Eliza, in the Event of a Hurricane
Karin C. Davidson
When your sister, Eliza, stands in front of the TV dressed in her rain gear and shrimping boots with hands on hips, get out the masking tape. El will fiddle with the volume control and stare at the screen and then shout, “This is going to be a good one!” Once she does this, it will be clear that the tropical storm has become a true hurricane. At the end of August this is nothing to question. Start taping the windows with wide X’s and pray for rain over wind, though you know you’ll get both.
As soon as El changes the channel from Angela Hill to Anderson Cooper, you’re sure things have gone from bad to worse. Fill the bathtub to the brim, but don’t add any Epsom salts. You may have to drink the stuff later. Last time the tub water lasted only five days, and you needed five weeks’ worth.
Saturday nights are not usually like this. Usually they involve setting out to the bayou to hear the tree frogs carry on; or to listen while the Des Allemands cousins, Nicolette and Bobbie Renoir, scratch out some chansons on their fiddles; or to chase Eliza, one more time, downstate on Highway 1, as she heads to Dufrene Building Materials in Cut Off to find her beau.
That beau was a mistake. Wielded a power saw in the You-Order-It-We’ll-Trim-It department and said, offhand and over a length of cypress board, he was headed for Hollywood. Said to watch for him on television, that he’d be there any day now. Instead, there was Eliza standing one aisle over in Home Security, staring through the stacks of hardware, looking for a way in. But there was no way into that man’s soul. Instead of a soul, he had a lockbox, and it was locked up tight. No key, no way. And he never did show up on TV. Not even on a Saturday night.
On this particular night we get weathermen, talking and talking. And when El pulls the ottoman up to the television, it becomes evident that you’re in this for the long haul. She looks at you and winks and cracks the same joke she told five minutes before. Something about a girl walking into a warehouse where nobody works and nothing is sold. Smile, but don’t laugh.
In the kitchen tear open several packages of Camellia red beans, cover them with water in your tallest cooking pot, and set them on the stove. Turn the flame up high: there’s no time for soaking them now. Get to the fridge and pull out a six-pack, hand a beer to El and crack open another for yourself.
El won’t even glance up, but she’ll take a long draw, reminding you of last time, when the case of Dixie lasted through barely half of the marathon broadcast of Arrested Development. Convinced that actor Will Arnett, aka “Gob,” bore a striking resemblance to her beau and most probably was her beau finally gone off to Hollywood in order to reveal his talent in millions of megapixels, El nearly lost her mind when the power went down. Remember how you’d wished for more beer, for a handful of Valium, for a better way. Then consider a trip to Liberto’s, just around the corner, even though every last beer will be long gone.
When El starts dancing in place because of all the beer she’s drunk, promise her that you’ll keep a watch over the radar screen until she returns. She mouths something at you about the northeast longitude picking up where the southeast latitude left off. Down the hall she yells, “That was where I met him!” This reminds you of a song which you’ve been trying to forget.
Once you hear the flush and the sound of her rubber boots on the linoleum, back away from the TV set. In the center of the screen a churning white spiral moves over the Gulf, and the memory of the waves and the wind makes you sit down. As rain slams sideways into the taped windows and a low-pressure moan encircles the house, the earth sinks underneath you and then turns in another direction. El runs back into the room and yells, “What the hell are you doing just sitting there?”
Shake your head and repeat slowly to yourself, “non, non, non,” then cross yourself, “au nom du père, le fils, et le Saint-Esprit.” St. Mary’s Assumption is already boarded up, so consign yourself to the kitchen and search out your largest cast iron. Fill it with oil and butter, onions and garlic, celery and green peppers, and the spiciest Andouille. Let them cook down and say a prayer to St. Valérie. Be thankful that you no longer live in Thibodaux, that there are enough candles and batteries.
Consider how even as a little girl, Eliza loved tropical depressions, white caps out on the Gulf, the satellite gaze of a spiraling storm. From the window seat up on the stair landing, she would sit and call for hurricanes by name, even the ones that were born before she was—Hazel and Hattie, Audrey and Dora. At seven years old, she lit all the hurricane lanterns before the electricity went out, and the aunts sighed, “mon Dieu,” and ran around the house to blow them out. Only moments later Camille left us standing around in darkness, Eliza laughing behind her hands. Back then, she was convinced that eventually her name would be chosen and her own storm would swoop down and carry her away.
At twelve, at the height of a Category 4 called Carmen, Eliza opened all the windows, and we had to sweep the oak leaves and twigs out onto the porch before we could even mop up. She watched us twisting the mop tails into buckets and said, “I only wanted to see her coming.” At seventeen, incensed that the National Hurricane Center had decided to introduce men’s names to their Atlantic and Gulf lists, she took off for the beach and ended up on a roof in Biloxi, roped onto a chimney with complete strangers.
Shake your head again and add the softened red beans into the cast iron along with a ham bone and watch them settle against the brown and gold and fading green of the other ingredients. Remember how you used to settle against your little sister, back when it was easy for her to sit still and accept your company. Now, in the next room, El sets up a hand of solitaire across the ottoman, queens outnumbering kings.
At the back door check the sky outside. Wonder why the stars are out. Wonder how the moon could possibly think of waning while there are waves as big as houses crashing over Cuba. Wonder if this hurricane will be as much of a bitch as Betsy.
Watch El sleeping cross-legged on the floor with her head slung over a pair of jacks and three kings. The queens all lie facedown on the floor. Turn them face up and pause at the queen of hearts’s resemblance to El. Remember the time she was pitched over the olives and nuts at the Saturn Bar by the accordionist from Lafitte, when she turned up the volume on the TV during his set. Hurricane Frances was raging over Florida and El just needed to get a better idea of her northerly direction.
Outside, the wind picks up and you know the eye has passed over, that the next ring of weather will soon be leaning into your little shotgun house. By the time this storm has turned east toward Mississippi or west toward Texas, your sister may be awake. She may push her dark hair from her face and look up at you. She may smell the red beans and know that they are ready. She’ll pull the curtains back and notice the rain is diminishing. And she’ll walk over to the television and turn it off. Gaze at her and consider all the hurricanes in your lives, grateful that, so far, you’ve both survived them all.
Karin C. Davidson has an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her stories have appeared in New Delta Review and Bananafish and have been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom Writing Competition and the Bridport Prize. Originally from the Gulf Coast, she now lives with her family in the Ohio River Valley. She is at work on stories and a novel.