Hurricane Surf

by Theresa Donovan Brown

The worst thing about the hurricane coming was we couldn't get my husband to the doctor. Kevin acted like a few more days on the crutches wouldn't make any difference, so I let it go. Hurricane Clark was the first thing to perk Kevin up in weeks, since he'd severed his ankle ligaments stealing third in the company softball game.

Two nights before it hit, minus-44 on the Clark countdown, Kevin crashed around on his crutches with the weather radio full blast. Winds east northeast, 15 knots. Fair skies. Unstable air. Small craft warning in effect. Hurricane watch. The broadcasts crackled like ship-to-shore. From the living room where I was immobilized on the couch, one twin on each breast, Kevin's dinner preparations sounded like a Celtic warrior going through pre-battle warp-spasm.

Patrick, attempting his second-grade homework at the kitchen table, was pressed into service.

"Quick, bro, get me those chiles. And peel me five carrots, megaspeed."

Patrick concentrated, tongue sticking out the side of his mouth, peeling bit by measured bit. I saw Kevin grab both of Patrick's hands from behind and superimpose his own strokes. Next thing, Patrick was yelling bloody murder.

"Daddy, Daddy, you scraped my finger down to the bone. Look. Look, that's the bone. You peeled my finger off." I was going to let Kevin handle this one. Nursing wasn't an act you could just turn on and off like a spigot, not to me and not to the babies.

"Jesus, son. Let me see. No, no. That's skin." Kevin held the finger up, wrapped a used paper towel around it. The towel went bright red and dripped.

Just then, whatever he had on the stove ignited. "Jesus Cat, get in here. Can't you see I need help?" "Lukey, quick, sit here and take the babies," I said.

My 6-year old son is a sweetie. We call him Coolhand Luke, though he looked a little worried as I plucked each hungry baby in mid-suck and plopped them screaming in his lap. Milk was still pouring from me as I rushed into the kitchen. I hustled Patrick out the door. Thank God, Cedy, a nurse, lived up the street. I could hear the babies crying three houses away.

We had just put the babies down, and the boys were watching Nickelodeon while I folded clothes. The parlor was an obstacle course of piles, all the brown tones of boys' play clothes, with my ratty pastel underthings waving like brave but not very hopeful flags. Kevin went out and stood on the porch, his back to the house, folded his big, powerful arms behind his head and sucked in the freshening breeze. I could see his silhouette, plucking absently at the frayed collar of his polo shirt. Over the years, he'd taught me his code words for the color and texture of the sunset--witches brew, rabbit eye, the red hole (a promise of rare surf), iron curtain for a nor'easter, and oblivion for major fog. Kevin came in and let the screen door slam. He went straight to his barometer--it had never worked since I'd known him--and turned the needles by hand. Then he flipped on the weather radio full blast. It drowned out the boys' program.

By the time I got home from the supply run the next afternoon, Clark's landfall at Newport had grown from a titillating possibility to a sure thing. My skin prickled as if it were a metal mesh and the air a weak magnet. Patrick and Luke whined about helping me unload the van.

I ran inside to see how Kevin was doing with the babies. On the unvacuumed rug, the twins were rolling around in the sand, crumbs and cat hair, gurgling merrily at Kevin and Danny Cocheran, who were into their second beers, at least. Danny was dock manager and Kevin was foreman at Newport Drydock. They were the only two who knew how to operate the big sling crane.

Danny jumped up. "Cat, Cat, look at this. You're in the presence of greatness. Kevin can run for mayor on this." Danny flapped a Surfer Magazine in my face.

It was a picture of a surfer just ahead of the tube of a huge, brown-green wave. Unmistakably Kevin. The cut of his body, his hand against the wall of water. My husband. I've photographed him surfing many times myself, and this was a hell of a good photo. Luminescent but for the dark, frozen motion of the surfer and the mean-looking, muddy soup in the foreground. The photo was part of a spread on hurricane surf after Vivian hit North Carolina two months before. The caption read, "Unidentified Ruggles Ripster."

"Kevin," I said, "you took off work for the hurricane surf."

"Just the afternoon, Cat." He couldn't hide his smile. "Danny covered for me."

Danny said, "Wally said the phone's been ringing off the hook at Hazzard's." Hazzard's Wind and Sea. "Everybody knows it's Kevin."

Kevin and Danny took off to celebrate at the Men's Club, a Fifth Ward pub. I didn't let on, but I was actually glad to have Kevin out of the way so I could get us ready for Clark, his other good buddy.

He had already told me I couldn't pay the kid down the street to help us move the yard furniture into the cellar and board the windows. But as soon as they were gone, I called Tommy Barrett's mom. Her big teenage son was busy helping her tighten down, but she'd send him over in the morning, before Clark hit.

Luke wet his bed that night, and for most of the rest of the nighttime I was up feeding and rocking one twin or the other. Once between feedings Kevin woke up, and we made love. Afterwards, rocking a baby, I watched Kevin sleep. He couldn't hold still even in his deepest dreams. He kicked the covers off and paddled through the rumpled sheets. I heard the wind stop, so sudden I could hear the atmospheric pressure change, an audible clunk. The air grew closer, an aggressive fug bearing down.

