By Glenn Erick Miller
On Saturday morning, weather alerts scrolled along the bottom of the TV screen: seek shelter, stay away from windows, swells, flash floods. Eddie found it hard to enjoy the college football previews with all the hullabaloo. He tried to ignore the warnings and concentrate on watching the highlights from Syracuse’s 38-21 thrashing of Florida back in ’91. Reveling in the moment of that glorious game which harkened back to a time when his alma mater fielded a respectable team, Eddie slouched further into his worn leather recliner.
He held up his “Retired: Let’s Get this Party Started!” coffee mug to block out the annoying weather messages, but there was no denying it: Northeast Florida was going to get walloped. He wondered if the tropical storm was an omen of Syracuse’s football fate.
His wife, Iris, hurried through the kitchen and disappeared down the hall that led to the house’s three bedrooms. Petey, their spirited beagle, followed at her heels.
Her bustling added to Eddie’s foul mood. He scowled and felt a tightness in his lower back. They’d lived in Florida for fifteen years and had survived a half-dozen storms, but this one seemed to make Iris more nervous than usual. For days, his wife had made lists of the things they would need if the power went out: bottled water, canned goods, and propane tanks for the camp stove. She’d stocked the pantry closet with granola bars, cereal, and jars of pickles. In every room of the house, she’d set out flashlights with new batteries. Her planning even extended to the neighborhood. She’d arranged the contact list with a well-organized phone tree of who would call whom.
Now, she was running around, checking and re-checking her preparations. She reappeared, turned around quickly as if she forgot something, and nearly tripped over the dog. “Go lay down, Petey,” she scolded. “I got you plenty of extra food. There’s no need to worry.”
Eddie sipped at his coffee and wished he had a warm donut. During the next commercial break, he glanced out the sliding glass doors. Though it was mid-morning, the sky was still black; it felt like an extension of the night, as if day had never really come at all. If it wasn’t for the football games and his watch, it would be difficult to tell what time it truly was.
Just outside the sliding doors and attached to the back of the house was a large wooden pergola. Hanging from the open-rafter structure were several of Iris’ plants, and they swung in the gusting winds like iron church bells.
Iris had forgotten the plants.
While commercials for auto insurance and pizza played, Eddie watched the large pots and considered his choices. He could go outside and take the plants down, just as they’d done before other storms. Or he could leave them. What was the worst that could happen? They could break loose and come crashing into the glass. Eddie took another sip. Yes, that would be bad, he decided.
Kickoff was about to begin. Eddie said a prayer that Syracuse would at least make it a close game against the top-ranked Gators.
Iris was back in the kitchen, talking on the phone. He hadn’t heard it ring. “We shouldn’t tie up the line, Anne,” Iris said. She stood in front of the kitchen window that faced the Jennings’ place next door. “In a few hours, the storm will be over, and we’ll chat then.”
Anne Jennings had been a widow for a year. Her husband, Frank, Eddie’s best friend, died of a heart attack, and his death had changed all of them. Eddie had grown more withdrawn and irritable, and Anne was now frightened of everything. Iris was the only one who hadn’t changed, at least not as Eddie could tell.
“We’re fine, Anne,” Iris assured. “Yes, we have supplies. Food, water, batteries. You don’t have to worry about us. Yes, everything is buttoned up, too. I’ve told you all of this. The car is in the garage, the patio furniture is put away, and…”
Iris appeared in the space between Eddie and the television.
“Oh, no. My plants!”
Eddie stood, and the two of them walked to the patio doors. Iris held the phone against her chest. Eddie could hear Anne’s muffled voice calling: “Iris? Iris? Iris?”
Outside, beyond the swinging plants, rain splattered the brick pavers that extended out from the pergola and surrounded the pool. The pool’s blue cover rippled in the wind like a detached flap of skin.
“I think they’ll be fine,” Eddie said. “The pergola isn’t going anywhere.”
As Iris explained that she was worried about the plants, not the pergola, Eddie remembered building the cedar structure with Frank Jennings fifteen years ago. Lily was ten. She and the Jennings girls spent that weekend running back and forth between the two swimming pools, sunning themselves, blasting pop music from a boom box, and sipping Shirley Temples.
Eddie smiled at the memory. The two families had gotten along so well that over time, they merged into one large group. They shared rides to soccer practices and play rehearsals. They ate dinner together at least twice a week. Besides the pergola, Frank helped lay new tile in the kitchen and showed Eddie how to build jewelry boxes for Iris and Lily. In return, Eddie filed the Jennings’ tax returns and tutored Frank’s oldest when she was failing calculus. And when Frank collapsed during a morning walk last fall, Eddie was there to hold his best friend’s head in his lap while he passed on.
Dawn had been beautiful that day: bright orange poinsettia blossoms had decorated the sidewalks, and Muscovy ducks waddled along the pond’s edge, content beneath their red cowls. Just before Frank crumpled, Eddie had been thinking that maybe he could, after all this time, finally accept Florida as home.
