Psy-IKE-d Out: My Family’s Personal Hurricane
By Lise Liddell, ©2009
In August of 2008, Anderson Cooper was a no-show for Hurricane Ike in Houston. And since Anderson wasn’t coming for Ike, I told myself I wasn’t going to worry about the stupid thing. As a Texan I’m used to gnarly stuff -- hurricanes, floods, tornados, droughts, tumbleweeds and dust devils, 105 degree weather on Christmas day, and stuff like barbed wire, fire ants, rattle snakes, scorpions, rabid dogs, cow patties bigger than 18-wheeler tires, people who can’t seem to own enough shot guns, and the fact that George W. was born here.
I should have been worried, although nothing catastrophic happened to anyone I know, because Mayor Bill White went on TV and effectively said, with unusual bluntness and honesty for a politician, “People - it is a 25 foot wall of water and if you don’t get the hell out of the mandatory evacuation areas you are dumber than a sack o’ shit. If you do not live in one of the designated areas, I order you to ‘hunker down.’”
Okay, so the mayor did not actually say, “sack ‘o shit,” but he did later scream at some guy in Alabama, “get those fucking trucks of ice into the city now!” This comment could have come and gone had it not been for some goober on White’s staff who told the press about his saying the F word. Apparently, whoever told on the mayor has not lived in Texas very long, and should probably move to Utah. Texans go through more cuss words than we do cans of RAID pesticide, which is in the bazillions. Plus, if you are a Texan and don’t cuss, I regard you as highly suspicious, somewhere within the ranks of David Koresh.
Needless to say most Houstonians were perturbed with the tattle-taler.
Despite Ike not maiming me or blowing down my apartment building, I was stupidly unprepared for my relatives to use Ike as an excuse to shift into one of our typical familial meltdowns. Just when I thought 25 years of therapy had finally begun to individuate me from my parents, along comes a hurricane to blow me back into infancy. My mother is a 73 year old Louisiana Cajun and my old father is an 80 year old Texas redneck. That’s a blistery, combination. Both of my parents have a lot of money – which makes our whole family what I classify as “upper class white trash.” Mom and Dad got married, got drunk, made babies, and then proceeded to scream and chuck highballs at each other for 20 years. Then they got divorced and moved to separate houses but nothing changed except that the highballs no longer had realistic target ranges. They proceeded to scream at each other for another 25 years. They might be screaming right this minute.
They live 5 miles away from each other in a city that stretches 634 square miles, have the exact same phone number with the exception of one digit in a city with three area codes, and are constantly calling me to find out whether or not the other one is dead yet.
Days before the storm actually arrived, I had already talked to my mom several times while she did her quivering-voice number on me: “I cannot be expected to sit through this thing alone. Somebody has got to come over here. I know you all don’t want to, but I’m your mother.”
My father did not call. He expects people to show up just because he’s grumpy and rich and a paraplegic.
I was getting nervous about what I was going to do with these people in the middle of a hurricane and must have entered some moment of Pollyanna-like delirium when I suggested to my parents that all of us stay together in one of their houses during the storm.
The answer was “NO,” a thousand, times for each of them.
They were going to stay put in each of their gigantic, multimillion-dollar houses, where each of them lives alone. And somehow my butt had better be in both places. So I called my brother, Robert.
“O.K. If you stay at Dad’s house I’ll stay at Mom’s,” I said, thinking I was doing him a huge favor, since Mom usually requires slightly higher maintenance than Dad, only because sometimes Dad goes to bed.
It never occurred to me that my parents could fend for themselves. As a paraplegic and a hypochondriac, they’ve both been living at death’s door since before I was born.
“I can’t do that,” my brother says. “My cats don’t like to leave the house and I can’t abandon them.”
I go see my dad. He lives in the fancy Memorial subdivision of Houston on a dead end street named Hedwig Green. You can barely drive down the street for all the green growing on Hedwig – it’s like a tropical forest. I park halfway in a ditch and enter through his back door, which is eternally unlocked. I head for his bedroom where he’s lying in bed with the Wall Street Journal resting on his chest and Lou Dobbs griping about the derangement of everyone in Washington on a 32-inch TV that is 25 years old and 30 feet away from his bed.
Dad starts into one of his right wing spiels about the country going to hell as I slump into a chair. I can’t take but about three seconds of it so I sit up. “Look,” I say, “right now there’s a hurricane coming and I don’t know what to do. Robert has to stay with his spastic cats and mom is wigging out and I can’t be in two places at one time.”
