by Marlene Olin
Butch had lived in South Florida since the fifties and had weathered more than one major storm. Donna in 1960. Cleo in’64. Betsy in ’65. They came like bats, flying out of nowhere. A whirl of wind, a surfeit of sound, a blast of rain. And like he tackled life’s other unexpected twists, Butch rolled up his sleeves and dealt with it. Hammered planks of plywood over the windows. Bought batteries. Filled his thermoses with coffee and his coolers with ice.
But now everything had changed. People went crazy and the crazy was contagious. The frantic newscasters on the boob tube. His branch managers at the car dealerships. And on top of it all, he had Berta.
Again the old familiar anger swirled inside him. These were supposed to be his golden years. All that investment–the time and money, the sweat and tears–was supposed to be rewarded. The dividends were simple. A trace of fingertips flitting on a shoulder. A bit of companionship. A smattering of trust.
Butch, as always, felt robbed.
Once again his jacket buzzed. Chewing his morning cigar, he glanced at his cellphone. It was Jorge at the Hialeah showroom. Again.
“Just follow the protocol,” said Butch. “Comprende? Shut the gas pumps. Unplug the computers. Kip will help you move the cars. My son Kip. No te preocupes.”
It cost a fortune but their backup plan was worth every penny. Butch had signed contracts with a half dozen shopping mall garages. Not a single vehicle would be left on the lots. Still the salesmen panicked.
“You got the sandbags, right? You got your landline phones, right? There’s only so much you can do, Jorge. God’s in charge of the rest.”
He hung up the phone and paced up and down the patio. The pool was pinging with rain. Of course he should go inside. Eunice would tell him to go inside. But he just couldn’t stomach the house anymore. Nothing made him feel smaller. Eight thousand square feet of marble floors echoed with each footstep. Sure the grandkids visited. But Butch never had time to cultivate friends. Berta had been the socializer, the organizer, the one who strategized the people they saw and when they saw them.
The phone buzzed again. This time the area code was 207. Maine.
“Dad, are you okay? The Weather Channel says you’re on a hurricane watch.”
His daughter Clare. Nervous. High-strung. Like those tropical waves that brew off of Africa. When the world teetered, she spun.
“How’s Mom? Have you spoken to the nursing home? Does she know what’s going on?”
Butch glanced up at a bruised sky. The birds had already left, the sun dimmed, the clouds sliding like plates. Clare always worshiped her mother. And the fact that she worshipped her saddened Butch to no end.
Of course Berta fooled everyone. That starched apron, that creamy voice, that Southern charm. How she lived by her lists and her menus. The blocks filled on her calendar. The weathered address books. Hers was a charade of gestures and small talk. A reckless life regimented only by routine. She was an actress and the world was her stage. Dazzling and damaged. Tender and treacherous. She fooled everyone but him.
He tossed the cigar into the inlet churning behind his house and watched the waves swallow it.
“Dad? Are you there, Dad?”
“In the old days, hurricanes were fun,” said Butch. ” Remember? With the shutters up, it was like living in a cave. We’d walk around in our underwear, suck down warm brewskis, fiddle with the rabbit ears on the TV.”
He could hear Clare sighing over the lines. “Was this before or after the birth of Christ?”
Butch glared at the cellphone in his hand. He was always amazed at the lightness, the way something so thin and fragile could be so powerful at the same time. “Your mom was always a great cook. Remember? Before a storm, she’d empty the refrigerator and cook for days. Swedish meatballs. Tuna casserole. Endless trays of brownies.”
“Dad, this storm is a monster. Even if you don’t take a direct hit, the cone is huge.”
“There was nothing she couldn’t tackle,” said Butch. My God the parties she gave. We drank until the sun came up. Dancing. Laughing. Crying.”
“We were talking about the storm, Dad. You know, there’s a hurricane coming your way.”
Now that rains had started, Kip’s minivan was sure to get flooded. There was little in the universe that he hated more. The sheer ugliness. The embarrassing lack of horsepower. The way it waddled down the road. Fucking Miami with its sinking streets! Give him an SUV any day of the week. Something high off the ground that barreled its way through.
