Jan. 5, 2010

Josh Becker


            “Feel that air,” said Larry, wiping his brow with a little bar napkin.  “It’s so thick you could cut it with a knife.” 
            “Yeah.” said Mike.  “I don’t remember it ever being this muggy before.”
            Larry and Mike, both eighty years old, sat at an outdoor bar in Naples, Florida wearing shorts and sandals, drinking Corona beer from the bottle, while gazing absently out at the Atlantic Ocean.  It was a spectacular sunset – the clouds streaked with red and purple, angelic beams of sunlight shining through – however, on the horizon, black threatening clouds were gathering.  The air was so hot, still, and dense with humidity that it seemed to muffle the sound.  The voices of the other bar patrons, the cawing of seagulls, and Jimmy Buffett’s “Wasted Away Again in Margaritaville” (seemingly on an endless loop), all sounded like they were  coming from inside a closet.  It was so muggy that it was getting hard to breathe.
            They both sipped their Coronas, the bottles sweaty with condensation, the beer already warm and unappealing.
            “Think this’ll develop into another hurricane?” asked Larry.
            “They always seem to these days, don’t they?” replied Mike.
            “Yeah.  They didn’t used to, but now they do.”
            “Global warming,” said Mike, summing it all up.
            Larry smiled distantly, “You remember the first time we met?”
            “Of course,” said Mike with a nod.  “Like it was yesterday.  It was the first day of 5th grade, just about this time in early September.  You were the new kid at school and a bunch of boys were teasing you and pushing you around.”
            “Remember why?”
            “You were the new kid.”
            “But specifically?”
            Larry shook his head, still annoyed after 70 years.  “It was my silly ridiculous shoes.  They had silver buckles.  Not real silver, of course.  My mother bought them somewhere cheap – like from the ragman or something – then she made me wear them and I really hated them.  I tore the buckles off and threw them away on my way home.  I should’ve done it on the way there.”
            “Well,” said Mike, “I remember the boys all around you pushing you, but you just stood there.  You didn’t do anything.  You didn’t even seem like you cared.  They finally stopped and started walking away.  You got down like a runner at the starting line, took off running as fast as you could right at the backs of the boys, then you kicked the lead kid between the legs from behind and actually lifted him off the ground.  He grabbed his balls with both hands and just kept walking without ever looking back.”  They both laughed at the ancient memory.
            Larry said, “Then you walked up, put out your hand and said, ‘Hi, I’m Mike Randall’.”
            Mike nodded.  “And you shook it, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
            “Right,” said Larry, putting out his hand.  “Larry Heider, good to meet you.”
Mike shook Larry’s hand.  “Good to meet you, too.”
            “And that was 70 years ago.  Unbelievable.”
            “Yeah, but they’ve been good years.  I don’t regret a minute of it.”
            “Me, neither,” said Larry.  “A lot of bad things have happened in the world since then, a world war, the red scare, the cold war, hippies, drugs, the internet, terrorism—“
             “—Then retirement, and here we are.”  
            “Half of our friends are already dead, but we just keep going.”
            “Yeah.  Somehow we just hang on.  Through thick and thin.”
            Larry put his hand on Mike’s arm.  “I wouldn’t have even moved down here if it wasn’t for you.”
            “What’dya mean?”
            “You’re the one who saw what was happening to the neighborhood, not me.  When I got that offer to sell my store, you’re the one who said ‘sell,’ nobody else did.  I wasn’t sure myself.”
            “It’s a damn good thing you sold when you did.”
            “It sure is.  The place went bankrupt two years later, but I got out at just the right time.  If I hadn’t have gotten out when I did,” Larry poked his finger on the tabletop, “I wouldn’t be here.”  
            Mike shrugged.  “Well you did, and here we are.”  He pointed his thumb back over his shoulder.  “Ocean View Condos, and we actually have an ocean view.”
            “I guess we did all right.”
            “Plus, none of our kids turned out to be serial killers or ax murderers.”
            “Well, we’ve got that going for us, although a couple have gone in and out of rehab.”
            “Sad, but I suppose that’s to be expected in this tough world.”
            Larry nodded, then stuck out his hand, palm up.  “It’s drizzling.”
            Grey clouds now filled the entire sky, blotting out the colorful sunset.
            Mike said, “It’s gonna blow.”
