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3rd Annual Contest Finalist

 

It began as a “disturbance,” a white blur off the coast of Africa, which the man on the Weather Channel said was becoming organized.

I’m not,” said George cheerfully.

Jill, his wife, stood watching the TV in boxers and a tank top. Her frown suggested that she was organizing her own system of turbulence.

She was a neurosurgeon, veteran of years of training more grueling than a fighter pilot’s. She could guide a buzz saw through a skull or a scalpel along a spinal cord. One glance from her gray eyes could wither an errant resident or nurse. George admired her strength and steeliness and loved the girlish guise in which they were packaged: she stood five-four in her loafers—notched like a piecrust, the shoes of a third-grade teacher—and chewed the ends of her hair when she was stressed.

“We can’t go,” she said.

“What do you mean?” He knelt by his suitcase, thumbing a stack of his favorite, softest t-shirts. They and some swim trunks were all he’d need for a week at the Gulf Coast beach where he and Jill were headed in the morning.

“We can’t go driving into a hurricane.”

He rocked back onto the heels of his flip-flops and looked up at her face. Stood up. Together they watched the royal-blue map of the Caribbean. A pale, fuzzy mass whirred toward the Florida panhandle again and again as the Weather Channel projected the course of the storm.

“See?” said Jill. “We’ll drive 500 miles and have to turn around and come right back.”

Over the course of their marriage she had predicted that loose parts would fall off, that noises in the car would turn into major system shutdowns, that uninvited people would hear about their parties, and—George hated to admit it—she was usually right.

She too had been packing when the news of the storm interrupted. Now he saw that she was holding tampons. Two light-blue boxes. His heart constricted. “Aw, sweetheart, you won’t be needing those.”

She shook her head. “This is the type of stuff that sells out in a hurricane. I may start any day now,” she said. “If I don’t bring tampons on the trip, that’ll jinx it.”

This was their third in vitro try, and it would be their last. After this—what? He pictured placing ads in newspapers around the region:

Rocking chairs and birthday parties! Jolly executive dad and loving, cookie-baking mom want to give your baby a beautiful childhood and a life full of the best opportunities. Call toll-free….

Only in their case it would have to say: Successful brain surgeon mom and lackadaisical dad want to raise the kind of child who gets their sarcastic jokes and likes old Tarzan movies. He could add: We do have a golden retriever. Sometimes their dog seemed like their only real qualification for parenthood. Nonetheless, George, a percussionist who had failed to get tenure at the local college, hoped that this next gig would be his last—that of stay-at-home dad.

 

By bedtime the white blot had the beginnings of arms, like an octopus. A man with bouffant gray hair pointed out the eye. “Landfall by 11 p.m. Monday,” he said. “But these storms often turn from the projected path. That’s why we’re going to stay with Tropical Storm Hattie through the night, and that’s why you need to stay with the Weath—”

George wanted this vacation so much—wanted to be at the seaside with Jill, away from her beeper and call list, away from this house where he made his own lonely rounds. Why was she never so thrilled by the beach as he was? Because he liked to rendezvous with his brother in Mobile, his brother who was a wide-load escort driver? Jill and Floyd didn’t have much in common. Or was it that George always arranged to spend a day with Jill’s sister in Pensacola and her four kids? He adored them. Blond hair and big brown eyes. Wide, thin-lipped faces. Their father a school principal, their mother an aerobics teacher, their house overflowing with toys, but maybe that whole scene was painful for Jill.

A few days into the vacation, though, Jill always began to relax. The awful tensions of her work would slide off her shoulders and she’d loosen up, getting happy and excited to spot dolphins from their deck, go for a sno-cone, and snort about George’s made-up Scrabble words. It would happen this time too. It had to.

 

Early the next morning Jill turned on the television. “Great,” she called. “It’s been upgraded to a hurricane. Two-hundred miles southeast of the Keys. Is it too late to back out?”

