FICTION: Waiting by Brooks Rexroat

It came from the South, that first breeze. Monte Verlassen slung his line once more into Lake Huron, far more interested in a peaceful afternoon alone than whether any fish might take the lure.

When the wind picked up again, it came gradually. In 50 years fishing off Hapsequah Island, he’d never encountered substantial wind from due south; he craned his neck toward the mainland shore to see what was the matter. What he saw nearly made him drop his rod into the drink: a bank of black cloud, stretched broad across the skyline so that he couldn’t identify its start or its end. He pulled in his line and jerked the cord to his outboard motor.

When her office turned suddenly dim Mayor Josephine Morgan checked her watch to make sure she hadn’t lost track of time, but it was just seven. She pulled open the blinds; the breadth and darkness of the clouds she saw compelled her to open the windowpane and lean out in a vain attempt to find the storm’s source. A gust of wind smacked her face. She slammed the window, picked up the phone.

“Make sure you keep the weather radio nearby, and keep the girls close in case you need to run downstairs. This looks bad. I’ll be home soon.”

He asked if he should start something for dinner, or if she’d be bringing food. Mayor Morgan sighed.

“Call in an order to Fred’s, and I’ll pick it up on the way, unless we have to evacuate.”

Along Carlesson Bay beach, tourists and day trippers at the first sign of darkness plucked their kids from the water, dried them, herded them into minivans, and made for the car ferry port before lifeguards could figure out what to make of the data on their cell phone weather apps, or the antiquated NOAA weather console housed in a cinder block building beside the snack bar. There was no lightning, no precipitation, no shifts in barometric pressure, no alerts. There was no storm at all, according to the numbers—and yet, all they could see were black clouds. The teenaged lifeguards checked their watches to see how close their shifts were to ending—to see whether they could avoid making a decision. After ten minutes of debate and foot-dragging, Jasmine Phillips had enough: she blasted warning horns to clear the stragglers, local kids enjoying the curiosity of riding out on boogie boards, and then fighting back toward land.

Jasmine drove the park service’s red Jeep twice along the two-mile stretch of empty sand. Convinced no one remained, she cleared her colleagues to leave. By this point, waves were actually whitecapping the wrong way. Jasmine snapped a picture with her phone, then slipped on a weatherproof jacket, pulled up the hood, and followed the others to the parking lot, glad to leave early but disappointed about the short paycheck.

The Donnelly Ferry Company announced that due to high winds, rough water, and low visibility, service would be suspended indefinitely. The shore crew tied the Stena as securely as they could to the dock and went home to wait.

On the island’s interior, Eleanor James hung a handwritten sign in the door of her bed and breakfast, Lookout Point Manor. It offered rooms at the severely reduced rates of twenty dollars a night, a concession to panicked mainlanders who dallied too long in the trinket shops and saltwater taffy stores, the ones who waited too long to look up.

When her first customers arrived, an elderly couple from Toronto, the man leaned on the counter and asked, “What’s the catch?”

“No catch,” Eleanor said. “I just understand how it is to feel stuck.”

The rooms filled within an hour, and after mingling for a while around the fireplace, customers retired to their rooms.

Eleanor stayed indoors, certain that the rain would come at any moment. Instead of her regular evening jog through the neighborhood, she did stomach crunches on her bedroom floor, followed by push-ups and Bulgarian split-squats. She skipped her evening snack to account for calories she couldn’t burn, then executed another set of squats, just for good measure.

Tuesday morning she took an umbrella to the grocery and wore a snug hat that wouldn’t blow off, wide enough to keep her shoulder-length auburn hair dry. It did not rain as she walked seven blocks to the Broad Street Market. It did not rain as she returned with paper bags full of vegetables, chicken breasts, and a couple boxes of Earl Grey teabags and one package of sugar cubes.

As she cooked, Eleanor pressed her forehead six times against her kitchen window, watching her well-lit lawn for pummeling drops that would certainly come. Never before had she been so concerned by rain. After dinner service (during which the guests were kind yet muted, having never intended to be there) she donned her hat to take a cigarette on the porch. After several minutes, she stamped out her cigarette and walked inside to check once more on the guests before changing into nightclothes. She fell asleep while waiting for the soothing tap of raindrops against her shingles.

