The Expulsion from Paradise
It wasn’t the hurricane that forever changed Hubert Lamb’s life, although it did wreck everyone’s Fourth of July celebrations as it blundered ashore from the Atlantic and wobbled across Florida’s boarded up and battened down Space Coast. Of course, if you’re going to live in a tropical paradise, the occasional hurricane is part of the price you pay, along with alligators on the golf course, poisonous spiders lurking in your garden gloves, and exotic snakes slithering into your swimming pool. You just have to decide, is it worth it? Are these close encounters with nature, both the trivial and the potentially devastating, worth it to escape the teeth-chattering cold, the filthy three-day- old snow, the claustrophobic leaden-gray winters that clamp down on the Midwest well into what should be spring?
“Yes!” cried Hubert and his wife Felicia, no cowards they. So when in February they moved into their three-bedroom/two- bath stucco ranch—with swimming pool!—in the brand-new subdivision of Sea Haven, they weren’t at all ruffled that the welcome packet from the Chamber of Commerce included a booklet on hurricane preparedness and dire warnings to “take Nature seriously.”
“Bring it on!” said Felicia with a cocky tilt of her head.
Four months later, when the first tropical depression of the season formed off the coast of West Africa, they likewise kept their cool. They hadn’t waited so long, yearned so hard for this move, to be intimidated by a blurry satellite photo of a cluster of lowly thunderstorms more than three thousand miles away. This early in the year, mid-June, it would probably fizzle out at sea, and too much other juicy stuff was happening—a prominent politician caught in a call girl scandal, another doping revelation in the run-up to the Tour de France—for the media to give it much play. Heads did perk up a few days later when the wind speed reached forty miles per hour and the depression became a tropical storm and acquired a name. NASA took particular notice of the newly christened Angela; they had a shuttle launch scheduled for July 3. Still, Angela was a distant blob in the Atlantic, no way to predict when, where or if the slow-moving system would land. Meanwhile, the politician swore he was innocent and would be vindicated, and the Tour de France rider was canned.
“I’ll take Poppet for her evening walk,” Hubert told Felicia, lifting the leash from its hook in the front hall closet and attaching it to the collar of the curly-haired bundle that was their new little dog. Outside, a soft pink twilight was seeping into the sky, and he paused to gaze around the manufactured community. Personally, he would have preferred to live in one of the older, established neighborhoods with more character and more trees. In building Sea Haven, the developer had stripped away most of the natural greenery, and under the blazing blue sky of day, the tan stucco houses resembled a sugar-cookie colony set on springy grass that reminded Hubert of the plastic green tangle in an Easter basket. As for actual neighbors, they were in short supply. With the mortgage crisis in full bloom, most of the eighty or so dwellings that comprised Sea Haven were still unsold and would probably stay that way for a while. But Felicia had pleaded for a brand-new house.
“Please, Hubert, we’ve never had one, and then we had to move in and take care of your father. I want a place that’s all our own. Please!”
“All right,” he said good-naturedly. The recession couldn’t last forever, and as families arrived in Sea Haven they would add flower beds and landscaping, and the presence of cars and toys in the driveways, the greetings and comings and goings and block parties would bring the community to life. And as it turned out, he got his trees. Their house, at the very end of a cul-de-sac, had a greenway right behind it. “Permanently protected from development,” chirped the breezy real estate lady, waving her bangled arm at the dense foliage. With the addition of a fast-growing ligustrum hedge on either side of their lot and the flowers newly planted by Felicia, their backyard had taken on the aura of a secret garden, the pool a secluded lagoon.
“So we are very lucky,” Hubert told Poppet, stooping to give her a pat. Being a big man, six foot three, and also big of build, he supposed he looked silly owning such a tiny dog. But Poppet was the first pet he and Felicia had ever owned, adopted from the animal shelter where Felicia had recently begun volunteering, and already they were quite fond of their baby. So if people were inclined to laugh at the sight of Poppet on her retractable leash trotting beside Hubert in his newly acquired Florida attire of khaki shorts, tire-tread sandals and hibiscus-print shirt, go ahead. And so what if the first strands of gray threaded his dark-brown mop of hair and mustache or that his eyeglass frames were practically the same style of square black plastic rims he had worn since he was an overweight, near-sighted first-grader? He was a free man now, retired, the obligations to his late father and a failing family business over and done. Best of all, the long, sad storms between Felicia and himself had faded into forgiveness and been replaced by a wiser kind of love.
