I think of the children who will never know, intuitively, that a flower is a plant’s way of making love, or what silence sounds like, or that trees breathe out what we breathe in.
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The hurricane gathers speed as it nears the Gulf Coast, winds now being clocked in excess of one hundred miles an hour. For two days newsmen have been reporting her progress and are congregating in Corpus Christi for a firsthand look at the expected devastation.
Eleven hundred miles inland Jannie sits secure in the woods of mid-Missouri, snug as a tick in an armpit. The news comes to her as everything does, drifting uninvited into her head to be stored until it can no longer be ignored. At the moment of this hearing she is preoccupied with the raptures of Kerr-McGee, a mythic island group she has been invited to visit by a smooth-voiced television announcer. “This vacation, try the islands of Kerr-McGee.” The sentence separates itself from noise floating from the living room: baby crying, five-year-old yelling, dog barking because the cat is hissing because the baby has just pulled its tail again. The invitation is an alluring snippet of sound that lodges itself severely in the forefront of her imagination.
It is not until Thursday, while scraping banana from the baby’s chin to the rhythms of The News at Noon, that the story of the hurricane penetrates and submerged bits of information float to the surface. Looking up the number, as she always must, she thinks it might already be too late. Even so, she dials. As she waits, she visualizes the scene at the other end of the line, a composite of every disaster film ever made. She is surprised to find, when her mother answers, that her distant family is enjoying a near-normal lunchtime. Daddy eating at home today, Tess cooking and serving as she talks — Jannie sees it clearly — the telephone nestled between her mother’s ear and shoulder. Beyond them, unseen but thoroughly felt, Malcolm passes through the last days of summer break in the haven of his stereo headset.
Sucking soundwaves into his head like glucose dripping into a vein, he emerges only when physical necessity dictates. He speaks rarely, sarcastically, shunning all communication. A borderline genius, they say. As a toddler he had reached across the decade that separated him from Jannie, trailing after her, adopting her speech and mannerisms. Now he goes his own way, Tess’ favorite, a fact Jannie accepts without resentment. She does not ask to speak to him.
Tess sounds strange at first, and they are well into the conversation before Jannie realizes what is different. This is the first time since she left home that she has spoken to her mother in daytime. Telephone conversations between them normally take place in late evening, when Tess, fortified by her daily sixpack, calls to complain of vague ailments and inept doctors, leaving the distinct impression that death is imminent and Jannie is, in some obscure fashion, responsible.
Today, however, Tess seems happy, almost elated. She chatters cheerfully about the approaching storm, pausing to address comments to her husband. An old habit. Jannie wonders how much it is costing to listen to her father and mother make household arrangements. The storm, however, is Tess’ central topic, and she recites a catalogue of preparations that is at once impressive and insignificant. Aside from powering the coffee pot in the morning, the situation seems well in hand. The storm, Jannie learns, is not due until sometime later. “It’s a beautiful sunny day right now. A little breezy, but nice.” Tess’ voice hums and thrums along the connecting lines, coming in loud and clear. The telephone company, she says, has warned local residents that service will probably be unreliable for several days after the storm hits. “So don’t expect to hear from us.”
After speaking briefly to her father, who may or may not board the windows over when he returns from his afternoon’s work, Jannie is convinced that they cannot survive despite their precautions, that they will drift away on the skirttails of Anita never to be seen again. “If I die,” Tess picks up the thought in the uncanny way Jannie remembers from childhood. “If I die they’ll throw me out in the Gulf and float me up the Mississippi.” But isn’t that backward? The current should flow the other way. Jannie rings off, disturbed yet oddly cheered. It is, in some ways, the best talk they’ve ever had.
She retrieves the baby from the bathroom where he is trying unsuccessfully to float his brother’s shoe in the toilet, carries him outside, and, over vigorous protests, places him in the playpen near the garden. The garden is a shambles, victim of benign neglect, and Jannie finds it hard to develop any interest in the project. The weather, too, blunts her enthusiasm. It is muggy and overcast with a brisk hot breeze blowing in from the south. “Warm moisture-laden Gulf air,” as Professional Meteorologist Dan Snyder, Fancy Dan the Weatherman, announces frequently on the Six O’Clock Report. For Jannie, though, it seems personal, a direct message from there to here, reproaching her as she moves through the rows, pushing back weeds to recover a lost tomato, a forgotten carrot. Slashing silver knives of guilt borne on the hot wind blow over Texas and Arkansas, rising up the Ozarks’ southern slopes then fall swiftly to the north, down into Missouri, ready to pierce her skin in a thousand places.
