(The following is an early story, written before Hurricane Katrina.)
“Hello! We’re clo– Oh. . .Mother, what are you–“
His mother’s voice sounded hysterical. “Harold! Winds are being clocked at a hundred forty, did you hear? Buildings in New Orleans are nothing but rubble. Are you crazy, son? Is any of that worth your life?”
Harold peered through a crack in the front boarding. Yes, already the trees were swaying. Somewhere on the horizon over there the coast of Louisiana was being inundated by blinding rain with a high moaning of protesting infrastructure. Most of the residents this far inland had gone to see relatives for the first time in years, it was true–maybe to wait and see whether they had any reason to go home again. But then, it wasn’t exactly the Second Coming, either. And none of the plagues his mother had preached to him about were on the horizon. Yet. “You just don’t understand, mother, and you never did,” he confessed softly. “It’s my livelihood.”
Mother was still Mother. “It’s not worth it, Harold! You hear? You’ve got a car, don’t you? Get out of there while you still can!”
“But father wouldn’t have run.”
“Your father, he’s. . .”
“He’s what, mother?”
Harold glanced at the grandfather clock, its rhythmic tick as distinct and soothing as ever. He remembered his father tending its workings with a loving hand, too, as he watched in fascination from that shiny linoleum floor of long ago.
“Well, he’s dead, for one thing.” Harold suppressed a chuckle as he fingered his gun in the silence. “There’s nothing to worry about here.”
Except Mother wasn’t buying it. “Haven’t you seen the pictures from Miami? Do you know what’s happened there? It’s God’s judgment, and you. . .you don’t even go to church anymore!”
“Ohhhhh now, Mother, I–“
But then he was talking to a dial tone.
* * *
Twenty years, thought Harold Fisher. Twenty years of cutting corners, making book adjustments. If he listened to mother now, he’d probably lose it all to some opportunist who’d decided to stay for the pickings instead of watching a motel TV somewhere upstate. Some punk with a friend named Bubba.
His pudgy fingers found the external light switch. Though the slats of his makeshift boarding the flood lamps outside now hung blazing like phosphorescent flares over a battlefield. After double-checking the building’s exterior, he stared at his raincoat on the counter, noting how water beaded along the collar like sweat. A light drizzle outside. That was all. It was nothing. Several tiny raindrops lost their symmetry as he watched and ran together toward the sleeve in perfect unison to the slow and ponderous ticking which filled the store.
Twenty years? Seemed more like a lifetime, catering to finicky customers. Even his wife got numbered among them, always complaining that the only restaurants they went to were family steak houses. Yet so what that they didn’t have a family? At the salad bars you could get all you wanted. Why pay a fortune just to nibble on nouveau cuisine while waiters circled like reef sharks? You’d just be hungry when you left. And besides, she knew that times were tough for his jewelry business. In such times you couldn’t even depend on people writing a good check, much less paying their accounts on time.
A sudden chime startled him. On impulse he lifted his arm. The cool black barrel of his new .38 revolver now pointed toward the door. But it was only the antique grandfather clock which had been in the Fisher family for a Century. The one thing he could depend on. Because of its accuracy, he never wore a watch–neither Rolex nor Timex–and often found himself instructing customers to set whatever watches they purchased to its time.
Nine o’clock now. Only three hours left.
Three hours wasn’t much, was it? Of course he could blame the oversight on his wife’s evacuation nagging. All hysterical over what to bring, never mind what might happen to what was left behind. Still, he hadn’t let her lure him into making another error, with all her fussing. And so now with six hours between policies, he only had three hours left to endure. Three hours with no business insurance. What was that?
Maybe he was being paranoid about it, like she claimed. Granted, the jewelry store had only been looted once before, back during a ‘94 power failure. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice in the same place. But then he remembered those images on TV. Thousands of homeless people standing beside their ruined homes in Florida, with shattered glass everywhere. Dozens of handcuffed young men had stayed behind for a little looting action too, as others were foolhardy enough to surf the abnormally high swells. What if luck was running out of his hourglass? On Tuesday hadn’t the bottom fallen out of Associated Industries, his old and respected investment stock? On Wednesday hadn’t his broker and former friend filed suit for back commissions? Thursday brought the grand opening of Suffolk Cajun Jewelers just down the street, with Gil Nivens–his employee of eight years–quitting to work there. And today? Well, today was Friday.
He settled his bulk back into a sturdy Chippendale to try and relax.
Three hours. That wasn’t much time. Surely the full brunt of it would be over Baton Rouge by then. And didn’t land act as a buffer to the storm? By the time it reached him, it might be down to a hundred miles an hour.
A hundred. God, what did that feel like?
He sat listening to the approaching roar, like a distant lawn mower in the summer dusk. After twenty minutes of waiting, a shadow suddenly glided beneath the flood lamps outside. He watched it circle past the slats of boarding on the front windows. He gripped his gun tightly.
“Harold Fisher–you’re in there, aren’t you?”
He recognized the voice as his brother’s redneck friend Jake. His black sheep brother, whose only job had been hustling pool and drinking Red Dog beer.
“Open up!” Jake demanded. “Freddy sent me to get you. He got a call from your mother and she’s worried about you.”
“Yeah, right. Well, you can forget about that!”
“Hey–no way.” The door rattled. “You hear me, Fisher? It’s dangerous!”
Gunfire staccatoed the silence. Harold lowered his .38 as the shadow fled. For ten minutes after, tiny flakes of artificial ceiling fell into his hair. Then he settled back again, and closed his ears to the flapping sound of a loose shutter on Hank Barclay’s combination deli and ice cream store next door.