The winds were whipping now, blowing the baseball cap clear off his head. Carmen stood in the driveway, her swollen feet planted, her large stomach providing ballast. One hand gripped their squirming two year old while the other held a suitcase.
“Hurry, Kip. The roads are already a mess. We need to get going.”
A few days earlier, the obstetrician’s office called. Though Carmen’s due date was a month away, they wanted them to ride out the storm at the hospital. South Dade General was clearing its corridors and lounges. Pack only what you needed, they said.
Of course Carmen packed enough clothes and food to survive Armageddon.
Lately, going anywhere required the logistics of a military assault. Kip loaded the sleeping bags, the pillows, the suitcase, the boy’s backpack, and an ice chest filled with his favorite foods. Then he buckled up the kid in the kid seat and carefully maneuvered his wife into the front. Finally, he threw the key into the cup holder, put his foot on the gas, and punched the ignition.
“Trenton, you okay buddy?”
Kip glanced in the rearview mirror. Though he wasn’t quite three, the boy was already hooked on electrical devices. His sweaty little fingers itched to push buttons. Then voila! The world’s most nauseating tunes would repeat themselves over and over again.
“This is it. We’re leaving. We’re really leaving. Did we forget anything?”
In the distance, the concrete hills of I 95 were dotted with headlights. Half of South Florida was battening the hatches while the other half was hitting the road. Kip could just picture it. The expressway would soon be a disaster, the lines snaking to the service centers, the pumps running out of gas. And those very same families would end up panicked– stranded on a roadside, face to face with a Category Four.
“We almost there, Kip? Ay Bendito. Once more I have to pee.”
The parking lot of the hospital was already filled with people stashing their cars in fire lanes. Kip pulled into the ER entrance and unloaded his family. Then he kissed his wife and turned to leave.
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Carmen. “You’re not leaving, are you? You heard them. The barometric pressure could send me into contractions. I could pop this baby out any minute.”
Kip’s to-do list was a mile long. Everyone and no one knew where this hurricane was actually heading.
“Babe. I’ll be an hour or two. Tops.”
He glanced in his rearview mirror as he pulled away and saw Carmen glaring back. Meanwhile traffic was getting worse. Kip punched an app on his phone and followed the side streets. For reasons he couldn’t fathom, this storm gave him a bad feeling. And the last time he had this kind of feeling was more than twenty-five years earlier.
The summer of ’92, he had just finished college. Butch had put him in the Perrine showroom, made him assistant manager, and pressed the keys to their sportiest convertible in his hand. Then three months later Andrew hit.
For over two decades Miami had weathered a dry spell. Growing up, Kip remembered close calls, days where they cancelled school and times when he just played hooky. He and his friends would strap their surfboards on top of a car, drive to Fort Pierce, and enjoy the four and five foot waves.
But Andrew shocked them. Cell towers went down. The power went out. People had no way to communicate. And afterwards, neighborhoods were filled with hollowed homes, gutted and roofless with only the walls remaining. Spray paint in hand, they wrote.
When the whirlwind passes, the wicked is no more.
Screw you Allstate!
I’m tired of all this Bushit!
He threw another Tums in his mouth and waited for his breakfast to settle. Suddenly the cellphone in his pocket vibrated, vibrating his whole body with it. Carmen.
“I’m so sorry, baby. Me and Trenton are fine. You be careful, okay? Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
Only when the heavens cleaved open, when the rain hammered like nails, did Butch go inside his home. Since his family room/kitchen faced the dock, floor to ceiling glass windows gave him front row seats to the storm. He thought the TV would keep him company but each channel seemed more depressing than the next. Half were broadcasting hurricane updates, hurricane contingency plans, hurricane supply lists. Others showed live newsfeeds of stores being emptied, of children crying, of their fathers fighting over bottled water. Hardest to watch were the countries the storm already passed. They looked like a war zone. Homes were flattened. Trees were leafless. Stores looted.
