joke that hurricanes were just like women in another way- they were wet and wild and when they left, half your stuff was gone. It was a mildly crude joke, meant to represent divorce, I assumed, but it didn't apply to me. The only thing I had left when my wife left, cruelly stolen by breast cancer right before she turned 50, was this house and a round hole where my optimism used to be. The news took a break for an auto dealer making outrageous promises, followed by a politician doing the same. I thought about shutting it off as I finished the sandwich and crumpled up the towel, but I reflected that my girlfriend would be back on soon, and with that storm bearing down on our little island the way it was, the power would be out soon anyway.

The police had been by last night, telling each house in turn that they strongly recommended evacuating. The pair that came to my house were Ellie, a pug nosed little Latina, and John Martin, I listened to what they had to say, calmly refusing their offer of a ride off the island into a shelter. "There's water, and food, and a nice clean cot," Ellie offered. "You can sit there and write and read and nap to your heart's content." I thanked them both kindly, declining again and letting them go, shutting the door on Martin's puzzled face. Martin was fresh out of the Academy, drunk on power and not used to being told "no".

I was staring out the kitchen window, watching the racing clouds and listening to the rain, which was starting slowly, but already being whipped by the wind into stinging pellets. There was a knock at the door. I went over and opened it.

It was Chloe, the startlingly pretty young wife of Andrew, the hotshot stockbroker who lived next door. They had a young girl, Emily, who would always wave when I walked by her on the beach, and given the way Chloe's soft cotton dress bulged in the middle, there would soon be another mouth to feed. I hoped Andrew was doing well, because I didn't envy anyone paying for the cost of two weddings.

"Mr. Johnson?" The rain was already starting to pepper her hair and make her dress cling to her strong legs.

"I told you, Chloe, Steven is fine."

"Andrew wants to make sure you won't come with us. He feels terrible about leaving you behind. I do, too. This was...this is...alone. This is bad. " I never really liked the guy, partially atavistic jealousy because his wife was cute, partially dislike of what he did for a living. He was always perfectly kind to me, though. I should really learn to get over myself.

"That's very nice of you. Both of you. I appreciate it. But I'm fine."

"You won't come with us? There's room. Andrew got a suite, about 100 miles inland." There was. They drove a Land Rover, some gas swilling monstrosity that could probably seat a whole hockey team. But I couldn't imagine being that near her for that long. She was young enough to be my daughter, but I was old, not dead. Yet.  

"That's sweet of you to offer. But no."

"You're sure?," Chloe said, shifting her weight onto her other hip. She was already starting to carry herself differently, fatigue drawing lines on her face even at this early stage. I marveled at how anyone can, knowing how it feels, voluntarily go through all that again.

"I'm positive. Thank you."

"Be safe, Mr. Johnson."

"I will, Chloe. Thank you for your concern." She walked away, waddling slightly, tossing her wet blond hair out of her eyes. I watched her get into the giant truck and leave, staring at the brake lights until they went out of sight. Behind me, my cell phone, another purchase my son insisted on, buzzed incessantly. I ignored it. It was either my son, or my nephew, or someone else calling to ensure I had gotten to high ground. I could lie to them, or I could just ignore it, claiming I had forgotten to turn it on.

I heard a first serious gust, water like bullets against the glass, then pouring more steadily. Outside, the grinding wheels of a police SUV over the sand that had blown onto the road. They were making announcements over the hailer, telling us all that the evacuation was now mandatory. The wind carried away the rest of the words, but I knew what they meant. You were on your own. If you somehow managed to call for help, the authorities felt no obligation to respond until the storm was over.

I looked at the screen again, the blonde meteorologist now alone in front of the map, pointing out places where she hoped everyone was out, because the damage was going to be severe. Her manicured fingernails brushed over my island, describing gusts over 100 miles per hour for the next several hours. I watched her teeter on her heels, seeing the seriousness on her face but also a tiny, buried thrill. On some level, she loved weather events, because she was the center of the story, and tall blondes, while they claimed to hate it, loved being the center of anything.