“Ugh,” he grunts, “Robert and those cats.” He looks away from the TV and at me for the first time. “Listen, don’t worry about it, Hon. I’ve got two nurses that are spending the night. We’ll camp out in the wine closet if it starts to get bad. We’ll all get blitzed on Corton Charlemagne,” he says, laughing with a wink. I get tears in my eyes and feel like an idiot and get up and hug him and tell him I love him a dozen times. He chuckles and hugs me.
“I love you too, Kid.”
I walk out to my 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee like Charlie Brown with my head down and my clogs shuffling through the leaves. I’m leaving my dad to live through the hurricane alone when he’s a paraplegic and has cancer.
The day is cool by Houston standards – about 70 degrees. Dozens of huge oak trees drape my father’s home, some well over a hundred years old. All fifteen of the houses on this street are old as well, and seem to be rooted just like the trees.
I jump in my jeep and pull the sun visor down to look in the mirror to see if my tears are showing. They are and I slap the visor back up. I call Mom.
“I’m coming to your house for the hurricane,” I say.
“Is Robert staying with your father?”
“No, he’s got his cats.”
“Who’s going to take care of your father? You can’t leave him alone there.”
“Two nurses will be there.”
“Well.” She pauses, sighs. “What time are you going to get here? I’ll be worried if you don’t get here early. Don’t make me have to worry about you.”
“I’ll try not to, Mom.”
“Get here by six.”
I hang up the phone.
That was Thursday. On Friday, the day of the storm, I sit listening to “13 Eyewitness News” until 4:30 when I leave my apartment to hit the liquor store. A lot of stores are already closed, but lucky for me and several hundred other parched neurotics, the Spec’s Discount Liquor store on Westheimer and Montrose is open. One can always depend on Spec’s. It has fifty locations in Houston, boasts the largest wine selection on the continent, and stays open the maximum number of hours permitted a by Texas law. Its logo is a happily drunk looking rabbit.
The joint is hopping, shopping carts are driving around like bumper cars, slamming into each other with their drivers saying “sorry” every 3 seconds while stashing as many bottles of tequila, vodka, rum, wine, beer, mixers as will stick out of the shopping carts without making them tump over. People who would never eat a thing like a corn nut are buying them out the wazoo.
I load up enough wine, champagne, vodka and Bloody Mary mix to give myself a temporary delusional sense that this whole hurricane thing might just turn out to be fun. In line at the counter, I start shooting the bull with a lady behind me who is toting her own smorgasbord of booze.
“It looks like you are planning a hurricane party, too,” I say, eyeballing both our carts.
“Yeah,” she says, “but I’d probably be buying this much liquor anyway. My husband’s mad at me ‘cause I left him boarding up the house to come over here. He’s all wired up. I had to get away form him.”
“Y’all are boarding up your house?”
“He’s boarding up the house. I think it’s ridiculous. After that last Rita fiasco when we left town to go live on the highway for three days I refuse to participate in any lemming like behavior.”
“Well, he may be smart for boarding the house. We’re not doing anything like that. I can’t decide if this thing is going to be another non-event like Rita or if it’s going to be a replay of Katriana, in which case I’ll either be dead or be sorry for having done nothing but buy a bunch of liquor.”
“I don’t think anybody really knows what to do. Maybe that’s why there are so many people in here.”
“Well,” I say, sliding my cart up to the checkout counter, “we should go have a drink together sometime when this shit’s over – given that we’re both alive and there are still a few bars left.”
“Gimmie a call,” she says, and hands me a card that I cram into my purse.
After I pay we give each other a big wave and yell, “Bye!” in that female Texas voice that’s fired up and loud for no apparent reason. For a moment, the impending natural disaster seems trivial compared to our newborn liquor-loving friendship.
I head for the grocery store. My priorities have obviously remained in tact. Lettuce, cheese, bread. I can live on that forever. I buy way too much of each.
It’s about 7:00 p.m. and no sign of a single raindrop. I head for Mom’s. She has left several hysterical messages. I delete them half way through her blubbering.
Mike, my significant other, and I get to Mom’s at the same time. He’s helping me help Mom. We pull around to the back and walk through her patio.
“Holy fat cow,” I say, taking a look at 3 dozen oversized potted plants, iron patio furniture pieces, various armadillo and Texas boot mobiles floating in the breeze, and an 80-year-old, four-person, wooden swing that my grandfather built hanging from the porch and perfectly poised to fly through the windows into the living room with the first puff of hurricane air.
“We have to move all this stuff inside.”
My mom enters the patio in a pink, silk, barely-there nightgown with her flaming red lipstick perfectly applied. Mike is polite. If he notices her near-nudity, he pretends not to.
“Well, thank God you all are here,” Mom commands, “This is why I wanted you to come early. I needed you to move all of this stuff. There’s only so much I can do alone. Now do you think you can climb up on a latter and let that swing down, Sugah?” she asks me.
