All Through the Night

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I wrote this one weeks ago and saved it for a rainy day (a busy week).  It’s about our overnight experience on October 29, 2012. 

Thank you, Joy and Chuck, for sheltering us!

We settled in for the night upstairs at Chuck and Joy’s house, just feet from the tall, street-facing windows.  This was our block, and the reverse view was disorienting.   Through our own front windows back home, the pretty, blue-shuttered house we had just taken shelter in was the best of our daily view, often creating a homey foreground for a spectacular sunset scene (the one you see at the top of this page seemed to burst from their house in a fiery storm).  The tree in the median—closer to their house than ours—created interest, especially when it snagged a Stop & Shop bag as the wind whipped up the block from the water.  A white bag had flapped around familiarly on our wedding day, decorating a high branch in white as we posed for pictures underneath.  Who needed tulle?

The night of the storm we looked out from those blue-shuttered windows, and the view of our own little, low house across the way was partially blocked by the high branches.  The limbs coursed back and forth across our sightline like so many raging bulls trapped in the ring of the storm.  With each blowing bellow I feared one would break free and charge this tempting curtain, just feet from our heads.  This tree, our tree, our only tree in fact, shared with the entire block, could kill us tonight in this room.  We were sure we were high enough now—the water had stopped rising hours ago, though it continued its senseless road rage.  Toilets smashed into trucks, trucks sailed into trees.  We were high enough, but had we climbed out of the frying pan and into the fire?  Just hours ago our friends’ Mini Cooper in the driveway alongside the house had swallowed some of the sea, and gone haywire in its attempt to regurgitate it.  It opened and closed its rear double doors, crazy with the effort, its alarm hysterical.   Something had shorted out.

We had spent the evening gathered around the radio:  Steve and I, Chuck, Joy, her parents, our dog, and their cats.  There were reports of exploding cars and houses.  Was this how it happened?  As we listened, a moving mountain of lightning-like flashes lit the northeastern horizon.  Maybe it was a Mini Cooper mutiny, and we were next.

Up in that room, only five lights remained in our world, all waning.  One was the battery-operated candle we’d brought from our house.  The other four were headlights from the two vehicles parked on the median that had been providing us with our only perspective on the outdoors.  When the water hit the wiring the lights had come on, giving the area around the car and truck a low glow.  Everything else was so dark that we had to measure the water’s rising by the tires on the vehicles, which were parked on the highest point of the grass.  But as the sea crept up the doors, the headlights began to dim, as in weak protest.  Finally, when the lights became submerged, we knew the water was at its highest point.  The level had remained steady for a while, but the ocean hurtled forth for hours, a constant tsunami.  Where was this water going?  How did it continue to rush in?  This island was ¼ mile wide!  It must be spreading out through streets and alleys and walks, filling basements and crawlspaces and cars…and then what?  And then where?  Were we really safe up here?

Thankfully, yet sadly, Chuck’s Mini Cooper had stopped its protestations and let go forever.   The spirit of my Mini, strategically parked blocks away on “higher ground,” had followed it to cute car heaven and buried its body dramatically in the middle of someone’s front lawn, blocking access to the house.  Steve’s banged up, beloved 1998 Mitsubishi Mirage with the geometrically striped seat cloth, which we had parked on another street to split the odds, had perished as well.  No car stood a chance, not even a champion like his.  The little car that could, Steve’s only prized possession, had driven us across the country four times, and was in its twelfth year of faithful service to  us.

Our white PVC fence was barely visible, semi-illuminated by a negative light that seemed to emanate from the seawater.  From our angle it was difficult to tell how high the surge came on our fence, steps, or door.  Was it seeping into the first floor?  Or was it just below?  How full was the basement?  There was nothing we could do but watch or sleep.  Just before we closed our eyes, the car’s lights blinked off too in a kind of sad camaraderie. Only the truck had a sleepless night, determined to keep watch through watery eyes.

In the morning we found it asleep, drooling water from its tailpipe.  The sea had retreated.  The grass and the leaves were gone.  The boardwalk was crushed against Joy and Chuck’s steps.  We were crushed.  I took Lucy out onto the stinking land.  Neighbors wandered aimlessly, stunned.  No one spoke, not yet.  Everything was crushed.

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