Hank fiddled with the radio while hail pelted the windshield. Sunday morning music options were slim to none.
“This is Tim Johnson broadcasting from WMPG at the University of Southern Maine. Be careful driving out there, okay? The weather’s super duper crazy.”
Hank glanced in the back seat. Robbie had his favorite earphones on. White and fluffy like slippers. His head bopping to the music, the sweetest of smiles creasing his face. The boy could listen to those Wiggles all day. Twirling that spinner on his finger. Happy as a clam.
For nearly twenty years it was their Sunday ritual. A thirty-minute drive in Hank’s pickup to the nearest McDonalds, not one but three Happy Meals to make the big guy happy, then a thirty-minute drive back to the group home. For the rest of the week, Robbie would sleep with his toy surprise under his pillow. If he’d lose it, if some other resident pinched it, he’d still have two more left. Some people had church. Hank and Robbie had McDonalds on Sundays.
The wind was blustery, the clouds dark. Hank kept scrolling the dial looking for something country but his regular stations came up dry.
“Abide in Christ. Let your spirit live among The Lord!”
“We’re getting a feed from local meteorologist, Dr. Wayne McLoud. Dr. McLoud, do you have any idea when this system will pass?”
Hank was a lapsed Catholic but old habits died hard. Instead of sitting in a pew, Hank put the day aside for catching up. Robbie was his oldest, but there were four other kids on the dole as well as two ex-wives. Steven and Belinda at the state college. Sara a junior in high school. Little Bettany in eighth grade. Each Sunday he drove from house to house, dorm room to dorm room, opening his wallet and listening to complaints. Robbie was the easy one. All hugs and no drama.
When the hail stopped, a drizzle soon turned into a curtain of rain. The windshield wipers were just about useless. Hank flipped on the defogger, then spit into his palm and circled his hand over the glass. For a few brief seconds, a porthole opened. In front of him a truck with a banana logo was driving at a crawl, throwing up tidal waves each time it passed a puddle. Hank gripped the steering wheel, leaned forward, and aimed for the center line. But each time they passed a puddle, he was blinded once more. Damn.
“Tim, we’re seeing the perfect conditions for microbursts. First a column of air slams downward…”
“Trust in The Lord, my friend. Praise to Jesus!”
Pure instinct had Hank looking again in the rearview mirror. This time instead of seeing Robbie’s head, he glimpsed a thatch of hair, the back of a neck, shoulders. Hank’s voice boomed.
“You drop that spinner again, buddy? Don’t take off your seatbelt. Remember what we talked about last time? It’s important to keep on your seatbelt.”
He set the radio tuner on auto-scan. But other than the two stations, the rest was static.
“Then BOOM! Millions of gallons of water hit the ground. It looks like a mushroom cloud upside down, Tim. Blasting out in all directions.”
Was it more efficient, Hank wondered, to alphabetize or simply enumerate his problems. For the first time in his life, he had the opportunity to make money. Lots of money. Hank was presently the proud owner of three foreclosed homes. His building crews were biting at the bit and Aubrey would add the final touches. There was no doubt in his mind he could flip them. Those Boston Brahmins in their Suburus and Audis were on the roads everyday looking for just the right weekend retreat.
But never did he imagine himself so beholden to debt. His house, his pickup—all that was near and dear, they took as collateral. One false move and he was owned by the bank.
“When in the midst of a storm, when you need to make heavy decisions—turn to the Lord for answers!”
And everything that could go wrong did. A cracked foundation. A bad well. And now Bettany needed braces and Sara wanted a fancy tutor for her SATs. Again, Hank glanced in the rearview mirror. The boy was laughing now, immune to the crappy weather, ignorant of his father’s problems, not a worry in the world.
The clouds were rolling, as black as a moonless night. He might as well add this godforsaken day to the list. He knew how it would play out. If he ran late, he’d never catch up. Once again he glared at the banana truck. He could practically touch the brake lights, the truck slowing down at each bend, its overweight rear end waddling from side to side. In the right kind of day, it was a pretty stretch of road, two lanes snaking through a forest of pines and spruce. The chokeberries were beginning to bloom, their sprays like tiny bridal bouquets.
“The heart, my friends, devises wicked imaginations…”
Of all the items on his worry list, the biggest one was Aubrey. Beautiful Aubrey. He had known many women in his life. Some lasted. Some didn’t. At the age of fifty-five, he thought his better years were behind him. But Aubrey changed everything. Hair the color of copper corkscrewing down her back. Milk white skin. Hips he could hold onto. Was it only a week since they spoke?
They were in his construction trailer. Aubrey had driven to Portland to pick up some rugs for the house on Whippoorwill Lane. It had been weeks since the two of them were alone. Just the sight of her made him woozy. Just the smell of her made him drunk. But when he grabbed her wrists, she wanted nothing of it. They were finished, she said. Done. Now all he had was that conversation, playing and replaying like a bad song.
“It’s over, Hank. I love my partner. I love my child. I’m not leaving them.”
Then she swatted his hands like he was a child. “Stop it, Hank. We have a professional relationship. We like each other and things got carried away.”
Like each other? Carried away? He grabbed her again, ran his fingers through her hair.
“Do you hear me? No is no!”
Looking back, there was fear and something worse in her eyes.