Butch glanced again at the windows. Outside the wind blew in gusts, the rain blowing horizontally. Detritus of every shape and size flew past. Newspapers. Tree branches. Garbage pail covers. This newfangled hurricane glass was both a gift and a curse. He felt his ears pop. He heard the walls creaking. Any minute he expected to see a witch on a broomstick cackling by.
Once more his phone rang. Eunice.
“Butch, how you doing? You all right?”
The minute he heard her voice he felt his pulse slow. Though Eunice wasn’t family, she was the closest thing to family that he had. He had met her the day Clare married Clifford. An odd-looking woman. Someone so opposite to his wife, the comparison was laughable.
“Good Lord. Do you see what’s she’s wearing?” sniffed Berta. “It’s so dated it’s positively vintage.”
His wife was a vision in organza who nearly out-dressed the bride. A long flowing train, a sparkly wrap that covered her shoulders, a spattering of glass beads sewn into the skirt. Meanwhile Clare’s new mother-in-law wore a gray silk suit. A pair of sensible flats on her feet. Her crazy hair sprayed and subdued.
In truth, he had hardly noticed her. For over twenty years, Eunice sat on the sidelines, a pair of hands toting a casserole when a holiday came around. Butch considered himself 100% American. A church-going, flag waving member of the NRA. Eunice couldn’t have been more different. A Holocaust survivor. A liberal. A Jew. The food she cooked, the accent she spoke with–everything was foreign and unfamiliar, a remnant from another time and another place.
Looking back, he supposed it had made him uncomfortable. His tiny world, his golf course buddies, his Coral Gables clique, was simply a hall of mirrors. Everyone looked and sounded the same. He knew where they each vacationed. He knew who took their whiskey straight up and who liked their martinis stirred. Of course they weren’t all wealthy. If you didn’t have money, you just pretended to.
“Butch, do you hear me?”
For a few minutes the storm eased, pulling back its talons while it waited for another chance to strike. “I’m pacing like a caged animal, Eunice. Jorge’s dealing with the showrooms and Kip’s dealing with Jorge. Carmen and Trenton are parked at the hospital, and I’m going out of my mind.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “How’s your apartment holding up?”
For ten very long seconds she was quiet. “I’m at the nursing home, Butch. I couldn’t leave Isaac alone. They lost power here hours ago. They don’t have enough generators, Butch.” As if it were a secret she started whispering. “They have a few to keep the defibrillators going. For emergencies and that sort of thing. But there’s no A/C and no lights in the hallways. It’s a nightmare, Butch. People are already passing out from the heat.”
Butch was smart enough to keep quiet. What could he say?
“So I’m leaving and I’m taking Isaac with me. He’s light as a feather. I’ll steal a wheelchair. I’ll grab his things.”
Despite himself, Butch felt sorry for the guy. And more than a little jealous, too. He pictured the man’s head lolling on his swayed shoulders, a bag of urine by his side. Nearly five decades earlier, Eunice had thrown her husband out of the house. An alcoholic, an abuser and a user. Now, as he clung to life, Isaac had no one but Eunice to care for him.
“Eunice, head to South Dade General, okay? They’ll take care of Isaac and they’ll take care of you. Can you make it?”
Butch pictured her two mottled knuckles grabbing the steering wheel, the top of her head barely clearing the dashboard. But there was no doubt in his mind. In normal conditions, the drive would take around ten minutes. If anyone could negotiate a storm, it was Eunice.
“What about you, Mr. Tough Guy? Mr. I don’t need my cataracts fixed? Who’s gonna take care of you?”
Outside, the wind seemed to be switching directions. His neighbors’ boats were rolling and pitching. A disconnected power line soared by. Eunice, as usual, was right. Though it was a five star establishment, the best that money could buy, a nursing home was not a home. It was more like a convenience store, a QuickStop, someplace you shelved your loved ones long after their expiration dates had passed. The thirty mile drive to Fort Lauderdale wouldn’t be easy, but he needed to check on Berta.
“I’ll meet you at the hospital,” he said. “I’ll just be a little while.”
