The storm hit land in North Carolina on Thursday afternoon and traveled in a northwesterly direction. We in the Washington, DC area did not bear its brunt. Damage was less than expected. Winds peaked at sixty-one miles per hour. Scarcely four inches of rain. Trees fell in our neighborhood. A block in either direction, they fell on houses. When they fell, the sound was like a rifle shot—short, sharp, not at all like the slow crunch I had imagined. But within my house, though the power went out, we were unscathed. Alison, my wife, and I lit candles and pointed flashlights at each other. We told our boys, Stephen (4) and Sebastian (2), that it was “hurricane night” and they ran throughout the dark house chanting the phrase as if it were in incantation that would unleash great fun.
“When’s it going to end?” Alison asked.
We were on the reproduction Hepplewhite couch, listening to the wind howl, the sirens in the distance, the unending footsteps of the boys running up and down the stairs.
Hours later, after the boys went to bed, Alison and I went outside. Branches from the oaks lay on the deck. Plenty of leaves, too. The constant rush of wind reminded me of an ocean’s surf. We held each other. She told me that, earlier, while I was at my office, my father called and spoke to her.
“He told me that both he and your mother really loved me. They were happy to know me,” Alison said. For years, she had wondered exactly what my parents thought of her. Rain sprayed on our faces. “It was like your parents didn’t expect to see me again.”
I took a walk around the neighborhood by myself at midnight, when initial forecasts predicted that the storm would be fiercest. The winds were constant and loud but the rain had stopped. Power lines swung above me. The wind made them twang like loose guitar strings. Leaves and twigs fell. An asphalt roofing shingle, blown from one of the brick colonials across the street, slapped against my leg. I thought of Hemingway’s short story, “The Three-Day Blow,” and how I expected things to be fundamentally different after the storm. I haven’t read that story in years but it’s funny how these things stick with you.
Storm damage caused the federal government to remain shut the next day, a Friday. Unsurprisingly, the boys’ preschool was also closed for the day. Though the skies were blue and clear, the Potomac River had flooded. Five feet of water covered the Southwest Freeway. Downed trees closed the George Washington Parkway. Luckily, for me, the consulting firm at which I worked was only a five minute drive from my house. Precious few vehicles were on the road and as I drove the side streets out of my neighborhood, I surveyed surrounding houses for damage. Gutters were torn from the eaves of one of the houses, flowerboxes ripped from the white clapboards of another. A fallen maple limb shattered a brick chimney, but we were not a ravaged community. Traffic lights functioned properly. Nothing stood in my path. The parking garage was nearly empty, but my office building was open and operating thanks to emergency power generators.
The phone rang as soon as I stepped into my office. I picked up the receiver and heard a woman’s voice, her words thick and slurry. “What time is it? The power’s out.”
I had no idea who was calling. “It’s ten to nine. Can I help you?”
“It’s Rachel,” the woman said. She sounded dazed, in a fog. Though she identified herself, it took a moment to connect the voice with that of my secretary. My guess was that, watching the storm last night, she imbibed a few too many glasses of wine. At twenty-four, she didn’t have a husband or children but she earned a decent salary and her yearly raises kept pace with the economy. Without the encumbrances of a spouse and kids, she had an easy, carefree life. Every summer, she and her friends rented a beach house on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Earlier in the year she bought a convertible, gold, which she has yet to crash. “I guess I’ll be late today.”
At noon, I drove home to grab a sandwich and mail out a couple bills. My habit was to pay bills at least ten days before they were due, but in the run-up to the storm, rushing off to grocery stores to stockpile milk, non-perishables, and toilet paper, I had become distracted. Bills I should have mailed the previous day, if not the day before that, remained upstairs in my desk drawer.
Outside the house, I heard laughter from within, and when I opened the door, I found the boys still in pajamas, flipping pages of a photo album we normally kept locked in a drawer. Torn pictures of my oldest son’s baptism and the button-eyed snowman we built together the previous winter lay on the floor. Alison was on the phone. The windows were open. Outside, the neighbors took a chainsaw to one of the thick fallen maple branches on their front lawn. Stephen, our four-year old, pulled a photograph from its plastic album sleeve.
“Guys. What the hell is going on here?” I asked.
Alison put down the phone. My voice must have been loud, or louder than I wanted, and her countenance became rigid, warier. She tightened the sash of her fleece bathrobe. “I would have cleaned up if I knew you were coming.”
“That is not the point,” I said, yelling.
“What is the point?” Alison said. Unlike me, she has the remarkable ability to remain calm during arguments. “Tell me what’s your point this time. Every time you come barging home at lunch you have some point to make.”
I had been absent from the house for little more than three hours but in that time it seemed, to me at least, that Alison had let down her guard. While the rest of the region recovered from the storm, Alison and the kids hadn’t even changed into their day clothes yet. Books, DVDs, newspapers, Lego blocks, and stuffed animals were scattered over the hardwood floors. Photographs we might never be able to replace were torn, damaged; she had done nothing to safeguard them. Peering into the kitchen, I saw the plates, cereal bowls, juice cups and teaspoons, all dirty, spread out over the counters. I started to point out her errors. I couldn’t control myself. We had talked over these things before, countless times.
The boys started to cry. Stephen dropped the photo album, bending its pages.
“What exactly do you want? What constant vigilance do you demand of us?” Alison asked. Both boys ran to her. She picked up Sebastian and soothed him against her chest. “What exactly is your point?”
A breeze touched my face through the open window. Something seemed to be happening, something that had the potential to undermine household integrity. The neighbor shut off his chainsaw and I heard cardinals chirp from their nest in the rhododendrons outside our window. I wondered if it was possible they had been chirping all along while the chainsaw ripped through what remained of the branch.
“So what is your point?”
“I’ve got to write checks,” I said.
Stephen held one of the pictures he had ripped. He touched the photo’s torn edge. The room was bright with the glaze of natural sunlight. He rubbed his eyes. “Daddy? It’s hurricane night, isn’t it?”
I went up into my study and wrote checks to cover the electricity and water bills. I stuck them in the mailbox. Rachel still hadn’t shown up at the office and as I stepped back into my car, it occurred to me she was liable to take the whole day off. Some people did that—take a whole day off—but it ran against everything I believed in. A cloud of blue smoke coughed out of the neighbor’s chainsaw as he revved it up again and, through the open window, Stephen waved goodbye to me. He was the forgiving one of the two boys, the one most likely to rush back into my arms no matter how loud I screamed. The hurricane had not entirely devastated our neighborhood. Later that night, whenever I came home from the office, I wanted to take him on a stroll with me and show him the damage.