by Dean Jollay
Even with all the lights on, Harry’s living room was claustrophobic. In July he’d covered his bungalow’s windows with plywood. And now it was late August. Three hurricanes had hit Florida in the past six weeks. Hunkered down in his foxhole, waiting for the next incoming round to whistle across the sky and explode, he was sick to death of all these storms. Yet another, Arlene, was making landfall in less than twenty-four hours. If only he could raise his arms to surrender.
Sipping his first cup of coffee, he sat on the couch and scowled at the darkened TV screen, the messenger of unrelentingly bad news. Dare he turn it on? Chest pain and shortness of breath had kept him up most of the night. He kneaded his left pectoral and punched the remote. The Florida peninsula appeared. A weatherman gestured at strands of spaghetti—a baffling tangle of multi-colored crooked lines going every which way, meandering left and right, until they terminated at more or less the same place: his city.
“The possible paths of Hurricane Arlene, friends, according to the latest from the National Hurricane Center. These models put us directly in her crosshairs. No reprieve this time, I’m afraid. Not like before. So get ready.”
Get ready. The phrase summoned memories of elementary school drills, crouching beneath his desk, hands on top of his head, as if the wood and metal might shield him from a nuclear blast. “Get ready,” his second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hornaday, had said. “Make yourselves into little cannonballs.” This after she’d showed the class a film—an atomic test with trees and buildings incinerated by a firestorm, footage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, innocents blistered like Fourth of July hot dogs.
“How’s about some good news, buddy,” Harry said to the television screen, “just to change things up.” Funny how these TV suits all looked the same—sprayed hair, blindingly white teeth, and pocket squares. Never trust a man who sprays his hair and wears a pocket square.
“The Gulf temperature is eighty-six degrees,” the weatherman continued, “so Arlene will gather energy from the warm water and get stronger as she approaches us. We’re expecting winds up to one hundred and twenty-five miles per hour when she makes landfall.”
“That’s it, jerk.” Harry punched the OFF button and tossed the remote aside. Massaging his chest again, he wondered if he should phone his cardiologist. Would Dr. Secrest be working today? And what message would he leave with the doctor’s answering service—some vague complaint about his symptoms getting worse? So what? Tests were required, the doctor had told him last Monday. A stress test and an echocardiogram for openers, scheduled for next week. Until then, Harry decided, he’d just have to gut it out.
In the meantime he had to decide: Stay or leave? Door number one or door number two? It would be daylight soon. Twelve hours to landfall. No time for dithering. Focus, Harry told himself. Outside, birds should have been stirring but weren’t. Escaped to parts unknown, he supposed. Even bird brains were working better than his. He plucked a quarter from a pile of change on the coffee table. Heads, he’d go. Tails, he’d hang around. He flipped the coin. Heads. Okay, best two out of three. Maybe three out of five, just to be sure.
* * *
Two weeks earlier, as Hurricane Zeke had taken aim at the Sun Coast, Harry got the hell out of Dodge. Leaving well before dawn, he complied with the mandatory evacuation order, driving two hundred miles to the presumed safety of an upstate motel, the Avalon, a ’50s style mom-and-pop that still had vacancies. He’d been lucky to find a room. Every decent chain hotel outside the target zone had been full. Harriet wouldn’t have settled for the Avalon, not for a second, but what could he do?
Stopping and starting like water torture, interstate highway traffic crawled northward at twenty miles per hour. Seven long hours he drove, his bladder about to explode. But he made it. Finally, he made it. Then, before he finished unloading, his car radio flashed a report. Unexpectedly, right before it hit the coast, Zeke turned due east, completely missing his home. He’d made the journey for nothing. Disgusted, he packed up his gear and headed downstate.
Next-door neighbors Glen and Marsha had stayed behind, vowing to ride out the storm no matter what. They met Harry as he pulled into his driveway. Hustling to the car, Glen put his hands on the Chevy’s roof and leaned in. Though the sun had just set, their faces were lathered white with sunscreen. Glen and Marsha wore beekeeper hats, long-sleeved flannel shirts, long canvas pants, and gardener’s gloves. “Been out inspecting the neighborhood for damage.” Glenn grinned. “Guess what? Not so much as a limb down around here. Told you leaving was a waste of time.”