First Kip steered south toward the Perrine dealership. The winds were noticeably worse as he headed down US1. What traffic lights were working swung wildly, bouncing like a yoyo on a string. Only desperate souls or idiots were still on the road. To his shock, the lights were on in the showroom.
Inside he found Walter Hoffendorf manning the fort. Kip chuckled. Walter was the oldest salesperson his father employed. He’d been around as long as Kip could remember. More of a mascot than a functioning employee, Walter was absolutely useless. Still his dad kept him on the payroll because Butch was Butch.
“I got all the paperwork in the lockboxes,” said Walter. “But these new alarm systems have me stumped.”
The old man looked tattered. Coffee stains on his tie. What little hair he had was glued to his scalp.
“We’ve hired off-duty policemen as soon as the storm passes, Walter. We have it covered. Meanwhile I’m giving you ride home.”
Once again Kip was heading north. The radio said the eye was heading offshore which was the best news he had all day. It was the storm surge he was worried about. Even if Miami didn’t take the brunt of it, the sea water would cause havoc. A full moon, high tide, and a sinking city all added up to disaster.
The phone was connected to the speaker when it rang. Carmen.
“I’m not feeling too good, honey. It’s probably Braxton Hicks but they’re not sure.”
Kip leaned closer to the windshield. The wipers were just about useless. “I gotta check the house one last time, Car. Then I’m coming your way. How’s Trenton? Is Trenton behaving?”
“He’s been playing with my phone. You gonna get an awfully big bill this month. I think he’s been dialing Australia.”
While his house wasn’t as large as the one he grew up in, Kip was still proud of it. A barrel-tiled roof with Mediterranean finishes, it sat on a pretty spot on the Intracoastal. The minute he pulled onto his street his heart sank. Tree limbs blocked the road. Palm fronds were everywhere. A filthy lake of water covered the asphalt. Even though it was four o’clock in the afternoon, the houses were dark, the sun eclipsed.
Again he cursed the minivan. He fished the flashlight out of the glove compartment. Then he parked on the swale and walked the fifty yards to his driveway. The rain came down in needles, pricking him in the face, blinding him as he walked. Within seconds his windbreaker was soaked through.
The house would be watertight, he was sure of it. The elevation was high, the lawn pitched. It was the dock he was worried about. He pushed through the wind until he reached the patio. Even though he had drained a foot of water out of the pool, it was close to overflowing. Then he glanced towards the dock. The ocean was lapping over the seawall, throwing great gusts of mist with each wave.
The last item on his list was the boat. A forty foot Sea Ray and only two years old, he had paid more for that cabin cruiser than most people pay for their kids’ college tuitions. If he didn’t work quickly, not only would he lose the boat but the dock and pilings as well. Grabbing the cleats, he loosened one line than another. When he was done, he stood back and watched. The Ray was bobbing like crazy now, the hull surging then dipping then surging once more. Only one more line needed slack: the anchor. But to take care of that, he needed to jump onto the boat.
The expressway was slow-going. Wind buffeted the car as rain pelted the windshield. The visibility got worse each time another vehicle splashed by. Finally, Butch saw two rear lights plowing the road ahead of him. A power truck. He planted himself behind it and followed in its wake. He just hoped the guy was heading to Fort Lauderdale. A few minutes after the exit, Butch would be at Berta’s door.
While Isaac was living out his last days in a Medicaid special, Berta’s nursing home looked like a Four Seasons Hotel. A hair salon. Gym. Pool. Only the locks on the doors and the cameras in the ceiling told you different. Butch grabbed another cigar from his front pocket, popped it into his mouth, and started chewing.
The disease was progressing quicker than they had expected. At first there were only blips, sudden moments where Berta’s face drew blank and her mouth gaped open. Then for a few short seconds she’d disappear. She’d have no idea who or where they were.
It was like that movie, as if a tornado had scooped her up and plopped her down. One day she’d be back in the fifties, driving in her high school sweetheart’s jalopy. The next day she’d be in her old living room, her family gathered, her parents still alive, watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie on TV.
