“It’s just a mess.”
She had her arms crossed and her back arched, her shoulders and head sort of extending out over the rest of her body, like she was constantly trying to get a closer look at something.
“But I guess it could be worse, you know. We could live on the Point.”
He nodded to accommodate for his lack of things to say, seemingly spurring his neighbor on to talk and gossip and so on. He had plenty of experience in letting Mrs. Horston babble.
“And those folks are so delusional, you know. Like the Wilson’s levy is gonna do anything against a Category 4. Just a big, ugly concrete wall. Expensive too.”
She lifted her cigarette to her lips. She always smoked like she hated it, sucking and exhaling and then pursing her lips a little, getting the smoke in and out of her lungs as quickly as possible. The smoke vanished as it left her mouth, taken away in the direction of the road by the wind. Past the main road was only the water, the impatient Potomac, changing, moving at all times.
“I’m worried sick, Isaac. I’ve got to pack the cats up for a four-hour road trip in a few days. Stuck in a car with seven cats, all in carriers, for four hours. It’ll be absolute hell.”
“I bet,” Isaac said.
One of the aforementioned cats made its way to the edge of the lawn. It was white with black spots, with one green and one blue eye. It rubbed up against its owner’s leg, purring audibly and looking up to the old woman. She knelt and gave it a gentle rub while she continued.
“Well I’m praying every night that it ain’t so bad, you know. When Jessica came through, gosh I never prayed so much in my life. And that one started as a three, turned out to just be a tropical storm by the end of it.” She smiled, her eyes looking up, reflecting on the memory as if it were a personal accomplishment. Isaac took a break from his constant grin to take a deep breath. His face was growing sore from all the smiling and neighborly goodwill.
“Let’s hope we have another Jessica then,” he said. Mrs. Horston nodded and took another hit, then another, and a third in quick succession. As much as she seemed to hate smoking, she always smoked her Virginia Slim 120s down to the very edge of the filter, as if a 120 cigarette wasn’t long enough for her. She flicked her butt onto the main road and gave a short cough.
“I’d best be going,” she said. “Lots of work to do, gotta feed the cats, gotta pack the lawn stuff up, gotta board the windows…” Her voice drifted off as she turned and began to walk back across her lawn, reciting her chores under her breath to no one in particular.
Isaac wished her good luck and walked back to his own front porch, avoiding a particularly cheery garden gnome, trash sculptures, beach chairs, flamingos, and other trinkets sprinkled on the old woman’s lawn. His own lawn was rather bare, a few spots completely devoid of green, some areas with longer grass than others. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d mowed. Too late to start now, he figured. He’d spent too much free time boarding up his windows to worry about how the lawn looked.
On a normal day in Colonial Beach, VA, the sun would just now be nearly at its peak over the water. There would be a slight breeze out on the beach, not too hot, a blue sky punctuated with little puffs of white. People would be walking, biking, golf-carting down the main road, lounging at the beach, mowing lawns, smoking a cigarette on the front porch, etc. But today and the few days before had been different. Harsh winds off the coast had interrupted the town’s natural rhythms. The water was choppy, choppy enough that an experienced boater would advise you to stay on land. And the sky was gray all over, an ominous dark gray that occasionally spewed thin beams of sunlight out over the town and into the foamy water. His stomach growled as he stepped inside. He hadn’t had a thing to eat since rising at 9 a.m., being too engrossed in his freelance article about the latest genocide in sub-Saharan Africa to notice.
He started the shower water and began the process of touching his finger to the stream every so often to determine the perfect temperature. The freelancing had never made him much money, but it was interesting work and work he could do from home, which was enough for him. His only expenses were food and utilities. Writing came naturally to him, being a curious observer of things around him. He carried a pocket notebook almost everywhere he went, scribbling in it from time to time when an idea crossed his mind. The water was finally at the perfect level of comfortably hot, but not too hot, and Isaac stripped and stepped in behind the curtain. He had received the beachfront house in his mother’s will, and he had lived there for the three years since, relishing every moment of the pristine location with a deep shame. How dare he enjoy something that he obtained through the overgrowth of cancerous cells in the brain of his own dear mother, he reasoned.
He applied the shampoo and rinsed it in a hurry, growing tired of the sensation of being wet. This would be his twenty-sixth year in Colonial Beach, a lifelong resident. Before the cancer, he had rented from an old real estate developer who was retired but somehow still had in his possession a one-story little fix-her-up project just down the street from his place. Isaac much preferred his current living arrangements. The house was his mother through and through: small, only one story, though not bulky or ugly, with a cheerful nature to it. It was hard to be in a bad mood inside the house.