“We have found our own little corner of paradise,” he whispered to Poppet, “and finally, finally, we are going to be happy.”
For another week Angela trudged across the Atlantic. Then, three hundred miles off the Bahamas, she hefted herself up to hurricane status and began to curve northwest. As the projected red/orange/yellow cone of uncertainty spread toward the Florida coast, the TV reporters hung on their own every word.
“Right now, Angela is still a Category 1 with the requisite seventy-four- mile-per- hour winds, but that could change rapidly, couldn’t it, Cheryl?”
“Yes, indeed, Scott, and remember the track can also change without warning as Angela nears shore. Just a slight shift and this potentially devastating hurricane could make landfall anywhere between Miami and Cape Canaveral.”
“What should we do?” Felicia asked. They had been tuning in the TV more and more frequently as Angela approached. Now Felicia rose from the sofa, nervously cradling Poppet. “Should we evacuate? Maybe I should start calling motels in Georgia to see if I can find one that takes dogs.”
“I guess that would be smart,” said Hubert, loath to admit he also was growing worried. Back in Michigan, they had usually been too busy to follow developing weather disasters elsewhere in the world. Between trying to keep Lamb’s Furniture Store afloat, Felicia’s secretarial job at General Motors, and the increasing complications of his father’s Alzheimer’s, they were lucky to catch a brief glimpse of the ten o’clock news before falling into bed. You just hoped no one got hurt, with the possible exception of the idiot reporters who waded into the pounding surf with their microphones, rain pelting their windbreakers, ducking and exclaiming, “Whoa! Did you see that?” as the palm branches flew by. Now they were the ones in destruction’s path, although, as Hubert pointed out, there was still no official evacuation order and as new Floridians they were probably overreacting.
“But what if Patty’s right, and we really get socked?” said Felicia.
“Then she can say ‘I told you so’,” he joked. Felicia’s sister Patty had been inconsolable when they announced they were leaving Michigan for Florida. She and her husband Buck were Hubert and Felicia’s best friends, and Patty had repeatedly pleaded hurricanes as a reason not to go. “Give her another call and tell her we’re fine.”
Over the next thirty-six hours, Angela weaved through the Bahamas with only minor damage, and the news anchors veered from excitement to stoic disappointment and back again as the storm—and their story—alternately sputtered or intensified. Angela was aiming straight for Miami and Fort Lauderdale! No, wait, she had turned back out to sea. Boca Raton and Palm Beach—batten the hatches! Sorry, false alarm. Their stomachs growing ever more queasy, Hubert and Felicia followed the instructions in the hurricane preparedness booklet, stocking up on bottled water and nonperishable food, testing their flashlights and batteries, assembling a packet of vital documents. In an effort to keep occupied, Hubert puttered at house tasks and walked Poppet, while Felicia stuffed fundraising envelopes at the animal shelter, updated Patty and soothed their next-door neighbor, Mitzi Greene. Twice divorced and caring for her elderly mother, the already high-strung Mitzi required constant reassurance, and it was so like Felicia, Hubert thought, to set aside her own fears as she confidently promised that of course she and Hubert would rush to help the two women in the event of an emergency.
On the morning of July 3, they awakened to a strange whitish overcast, too thin to be cloud or fog. Even if you didn’t own one, you could tell the barometer had dropped. You could feel it, as if the air had been siphoned out of the sky, an eerie emptiness, the leaves unmoving, the birds silent. Ominous. NASA had already postponed the shuttle launch, and now the TV ran a list of cancelled fireworks, picnics and outdoor concerts across the bottom of the screen. “Our first tropical Fourth, washed out,” Felicia joked, though they were both finding it hard to act normally. They stowed the pool furniture and birdbath in the garage, shuttered the windows, and spent the day tiptoeing around the house, trying to ignore yet obsessively drawn to the TV. The six o’clock news headline read: SPACE COAST, PREPARE TO BE BLASTED!