George came out of the bathroom zipping up his shaving kit. “Come on. So we have a little rain while we’re there. It’ll still be a change from routine, and in two or three days the sun’ll come out again.” He slipped an arm around her and tried to kiss behind her ear.

She closed her eyes. “You’re always so fucking optimistic.”

She hadn’t always been this profane—not back when they first met, she a shy flutist and George the funny guy behind the glockenspiel in their college orchestra. But a salty mouth, apparently, was basic equipment for a neurosurgeon. Now Jill could cuss, all right.

It was Tess who settled the argument; she jumped in the car when George wasn’t looking, sat on the back seat with her ears pricked and tongue lolling, and refused to get out. Soon after, they were on the road, angling down through the delta on a two-lane highway, bean fields stretched out on either side.

At four o’clock, an FM station out of Ocean Springs sang out, “They’re battening the hatches in the Florida Keys, where—” George slid a Beach Boys CD into the audio player. Surf and fun and Californ-i-ay bounced around the car until Jill punched the power off, swearing. “Enough already, George.”

She was right. He should have picked soothing James Taylor… or Jimmy Buffett… with his shrimp and flip-flops, a beach boy all grown up. Neurosurgeon mom with good taste and stay-at-home dad with questionable judgment want to parent your child….

They exited onto a state highway that wound through pine and hackberry woods. Jill pulled a medical journal from her satchel and put on her reading glasses, which gave her an air of sweet gravity that George found fetching. But at the same time they reminded him of her age—37—and what she called her ticking clock.

Yet as they reached the high, slender-spanned bridge and crossed the bay to the island, the sky was a regal, studio-backdrop blue. No hint of anything bad in the offing.

 

The rental was a stained-cedar A-frame, raised on pilings. Sliding glass doors along its ocean side showcased the Gulf and a swath of pale sand. Jill turned on the Weather Channel right away, but left it readily enough when George suggested they change and head out to the beach.

Oh, it was what he’d dreamed. She looked so… available… her skin pale and lustrous against the black sheen of her halter suit—and was there, maybe, a slight swell in her lower belly? He rubbed sunblock down the sweep of her back and kissed her freckled shoulder right through the coconut coating. They walked along the surf hand-in-hand like a couple in a resort vacation ad. Brown pelicans labored overhead, seagulls shrieked. Tess chased sandpipers and sneezed at the salt spray, wheeling around now and then to bay at the breakers.

A couple of houses down, a toddler with big cheeks squatted near her father’s lounge chair, patting a mound of wet sand. She looked up at them as they passed, lost her balance, and plopped back onto her bottom, her round eyes widening with surprise. Jill’s fingers squeezed George’s. Next year that’ll be us! he thought, in a blitz of happiness.

Sun and waves gave him an almost uncontainable sense of well-being. It was like what he used to feel playing in the symphony. He used to love being in the middle of the dense, rich orchestral sound. Something about the bombast of, say, Berlioz, or Tchaikovsky, exhilarated him the way the ocean did.

A percussionist’s biggest challenge was not intricate rhythms; it was counting dead time, the silent bars when the rest of the orchestra didn’t need him. But George had a high tolerance for tedium, and enjoyed rallying his wandering mind for one great fortissimo boom.

It was the rest of life that confounded him—the murkiness of departmental politics; Jill, and her overweening career, and the bafflement at the heart of marriage itself.

That night he grilled snapper, Jill roasted vegetables, and they ate on the deck. George had two beers, one for himself plus the one that Jill wouldn’t take—just in case. The moon came up, a yellow dime, and they went for another walk, watching the waves break white in the moonlight.

 

He woke with a start, his head full of a bad dream and his heart pounding. Jill had rolled in his direction. The bluish light from the windows, even and still now, bathed her face, her worried forehead had relaxed, and her cheeks looked plump and smooth as a girl’s. Her nose was a little bit snub, as if snipped in a childhood accident—another one of those innocent features that belied the high-powered nature of her work.

