Facts of Life by W.A. Smith

by w.a. smith

Charley Johnson stood at the living room window, motionless except for his wide-open eyes, watching the yard outside. Hurricane Annie was on the way, and he didn’t plan on missing anything.

The grass was a strange brooding blue under the fat gray clouds, and everything shimmered, making Charley imagine a thousand airy snakes slithering across the lawn. Fitful blasts of wind bowed the two palmettos; tree-tall washerwomen bending at their waists, furiously shaking, then snapping back to full stature, as though, having witnessed some astonishing thing in the distance, they were attempting to clear their heads. Pressing his hands against the windowpane, Charley felt it shudder with another rush of wind. The cool glass made him shiver.

He turned from the window to look at the TV. Annie was rolling over Jacksonville, Florida like the town was a puppet theater made of cardboard.

Traffic lights spun on their cables; street signs, palm trees, and shop windows were trembling, uprooted, shattered; Cadillacs and mobile homes bobbed like lost toys in churning rivers which only a day or two ago had been sun-struck boulevards; orange crates and unhinged doors swept by in the riotous currents; a sea gull hitched a ride on the arm of a sofa drifting swiftly past an abandoned house. In the coastal towns left behind, sad, drenched people sorted through the wreckage for things Charley suspected they would never find.

The man on TV said Charleston could expect driving rain and 100-mile-an-hour winds in two to three hours. There was nothing but wind right now, no rain yet, clouds rolling in, piling up, darker each time Charley looked. Seemed like the sky was ready to crack open.

The marinas on the harbor and over at Folly Beach, Mount Pleasant, and Sullivan’s Island were full of people who had come to take their boats out of the water or lash them more securely to the docks. Stores were still open, and crowded, fast running out of provisions. The guy on TV cautioned families in low-lying sections of the city to find higher ground.

Charley’s mother and sister were upstairs reinforcing the windows, running water in the tub; he heard them on the floor above him now, taking the lanterns out of storage. His daddy was out raiding the Piggly Wiggly for bread, canned goods and kerosene.

Charley had taped all the windows down here as his father had instructed him, except for this one in the living room. He pulled the roll of masking tape from his back pocket and pressed two diagonal strips across the pane, using his thumb to smooth the wrinkles. He wondered if the cross of tape he’d made on the window would really hold it together if a hurricane hit it.

_______________

He held onto the iron railing and took his time climbing the front steps to the porch. He was a little tight from the beer. The Tams’ last song hummed in his head, and he sang the chorus again: “Be young, be foolish, but be happy.” Charley had happy figured out. He shagged a few steps with the screen door and twirled onto the porch. A great dancer, he thought. A wicked dancer.

He could still smell Cathy on his hands and the lapels of his shirt. Jesus in Heaven, she looked good on the dance floor! He closed his eyes and tried to see her with her clothes off, but he couldn’t bring a complete form into focus. He saw her long hair and her tan legs, the tiny mole on her chin, just off center–but nothing in between. He tried to picture her breasts, the curving mystery, but then he lost sight of her face and hair.

He opened his eyes and discovered himself dreaming in the middle of the porch, motionless. The image gave him pleasure. He took a breath and shook his head, trying to clear it, without much success. Maybe everyone’s asleep, he thought. But he couldn’t bet on that. His father might be in the living room or his study, either of which Charley would have to pass on his way to bed. He didn’t want to talk to his dad tonight–just wanted to think about Cathy. And if his father knew he had been drinking at the beach before driving home, Charley would be afforded the lecture on Responsibility and Mature Decision-Making. He lit a cigarette and walked back to the screen door, opened it slowly and sat down on the top step, lifting his right hand to his nose. What was the name of her perfume?

_______________

Upstairs, his mother and sister laughed; his mother told Ellen to be very careful with the lanterns. Charley saw the car pulling into the yard and ran out to the porch to help his father bring in the groceries.

He opened the screen door. “It’s going to be something!” he said.