            “Yep.  Let’s get home.”

            Mike and Larry left the beach area, walking slowly through the warm drizzle – two old bent men with thin legs, varicose veins and bony knees.  Mike still had a full head of snow white hair; Larry was bald with a little white fringe around his ears.  They waited for the traffic to clear, then crossed the road.  
            Directly on the other side of the road were the Ocean View Condos that truly had an ocean view, if your condo happened to be located on the second floor, that is.  The full name of the housing complex was Ocean View Condominiums and Retirement Village, but no one ever mentioned the second part.  The average age of a resident at Ocean View was at least eighty.  There were a couple of residents walking down to the beach each day who were over ninety.  
            The front doors of the condos all faced into a courtyard.  Mike’s and Larry’s condos were directly across from one another.  Arriving at the fork in the sidewalk, they shook hands, gave each other a slap on the back, then headed to their own places.
            Both men came into their homes to find their wives watching the news on TV.  A tropical storm had developed in the eastern Caribbean Sea traveling rapidly northwest between the western tip of Cuba and the Yucatan Peninsula intensifying to a category 3 hurricane as it moved into the Gulf of Mexico.  This being the fifth storm of relatively light hurricane season, it was named Eugene. 
            Mike and his wife Lois watched the news reports in fearful silence.  Finally, Lois said:
            “What are we going to do?  It’s already a category 3.”
            Sighing helplessly, Mike said, “What can we do?  Not to mention no one knows where of if it’ll make landfall.”
            Lois took Mike’s hand.  “I’m scared.  I don’t like these hurricanes.  At least up north when we got a tornado we had a basement to go down to.”
            “Well be okay.”  But he didn’t look convinced.

            In contrast, Larry and his wife Gail were busily preparing themselves and their condo for the upcoming storm, should it hit Naples.  They went to Costco and bought the large-size packages of everything: toilet paper, cases of bottled water, canned soup, coffee, tea, sugar, extra batteries, extra flashlights, as well as two 5-gallon cans of gasoline for the generator should the power go out as it always did in a storm.  Mike got a screwdriver and a ladder and took down all of the hanging plants on their back deck.  Gail gathered up all of the other potted plants and brought them inside.              They’d wisely installed expensive storm shutters guaranteed to hold up through a Category 4 hurricane.
            By the time Hurricane Eugene had made it’s halfway across the Gulf of Mexico it had intensified to a Category 4.  Larry said, “Now we’ll get to see if the storm shutters are as good as the manufacturer says.”
            The drizzle turned to rain, then the wind kicked up.  Three- and four-foot-long palm fronds dislodged from the treetops, crashing to the ground as the tree themselves bent further and further over.
            Mike and Lois couldn’t take anymore.  They began packing their belongings.
            Mike called Larry and said, “We’re getting out of here.”
            Larry was dumbfounded.  “Where are you gonna go?”
            “We’ll go north.  Anywhere.  We just have to get away from the hurricane.”
            “The roads’ll be a nightmare.”
            “I don’t care.  I’m not gonna to sit around here and wait for the roof to collapse on me, OK?”
            “It doesn’t make sense to me, Mike.  You’ll get stuck in traffic, there’s still a hurricane out there, but now you’re stuck in your car.  Just come over here.  You and Lois can stay until the storm blows through.”
            Mike said, “No, uh-uh, we gotta get outta here.”
            “Mike, you’re panicking.”
            “OK, so I’m panicking, what of it?  What’s it to you?”
            “It’s nothing to me.  It just doesn’t seem like you.”
            “It doesn’t, huh?  What do you know?”
            “Nothing, I guess,” said Larry. 
            “Fine, I’ll see you later.”  Mike hung up.
            Gail turned to Larry.  “What’s up?”
            Larry threw his hands in the air.  “Mike and Lois are leaving.  There gonna drive away.”
            “I don’t know.  He said ‘away from the hurricane’.”
            Gail shook her head.  “That doesn’t make any sense.”
            “That’s what I think.  Mike sounded totally panicked.”
            Stepping up to the front window, Gail pulled back the drapes and surveyed the courtyard.              “Nobody else looks like they’re leaving.”
            Larry stepped up beside Gail.  Just then Mike and Lois came out their front door, each of them carrying two suitcases.  The wind was really blowing now and Mike and Lois both had to lower their heads and lean into the wind to get anywhere.