Maybe a tiny child-seed was snagged somewhere deep inside her—their own little zygote, fertilized in its Petri dish cradle, then tucked back into its mother, implanted and beginning to grow.

Yet how unconnected they seemed, for two people who might have made a baby. He would have said, about his marriage, “We get along okay”; yet there was unease behind the okay-ness. They talked about their house, they compared notes on their separate days, they had sex when they were supposed to—lately, only when they were supposed to, now that their bedroom was populated by the ghosts of Dr. Jenkins, the fertility specialist, and his technicians and nurses. But they also bickered. Behind their banter was a rancor George couldn’t account for. There were hours of loneliness, punctuated more and more now by a searing sadness. Often, now that George was unemployed, these spells came in the middle of the day, in a blank morning or afternoon. When Jill got home, her patients’ urgencies and emergencies trailed her like a cape. She was remote as a queen, while he was her jester, a goofy page. He knew he should take a back seat to her patients. They were in comas, in ICU, the victims of tumors and wrecks and oxygen deprivation, more important devastations than his ordinary angst, his everyday emotional code blue. Yet, to his shame, he resented them. Yes, he was jealous of the mortally ill, the anesthetized, the brain-dead who took up Jill’s attention, obsessed her day and night, got her out of bed, took her away from home, and kept her on the phone when she was at home. How mature was that?

How would he care for their baby, hour after hour, while Jill was off in her grueling consults and surgeries? What if something went wrong with it, and all he could do was stare helplessly, having no idea what to do? What if one of these terrible heartaches came over him when he was supposed to be feeding it or pushing it in a swing, and he just stood there, checked out?

 

The next day, a police car turned onto the lane to their cottage. George, rinsing the lunch plates, watched through the kitchen window as it nosed into their driveway. A stout officer came up the stairs, tugging at his belt. George dried his hands as he went to the back door.

“Hate to tell you folks.” The officer took off his hat, directed a “ma’am” past George to Jill. “She’s been upgraded. We got orders to evacuate the island. We’re asking that ever’one be over the bridge by four o’clock.”

They packed haphazardly, not sure what to leave or bring. Maybe the hurricane would turn and they could come back the next day; or maybe the whole island would be blown away, this house scattered, its ceiling fans and mini-blinds strewn up and down the beach. In the end they took everything. At 3:45 George locked the door behind them, feeling a little silly—what was a deadbolt to Hurricane Hattie? Tess jumped into the back seat, and they joined the procession of cars moving bridgeward on the island’s main road.

“At least it’s an adventure,” said George.

 

TIhey drove inland, stopping at motels in vain to find a room. Finally, once they left the interstate and the older four-lane, a crumbling two-lane highway led them to a “VACANCY” sign at a motor court. There was an oystershell driveway overhung with Spanish moss and small, mildew-stained units once painted pink and green.

“We’ll be lucky,” Jill said, “not to be stabbed in the shower.”

The room smelled like roach spray, and the bed was swaybacked. George was tapping a dead fly out of the water cup in the bathroom when Jill called, No cable.”

“No cable?”

“We managed to find the only room in the entire Southeast with no Weather Channel.”

“We did?” He came out of the bathroom and squatted to offer Tess the water.

“God,” said Jill, “my head hurts.” Her face was pale, twisted.

“Let’s drive to dinner,” said George, “and listen to the radio on the way. Come on, Tess, get your leash. It’ll be fine, sweetie.”

“Have you noticed how often things are fucking not fine?”

George kept his eye on a giant palmetto in the rearview as he backed out. “I think there’s an Applebee’s back at the interstate.”

Jill jabbed the radio search button. “Nothing but AM stations! Nothing but country music!”

“Really,” said George, pulling onto the highway, “it’s gonna be—” He stopped himself. There was a slit in the western clouds, where a virulent light shone through. Sunset.

 

SIhortly after dawn Tess flung herself on their bed and hunkered between them, trembling. The clock radio beside the bed was dark. A high, continuous wail came from outside. Jill rushed to the window and gasped. George peered over her shoulder.