“Yes, sir!” His daddy’s voice sparkled, dark hair blown by the wind. “This is the real thing.” He leaned down so Charley could take one of the shopping bags out of his arms, then led the way through the dining room into the kitchen.

“It’s like magic, watchin’ it get ready to let loose,” said Charley.

“How about those clouds?” said his daddy. “Thick as smoke. You can smell the storm in ’em.”

“And the wind’s like those sandstorms in Africa when you were in the war.”

“Well, sort of–but I prefer this kind of wind, without the sand.”

Charley handed him two cans of Pork&Beans for the cupboard.

“And I didn’t have my family with me in Africa,” said his daddy. “This hurricane’s going to be a lot more fun.”

Charley checked the jar of peanut butter before giving it to him. “Crunchy?” he prayed. “Good.”

“Can’t digest a storm like this with Smooth on it,” said his daddy.

Charley thought about eating the hurricane, but he didn’t stay with it long, handing up some peas, two boxes of raisins, watching his father arrange everything on the shelves, containers in even lines with labels facing perfectly straight.

“Where’re the womenfolk?” said his father in that silly cowboy voice of his, setting a can of Dixie Deluxe peaches on the shelf. “Still upstairs?”

“Nope,” Charley’s mother answered from the edge of the kitchen. “We’re all through up there.” She came over to kiss the tip of Emerson’s nose.

He approximated a swoon, like she was Marilyn Monroe or something. “Nobody nose like you nose,” he said.

She rolled her eyes at him. “How’s the weather?”

“Charley and I were just talking about that. Man on the radio told me to watch out for a few scattered showers.”

“Yes,” she said, looking toward the window. “Seems like a breeze has picked up out there.”

Charley’s sister came in with two kerosene lanterns. “Are we going to the Battery with the Walkers?”

“Oh,” said their mother, “Emerson, Alice says she and Bridge are going to the High Battery to look at the pre-hurricane panorama, want to know if we’ll go with them.”

“All right!” said Charley.

His mother looked down at him. “Honey, I don’t think you should go. The wind is whipping up out there–sixty, seventy miles an hour now.”

“Yeah,” said Ellen, “you’re too little. You’d probably blow away.” She was eleven, tall: skinny-looking stilts with a head of sarcastic curls stuck on top. Charley was only eight and tragically short: about as high as the kitchen counter.

“Hey,” his father said to his mother, “why don’t you and Ellen go with the Walkers. Charley and I’ll finish battening down the hatches here.” He looked at the boy. “Okay with you, pardner?”

“Aw, I’ll be all right. Please?” Charley knew very well what his father was going to say, could hear the words before they were out.

“I’m afraid your mother’s right, son. You only weigh forty pounds–I don’t want you sailing out to sea. We wouldn’t know what to do without you. Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on Annie from here. She’s going to put on a show no matter where we are. Okay?”

“Yeah,” said Charley, feeling cheated.

_______________

He figured it was around midnight. If it was, he had just turned seventeen. “Happy birthday to you.” Only one more year with the fake ID. He’d have his draft card next June.

Sudden light splashed the palmettos in the yard: A car coming up the drive, paler now through the tree limbs, but Charley couldn’t tell whose it was. He crushed the cigarette under his shoe, put the butt in his top pocket.

The headlights lurched right then left then straightened out. Whoever it was had had a few drinks or wasn’t particular about where they were going. There were no lights along the drive, so Charley couldn’t make out who was in the car. Finally a Chevrolet Impala pulled up next to the family Buick. No one got out. Then both front doors swung open at the same time and the inside light went on. He saw his father in the passenger’s seat, Bridge Walker behind the wheel. In a second, Bridge got out, shut the door carefully, as if not to wake anyone in the house, walking unsteadily around to the other side of the car, overestimating everything. Charley’s father had dropped his cane on the ground, leaning over in the seat to pick it up. Bridge knelt and said, “I got it, Em. You okay?”