In the distance a rumble announces the approach of the school bus, and she walks partway to meet it. Standing there, at the edge of the yard, the baby’s howls now subsiding to hiccups as he fingers his toes, she feels the glittering fragments condensing into a thick mass above her, a silver cloud hovering just over her head. Her son tumbles from the bus as though forcibly ejected. Hurtling toward her he stumbles, then recovers, on the large granite chips that form the drive. Mimeographed sheets and clumsy crayoned drawings clenched tightly in his fist, his bright yellow slicker flying behind him, he seems to Jannie to be pure energy, a phosphorescence that will consume her if she allows it.
“Hi, Mom,” he shouts. “Guess what.” He falls at her feet, breathing heavily, shoving the papers into her hand. “I got a happy face. There. On my green queen.”
She unfolds the crumpled paper. The queen smiles greenly, a crayola blur, companion to the red bread and yellow fellow. A red smiling circle decorates the margin, teacher’s message to pre-readers. She makes a brief effort to recapture her own five-year-old self, but finds only a chubby unsmiling photograph child holding an Easter basket. No happy face there. She shrugs mentally, pretending to study the green queen, wondering how they handle purple. Maybe they skip it, or save it for first grade. “A happy face,” she says. “That’s super, Roger.” She hopes the enthusiasm sounds real.
“I was the only one that got one,” he boasts. “I stayed in the lines better than anybody. Can we go to McDonald’s for dinner?’’
“Nope.” Jannie lifts the now-wet baby from the pen and walks toward the house, the boy following.
“Aw, Mom. Why not?” His voice eases into a whine, which she ignores.
“We’re eating at Grandma’s tonight. And after dinner,” she holds the door for him, balancing the baby on her hip, “after dinner I’m going to visit your daddy. Won’t that be nice?”
“Can I come?”
“Nope.” Leaving the baby on the floor she walks toward the nursery. The boy follows.
“How come you always call her Grandma? She’s not your grandma, she’s mine.”
One for you, Roger. Right on target. Seven years married and what to call the in-laws still a problem. Something wrong with the lines of communication there. Even a child can see it.
She pulls a clean diaper from the stack and returns to the living room, grabbing the baby just as he captures the lamp cord. “No,” she says, prying his fingers loose. “Hurt baby. Hot.” The baby whimpers. Roger trails behind them, his chatter an irritating counterpoint to her thoughts. Why do children talk so much? So noisy. Maybe it’s a product of evolution, a survival tactic. Easy to keep track of a noisy child, like bells on shoestrings. Quiet means trouble. Roger certainly isn’t going to get lost.
His voice, shrill with impatience, penetrates. “What?” She says it automatically, a conditioned response. Whole conversations float by her, lost somewhere between the hearing and the listening.
“I said,” he enunciates clearly, pushing the words one by one through a barely perceptible opening, “I said, is Daddy going to die?”
Could he? She plays with the idea. Insurance. How much? Enough to pay off the house, surely. Have to get a job, though. No training. What to do with the kids. A problem.
“Well, is he?”
“Of course not, silly.” She squats on the floor, changing the baby’s diaper as she answers. “Daddy’s only there for tests. He’ll be home in a day or two. I told you that. It’s just tests, to see why he sneezes so much.” Lifting the baby, she moves again toward the nursery.
“I forgot.” A pause. “Jason’s daddy went to the hospital and he died.” His tone is flat, matter of fact.
“That’s enough, Roger. I told you he will be all right, and that’s that.” She stops in the doorway, her free hand drawing the child toward her, but he stiffens and moves away.
“It’s just an allergy, Roger. Nobody dies from an allergy. Daddy’s fine, and I don’t want to hear any more about it, okay?” Without waiting for an answer she carries the baby to his crib. In a moment noise begins in the living room. “No TV until your room is clean, Roger,” she calls. “You know that.”
The sound stops, and in the sudden silence all Jannie hears is the wind outside rippling through tall wild oaks.
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
Standing awkwardly in the doorway Jannie wonders why she is there. Carl seems strange propped up in the hospital bed, his bulk enhanced by its height, its pervading whiteness enlarging him until he seems to fill the room like an overinflated balloon. His face, drained of color, blends into the neck of his white gown. Red stubble stands out sharply on his chin.
“Are you coming in, or what?” He blows his nose loudly, then falls back against the pillows, watching through watery eyes as she clears the room’s single chair of books and newspapers.
“How are you feeling? You look tired.”
Jannie looks at him sharply, checking for irony, then sits, her knees grazing the bed. Carl seems to hover above her. “I should be asking you that,” she says.
“I’m all right. They haven’t found anything yet. Maybe it’s psychosomatic.” He laughs, then coughs.
“That’s silly. You’re not the type.”
