MURIEL DECIDED TO FILLthe bathtubs just in case. She got the water running in the master bath first, then crossed the landing to the tub her sons, Angus and Percy, had shared when they were boys. Her daughter, Doodle, had had her own bathroom. The privilege of privacy for Muriel’s only girl. Her oldest, Doodle, and her youngest, Angus, were married, had children of their own, lived right next door, in fact, on plots of land she’d deeded them as wedding presents. Her middle child, Percy, was without romantic prospects as far as she knew, without prospects of any kind that she could tell, was still doing whatever he’d been doing these past few months at Horseshoe Bend. She’d had a lot drawn up for him as well and would be pleased to hand it over the minute he decided that this was the life he wanted for himself.
When all the taps were running and all the drains were plugged, Muriel circled back to where she’d started and began to shut off the taps again. She didn’t really think she’d need so much water but this hurricane was coming, and it was important to keep busy. Idleness in an empty house made way for sadness. After the bathtubs, she would invent another task to occupy her time, and then her daughter and her granddaughters would arrive, and eventually the storm would make its entrance and another day would be done. It was always with her now, that sadness, like one of those rare orchids you saw clinging to jungle branches on TV, always blooming in her at unexpected moments, and even on the move, scuffing down the hall toward Doodle’s room, the thought of evading it called it into being. Sadness. The word itself didn’t do the feeling justice. What she felt was a more complicated alchemy of emotion, equal parts grief and loneliness and longing, with measures of resentment and self-pity drizzled in. She had to lean against the wall a minute. Breathe. Her best defense against the feeling was to let herself fret over her children, to become more mother than wife. Than widow. So she worried about the fact that somehow Doodle had never learned to look after herself and that Angus would never live up to his father and that Percy would never, no matter how long she waited, no matter how many prayers she offered up, choose the life she wanted for him, the only life that would make him happy, whether he realized it or not. Exactly the sort of concerns she generally struggled to keep at bay but the only ones substantial enough to beat back the loss of her husband. And after a while, the feeling passed, a dark flower closing its petals and tucking itself away.
When the grandfather clock chimed at the bottom of the stairs, Muriel remembered that the taps were still running in her daughter’s room. How long had she been standing there? She balled her fists and bit her tongue. She pictured water brimming over the tub, pooling on the tile. She hated acting like a sad old woman. But she was being dramatic. The storm was still a long way off and it would be simple enough to clean the mess and the cleaning would provide one more task to fill her time. That’s what she was thinking as she rounded into Doodle’s bathroom and the sole of her sandal skidded like a skipped rock across the skin of water on the floor. Her body hung suspended for a moment, neither rising nor falling, as if whatever would happen next remained in doubt, before gravity took note of her and dragged her down.
• • •
THE OFFICE STILL SMELLEDlike his father despite the fact that the old furniture had been carted out and replaced months ago, the carpet pulled, the blinds removed, windows left bare to let more light into the room. Angus worried sometimes that his imagination was playing tricks but he would have sworn detected his father’s presence even now. Cigarettes and aftershave. The smell itself didn’t really bother him. There was a peppery mustiness to it that reminded him of the woods. What bothered Angus was feeling like his father was always looking over his shoulder.
He dialed his wife’s cell and stood at the bank of windows behind the desk, gazing out over the shipyard while he listened to the ringing. Here morning light glinted on the cyclone fence. Here on the tin roof of a warehouse. There it made darting shadows of passing birds. Across the dusty yard, berthed on the moss-green river, loomed the Kagero, built for a commercial fishing outfit in Yokohama, big enough and solid enough that she looked undisturbed by the imminence of weather. Men hustled around on deck, the only sign of life except for Angus. They had other boats on hand, half-complete or in dry dock for repairs, but there was nothing to be done about them now. The Kagero wasn’t finished, not quite, but she was seaworthy, which gave him options, and there was a better than average chance that she’d suffer more damage in port than on the open water. Hurricane Raphael had seemed so hesitant as it blew into the Gulf, drifting toward Mexico for half a day before veering up toward Louisiana like it couldn’t make up its mind. All the weather service tracking models had turned out wrong. At present, it looked like the eye of the storm would pass directly over Mobile Bay, but most of the forecasters had settled on what amounted to a shrug.
Voice mail. Nora always left her ringer off since the baby. Better this way, he thought. It wouldn’t be right to tell Nora over the phone.
