A 5-year-old boy, leaning against the doorjamb, gazed at the cloud bank of cigarette smoke swirling in the damp haze of the half bathroom, until his eyes locked onto his daddy’s half-smoked Lucky Strike balanced on the sink’s rim. The sink was full of steaming water and islands of shaving cream littered with black stubble.
In the next moment, the boy watched open-mouthed as his daddy flicked the ashes into the toilet next to the sink just a split second before they would’ve tumbled onto the floor. The man then raised the cigarette to his lips, and after taking a puff, set it back on the edge of the sink.
“Why do you want to know, sport?”
“The radio, the radio said the mayor ordered one.”
“E-vac-u-a-tion, what’s that mean, daddy?” the boy asked.
The man slowly set the razor under his chin, “What I’m doing now, son. What I’m doing now.”
The boy nodded as his brain cataloged the new word: evacuation — and its definition — shaving in boxer shorts and undershirt in a cramped, wet half bathroom.
It didn’t make much sense, but the truth was that he’d often found that life was pure mystery. Take today, he was woken early, so early it was still dark, by his dad’s usual wake-up call, “Up and at ‘em.” But what he always heard was “Up and Adam,” like he was to get up like Adam, the first man, and name the world.
Later in the half darkness of the living room, he ate his cereal without cartoons. The TV was dark as outside where his daddy was busy making big crosses on all the windows with white masking tape. Was today some kind of religious holiday, the boy wondered?
After his mom and dad got dressed, they packed the car. And soon their Rambler station wagon was awash in smoke: from his parents’ coffee and their cigarettes, Daddy with his Lucky Strikes, no filter, and Mom with her filtered Marlboros.
“So where we staying?” daddy asked, after he backed the Rambler into the deserted street.
“You’re not going to like it,” his wife answered.
“Uncle Dick and Aunt Flo’s.”
“Oh, Sweet Jesus.”
“Now, Jibber, don’t say that. They’re good people.”
“Yeah, they’re good – good as gold, but the dullest. They don’t even have a TV. You hear that, sport, no TV.”
Knowing full well what was expected, the boy obliged, whining theatrically, from the back seat “Oh, my God, I think I’ll just die without TV.”
“Now listen, you two,” his mom said, “Uncle Dick and Aunt Flo are a nice old couple, and they are the only relatives inland left.”
“How about your cousin Tom in Houston?” his dad asked.
“Tom’s keeping mom and Gerald’s family.”
“Huh, now why do they get the best place?”
“I guess, because they didn’t wait till the last minute thinking the hurricane was going to make a mid-course correction, like some folks we know.”
“You bet, ‘oh,’ buster.”
As the Rambler topped the causeway, its engine was straining. The boy could hear the rattle of valves, the popping of lifters. Then the rain began to fall in a way he’d never seen, horizontally right into the windshield.
“What you think, Jibber?” the mom asked.
From the back seat, the boy could sense the fear creeping into his mom’s voice.
“It’s just a squall line, hon. We’ll be out of here long before the big stuff comes.”
“Daddy, what’s a squall line?” the boy asked.
“This is a squall line we’re heading into, son. Just a bunch of wind and rain.”
Now this made a lot more sense than evacuation. Squall was like a storm that came at you from a wall. Squall — it even sounded wet.
A few hours later, they pulled up to a white frame house just off a gravel road. And instead of the wetness of evacuation and squall, the air was dry and everything from the sagging house to the old black Ford, big as a tank, was covered with a thin layer of red dust.
Then out the front screen door popped his two relatives, Uncle Dick and Aunt Flo. Uncle Dick was a tall man with only a few downy scruffs of white hair left on the back of his head, while Aunt Flo was small and stout. She wore a black dress with red birds, and Uncle Dick wore dress pants with a white long-sleeved shirt.
“Oh, Rose,” Aunt Flo cried in a voice that was so high-pitched it nearly cracked the boy’s shoulders.
After she kissed his mom and dad, she started in on him. Her kisses were wet as she held him close. He felt for a minute like he was going to suffocate in the warm folds of her fat that smelled like she’d spent the day rolling in honeysuckles. It made the boy sick to the pit of his stomach.
Then when she finally let him go, Uncle Dick came up to him with a big grin on his face and shook his hand. “How are you, cowboy?” he asked. “Remember your old Uncle Dick?”
“Yeah . . . yeah,” the boy stuttered, letting go of the old man’s long boney hand. Though the truth was, he’d no recollection of him at all.
“Well, let’s get in before we all wilt out here,” Aunt Flo said, fanning herself with her free hand. “Isn’t this humidity just awful?”
They sat around a big oak table and sipped iced tea that was so sweet the boy could see clouds of sugar swirling like white-capped waves inside the green cut glass. And while his daddy and Uncle Dick traded stories about the great 1900 storm, what everyone talked about whenever there was a hurricane, his mom declared to Aunt Flo what pretty glasses she had.
But then the boy stopped everything with what he thought was just a simple question. “Who’s that?” he asked.
Everybody turned and looked to the spot on the wall where he was pointing. He knew right away that he’d done something wrong; his mom looked away from him, while his daddy looked right at him, but only to frown and shake his head.
Aunt Flo didn’t seem to mind though. “That was our son, your cousin,” she said. “He was our only child. His name was Jebediah. He was lost in The Great War.”
Then Uncle Dick got up.
“Here you want to take a closer look?” he asked.
He took the frame from its place on the wall and set it in the boy’s hands. The man in the photo was wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons. His face was long and thin as Uncle Dick’s, but unlike him, it was serious, staring off into a distance long gone.
After more sweet tea and an extra helping of ginger cookies, the boy was let loose to wander into the backyard. There under the scrub oaks and cumulus clouds churning, he imagined himself as the photographed soldier, wandering forever lost on some faintly foreign-sounding battlefield.
He figured it was just like him being lost at the department store, except his cousin was still lost, wandering across some no-man’s land that had now inexplicably grown quiet. And just like him being lost at the store, his cousin the soldier was trying, trying with all his might, to stave off that panicked feeling, gazing toward the now-empty horizon, all the while wondering, “Where’s Mommy? Where’s Daddy? Which way to the exit doors?”
It occurred to the boy then that he’d never understand the world. Why would someone be lost like his cousin, and no one ever find him? And why did Aunt Flo’s eyes water up and Uncle Dick follow her to their back bedroom? Why did his mom give him extra ginger cookies? She never did that before. And why did his father then laugh, open-mouthed and wide enough to see his fillings?
“This is why you need TV,” he said, as he plopped down at the table, next to the boy.
Then mom punched him but playfully the boy could tell, and his daddy set his mom on his lap, like he was some kind of Santa for grownups, which didn’t make any sense.
“Let’s send the boy outside,” his daddy whispered, though the boy could hear him just fine.
And after a while, his mom agreed. And there he was outside in the wind, smelling the coming rain. The world, the boy thought, holding his bent stick up to the gray churning clouds, wouldn’t always be just beyond his too-small grasp.