The trees around the motor court were bent as if a giant’s hand was pushing them, bowing the trunks and bending the smaller limbs over to the ground. The highway was a cable of taillights. Across the road a No U-Turn sign flapped, tore from its pole, and went whipping through the air.

George pushed at the television’s buttons and shoved the rabbit-ears antennae this way and that.

“Who cares what they’re saying?” Jill pulled her nightgown over her head and grabbed shorts and panties from her suitcase. “Can’t you tell we just need to leave?”

“It may be too late,” said George. “By now we might be safer inside.”

The picture was fuzz, but the sound worked: “The eye of Hurricane Hattie is now 70 miles southeast of Mobile. Again, the storm has been upgraded as of 5 a.m. to a Category Three hurricane. A hurricane warning has been declared along the Gulf Coast from Pass Christian to Destin. Residents are advised to move inside all unsecured large objects—”

“What is an unsecured large object?” said George. “Like, a house?”

“Let’s just go.”

They entered the stream of crawling traffic. “Hell,” said George, “we need gas.”

Jill fiddled with the radio.

“—routes already underwater. Residents fleeing the area are advised to use the approved Hurricane Evacuation Routes and not to delay their egress from the area. And now let’s go to Bob, a listener on Caraway Island. Bob has made the decision not to evacuate. Bob, can you describe the scene where you are?”

“Well, Mickey, there’s a lotta water—lotta wind blowing lotta stuff around—”

“Tell us what the authorities told you. For our listeners just now tuning in.”

“They came by and they were like, ‘If you decide to try to ride out the storm, will you go ahead and put a toe tag on? Like, write your name and next of kin on it.’”

“Listener Bob, we wish you well! Now let’s go to the latest from Pensacola—”

George crooked his own big toe. How sweaty and tense it was—how alive—pressing his flip-flop against the accelerator. How would it be to tie a morgue tag to his toe, and pad around the house in it, riding out the storm?

A few miles later, they saw a truck stop with cars queued at many gas pumps, and George turned in. The pumps were roofed, at least; he wouldn’t have to stand in the rain.

“What line are we in?” said Jill. “That jackass! He’s trying to cut you off.”

“Go on and go to the bathroom.”

He pumped gas in a wind full of salt, blown rain, and fumes that made his face and unbrushed teeth feel even gummier. A woman standing beside a gold Chrysler was shouting back and forth to a heavy red-haired man in mechanic’s coveralls.

“Not gonna ride it out?”

“Unh-unh!” she said. “I rode out Alistair in ’83 and I said, I’m not ever gonna do that again!”

“Well, my stepfather’s in the hospital. I’ve got to run down to the coast and help my mother get his boat in.”

“God bless you, sugar,” the woman answered. “He don’t ever give us more than we can bear, do He?”

What was it about an emergency that made strangers open up to one another? Hollering confidences. George became aware of a blur at his elbow. Jill rushed past, hands over her face, jumped in the car, and slammed the door. “What?” He tried to open her door but she had locked it. He went around to the driver’s side and slid in, out of the wind. “What’s wrong?”

“I’ve started my period.” She moved her hands apart. “I’m not pregnant, ohhhh.”

Behind them people started to honk.

She flung her hand toward the road. “Just go.” Sobs wreathed out of her, rising, disemboweled cries, like the keening of Arab women he had once seen in the news.

Well, George thought, hunched behind the wheel—well, things have got to go uphill from here. If he said that aloud Jill would scratch his face. He had never seen her like this, not in her worst exhaustion and despair about work, her worst rants about chauvinistic superiors. She was wild, irrational.

“I didn’t even want to vacation at the beach! The mountains were where I wanted to go. Cool, crisp air. Sweaters at night—”

“Mosquitoes can be really bad in the mountains this time of year,” he said. “Lyle Porter told me that! They went to Montana, and even in Montana the mosquitoes were bad!”

“They didn’t go to Montana, they went to fucking Maine!”