“…before the storm gets any worse,” Iris was saying.
Petey nudged into the space between Eddie and Iris. Then a series of lightning flashes startled the dog. He scampered away and hopped onto Eddie’s chair.
A few moments later, Eddie was in the garage, pulling on his blue and orange poncho. Then the little dog was beside him. “Feeling braver, huh?” Eddie sat on a step and checked his shoe laces. “Don’t want to break another hip.”
The fluorescent lights flickered. He was upset about missing the game, but figured the power would go out eventually and he’d have to settle for listening to the scores on their battery-powered radio. Plus, he had to at least try to save Iris’ plants. If he didn’t, she would do it herself, and he would have no chance of enjoying the game at all.
He lifted the aluminum ladder from its hooks, took a deep breath, and turned the knob on the back door. The wind pushed back hard. When he fought the door open, Petey darted past him, yapping. The beagle led the way up the side of the house, past a row of pineapple bushes that Iris had planted beneath the kitchen window. Surrounding them were several other exotic tropical plants, none of which Eddie liked. To him, all plants in Florida looked like aliens, about to strike out with bright, fleshy tongues. And in the rising winds of the storm, the plants jumped and gyrated, making them even uglier.
Eddie pined for an apple. Or some cider. Or pie. That’s what autumn should be about – not tropical storms. He couldn’t remember the last time Iris made an apple pie.
As he trudged past the kitchen window, he heard a loud knock. He peeked up beneath the poncho’s hood. A gust blew the hood back. Rain splattered his glasses. Inside, Iris cupped her hands beside her mouth and shouted, “Don’t let Petey out! And please be careful!”
When he reached the back of the house, Petey was waiting for him in the space between the pool and the pergola. A palm branch tumbled into the yard. The dog waddled over to it and barked. Eddie opened the ladder, which was cold with rain. His body shivered. “Warm apple cider sounds good,” he said out loud. “And some of those fresh-baked cinnamon rolls from the cider mill.” He looked over at the dog, who was now lapping at the rain as it fell.
In three steps, Eddie was inside a forest of hanging plants. Despite the swirling winds, the smell of rich, dank soil hung in the air. Eddie shook off the poncho’s hood. It wasn’t keeping him very dry anyway. But the movement made him dizzy, and he grasped the top of the ladder until the feeling passed. He felt silly and imagined his head rooted in one of the pots.
One of the plants knocked against his face, its prickly leaves scratching his ear. He grasped the pergola’s rafters. A wood sliver slid into his fingertip. He cursed and wished he had stained the structure that summer like he had for the last fifteen years.
Eddie looked down to see that Petey was under the ladder now, curled into a tight ball. “Don’t you know that’s bad luck?” he said, struggling to raise his voice over the roar of the storm.
One by one, he lifted the plants off their hooks and carried them back up the side of the house and into the garage. Each trip he made, Petey followed close behind, but the dog wouldn’t come inside.
Once, he returned to the pergola to find the ladder on the ground, rattling in the wind. The storm seemed angry now, not just a nuisance, and Eddie got the sense that he was a fool to taunt it. It could pick up any number of things and hurl them his way, knocking him unconscious. He considered leaving the rest of the plants. But he was the meticulous type and didn’t like leaving a job unfinished. He picked up the ladder, climbed again, and grabbed for another plant.
Inside the house, the lights flashed. He shielded his eyes from the wind and rain and saw Iris standing at the door, the slider open just a few inches. She pushed her nose and mouth into the gap. “Eddie! It’s getting worse! Come in, honey. Forget the plants!”
Behind her, the TV glowed warmly. Even through the rain-soaked glass, he could see an image of Syracuse’s Carrier Dome on the screen. That was home, and Eddie longed to be there. To smell the crisp air. To drive through the rolling hills of Skaneateles and Cazenovia, ablaze in autumn colors, in search of pumpkins. To be away from this goddamn crazy weather.
He nodded. “Almost done!” he told her. Iris’ face tightened, but she said nothing more. As she retreated to the kitchen, Eddie followed her path. He noticed a bottle of beer on a coaster on the coffee table. Beside it, Iris had placed a bowl of mini pretzels, his favorite game-time snack.
After a few more trips to the garage, there were only two plants left. He moved the ladder nearer to the edge of the pool and climbed, the wind at his back. He wished he could have a beer with Frank, to talk about football and doze off in their easy chairs as afternoon turned into night. He wished Iris would slow-cook something in the crockpot so that the whole house smelled like pot roast or chili.
More than anything, though, he wished to go home. It was where Lily went when she finished high school. She had adopted her father’s dislike of the “Swamp,” as they called it, and applied to only northeast colleges. When Syracuse accepted her, he thought they’d all move back.
Fumbling for the last two plants, he found himself blaming Iris for his unhappiness. She didn’t share his yearning to go back. “There’s nothing there for us anymore,” she said when the subject came up. “Everyone we knew has moved away or died.”