“Mom might be. Someone like her, anyway. You’re too capable. People who can do things don’t have to be sick.”
“Capable Carl. That’s me.” He indicates the radio beside him. “Hear your folks are in for a blow tonight.”
A blow. Of course that’s what it is. Or could be. A series of blows. The story of their lives.
“I called them this afternoon.” A monstrous series of sneezes interrupts, and she watches as Carl plugs an inhaler into his right nostril, holds the left closed with his forefinger and sniffs.
“You’re very adept at that. A major talent.”
“That’s because I’m capable.”
“Anyhow. Mom sounded really good for a change, like she was —”
“Hand me some water, would you?” Obediently she pours it for him.
“I just wish there was something I could do.”
“Well, there isn’t. You have enough trouble taking care of yourself.” He sneezes, sniffles, blows his nose. “What’s that you’re holding?”
My temper, she thinks, but does not have the nerve to say. She could leave him. Just walk out of here. Gone forever. But where? Corpus? Single-handedly push Anita back into the ocean. Missouri Woman Conquers Hurricane. Why not? At least she could make sure they board the windows, shut off the gas. Whatever else you do in the face of disaster.
But Carl is sneezing again. Vast explosions of air that leave him drawn and diminished. Weakness. It can’t be easy for him. To be at the mercy.
“Oh. This. It’s from Roger. A green queen. He made it for you.” She hands it to him. An offering.
“He did, huh. How is old Rog?”
Old Rog? “Your son is fine and dandy, just great. Roger’s great, I’m great, the baby’s great, we’re all great.” Her voice rises and she can feel her fingernails digging into her palms.
“I just asked. What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing. Too much time with the kids.” She smooths her hands over her knees.
“I know it’s rough. It’s no picnic here, either. They treat you like a baby.”
There is nothing Jannie would like more than a week or two in the hospital. To be pampered, fussed over, amused. And when she wished to be alone to turn her head aside and say I’m tired, think I’ll take a little nap. The quiet, the solitude. And Carl sustaining her as he did through her pregnancies, managing everything, easing the way. She considers becoming pregnant again, then rejects the idea. Pregnancy almost always ends in babies. And they send you home in three days. The modern way, like squaws in a cornfield. Carl is still talking, blowing his nose. Outside a Dr. Schaperkutter is being paged. A plastic surgeon, maybe? Jannie smiles.
“It’s nothing to laugh at, Jannie. There’s a ten percent penalty after the fifth.” He wipes his nose with the handkerchief, then folds it and puts it under his pillow. “Just call Scotty. He’ll handle it.” Jannie watches his hands as they manipulate the fabric. They seem boneless and frail, incapable of performing even so simple an act. She had never noticed before how small his fingers were, how childlike. Or was it an illusion, a function of his illness?
“Will you do that?”
“Is all this too much for you?”
“Oh, no.” She is wounded, stabbed by her own guilt. “Of course I can do it, really. Just tell me what.” She waits expectantly, leaning toward him, giving him her full wifely attention.
Carl rubs his eyes. “Just call Scotty. He’ll take care of everything.”
“Warren Scott. At the bank. About the mortgage. Jannie —” Carl sighs, sneezes, blows his nose. There is a long silence and sprinkles of rain scratch at the window. Jannie waits. For what, she is not sure. Some sign of the connection between them, perhaps. That things will remain the same. Or maybe just for Carl to remind her who she is. But he is lying back now, eyes closed, apparently asleep. She touches his hand lightly, for reassurance, then tip-toes toward the open door.
She pauses, turning toward him.
“Shut the door on your way out, will you? I think I’ll get some sleep.”
Carefully, very quietly, she leaves the room, the door closing behind her with a slightly audible outlet of air, a sound incredibly like a sigh.
“Evacuation begins as thousands of people along the Texas Gulf Coast prepare for the arrival of the season’s first tropical storm later tonight. Moving westward toward the Corpus Christi/Brownsville area, Hurricane Anita built up 110-mile-an-hour winds earlier today, and eight-foot waves in advance of the storm are lashing coastal beaches. Flooding of low-lying areas has already forced residents of Padre Island inland. Winds are now in excess of 125 miles per hour and expected to approach 150 when Anita reaches shore sometime around midnight.”
Jannie drives blindly, her head filled with images of home. Home? She has never lived there. The scene does not come easily. There would be wind, of course, and perhaps rain by now. Wind rushing along the bedroom hallway into the living area, lashing rain, gathering force. She tries to visualize them coping calmly and effectively, but fails. The only images she can conjure are static, almost still life.