“We’ll figure it out, Mom,” I groan as I scrape a potted palm across the brick patio.
Around 9:30 we finish hauling stuff into the house and I bolt for the kitchen to commence pounding bloody Marys and to gnaw on a wheel of Wisconsin cheddar. My mom starts telling stories about growing up in Abbeville, Louisiana where she and her Cajun kin used to spit in the face of hurricanes by putting on bathing suits and rowing around in canoes while the whole mess was happening. I’m wondering what the hell she needs me for. By midnight I am sick of her stories. Everyone of them makes her out to be a hero, and Mike is hanging on her every word. My mom would flirt with a 10,000 year old corpse if she knew it was male. I’m not jealous, but I’m definitely irritated.
The storm is still a no-show. I wish it would just come on and get here so I would at least know what I was dealing with. I keep looking at all the wall of windows in her kitchen and wondering if I was really stupid not to have the whole house boarded, as well as my father’s. If one of my parents dies it will naturally be my fault because in the order of the universe it is always my fault when it comes to the suffering of Mom and Dad. Somehow it’s even my fault that my dad is a paraplegic, and that happened before I was born.
I am making myself crazy thinking like this, so I tell Mike he can sleep in one of my brother’s rooms, and I leave him wrapped up in my mother’s tales of Southern Louisiana to sneak off to my childhood bed. I slide in between the sheets. The quilt on top smells of the seven-year-old I once was. It holds the tender underside, the soft belly fur of childhood, and I am finally called to sleep.
I wake to a slam of wind and rain against the west side of my mother’s home. The hurricane has finally arrived at about 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning. I sit up in bed and watch the windows as they swell in and out. I bravely make my way to one of them, and look out to see mom’s next-door neighbor standing in the middle of chaos staring at a my mother’s magnolia tree that’s been knocked into his yard. Three kids are jumping up and down in yellow raincoats on the neighbor’s front porch – yelling at the tree gazer through cupped hands. Probably something to the effect of, “Dad, Mom says you’re gonna get killed!” Thinking of what those kids might be screaming to their total nut case of a father I start laughing despite my fear, and I somehow feel a little safer, so I get back into bed and stare at the ceiling just listening to the sound of frantic rain and wind. I become aware the electricity is out as it starts to get hot over the next hour or so. Finally, I toss off the covers and plunge my head deep in to my pillow, realizing that lying here waiting for all hell to break loose is pointless.
Somehow I fall back sleep and manage to sleep until noon. I wake to the sun shining through my bedroom window. I look our and tree debris is scattered everywhere, although my mother’s magnolia is the only tree that’s fallen. All the houses seem to look fine. I call my dad and closest friends via cell phone to find out they are all safe. So we’ve got no electricity – big whoop? I’m a mature adult and should be able to handle a few inconveniences.
I throw on some shorts and a tee shirt, and my Nike running shoes. I creep out of my room and the house is silent. Mom and Mike must still be asleep. How weird are the three of us to have slept through an entire hurricane? I go out to my car to listen to the news on the radio.
According to KTRH I have missed quite a lot during my slumber. I feel like an idiot. The storm has completely blown away the island of Bolivar and while Galveston remains a standing island, nothing remains standing on it. Ninety-nine percent of Houston is without electricity, and half of us have no water. There’s gas at the gas stations but no electricity to get it out. The few stations that have electricity are hosting lines that last 3 to 4 hours for a fill-up. Only a few grocery stores are open, and they have no electricity. You’ve got to show up with your own flashlight and wait in line as long as 3 hours to purchase a limited amount of non-perishable items. Frozen/refrigerated foods have already gone bad. Forget fresh vegetables.
The KTRH DJ’s sound calm and very matter of fact. They are eager to get as much information to the public as they can in order to keep things in order. They know they are the one and only information lifeline to the city. They tell people where to go for food, water, gas, etc. and they also tell us where not to go under any circumstances. No one is allowed to drive onto Galveston Island unless they are a government official.
While I’m sitting in the car my brother, Frank, calls me from Nashville.
“Are y’all o.k?” he asks, worried. “I’m watching CNN right now, and everything looks totally demolished.”
“Where are they filming?” I ask. “Things are not too bad around here. Just a ton of tree branches and leaves all over the place.”
“I don’t know – a bunch of different neighborhoods. They are showing houses with trees in them and houses underwater and people freaking out and crying.”
“They aren’t talking about any of that on the radio,” I say, thinking how odd it is that he knows more about what’s going on down here than I do. I realize the whole world has access to more information about Houston than we do. Suddenly I’m anxious to get out and see what’s happening. “Let me call you back later,” I say, “I gotta get outta here and go check stuff out.”