The plants hung at his sides, weighing him down. His whole body felt drained, empty. And for what? Just another task that needed to get done. Was this all that was left for him?
He decided that when he went back inside, he would tell Iris everything that he’d been thinking about since Frank’s heart attack: that he didn’t want to die in Florida, that it’s a hellish place, that the ocean terrified him, and that their friends annoyed him with their incessant talk of golf, fishing, and prescriptions.
And that she was the only reason he stayed.
Movement inside caught his attention.
Iris now stood beside the coffee table, nibbling pretzels. She was holding the remote in her other hand, and he guessed that she had switched over to the weather station.
Eddie descended the ladder. His foot slipped, but with his hands occupied, he had to find his balance some other way. He shifted his weight and leaned into the aluminum frame.
While he balanced on the bottom rung, the power went out again. Then the storm unleashed a wild torrent of wind and rain.
The flurry of powerful gusts was too much for him; he couldn’t fight it. He was pushed away from the ladder. Both feet slid from the rung. He landed squarely, but the ground was too slick. The storm continued to slap him. He wobbled, weakened and stunned, and fell backward into the swimming pool.
Chlorinated water flooded into his nose and mouth. The blue pool cover swallowed him. He was content for a moment to be out of the storm’s wrath, but he couldn’t ignore the choking.
He pushed his feet downward, desperate to find a footing.
When his rear end hit the bottom, he released the plants, angry at himself for instinctively holding onto them. He clawed at the plastic cover, bunching it against his torso as he drew it near. His body crept upward, but his face was a few inches beneath the water’s surface; a ridiculously small distance separated him from his ability to breathe.
Then his kicking feet collided with something solid. He steadied himself on the object as best he could and pushed his face out of the water. He gasped for air. With his arms stretched outward and his toes flexed, he was able to keep a tenuous balance atop one of the potted plants.
He looked up. He could see little beyond the rain that pelted his face. It reminded him of driving through heavy lake effect snow, mesmerized and disoriented by the swirling flakes.
Droplets exploded all around him, and the wind howled. When he lowered his gaze to take stock of his situation, the gentle folds of the blue cover held him transfixed. He was struck by the notion that he was a stamen within the center of a huge indigo flower.
Clematis, Eddie remembered. A climber.
He remembered daisies and impatiens. Hardy mums.
He flew from the present moment and imagined the blue flower rising, sucked upward into the engine of the hurricane. Overhead, grays and blacks tossed together in an undulating ink stain. He imagined the storm subsiding. He slid down into the flower’s sunken middle, his spine curved, his hands cupping his bent knees. Below him, the fabric of the petals heaved and contracted in gentle, breath-like waves. Then the blue ran out of them, leaving a see-through skin through which Eddie watched the storm batter the coast while he glided high above it, unscathed.
Eddie closed his eyes and remembered long ago, when they still lived in central New York, seeing the remnants of Hurricane Andrew arrive from the south. It was 1992. The weather reports had said people would see “high clouds.” He expected dark, Medusa-like tendrils whipping angrily against the stratosphere, but instead, the clouds were soft and white, thrown far from the weakened, invisible eye. The clouds twirled slowly – a carousel of shape-shifters.
He had carried Lily outside and pointed to the sky. “They’re so high,” he said. “I bet you could touch outer space from way up there.” His daughter giggled and lowered her face into his shoulder.
Petey appeared at the edge of the pool. He was furious. His yapping was incessant, like an alarm clock. It was time to get up.
Though the pool’s edging was slick, Eddie managed to pull himself onto solid ground. On his hands and knees, he welcomed the dog’s enthusiastic kisses. He looked up. There, under the plant-free pergola, beside the fallen ladder, was Iris, her hands covering her mouth.
“We should move back to New York!” Eddie shouted. “Blizzards are a lot easier than this shit.”
Iris was sobbing. “I couldn’t find you! I didn’t know where you went, Eddie. Oh my God, oh my God, are you alright?”
He stood and felt his new hip pop. The winds calmed around them. The eye, he thought. We’re in the eye.
He spun Iris around and pulled her tightly to his chest. The blue cover drifted back to the center of the pool and spread out. Pieces of the sunken plants drifted to the surface like injured sea creatures.
Then the water began to bubble. A whirlpool formed. The waves came to life. They grew large and threw themselves onto the concrete deck. The flower-like pool cover whirled too, faster and faster. Soon, it separated from the water’s surface and rose. There was a pocket of something below it, keeping it aloft – something invisible but familiar. Eddie knew: it was going home.
He smiled, grasped his wife, and leapt.
Glenn Erick Miller’s writing has appeared in several literary journals, including Red Earth Review, Agave Magazine, The Citron Review, and r.kv.r.y quarterly, among others. He is a past winner in the Adirondack Writing Center’s annual awards and has worked as a youth counselor, a photographer, and a college professor.