Standing behind her husband, Marsha nodded in agreement.
Harry cracked the car door but Glen didn’t budge. “Look, it’s been a long day.”
“So whose fault is that?” Glen had the hollow-cheeked, intense look of a man who never got enough to eat. Marsha was practically her husband’s twin in this respect, but with a bulimic’s gray teeth and brittle, thinning, dark-brown hair. They were vegetarians’ vegetarians, feasting on steamed organic broccoli and kale, beets, and cauliflower, avoiding the nightshade vegetables—peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes—and high-glycemic fruits, especially bananas and grapes. No wheat, gluten, sugar, or even artificial sweeteners. No processed foods. No GMOs. Organic all the way, baby. Plus gallons of water every day. You are what you pee.
Harry crawled out the passenger door. As he opened the trunk and retrieved his duffel bag, Glen joined him.
“Geography rules, Harry—the way the coastline indents, the barrier islands. Trust me, we’re protected. Lived here all my life, and we’ve never gotten hit yet.”
Glen reminded Harry of Cletus, a good old boy back in Nam. Cletus believed a Messenger of the Lord had sprinkled him with angel dust. Believed he was immortal until a booby trap blew off both his legs.
Harry slammed the trunk lid. “Evacuation was mandatory, Glen.” He feinted left, then headed right toward his front door.
Glen grabbed for Harry’s sleeve and whiffed. “So what?” He trotted along behind.
“If you’d been in trouble, no one would’ve come to rescue you,” Harry said over his shoulder. “That’s what.”
“Rescue us from a storm that was never going to hit us in the first place? Nonsense. We can take care of ourselves, right, Marsha?”
Harry reached the front door and turned back to face Glen.
Marsha was still standing by the Chevy. Her gaze was fixed on one of the live oaks in Harry’s front yard. “Nature respects those who respect her back,” she said.
“Absolutely.” Glen’s face was inches from Harry’s. His breath smelled like compost.
“What about the Big One?” Harry said. There’d been a hurricane back in the late twenties or early thirties. He’d read about it in the Times. Pictures showed the downtown completely underwater.
“It was nothing.” Glen puffed his cheeks and shook his head. “Barely a tropical storm.”
Harry chewed his lip. “Not according to the newspaper.” He stuck his key in the lock. “Lots of homes destroyed.”
“You northerners.” Glen pointed at Harry’s chest. “You move to Florida, live here for a couple years, and all of a sudden you’re experts.”
Harry raised his hands, palms out. “Whoa, Glen. No offense, pal.”
“Yeah?” Glen said. “Then get real.”
* * *
Harry flipped the quarter four more times. Best three out of five did the trick. Tails it was. He’d stay. Truth be told, he lacked the stamina to pack up and leave again. He’d batten down the hatches like Glen and Marsha. Hope Glen was right about the geography, that the coastline would send Arlene elsewhere. And perhaps the weatherman would be proved wrong for the umpteenth time. After all, the gray, early morning sky was turning blue, not black. Soon the sun would rise from behind the palms. He could do this. He would do this. How bad could it be? Surely nothing like Katrina or Super Storm Sandy.
He needed supplies—water, candles, batteries, canned fruits and vegetables, a refill of his blood thinner prescription, and strawberry Pop Tarts. Target would open in a couple hours. Until then? He rose from the couch and began to pace, circling the room, brushing his fingers across the spines of his wife’s beloved books. He went back to bed but couldn’t sleep. Got up and played solitaire, tried to work a crossword puzzle, and checked on the patio furniture he’d stored in the garage. The chaises were right there where he’d left them. His grill had been too heavy to move. Good-bye, grill.
Around 9:00 he left for Target. The morning air was heavy and still. Sweat beaded on his lip and forehead before he made it to his car. Though he ran the Chevy’s air conditioner full bore, his shirt stuck to the seat. Traffic was light. Most small storefronts had CLOSED signs in the windows, but a few gas stations were still open. Harry checked his gauge—nearly a full tank. No need to stop, though he had plenty of time. Target would be open until 2:00.