“I can get it myself,” said Emerson. His voice was funny.

“Knew you shouldn’t have the bourbon,” said Bridge, standing again. He held the car door steady. “Damn it, I shouldn’t’ve let you have it.”

“Only had two.” Emerson slurred the words.

“Oh, shit,” whispered Charley.

“Yeah, and we both know one is too many,” said Bridge, “with your medicine and all.”

“Right. We crippled epileptics are somewhat limited.”

“Aw, Em–how ’bout you stop that crap, will ya?”

Charley’s father put his right foot on the ground and lifted his bad leg out of the car with his right hand. Bridge offered the cane. Emerson took it, stood it on the ground and shifted his weight to it, leaning forward. Bridge reached down with both hands to help lift him up and out of the car, but they were off balance from the start, almost fell backwards. The boy took the porch steps two at a time. “You guys need some help?” he whispered loudly.

The startled men looked up. “Hey, Charley, what you know?” said Mr. Walker.

“Hey, Mr. Walker, how’s it goin’?”

Bridge nodded but didn’t say anything, looking back at Charley’s father, who was leaning against the car rubbing his left thigh, staring up at the night sky.

“Hey, Dad, can I give you a hand?”

“If you’re giving out limbs, a new leg and foot would be goddamn marvelous.”

“Let’s get you inside,” said Bridge, lifting the tempo like it was a hand grenade.

Charley’s father’s face was rigid, his jaw tightening and relaxing in a steady rhythm, pulsing like a neon vein. Charley and Bridge stood on either side of him. The boy slipped an index finger through a belt loop on his father’s pants, Bridge put his hand on Emerson’s shoulder. He pulled away from them, slapped at Charley’s hand. “I can walk,” he said. “I can still do that.”

The three of them proceeded to the steps, Charley watching his father’s shoes moving in their familiar step-drag rhythm. The left shoe, containing the ever-swollen, almost-worthless foot, was a customized monstrosity, size 10 triple-E; the right shoe, which housed the loyal foot, was a regular 10-C. The right took a step and the left step-dragged along to keep up. Emerson shifted the cane to his other hand and held onto the railing with his right, mounting the steps one at a time. Charley stayed beside him while Bridge moved past them to open the door.

Charley hadn’t seen his daddy drunk in at least two years. Why had he chosen tonight? The boy wanted to ask, but didn’t.

“What you doing up?” said his father.

“Just got home, heard the car. Where you been?”

“I took your father to a new place in town,” said Bridge. “You remember Henry Townsend, Charley.”

“Sure,” he said, guiding his father past the screen door Bridge held open for them. “Billy’s dad.”

“Yeah. Henry opened a little place over on Calhoun Street, near the Francis Marion.” Bridge closed the screen door with great care. “Pretty nice place too. Music’s good.”

“Henry should be more selective about his clientele.” Charley’s father transferred the cane back to his right hand and rapped it on the floor. “You start lettin’ sons of bitches in your place, pretty soon all you’ve got is sons of bitches.”

Bridge glanced sideways at Charley, squeezed Emerson’s shoulder. “Forget about it,” he said. “Let it alone.”

“Forget what?” asked Charley.

They walked into the living room. His father offered Bridge a drink.

“No, thanks. I should be going. Alice’ll wonder.” Bridge seemed almost sober now, and though Emerson was obviously under some influence, Charley thought he was more angry than anything. The flexing jaw was a sure sign.

Bridge accompanied Charley’s father to a chair. “You ought to hit the sack. Grace’s probably wondering about you too.”

Emerson cut a sharp look at Bridge. “Damn, Walker, when the hell did you sign up to be my nurse?”

Bridge moved his mouth around in a circle like there was something in there he wasn’t sure what to do with. “Thought doctors needed nurses,” he said.

Charley’s father held his cane loosely in his hand, tapping it on the floor beside his chair–like water dripping in a dry sink.