Isaac dried off and made a phone call, asking whether his destination was still open for lunch. When he received the affirmative, he threw on an undershirt and mesh shorts and his only raincoat, a classic one with a glassy yellow shine, grabbed the notebook from his dresser, and stepped outside.
Colonial Beach was a small enough town to where most of the major landmarks were a fairly reasonable walk away. Isaac walked most everywhere in Colonial Beach, provided the weather cooperated. The rain had stopped for the first time in days, though it looked to be only a temporary respite. Isaac was jotting these little details in his notebook when a wave of cars started rolling by in a seemingly endless line. He recorded the scene in his near-perfect handwriting.
At the end of his road he turned, passing the antique artillery piece that sat on the corner in front of the boardwalk, and continued on down a road that led back into the neighborhood behind the beachfront property. Every house was either boarded up or in the process of it. The rhythmic pock of hammer on nail floated from the neighborhood to the street.
He turned from the residential area into the heart of Colonial Beach. He passed Denson’s grocery on the right. At least once a week he’d order a takeout meal from Denson’s, thank Richard, the regular cashier, walk through the door to the chime of the bell, and head home to enjoy the waterfront view with the best lasagna in town.
Across the street was the public library, its little book-return slot jutting out of the front of the building. Then Seaside Thai and Nancy’s Ice Cream, the latter being a favorite summer tourist spot, if anywhere in Colonial Beach could claim to be such a thing. Usually on Isaac’s walks he’d pick out the little details of these stores and put them in his notes. At the ice cream shop there were always families, the healthy, happy, sugar-filled families that you just knew were from out of town enjoying their cold treats on the wooden bench beside the tiny building that could best be described as a stand.
Isaac could remember his own mother taking him for ice cream there, certainly looking like locals, kind of healthy, kind of happy, Isaac enjoying his sugar high by running around and around the stand, his mother just shaking her head at him from the bench. He remembered a specific instance when the glucose had spurred him to start running and he’d tripped and hit his forehead on the wooden picnic table out front where his mother had been sitting. He’d cried and cried while his mother tended to him. She’d taken a napkin to the wound, cleaning up the few drops of blood and kissed it for good measure. Don’t sweat it, she’d told him. She always used to say that.
Up ahead on the left was the old high school. It had caught fire at the beginning of last summer, its blaze rendering it unusable. It had seemed that any resident that was still up at 1 a.m. had been there, watching the fire department do their work, mourning the loss of a town landmark, gossiping about the cause of the fire. He imagined high-speed winds taking what was left of the school and throwing the charred remains around town, leaving just an exoskeleton. Isaac sighed. They had never learned the cause of the fire. He had written a piece on house fires immediately afterward. The prose had been poignant, tragic, and ripped straight from the scene in front of the burning school. It had paid $200. He turned at the end of the road near Colonial Beach Real Estate and continued up toward his destination.
He passed Kelly’s, an antique shop that on a normal day looked from the street like the home of a hoarder, random junk visible from the windows, along with various signs and rocking chairs and boxes of old vinyl records out on the wrap-around porch. Though on this day all the windows were boarded up, with spray paint on one wooden plank reading: Good Luck! CB is in our prayers! The few decorations hanging on Isaac’s walls had been bought there. Kelly was the sweetest old woman Isaac had ever met, though he figured a per-capita ranking of sweet old ladies by city would grant Colonial Beach a fairly high spot. Kelly gave him deals on near everything he’d ever bought there. Two $8 pictures for $12. A $20 vintage gumball machine, and a trinket of his choice. Buy one vinyl, get two free.
The destination was just past Kelly’s, and Isaac’s pace picked up as he approached the Promised Land. Lenny’s Diner, a Colonial Beach landmark, the finest cheap breakfast around, though it has to be said that people go more for the warm atmosphere than for the food. Isaac walked in, triggering the little bell tied to the door, and sat at the counter. A chubby Latino man greeted him with a tired smile.
“Isaac, how are you, friend?” He was wiping the counter with a washrag. Isaac made up just about all of that day’s lunch rush.
“Pretty good, Manuel, pretty good, all things considered.”
“Yes, all things considered. Like a hurricane.”
The two of them laughed and Isaac ordered a coffee.