            Larry opened the front door and called out over the wind, “Hey, Mike!  Lois!  Come on!  Come stay with us!”
            Mike and Lois turned and looked at Larry, paused, looked at each other, then continued in the direction they were going.  They loaded the luggage in the backseat and trunk of their Buick Regal, then recklessly sped out of the parking lot.  Larry and Gail watched them go.  They closed their front door and locked it.
            Larry said, “I’ve never seen Mike act this way.”
            “Well,” said Gail, “you’ve never seen him in a hurricane before.”
            Larry nodded, “That’s true.”
            Mike and Lois drove along the side streets though the strengthening storm, palm fronds, trashcan lids and various other detritus sailing past.  The rain was coming down so hard that the windshield wipers were useless.  But so far the traffic was minimal.
            When they got to the end of the street that lead onto U.S. 41 they found a long line of cars slowly inching their way through the pelting rain.  It was less than a mile to U.S. 84, then a couple of more miles to I-75.  Mike still wasn’t sure if he should take I-75 north toward Tampa, or get on U.S. 80 and take it into the interior of the state toward Lake Okeechobee.  The problem with I-75 is that it followed coastline for a couple of hundred miles all the way to St Petersburg-Tampa before it cut east into the center of the state, and if they were that close to the shore they’d still be in harm’s way from the hurricane.
            Squinting in an attempt to see through the heavy rain and the windshield wipers going at full-speed, Mike said, “We’ll take 80 inland.  Once we’re fifty or sixty miles from the  coast we’ll be fine.”
            “But there’s nothing there,” said Lois.
            “Who cares?  We’ll be away from the storm.  That’s all that matters.”
            But traffic on 41 wasn’t going anywhere.  In the course of an hour they hadn’t made it a half mile, and the storm just kept getting worse.  They were now seeing trees completely knocked over with their twisted roots exposed.  Shingles, pieces of siding and palm fronds kept blowing past, occasionally hitting the cars.
            “The hurricane is gonna hit and we’re gonna be stuck in this goddamn car!” said Mike sounding severely panicked.
            “What’ll we do?” asked Lois.
            “Let’s go back.  Larry was right.  This was stupid.”
            Mike pulled a hard U-turn across the median, fishtailing in the mud, then began heading back from whence they’d come.  There was virtually no traffic going in the other direction.
            Mike pounded his fist on the steering wheel.  “Shit!  What a stupid idea!”
            When Mike and Lois finally got back to Ocean View Condos it was a veritable deluge.  In the fifty yards between the parking lot and their condo they both got utterly soaked, like they’d just taken a swim fully clothed.  As soon as they shut the door there was a knock.
            Mike said, “It must be Larry.”
            He opened the door to find another of their neighbors, Herman Schultz, standing there looking like a drowned rat.  Mike pulled him in and shut the door.  “Hey, Herman, what’s up?  Some storm, eh?”
            “Yeah, some storm.  We’ve got some big problems here.”
            Lois asked, “What do you mean?”
            “Well,” said Herman, “since the power went out—”
            “—The power’s out?”
            “Yeah.  Give it a try.”
            Lois reached out and flicked the light switch, but nothing happened.
            Mike nodded.  “Yep, the power’s out.”
            Herman continued, “So, there’s a quite a few elderly folks here who can’t walk, or they’re on dialysis machines, or whatever, that really need some help, but there’s no one to help them but us.”
            Lois said, “What have you got in mind?”
            “We’ve got to go get these people,” said Herman, “and bring them somewhere they can be looked after, hopefully with power.  Any ideas?”
            “My buddy Larry across the way here has a generator.  We could take them there.”
            “Great.  So, this is going to be a real pain because we’re going to have to carry some of these people.  You up for this?”
            Mike nodded.  “Absolutely.”
            Lois said, “We’ll both help.”
            “Terrific,” said Herman.  “Let’s go.”
            “Hang on a minute.  Let me go talk to Larry and see what he thinks, OK?”
            “Sure,” said Herman.  “I’ll wait here.”
            Mike went back out into the storm.  The wind was blowing so hard now that he could barely make it across the courtyard.  He got to Larry’s door and pounded as hard as he could to be heard over the howling wind.
            The door opened to the extent of the chain lock.  Larry’s face appeared in the crack.