“Should’ve gone somewhere else,” Bridge said, touching Emerson on his shoulder. “Sorry about it, Em. Didn’t mean to, just wasn’t thinking.”

Emerson said, “It’s done.”

Bridge turned to Charley, who stood behind his father’s chair wondering what the hell they were talking about. “All right now, Charley-boy. See you later.”

“Yeah, take care of yourself, Mr. Walker.”

Charley walked him to the front door. Bridge called softly over his shoulder as he left. “See you soon, Em.”

Charley’s father did not answer.

_______________

After his mother and sister left for the Battery, Charley and his daddy filled the lanterns with kerosene. Then they double-checked all the windows. Charley followed him around the house, at each stop comparing the scenes outside: piled-up chunks of purpled cloud, bristling treetops, the living lawn changing to more complicated shades of blue under the charcoaled canopy. His father told him again about the sandstorms in Africa, especially the one that came ripping out of nowhere a week before the 62nd Armored Battalion left the Dark Continent–not long before the Germans shot him in the head and sent him to the hospital. He told Charley how if you weren’t careful the sand could strip the flesh off your bones, or blind you. He was dramatic about it. It sounded exciting to Charley, he could picture his daddy in the war, bending over a wounded soldier, almost hidden behind the swirling cloak of sand.

They went into the living room to see what Annie had done. On TV the Florida coast was a disaster area, the Red Cross and Salvation Army were all over the place. In Charleston members of the Junior League and church groups and synagogues were organizing relief shelters, some of the local merchants were giving food away. There were some pictures of the Low Battery along Murray Boulevard, where waves were already crashing over the railing into the street. The reporter stood in White Point Garden, next to one of the cannons from the Civil War. He said time was running out–any final preparations should be made now.

Charley said, “Come on, Annie, I dare you!”

“‘At’s the spirit,” said his father. “But, you know, it’s best to plant your feet and get your guard up if you’re going to goad a hurricane.” He headed for the fireplace to lay some kindling and logs. They could get a fire going whenever they wanted.

Charley walked back to his favorite window and peered out between the strips of tape, making up what it would be like to fly on the storm: a wild horse with a mane made of lightning, thunder roaring under its hooves, coils of black smoke boiling through its nose, big, crazy eyes rolling loose in their sockets. But he would hold on so tight–he’d be attached to the bucking bronco–nothing would shake him off. He’d ride the hurricane away from the helpless city, back out to sea.

Outside, the palmetto women seemed to stoop and inhale. The lawn was a giant birthday cake, the trees with their fronds of streaming hair bent to blow out the candles. From nowhere, two dogs he had never seen before trotted along the edge of the yard, sniffing each other, the hair on their spines shifting and weaving like the grass. Suddenly the brown dog jumped on the yellow from behind. They walked like that for a few more steps, then stopped. The brown dog pushed itself against the other, its tail stuck straight out, kind of twitching. Like electrocution. The yellow dog stood still, lifting its nose to sniff the air. It didn’t seem to be hurt; it didn’t seem to know anything different was happening.

Charley stared at the dogs, trying to figure it out. Until just now, he had thought he’d seen dogs do just about all they could do. “Daddy–come quick!” But then the brown dog got down and the two started to wander off together, into the advancing storm.

_______________

Charley closed the door behind Bridge Walker and went over to the chair next to his father’s. He sat down and looked at him. “What’s going on?”

Emerson wouldn’t lift his eyes, tapping his cane, staring. “Get me a shot of bourbon, huh?”

“No, sir.”

Emerson looked up at Charley but was not surprised by his refusal. “I haven’t had a drink in a long time, son. Want one tonight.”

“Looks like you’ve had one tonight.”

“Is everybody asleep?”

“Guess so.”

“Ellen’s okay?”

“Yeah, Dad, I guess she is.” Charley shifted in his seat, stretching out a little bit, leaning back. He crossed his legs at the ankles, watching his father. As long as he didn’t have to go through an Emerson-Johnson-MD Breath Check, he’d sit and listen a while.

