by Slo Mo
For every thing there is a season, and I'm afraid here at Chez Dog it's the season for big, nasty tropical weather systems... a.k.a. hurricanes.
Unlike other forms of natural disaster - tornadoes, say, or earthquakes - a hurricane isn't some anonymous bully that sneaks up on your doorstep one day and rings your bell and then knocks you flat on your ass, sissy-style, like a big sucker punch from God. Hurricanes are different. Hurricanes are baaaaad. Hurricanes are so bad, they announce themselves two days in advance. And, just like an A-list celebrity, they come with lots of p.r. buzz - detailed radar charts and mandatory evacuation notices and extended emergency shopping hours and all kinds of hoopla. They even come with names.
The latest one was called Gordon.
I had just returned home (escaped would be a better word) from my little misadventure in Nirvana® and was relaxing on the sofa with Dog, watching an embarrassingly bad football game while mowing down some astonishingly good ice cream, when, lo and behold, the National Hurricane Center interrupted the game to announce they'd put the gulf side of Florida on official hurricane warning and all coastal residents should either hunker down or get lost while the getting was still good. I patted Dog's head reassuringly. "No problem, fella. That's not us."
Two seconds later, another bulletin came through: residents of the lower Atlantic coast should prepare for some nasty crap called "feeder bands" to wing off Gordon's exterior, like paint being flung from a brush, and deposit all kinds of tropical mayhem on our neighborhood, including twisters. And flash floods. And trees flying through the air. And power outages.
I soon learned that when it comes to hurricane weather, there are two kinds of Floridians: those who swagger around and laugh at everyone else's last-minute preparations while bragging about how they're not scared by the big bad wolf, and those who stampede to the nearest super-store and stock up on enough survival gear to make a Texan militant proud.
Dog and I decided to err on the side of sanity. I strapped him into his fake Canine-Lieutenant-In-Training vest, grabbed the emergency checklist that I'd found in a kitchen drawer, and headed to the shopping plaza.
We met up with Mr. B. A. Bollock in the driveway, who smirkingly inquired if we were running out for supplies. I said we were, and (in an unprecedented moment of neighborly love) asked if there was anything I could get for him. He smirked some more. "Ohhhhh, panicking are we? Running scared from some itsy-bitsy feeder bands, are we? Of course, I didn't even put up my storm shutters when Hurricane Andrew-- "
The supermarket was full, but everything seemed calm and orderly. Employees were stacking bottled water and batteries at the front, and there were helpful little signs all over the store pointing to things like nonperishables and flashlights and candles. Shoppers were milling around in a friendly mood, assisting each other with items that were out of reach and agreeing to split larger packages amongst themselves. That is, until Dog walked in wearing his bright orange vest and someone mistook him for a search dog from the National Guard. "Oh my god, everybody! Look! The disaster units are here! THIS IS THE BIG ONE!"
Suddenly, mayhem. Flying tuna cans and duelling shopping carts and babies crying and fistfights in aisle three. Ohhhhh, the humanity...
We slunk back out to the parking lot so I could rethink my strategy. I'd almost resolved to ditch the whole hurricane concept and just drive us somewhere safe, like Chicago, when I noticed Dog had aimed his slow, steady gaze across the street. The gourmet liquor store. Eureka!
We were the only customers. The woman behind the counter frowned at Dog and said, "Can I help you?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "Do you have anything on this emergency list?"
Half an hour and a couple of hundred dollars later, we had our storm supplies: a bottle of cognac, three liters of Chilean merlot and a case of Perrier (adequate drinking supplies); a box of fine Belgian truffles, a jar of jumbo "drunken" olives, preserved salmon in a tin and some homemade biscuits from Normandy (nonperishable food items); a jumbo roll of all-natural smoked turkey sausage (surplus pet food); a lovely set of hand-dipped beeswax candles from England (non-electrical light source); and a gift box of linen napkins (hand-wipes). Perfecto.
When we finally emerged from the store I saw the sky had taken on an eerie yellow glow and our usual ocean breeze had dropped to nothing. Dog and I loaded up the car and headed home. I began my customary swearing streak when I saw the traffic jam on our intracoastal bridge, but I barely got beyond the first f-word before I stopped in mid-curse. These cars weren't waiting for a green light... they were parked. Then I saw why.
At the far end of the intracoastal waterway, where the yacht clubs and mansions and expensive restaurants give way to the ocean, the clouds had formed dark, towering thunderheads, tall as skyscrapers and alive with brilliant veins of lightning. And in the middle of it all, as if choreographed by the gods themselves, two long, perfect black tendrils had emerged from the clouds and were snaking through the air, like great pillars framing the horizon, as they twisted down to meet the churning water.
Dog and I left the car and joined the crowd at the side of the bridge, sharing their silence, as if some deep, collective memory was calling us all to hush and wait. For a moment that's all there was in the world - thirteen cars and twenty humans and one dog in an orange vest huddled on a bridge, awestruck, while the sky turned itself inside out and the clouds tried to swallow the sea. It was terrible and it was horrifying and it was heartbreakingly beautiful, and we wore the stricken smiles of people who have seen rapture.
Then the storm turned in our direction and a cool, ozone-soaked wind rushed up the intracoastal toward us, scattering the water's surface into a million tiny currents and bending the palm trees in half, and in the next instant we were ordinary Floridians again, jumping in our cars and honking our horns and scrambling to get out of the weather.
In the end, Gordon didn't amount to much, and neither did his feeder bands. The worst our neighborhood sustained was a fallen power line that took out our electricity for most of the night. Still, something about what we'd seen on that bridge stayed with Dog and I as we lit our beeswax emergency candles and had a gourmet emergency picnic on the living room rug. I pictured Mr. Bollock next door, fumbling around in the dark while still congratulating himself on his false bravado, and you know what? I felt sorry for him. It seemed to me he'd missed the whole point. He'd missed the yellow sky and the black clouds and the electric air and the way it feels to be in the presence of something so huge and so strange and so utterly, wonderfully greater than your own small self that you almost forget how to breathe.
And, most of all, he'd missed out on a darn fine Chilean merlot.