They were an older couple and they were looking for a hotel room. They had left their home near the coast because of the hurricane. Now it was the two of them and their Chihuahua, Mimi, scouring for Vacancy signs in Greenville.
“I’m not staying in a motel room,” Nolan snapped at Prudence.
There are 132 hotels and motels in Greenville, with a total of 1,183 rooms, and the Lopps (and dear Mimi) were getting shut out at every turn. They should take in pets considering everything, Prudence argued. The storm, Matilda, was going to breach close, and she wielded a history of ruin.
“My little baby won’t make no fuss,” Prudence huffed as Nolan peered through the streaked windshield, pulling right up to the lobby of an Econo Lodge. She knew right off he didn’t want to stay there. He was in no shape to drive on, either to Kinston or Rocky Mount. His nerves were shot.
Prudence darted out of the minivan, clasping her heirloom raincoat to her bosom. The heat surprised her every time. It was near midnight but the rain and wind had done nothing to dull the stifle from a searing August day. Her mother’s birthday was a day away, the 23rd. The lord rest her soul, Prudence was thinking as she stood at a counter and waited for the concierge to check the computer for cancellations.
CNN was scrawling about the storm’s hours-away landfall: the tidal surge, the rainfall amounts, threat of tornadoes, and why people should evacuate now if they haven’t already. She watched the yellow words stream through a black background and listened to canned music coming from somewhere overhead. Sarah Vaughan singing “Lush Life.”
“Two double beds OK?” the concierge said through enormously bucked teeth.
Prudence said it was, but said nothing this time about Mimi. She was tired of playing around with these people. If they didn’t get a room soon Nolan was going to blow.
Her husband lay on the bed, rubbing one old knee, as she scooted in with the last bags and Mimi. The dog was nestled in a duffle bag Prudence had bought online just that spring. It was too small for Mimi to sleep in, but Mimi was going to sleep on the spare bed.
“C’mere, sugar,” Nolan drawled. “We’re going to be all right.”
Prudence knew that was so. They’d be fine as long as the roof didn’t blow off the Econo Lodge and the Tar River didn’t flood like Revelations. What concerned her was the house they’d left behind, what they’d all long called “the barn.”
She hadn’t had time to do anything to protect the antiques. They hadn’t even boarded up any windows, which meant there were at least two pricey and irreplaceable buffets that could catch a soaking if the windows burst out.
“Watch out, baby,” she told Mimi as the dog hopped off the bed to follow Prudence to the bathroom mirror. Prudence looked at the fading makeup and wished she hadn’t even put any on. None of the riffraff working at these hotels could have cared if she’d had walked in with a Kabuki face on.
Her mother had always told Prudence that most folks don’t care what your face looks like, as long as it don’t look angry. A kindly smile goes a long way. A pretty face might get you in the door, mother’d said, but the smile keeps you inside.
Prudence cut on the TV and sat at Nolan’s feet, stroking Mimi in her lap. The local news was showing where Matilda was, and the storm looked like it was actually rearing back an arm, like an octopus arm, and was going to smack the coast with it.
“God help us,” Nolan moaned. “We might be here for days.”
“There might not be anything to go back to,” Prudence said, smiling as best she could down at the dog, then puckering her lips.
“We might lose everything,” Prudence announced, close to tears. “Everything my family’s ever had is back there, Nolan. And it could get smashed like a dollhouse, just ripped to pieces, before this is all over with.”
Nolan thought about that for a second. After all his years with the IRS he still tended to see material things in the form of dollars. It was all taxable value, and he’d already told her this. Them making it out safe was the important thing.
“It’s all insured very nicely,” he said, still trying to rub the pain from his knee. “I have the papers with us, Prudence.”
She nodded, but she was crying a little already.
“Anything could happen to it,” she sniffled. “Somebody could break in and steal it, for all we know.”
Mimi hopped down to run into the bathroom and have the first sip from the toilet. Typically, Prudence and Nolan didn’t tolerate this. The only time Nolan had ever spanked the little thing was when Mimi took a swig from a neighbor’s downstairs bathroom, during a visit that past Christmas. This time the owners didn’t even notice.