I head inside looking for Mike. He’s awake and dressed and looking for me. My mom is still snoozing. “Let’s go to The Volcano,” he says.
“Fine with me,” I say, and we head back to my car. We drive around my neighborhood, and then through the Galleria area, Houston’s major upscale shopping center. All the streetlights are out. There’s not much traffic but the cars on the road are moving at about 20 miles an hour, carrying passengers in awe of and staring at the aftermath. Hunks of trees, random giant pieces of plastic and plywood are strewn everywhere. Some of this stuff is unrecognizable – no telling where it came from. Several of the buildings in the area are up to 30 stories high. Dozens of missing windows appear as black holes in their once smooth facades. I call the front desk at my condominium, a twelve story building.
“We have only one window out,” says Enrique, a young Guatemala who works in my building. “But don’t come over here,” he warns. “We only have one generator working and it’s low on gas. We need to conserve the gas as much as possible in case of an emergency that would require us to use the elevator and get someone disabled out of here and to a hospital.” A lot of elderly people live in my building. At 46 I don’t quite meet that criteria.
“OK I’ll stay away,” I say, hanging up. “Everything’s fine there, but we can’t go there so let’s get to The Volcano, although I doubt it’ll be open.”
“The Volcano’s always open,” Mike says, and he turns out to be right.
The Volcano is Mike’s neighborhood bar, and has become mine, via Mike. We get there and the place is packed. It appears that all of our regular drinking buddies are safe and back at the bar. The lights are out but the generator has the ice machine and the fridge running, and is somehow keeping the beer cold. Everyone is in a grand mood - telling stories about the storm, getting drunk, and feeling gitty just to be alive. Nobody seems to mind the heat and humidity, which I’m guessing are running at 80 degrees and 80 percent. Everyone is sweating and stinking but too relieved for the usual bitching about Houston weather. Pete, the owner of Volcano – informs us that his buddy on the Houston City Council promises electricity to our area within two days. We are jubilant over the news. Mike and I eat a couple of chicken salad sandwiches. He drinks three of four frosty beers and I drink a couple of miniature champagnes. We drink and sweat and laugh our way through the afternoon, until we return to my mom’s around five to find her frantically lighting candles and pacing around in her nightgown. She’s a nervous wreck.
“I didn’t know when ya’ll were coming home. None of my phones work. I don’t wanna be alone in this house when it’s dark. Ya’ll can’t do this to me again.”
“Ok, mom, I’m sorry,” I say. “It’s still daylight. I didn’t know you’d be so upset.”
“It’s alright, just don’t do it again,” she quivers. I vacillate between feeling sorry for her and thinking she’s a pain in the butt.
“Ma’am,” Mike perks in, “ I think you could use a bloody mary!’
Mom used to drink like a regular Cajun but in her older years has pretty much quit. Or at least that’s what she says.
“Well, as you know I normally don’t drink, but I think I’ll make an exception this time, given this impossible situation we’re all in.” Mike fetches her a bloody mary, and eventually two more. We eat some salad and cheese from the cooler. I read some random book I’m not particularly interested in, while Mom tells Mike her recollection of the history of her marriage to my father. She performs with much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It turns out there are all kinds of hurricanes on this planet.
As Houston is notorious for it’s sometimes 105-degree temperature, and it’s sometimes 95% humidity, by Sunday, ice is the hottest commodity around. Whatever euphoria anyone may have experienced over the blessing of being alive, is quickly being replaced by irritability over the heat and humidity. People are driving miles using precious gas to get ice. Mike drives an hour to Conroe where his son lives to retrieve several bags that his son has picked up at a fully operating grocery store near his home. KTRH gives frequent announcements letting the public know where ice can be found, and volunteers who have their own problems are showing up to hand it out to fellow Houstonians.
If you’ve got a cold cocktail for Mom and Dad and iced Coke for the kids you are half way to preventing hari-kari. Plus, if you can keep your meat cold you can pop open your barbeque pit (if it hasn’t flown away) and cook to your heart’s desire all that deer, pork, and cow meat you’ve had crammed in the deep freeze for the last ten years. People start cooking whole herds of dead animals all over the city and then realize they can’t eat it all so they take it neighbors. News floats in via cell phones from people outside of Houston who can actually see what’s happening on their televisions, and as the news get worse about people who have trees in their living rooms, nothing to eat and no water, the excess food gets dropped off at food banks set up across the city. Again KTRH lets us know where they are.