“She was playing with the baby when I left tonight,” his daddy said.

“She’s going to be okay.” Charley swallowed, recalling the purple bruises on Ellen’s arms and legs, the ruptured blood vessels in her face. He sat up a little straighter in his chair.

Emerson closed his eyes and laid his head back. “I let her marry him. Eighteen years old,” opening his eyes again, following his daughter’s inexplicable life down the middle of the ceiling.

“She was pregnant,” said Charley. “And she loved him.”

“Love,” said his father. “Lord have mercy.”

Without warning, Charley had a vision of Cathy in the middle of the dance floor at the Seaside–all of her this time, fully clothed, a huge round stomach filled the blue dress.

His daddy’s voice strained to get out, something had him by his throat. “I saw him tonight.”

“Who?” said Charley, leaning forward in his chair.

“Larry. The son of a bitch was in Henry Townsend’s place.”

_______________

As his daddy arrived beside him at the window, Charley pointed at the dogs disappearing into the stand of trees near the pond.

“What’s up, buddy?” said Emerson.

Charley tried to explain what the brown dog had done, how he’d put his paws around the yellow one and stood up like he was trained for the circus, pushing a wheelbarrow.

His daddy stared out the window, as if he saw something out there Charley had missed. He watched the spot where the dogs had vanished, resting his right hand on Charley’s shoulder. The boy figured his father had seen this thing happen before. Emerson squeezed Charley’s shoulder, didn’t say anything.

“Dad?”

“The dog standing on his hind legs was a male dog,” he began, “and the yellow one–”

“How do you know?”

“Well, give me a second, son.” He patted Charley’s shoulder again, making little circles with his fingers, just standing there. The boy thought maybe the brown dog had a terrible he-dog disease and his father didn’t want to tell him about it. They both liked dogs.

After a second his dad smiled and said, “Charley, you and I need to have a man-to-man talk.” The smile indicated he had a few things to say and didn’t mean to hide anything; the same sort of expression he had used just before he told Charley Aunt Marie had died: a slow, passionate change in his face that made the boy look into his daddy’s eyes and understand how brown they were.

“I’ve got a book I want to show you,” said Emerson. “I want to tell you about some miraculous, wonderful things. I think the book will help you understand.” His voice seemed old, soft, and his breath smelled like the rain that was coming, a hint of tobacco. “Have a seat, pal. I’ll be right back.”

His father didn’t mean to be mysterious about it, but the gentle seriousness in his voice and the sudden need for a book baffled the boy; he couldn’t sit down right then. He loved dogs–but miraculous? He looked out the window, squeezed his hands together, watching the sky and trees blend into dark, stirred by the mist that was falling.

His daddy brought a thick brown book to the living room and they sat together in the leather recliner near the fireplace. Emerson held the book open on his lap while he talked. It was one of his medical texts on anatomy: photographs, pen drawings. He asked Charley how much he knew. The boy didn’t know anything, wasn’t even sure what the question meant. He lied a little.

At first Emerson acted scientific, teacherly, yet his excitement made Charley wonder if this knowledge was new for his daddy too. Was this the first time dogs had done something like that? Emerson sounded like he was talking about planets and stars, saying the names slowly: Vulva, Cervix, Testis, Fallopian. He was dramatic again and the stuff in his voice reminded Charley of Africa and the war.

He used the pictures and sketches to show the uncountable number of reproductive body parts, male and female–pointing right to some things, tracing the boundaries of others. He told about the woman’s menstrual cycle, which Charley understood not at all. He spoke of eggs and sperm, tubes, ovulation, gestation, procreation. He explained where the sperm came from and where it went, though he did not say exactly how. He paused to find out if there were questions Charley wanted to ask.

“What about the dogs?” Dogs and eggs didn’t go together, and Charley wanted to know some more about that.