Nolan didn’t think thieves would be out during a hurricane, and he told Prudence so. Besides, he said, the Barn was six feet off the ground, so if the creek flooded it wouldn’t come in the house. And all the pecans were far enough away from the house to cause any worry.
“I don’t know,” Prudence countered, getting up to put away their clothes. The first thing she noticed was that the handles on the knee-high dressers were greasy. Normally this would have driven her up the walls. Now she just tucked their things into separate drawers without saying a word. She even put the two thin, little sweaters of Mimi’s into its own drawer. Her parents’ antique armoire was causing Prudence distress. It was 18th Century French as worth thousands. Prudence used to hide in it when she was little and playing with her sisters. Of course she’d mashed her fingers in its doors once, but it had always been a beloved piece.
“You know I ain’t one for being superstitious,” she said to Nolan, evenly, with precision, “but my grandmother always said to cover old furniture with clean sheets when you left home for more than one night.”
Nolan yelped softly as Mimi hopped onto him, nuzzling his chest with a damp nose. They were all suddenly started by a thump on the ceiling, but it didn’t repeat itself. Within a few seconds the muffled beats of rap music oozed into the room from above.
“Figures,” Nolan groused. “We’ll have to turn the TV up. This is why I didn’t want to stay in a cheap motel. This is exactly why.”
Prudence was looking at him as he stroked Mimi into a nap. She was worried about him, too. Nolan’s doctors said his shallow breathing of late could be sign of heart trouble. He was 72 and his father was already dead from a heart attack by that age. There was just a lot for her to worry about at the moment.
Prudence picked up the phone but didn’t know who to call. At 3 a.m. nobody she knew would be up. Well, she knew there were some people at home who couldn’t sleep. But all the lines were down there. Even the cell phones were out.
She wondered what Evelyn Askew was doing. Evelyn lived alone, people-wise at least. She had three dogs, including Mimi’s momma and daddy (old June Carter and Johnny Cash). Evelyn would be in a fit, and Prudence knew it.
The weatherman in the nice rainslicker was grabbing his hat and digging his chin against his chest, and you could only hear every other sentence. He was shouting something about the Outer Banks taking the brunt of Matilda, just north of Hatteras. She watched as a computer map drew a line across the Pamlico Sound, right up into Creswell.
“They’ll get hit hard tomorrow … early afternoon,” the weatherman choked out, lunging partly off the screen. He was in Hatteras Village. He was expecting the eyewall to push in within a few hours.
“I’m over now …,” he hollered, spitting out rain.
Then there was the lady with the fancy hair, comfortably seated in the Atlanta studio. She was saying how it was lucky Matilda wasn’t going to hit an urban area. Now that all the tourists were out, only farmers and fishermen were left, she went on. And they were old hands at hurricanes, with the moxie needed to handle the worst the storm could spit out.
Prudence made a face.
“I’ll be damned,” she hissed softly, careful not to wake Nolan or Mimi. “I’d like to see you come up here and take a look for yourself. You wouldn’t last a minute out there.”
The phone rang upstairs and Prudence automatically leaned toward the nightstand, fingers hovering briefly over the handset. A man’s muffled voice burst out laughing above. Then another one joined in.
Drunks, she knew them all too well. Nolan had never been a drinker, but just about every man she’d ever known otherwise (her brother, Nolan’s father and brothers, most all of Nolan’s work buddies at the IRS) had been a boozer. She guessed they were having a hurricane party in the room above.
She turned up the TV and changed the channels around, stopping on public television. Darned if it wasn’t an “Antiques Roadshow” episode! She felt the warmth of relaxation creep over her for the first time in days. A lady, somebody’s niece, had brought in some ancient earthenware.
Colonial Williamsburg! Prudence hadn’t seen this one in ages. But she remembered that the earthenware had a top-dollar value. Just by themselves, the gravy boat and stand were almost a thousand. And this girl had it coming out of her petticoat.
Nolan had boxed up all of Prudence’s earthenware, some of it from the early 1800s, and stacked it in the cellar. That stuff won’t rot if the cellar floods, he’d said. Sure won’t, Prudence had told him, but it’ll be even safer in the minivan.
That was just one issue the Lopps had quarreled over. Nolan’s view was that life and limb were the chief things to spare from damage, followed closely by the fireproof safe filled with “important documents.”