The next hottest commodity quickly becomes a generator. The silence of no electricity, no traffic, and no television, for two days is sweet. But then the generators begin to get revved. After Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Target run out of generators, KTRH goes on air with a 1-800-git-a-generator-to-your-house-tomorrow number and over the next week everyone I know becomes the owner of at least one gas-guzzling, pollution producing, noise making contraption from hell that makes a Hummer look like a green machine. As more generators are added, the Houston noise level rises to an ugly non-stop Mozart like crescendo of ear-damage proportions. Of course, the generator fad only exacerbates the gas lines, as people not only fill up their tanks, but also a half a dozen gas cans.
I also learn from KTRH that 11,000 electricians have come to Houston from all over the country and Canada to help us. Many of them left before the storm hit, driving all night long to get here and work sixteen-hour days dealing with dangerous live wires, blown out transformers and the occasional deranged customer who can’t understand why they can’t “fix it” faster. Around the clock, the electricians hoist themselves up in their electric truck baskets to bring light and cool air back to our city. Then the city falls in love with these guys. Over the course of the next three weeks, which will be required to get the city’s electricity whole again, Houstonians bring these saints of power lines sandwiches and colas. We ask them about their hometowns and families, and blow kisses from afar at them when we pass them perched in their electrical baskets, risking their lives so we can get our A/C back.
On Monday after the storm, a wonderful cool front comes through Houston. It’s about sixty degrees and the sun is shining. The whole city is feeling friendly. On my mid-afternoon trip to my dad’s house everyone on the road is polite and letting others go first at the stop lights that are hanging vertical on some scary looking wires. People are out walking their dogs and babies, drivers have their windows down and everyone is waving at each other.
So on my way to my dad’s, a DJ on KTRH who moved here from L.A. only three months ago starts praising Houston and saying how wonderful we all are for helping each other so much. I’m inclined to agree, and am quite amazed, despite the inconveniences, that everyone is behaving so well and doing their best to help each other. Very few looting incidents have been reported.
“If this were happening in L.A.,” she’s explains, “People would only be thinking of themselves. There would be mayhem in the streets. I just love it that I’ve been transferred to Houston. Texans are just fantastic people. ” she pipes. Then she lets a caller on the air.
“Lady, I’m telling you, if somebody doesn’t get an electrician out to my house right now I swear to God I am gonna kill my kids. We got no TV or AC and they will not shut-up! I swear I am going to kill ‘em,” she yells. I think I hear a pile of kids mauling each other in the background.
Until today’s cool front, it’s been hot and there’s been no hot water, so I haven’t showered and I stink, but my family has food and ice and our water is on even though KRRH says not to drink it. I’m practicing my Buddhist ways by giving myself little lectures about how fortunate I am and how much others suffer everyday far worse than I ever have. I think of places like Bosnia, Iraq, Romania and Louisiana.
At the same time I realize that my state of Zen is precarious and might be blown sky-high in a split second should the stars align. This realignment is being encouraged by the fact that all this shit has gone down with no Anderson Cooper and just one AM radio station to give us any information about what the hell is going on. Houston has become Rodney Dangerfield. No respect.
I arrive at Dad’s house and it appears to be the end of nature as he and his neighbors have come to know it. Trees are up rooted, or cracked in half, stretched across lawns, lying in gutters, slammed into peoples’ kitchens and bedrooms, and tangled up in telephone wire. My stepbrother Fred is standing in the middle of the road with a chainsaw when I get out of my truck. He drove in from Austin over night with a truck bed of tools and is slicing trees into uniform pieces. Fred gives me a wave and cranks the chain.
My dad is sitting in his wheelchair in the driveway looking down the driveway at Fred. I approach him smiling.
“I came out here to look at this mess and I got stuck in a pothole,” Dad gripes.
“Don’t worry, Dad,” I say, “I’ll get you out of it.” I push the back of his chair with all the strength of every “chataranga” I’ve done in yoga for the past year and I barely get him out of the hole.
“This whole thing is just pathetic.”
“What’s pathetic, Dad?” I ask.
“Well, Hell, all these dad-gummed trees all over the place like this!” he barks.
“It doesn’t seem to me that mother-nature gives a crap if we think her shenanigans are pathetic or not. She’ll damned well do what she’s going do.”
“I suppose that’s the way it is.”
I wheel him into the house, which, fortunately, has received zero damage. He left the middle of his lunch to go get mad and stuck in a hole, so I wheel him over to the table where he’s got a plate full of food with the Wall Street Journal sitting next to it. I swear the Wall Street Journal would arrive on time and in tact in the middle of the apocalypse. I eye a headline about a severe deterioration of the stock market. I pretend not to see it. A hurricane is a pain in the ass for my dad; a stock market decline is a heart attack.