“This traffic, it’s unbelievable,” Manuel said. “Today I sit from the counter and count the cars going by and I lose track. Never have I seen so many cars on a Colonial Beach road.”
“Will you be joining them today?”
Manuel nodded. “I’m getting out of here as soon as my shift is over. My mother’s only an hour drive south of here. I just pray that there is no wind damage when I get back. And you?”
“No, no. I’m roughing it here.”
Manuel’s eyes grew wide and he cocked an eyebrow at his friend. “On the water front? Don’t you have family to stay with somewhere?”
Isaac sighed and shook his head. “A hurricane is good material. Eye-witness accounts pay well.” He didn’t have any family to stay with.
“You’re not worried?” Manuel asked.
“It doesn’t matter if I’m worried or not. I have a job to do.” Isaac didn’t mention the potential guilt of leaving and coming back to his mother’s house, the house he’d grown up in, completely demolished.
Manuel nodded. “You’re a brave soul, then.”
Isaac responded by looking down at the menu for a time. He did this more to change the subject than anything. He always knew what he was getting at Lenny’s.
Several minutes later the meal was out in front of him: a pile of fresh pancakes, with a side of decent bacon and processed scrambled eggs. He was nearly finished when Manuel came back from checking on the now two other customers.
“I don’t like this,” said Manuel.
“What do you mean?” said Isaac.
“This place is empty. It’s never this dead at lunch, never. It’s a ghost town out there. Nobody walking outside, no golf carts whizzing by, no Hi-how-are-yous. The hurricane’s killed this town before it’s even got here.”
“Why are you even open in the first place?” asked Isaac.
“Don’t ask me. Boss wanted it open as close to the storm hitting as possible. Said if we’re the only place open, we’ll snag all of the business in town.”
Isaac looked around playfully. “Some plan.”
The two of them shared a laugh. Manuel started cleaning already clean glasses at the counter, scrubbing away at nothing with a wet cloth.
“Not even PeeWee would’ve come to lunch today,” Manuel said.
“That might be a stretch,” Isaac said. PeeWee had been something like a Colonial Beach icon. He had passed the November before last, at the ripe age of seventy-seven years old. Isaac had written a memorial piece in The Journal. They’d offered to pay, but Isaac insisted he do it for free. PeeWee’d spent his whole life in Colonial Beach, and he’d laid his roots all over the town. He could be seen at Lenny’s every morning for breakfast, rolling up in his little three-wheeled bicycle, smiling at you with mostly gums, save for the few teeth he still had left, saying hello to everyone in the place. His real name was Lawrence. They called him PeeWee on account of his premature birth; he had weighed only two pounds. PeeWee had never spoken a bad word about anyone, and vice versa.
“Looking back now, he was the best part about this place,” said Manuel. “Every time I came in, he was sitting in that booth there by the door, smiling and shaking my hand.”
Isaac smiled. PeeWee had known Isaac’s mother well, and when she passed he’d come on his little bike to the beachfront house. Isaac was still moving in, boxes piled up against the walls, when he looked outside and saw PeeWee pull up. He hand-delivered a letter he had written, a sort of “sorry for your loss”-type note, his handwriting nearly indecipherable, and gave it to Isaac before coming in close for a hug. It had been PeeWee who’d begun crying on Isaac’s shoulder, causing Isaac to tear up. They’d grieved together for a short time before PeeWee’d let go and given Isaac a toothless smile, the tears still wet on his cheeks, before hopping back on his bike and riding away. The house had watched the whole thing, silent and warm, and Isaac had dried his tears before walking back into its loving arms. He hadn’t included that story in his memorial piece.
“He sure was something, wasn’t he?” Isaac finished the last bite of his pancake, paid, and walked home.
That night he couldn’t get PeeWee out of his head. He remembered the funeral, standing room only at Nash and Slaw Funeral Home. The place had been filled to the brim with mourners. It was an open casket, which Isaac hated. He felt it always made the deceased look fake, like a wax museum replica of the actual person. He had cried a bit at PeeWee’s funeral, just as everyone had, as they showed the memorial video. Citizens had come up and shared stories of PeeWee doing random acts of kindness, brightening days and the like. Isaac wondered what PeeWee would be doing for the storm if he were here right now. Then he wondered what his mother would be doing if she still lived here. Probably not taking notes, he figured.