His daddy smiled and put his arm around Charley’s shoulder, pulling the boy close to him. “Son, dogs and other animals do this thing by instinct. Something in their blood tells ’em when to do it, and how to do it. They don’t do it because of love or even because they particularly want to have puppies. They have no choice.” He closed the book and put it beside the chair. “Human beings, though, like your mother and I, do it because we love each other–we’re married, we have a choice. Our hearts tell us things the dogs’ hearts cannot tell them.”

Charley thought if he were given the choice he would certainly decide not to do it. His heart was clear: Thanks, but no thanks. He couldn’t look at his father much while Emerson was talking about these things, not because Charley was embarrassed–his dad wasn’t embarrassed–but because it was confusing, there was a boundlessness about all this, he was ungrounded, drifting in the conversation. There was this heavy feeling of being offered information he would never use, things he could not possibly remember. He gazed at the anatomy book on the floor for a moment, then returned to the familiar territory of his own two hands.

“Your mother and I fell in love, got married,” said his father. “See, we felt like we couldn’t live if we weren’t with each other. We like to kiss and hug and talk about what we can do to make each other happy.”

Charley figured people would have to really love each other to do the things his father was describing. He thought about Harriet Pinckney and wondered briefly if she would want his sperm for her eggs. He couldn’t picture it. Did Harriet know she had eggs? Did she know where they were? Charley had already forgotten where they were. A shudder rolled through him.

His father glanced at the window. Charley followed his eyes and saw the rain, coming down pretty hard now.

“They should be home soon,” said his daddy.

“And I’ll do it some day too?” Charley was pretty sure he didn’t wanted to hear this answer, but still he asked. “I’ll love somebody that way too?”

“Oh yes, son, in good time. Sure you will.”

_______________

Charley saw Emerson’s hand tighten around the handle of the cane. “What was he doing?” said Charley.

“The hell you think he was doing?” Emerson dropped the cane on the floor beside his chair. “Standing at the bar throwing back beer, laughing with his crowd.”

Charley stood up as if he’d been pulled, walked to the window. He had gone to see Ellen after school one day–she was lying on the couch when he came in, turned her face away from him. Her own blood on her hands.

Charley slept at his sister’s place that night, and told her if Larry came back he would use a kitchen knife on the bastard. Charley believed he would, too.

Charley had liked Larry because he was funny, and good at football, and he played the guitar. Larry always paid attention to what Charley said, like they were friends. But Charley’s father never liked Larry. Emerson tried for a while, for Ellen’s sake. Once, late at night, Charley heard his father and Larry laughing together in the kitchen.

Charley turned from the window. His father had his eyes closed again. “Did you talk to him?” Charley asked. “You say anything to him?”

“When I got up to go over there, Bridge tried to stop me, told me to let it be. I said, ‘Put your daughter in Ellen’s place, see how it shapes up for you.'” Emerson opened his eyes like he’d been dreaming. “Bridge went over there with me. The little bastard saw us coming.”

“He’s not exactly little,” said Charley. “He’s six-two.”

“I’m not talking about how tall he is. You’re a damn sight bigger than that son of a bitch. Remember that.”

“What’d the little bastard do?” said Charley.

“He moved to the other end of the bar.”

“Probably thought you were going to use the cane on him.”

“We followed him. Bridge said ‘Don’t hurt him–just ruin him.'”

Charley could see Bridge Walker whispering in Emerson’s ear, bending at the waist, taking his voice so low, only a friend could hear. Just ruin him.

“I went up and looked him in the eye, told him to get out of Henry Townsend’s place. I told him to find somewhere else to drink.” Charley’s father cocked his head to one side. “He told me to go to hell. Said it was a free country.” Emerson’s hand quivered.

“I’ll kill him,” said Charley.

“He’s dead already, son. No heart in him.”

“What’d you do?”