*

Wednesday evening, with her guests engaged in a checkers tournament, Eleanor put on a rain jacket and took a couple laps around the block, then one sweep down Main Street. She ran barely fast enough to break a sweat, but when she did, each drop that fell from her chin onto her body prompted her to look upward, just in case. A quarter-mile from home, the street lights shut off with no warning, no flicker—just complete and sudden darkness. Risking the hazard of a stumble, she ran it out instead of slowing to a walk. After all, when this overhead mass finally erupted, it might be days before another dry run. When she reached home, she checked her watch and groaned at the slowness with which she’d navigated her course. She toweled off and dialed Mayor Morgan’s home phone.

“Jo, got a minute?”

“Just sat to eat, but I’ve got a second.”

“Thought you should know that the lamps are out on Main.”

“The new ones?”

“Yeah.”

Mayor Morgan made a muffled sound that would have been dammit if her kids weren’t nearby. She breathed in too deep and too close to the phone so that Eleanor cringed and pulled the earpiece away. “I’ll let you get back to your family,” Eleanor said. “Just thought you should know.”

“I’ll check on it in the morning. Let’s get drinks sometime.”

“Sounds good. Talk to you later.”

Eleanor hung up and smiled, knowing that ‘sometime’ was going on two years overdue, but that there were far worse things between friends than hollow drink invitations.

*

After dinner, Mayor Morgan checked the lamps herself. She’d been afraid of this since the storm rolled in: under these clouds, it was just dark enough to keep the lights on but too dim for the solar panels to collect energy. In the morning, she called the manufacturer and asked if the lamps could be manually controlled to at least conserve some function for the deepest parts of the darkness.

“Even if you could, I don’t see why you’d want to,” said the confused salesman. “It’s either light or it’s dark, and the lamps come on when it’s dark.”

“So there’s no manual override?”

“That would’ve just made the things more expensive, and as I recall, you weren’t thrilled about the per-unit price to begin with.”

The mayor thanked him and hung up. She spent a year writing grants for the lamps, which now stood as irritating reminders of perpetual gloom.

She sent a press release to the town’s newspaper, The Anchor, asking that shopkeepers and homeowners who could afford to do so leave porch lights on in order to aid safe foot travel. She urged motorists to use the same sort of care they would on Halloween night or in a school zone—she was particularly proud of that flourish, which she saw as a perfect illustration of the situation’s gravity.

*

Thursday, the breakfast club at Fred’s Diner discussed at great length the climatological challenges facing Hapsequah. Five men, whose rain slickers of varied color and width hung bone dry on brass plated hooks near the door, listened as Monte Verlassen recounted the storm’s approach.

“As that first gust rolled in,” Monte said, with a sweep of the hand, “the sound of it was much like the engine of a great freight train.”

None of the men had heard so much as a peep from the weather, but they were comforted to know that somebody heard something, even if they suspected he hadn’t, actually.

He attempted to mimic the sound but couldn’t manage anything so deep or so terrifying. Instead, he sounded rather like an injured duck. None of the men smirked or laughed as they surely would’ve, had Monte conveyed a story of lesser import.

“It was a sound of sheer power and violence,” he continued. “A sound that felt like—like this weather is not to be messed with.”

“Supernatural, almost?” Mack Eldridge asked.

Monte shrugged a little, like he didn’t want to be responsible for sanctioning God as part of this thing.

By this point, the men had stopped eating, their eggs and bacon and Canadian bacon and patties of sausage left to grow cold on off-white plates. Monte went on with his description and the only sound aside from his voice was the occasional clink of a spoon swirling inside a coffee mug—this storm business was far too heavy to be taken without cream and sugar. Even Fred stopped ever-busy hands to join the group. He leaned on his counter and listened to the one man who viewed the entrance of the clouds.

At one point, Edmond Hrabosky jumped up out of his vinyl booth seat and raced—fast as one can with a synthetic hip—out the front door. He held palms upward in anticipation of the storm’s first rain. The men stared intently, awaiting the result. Edmond bent over with one hand on his back to ease the pain, the other holding his oversized glasses to his face. When he found the moist drop he’d seen fall, he studied it for a second, and then returned to the restaurant, the door chime announcing his re-arrival.