Prudence had argued that the register of deeds had all their marriage licenses and birth certificates in duplicate, and that all the bonds were insured. There ain’t but one copy of the antiques, she’d said. And the little ones could be stacked in back, right along with Mimi and all their clothes.
Not being a man of wasteful expression, Nolan fired back with unbeatable logic: They could lug the safe into wherever they stayed at night, but the same could not be said for boxes of earthenware, pewter candlesticks, fading portrait paintings, and linen-and-lace doilies.
“To travel light is to travel safe,” he quoted from a catalogue of his sayings back when he travelled for his job.
In the end, Prudence gave in without contest. There was just too much to do in those final hours, with gathering Mimi’s things taking much longer than expected.
“Ohmygod!” the young lady gasped when told her collection would rake in enough to buy a nice condo on any waterfront. “I had no idea!”
Shoot! She knows better’n that, Prudence scolded. She knew darned well she was sitting on a fortune of stuff left by the old folks. Which brought Prudence to a point that Nolan always harped on: They didn’t have any kids between them. So, who would inherit the antiques? Prudence shuddered to think. Her good mood was diving. She changed channels.
What she wanted to do was give all her things to the local historic society, which would then establish a foundation to raise funds to make “The Barn” a historic site. People’d visit more than you imagine, is what she told Nolan, always.
“Like whom?” he’d ask calmly. “Nobody gave this place any thought for years, until we moved in. It’s just going back to the weeds when we’re gone, Prudence.”
Prudence looked over at her husband’s gray, stubbled face, with the pink dents on either side of the bridge of his nose from his old glasses. His breathing was shallow, which was causing his doctors great concern. His father died of a heart attack, she reminded herself.
She didn’t mean to worry him so much with all the business about the antiques. I can’t help myself, she told him when she’d worn him out with it. She’d even said that just before they evacuated.
“It’s like you’re addicted to it all,” he sighed. “Everything about it. From finding a piece, to finally deciding where to put it.”
Prudence could spend an entire day in indecision about whether to nudge a dresser this way or that. And that was after a week of haggling with herself over which window it should “group with.”
During several quiet evenings recently he’d suggested she found too much happiness “in those things.” He’d corrected himself each time, saying he meant only to say he wished she’d find more comfort in the people in her life (including him), and the values she’d long cherished. What he meant with the last bit, and she knew it, was that Prudence had stopped going to church after quarreling with the women about the asking price (that she ended up paying) for a walnut piano stool.
Prudence pulled open the nightstand drawer and lifted out the still-new bible. She couldn’t help but run through a list of the leather-bound New Testaments she had, all stacked together on her grandfather’s bookcase with the glass doors. She felt rotten for thinking it.
“Am I that bad?” she asked the handsome couple seated on the couch talking excitedly about the vitamin routine they’d just discovered.
The music was on again overhead, and Prudence heard what sounded like people dancing. The thumping clops were too rhythmic to be that jumping around the young folk were doing nowadays. It reminded her of ballroom dancing, the scrapes and bounces elegant in their rhythms.
She thumbed open to a page and started reading, her thoughts calmed by the cadence of simple, practical, familiar words.
The phone was ringing and Mimi was yelping, dashing from one end of the room to the other. Prudence woke up to this nightmare cursing in her fashion. A couple of damns and lots of hells. She knocked the phone accidentally onto the other bed and it stopped ringing.
“Hello?” a woman’s muffled voice rasped. Mimi let out a short, piercing bark and ran to the door and jumped at it, falling backwards comically.
“Hold it!” Prudence commanded, pushing off of Nolan to sit up. “Yes.”
Evelyn Askew was off and running. It was so bad, the hurricane was so bad, why did it have to be so terrible, why hadn’t anybody told her it would be this terrible, had God forsaken the world, the three dogs were hiding upstairs and she couldn’t find them, it had been dark all night, real dark so you couldn’t see your hand up to your face, it was just now getting light enough for her to see the wedding ring on her finger, lordgod she was glad Hiram was dead and wasn’t going through this, but she needed somebody with her, the dogs were godknowswhere, trees all over the place, the river all over the place, can’t get out of the house, wouldn’t want to get out of the house, how were they doing?