As I rocked, I wondered what to do about the new van, how to protect it from flying tree branches or rocks or whatever Clark might decide to throw. My mom had bought us the van when the twins were born, and Kevin was still angry about it. But pride or not, there was no way the family would have fit in the '66 VW beetle I let Mom trade in on the van. Kevin had wanted to save the bug for the boys, but it kept breaking down on me, and we never had the cash to fix it.

With his injury, the van chafed between us even more. Kevin couldn't use the clutch on his flatbed, but he could manage to tool around in the automatic van.

That's what you do when you nurse: You sit there and think about all the things in your life you can't change.

Clark minus five. The babies would not stop fussing. I was afraid Sean, the smaller twin, was getting an ear infection again. The world felt like a yellow vacuum. I sent Kevin to the store to see if we could get bottled water, diapers and batteries, which I had forgotten the day before. I hoped everybody else had the same idea, so Kevin would be gone long enough for Tommy Barrett and me to stow things. Tommy was a likable kid, and cute, too. Patrick and Luke worshipped him because he'd taken them to a skateboard competition one day last summer. We worked hard, with the maddening, inconsolable squawking of the babies for background music. My back and legs hurt, but I didn't break. The pressure drop made me headachy, and if I stopped, I wouldn't want to start again.

As Tommy was leaving, Kevin came back. He had several beers in him and no supplies.

I could have been sweet and tried to get him to see things my way, but by then I felt like ground zero for every negative ion in the hurricane.

"Tommy, wait. I have to pay you."

"No. That's OK, Cat. Mom said I'm a present from her to you today. She doesn't know how you put up with it, she said. He looked at Kevin. "With the babies and all, I mean. See ya."

The slam of the screen door split the air. I could practically see the rift. Kevin spun away on one crutch. Its rubber tip slipped on a messy patch on the kitchen floor, and he fell. I reached for him, but with the crutch, he shoved me back against the counter. I saw how hard it was for him to pull himself up, how much it hurt. I had seen him spent, but I had never really seen him look beaten before. I felt scared that I'd passed so much time with this man.

His slide had been so pretty--one leg extended forward, and every line of his body angled for speed. It turned out the bag was fixed in place, and his leg just split open. "I should've known not to steal the hot box," was what he said when he could talk.

Our van was the last car they let on the Narragansett Bridge. I lied and said we lived in Kingston.

"No we don't, Mommy," Patrick piped up. The toll guy gave me a hard look, but he let me go. The wind already was buffeting us pretty good, and that stupid vehicle was not real stable, as Kevin had pointed out, in great detail, to my mother. I looked out the bay toward the ocean and Clark looked back. Suddenly, I knew all about that storm, the way you decide all you want to know about a person by the look of their face.

Over the dinning metal tread and the wind, Luke was weeping, unlike himself, a high, grating plaint for his daddy. In the rear-view mirror, in his little, crinkled eyes, I saw the damage I was doing.

I pulled a U-ey on the Kingston side of the bridge. Pretty good in that van and the wind.

I was one of the last drivers out, but I passed our house and continued down to Ruggles. I was betting we still had time. I spotted Kevin's board at the lineup, where the surfers take off. He dug in a mounting swell and flew down the face of the biggest wave I ever saw there. It was wildly formed, pulled up and twisted by surface turbulence. Somehow, he stayed up and then the wave spiralled over him. We waited. As Kevin dragged himself over the cliff, he lifted his head and saw us. A big grin broke across his face.

In the cellar, we could hear the seasoned wood frame of the house puffing in and out. I tried to lean more of my body over the babies as I suckled them. "Get down here, Pat, my man. Lukey." Kevin held his arms out to the boys and tucked them down, protecting them with his body.

The twins clawed at my breasts and punched with their little fists, as if I wasn't giving enough.

Suddenly, the wind died. We unfolded ourselves to daylight chinking through the boarded basement windows.

"Ah, this is it," Kevin said.

Every damaged, disordered thing sparkled in the wet sunlight. A neighbor's Adirondack chair stuck through the windshield of the van. The mimosa tree had split in half. The broken part was still attached at the trunk. The tender, wet wood smelled sweet. Out in the street, we craned our necks at the great hole of light and the blackness roiling around it. Patrick and Luke started jumping and whooping, and Kevin limped in a circle around me. We each held a twin. Looking up, I felt the calm center of the great force that rips apart our daily lives.


Judge's Comments

A fully formed story, skillful writing, powerful atmosphere. The relationships were moving and believable.
--Chitra B. Divakaruni

A wonderful story. Under Clark's watchful eye, we witness a family in all its complexity, a wife who has settled for considerably less than bliss, a husband who can't outgrow his search for glory and children who'll soon be forced to make sense of it all.
--Tom Parker

I like the way the writer tells this story in short, compressed scenes and, so, covers a lot of ground quickly. The details are accurately observed and carefully selected, and the telling is brief and tightly focused. The language is lively, precise and accurate. (I'm perplexed by the last line, still wondering what the calm in the center of this clamorous family might be.)
--Peter Steinhart