Mean-spirited, foul-mouthed baby boomers want to give your infant a fighting chance. Call 1-800….

Mosquitoes were not the point. The vacation was not even the point. The baby was the point, the lost baby, the un-baby, the lost potential of a new person, the road untraveled, the DNA sequence that didn’t align.

Or maybe the point was just her and him, the venom between them laid bare.

Did he dare to reach for her hand? Did he want to? They would definitely never conceive if they couldn’t bring themselves to hold hands any more.

Jill took a deep sniff, tucked her hands under her chin, and set it on her drawn-up knees. “I don’t want to be a famous neurosurgeon.” She raised her face, placed it down the other way, away from him, and cried. “I just want to be a, a, a mom.”

“Oh, honey,” he said. Taillights flared ahead, and he skidded as he hit his brakes.
“I don’t want to be in the goddamn Head and Neck Society. I just want to be in the PTA—” and the “A” trailed into hiccuping sobs.

Traffic had picked up and he was able to hit 40 now, though he could hardly see through the rain.

The radio yammered on. A pair of announcers this time. “—situation developing in Pensacola. As you know, one of the dangers of a situation like this is not the gale-force winds and torrential rains of the hurricane itself—”

“Robin?—I hate to interrupt you, but we’re hearing from our on-site reporter in Pensacola that a state of emergency has been declared there. A state of emergency in Pensacola, where the eye of Hurricane Hattie will be passing in the next hour—”

“Turn it up.”

“Seven confirmed dead, and dozens of injuries, from a tornado that struck a shopping center. Most of the dead were in the parking lot of a Walmart in the Chestnut View suburb northwest of Pensacola.”

Jill sniffed and turned up the volume.

“You know it’s not them, sweetie—they wouldn’t go to Walmart in the middle of a hurricane.” As soon as he said it, he knew that her sister and brother-in-law were the very people who would go to Walmart in the middle of a hurricane.

George glanced at Jill. Framed by her matted hair, her face was pale, her eyes pink-rimmed.

He reached for her hand and she let him take it as if she didn’t even feel it. “Why don’t you find a phone and call your brother?” she said. “He could drive to their house and check on them. He’s got that emergency vehicle. I mean, it has lights on top.”

“‘Hey Floyd,’” said George, releasing Jill’s hand and splaying his thumb and pinkie into an imaginary receiver at his ear, “‘you know Jill? Who’s always been so crazy about you? She wants you to drive over to Pensacola and check on her sister and her husband and kids. Then run back and let us know how they are. We’ll be somewhere along the hurricane evacuation route.’”

He dropped his hand to the steering wheel. Jill had turned her head away.

Miles went by. The windshield wipers thunked a dull four-four.

George sighed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You want to look for some coffee?”

Jill looked at him sharply. “No. Find me a working phone.”

 

It took nearly two hours, but finally, outside a Kentucky Fried Chicken deep in Alabama, they located a pay phone. George led Tess to a patch of grass rimmed with orange marigolds, while Jill talked on the phone across the parking lot.

George watched her in the open door of the phone booth. She waved a fly away with one hand—or maybe she was gesturing—her hips in cuffed denim shorts cocked sideways, one shoulder hitched up to squeeze the phone and the other supporting her big purse. He swallowed the last melting ice from a fountain Coke and felt beads of sweat roll down his ribs. Tess ate a french fry she found in the grass, then stood panting, her tongue drooping.

In a minute Jill would hang up and come this way. Maybe she was about to say that her sister and brother-in-law were dead, and that the will would name her and George as custodians of the four children. He was fated to accumulate kiddie tapes in his car and Lucky Charms in his cupboard, to spend weekends at soccer fields and pizza arcades, and to watch over and over again with hammering heart while slight, short figures who were dear to him climbed into cars and rode away.