Isaac stood and rubbed his eyes, then went outside and sat on the porch. He wrote a little and listened to the rain and the waves, each getting worse by the minute. His mother had given Isaac free reign over what she had viewed as the not-so-crucial post-death decisions. He chose to have her remains cremated, so that she could rest forever in her home. Her urn currently resided on Isaac’s dresser. She hadn’t even wanted a funeral. Too much trouble to put you through, don’t sweat it, she had told him. That was a week before she’d lost her voice. She had had a seizure in the bathroom; it was her third one total. She’d hit her head on the counter and Isaac’d come in and found her on the floor, bleeding and moaning. The seizure killed her voice, and the only word she’d had the brainpower to utter after that was “No.” She was still there, sort of, though she couldn’t express it. She was weak by then, too weak to even shower. Isaac remembered having to wash her, rubbing her spotted back with a sponge while she watched the morning news. All of that had sparked his cancer article. It had been a heart wrenchingly real account of a close relative slowly decaying in both mind and body. It had paid $400.
Raindrops peppered his face and he woke. He was still on the porch, in the same chair he had fallen asleep in. It looked to be morning, though it was hard to tell with the storm clouds covering the sky. The wind had picked up in the night and somehow Isaac had slept through it. The rain was coming harder than before and the wind carried it in great sheets, flinging it onto houses and through screened porches. Great waves formed out on the water, and when they crashed up against the rocks, their white foam dusted the main road above. Isaac was beginning to sweat it. He looked down at his notebook, which had fallen from his lap during sleep. It was partially wet, though really only the pages it had been opened to. The dark streaks of ink crawled down the paper, making the writing near indecipherable. Isaac shook his head and ripped out the few wet pages, crumpling them up as he walked through the front door.
Inside all was dark. The boarded windows made Isaac feel trapped, like a sailor below deck. He heard the roar of the wind and rain and the smash of random objects hitting the house. For a time he tried to sit still with his notebook, to keep track of his thoughts and the sounds from outside. In the middle of every thought he would get sidetracked, then jump at a bang from the outside, then revert his attention back to the notebook to find that the thought had vanished and he had nothing to say. Eventually he gave up and stood from his desk. He began to pace back and forth in the kitchen, waiting for a tree to break through his roof at any second.
His restlessness sent him outside, wanting to look his adversary in the eye. He stepped on the porch with a splash; a puddle was forming at his doorstep. The Potomac had come on land, and water rushed around the house, carrying wooden planks, street signs, branches, and other trash. He could hear the crack of trees falling in the distance and gave a short prayer to no one in particular. He watched mailboxes fly down the main road. A birdhouse flew from Mrs. Horston’s yard and shattered the window of her neighbor.
Isaac walked back inside and shut the door, then placed blankets in the crack under the door, a last-ditch effort to stop the flooding. He could be in a motel room right now, he thought, in a safe bed, warm, with the blinds up and the outside world just a scenic view in his window. He shook the dream out of his head. This was where he needed to be. His mother had been through plenty of flooding scares, usually just tropical storms or Category 1’s. Water had only ever actually breached the house once, when Isaac was still in grade school. They’d gone off to stay with Isaac’s grandmother a few hours away when it passed through, the hurricane whose name Isaac couldn’t remember. They’d suffered flooding and shattered glass; his mother had forgotten to board the windows. Isaac remembered they’d stayed in a motel for a few weeks while the damage was repaired. Isaac had asked his mother how bad it was, their own house. She’d said not to sweat it. They’d gone to see the house a few times, too, once they got back from Isaac’s grandmother’s. Isaac remembered how the neighbor’s house was ruined compared to their own: flooded, two trees collapsed through the ceiling, the front door ripped off its hinges. He remembered feeling lucky.
Near the end of the day the winds died down and the rain stopped. They were in the eye. Isaac walked outside barefoot and waded in the river on his lawn. He went to the main road and looked at the houses down the street and saw shingles missing, whole roofs gone, trees fallen in yards. Isaac looked to his mother’s house. It was nearly untouched. A few dents in the siding, a rip or two in the screen, nothing serious. The house looked to be smiling, a tired smile that Isaac’s mother would have flashed after she had brushed off some inconvenience or misfortune. Isaac smiled and thought of Mrs. Horston stuck in her car with seven screaming cats, smoking her cigarette with angry little puffs and flicking the ash out the window. Isaac howled with laughter, the Potomac running between his toes, mailboxes and shingles and streets signs floating past him.
