The roofers arrived at seven a.m., their guttural voices slicing the thick air into thirds. I wrapped my bed sheet around me like a cocoon and peered out the open window, still woozy from sleep. There must have been seven or eight men in the crew, from what I could tell, though the opacity of recent days distorted reality just enough so that my eyes gasped only for more light, in lieu of a sharpened view, one that lent a more angular look on things. The men were of varying ages, and from what I could tell, they must be related: they all shared the same jawline, the same dirty brown hair, brows bent in perpetual confusion. The youngest, a man of about twenty, was unwrapping a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich and staring off into the blood-orange sky. The eldest lit a fresh cigarette with the tip of his old one. The others were either smoking or drinking from thermoses. Suddenly, my neighbor, Mrs. Hutchinson, appeared in her gauzy white robe, hands planted on her thick hips.
“Don’t throw your butts in my yard,” she barked, handing over a half-empty soda bottle. “Here.” She never wasted time with pleasantries. In the five years I have lived next to her, we have exchanged only a handful of words. In her best moments she was terse; in her worst she was belligerent. I had learned her schedule well enough so as to avoid many run-ins. One of the men, someone who looked like he’d be named Rob, nodded wordlessly. Mrs. Hutchinson charged back inside, disappearing behind her curtained French doors. I clipped the window shut and let out a gritty cough, ashes fluttering like miniature birds around me.
Though all our roofs were in terrible shape, Mrs. Hutchinson’s was the most damaged. The homeowners’ association voted unanimously that hers be replaced first, a move that made sense if you set aside any personal feelings about her.
What’s the use? Why don’t we all just move? my other immediate neighbor, Mrs. Owens, said at the homeowners’ association meeting, where it had been decided. She had a point. This would just keep happening until we could no longer recognize our homes, having gone through so many reconstructions. Until we could no longer insure our homes because it was too much of a financial risk for the insurance companies. But picking up and carting ourselves to another state seemed the least pragmatic thing to do. Mrs. Hutchinson walked out of that meeting like she was the goddamn Queen of England, her husband lagging behind her like an old dog. Mr. Hutchinson was a fine milquetoast man, which also made sense if you believed in the human magnet syndrome; I had spent many afternoons curled up at the window watching him send her passive gesture after passive gesture as she went about pruning her buttercups, cursing him just loud enough for anyone within earshot to hear. They had one child, a son, who I only saw when he left for school every morning. In a lot of ways he reminded me of my own son. But I must be careful with that thought, keep it airtight when I can.
The crew came a bit later the next morning, a Tuesday. I found myself eagerly awaiting them, hoping that perhaps one of the men would look up to notice my face in the window and need me, and I would proceed to give him an endless supply of whatever it was that could make him feel whole: milk, words, my body. Instead they just ate their breakfast sandwiches and sucked on their cigarettes and pissed in the arborvitae that lined the Hutchinsons’ property. They packed into their trucks around noon and came back an hour later with fast-food drink cups and crumpled looks on their faces. They got about one-half of the old shingles removed before they called it a day.
I woke on Day Three to a sky the color of candy roses. Mrs. Hutchinson was berating the roofers for leaving shingle piles in the yard. They spent the next hour loading them in their truck beds as Mrs. Hutchinson looked on, arms folded across her chest. Mr. Hutchinson stood behind her, muted, the Tribune resting in his pale fingers.
Later on, when she was gone and it was deemed safe, I overheard one of the men say, “What a bitch.” And for some inexplicable reason, I had hoped he was talking about me. The others crowed.
They didn’t get much accomplished that day. It became too difficult to see. They drove off in the artificial dusk and did not return until the next morning. I dulled myself with wine and fell asleep.
“You keep your mask on when you screwed her?” Rob said to the youngest. Fortunately they spoke loud enough that I could hear them through the thick glass. I sipped my coffee and imagined him on top of a woman, his tongue attempting to force its way through the cloth.
“No, why? Was I supposed to?” He balled up his breakfast sandwich wrapper and threw it into an empty grocery bag.
“You fools wanna help me get the rest of this underlayment off? It’s gettin’ harder to breathe out here,” the eldest yelled.
The next day, right at dawn, we were encouraged to evacuate. I remembered Mrs. Owens’ words at the meeting and how she must have felt so vindicated when the text message alert came through. I thought about the hills, glittering like wild jewels, as I drove to the graveyard the night before when the city was asleep. I wondered where the hand of God was as I choked on whatever was left inside me.
The roofers still came to work. They were waiting for me as I pulled into my driveway at the cusp of morning: I had been driving all night. They were eating their breakfast sandwiches and sucking on their cigarettes as if they had been preparing for this moment their entire lives.