By Dixon Long
Harry Meeker shuffled to the refrigerator and took out a pint carton of milk. He could remember when he had bought quarts, and years before that, when Edith was still living, half-gallons. A slice of whole-wheat bread was in the toaster, the jar of organic apricot jam was open and coffee was warming on the stove. Harry generally made a full pot in the morning and re-heated a cup or two as the day went along.
It was still raining. At first it had been a light mist that turned into a drizzle. Then it came harder, day after day, slowly gaining importance like a visitor who stays too long. Now it was a dull, constant sound like two dogs wrangling on the roof. He opened the morning paper, skipped the political and economic news and scanned the sports. When he finished eating he wiped the crumbs off the kitchen counter, rinsed his coffee cup and toast plate and left them to dry in the rack.
He sat in the easy chair with crocheted covers on the arms, listened to the rain drumming on the roof and looked out the window. On good days, a mob of crows croaking noisily, filling up the old live oak morning and evening, and turkey buzzards rode the thermals out over the valley in the afternoon. Today a few crows came silently, but the buzzards were gone altogether. Sometimes a jay swooped in to stir up the smaller birds sheltering in the low bushes.
A family of gray squirrels had lived in the trees below the house for as long as Harry could remember. Edith had offered them cracked corn, which they spurned in favor of the cat's food on the back porch. But Edith was gone, the cat was gone, and only the squirrels lived on, creating endless replicas of themselves over countless generations. With all the rain they kept to their nests, only sometimes searching the ground for acorns.
Harry looked for patterns in the rain. Sometimes it swayed like a pleated silver curtain, at other times it swelled and buckled like a sheet of aluminum. But the hard, straight downpour that had been falling since early this morning now seemed as solid as glass.
The telephone rang, and Harry got up to answer it. He prided himself on getting it in four rings.
“Dad?” Pamela said, “is everything okay there?”
“Okay? Sure, it's okay.”
“We heard about all the rain, the mud-slides, the floods. It's on TV every day. I wanted to be sure you were all right. That hillside . . .”
“Solid as a rock.”
“You'll call if anything . . .?”
“This hillside's been taking care of itself for centuries.”
He listened to her with one ear. With the other, he listened to the rain trampling on the roof. She was saying she couldn't ever remember a winter like this one, but he was back to thirty-something when there had been one worse than this. He didn't have to think about what she was saying, simply went on automatic and drifted along in two streams, her voice and his reverie.
“Okay, Dad. We'll see you soon, I hope.”
One of the neighbors, a young woman, came by before lunch to tell him the road was cracking, that it had opened up an inch or so.
“You don't say?” Harry replied. He didn't quite get the significance, but it was nice that the neighbor had come by. He couldn't remember her name, but she was pleasant, always going by in one of those boxy foreign cars with a load of children. He went back to sit by the window, look out at the rain and feel the pattern in the crocheted arm-covers. Thick and ropy now, the rain resembled streaks in old hand-blown bottles. It came down slantwise as the wind pushed it from the south.
The room was chilly, and Harry pulled a blanket over his knees. He had closed his eyes for a few moments when the room seemed to tremble. Was this the first warning of a stroke? He didn't know how a stroke would feel, though he had been expecting it to happen. A sense of lightness in his limbs made him think he was levitating from his chair. Squinting, Harry looked around the room. There was a shivery quality to the light, as if it had become electrified. He sniffed the air, wondering if he should smell something unusual, but there was only coffee, toast, and a stale whiff of last night's hamburger.
He settled in his chair again, and soon he was asleep. When he woke, he felt as if he'd been shaken. Slightly dazed, Harry looked around to see if someone had come in, but he was alone in the room. There was no indication that anything had happened, except his hazy sensation of having been touched.
He put a hand to his heart, but that told him nothing. Then he took his pulse as he'd been taught to do when Edith was in the hospital, pressing the tips of his fingers into the hollow of his wrist. It felt normal, as did his breathing and his vision.
The doorbell sounded. Harry rose slowly, pushed his feet into his slippers and moved to the front door. He opened it to a tanned young man, the husband of the woman with the foreign car and all the children. The man was wearing a yellow slicker and a brown cowboy hat.
“Sorry to bother you, Mr. Meeker, but you ought to know the road's opened up another inch. We asked the city engineer to come up and take a look.”
“Well, I see, that's how it is. Can't say as there's much I can do about it.”
“You might want to let your family know, in case it gets more serious.”
Harry pondered that. “Yes, you're right,” he said, and closed the door.
What in the world was the point of calling Pamela, all the way up in Oregon, worrying her about a crack in the road? These hills had stood for centuries, before the white man, before the Spaniards, before the Indians or whoever came across the Bering Strait. That brought on another reflection about the tribes of man, and without knowing how it happened he found himself in his chair beside the window again, looking out at the rain. The wind had eased and it was coming straight down now, in thick pencil strokes. Harry fantasized about Roman legions marching through a downpour across a treeless, level plain.
He was half asleep again when the room seemed to sway, gently but steadily. This, he thought as he became alert, must be the real thing. He felt somewhat nauseous and light-headed, and his heart was beating hard, perhaps irregularly. No question: it was the first sign of a stroke.