            “You’re back,” said Larry.  “What happened?”
            “It was just like you said.  Solid traffic.  We couldn’t get anywhere.”
            Larry shook his head.  “I still can’t believe you just left.  The second there was trouble you bolted.”
            Mike shrugged.  “I panicked, OK? “
            “I’m sure glad you weren’t covering my back.” 
            “Can I come in?”
            “Sorry,” said Larry, “we’re not letting anyone in.”
            “Look, if nobody else went to the trouble to be prepared for an eventuality like this one, that’s their problem, not ours.”
            Mike couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  Meanwhile, the raindrops were smacking him in the face like baseballs and he had to cling to the doorjamb to not be blown away.
            “Larry, look, there’s a lot of old folks here who need help.  We’ve got to get them out of their places and move them to where they can be taken care of.  Some of them are on dialysis machines and need electricity.  You’re the only one with a generator.”
            Larry looked straight at Mike through the crack in the door.  “Then I guess they should’ve prepared for something like this, but they’re not coming in here.”
            Mike was shocked.  “Larry, these people need help.”
            “Yeah?  Too bad.”
            “I can’t believe you’re saying this.”
            “Believe it.”
            “You won’t help?”
            “No, I won’t.”  To make his point even clearer, Larry slammed the door and locked it.
            Looking utterly dumbfounded, Mike turned around and made his way back across the courtyard to his own condo.  He got inside and wiped the water off of his face.
            Herman asked, “So, we’re going to take everybody over to Larry’s?”
            Mike shook his head.  “No, Larry won’t let anyone in.  He wouldn’t let me in.”
            Lois looked confused.  “I don’t understand.”
            “Me, neither,” said Mike.  “Larry said that if people hadn’t prepared for this ‘eventuality’ that was their problem.”
            “You’re kidding,” said Herman looking aghast.
            “That’s what he said.”
            Herman shook his head in disbelief.  “Christ, what an asshole.”
            “Yeah,” said Mike.  “Let’s go get those people.”
            Mike, Lois and Herman met up with four other residents and they spent the next two hours pounding on people’s doors and asking if they were OK?  If they were in wheelchairs or on walkers or connected to any kinds of machines, the other residents helped them get to either Herman’s place or Mike’s place.  Neither condo had power, but at least they wouldn’t be all by themselves.  Once this was done, everybody huddled down and waited out the storm.
            It was an intense night of howling wind, pelting rain, with parts of houses flying past, like shingles and window screens.  All the elderly folks hunkered down in the two condos, using candles and flashlights for illumination, listening to a battery-powered radio.  However, across the courtyard from Mike’s place, Larry and Gail had electricity, lamps burning, and they could see the flicker of a TV through the window in the front door (all of the other windows were covered by metal storm shutters).  Everyone in the complex was aware of the fact that Larry and Gail had power and weren’t sharing it.
            When the morning finally came, the storm had abated.  The radio said that it had blown right across the state and became an “extropical storm” along the way, meaning it had lost all of it’s energy and pooped out.  Everybody emerged from Mike’s and Herman’s condos admiring the beauty of the clear sunny day.  They all sighed in relief; they’d made it through yet another catastrophe in their long lives and lived to tell about it.
            Larry and Gail opened their door and stepped outside.  They saw Mike and Lois and approached.  Lois and Gail hugged each other.  Mike and Larry eyed each other suspiciously.
            Lois said, “Why don’t you guys come over for dinner tonight?”
            Mike shook his head, “I don’t think so.  That was a really shitty thing you did last night.  You are a selfish asshole.”
            “Oh, really?” said Larry.  “Well, you’re a coward.  A yellow-bellied chicken.”
            “Oh, yeah?  What about that thousand bucks I lent you that you never paid back?”
            “What about my bike, huh?  You borrowed it, busted it, and never had it fixed or paid for it.”
            “Yeah?  What about Sue Lerner?  She was my girlfriend, you double-crossed me and took her.”
            “She never liked you.”
            “No, bullshit on you!”
            “You were always an asshole!”
            “You were always a weasel!”
            “Up yours!”
            “Drop dead!”
            Larry and Mike turned away from each other in disgust.  As their wives watched, they both angrily stomped across the courtyard, entered their respective condos, then loudly slammed the doors.