Cheerful nurses are with my dad around the clock cooking him hot meals on the gas stove. They’ve got two coolers the size of a normal refrigerator packed with ice and food. Dad’s “secretary,” Blaine, who has run my dad’s business and kept him alive for 30 years has convinced her brother, David, to take the day off from his family and law practice to drive all the way from Baton Rouge, LA with six generators. David and my brother Robert have been working since 8 am this morning trying to get the machines hooked up and operating. But my dad is sitting in his uniform of Bermuda shorts and t-shirt, bitching, and calling Blaine’s brother “that guy out there screwing around with the generators.”
“You need got to get on your cell phone to Centerpoint and tell them that I’m an 80-year-old paraplegic and I need my power on now,” he says to me, shoving a hunk of homemade fried chicken down his throat.
“Well, Daddy, the problem is, seven million people have lost power here and probably several hundred thousand of them are elderly and disabled,” I say, looking at his atrophied legs with their swollen feet and three missing toes. “The radio said 99% of Centerpoint customers have lost their power.” I say louder. “I think the electricians are trying their best. I hear 11,000 of them have come from all around the country and Canada to help us.” He obviously does not give a rat’s ass as he ignores me and hollers at a nurse to bring him a glass of red wine.
I suppress a passive-aggressive remark about how he and his neighbors refuse to trim their trees and so that’s why they are tangled up with telephone wires on the ground and dead. I also choke down a comment that he should feel lucky to be alive because some people are totally dead, and some people that aren’t dead yet don’t have any water or food or sewage and, even though he is a paraplegic, he should have compassion for the suffering of others and if I weren’t trying so hard to be a Buddhist right now I’d blam him over the head with one of those red five-gallon generator gas cans I can see my brother Robert lugging down the driveway through the kitchen window.
Robert, I am guessing, after spending all that quality time with his cats and being one of the people in the 1% category that did not lose power, is now operating full speed on the highly efficient fuel called “Genetic Guilt Gas.” It’s a known fact that dysfunctional families run generation after generation on this fuel. If you think your family is running out of gas, just marry someone and/or have a kid with someone you’re sure is fucked up. Drama will expand exponentially and you and your family will be up and running again for at least another 500 years, even with substantial amounts of therapy and rehab thrown in.
Yolanda, the head nurse, enters the kitchen with a glass of red wine she’s brought in from Dad’s wine closet. Yolanda is one of those women I always wish I were more like. Tall, dark skinned, strong, funny, smart, and putting up with no shit. She plops the wine down in front of my dad.
“Well, did your dad give you the incredible news today?” she asks.
“No,” I say, “What’s going on?”
“What are you talking about?” my father mumbles.
“What am I talking about?” she slaps her hand on the table sitting down. “What am I talking about? You mean you haven’t told your daughter the great news? What is wrong with you?” she says poking him in the arm. Then she looks at me, “The hospital called today and with last week’s bone scan and he is cancer free. The doctors can’t figure it out except that this hormone therapy is new and they don’t know much about it. Personally, I think it’s a miracle.”
Too bizarre the Houston Medical center has apparently been buzzing along during all this mayhem.
“Dad, this totally rocks. I can’t believe you aren’t fired up.”
“Well, I don’t know much believe anything those doctors say,” he mumbles, throwing a damper on my glee.
“You believed it when they said you had cancer, why don’t you believe it when they say you don’t? And anyway, you were supposed to die before you were thirty-five from that plane crash and now your 80. You’d think someone like you would believe in miracles.”
“Well, we’ll see about miracles,” he says, slurping some wine.
This is totally surreal, I think. He’s survived so much in his life, including a Hurricane just 3 nights ago and now cancer and he’s completely unimpressed. I don’t know why I should be so indignant though – he once told me that it never bothered him to be a paraplegic.
Yolanda looks at my dad, crooks her right eyebrow at him, slams both hands on the table, and pushes herself up, disgusted, “I can’t believe you didn’t tell your daughter your cancer is gone. What is wrong with you? Do you want anymore of this chicken?” she demands.
“No,” he says, “it’s cold anyway. I’ll just drink my wine.”
“O.K.” she says, swiping his plate out from under him.
I am so happy that my dad no longer has cancer that I have to split the scene before I murder him for not giving a shit.
I go back outside to the chainsaw action. Three Latino men have joined Fred. The Houston population is about 37% Latino. These three men are likely some of those who don’t have that piece of paper that allow them to legally come to the aid of US citizens for little pay.
Fred puts the saw down for the moment and the four men stand hesitating over a mostly whole, very old pecan tree that wasn’t expecting to die three days ago. They mumble to each other and shake their heads, until one of the men cranks up his saw and the disintegration ritual begins again.
