Story Excerpt

Hurricane Jonah

by T. J. MacGregor

 

Hurricane_Jonah_Mark-EvanWalker
Art by Mark Evan Walker

On a Wednesday morning in late September, Owen and I putter around the kitchen, getting ready for work. My iPad Pro is open to FaceTime, and we’re talking with our handsome son.

“So, parents, that hurricane out there.” Craig sits on the living-room couch with Bo, the retriever, in his apartment off campus. “As of the five a.m. advisory, it’s cat three. Maybe headed here, maybe not. You two keeping an eye on it?”

Owen snaps his computer case shut. “What hurricane?”

I roll my eyes. Owen leaves weather-watching to Craig and me. “Hurricane Jonah. Cat three. As of five this morning, it was eight hundred and fifty miles southeast of Florida. We can get through a cat three in this house. Not so sure about a cat four or five.”

“You guys did okay in Irma last summer,” Craig says.

Did we? For thirty-six hours, Irma’s sustained winds broke records—185 mph, a cat five. But when she hit South Florida, she was a low cat four and although our roof didn’t peel away, it was breached—leaks in four rooms that seeped into drywall, then into floors, and one of the skylights in the living room leaked so badly we had several inches of water in that room. Finally, by late spring this year, everything was repaired—a new roof, new skylights, new floor, new drywall. It was as if the house was rebuilt from the inside out.

“Well, yes and no on Irma,” I say. “We can always evacuate to Orlando if we have to. Our condo is hurricane-proof.”

“We’re not going anywhere,” Owen says. “It’s not going to hit here. Gotta run, Craig. I’ve got a client to woo in the Keys. See you Saturday for some softball, buddy.”

“Okay, Dad. Stay on top of this storm, though, and make sure your phone isn’t set to go to voice mail, okay?”

Owen laughs. “Right.”

“Talk to you later, Mom,” Craig says, and we sign off.

I shut down my iPad, slip it inside my bag, but I’m stuck on a client to woo in the Keys. Really? Since when does Owen travel to clients for web design? He did in the early years with this company, when the bosses sent him here and there. But now he’s one of the partners and does whatever he wants.

“You’re traveling to a client?” I ask. “Since when? Why?”

He names some international sporting-goods company located in Key West. “They have several million to spend, that’s why. I should be back later tonight or tomorrow sometime, Lori. Depends on how difficult this client is.” He gives me a perfunctory kiss and off he goes.

I watch from the kitchen window as his Hummer backs out of the garage. A gas-guzzling Hummer. Who drives these monsters now? They’re extinct dinosaurs from the early days after 9/11, when all of them had miniature American flags flapping from the side mirrors.

Everything inside me screams, Follow him. So I do.

 

2.

The Hummer heads south out of our Miami neighborhood. It annoys me that I’m doing this. I should be stocking up on food and supplies, checking the hurricane shutters, and planning an evacuation route in the event the storm strengthens. Even though the house has been fortified by all the repairs, I’m not so sure I’d stay if a cat five targeted us.

Many turns later, Owen pulls into the parking lot of the company where he works. I park on the street, where I can watch him without being obvious. He gets out, walks across the lot, a tall handsome man who belongs in the movies. Dark hair now threaded with gray, eyes the same color as the Mediterranean.

I fell in love with those eyes. Sounds hokey, I know. But you look into Owen’s eyes and see all that is possible, all that might be. You see his body and spirit and soul. Unfortunately, what you see is all lies. His eyes promise everything—and deliver nothing.

For the last few years, nothing has been right in this marriage. Owen’s apathy runs through his life like blood through veins. He’s apathetic about me, his wife of twenty-three years; about our son, Craig, twenty-one, a junior at the University of Miami; toward our dog, Bo, now living with Craig. In terms of other details, he’s apathetic about paying our bills.

I recently discovered we were months behind on our mortgage payments and when I confronted him about it, he just looked at me and murmured, It doesn’t matter, Lori. So one night after he fell asleep, I logged onto his computer and paid every outstanding bill—mortgage, credit cards, health and car insurance, lawn service, pool service, college tuition. I transferred the bill pay to my e-mail.

I also noticed regular cash withdrawals. Rather substantial sums. I haven’t figured out that part of it yet. But I will.

Five days a week, Owen Barlow, forty-five, gets up at six a.m. and runs two miles because he believes running will extend his life considerably —even though his hero, best-selling author and runner Jim Fixx, died at fifty-two, while running. In spite of his busy schedule today—the trip to Key West—he was up at six this morning for his run. Owen doesn’t take any particular pleasure in the run. His shoes pound the ground, the weather might be hot or chilly or somewhere in between, it doesn’t matter. Run, run.

He glances frequently at his Fitbit, checking his heart rate, the number of steps he has taken, the miles he has run. The facts don’t give him pleasure. They are merely facts he can cite when he and one of his IT buddies exchange running stories over lunch. The difference—and it’s significant—is that the buddy is really into running. It’s his passion. It excites him. He lives and sleeps running. It’s his obsession.

Maybe Owen’s problem is deeper than apathy. Maybe he’s bipolar. Or a reptilian from another planet. I don’t know. And that’s the whole thing, really. I just don’t know how deeply this disease extends. What I do know is that I can’t live like this anymore.

Owen, Craig needs five hundred dollars for books. Can you Venmo it? I was at a conference when I texted this message and even though my Venmo worked just fine and I could have transferred the money to Craig, I was testing Owen. How apathetic are you?