“Seagull,” he said.

Men who would normally have cackled, exchanged sober looks of disappointment.

“A freight train, you say?” Fred asked, urging Monte onward.

“Like a train, that wall of cloud rushed upon me. One minute, I’m changing lures, the next, I’ve got Armageddon itself coming staring me down. I’ll tell, you, can’t nothing good be coming of this.”

“Armageddon, you say? So it is supernatural.”

*

At the Magic Bean, Francis and Maya put up a sign asking folks to bring their own mugs if they could—with the waves still mad and the ferry still shut, there was no way to resupply all the paper cups they’d torn through, selling so many lattes and macchiatos and plain old drip coffee. The continuing dance of twilight to darkness to twilight had everyone feeling drowsy. Eleanor’s guests became honorary regulars and the regular regulars welcomed the injection of life into the café. Maya created a new drink, consisting of bold espresso, chocolate sauce, and a thick film of caramel, topped with a whipped cream cloud. She called it the Dry Seattle, and thus, inadvertently gave the island a new nickname. In an attempt to boost morale at city hall, Mayor Morgan bought a tray of Dry Seattles for her staff. She wound up dismissing them early when the everyone came down with a combination of stomachaches, sugar shakes, or both. Sales quickly cooled: most customers had similar responses to the drink.

*

While the water boiled for pasta, Eleanor James joined her guests in watching the Weather Channel, waiting for some mention of the storm. Talking heads discussed a low-pressure system on the east coast, drought on the west. The plains were windy, but nothing was said about Hapsequah or the surrounding regions. No forecast of wind, rain, or apocalypse. Eleanor finally left the group when she heard the hiss of the pot boiling over onto the burner. When she returned to shepherd the mainlanders to the dining table, they were watching the Channel Four weather report: “Cloudcover remains heavy on the island” the meteorologist said, her eyes darting back and forth as she read the teleprompter. “Heavy winds, and a high likelihood of rain, beginning…anytime.”

“Beautiful,” Eleanor said. She served, ate, waited thirty minutes for the food to settle, then bundled in all-weather gear, and took off down the street. This time, she ignored the sweat and missing rain and just ran, guided by porchlight.

Mayor Morgan took a call from the director of the Michigan National Guard, who had transport helicopters on standby to fetch stranded mainlanders wishing to leave.

“I suppose,” Mayor Morgan said, “that would be the best course.” She’d have felt better about this solution had she proposed it. She would have felt even better, had she been able to provide the helicopters.

“We may as well begin now,” she said, and the director agreed. Mayor Morgan thanked him and hung up with her index finger. She kept the handset wedged between her shoulder and ear as she flipped through a phone list and then dialed Lookout Point Manor.

“I’ve arranged for them to be picked up by helicopter,” she told Eleanor.

Eleanor’s Thanks sounded like a meek question.

Nearly the entire town showed up to watch the airlift from town square. Behind the military choppers came a second wave of aircraft—a dozen traffic helicopters from news stations. While the camouflaged helicopters landed on opposite sides of the city fountain, the news crews took aerial video of the evacuation. Hapsequaians waved as the mainlanders departed, and from the portal windows, the mainlanders waved back. Once those choppers were gone, the news helicopters descended onto city streets and baseball diamonds to drop off reporters who pointed cameras like weapons.

The news crews weren’t particularly interested in finding out what was happening in Hapesquah—why its large and low hanging rain cloud wouldn’t leave (or rain). They mainly waded into the backward current while camera operators shot clips for lead-ins and promos.

Jasmine Phillips, who had been called back to work by a supervisor worried about people inspecting the anomaly, blew her whistle at them, tried to keep them safely out of the water, but they just yelled “cut!” to their photographers, who flashed Jasmine nasty looks, placed index fingers perpendicular to their lips, and then restarted the whole process.

Around town, they carried weatherproof cameras, wore windbreakers with station logos stitched on the chest, and used their press badges to try for free movie tickets and discounted drinks, claiming to be food or film critics. This did not work.