I get in my truck and drive around listening to the seventies station on my satellite radio. I know all of these songs by heart and I sing them at the top of my lungs. I drive randomly for an hour - foolishly wasting precious gas trying to avoid going back to my mother’s house. Four hours in line for gas seems like more fun than five minutes of my Mom’s drama. Then Mike calls.
“Hey – where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to call you all day. Don’t you understand we are in an emergency situation here?”
I do not think any of this qualifies as an emergency situation as far as my family is concerned, but I bite my lip and mumble some lame excuse about having to go to the drug store for my mom.
“Well, I’m over at your dad’s house helping Robert gas up these generators. You’re dad’s got an extra one. We’re gonna bring one over to your mom’s house to hook up her TV,” he says happily.
“Well, God knows she’ll love you for that!” I yell. I am truly elated at the thought of my mom having her TV back. It’ll make her happy and cut her yakking down by about 90%. It used to bother me that she watched TV so much until my Buddhist meditation lady suggested that it was a blessing my mom had TV since she loved it so much and had nothing else to do with her time.
“Hey – some of these restaurants are opened. I’ll go get everyone some food.” I’m getting in a good mood now thinking about mom with her TV and some food that hasn’t been floating around in the cooler for three days. I take a food order from Mike and then call my mom and get one from her. I tell her Mike and Robert are on the way over with a TV rescue unit.
By the time I get to my mom’s house, it’s dark. Mike is standing next to the generator in the patio and is kicking it with his boot. The generator is not responding. As any woman is prone to, I am certain that reading the directions on any contraption will help to get the thing going. Men hate to read the directions. My determination to educate myself on the generator situation starts a cussing feud between us.
“This fucking thing is a piece of crap,” I offer. “She can live without TV for a few days.”
“Gimmie the flashlight and hand me that damned gas can,” Mike says.
“This thing is reeking with fumes. I’m going to die of an asthma attack so my mom can watch reruns of “Jag.”
“Pour it in this hole right here,” he says, shining the flashlight in the open gas hole.
“There’s no room to pour anything in this hole – can’t you see the gas in there? The thing is full. Gimmie back that flashlight,” I say as I squat down on the bricks, pull my glasses from the V on my t-shirt and start looking for instructions.
Finally, like a sign from God a sticker shines in the rays of the flashlight. The sticker says something to the effect of “Punch this here button before trying to start this thing - you dumbass.” We punch the button and Mike pulls that lawnmower thingy and, viola, my mom has herself some TV. She comes running out of the house in her nightgown and slippers and red lipstick jumping for joy.
We herd inside to eat. I pop some $8.00 Cava sparkling wine from Spain. Mom closes the doors to the cool breeze outside and lights about four-dozen candles. It starts to feel like we’re sitting in a oven but I keep my mouth shut and open up the to-go containers and serve Mike and my mom their gumbo and salads. Then I sit down with my baked potato and salad. My mom throws the back of her hand to her forehead.
“Ugh – I should have gotten a potato,” she moans.
“I thought you said you can’t eat potatoes because of your potassium problem,” I say.
“It’s only the small white ones I can’t eat. That’s a big white one.”
The next thing I know she is bawling her head off.
“Why do you have to look at me like that?” she wails. “All of my children give me these strange looks all the time. My God, I just can’t take the trauma anymore.”
“Mom, I’m sorry. I’m just cranky and hot. But this is not Gone with the Wind it’s just gone with the electricity. Now, can’t we please open the doors to let the air in? And do we really need all these candles?”
“Yes we do – I have eye problems and can’t see in the dark. And we can’t open the doors because someone is liable to come in here and kill us all.”
“We can leave the doors open, ma’am,” Mike beams proudly, “I brought my gun.”
“Oh lordy,” my mom wails, feigning shock, “you brought a gun?”
“You brought a freaking gun over here?” I glare at him like he’s a lunatic.
“God where is it?” asks my mom, “I don’t want to accidentally step on it and blow off my foot.”
“It’s in my suitcase ma’am. And don’t you worry – I know how to handle a gun – I grew up on Odessa. I think it’ll be just fine if we open the doors.”
“No,” she says, “there are all sorts of crazy people out there. God knows what could happen to us.”
“Oh just let them try something on us, ma’am,” Mike retorts, “I’d just love to see it! Heh, heh, heh,” he mocks, doing his Snidely Whiplash impression.
“Hell, we’re all going to die of lunacy,” I moan.
“Ma’am, I promise you are safe with me,” Mike purrs, placing his hand over my mother’s on the table. I can tell my mom is developing a deep affection for Mike. He’s gotten her TV back, has a gun and is willing to protect her, and calls her Ma’am like a gentleman should. She’s always been a John Wayner.