Prudence couldn’t believe Evelyn had gotten through. Evelyn couldn’t, either. She was surprised she even remembered how to dial her cell phone. It sounds like trains are all over the place. Avalanches and the wrath of God himself. Then Evelyn cried out.
“What happened?” Prudence called into the phone, waking a heavy, blanket-lathered Nolan. Mimi raced at the door again and ricocheted backwards, her legs scrambling in all directions.
“She needs to go out,” Nolan croaked. Prudence waved him off. Evelyn came back, breathless, in a whisper.
“My front door blew out,” she hissed. “It’s gone.”
Prudence started rocking on the bed, gently. Nolan got up, wobbly, and went to let Mimi out. Prudence saw him in the mirror, just behind his real self. They both looked so tired, so worn out, so old.
The Lopps’ nearest neighbor was howling, but sounding more faraway. She must be moving around, Prudence thought.
“Evelyn, go back where you were. Go into a bathroom. Stay away from the door.”
She could hear the widower sobbing, talking to herself, trying to utter acceptable prayers.
“How are you and Nolan?”
“Oh, we’re fine, honey. You don’t mind us right now. You go to the bathroom. Are you going to the bathroom?”
Nolan unlatched the door and pulled it open. It slammed back into his chest and sent him down hard. Mimi darted out, leaning sideways against the wind that shrieked into the room, almost instantly drenched by a squall. Prudence had no idea which trauma to address first. Mimi had disappeared into the rain like she’d walked into a carwash, Nolan was moaning on the floor, and Evelyn, poor dear Evelyn, was facing her doom.
“Prudence, oh, Prudence,” Evelyn sobbed. “I love you Prudence. I love you so much. I’ve loved you all this time. I wish you hadn’t moved away like you did, but I’m so glad you came back. I do love you. I’ve always loved you …”
Prudence’s line went dead with a crack. No power. Nolan had risen to his knees, and he was trying to catch his breath.
“My sugar …” he rattled, groping for the wall so he could stand up. The metal door kept slapping against his ankle, swinging from the wall to his leg. Water was gushing in through the opening, soaking him.
Prudence got over and helped him up. He was crying. She sat him down on Mimi’s bed, then shoved against the door until she got it closed. She locked it, the rasp of the latch causing her stomach to pinch. Mimi was out there.
“Where is she? Did she come back in?”
Prudence told him she hadn’t. But she’d be OK. She’d find someplace to huddle, maybe in a breezeway behind a vending machine. Mimi had good sense.
“Oh lord, what else can happen?” Nolan was quivering, in no shape to be so upset.
Prudence had seen her daddy break down like this once, just one time. He was never a quiet man like so many around could be, but he never showed when he was beaten. Except for that once. And she’d been the only witness to it. He’d come home from a trip to Richmond, where he did all of his important business, selling farmland to companies. Sometimes he bought land. He’d come home this time, just getting out of the car, when her mother had walked up and handed him a note. She just strode up to him, Big Jim Steves, stuck a folded paper in his hand, and walked off like she did it just like that every time he came home.
Her daddy had read the note, slowly pulled off his fashionable pork pie hat, and went down on one knee, gasping for air. His face gray as a mule’s ass. Just like Nolan’s now. He went slumped against the quarter panel, talking, but not so loud that Prudence could hear. His face had gone yellow, then white. It got pink as he fell over in the dirt. She stood there and stared for a good while before he got up, got back in his Cadillac Eldorado and drove back out the way he’d come in. When he showed up, again, a few hours later, he was drunk silly.
He never said a word about it. And he and her mother acted little it’d never happened. They went on same as always.
She curled her arm gently around Nolan’s head, kissing him softly on his bald spot.
“I’m having a heart attack,” he announced, falling into her with a heavy breath.
I can’t call 911, she screamed to herself, jerking away so that he fell back on the bed, his legs dangling off the foot end. She clapped her hands for a second to help her think. All she could hear was the wind. The door was trembling on its hinges. She could hear it whooshing in through the air-conditioner, could see the curtains softly fluttering from its constant exhalations.