Or maybe, as Jill crossed the parking lot, he would realize that he had known for a long time, deep inside, that the marriage was over. The chain of consequences unspooled: After divorce, hibernation, and drift he would start dating the 23-year-old grad student who worked part-time at the bookstore. He would marry her, but not before he impregnated her, quite without planning. One night as he leaned over the back of her desk chair to nuzzle her nape, he would read this sentence, highlighted in her Shakespeare: Thou mettest with things dying, I with things new-born. George, who in other years had felt himself to be one large unsecured object, would start to feel solid again. He would land a modest job in arts administration, and wheeling his daughter to day care one morning, would hear her chuckle at the pigeons that flew up in a cloud before the stroller, and would find himself a happy man.

 

Jill gave two big nods and hung up. Instead of coming back to the car she stuck her arm out of the phone booth and raised her hand, a palm-shaking, finger-wiggling salute, then edged deeper into the shadow of the phone booth and picked up the receiver again. Was that a wave? Did it mean “They’re okay” or “Sorry I’m taking so long”? Now she must be phoning the hospital to tell them she’d be home five days early, to put her back in the call rotation. Or checking on some of her patients—Mr. Carmichael, or Mrs. Silva.

God, it was hot. The car would be unbearable. If he’d known Jill was going to take so long he would have tried to find shade.

Finally she emerged into the sun shimmers of the asphalt. George’s sight was shot through with hot blue lines like the cracking in cement. He shook his head, but that only intensified the radiance around his wife. He had another vision, that she was standing by the hospital elevator, absorbed in a chart in her hands. She wasn’t wearing her operating scrubs but her light-blue physician’s smock, and her hair was short and floured with gray. There was no ring on her slender, strong left hand. The elevator chimed and she glanced up, walked through its opening doors, then turned and looked straight at George as the elevator doors closed over her.

Now she approached him, squinting. She cleared her throat. George felt his shoulders starting to shake and heard a cry rising from inside him, a cry he hadn’t given permission to come out.

“Oh, Jill,” he said. “I can’t bear it.”

Surprise and concern spread over her face. “But they’re all right,” she said.

He was sobbing. Standing on the rim of an asphalt skillet, with Tess’s leash wrapped around first his hand and now, as she circled him and Jill in consternation, his legs—he broke down.

“Honey?” said Jill. “Sweetheart, it’s all right. Sissy and Dave and the kids. They know one of those people who was killed, someone who goes to their church, but it’s not them, they’ve taken shelter at a YMCA on the edge of town.”

“It’s been so hard,” George said, getting his chin under control. “It’s just been awful.”

Jill’s body was wrapped against him. He pressed his face into the sunglasses on top of her head, smelled the oil of her unwashed hair, the funky armpit smell she always got during her period. Her shirt was soaked with sweat, but beneath it the sturdiness of her back received the convulsions of his sobs and grounded them, stilled them.

“I wanted it so much,” he said. “The baby. Even if we ever get another one—I wanted this one.”

“Yes.”

They clung to each other.

George pulled back, weak. “I’ve been so alone,” hesaid. “I’m lonely. I miss my job.”

Jill kept patting him. “You must. I’m sorry. Oh, George. Damn it, Tess, hold still.” She bent to unweave the leash, then straightened up and said, “We need to get going. They want me on a consult in the morning.”

George nodded and took the car keys from his pocket. He wiped his eyes with the heel of his hand and started toward the car. But Jill didn’t move. She put her arms again around George and laid her head on his chest. “It’ll get better,” she said. “You’ll see.” He was the one who shook her loose and said, “Come on.”

By the time they got to Starkville, the hurricane was a system of squalls, and by the time they got to Memphis, it was giving needed rain to the fields and gardens of Georgia. They reached home a little after midnight. The house was warm and quiet. It smelled of waffle crumbs and dog hair and the banana they had left in the fruit bowl—of home. And the next morning, when they woke up to pursue their appointed lives, the sky was blue and clear, as if nothing untoward had happened.

 


Hope Coulter has published fiction and poetry in such journals as North American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Rattle.  She teaches creative writing at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas.

Hurricane Katrina photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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