When Angus was thirteen years old, his father had put him to work at the shipyard after school. Family tradition. Learn the company from the bottom up. He’d started in the warehouse, doing inventory, cleaning and maintaining equipment. Nothing dangerous, as insisted on by his mother. Mostly what he remembered was miles and miles of burning line, green and orange hoses that carried oxygen and acetylene to the welding torches. It was his job to sink each hose in a tub of water and run air through it. If it made bubbles, there was a leak, which he’d repair with rubber tape. Though the task was monotonous, Angus recognized the mortal responsibility of his assignment. If he allowed a damaged hose back into the yard, if a spark from one of the torches came into contact with a leak, the world could become suddenly, irrevocably aflame. He’d moved out of the warehouse when he was old enough to drive himself to work. Welding, shipfitting. Percy had already done his time at the yard and headed off to college and was on his way toward leaving this life behind. But Angus had known somehow, even young, even as a thirteen-year-old with his arms sunk elbow-deep in a tub of water, that this was the path his life would take, and that knowledge felt less like pressure than fate. There was a kind of comfort in its inescapabilty. He would never have to choose. His responsibilities had become more complex, of course, especially since his father’s death, but no more grave to Angus than burning lines and rubber tape.
The Kagero was fueled. Fixed for crew. He had been trying to imagine the boat as part of a construct in one of the word problems he’d loved in math class as kid. Two trains approaching at such-and-such a speed from such-and-such a distance. Word problems transformed the abstraction of arithmetic into something more concrete, something a boy who was good with numbers anyway could really get his head around. In this case, he had a hurricane, roughly 300 miles wide and 230 miles from shore and twisting forward at 13 knots. Approaching from the opposite direction, at 25 knots full bore, would be his boat, his at least until he handed her over to the Japanese. If his math was right, they still had time to get the Kagero to the western edge of the storm, get the wind behind them, use the hurricane’s own force to flee her instead of battling her head-on.
He needed to get home. Tell Nora. He didn’t have much time to spare. He dropped the phone into his pocket and hurried out into the hall, security lights burning in the stairwell as he descended, his footsteps echoing him past the receptionist’s station in the lobby, her desk all squared away as if no hurricane was coming and she would be reporting for work as usual any minute. The full brightness of the sun washed over him when he stepped outside, and he waited a moment for his vision to adjust, distant shouts wafting his way from the Kagero. As he turned to leave, a breeze kicked up, raising miniature whirlwinds in the dust, and Angus thought he heard a voice calling his name. The breeze passed, the dust settled. Angus listened but the voice did not call out a second time.
• • •
THE FIRST THING MURIEL NOTICEDwhen she came to was a faint, throbbing pain behind her ear. She must have hit her head on the sink when she went down, blacked out. The second thing she noticed was that she was wet, soaking really, from hair to heels. She could hear the water still running in the tub. Mostly what she felt, beyond the pain and its accompanying dizziness, was acute humiliation. She moved her arms a little, felt the water swirl. Maybe half an inch deep. Cold. It occurred to her that if she could move her arms, she could likely stand. So she pushed up on her elbows, rested like that, breathing, letting the lightheadedness wash over her until she was steady enough to reach for the lip of the sink and slide her hips back and pull herself into a sitting position, water rushing down her spine from her wet hair, her blouse, water sloshing against the walls. She rested again, let the dizziness rise and fall. One of her sandals was floating behind the commode. The other was still in place on her left foot. She toed that one off as well and gradually, both hands gripping the sink, pulled up to her feet, her hips, her back, her knees and elbows, all of her shaky and in pain. But she was standing now. That was something. There was a phone on her daughter’s nightstand. Maybe ten paces away. All she had to do was get there and she’d figure out who to call. She didn’t want to bother with an ambulance. How would it look to let herself be seen by strangers in such a state? She braced herself first on the doorframe, then the bureau, lunged the last few steps, letting her momentum carry her to the bed, but when she’d swung her legs up and propped her back against the headboard, she found not a single phone number anywhere in her memory, not the shipyard, not her daughter or her sons, not her friends, not even her own home.
For what felt like a long time, she lay there on Doodle’s bed awash in muted panic. The panic was not a response to pain, which was bearable, as long as she kept still, but to this troubling emptiness of mind. Muriel had always prided herself on being a resourceful woman. She understood that she needed to do something about her situation but hadn’t the slightest idea what that something should be. She closed her eyes and linked her fingers in her lap and concentrated on a memory more rote even than phone numbers, something she could remember without having to use her memory much at all. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. She repeated the prayer and repeated it again, silently, running the words over in her head without considering what they meant or why she had chosen this prayer in particular, and gradually, like a kind of ether taking effect, the reason it was so important to do something in the first place wavered and blurred, and Muriel’s panic began to fade. She combed her fingers through her hair, patted it into place, let her gaze wander the room. Doodle’s silver brush set on the bureau, her snow globe collection on a shelf. On a child-sized rocking chair in the corner sat a stuffed rabbit with a dozen strands of Mardi Gras beads wrapped around its neck and a pair of Muriel’s old sunglasses perched on its brow. She could hear the faucet in the bathroom. There must have been a reason she’d turned it on. Most likely for Doodle’s bath. That child was so easily distracted. She was probably puttering right now in Muriel’s closet or at her vanity or in her jewelry box. She drew a breath to call her daughter’s name, sighed it out, let her eyes drift shut. Her husband would be home soon, and she was so tired all of a sudden. She’d just rest here a minute, not too long, then she would open her eyes and life would begin again.