He started to go inside when the wind picked up. It rushed through his hair, sending a wooden plank flying just inches from his head. He looked up to see the trees in the back yard swaying again. He heard a crack and saw the beast fall with a horrible whine. The tree hung in the air for an eternity, in line with the house. Isaac held his breath. He imagined its landing, the sickening crunch of wood breaking wood, his mother’s house exposed to the wind and water of the storm. Isaac’s mother had died close to midnight. He had been out on a walk that night, scribbling in his notebook, and he had come home to his mother in a coughing fit. The Hospice aid said she had been grunting and hocking up spit all night. Some ten minutes after he got home, he saw the light leave her eyes. Isaac had gotten it all down in his notebook.
The tree landed just to the right of the house, in the spot of green between Mrs. Horston and Isaac’s lawns. Isaac exhaled a sigh of relief as a miniature wave from the impact splashed up against Isaac’s torso. He fought the quickening current to the porch, where he gave one last look at the second half of the storm and went inside.
He was up all night, moving from room to room in the house, jumping at every sound. He tried writing again, though quickly gave up. He had never had such writer’s block. By the morning his living room floor was wet, the Potomac having finally invaded his living space. But slowly, the storm died. By the end of the day the wind was but a breeze. Isaac figured it was safe to go outside again, survey the damage. He grabbed his notebook from his dresser, then hesitated. He flipped through the pages for a bit, put it back on the dresser, and walked to the front door.
The tree was just a foot from the house, completely submerged under the now knee-high water. Its branches were spread out across the two lawns, veins connecting the two houses to its wooden heart. The rain still came in a mist, though it was growing weaker by the minute. The water did the same; there wasn’t a choppy wave in sight. It was a picture of perfect peace surrounded by chaos. Wreckage was all around, some houses in the neighborhood having been ripped to shreds by the storm and then carried by the river. Cars had been relocated during the peak of the flooding, and a few sat innocently in people’s yards or out on the main road. Mrs. Horston’s house shared Isaac’s luck; its only damages were minor bumps and bruises and a ripped porch screen. Isaac’s other neighbor was not so lucky. Pieces of private pier were sprawled all over the house and lawn, and nearly every shingle on the roof was now missing. An entire wooden support poked through the side of the house, seemingly sticking its head out to get a look at the scene.
Isaac took in the madness around him with a breath, then hurried back inside and to the bedroom. He grabbed his mother’s urn, a simple gray thing, made of smooth, cold granite. He walked out the door, his feet splashing water with every step. Looking at the destruction of the landscape then back on the house, Isaac felt lucky. A storm with the power to rip a house from its foundation and send its pieces flying through the air had spared him. A thank you was in order.
He waded to the main road, urn in hand, until he reached the rocky decline that led to the beach, now submerged by the river. For a brief time, Isaac shifted from the observer to the participant. He lifted the cap of the urn and took one last look before turning it upside down. It had the feel of a ceremony, a tribal ritual. A sacrificial gift from a grateful mortal. Isaac ran his hand under the falling ash, feeling it slip through his fingers and land gently in the river, forming a murky spot where he stood. Isaac watched with a smile as the ash fused with the river and dissipated, floating on back to the house from whence it came.
Nick Shaffer is a 19-year-old Psychology major at James Madison University. He loves reading and he writes on the side. This is his first publication. He’s happy to be here and thanks for reading. Enjoy.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “To Laugh at a Hurricane”:
A good writer has the ability to craft a great story from simple life events. Well, maybe a hurricane isn’t so simple, but Nick Shaffer’s quiet and evocative character-study isn’t really about a hurricane.
The author gives us an honest, down-to-earth story with bits of humanity sprinkled throughout. The characters all ring true.
This piece also runs counter to some of the conventional wisdom for story openings. For one, it doesn’t have a strong hook that yanks the reader into it. Instead, it slowly paints the setting and characters. It eases us into Isaac’s world, but it also adds a bit of subtle foreshadowing. The story opens with dialogue, something writers are usually cautioned not to start with. Further, we don’t even know who the speakers are right away, and the main character’s name isn’t identified for several paragraphs.
Yet despite these alleged shortcomings, the story works perfectly, and it demonstrates that story, not conventions of storytelling, should dictate the writing. It also works because the author shows us everything and lets the reader experience it all. There’s no “telling” here.
And the unexpected and wonderfully resonant ending caps it and leaves us with a bit of wisdom: our lives happen as they’re meant to, and sometimes it’s best to let go and follow their lead.