“All right, come on then and get it over with!” Felicia shouted, throwing up her arms and startling Poppet off her lap as the three of them sat on the couch. “Oh, I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry, Hubert. This waiting is making me a nervous wreck!” Crooning apologies, she gathered up Poppet and huddled deeper into the crook of Hubert’s arm. Now a Category 2 hurricane with winds of a hundred miles an hour, Angela was predicted to make landfall between midnight and two a.m., and as if in answer to Felicia’s challenge, the first assault of rain and wind began outside their house. “Hubert, do you think we could have done something bad to deserve this?” Felicia asked.
“Of course not.” He planted a kiss into her fluffy brown hair, trying to feel stalwart. “Bad? Like what?”
“I don’t know. Giving up on our diets again?” Ruefully, she patted her figure, which, like his, was ample.
“No way. You were right to toss out the scale when we got down here and say we should just be ourselves.”
“But that’s what I mean. I’ve led us astray. Or maybe it’s something worse, greed, pride, being too sure of ourselves. Like the way those preachers said Katrina was God’s wrath on New Orleans for being a sinful place and holding Gay Pride parades. Oh, I know that’s nonsense, but here we were so happy to be in Florida and maybe we took it for granted. Now look at us.”
“We didn’t take it for granted, and we’ll be fine,” he promised, as the loud crack! of a breaking branch in the greenway made them both jump. “If it gets at all rough, we’ll go into the bathroom to be away from the windows. The authorities say everyone should be able to ride it out.”
At eight p.m. the power vanished. Trapped in the cavelike dark, with water bucketing on the roof and wind lashing the greenway, they made their way to the bedroom by flashlight and regrouped on the bed, Poppet whimpering in Felicia’s arms. Felicia agonized over the animals at the shelter, a rundown building in need of serious repairs. Hubert thought about praying and heaved a sigh instead. Somehow, he didn’t think they were going to die, and he knew material objects could be replaced, but they had waited so long to come here, it hardly seemed fair to have to rebuild or move yet again if the new house was damaged beyond repair. And there were so many projects and activities he had meant to take up: play golf and join a bowling league, buy a telescope and study the stars, swim the English Channel. Well, not really, but the previous week, lazing in the pool on his lime-green air mattress, an interesting bout of math had overtaken him. The pool was thirty-five feet long, so a hundred and fifty-one laps would equal one mile. The English Channel, he had confirmed, was approximately twenty-one miles wide from Dover to Cap Gris Nez, France. Three thousand one hundred and sixty-eight laps of his pool would therefore be the equivalent of a cross-Channel swim. Since he had already done twenty before flopping onto the air mattress, he was off to a fine start.
“Let’s try to sleep a little,” he suggested as the minutes crawled on to midnight, and exhausted in spite of themselves, they closed their eyes. For the rest of the night, they dozed and started awake, ducking at strange noises, hugging Poppet and picturing the chaos outside, their confidence slowly reemerging as each buffet passed and they were still all right. By four a.m. the worst seemed over, and after catching a few hours of solid sleep, they rose mid-morning to learn that in crossing the Gulf Stream, Angela had wimped back down to a Category 1 and turned due west, making landfall to their south. When Hubert parted the living room curtains, he saw only sticks and clumps of Spanish moss littering the soaked lawns, and in the backyard a few larger branches and a quilt of leaves from the greenway spread across his pool. A pale blue peeked through the tattered clouds, and while the radio reported some instances of property damage and minor injuries, there were no lives lost.
“We made it!” said Hubert, infinitely proud of the way the three of them had borne up. “Safe and sound. Happy Fourth of July!”
“Thank heaven!” laughed Felicia, cradling Poppet in one arm and vigorously rubbing the little dog’s tummy with her knuckles while Poppet wiggled ecstatically. “We wouldn’t let anything hurt our precious baby, would we? I’ll call Patty, then we should check on Mitzi and her mother.”
“Now that we’ve survived our first hurricane, we can call ourselves real Floridians,” Hubert added grandly.
But then again, it wasn’t the hurricane that forever changed Hubert Lamb’s life. It was what came after.