Target’s lot was packed with the automobiles of fellow procrastinators. He pulled in and patrolled the aisles, looking for an empty space. Finding none, he parked on a strip of grass some distance away. Before cutting the ignition, he eyeballed the dashboard—already eighty-eight degrees and not yet 10 a.m. He dreaded the long hike to the entrance, the return even more—pushing a heavy cart with all his purchases. As he opened the door and swung his feet onto the ground, cars, trees, people, grocery carts, the store—all of it spun into darkness. He fell forward.
Harry came to in some sort of medical room. What time was it? How had he gotten here? And where was here? He remembered driving to Target, the moments before he passed out. In blue scrubs, two men and a woman hovered over him. Dr. Glamour, a turbaned, black-haired man with a goatee, answered Harry’s questions. He was in the St. Agnes ER. A bystander apparently had called the squad after he passed out. He was stable now, in no immediate danger. Harry answered Dr. Sanjay’s questions: Two weeks earlier he’d been diagnosed with atrial flutter, perhaps a bad valve too. According to his cardiologist, the valve was up for grabs. Fifty-fifty it would have to be replaced. Tests next week. Stay tuned.
“Dr. Secrest is my cardiologist,” Harry said. “Can you contact him for me? Tell him about this.”
“Happen to catch a weather report before your nosedive? Afraid you’re stuck with me.” But he sent a nurse off to call Secrest’s office.
Because of the hurricane, Dr. Sanjay said, the hospital was understaffed. They’d move him to a regular room as soon as possible. Meantime the physician had other patients to see. He patted Harry’s shoulder and left.
Except for the few other patients and staff, the ER was quiet. No TV. No radio. No way to keep track of the weather. Perhaps it was just as well. Harry rather liked the serenity, the idea he’d be cared for during the storm.
The nurse walked back into the examination room. Dr. Secrest was actually in the building. He and his family had left their home on the waterfront and taken refuge in the hospital. Several other doctors and staff had done the same. “Hospital’s about the best place you can be in a hurricane,” the nurse said. “After he gets his family settled, he’ll see you shortly, over in the cardiology department.”
A relief. Better news than he could’ve imagined.
An aide wheeled him through a warren of hallways, parking him in a room with a large, open space and a dozen or so empty beds that sat around the perimeter. Ten minutes later Dr. Secrest appeared. In his late forties, with dark-brown hair and a hooked nose, the physician had the thin, delicate fingers of a man who manipulated wires in and out of human hearts for a living. An electrician for the chest organ, Secrest was approachable, down to earth—the opposite of so many doctors Harry had known.
Harry explained what had happened. The doctor checked him over. “You’re here. I’m here. We can’t play golf this afternoon. Might as well take care of this arrhythmia, find the nerve causing your problem, and kill the sucker. We’ll deal with the valve later if we have to. Believe me, you’ll feel a whole lot better. I’ll grab an anesthesiologist and a nurse or two.” Secrest sounded as though he was organizing a pickup basketball game. “What do you think?”
“Right now? What about the tests?” Harry liked to plan his day first thing in the morning and execute the strategy. Today’s program called for surviving Hurricane Arlene. A heart procedure wasn’t on the agenda. “Today of all days? In a storm?”
“Small potatoes,” Secrest said. “I’ll study your heart’s electrical system while I’m in there. We’ll take our time. Make sure there aren’t any clots before we begin. We’ll finish up and have you in a room well before the big blow begins.” Secrest clapped him on the shoulder. Done deal.
On a clipboard a nurse held for him, Harry signed multiple consent forms. No time to read the fine print, so why bother? Small potatoes were small potatoes. Besides, he had confidence in the cardiologist, a relentlessly optimistic man and a golfer to boot. On Harry’s last office visit, they’d discussed Secrest’s recent trip to Scotland, how his game wasn’t up to snuff because he couldn’t cope with the strong Scottish winds. His ball flight was way too high. Hearing Secrest complain had reassured Harry. You could have confidence in a doctor who played the game badly, a man who spent more time practicing medicine than he did practicing golf.