In truth, Butch felt like victim of the disease, too. Each visit had become more and more painful. But while he was miserable, Berta seemed happy. Perhaps happier than she’d ever been.
It was no secret that she had dalliances on the side. But Butch had considered them temporary glitches, minor bumps along the road. No one ever spoke of them. Butch had his business to attend to. There weren’t enough hours in the day to keep track of the car dealerships and babysit his wife as well. Berta was a force of nature. Sometimes you had to pull up your collar and let the winds blow.
But now things had changed. Suddenly Berta had become derailed. She was lust unchained. An embarrassment. It were as if every day had been Halloween and suddenly the masks were off. She flirted with doctors. She sat on orderlies’ laps. On more than one occasion Butch found her under the covers with a strange old man tucked beside her.
And the fact that it bothered him was the biggest embarrassment of them all.
“We check them for STDs once a month,” the staff assured him. “You wouldn’t believe how randy some of these old folks actually are.”
Looking back, it was his fault, not hers. He was the one who’d been complacent, who mistook greed for passion and success for happiness. Butch had been too busy to be lonely. Lonely? Loneliness was for losers, for people who spent their time handcuffed to blood pressure machines. Who got their jollies counting their pills and eating the early bird special.
He pulled into the parking lot and sighed. Above the door, a neon Welcome sign blinked on and off. Who was he kidding? Lonely? Of course he was lonely. Loneliness smacked him in the face every day.
As usual, he held his breath the moment he entered the lobby. No matter the cost, despite the pseudo perfumes plugged into the air vents, the place reeked of decay. If you lived long enough the end was never fast. A thousand small deaths and humiliations paved the way.
The halls were unusually empty as he made his way toward Berta’s room. Nurses and attendants were huddled at their stations. At every station a TV blared. Finally, he found a familiar face. Jamaican. Black. Friendly.
“I’m Butch, Berta’s husband. How’s she doing?”
“Today a good day. Come see for yourself.”
They found her inside the lounge parked in front of a table with a jigsaw puzzle. Her hair was swept up. Her lipstick neat. Her pearls in place. Yes. Today was a good day.
He leaned towards her, placing his face inches from hers, hoping against hope that she’d remember him. “Berta, it’s me. Butch.”
“Oh, sweetheart. I thought you’d never come.”
Then she leaned in closer and whispered in his ear. “Don’t tell anybody but there’s a storm heading our way. Be very very quiet. The people who live here, you know, are like little lost lambs. It doesn’t take much to scare them.”
Kip took off his water-soaked jacket. Then he got ready to jump. Standing on the dock, he hunched forward and reached for the boat’s windshield. He widened his stance; he bent his knees. But each time he reached out, the boat bucked like a bronco. The whole thing was comical really. Something you’d film on a video camera and post under Stupid Ideas.
Then all at once his jean pocket started to vibrate. Thank God thank God he invested in a waterproof phone.
“I’m at five centimeters,” said Carmen. “Where the hell are you?”
He’d never know what hit him. Maybe it was a lawn chair or the cover to someone’s barbecue. But one moment he was upright, and the next he was flat on his back. The phone flew from his hand. Then everything went black.
Over an hour later, Butch had Berta in the front seat and was clearing the expressway exit when his phone rang. With one hand he held onto the steering wheel while the other swiped the screen. A name popped up neon bright.
“Carmen. Is everything all right?”
In the background, a doctor was being paged, an elevator pinged, people were talking. But no Carmen.
He hung up the phone figuring it was a bad connection. A few seconds later it rang again. This time he heard his grandson Trenton giggling.
“Trenton, is Mommy there?” He started shouting, thinking if he spoke loud enough the baby would hand over the phone. “Where’s Mommy, Trenton? Is Mommy with you?”
Oh for the love of God, thought Butch. His thumb scrolled through his contact list while he negotiated the rain. Next he tried Kip. And when he couldn’t reach Kip, he called Jorge.
“Senor. How you doing?”