Oddly, he felt no anxiety, no need to get to the telephone, to dial Pamela or nine-one-one. Edith was gone, the cat was gone, and logic told him he would soon be gone. Perhaps his time was now. There was no point resisting. He was prepared to bow to the inevitable. In fact, he was more than mildly curious about it. He felt no urge to move from where he was sitting, but waited to see what would happen next.
Light faded from the room, night began to settle into the valley, and Harry dozed. The small lamp on the glove table by the front door went on, as it did automatically in the evening. When the young couple next door burst in he was sitting, head bent, hands on the arms of the chair, as he had been for hours.
“You have to go now, Mr. Meeker. The police are moving us all out.”
They helped him put on his shoes, and the woman fetched his coat and hat from the closet. She led him out to the front porch. The man held an umbrella over his head, and with coaxing and persuasion and some stern words about taking better care of himself, they helped him to a police car parked a short distance down the hill.
At first, Harry resisted. He was hungry, and there was half a pound of hamburger meat in the refrigerator that had to be eaten before it went bad. “Where are you taking me?” he complained. But he understood that his neighbors and the police felt there was some danger on the street, and that he had to go away, at least for a while.
A few minutes later they arrived at the town library. Half a dozen people were drinking bottled water and talking about the weather. They all looked much younger, and Harry didn't recognize any of them. The policeman showed him a cot where he could sleep, and installed him in a hard wooden chair at one of the big reading tables. There was a paper plate in front of him, with a baloney sandwich and some potato salad on it. Beside it was a paper cup of apple juice.
The librarian, a tall woman with a deeply wrinkled neck and bright blue eyes, came to introduce him to the strangers sitting across the table. He didn't get their names, but he liked the look of her. She had a braid of gray hair coiled around her head, and seemed about his age. He thought she could be trusted.
“It won't be very long, and we'll take good care of you,” the librarian said.
“I left some food in the ice box,” Harry said, still worried about the hamburger.
“Someone will look in,” she said. He wondered if she had ever had intimations of a stroke, but thought it would be improper to ask her such a personal question.
Harry ate, and then having nothing else to do, he lay down on the cot. The sound of rain was distant, muffled. The library was warm and stuffy. He felt his body had shifted into a mode of suspension, holding his stroke in abeyance until conditions were right again.
He fell asleep, and woke at first light feeling disoriented and querulous. Nothing was familiar. He wanted a cup of coffee, not some watered-down restaurant version but his own fresh-ground coffee, and some whole-wheat toast with his own organic apricot jam. He wanted to go home now, no excuses or delays. It was very quiet in the room, and the blue-eyed librarian was nowhere to be seen.
When he stood to look out the window, Harry saw that it was still raining. He looked at himself, his wrinkled trousers, the old blue shirt and the cardigan sweater he had worn yesterday and spent the night in. His shoes were beside the cot, but his socks had disappeared. His hair was falling in disorder over his ears, and the taste of the gummy sandwich from the night before was still in his mouth. Home was where he wanted to be, enjoying the first suggestion of his stroke in the comfort of his easy chair. The process had been interrupted and he wanted to get back there, back to business.
Not another person was moving. Several blanket-wrapped bodies, still as mummies, lay on cots nearby. Harry put on his shoes and the overcoat that was draped across the foot of his cot, and took an umbrella he found in the stand beside the front door. Then he stepped out on the verandah, opened the umbrella and set off, tottering slightly, into the rain.
Half an hour later, Harry stood at the end of his street. It was closed off with yellow plastic tape. Seeing no one, he bent and eased his body under the tape. Part way up to his cottage, a crack big enough to swallow a dog had opened in the blacktop. He looked in, stepped over it and continued to his gate. Another long piece of yellow tape was tied from one gatepost to the other. Harry pushed it up with the tip of the umbrella and went under.
He stepped up on his porch, leaned the umbrella against the doorframe, opened the door and went in. The house was cold. He went to the thermostat, but heard no responsive click as he turned the dial up for heat. The lamp on the glove-table beside the door was turned off. He pressed the switch, but nothing happened. He went to the stove, but there was no hiss of gas when he turned the burner knob.
There was some canned food in a cupboard. He couldn't remember what it was, but there would be something to eat if he got hungry. What Harry wanted now was to sit in his chair beside the window and summon that shivery feeling that had started the day before.
The easy chair hadn't moved. He sat down in his overcoat, pulled the blanket over his knees and looked out at the rain. It was coming down in gentle waves, like a big sheet being shaken over a bed. One or two gulls drifted through the waves, appearing and disappearing as if sketched quickly and then erased.
Harry sat very still, trying to summon the symptoms. He sat for a long time, dozing, waking, looking out at the rain, dozing again. Then he felt it, first as a vibration under his feet, then as a sense that the walls were swaying. The framed photographs rattled a little. He sat completely still, felt his pulse, then closed his eyes and waited for this wonder to unfold. The room began to tilt, and his chair slid against the windowsill.
“It's coming,” he thought. “At last, it's coming.”
The whole house began to shudder. Things fell clattering around him but Harry sat perfectly still, feeling the joyfulness of this event, willing it to continue, to complete its work in his arteries and his brain, to take him wherever he was going, where there was no rain or nothing but rain.