The nurse started his IV and rolled him into the operating room.
* * *
On his back in a curtained hospital bed, Harry awakened for the third time this day. Except for an IV pump’s hum, the room was still. Ceiling lights were off. Something heavy weighed on his groin. He reached down. Sandbags? Sandbags were for keeping water out of your house. His brain scrambled to get its bearings. How long had the procedure taken? Where were all the people? Dr. Secrest? Nurses? Aides? Perhaps he’d died unexpectedly. But if he was dead, someone was wasting two perfectly good sandbags.
Wind whistled outside. Rain splattered the building like machine-gun fire. These were the initial bands of the hurricane’s wind and water, he guessed. So it must be late afternoon. His fingers brushed the sandbags. “Hello. Is anyone here?”
“You’re awake.” A female voice harkened from beyond the curtain. “How do you feel? Are you thirsty? Shall I bring you some ice chips?”
He could barely hear her voice above the gale. Way too many questions.
Through the curtain opening walked an older woman with curly, gray hair and a forward tilt. She wore red, teardrop glasses with medium-gray photosensitive lenses. After she drew back the curtains, he could see the windows on the other side of the room. Through rain-blurred glass palm trees bent to the wind’s ferocity. His ears popped.
The nurse, who smelled of antibacterial soap and rosewater, stepped over to his bed. “Don’t move a muscle or you’ll mess up the closures. You have to remain on your back and immobile for two hours.”
“Impossible. Can’t lie on my back. Bad discs.”
She shrugged as if to say, Tough luck.
“Take pity on me, won’t you?”
“They don’t have a room in the cardiac unit for you yet,” she said, “so we’re keeping you here for now.” Here, Harry surmised, was the recovery area, adjacent to the operating rooms.
“Back’s killing me. I’ll roll over onto to my side. Just for a second. Those little incisions or whatever it is down there will be fine. I’m a fast healer. Surely there’s some kind of waiver I can sign.”
“Nope,” she said. “Don’t make me call an orderly.”
“It’ll be our little secret. You and me.”
“Doctor will be in to see you PDQ,” she said. “Anyone you want us to call in the meantime?”
Harry thought for a second. His children lived in California, his brother in Ohio. Who was here in town that he knew? It was the Glen and Marsha show or nothing. He asked the nurse to call. “Tell them I’m okay. But I don’t want them coming to the hospital in this weather. Make sure they understand.” He gave the nurse their telephone number.
She shook her finger. “Don’t move a muscle while I’m gone.”
To get relief, Harry tried to lift himself up from the waist without moving his legs. It didn’t work. He didn’t feel the incisions or any pain in his heart, but his back screamed for him to move.
The nurse returned and rattled off a stupefying array of painkillers available if he promised to cooperate. Harry selected the Percodan. Almost immediately he and the nurse became better friends. Whenever he closed his eyes, constantly changing, brightly colored shapes appeared. Perhaps she’d given him LSD by mistake. He hadn’t had any since Nam. He drifted in and out of consciousness.
Harry felt a hand on his shoulder. Dr. Secrest stood at his bedside. “Procedure went well. I found the nerve causing the arrhythmia and deadened it. Looked around your heart and couldn’t find any others.” He slipped on gloves, lifted the sandbags, and checked the incisions. “Looks good. No lumps. No bruising. Tomorrow, once the hurricane passes, you’re good to go. Feel better?”
Harry was amazed. The imaginary hand that had pressed down upon his chest, the hand that made it impossible for him to take a deep breath, was gone. He couldn’t wait for a pain-free night’s sleep or a long walk without dizziness.
“My family’s waiting,” Secrest said. “I’ll check on you in the morning.”
An hour later the nurse removed the sandbags and told Harry she’d call for an aide to take him to his room.
“A Percodan for the road?” Harry said. “For old times’ sake? To smooth things out until I get to my room?”
Harry thought the nurse removed the stickies and leads from his chest with more violence than was absolutely necessary.