“The thing is,” she said. She rubbed away the tears staining her cheeks. “The thing is I got pregnant. I’ve got a daughter heading to college. Bad knees and a tricky back. It’s like something out of the Old Testament, right? At my age to get pregnant!”
Suddenly Hank couldn’t breathe. He held his stomach and bent over like he was sucker punched. “Pregnant? Does Rae know?”
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t forget the way she looked at him. It was a look that could cut granite. A stare that could freeze stone.
“I made something up. Lied. Told her I was having a D & C for women’s problems.”
“What?” he said. Believing and not believing. “What?”
“You heard me, Hank. I took care of it last week.”
“For a few short minutes, even seconds, wind gusts can exceed 100 miles per hour. Then the frenzy’s over as quickly as it started. People have no idea what hit them.”
The banana truck was driving him crazy. Hank glanced again at his watch and honked the horn. They were in a straightaway so it was now or never. He knew he shouldn’t pass it. It was dumb to pass it. But then he thought of those prissy bankers in their Brooks Brothers shirts and those poor babies curled like little lima beans in the newspaper ads. So without thinking, working on instinct and rage alone, Hank put his foot on the gas and pulled to his left.
First a surge of water smacked the windshield. When he felt the pickup wobble, he just gripped the steering wheel harder. Then once more he pressed down on the pedal. Within seconds, he was eye to eye with the truck’s cab, saw the driver hunched over, a pair of gloved knuckles at ten and two. In the distance he saw two headlights coming in his direction and for a split second thought Christ Almighty the wind’s a sonabitch. It’s pushing me back. It’s pushing me back.
“Trust that Salvation will be yours!”
He had no choice but to lower his foot even more. The speedometer was registering fifty but still he pushed.
“Papa, we almost there? I hungry. I hungry.”
Rack this one up as another bad choice. Underneath his hands the steering wheel felt disconnected. Then he remembered his tires. When was the last time he checked the tires? Was there even any tread on those old tires left?
Lord, he prayed. Just get me to McDonalds and I’ll do church. I’ll do confession. I’ll do it all.
The headlights in front of him were drawing nearer as he inched his way past the truck. After what was surely seconds but seemed like forever he pulled to the right. Finally, he glanced into his side view mirror and watched the banana truck’s hood fade into the mist.
“Just a few more minutes, Buddy. We’re almost there.”
Looking back, he remembered everything. The stray dog on the shoulder, soaked, trying to make up its mind whether or not to cross the road. An evergreen shaking its boughs and bending like it was going to break. An empty paint can flying like it was weightless, missing his front fender by inches.
“Experience the wonder of your creator! Empty your pockets of sin and your mind of despair.”
Should he have told her that he loved her? Would it have made a difference? There was always someone to blame and that someone was usually him.
“What do you mean you took care of it?” he said.
Again she shot him that look. “I’ve been with Rae over twenty years. Sure it’s not perfect. But she’s family, the only real family I’ve ever had. If she knew I was cheating, it would kill her.”
“A life is a life,” he wanted to say. Instead he felt himself shrinking, disappearing into the shadows, a moment away from vanishing completely. Sound seemed suspended—as if Aubrey’s voice were riding a bandwidth from another time, another place.
“Besides, Hank. There are statistics. At my age, the chance of Down Syndrome, the chance of autism. Anything can gone wrong.”
He’d never told her about Robbie. The group home was the next village over, and there was no reason to trot him up and down the streets like some prized pet. The boy was happy at the home. He had his friends, his schedule. Besides, they lived in a small town. Gossip spread. He thought everyone knew.
“I’m afraid, Tim, that there’s no getting around a microburst once you’re caught in one. The best advice is to steer clear of probable storms.”
A wave of sadness engulfed him. In truth his list of worries had no particular order of size or importance. Each and every one had a stranglehold. Money. Orthodonture. Dry wells. Wet roads. Lost souls. But what were the alternatives? The pickup was surging forward. Rain hammered the roof. Visibility was poor. He didn’t see the lake of water standing on the blacktop until he hit it.
Suddenly his rear wheels seemed to have a mind of their own. Usually the bed of the pickup was packed with supplies. But that day the bed was empty and the cab front-loaded. Slowly the rear yawed, the pickup turning clockwise, hydroplaning on the water like a pair of skates on ice.
Time stretched. Hank honked his horn to scare the dog, checked Robbie to make sure he was seat belted in, looked over the surrounding landscape searching for a wide stretch of field. His foot off the gas, he steered with the skid and waited for traction to take hold. All around him pinpoints of light grew closer and closer. When the spinning stopped, he slid backwards. The speedometer was at fifty-three. The banana truck was coming up the pike.
He pumped the brakes but the piece of shit ABS brakes didn’t work. The truck was a hundred yards away, the driver blinking his lights and sounding his horn. And all at once a feeling took hold, a feeling both helpless and wonderful at the same time. There was nothing Hank could do but flow—flow with the skid, flow with his women, flow with the spreadsheets no matter how they added up. Sometimes all the Crazy Glue in the universe can’t hold your life together.
“Whee!” said Robbie.
“Hallelujah!” said the radio.
Just a few feet before contact, a bounce in the pickup jolted them. At last the rear wheels hugged the asphalt. In his peripheral vision, Hank caught glimpses of the driver, the dog, a green mile marker, a clump of honeysuckle. Sitting tall, his spine straight and his thoughts clear, he aimed toward the open road and never glanced back.