Fiction · 09/01/2010

On The Coast

Right after Mel died, the power did too. The lights, the TV, everything. A tropical storm was trudging ashore and pounding Miami, the ash colored sky spinning down over roofs and hemorrhaging raindrops the size of quarters. My father took precautions. He clad himself in a dull-yellow rain jacket and hat. Knee-high boots, too. He gave each of us the same uniform, even my baby sister who was also outfitted with yellow water wings he himself pushed up her chubby arms. In the living room he told us if you get pulled under to keep kicking, that motion was the only way to keep from drowning. We all listened dutifully except for my mother, and my mother, well she was bouncing my baby sister on her lap like it was nothing and making this pssh sound that I swear is still echoing throughout the old house. My father kept us together, leading us from to room to room lighting candles he’d placed around the house earlier in the evening just in case of an outage. We must have looked like giant rubber ducks floating single-file in zigzags, and he spoke so we could find him in the dark, so none of us fell behind. As we crossed the first floor he told us that living on the coast has its advantages, but that if you’re not prepared these storms will tear everything apart. Even in the dark I knew my mother was rolling her eyes at this speech, but my father went on and told us everything he’d done that day to prepare: boarded up windows; bought bottled water and batteries; stuffed his pockets with flares, the kind you strike against a rock to ignite.

“Jesus, John,” my mother said. “He gets it, OK? We all get it.”

He stopped as if waiting for a straggle and said, “You can’t deal with things by not dealing with them, Nora.” He tipped his glance at me. “You can take that to the bank.”

At the bottom of the stairs, my father told my mother to gather some blankets from the hall closet while he and I took care of the candles on the second floor. Up there the wind howled through the walls, a hot, sticky breeze slipping from room to room like a ghost. The darkness was tricky. Shadows took the place of steps. My father’s pace slowed and he reached back and took my hand when we came face to face with my older brother Mel’s bedroom. He shuffled up to the threshold like kicking pebbles at the edge of a canyon, and we stood silent peering inside. Light slid in through small cracks between boards over the windows. Nothing was really visible, just the purplish outlines of objects that I traced into the air with my index finger: an electric hair clipper; a flannel shirt on the nightstand with a spiky belt curled on top; a small flask stuffed deep inside the mattress. I felt my father’s grip tighten. He hadn’t set foot near the room since Mel died a few days prior. My mother was the one who moved the bouquets in there, made the bed, rounded off the corners. It was me who arranged the condolence cards in neat rows on his dresser. My father did his best to stay clear.

His voice went small: “You ever meet anyone as good as Mel?”

I didn’t say anything. It was strange how he phrased that question. I never told anyone about his flask though, like I promised, even after my parents asked about it. For all I know it’s still buried in there, tucked away through some hole in the side. Back then, knowing that made life after bearable. It was comforting to me, especially when his room was being cleaned out and everything boxed up, and then later on too when I was his age and started hiding flasks and other things in my mattress. I used to think Mel left it stashed in there on purpose, like some ancient artifact, just to tell me what he was all about after he was gone.

“Exactly,” my father said. “Everybody liked Mel. Why couldn’t it have been that neighbor kid, right?” His voice smaller still: “Little punk…”

“Jared?” I asked. My father had stopped referring to Jared by name, instead opting for that neighbor kid. He wiped from his mind the fact that Mel and Jared were best friends, that Jared got pretty banged up too, and that it was Mel who did the driving.

He nodded, said, “You sound like your mother.”

The lights flickered for a few seconds and then died all over again, and my father held his ropy neck up at the bulb overhead as if trying to persuade it back on. I remember thinking it was God reattaching whatever cosmic power cord was severed, but then after hearing what my father said about Jared, deciding to leave us in the dark a bit longer. I was young. I understand it now though, what he said. After all, I am his son. He smacked the wall with an open-palm, said, “See, this is why you fill a house with candles. Just in case the power goes. Right?” He paused waiting for me to answer. “Right?”

“Right,” I said.

He dragged his fingers across his unshaven face, then thumbed the lighter on and cautiously held it toward Mel’s room as if he wanted to see inside but didn’t at the same time. His cheeks glowed, the skin beneath his eyes swollen as storm clouds. He let the flame go out. He stepped back. “C’mon,” he whispered. “There’s no need for light in there.”

We went about illuminating every other room in the house without saying another word. The storm skirted us. All that prep for nothing.

I don’t keep candles in my house now. When the winds kick up like they so frequently do on the coast and the clouds pucker and bloat, I tell my wife Suzie that I love her more when the rain comes in sheets than when it trickles down. Than when it doesn’t come at all. And I tell her when our son comes I’ll never talk to him about power outages. About what it means to be prepared. About how to weather a storm. About candles. There’s no learning in planning. Maybe I’m right, maybe I’m wrong. Either way, when the lights go I’ll let my son figure it out.

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Nick Ostdick lives and writes in the Midwest. He’s in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University, where he also teaches. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Margins, Annalemma, Storyglossia, Night Train, and elsewhere. Look him up on Facebook — he’d love to hear from you — or check out his blog at inthenickoftime.wordpress.com.