Nolan was still breathing, but his hands had balled into fists. His eyes were open, staring absently at the ceiling. His lips had darkened. She ran to the sink and filled a tiny plastic cup with water. She rushed back and dabbed it with her fingers onto his mouth. It dribbled down his cheeks into his ears. She didn’t notice. She did it again. And again his ears filled with tap water before draining slowly into the tufts of hair at the base of his skull.
She sat beside him and put her ear to his mouth. She put her hands on his chest and pushed easily, three then four times. Then she pinched his nose and breathed into his mouth. She repeated and repeated. He had one deeper inhale, then went back to his shallow breathing.
Prudence curled up beside her husband, dabbing water on his lips. Her ears were ringing. The curtains rustled with the brutal rhythm of the storm. She flecked water from his cheek and carefully shut his eyes. She could still see his heartbeat in a vein in his neck. He was yellow like her daddy had been right before Big Jim Steves had turned white, then pink, then fell to the earth.
There was a quiet humming in the room with Prudence. A soft, orange-glowing hum like the purr of a cat. The white tiles, curtains, and ceiling had all gone dark except for the faint, flecked-sunrise blush from the tiny lights on the machines.
Inside Nolan’s hospital room, there was no sound from the storm, either. Prudence couldn’t get the raging winds out of her head. It was like she’d been at a piercingly loud rock-and-roll concert and her ears were still humming.
She was watching the rise and fall of her husband’s chest, thanking the lord. It had been all she could do to get an ambulance to finally come to the motel. She’d feared he’d already given up the ghost by the time the paramedics stormed their room, slamming around in a controlled panic, talking in a language she could not understand.
Is he taking any medicine? Does he have a history of heart problems? Has he been drinking or doing any drugs? Oh, how she lit into the one shorter fella when he asked that. Drugs? Like what kind of drugs? Does it look like they’d been in the room smoking drugs? Yeah, oh yessir, that’s what they’d been doing all right. They’d come to Greenville, pushed along by that beast Matilda, just so they could settle down in an Econo Lodge room (which was dirty, by the way) and smoke their drugs.
She was glad Nolan hadn’t been conscious to hear that. He woulda blown his stack. If he hadn’t suffered a heart attack yet, that would have sent him into certain arrhythmia. (Her first husband’s favorite golfing buddy had been a cardiologist. But he was a drunk just like the rest of them, including Dan.)
“I’m going,” she kept saying when Nolan was finally strapped into a gurney, tubes blowing gentle air up his nose. She hadn’t even blinked an eye when they’d ripped open his shirt and slapped tape and wires around his nipples. (Nolan was embarrassed by the thickness and grayness of his profuse chest hair.)
“I’m following you right in,” she said, toe to heel with the paramedic shoving Nolan into the ambulance. They’d formed a makeshift rain shield by ripping open trash bags plucked from the Lopps’ room. She got bumped in, almost right on top of Nolan, and they’d screeched off, rain beating at them, wind slinging them along an unsteady path.
Then there’d been two hours in the ER, and the Yankee doctor who’d read the X-rays. How could a man with glasses that thick read an X-ray? Being that his conclusion had been more positive than not, Prudence accepted what he said without protest. The blood flow to Nolan’s heart had been blocked, but there had been no damage to the heart itself.
The nurses on their floor had been real nice. One of them, a Nancy with chopped, dyed-blond hair, said she’d grown up near Creswell.
“I know yall’s house,” Nancy said, patting at the sweat on Nolan’s forehead just before cutting the lights off so Prudence could rest along with her husband. “My daddy was a Johnston. Harlan Johnston. He used to be a deputy sheriff around there, before we moved to New Bern. He showed me that house after he’d been out there for a fire or something.”
“Oh yes,” Prudence sighed, “there was a terrible fire about 20 years ago. About burnt everything up. But it’s all better now. We’ve fixed everything up, me and Nolan.”
The nurse smiled and left her prayers with Prudence. Now she was alone with the sleepy lights and that hum. Nolan wasn’t making any noise whatsoever. If it wasn’t for the movement of his chest, you’d have thought he was dead.
“Oh my!” Prudence gasped quietly in her throat, “Nolan dear, you almost left me.”