Emerson massaged his left hand with his right, studying it. “This one’s dead most of the time now.” Absently turning the hand over, appraising the palm. He made a tight fist, opened it quickly, testing his fingers. “I told him the only reason he wasn’t in jail was Ellen asked me to leave him alone. I imagine everybody was lookin’ at us by then–I didn’t give a damn. Told him to get the hell out.”

Charley leaned forward in his chair.

“I said, ‘Henry Townsend’s got a daughter, doesn’t want punks who beat up women.’ I told him there’re places for upstanding sons of bitches like him but Henry’s place isn’t one of ’em.

“Told me he thought doctors were supposed to heal themselves. Said soon as I could stand up, he’d try to be a little more upstanding.”

“Bastard!”

“‘At’s when Bridge punched him.”

“What?”

“One punch. Larry went down like he’d been kissed on the lips by a sledge hammer.”

“Damn!” Charley grinned.

“Nothing to celebrate. Bridge could’ve gotten into a real fix.”

“But he didn’t.” Charley saw Larry’s body hitting the floor of Henry Townsend’s bar. His blood for a change.

Emerson said, “Cambridge Walker isn’t going to put any spring in my step by breaking some coward’s nose.”

_______________

Charley leaned against him, and they sat there without saying anything for a while. The boy stared at his daddy’s hand, following the blue veins up into his wrist, his arm. The firm bicep. When Charley glanced up, his father was looking at him. They smiled at the same time, each caught in a quiet act of admiration.

“You put your sperm into Mother and had us?”

“Yes. Your mother became pregnant, first with Ellen, then, later, with you. See, the baby grows inside the mother…and in about nine months it’s born–with a soft, funny-looking face, lotsa spunk, and hungry as three people!

“You know, Charley, I cried when you were born. No kiddin’. ‘Cause it was so good, I was proud.” He looked over at the fireplace where the logs were stacked. “Birth is a miracle, son. There’s no other clich? for it.”

“Is that the only way we can make babies happen? Aren’t there any other ways?” Charley hoped for a miracle of his own.

“It’s the only way humans can do it,” said his father. “Some animals do it differently.”

His father was satisfied with the way people made babies, but the whole thing had a nightmarish quality for Charley. He wasn’t certain what to think about all he had been told, didn’t really care about miracles so much, or babies, or how love becomes pregnant. And although he believed his father had cried when he was born, Charley couldn’t quite picture it. But he didn’t say anything. He just sat there next to his dad.

Suddenly the lights went out–Charley jumped–and they both laughed, realizing they had almost lost track of the hurricane brewing her own brand of sand outside.

“She’s serving notice,” said his daddy. “Just blew the power lines down.”

As they got up from the chair he said, “You want to talk some more about this, I’m your man. Any time, son.”

It was so dark the boy couldn’t see his father’s face, even though they were right next to each other. Charley thought about the brown and yellow dogs out in the hurricane. Didn’t they know it was dangerous? The eerie darkness made him answer in a whisper. “Maybe we should talk again.”

“Sure. We’ll figure it out together.”

As they started toward the kitchen to get the kerosene lanterns, inching their way through the pitch-black dining room, the wind and rain arrived from Florida all at once, like thumbtacks driven against the windowpanes.

His father was adjusting the wicks on the lanterns when Grace and Ellen came running into the house.

“Ooooh,” Ellen said in a strange new whisper. “No lights!”

“Hey, boys,” his mother called, “where are you?”

“In the kitchen,” Emerson called back, obviously glad they were home.

For his own part, though, Charley would have liked to spend the evening alone with his daddy, sitting in the leather recliner by the fire, talking about how things worked while the fury exhausted itself outside.

“It was unbelievable,” said Grace, feeling her way into the kitchen.

Ellen was right behind her, holding onto the hem of her mother’s coat. “Our umbrellas turned inside out!”

Charley’s daddy lit a match and touched the flame to the wicks. As the light flickered and grew, casting their shadows across the kitchen ceiling, he leaned down close and put his arm around Charley and kissed him on his cheek.

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