The reporters rekindled sales of the Dry Seattle. “These people,” Maya whispered to Francis, “are immune to the sugar.” The cup supply dwindled even further: reporters demanded to-go cups even when they planned to stay in, just in case news broke or rain fell and they were called back to their aircraft to fly someplace more problematic. They wore press badges always, and rested cameras and notepads on tables. They sat as if waiting for someone to acknowledge their presence; when someone did, they sighed as if bothered.

*

Mayor Morgan visited her constituents at Freds. She took a seat next to Monte Verlassen, midway through his daily rendition of the storm’s arrival. A trio of reporters followed her in and took stools along the bar. They avoided eye contact, acted like they were being inconspicuous.

“I didn’t know there was a press conference,” she told Fred. She waited for his trademark laugh, but he just tapped his own pen against a notepad. She asked him for a sandwich, and he wrote it down—something she’d never seen him do. Instead of heading straight to the grill, he waved at the writers: “Listen good to this part, now.” The men drew notebooks like pistols.

This rendition was choppy, halted by questions that demanded meanders and backtracks. It was a sad telling, compared to the other times he’d run it down: his motions were smaller, his voice diminished as if he’d begun to think he brought this thing upon the town. In the end, the writers were as nonplussed with Monte as they had been with the rest of Hapsequah and its predicament. The next morning, they climbed into their choppers and flew home to report on traffic patterns.

As the last newspaperman took a last to-go cup from the magic bean, he stopped by a table in the front and asked one final question of a teenager: “How are you coping?”

He took out a pen as Jasmine Phillips looked up from her laptop. “What is there to cope with? It’s just weather.” The man wrote nothing, just shrugged and left.

*

Hapsequah and its inhabitants resumed with quiet patience the wait for daylight, for rain, for anything.

This patience bothered Mayor Morgan deeply. As someone whose compulsion was to solve, an incessant storm was a perfect thorn in her side. Monte Verlassen needed to absolve himself of the storm. And Eleanor James swore to God she was getting love handles. But the clouds hung, and Hapsequah stared straight ahead and waited. Except for Jasmine Phillips, who, when no one was watching, snuck quick glances at the sky. Just in case.

*

“Orange juice and a glass of water, Fred.”

He gave the order before reaching his seat, which was not out of character. What was out of character: the order itself. The others craned their necks toward him in mildly stunned silence. For decades, coffee had been the man’s morning drink—and his all-day drink once the weather turned gloomy.

“That’s right, an orange juice,” he repeated, with more force and surety behind. The men recognized that it had been a hard thing to say, perhaps much-rehearsed. This was when they knew something must be the matter with Monte.

“Sure,” Fred said. His face showed hints of pity. Monte looked at the other men’s faces: saw in some confusion and in others a befuddled admiration. He sipped from each glass and nodded.

Monte stayed only a few moments. He didn’t offer to tell his story, and no one asked. Edmond Hraboksy started about a particularly delicious menominee he’d once caught off the pier. Monte picked up his orange juice glass, already half empty, and stared. He wished it was coffee.

On his way home, Monte Verlassen detoured a block from his customary path and ordered a take-out cup at the Magic Bean.

“Can I send you home with a mug?” Francis asked. “We’re all out of paper.”

“I’ll just drink here, I suppose.”

The steaming mug clinked differently against this counter than Fred’s. “A little extra pick-me-up?” Francis asked while collecting the dollar fifty—twice what Monte normally paid.

“Don’t worry,” Maya said. She patted his hand, which was resting on the counter. “We won’t tell him.”

“Lots of folks stopping in lately mood enhancement,” Francis piped in. “It’s been good for business, but mercy, I’d give it all for a sunray.”

Eleanor James wore her nighttime tracksuits, lined with reflective tape, even mornings. She imagined this beneficial, even though the dead streetlights meant nothing would illuminate the tape. She ran longer distances, venturing to further reaches of the island. In the past, when runing during the day, she was cognizant of others who may be watching. As she ventured further into the town, later at night, deeper into the darkness, she let herself go—she ran herself to exhaustion and returned home smiling to that calm, empty place.

The second Monday after the clouds came, she stepped onto her porch and was shocked by motion.

“Have any rooms?” asked Mary Verlassen.

“Sure, but you live right down the way.”

“We could use a vacation,” Monte said. “This is about the best we can do right now. Not that it isn’t—you know what I mean.”

“Sure, sure,” Eleanor said. “Come on, I’ll get you checked in.”

Her solitude was over, but her cash flow was back, so their arrival was a wash. The following night, Francis checked in. Then, Mayor Morgan and her family. That night, across the community dining table, they finally had that oft-mentioned, seldom-shared drink.

*

Jasmine Phillips took the call from her supervisor. She’d been posted up at the café since the reports left the beach empty.

“No problem,” she said. “I’ve got nothing better to do.”

The waves—though they still ran backward—were diminished enough that folks could return to the beach. She resumed her post in her red, hooded windbreaker. In its pockets she placed books from her high school’s summer reading list. The empty beach offered time to work through her reading list. Her first day back, the reading was slow—every few moments, she sensed a shape or motion, a shadow or reflection that might be someone in the water. But there never was—she lost her place for gulls and snapping branches and falling wave crests. Once she got used to ignoring the periphery, Jasmine worked her way through 1984 and The Bell Jar, hand wrote essays about each. Between chapters, she sometimes climbed down and walked to the shore, flipped off her sandals, and planted her cold feet into the water just to feel the sensation of having the water rush away. She envied the water’s escape, and told herself, just one more year, though she had no particular inkling where she might go. The darkness simply mirrored feelings she’d held for years: she imagined waves fleeing across Huron’s expanse toward someplace bright and alive. Each day when her functionless shift ended, she flipped down her jacket hood, retrieved a laptop from her parents’ Honda, and sat in the Magic Bean researching far-off universities, sending online applications to such unquestionably sunny places as Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas, and even Arizona.

“You know,” Francis said on a Thursday afternoon, as Jasmine waited for a coffee refill, “those places you’re looking at aren’t so different from here. Some have more people and some have less people, but the places themselves aren’t so different.”

“I know,” Jasmine said. “But they’re sure a lot nicer to look at right now.”

*

Because her customers knew the town too well and didn’t need assistance of the normal tourist variety, Eleanor James had time to herself between fixing meals and changing linens. She stopped weighing herself compulsively and ran for the sake of running. She replaced the shoes whose treads she’d worn paper-thin and strapped an iPod in a weatherproof case. She stopped counting blocks and started to count island laps. She plotted a course that kept wind at her back when running uphill and in her face on declines. She returned to a crowd of bored but content neighbors who needed nothing from her, and if felt good.

*

In front of Fred’s, Mayor Morgan crossed paths with Eleanor. As the women raised their hands to wave, they each felt a drop. Eleanor stopped running and looked up at the sky. The Mayor leaned forward to shelter her uncovered stack of work. Eleanor pulled the brim of her hat lower.

“Sorry, ladies,” Fred said. He held a hose in one hand and a squeegee in the other. “Daggone kids keep smudging my windows.”

*

After a few days of in-town vacationing, Eleanor’s visitors trickled back to their homes.

In the living room of an otherwise deserted Lookout Point Manor, Eleanor James and Mayor Morgan sat with their feet propped before the fireplace.

“We should have made time for this long ago,” Mayor Morgan said as she poured another glass from Broad Street Market’s last box of wine.

“You’re too busy trying to fix the town, and I’m too busy wishing I could leave,” Eleanor said.

“Which is funny, because I seem to destroy everything I touch, and you’re trying to escape by luring people here.”

“Ah—but that’s my plan.” Eleanor poured the last of the box into her glass. “I’m waiting on one of them to take me home. Hopefully, a very rich one. And that’s a good plan you’ve got, too: the more problems you create, the more campaign promises you can make.”

That’s when Eleanor’s cell phone rang, prompting both women to walk quickly and in the straightest line they could manage toward Carlesson Bay.

*

Jasmine Phillips was on the lifeguard chair when it happened. She set aside her book and leaned forward, then grabbed her binoculars and focused on a floating speck just off the cape—a small bass boat. She scrambled to the shore’s edge. A figure steered the craft out into the bay, maybe two hundred yards away. She put a whistle to her lips, then reached for the cell phone in her pocket, but decided that to watch, to wait.

Though she could not discern the particulars at the time, this is what Jasmine saw: Monte Verlassen, tired of the clouds, tired of talking about clouds, tired of the nagging suspicion the clouds were his fault, had loosened his boat from the slip. He paused to say the Lord’s Prayer, the Sinner’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer—every prayer he could think of, just in case one might convince the clouds to do something. He stood, stared, watched. But the sky remained thick and heavy; the wind continued to drive. Armed with his fishing pole and a bucket of worms that would’ve been far easier to collect after a summer rain, he pushed off and let the outgoing waves propel him. At the edge of the harbor, just before the waves became untenable, he dropped anchor. He stood in the boat, looked upward and in a plain but firm voice, he asked the heavens, God, the storm, the hidden sun, the gulls and whatever else was up there, “What did I do?” He waited, then repeated, “What?” He stood, focused and intent. “Will you just rain already?” When he tired of standing and bracing against the waves, Monte sat down, threaded a worm onto his hook, then plunked his line in the water.

Back in town, Mary Verlassen knew nothing good could come from Monte’s absence at lunchtime. She, called the Magic Bean, called the library, called Fred’s. No one had seen him.

“I’ve got an idea, though,” Fred said. “Meet me at the dock.”

Fred and the rest of the men took dry rain slickers off their pegs and followed Fred out the door and down Broad Street. A block into their hike, Francis and Maya and their five afternoon regulars saw the old men limping so purposefully past the front window that they left their mugs and joined in. Within a few minutes, half the town followed a hobbling collection of old men toward the bay.

Nearly everyone tells a different story about what happened next. Mayor Josephine Morgan says she was just arriving on the scene when the boat tipped.

“It was like the hand of God just reached down and set him into the water,” she said. “Like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

Eleanor James, who stood right next to the Mayor, was a few glasses deeper into the box, but she’s adamant it was a freak wave that pounded down on Monte’s head.

“Ten feet tall, at least,” she says. “It rose up from nowhere and tipped the boat. Simple as that.”

Fred tells folks his friend Monte clapped his hands together high overhead, bent at the knees, and took the most graceful swan dive anyone ever saw, right into the lake.

“Hardly even a splash, like the Olympics,” Fred says.

Jasmine Phillips isn’t much concerned with how it happened. She saw a man who was, in one instant, safely within his vessel, and in the next, water bound and flailing for help.

Jasmine had waited all summer for this. She raced into the water, swam with sure and efficient strokes, aided by the waves. Because of a bend in the bay, it took the crowd a moment to realize she was even there. While she raced toward him, Fred and the guys talked it over, tried to remember if they’d seen anything like it. Maya and Francis figured there must be some creative way to fetch him. Eleanor James envied Monte, out in the middle of everything. She figured he’d be just fine, somehow. For Mayor Morgan, that was the moment she realized just how many things were beyond her repair. And Mary Verlassen—she stood in front of the whole town and couldn’t sort out whether to laugh or cry or scream, and how loud. While everyone else figured and realized and flailed, Jasmine swam. Ten yards out, she saw Monte’s head go under. It didn’t surface with the next wave. She inhaled hard and plunged into Lake Huron. She saw Monte—looked right into his eyes. He was suspended just under the surface, calm as can be when she grabbed him. With a couple swift leg kicks, she pulled him above.

Jasmine helped Monte into the boat. Out so far, they could not hear the cheering crowd. Jasmine cranked the engine and steered toward the shore. Monte flashed a grin Jasmine never did figure out how to interpret, and simply said, “Thank you.”

Mary Verlassen stood on the slip as the boat pulled in, the town pressed in close behind her. An ambulance waited, just in case. But Monte Verlassen stood and climbed onto the dock just fine, then held out a hand to help Jasmine off the boat. Monte hugged his wife, wiped the tears from her cheeks. When the crowd finished clapping, Monte looked at Mary and asked, “It didn’t rain, did it, while I was down there?”

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Brooks Rexroat

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Brooks Rexroat is the author of the story collection Thrift Store Coats and the forthcoming novel Pine Gap. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morehead State University and an MFA from Southern Illinois University. He was a 2016 Fulbright Scholar to Russia and 2014 Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Connect with him at http://www.brooksrexroat.com
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