She had tears in her eyes before she knew it. She buried her face in her hands and sobbed, so the nurses wouldn’t hear. He had coronary artery disease, and it had almost killed him. Doctor thick-glasses said they’d know after he woke whether there’d be any lasting ill-effects.
“He’s an otherwise very healthy man for his age. He has the strength in his lungs of a man half his age. That helped keep the air, the oxygen, flowing to his heart. But I think what saved him was that you were awake when he had the attack. If you’d been asleep …”
Prudence slumped back into her chair and closed her eyes, listening to the hum. After a few minutes she could hear the storm again, returning. There was no way of knowing how bad it was outside. But everyone had assured her the hospital had generators and they wouldn’t lose power.
She slept for about 20 minutes, waking up with an awful pain in her neck. It was jabbing down into her right shoulder, and she started swinging her arm to get rid of it. While doing this, she saw Nolan’s eyelashes flutter. Then he let out a groggy moan. Something beeped.
And there she was, with two more people in tow. They hovered around Nolan for a minute, talking to him like he was a baby. Do you know where you’re at? What’s your birthday? All kinds of nonsense. He knew his birthday, but he thought he was still at the Econo Lodge. Room something-or-other.
The young doctor she’d seen darting all around the place finally leaned back, a hint of a smile on his lips. Prudence hopped to her feet, passing gas unexpectedly. Nobody noticed. They were all pleased, relaxed, that Nolan had returned with his wits about him.
Prudence dropped her face over the young doctor’s shoulder and grinned at her husband. He looked like death had chewed him up and spit him out, but the corners of his lips wrinkled. The remaining strands of his hair were plastered wildly to his head. She nudged around and stroked them neatly, gathered them down where they needed to be.
“Honey,” she whispered. “It’s good to see you, honey.”
A nurse (not Nancy, whose shift was ending) stayed behind once everyone had done and seen what they needed to do and see. Prudence hovered all around the bed. First on one side, then the other. Nolan kept closing his eyes, napping for a handful of seconds at a time. The doctor’d said this was normal, due to the drugs they’d given him.
Nolan’s eyes popped open for the umpteenth time, only this time he had a worried look on his face. Between pauses he asked about Mimi.
“My sugar?” he asked, gurgling a bit.
Heavens! Prudence didn’t know what to tell him. But she made sure her face didn’t betray her cluelessness. Nossir. Nolan had to stay calm and unbothered.
“She’s in the van in her seat,” she said. (Nolan had handpicked Mimi’s car seat out himself, online. They could strap her in and everything, only it was so much of a real strapping-in as it was tucking her into a cushioned, box-shaped contraption.)
He nodded slightly and closed his eyes.
“I love my sugar,” he cooed.
It was at that very second that Prudence realized she was jealous of Mimi. Jealous of a darned dog!
“She loves you, too, honey. And so do I.”
When Nolan smiled it was how Prudence imagined he’d looked when he was a boy. He looked so content she had to bend down and peck his cheek.
“I haven’t shaved,” he complained.
The nurse said something about being back in two minutes, and Prudence waved her along. They were going to be all right. They had somehow gotten through this. Well, there was still the finding Mimi thing, but she knew that would come out fine, too. It had to. There was no way it could not. She even thought about the Barn, the earthenware and the gravy boat, the wavy lead mirrors, those fine, expensive rugs. They’d be right there waiting for her and Nolan, just like Mimi’d be at the motel, keeping the bucktoothed concierge company until they got there. Evelyn Askew would make out good, too.
Prudence could feel all those hours, days, months, a good ten years, of worrying about the Barn, just bunching up against her. It was breathing down her neck, all that time spent concerned about this and that, things and more things, pomp and circumstance, and here was Nolan, her husband, pushed back into one of the backroom closets of her life. He’d been stuck in there so long she’d forgotten about what he meant to her. She chided herself secretly, trying to keep a happy face so when he woke up he wouldn’t see her all sullen.
She made a note to take the next good chance, the very next time he drifted into real sleep, to step out and call that concierge. Because when they went to retrieve Nolan’s sugar, she wanted Mimi to be dried out good and not all wet and ratty like she could get when she snuck out and played in the rain.
Causes Sean Jackson Supports
PFLAG, Amnesty International, AA, Catholic Social Services