Family Fare (Roxboro Road BP)
Florence was a slow roller. We welcomed the rain at first, because it was hot, and it seemed like it’d been a while, but then it kept coming, and coming, picking fish up out of the ocean and dumping them on the freeway a hundred miles inland, the surge fifteen feet high and growing, making its way onto porches and into crawl spaces, lapping into living rooms and first-floor bedrooms, short circuiting televisions and lamps, everything gone dark.
Even inland, we were scared. On the radio, I kept hearing people ask, why don’t they leave, those people on the coast, and so finally I called in to leave my own comment but the phone just rang and rang and it felt like no one wanted to hear the actual fact, which is that not everyone can leave, a thing that should be obvious but obviously isn’t. Here’s the thing: you might not have but two dollars in your pocket and even less in your gas tank. Maybe you’re a single dad and your kids are with their mom and you can’t do shit about the fact that she won’t budge. Maybe your dog got lost and won’t come home. Maybe you’re like me and your mom’s on oxygen and in a wheelchair and you don’t have a car to move her even if she could move, which most of the time, she can’t, though you make her get up from bed sometimes and take a walk down the hallway where she can eat in front of the television. I never graduated from high school and after that I did too many drugs, but I swear that even so, even if I had a car and no mom to speak of, these are things that would have occurred to me. And anyways, you can’t just step out of a storm’s way - even if you leave everything behind, that’s a piece of you, too, what you left there to rot under thirty inches of storm water.
My mother, she watched the news like it was end times, read the weather section like it was the Bible. Called the weather man by his first name, “Greg,” and said it so lovingly, it’s like she had another son, but a wise, all-knowing one who could deliver us from whatever hell or highwater was coming. She recited rainfall totals and studied electrical outage maps, watched Weather on the 1’s and the 10’s and if there was weather on the 5’s she’d have watched that too. When it all got to be too much, I got outside to wander around the neighborhood in the rain, watched a stray dog wade through the lake that used to be our park and threw it a stick, removed a few heavy branches from the middle of the road, tested the depth of puddles. Around noon I went home to give my mom some lunch, and she complained we were out of Lay’s and Dr. Pepper and so I got on my bike and rode up to the gas station in the rain. It felt more like swimming. Even with my hood up, I was soaked through when I got there, but Charmin at the register didn’t bat an eye, just asked if I wanted my regular Big Gulp. Charmin and me, we talked about the rain some, how her apartment lost power so she’d just as soon be at work, how my mother was, and her cat Lucy.
When there were two people on shift, sometimes Charmin and I would smoke around side of the building, away from the gas pumps, and we’d talk about her cat and my mom and how family is the one thing you can’t fix and you can’t leave. I used to think about asking Charmin on a date, but then I didn’t want to disrupt this delicate balance we have, this knowing and not knowing each other, this understanding that comes not from being friends, but from being human. And also there was the fact that she’d have to be the one to drive. But that day during Florence, she asked me for my phone number. She didn’t know if she’d be able to get home after her shift, she said, if the water kept rising, and she didn’t know where else she’d go. Well, I gave it to her, of course. Screw the delicate balance, or whatnot, I told myself. And even if it’s not right to have felt it, I had the tiniest bit of gladness that I’m not the only one with no one else to call, even if meant Charmin had no one else to call, either.
As it turns out, Charmin never did call. We still smoke cigarettes sometimes, beside the building, and it’s the same as it ever was, which I tell myself is a good thing. But I do wonder, sometimes, especially when it’s raining, what it would have been like if she had come over that day after all. I wonder little things, like what we would have talked about when the power finally went out, if she would have sat still on the couch like my mother while I gathered flashlights and candles, or if she would have gotten up to help me. Maybe she was afraid of the dark, maybe she looked different by candlelight, maybe the unknowable things about her came out when she was most afraid. And maybe, like me, she would have been cheered instead of startled when the lights all came on at once two hours later, and there were so many of them, we didn’t know why we’d had so many on in the first place, but I couldn’t help but be glad we had, because with all of them lit up like that - the kitchen and porch lights and the television and the bedside lamps and the nightlights, and all of the candles lit, too, all of this beautiful, unnecessary brightness - well, it felt like some kind of celebration, a reception to commemorate the fact that, someday, the rain had to stop.