• • •
NORA HEARD THE BACK DOOR OPEN,Angus’s keys clattering on the counter, water running in the kitchen sink. She figured he was rinsing dirty dishes before stowing them in the washer. A minute later, he poked his head into the den. With Murphy at her breast it was hard to notice much else about the world, but now that his father was here, she counted nine dirty diapers, seven wads of tissue, six half-empty glasses, three banana peels, and two baskets of unfolded laundry, all of it brought into high relief by the spotlight of her husband’s gaze. These last few days, he’d been at the office more than he’d been home. She watched him wince at the mess, recover. He crossed the room and kissed both her and the baby on their respective brows.
“Rough morning?” he said, and though his tone was solicitous, Nora couldn’t help hearing a backhanded insult in the words, as if the state of the room, the house, was evidence of her shortcomings.
“Fine,” she said.
He brushed the hair back from her eyes.
“You stay put. I’ll pick up.”
Like she’d been about to drop the baby and spring to her feet. He hustled into the kitchen bearing diapers and banana peels, made another trip for the glasses and the tissues, then whisked back through in the other direction. “He smiled today,” she said, but Angus didn’t answer. She could hear him tidying in the bedroom, making the bed. When he returned, he’d changed into an old fishing shirt and worn-out jeans. Running shoes. He sat cross-legged on the floor and started folding laundry, his eyes on the TV. Satellite photos. Hurricane Raphael as seen from outer space.
“He smiled,” she said again.
Angus beamed, but even in that moment, she could tell he was distracted.
“A real smile,” she said. “I smiled at him, and he smiled back.”
“I’m sorry I missed it,” he said.
She dipped her chin to look at Murphy, eyes shut tight, mouth working, his fist balled against his cheek. What Angus couldn’t understand was how he consumed her, not just her time but her consciousness. She didn’t mind the mess. She hardly noticed. Angus was under the impression this was a rehashing of an argument they’d had when they got married. Nora refused to hire help because she wasn’t the sort of woman who had a maid. Who cared if the house wasn’t perfect all the time? And it was true. She did feel that way. But this was something else. There was a kind of power in her single-mindedness, purpose. Angus never second-guessed her, but he let her know he felt left out, sighing and pouting around the house, and she couldn’t altogether blame him. She had to remind herself sometimes to let him hold the baby, to listen when he spoke. Like now—his mouth was moving but it was like hearing him through a pane of glass.
“I said Raphael looks like the real thing.”
She watched Angus shake out a pillowcase wrinkled from being left so long in the basket. It was clear that something was on his mind, but it was too hard to puzzle through. He could just come out with it if he wanted her to know. He folded the pillowcase and set it on a stack of bedding.
“They’re saying 120-mile-per-hour winds.”
“It reminds me of a stain,” she said.
He looked at her, eyebrows bunched up in a question.
“The satellite stuff.” She tipped her chin at the TV. “The pictures. They look like stains.”
“There’s something at the yard,” he said.
He went on, but Murphy pulled loose of her nipple while Angus spoke, and it was about time to switch breasts anyway, so her attention was focused on making sure he had a proper latch. Her husband’s voice was in the air but not something she was fully conscious of, like the white noise machine next to Murphy’s bassinet. He was saying something about going back to work, a boat that needed his attention, and even as his words washed over her, half-absorbed, she knew she should be angry. He was talking about leaving her alone with their child during a hurricane. But she wasn’t angry. In a strange way, she felt relieved.
“What we’ll do,” he said, “is chart a course around the storm then come back after it’s moved inland. I want you to go over to Momma’s house. Or Doodle’s. I’m not sure where they’ll be.”
“Can’t somebody else take care of this?”
He stared at her a second, then went out into the foyer, rattled hangers in the closet there, returned wearing a raincoat. His hands were in his pockets.
“I need to do this myself,” he said.
Read the rest of this novella in Vol 50.1&2
MICHAEL KNIGHT is the author of two novels, Divining Rod and The Typist; two collections of short fiction, Dogfight and Other Stories and Goodnight, Nobody; and a collection of novellas, The Holiday Season. His fiction has appeared in publications such as Esquire, The New Yorker, and Oxford American. Recently his novel The Typist was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s summer reading list and as the Oprah Winfrey Book of the Week. He teaches creative writing at the University of Tennessee.