He’d barely settled into his new room when Glen and Marsha showed up. Wet-faced, in matching yellow rain slickers and galoshes, they were soaked in all the places their raincoats didn’t cover. “A little exciting out there,” Glen said. He removed his wire-rimmed glasses and wiped them. “Helluva day for your heart to stop working. Getting along okay?”
“Are you two crazy?” Harry lifted up on his elbows. “You weren’t supposed to come.”
“Hush. The nurse told us what you said.” Marsha put a Tupperware container full of raw vegetables on the table beside his bed. “We couldn’t let you eat the awful hospital food.”
“No problemo getting here either,” Glen said. “Piece of cake, actually. No one is on the streets. Had to dodge some power lines, a few palm trees uprooted here and there.” He pulled the only chair to Harry’s bed and told Marsha to sit. He went into the bathroom, flipped on the light, and looked around. “Floor’s sticky. Mirror has spots on it. The toilet…ugh. This place is filthy. Hope you don’t get sick.”
Harry thought about asking Glen how his geography theory was working. But he didn’t want to sound ungrateful, so he told them instead that he felt great, hadn’t felt this good in months. “Thanks for the veggies.”
“Nature’s way is always the best way,” Marsha said.
Rain pelted Harry’s window. Outside was as dark as pitch. The hospital was running on its generators now. Electricity had to be conserved so medical equipment would have power, lights kept to a bare minimum, TVs off.
“Everything’s good at home?” Harry said.
“Fine, fine. You’ve lost some limbs on your oaks,” Glen said. “Told you to have them trimmed before the season started.”
“What about my roof?”
Glen looked away. “Didn’t notice.” He paced about the room, stopping at a dry board to read the name of Harry’s nurse aloud. “The smiley face is a nice touch.” Pulling several pairs of plastic gloves from a wall dispenser, he handed them to Harry. “You should wear these until they send you home.”
A loud crack, like a gunshot, startled them. A tree branch had smacked the window. The glass spider-webbed but didn’t break.
“You must stay here,” Harry said. “You can’t go back out in the storm.” He gestured to the empty bed on the other side of the room. “Spend the night. The hospital won’t mind. Not in these conditions. This is the best place you can be.”
A nurse ran in. “We heard that all the way down at the station. Everybody okay?”
“Okay for now,” Harry said, “but you’ll need a new window.”
“How long will they keep you?” Glen said.
“If it weren’t for the storm, I’d be out first thing in the morning. Who knows?” Again he pleaded with Glen and Marsha to spend the night.
“In this germ factory?” Glen said. “Not in a million years.”
They said goodbye. Marsha made Harry promise to call them when he was released. They’d pick him up and take him home. Next day they’d retrieve his car from the Target parking lot, or try to. Harry told them the car could wait, but if they insisted, the keys were in the closet, in the brown paper sack with his clothes. “Thank you.”
* * *
Harry couldn’t sleep. The storm raged. Nurses came and went, taking his temperature, his blood pressure. The hustle and bustle in the hallway outside his door didn’t make for the most restful of nights.
Around 5:00 a.m. an aide wheeled a portable scale into the room and demanded Harry get up and onto the device. “Really? You’re sure you need to do this?” Was it possible his weight had changed as much as one pound from yesterday, before the procedure? “Could this possibly wait until seven o’clock, let’s say?”
It could not wait.
Near sunrise the wind and rain subsided. Harry guessed the storm had moved away, either up the coast or into the interior, wherever Arlene was headed next. It was still dark gray outside. He wondered whether Glen and Marsha made it home and if his bungalow had survived.
Hours before Harry expected him, Dr. Secrest showed up. A 7-iron rested across his shoulders, a hand gripped each end. His brown hair was matted down on both sides of his head, his white lab coat wrinkled. “Couldn’t close my eyes,” he said. “Worried all night about my boat at the marina. And about our home, of course. Thought I might as well get in here and check you out.”
“Playing golf in the storm?”
“No, no. Found this club in the doctors’ lounge. Been using it to stretch. Slept on a gurney last night. I don’t recommend it.”