There was a gust, and a rolling clap of thunder, and the power went out, cutting off the blonde in midsentence. Saves me doing it, I thought.

I had packed a bag already- all it needed was a couple of the cold bottles of water, and I would be OK for a day or two. If I couldn't find help by then, I wasn't going to make it anyway. I kept a notebook and pens in there, along with a couple of paperbacks, locked away tight in a plastic case to further protect them from the elements. Some energy bars and a pocketknife, and I had cash, and a flashlight with fresh batteries.

It's suicide to stay on the islands, the blonde had said. She didn't have it quite right, at least not in my case. I couldn't expect her to. She was speaking to maybe 3 or 4 million people in the metropolitan area, not just to me, and she would probably assume, like many people, that if someone was dumb enough to stay here, after having multiple chances to leave, they deserved what they got. She probably had a nice life, full of cocktail parties and fine dining, and she couldn't imagine sacrificing it. She was probably 27, and she had that luxury. The luxury of good looks and a fat paycheck and a future as long and beautiful as her legs and her five hundred dollar shoes.

I thought about Chloe and Andrew and Emily, probably queueing for the bridge, Emily looking fearfully at the wind and the rain. Chloe was probably talking to her brightly, her voice high and cheery, talking about all the fun they were going to have at the hotel. Andrew sure and confident, cursing the slowness of the traffic but knowing he had matters under control. He didn't. No one did, but in order to be him, he had to believe that he did.

It wasn't suicide that made me stay. It wasn't a misplaced pride in the house's quality. It had withstood some bad storms, but the last Category Five that hit this area was long before this place was built. It wasn't stubbornness- I was stubborn, certainly, refusing as much truck with the rest of the world as I could possibly manage to avoid. "A man is rich," I said under my breath, "in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone." Thoreau. I was stubborn, but it wasn't stubbornness that kept me here.  

It was a fatigue. Not just a physical fatigue, although that was part of it. No matter how much I slept, and I slept every minute my brain would let me, I was always a little tired. It was more a spiritual fatigue, a mental fatigue. I was tired of it, all of it. Family obligations, social obligations, physical obligations. I didn't want to do myself in- that was an act with ramifications, something that would fill my families with questions and guilt. I just wanted to bare my breast, metaphorically, to the universe. Here, take a shot. You want me? Here I am.

If the universe didn't want me, I'd keep going. I had plenty of money. There were still books I hadn't read. I never finished all of Tolstoy, the way I said I would. Maybe I would write another book. I wasn't averse to going on, necessarily. I just wasn't eager about it. Maybe some widow would take pity on a foolish old man with no hair. Maybe my son and his wife would have a grandchild. The wind blew more steadily, with gusts that made the building shake and shiver in ways it never had. The rain was pelting down. I had been out in rain like that before, and it was no fun. If the house did implode, I was going to get awfully uncomfortable. But I had been uncomfortable before.

People would miss me. At least, I hoped so. But I knew there wasn't any real use for me anywhere. I felt like I had done my part, and it was time. Lightning flashed, and there was an immediate boom of thunder. I remembered the old saying- that meant it was right on top of me. People don't want you. They might want you to do something, but when it comes down to it, people don't need you around. They have their own lives, their own problems. I felt distant, outside of myself like I was watching myself get assaulted by the storm.

I thought about reading, but instead, I just turned and looked out the window. The wind was pounding so furiously you could hardly see. Somewhere down the hill, the ocean, chopped into froth by the insistent wind, was probably surging closer. That wouldn't be a terrible fate, I thought, washed out to sea, eventually becoming fish food. Circle of life, all that. I had consumed, and consumed, and taken more than my share of resources from the world. I had done what I could, and now it was time to be consumed in turn. 'Twas ever thus.

I was at peace. Either it would happen or it wouldn't. Just like everything else.

The shutters slapped against the house with every gust of wind, and I felt the house watching me, telling me I shouldn't be here.  The house seemed to be yielding to the weather, this storm finally being the one stress it couldn't handle. The house was swaying, buckling, ready to go over, timbers smashed to kindling, becoming part of the ecosystem again. I understood how it felt.