Tess in the shabby armchair she has carried with her through all the moves, its upholstery faded and leathery with the accumulation of dirt and body oils, sipping coffee or maybe Stag as she flicks ashes indolently toward an ashtray. Daddy half asleep in his La-Z-Boy, flecks of paint in his hair and on his forearm. And Malcolm, of course, the family hope, still sprouting earphones although the power has failed. Statues frozen in place as the wind tears past them filled with the debris of unsuccessful lives.
Ahead is the turnoff for her in-laws’ house, and beyond that home. Home empty and waiting, crouched alone among the trees, facing across a gravel road the abandoned strip pits. Empty and waiting. She will let it wait. She makes a U turn and heads back through town, taking the old highway south, into the wind. She drives swiftly, skimming over the slick black surface, exhilarated by the wind, the rain, the motion of the car. If they should die. As a child she had ridden roads like this one, sitting up front by Daddy as he drove, singing softly with the radio, a beer snugged between his legs. On the other side Tess swayed against her, large beneath a belly full of Malcolm. And Jannie safe in the middle, connected to them both, sure of her boundaries.
A childhood of night roads. The snug cocoon of the car skimming blacktop, carrying its burden of life, of family, to unknown destinations. Like so much flotsam they moved helter-skelter with the current. Toward or away from? No matter. One good road leads to another.
The wind rises and she pushes into it, feeling it sway against the car, hearing its roar and whistle. Behind her Carl sleeps, his strength bleeding into white walls. Ahead the family forms a stark tableau against the force of Anita, and the road lies between. A current that Jannie rides trying somehow to connect the two.
But the wind presses against her, and the road is lost in the driving rain. Sprays of neon break the darkness ahead, shimmering wetly on the windshield. A roadhouse. Jannie slows, remembering the place from college. A lawless place. She had come here in that brief time when she belonged to no one, dancing wildly with faceless young men, improvising, looking for the one who would tell her who to be. It was here she found Carl. Solemn and earnest, he claimed her for the slow songs, leading her firmly through a methodical boxstep he had learned in dance class. Even now Jannie can feel the sweat, the tacky residue of spilled beer that bound them together.
Impulsively she stops. She can feel the band’s heavy bass rhythm pulsate across the parking lot and into the car, inviting her back. She smiles. So this is where it ends. Her foot taps, and the music seems louder. The message is clear. As she reaches for the door handle a car pulls up beside her, and boys — no older than Malcom — spill out. Something solid and shadowy brushes against her window, and then the car bounces. Through the mist on the front window she sees a gargoyle face reflecting her own. Hands appear beside it, making obscene gestures, and the car sinks toward the rear. In the rearview mirror another face, and yet another beside her, calling attention to itself by scratching at the window. Her head turns wildly, it happens quickly, and her heart pounds. The faces recede before she can focus. The car bounces crazily, then stops, and she feels the sharp rap of knuckles against the hood. A sudden sheet of rain coats the windshield, and when it clears the boys are gone. She inhales, holds her breath, and listens. In the stillness she realizes that the bass rhythm she felt was nothing more than the rain, the rising wind.
Entering the dark house she puts the baby in his crib, then roams around, unable to settle. Roger trails unnoticed behind her. In the living room she pauses, riffling through long-unplayed records, selecting one, placing it on the turntable. She turns the volume high, so loud that the floor throbs. Applause and shouts greet the group, and the beat — loud, strong, regular — introduces the title song.
She dances, feet moving in long forgotten patterns, romping high in mojo rhythm, hips grinding relentlessly through the monkey and the frug. Roger moves with her, shaking the baby’s rattle to the pervasive beat. She laughs, teeth flashing, changing along with the lyrics, as he hands the rattle to her and starts blowing tunelessly on a plastic harmonica. They move together across the floor, his small body a funhouse mirror image of her own. Leaping high with inspiration, she improvises, body set in mindless motion, screaming wordless sounds, half hysterical with exhilaration. Roger prances, blowing hard, trying to keep up with her. She runs and leaps breathlessly, flying around the room, caught up on the music, carried on the wind. She can dance forever, the music will lift her. She is one with it, the source of its energy. Behind her she can feel the child tiring, forcing himself to continue. His small body bumps her and she falters. Stumbling, her legs become clumsy and the shouted lyrics heavy explosions of air. The beat cannot hold her and she falls, still laughing, to the floor. Roger falls with her, rolling across her like a puppy, and as the record winds itself down they lie there together, feet still twitching, until the music dies.
Gradually the pounding in her chest slows and her body returns to normal. She pulls the child close to her, sheltering him. Soon she will rise and check the windows, then carry Roger to his bed. But for now they lie together listening to the wind whip the tall oaks outside, and as the wind gains force she wonders what will become of Anita.