“Well maybe it will be alright to open these back doors,” my mom coos back, “at least as long as we are awake.”
“I think that would be a wonderful idea, Ma’am, says Mike.
“Would you stop calling her “Ma’am” every five seconds?” I fire under my breath.
I go back determined to eat my potato without saying another word. And, yes, I realize I’m being a bitch.
Significant Other is telling my mom reassuring stories about growing up in Odessa. Like the time he hung some kid up on a nail on a fence.
The next day, Tuesday, I get up and jump in my truck to drive over to my apartment building. It still has no electricity, but I am told has managed to secure enough gas for the generators so that residents can use the elevators as they please. On my way over Robert phones me.
“I think my arm’s going to fall off,” he says. “I counted and you’ve got to pump that fuel tank 700 times just to fill up one 5 gallon jug of gas, and I’ve got to do that twice a day for mom and dad’s six generators.”
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” I shriek. “Stop doing that.”
“I can’t,” he says, “I think I’ve become addicted to it.”
“Oh can’t you just be like everyone else in the family and get addicted to booze or drugs or sex or something?” I laugh.
The phone clicks in and it’s my other brother, Frank, in Nashville.
“It’s Frank,” I say, “I’d better talk to him.”
“What’s going on down there?” Frank asks
“Nothing,” I say, “not a damned thing. We don’t have electricity but everyone is fine save this giant snowball of narcissism we’ve all gotten ourselves rolled up into. What’s going on in Nashville?” I ask.
“We don’t have any gas.” He says.
“What do you mean, you don’t have any gas?”
“I mean we’ve got no gas. Some pipeline going to Nashville busted during the hurricane and we are out of gas. People are hoarding it like idiots.”
“That’s weird,” I say, “We’ve got gas here but we can’t get any because we’ve got no electricity to make the pumps run. And now it’s like the hurricane has blown all the way to Nashville.” I pause for a moment. “Is Anderson Cooper up there?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” he says, “Why?”
“Well, I’m trying to track him down and that’s hard to do without CNN. I was just thinking since he wasn’t in Texas he might be in Tennessee. He’s always showing up in the middle of natural disasters.”
“Well, maybe he’s switched from natural disasters to economic disasters. He’s probably in New York or Washington reporting on the economy.”
“What’s going on with the economy?”
“It’s going to hell. The stock market’s in the crapper.”
“Shit, I shouldn’t have asked. Some of this not knowing anything isn’t so bad.”
“Did you know Anderson Cooper’s mom was Gloria Vanderbilt?” Frank asks.
“Yeah. Did you know his brother committed suicide?
“Yeah. I guess life sucks for everybody at some point or another.”
And as is such, the citywide glee set on by the cool front will not last long, as the heat will come back in a few days, and people will begin to realize that the rumors of electricity being returned in two days are just that – rumors. There will be no information on the radio about when anyone’s electricity will be turned on. KTRH will state bluntly again and again that this information will not be given out. So basically you will know when your electricity is going to come on when it comes on. And just because the entire south side of your street has electricity today, doesn’t mean the north side of your street, where you happen to live, will return to life any time soon. But those of us who have survived the hurricane, will survive the next few weeks and go back to our lives as if the thing never happened.
In the meantime, I park in the underground basement of my apartment building. The generator down here is about as loud as a drag race. I walk through the basement. Enrique, who has worked in the building for 15 years, greets me at the door with a big smile and a hug. He and the other 20 employees in this building have been working with no A/C for the last four days. They faithfully wear their uniforms, including ties, which make them sweat copious bullets. Many of them have damaged homes of their own to deal with.
“We’ve missed you around here,” he says.
“You’re too sweet,” I say.
I walk into my apartment for the first time in a week. It’s a sweatbox, having missed the cool front with all the doors shut. But it is completely unscathed by the storm. I love my little space in the world. I am so grateful for it right now.
I do an hour and a half of yoga in my hot apartment and sweat enough fluids to support the next hurricane. I take a cold bath and scrub my hair like it’s never been washed before. I put on a fresh t-shirt and some of my favorite granny panties, and then lie down across my bed. I think of the people I love, how much I love them, and how much they can piss me off sometimes. I chuckle and then slumber.
Dad in his wheelchair refusing miracles, Mom in her nightgown raging at the storm within her, Robert standing vigilant in his house of cats, Mike marching to his “I’ll conquer anything,” mantra, me duking it out with my vacillating quest for Buddhism, and the whole rest of the human race with each of our unique and divine quirks, are all the children of Mother Nature. She rages and then rests. We, ever faithfully, however futilely, cling to her fickle apron strings.