Dr. Secrest set the club against the bed, read Harry’s chart, and gave him a quick once-over. “Good as gold. You can go home whenever it’s safe.” He motioned for the nurse to disconnect Harry’s heart monitor and the IV. “Storm’s passed us now, in case you haven’t heard. There’s been lots of flooding all over town. Imagine you’ll be stuck here for a while.”
Free at last. Almost, anyhow. Harry had an idea. He slipped out of bed. “I’m going to show you how to play that low shot into wind, to keep your ball flight down. It’s the least I can do.”
Secrest gave him a puzzled look, then laughed. “Now? Here? Golf’s the farthest thing from my mind.”
“Why not here? As you said yesterday, we’re not going anywhere.” Harry drew back the curtain, grabbed the golf club, balled a tissue, and threw it onto the floor. “Say that’s the ball.”
“So here’s your normal address.” Standing opposite the physician in a flimsy, gray cotton hospital gown, his naked butt hanging out, Harry gripped the club and took his stance. “But when the wind is up and you want to hit it low, you move the ball back and your hands forward. Like this. See?”
Looking as if he might have fallen asleep on his feet, Secrest yawned.
“Come on, Doc, pay attention.”
“Sorry. That’s all there is to it?”
“Pretty much.” Harry handed the club to the physician. “You’ll need to practice swinging down the line. Or else you’ll end up with a pull-hook.”
“Where were you before I went to Scotland?” Dr. Secrest took the club and, as if it were a sword, pretended to sheath the 7-iron at his waist. “Sir, will there be a charge for your services?”
Harry shook his head. “Professional courtesy.”
Secrest saluted him and left.
Harry was anxious to leave the hospital, to see if his house still existed. He tried to call Marsha’s cellphone but the line was dead. He retrieved his clothing from the brown paper sack in the closet and dressed. The sky had lightened. He moved the chair so it faced the cracked window, sat down, and looked outside. The hospital’s retention pond and parking lots had disappeared. In their place an ocean of floodwater stretched as far as he could see. Cars were half covered, hoods dented, windows smashed. The palm trees that had lined the driveway entrance were gone. Sirens whined in the distance.
Had Glen and Marsha survived?
A nurse, a curly-haired young man in his early twenties, came into the room and asked Harry if he wanted some coffee. They had some brewing in the nurses’ lounge. Starbucks, the good stuff. The kitchen staff hadn’t been able to make it into work, so there would be no breakfast. Coffee was the best he could do. And some crackers from the vending machine if Harry would like.
“Coffee would be great. Black. No cream or sugar.”
Water surrounded the hospital. Even if he’d been able to reach them, Glen and Marsha couldn’t have driven through it to pick him up. He closed his eyes. So this was what it was like to get old, to be trapped in a place you couldn’t leave. Depending on others for showers, trips to the commode, a simple cup of coffee.
The nurse returned, moved his bedside table over to the chair, and set down the coffee. “Lived in Florida long?”
“Too long,” Harry said. “I’m sick of all these storms. Just decided I’m moving back to Ohio, back with my friends and my brother.”
The nurse shrugged. “Sooner or later, they’ll be moving down here. Everyone does.”
“Not after this hurricane season,” Harry said. “Florida is like living on Mother Nature’s craps table.”
The nurse laughed. “People have short memories,” he said. “They’re moving back to New Orleans in droves. You’d think after Katrina—”
“You’d think.” Harry cradled the coffee cup, felt its warmth in his hands.
The nurse left. From behind billowy clouds the sun came out, as bright and unspoiled as if it was an ordinary day. Reflecting sunlight, the sea of floodwater rippled and shimmered in a light breeze. Tree trunks, limbs, sea grass, Styrofoam cups, plastic bottles, and wastepaper had formed an island where the hospital’s front lawn had been. In the distance a blue tarp fluttered on the roof of an office building. Harry studied the cracked window, marveling at how it had withstood the assault. Had Glen and Marsha been as fortunate? He blinked, half-expecting to see their navy-blue Volvo wagon part the waters, a misty fantail trailing behind them. Pulling to the curb, Glen would say to Marsha, “See, honey. I told you. It was nothing.”