Not much later, he closed his eyes too.
* * *
At 10:40 an explosion woke him. Or something like an explosion. Maybe it’s Hank’s ice cream parlor, and Jake likes pistachio, he thought gleefully. A flash of headlights through the slats swept over the glass counter where he stared past his own wide reflection at the gold rings within. He leaned toward his peephole. As a long shape rounded the back of the store he heard that rattling sound his wife had been nagging about. It was their station wagon, backfiring.
Unbelievable. She’d come back, across a hundred miles of farmland and sugar cane fields. Back from her nice clean motel room upstate, taking back roads because the major roads were probably all blocked by now.
When the door was banged he cut off the alarm. Then he swung it open.
“I’ve come to get you,” his wife announced, nudging past him with a Styrofoam cup. “You’re totally insane staying here.”
Harold shook his head incredulously, closing and bolting the door. “Are you nuts?”
“Not me,” she replied. “You’re the one who’s nuts. Nuttier than Aunt Aggie’s fruitcake.”
When he turned around to her, she handed him the cup. “This is for you,” she said.
He took off the lid, and then stared down at it. incomprehensibly. “But. . .it’s just water,” he said.
“That’s right, just water. . .and out there it’s just wind. That’s all it is.”
“You didn’t have to–” He stopped as he looked up.
In her hand now was a gun. He recognized it as his old Smith &Wesson .32, the same one he kept under his side of the bed in case of. . . burglary.
“You had your chances, Harry,” she said. “Don’t look surprised. It’s been a long time coming, this.”
“This?” He chuckled giddily at the joke. “This what?”
“Started right after we got married in college. When you decided to work in this dump instead of going to medical school.”
“What. . .do you mean?”
“I mean we’ve had a stormy marriage ever since, and I’m sick of it. I mean I’m sick of all the yelling and bickering, and this is the only way out of it. The only way to make up for it.”
“Make up? ”
“This business is dead, and since it killed my chances at happiness, maybe it’s time it. . .”
Her voice trailed off. Behind him a board had suddenly rattled. He turned at the scraping sound and saw a crack appear in the plate glass, running lengthwise from top to bottom. Several other boards were rattling too, loosened by wind.
“But that’s impossible,” he said. “I. . .”
“Goodbye, Harry. I’m sorry it had to be this way.”
He turned and smiled in disbelief as his wife slowly pulled the trigger. Then a very real explosion burst at him with the shock of a lucky punch in the darkness. Smoke curled from the barrel.
Hurricane Judy had struck at last.
Dropping to his knees, Harold glanced down in surprise at the spreading red stain in his left side, below his heart. He fell back in amazement as Judy stepped over him and began talking to herself. It was something like a mental checklist. He’d heard her do it many times in the grocery store or the shopping mall. As if he weren’t really there. As if he were dead already.
Sociopath. The word drifted up in his mind, and dimly he recalled the casual way she had often reacted to accidents on the news, and to daily reports of drive-by shootings in New Orleans. Perhaps she now needed to assure herself that because the insurance policies weren’t in effect, she’d be a double martyr: That a perfect crime had been committed, with only Mother Nature as witness. And that everyone would feel sorry for her, too.
Harold tried to speak, but couldn’t. While looking up at her talking to herself, the darkness enveloped him.
* * *
When he woke the gun in his hand had mysteriously changed from a .38 into a .32. Shattered glass lay around him, and the wind was a living thing among the shards. A howling, hissing thing. His chest felt crushed. The hugeness of it, layered in fat like a barrier, had somehow granted him time. But it was with great pain that he began to crawl over what was left of the empty glass cases toward the phone.
Yet suddenly he stopped, his gaze riveted on the clock.
11:54. Six minutes to midnight. Six more minutes until an insurance claim could be honored. Six minutes and those nice three-piece suited boys would be forced to come out and access the loss. And if he could just hold out until the end of the twelfth stroke of the clock? If he could bear the pain long enough to make bloody sure?
He felt his chest, the beating there weak and sluggish, the one fear balanced delicately against the other. Easy, he told himself. You’ve survived a ruptured Appendix. You can survive this.
He hunkered down as the wet wind whipped his hair, feeling the numbness creeping along the side of his face. Could he hold on?
“The bitch,” he whispered. “I knew it. . .knew it all along.” I’ll show her, though!
His feet were numb now. His toes, his legs: as good as gone. Even his fingers wouldn’t close all the way. How could he or anyone drive, especially through that howling storm? If he waited too much longer. . .
Finally, the clock began to chime. Yes! He might make it. Yes! He’d see her in jail. See her in prison! All he had to do was wait a little while longer and dial the police. A few more minutes, that would do it. It was nothing. He could dial them, and. . . But what if there were no police left? What if, after evacuating the others, the police had evacuated themselves? The wind, it had to be a hundred miles an hour out there. Had to be.
He assessed the telephone. It was not the pushbutton kind, but the heavy black rotary type. Could he dial? He must. He had to.
The chimes had reached four now. He counted them as he tried to sit up and discovered he couldn’t.
Five. . .six. . .
He waited for the seventh chime, staring up from the floor, but it never came. The pendulum, like a beating metal heart, swung one last time in its mahogany cabinet. And then it stopped. The old grandfather clock, after one hundred years of faithful service, was finally dead. -0-
(For more stories, click here.)
(The following is an early story, written before Hurricane Katrina.)