Sure, he replied, and an hour later Craig texted that nothing had come through. When I texted Owen, he said, Oh, right, I forgot. Sending now. For him, now was ninety minutes later. I imagined Craig waiting impatiently in line at the college bookstore.

For Owen, nothing seems more pressing than his own apathy. It’s as if the sentry who guards that emotion snaps to attention whenever something is asked of him, expected of him. Then that sentry throws on the brakes and Owen’s train screeches into a familiar station.

In the early days of our marriage, we traveled a lot. He used to be passionate about travel. Now, it’s like, Hey Owen, we can get tickets to Amsterdam for . . .

Can’t, Lori. Gotta work.

Wow, Thailand for . . .

Can’t afford it.

Really? I make more than two hundred grand a year as an attorney, he makes nearly as much as a web designer, but we can’t afford it? Up until that point, he was managing our money and informing me that I spent too much on books, my hair, my facial products, clothing. But that night when I logged onto his computer, I discovered the truth, that he wasn’t paying anyone.

 

3.

Owen hurries out of the building nearly an hour later, scrolling through his phone, laughs at something, punches out a number. He’s on his phone when he gets into his Hummer and drives out of the lot. Is this little trip of his really work-related?

I follow the Hummer in my Prius. We’re talking five miles per gallon versus fifty-four miles per gallon. I called him on that once and he just laughed. Lori, Lori, you’re so politically correct.

He speeds south toward the Keys. He said the company is headquartered in Key West, but I hope he and the company rep will meet halfway in Marathon. I don’t intend to drive all the way to Key West with a hurricane just three days out. If the track shifts closer to us, if the storm speeds up instead of slowing down, if the winds pick up, an evacuation could be ordered. I would be stuck in Key West. By most estimates, it takes three days to evacuate South Florida—from the Keys to Palm Beach County. There are only four primary interstates in Florida and three of them take you out of the state—I-10, I-75, and I-95. Other highways feed into them, but imagine what happens when more than seven million people try get out at the same time.

Before Hurricane Irma hit last summer, the entire state fell in the cone of uncertainty and the largest mass evacuation in Florida history—maybe in U.S. history—began two days before Irma struck the peninsula. Owen and I didn’t evacuate, but know plenty of people who did. The usual four-hour drive from Miami to Orlando took three times that and getting to the Georgia border took about eighteen hours. Many evacuees couldn’t find gas and abandoned their cars.

Whether we evacuate this time or not, I’ll have to return to the house and pack some things, close the shutters, bring in the patio furniture, the potted plants, anything and everything that can become a projectile during a hurricane. If I stay, it means I’ll join the panicked hordes at the grocery store. If I evacuate, I’ll do the same thing.

My last chance to turn around before entering the Keys comes up on my right less than an hour later, a gas station, the final one before Key Largo. The Hummer hangs a right into the station. I can’t risk being seen, so I take the road just before the station and follow it around to the back of the building. From here, I have a clear view of U.S. 1, the traffic, and cars as they leave the station.

Decide! Continue following him or turn around? I check the latest interim advisory from the National Hurricane Center, issued at eight a.m., shortly after I left the house. The next full advisory will be at eleven a.m., then an interim at two p.m. and another full advisory at five p.m. Hurricane Jonah, now a cat four storm with sustained winds of 130 mph, is about 818 miles southeast of the Florida Straits. It’s moving west northwest at a swift clip, sixteen mph, which means potential landfall in two days. But it’s expected to slow down as it nears Cuba and then make that northern turn toward Florida. The eight a.m. interim says a hurricane hunter plane is en route.

The cone of uncertainty now covers the peninsula from the Keys to Orlando, because the experts can’t pinpoint when Jonah will make that turn. Disturbing. Reminiscent of Irma. Initially her evacuation was just for the bottom part of the state. Then it became the entire state.

I decide to follow Owen as far as Marathon in the Middle Keys. If he keeps going, I’ll call and ask him—what? Should we evacuate? Lame. I don’t need his input to decide that for myself. What’s really going on, Owen?

Minutes later, the Hummer turns out of the station and onto U.S. 1. I let Owen get several cars ahead of me, then follow.

 

4.

The beautiful drive relaxes me. Water stretches out on either side of me, no sign of rough seas, the sky cloudless, gulls pinwheeling through all the blue. No wonder snowbirds have second homes here. The area, though, still hasn’t quite recovered from Irma. Trash and debris litter either side of the two-lane road—mattresses, beds, the remains of washing machines, dishwashers, refrigerators, stoves. Blue tarps are yet visible on rooftops.

This entire stretch of the overseas highway—more than 180 miles—is two lanes all the way to Key West except for a respite in Key Largo and in Marathon, where the road widens briefly to four lanes. One road in and out. It’s the very thing that makes living here untenable for me. I would feel trapped living anywhere in the Keys.

Four cars separate Owen and me now. Even if he spots a Prius behind him, he won’t have any reason to suspect it’s me.

My phone belts out “Thunder,” Craig’s favorite song. “Hey, what’s up, kiddo?” I hate myself for sounding so normal. Craig sounds anything but.

“Mom, did you see the eleven a.m. advisory? It just came in. Jonas is a cat five and it’s headed toward us. . . .”

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2019. Hurricane Jonah by T. J. MacGregor

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