“You know where Kip is, Jorge?”
“He dropped Walter off a while ago. He should be at the hospital? Dios mio, he’s not at the hospital?”
Butch glanced at Berta. She was humming now, playing with her pearls. And in an instant Butch realized that another version of Berta had taken hold. Sometimes it happened that way. All at once she seemed inches smaller, her shoulders slumped forward, her neck at a tilt. Butch dialed another number.
“Is this South Dade General? I need the maternity ward. I’m looking for a possible patient. Carmen. Carmen Gutierrez. You got a Carmen Gutierrez?”
They had him on hold when he glanced again at Berta. “We’re almost there. Just a few more minutes.”
She looked at him blankly, as if a stranger had slid into his seat. “How much did you say the fare was?” Then to his shock, she wrapped her fingers around the door handle. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to get out right here.”
He double-checked the door lock and quickly pulled the car off the road. US1 was mostly empty. The stores were closed. Only a few cars splashed by. He reached over, there-thered her, patted her arm. Christ, he thought. This day can’t end soon enough. Then he pictured a nice warm shot of whiskey, imagined bringing that glass to his lips, remembered how good the burn felt as it worked its way down. Suddenly a voice boomed from the other end of the phone line.
“Butch, it’s me. Eunice. I’m here with Carmen. She’s having the baby, Butch. They’re wheeling her into delivery anytime. I parked Trenton with a nurse and Isaac in a hallway. But no one knows seems to know where Kip is.”
“Jesus,” said Butch. “I thought he’d be at the hospital with you.”
“So I called the police,” said Eunice. “They should be heading to his house about now.”
The light in his face was so bright it hurt.
“Are you Kip? asked the cop.
His head was pounding. When he touched his scalp, blood stained his hand. “Something hit me,” he said. “Then I went down.”
Another cop stepped out of the shadows. Meanwhile the wind was relentless, pushing the light back and forth, making the shadows jump. Kip couldn’t believe it was still raining. A steady drizzle pounded his nose, his eyes, his mouth. Kip blinked.
“Can you stand up?” they asked.
Each one grabbed an arm and lifted. One leg seemed to work but the other one quit.
“I think I busted my ankle when I slipped,” said Kip. “Shit. Got through four years of college football. Now a stupid hurricane named Irma takes me down.”
Together the three of them slogged toward the police car. As they turned on the headlights, another vehicle pulled up. The car looked familiar, and there was no doubt about the face. Once again Kip blinked.
The next time his phone rang it was Clare. Butch walked down the hospital corridor as the reception faded in and out. The emergency generators had powered on, the fluorescent lights casting a dull gray glow. Everything was beeping. Shorted computers. Blood pressure monitors. Even the incubators. Like a million heartbeats, the sounds echoed off the walls.
“I’ve been trying forever to reach you, Dad.”
“I’ve been looking at babies,” said Butch. “You’ve got a new niece named Camden. Five pounds five ounces. Cute as a bunny.”
“Yeah, they said they conceived her on their last visit.”
Eunice threaded her elbow around his then offered a megawatt grin. “Tanks to God they went to Maine. Can you imagine if they vacationed in Hackensack?”
“So we’re good,” said Butch. “I’ve got your mother double-parked with Isaac in a private room. Your dumbshit brother’s limping around the hospital. And Trenton? I have no idea where Trenton is. Probably sticking a screwdriver in an outlet.”
“And who’s got you, Dad? Who’s taking care of you?”
He squeezed Eunice’s hand and mumbled a small prayer. At the end of the day, there were still some things you could count on, things that were as regular as rain. An employee’s loyalty. The miracle of childbirth. A daughter’s devotion. For despite all the uncertainty, despite disease and disappointment, despite the pain you acknowledge and the pain you choose to hide– one door opens as another door closes.
Eunice, as always, smiled.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been published or are forthcoming in journals such as The Massachusetts Review, Eclectica, The American Literary Review, and Arts and Letters. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of The Net, Best Small Fictions, and for inclusion in Best American Short Stories. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award and the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize.