I poured a cup of coffee from the steaming carafe on my mother’s kitchen counter, gathered up the scattered sections of the Sunday Herald, and headed, bikini-clad, to the patio. It was a pool day and the South Florida sun was shining brightly.
“Good morning,” my uncle said, his voice rising above the cooing of mourning doves and the drone of a distant lawnmower.
“Uncle Dave,” I said, glancing at the sparkling pool, its clear water dancing with sunlight. I dipped my foot in. It was like bath water.
I walked past and joined him at the picnic table. He often sat alone, lost in thought. I wondered if he was already stoned, but it didn't matter. Dave was a man who had something interesting to say. When he spoke, you got the sense he had considered things from every angle before allowing himself the luxury of sharing it. He was a man who loathed gossip and valued integrity.
I sat across from him, hoping not to snag my new suit on the splintery bench. It was the one thing on the open patio that wasn’t brand new, including the gazebo, the pool pump, and pump house. Even the fruit trees were new.
It had been two years since Hurricane Andrew ravaged our town. While most of the family had migrated northward to Broward, my mother decided to use the insurance money to renovate her home and stay put. Thus, most of the house was new: the roof, the windows and doors, the blinds, furniture, rugs, appliances, and pretty much everything but the bare bones.
The picnic table had survived, having been intentionally submerged in the pool prior to the storm. Lots of people did that to keep things from blowing away.
Once the storm passed and we had succeeded in extracting a section of a neighbor’s roof from the pool, I poked around in the muddy water until I found the wooden table and benches, a little worse for wear and waterlogged, but still usable. Nothing a good sanding and weather sealing couldn’t fix.
“What brings you here?” I asked, folding the newspaper into a neat bundle. “You’ve been pretty scarce around these parts.”
He slipped off his chukkas and socks and placed them neatly under the bench. “I came to see your mother, but she had to run out for a bit. How’s the wooder?” His thick Philadelphia accent was a throwback to days gone by, to warm summers on my grandparents farm.
He wore a clean white T-shirt and blue jeans, his glossy curling tawny hair just brushing the tops of his slender shoulders. He sported Coke bottle glasses, a handlebar mustache which he waxed every morning, and a missing front tooth.
His bronzed hands cupped his coffee mug, and a pipe packed with cherry-flavored tobacco sat in the ashtray in front of him.
I glanced at the fingers cradling the mug. Was it my imagination? I looked closer. No. He was definitely missing one. Part of one, really. The middle finger of his right hand was minus its tip. Had it always been that way? Surely I would have noticed. Had there been an accident I was unaware of? I had to know.
“Uncle Dave,” I said, hoping he wouldn’t take offense. “Um . . . where’s your finger?”
He gazed quizzically at me. Oops. Had I offended him?
I suppose my air of genuine curiosity prevailed over my blatant lack of propriety.
“You mean you’ve never heard the story?” he asked, holding up his hand. With his thumb tucked behind, the four fingers resembled a bar graph, one in which company sales for the second and fourth quarters were about equal.
“Never,” I said, amazed at my ignorance of something of such significance.
“Huh,” he said, apparently as surprised as I was. He cocked his chin and looked me dead in the eye. “It’s quite a story.”
Practically wriggling with anticipation, I blurted, “Do tell!” for Dave was a man with an illustrious past and his stories were practically legendary.
He swallowed a sip of coffee, cleared his throat, and began.
“The monster hurricane was on its way and I had a friend, Tom, who was evacuating with his wife and young children. He asked me to help him board up his windows and wanted me to ‘keep an eye on things’ while he was gone. I knew he meant looters.
“Since I lived in a trailer, we thought it best if I stayed in his house to ride out the storm. He had one of those solid old homes, you know, the ones built with Dade County pine. Well, with my dogs and a couple of pillows and a sleeping bag, I settled in. I had spread my bed on top of an Oriental rug in the middle of the living room; the two dogs took the couch. Around midnight, I drifted off to sleep.”
I listened, wondering how all this played into the missing finger.
“By around two-thirty, the banging woke me. Things were crashing into the siding and roof. Of course, with the windows boarded up, it was pitch black in that old house.
“There was one board with a small knothole that I could just about peek through, but it was dark and rainy so I couldn’t see much. Not long afterward, the whistling of the wind started. The whistling gradually became a howl, and the howl built into this incredible shrieking scream and then what sounded like (and this is really true) a freight train. The walls shook and shuddered. Meanwhile, the transformers on the telephone poles began popping, the blue lights from the explosions illuminating the room through the cracks and spaces in the boarded up windows.”
That’s it. The explosions. Did his finger somehow get caught up in one of them? Had he accidentally touched a downed wire?
He continued. “The dogs were going crazy by now, shaking and whining, pacing and howling, and trying to get as close to me as they could. I did my best to calm ‘em down, wrapping ‘em in an afghan and a pillowcase and cradling ‘em in my arms. Finally, after a two-hour relentless beating, the eye settled over us. Everything got eerily calm. I opened the door and walked out into the darkness. By the light of the crescent moon, I saw the pure devastation.” He paused and eyed me.
“Well . . . you know. You went through it, right?”
I shook my head. “Eddie and I evacuated. The meteorologist had convinced us.” I still credited that man with saving countless lives. Others blamed him for creating a 200-mile traffic jam.
“Please, go on,” I urged.
“Well, I stepped over fallen trees, palm fronds, and other junk. There were trash cans and even an overturned airboat in the middle of the street. Sheds had been shorn of their sheet metal which lay like twisted blankets everywhere. Wires were down.”
Yes, the wires. Here it comes.
He brought the pearwood pipe to his lips and drew in the flame. Smoke rose from the bowl and he puffed a cloud from his mouth. The smell of cherries perfumed the air.
“Then what?” I asked, eager for him to continue.
“Other people were outside, too. Whole families. Not just to survey the damage but to cool off. The power had been knocked out for hours, and the summer heat was stifling in those boarded up homes.
“Everyone was okay but we knew the worst was yet to come— the tail end of the storm. We had fifteen minutes of calm before the wind picked up again and we all went inside, ready to face the two-headed beast.”
Beast. Yes, that was it! The storm had demolished a monkey research facility in the area allowing almost two thousand capuchin monkeys and baboons to escape. One of them had bitten him!
“Well, I covered the dogs with the afghan and lay back down on my sleeping bag on the Oriental rug. The wind picked up and things got pretty wild. The walls were groaning and vibrating, things were banging and, suddenly, I heard this terrible screeching. At the same moment I saw the roof fly off over my head, followed by a great sucking sound. The air in the room was sucked out, along with the air from my lungs.
“The Oriental carpet snapped like a whip, as if two giant hands were shaking the dust from it. I was propelled upward and out, between the bare rafters and into the raging tempest. Bullets of rain pelted my face. I felt like a rag doll that had been tossed from the sunroof of a speeding car. I had no control over which way my body flipped and flopped. My only thought was that wherever I landed, I hope I didn’t break my damn neck.
“The ground came up and slammed against me and I lay in the neighbor’s yard, in the furor, catching my breath. I felt pain in my finger. My first instinct was to put it in my mouth and when I did, I felt only bone. I remembered, as I was falling, my hand grazing the top of the chain link fence separating the two yards. I just knew the rest of my finger was lodged somewhere in that barbed wire.
“I crawled for what seemed an eternity toward the front of the house, dodging branches and bushes that had been ripped out by their roots. A license plate sailed past my face. Hell, it nearly sliced off my nose! My body was bombarded with all sorts of debris. And the screaming noise was deafening.
“The wind pushed me closer to the ground and it felt like I was crawling through quicksand with a hundred pound weight on my back. Rocks were falling from the sky and landing all around me. I realized they were terracotta tiles from the neighbor’s roof, and I watched as they plunked, several at a time, onto the hood and windshield of his prized Monte Carlo. Plunk. Plunk. Plunk. I don’t know why, but that sound made me sick to my stomach and I vomited.”
Ugh, I thought. Could you not have skipped over that part?
“When I finally reached the front door, it wouldn’t open. The deadbolt was locked from the inside.”
“Oh!” I cried in despair. “What did you do?”
“The only thing I could do. I found a spot near the door, a little alcove, and I scrunched myself in real tight and hunkered down. And I prayed. I never thought of myself as a praying man, but I prayed like the dickens that night.
“I was cold and wet, in pain, worried about my dogs and in fear for my life. It was worse than my time in ‘Nam. Or . . . at least as bad.”
His voice trailed off as if the memory of his tour of duty in Vietnam rose up and slapped him into a trance. He grew distant as he seemed to be working out which was actually worse.
I reached across the weathered planks and clasped his arm. He looked into my eyes and, for a brief moment, we connected. We didn’t have to say anything. We were uncle and niece, part of the same gene pool, the same fucked up family, usually miles apart but now joined in understanding.
“You wanna hear some irony?” he asked, grinning, the missing tooth hole seeming perfectly charming now.
“Naturally,” I said, smiling back.
“When I returned to the trailer park (with the dogs, by the way) to survey the damage and salvage what I could from the wreckage, I found that every trailer had been leveled to the ground.”
“Yes, I’d heard that on the news,” I said.
“All accept mine.”
“But . . . how could that be?” I asked, incredulous.
“There was an old Banyan tree a ways down from me, a huge sumbitch. It had blown over in the storm and its canopy lay over the top of my trailer, like a guardian angel’s wing.” He chuckled. “I’da been safer if I’da stayed home!” Our laughter filled the air.
I vowed that day to visit him more often. He was blood, but more than that, he was my uncle. He had stories. And I loved him.