As Hurricane Alicia drifted north-northup the Gulf Coast from Veracruz, Mexico, Sonny Atwill stood outside McCoy's Lumber hanging no plywood signs in the windows. A gray, blurring rain blew over the parking lot, diffusing the headlights of cars waiting for empty spaces. Horns blared and bleated. In addition to the plywood being gone, the store was low on batteries, masking tape, flashlights, kerosene lanterns, bottled water, sandbags and propane. Originally the Hurricane Center had predicted that Baffin Bay, Texas, would bear the brunt, but revised reports had it heading for Corpus Christi, making landfall that evening. Sonny believed the storm would veer south, go in around Laredo; he'd projected its course with a grease pencil on his laminated hurricane map.
When he came back inside the store, a woman was sitting at the bottom of a rolling ladder in the cabinet fixtures aisle, crying. She had her face cupped in her hands. He thought to sidestep the hassle and let someone else explain that the store was sold out of everything she would need. This was what he'd learned over the years: Stay out of it. He was fifty-nine, retired from Coastal Oil Refinery, working ten hours a week at McCoy's because his doctor wanted him to exercise. Usually he was off on Friday, but when the shipment had unexpectedly arrived last night, the manager had ponied up ten sheets of plywood for Sonny himself to use, plus regular pay, if he would clock in this morning. The woman kept her back to him as she stood. Leave her be, he thought once more--let the husband come. Yet he was drawn to her, reluctantly compelled to suggest other lumberyards and offer the possibility that the storm would spare them. Then, hurriedly, she turned and their eyes met. "Sonny," she said. He took a single unintentional step backward, emptied and suspended.
"My sister," Nora finally said, but then she fell to weeping again. She wore a white scoop neck blouse, faded jeans. In twelve years, she'd lost ten, maybe twenty pounds; her ring finger was naked. Sonny knelt beside her, vaguely hearing the announcement that McCoy's would close in fifteen minutes. Whenever his son had been excited, he'd said butterflies were tickling his palms, and now that seemed the perfect description for the way Sonny felt. Nora wiped her eyes and said, "My sister has huge windows."
For years, he had thrown hurricane parties. Named storms hit four and five times a season, and he would clean out the garage and fry flounder and invite people from the oil refinery. They sat in frayed lawn chairs and drank Schlitz, watching a storm's edge cut off the horizon like a charcoal sheet and playing cards--Mexican Sweat, Texas Hold'em, Stud--until the wind howled. Then they slipped into plastic ponchos and danced. He'd mounted a battery-powered radio over the workbench (to hear the Oilers lose while he fiddled with the lawn mower), and they listened to tapes--Anne Murray, George Jones, Johnny Rodriguez. Once, a Kmart sign had cartwheeled through the yard. A man from the refinery had brought Janice Steele to the party, then she'd borrowed Sonny's phone to call her sister and invite her. When the storm broke up and the others left, Nora stayed.
That was 1972, the year he was named supervisor of an eight-man crew. He was thirty-one, Nora twenty-six. She shelved books at the library while attending the community college at night; she aimed to earn her teaching certificate. They had been together a few months when he bought the house he'd been renting on Shamrock Street. She moved in, filling the rooms with her expensive, honeyed shampoos, hanging ivies and matted photographs. Each Sunday they drove to an open-air restaurant on the Laguna Madre and ate baskets of shrimp and hush puppies. One night she said, "Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy."
Her voice was so low and cool that his heart stuttered. He asked, "Does that mean you want another beer?"
"It means I want you to marry me."
The wind lifted a corner of the red-checked tablecloth, raising it gently from the slatted table then dropping it again; waves sloshed heavily against pylons; the smell of batter and fish and salt-splashed cedar; the divine heat in his chest, like a ray of light refracted in a jewel.
The weather slacked off after mccoy's closed. Sonny followed Nora to her sister's on Del Mar Street. The talk-radio station he liked was overrun with storm coverage: Authorities had taken down traffic lights around the harbor and were evacuating boats from the bay; Alicia's sustained winds topped 115 miles per hour; the Navy was tying down vessels in mooring systems and deploying others to sea; ferry service had been halted, and soon rising tides would close off Padre and Mustang Islands. Residents were advised to bring in pets, stock up on canned goods, caulk bathtub drains and fill the tubs with water.
She drove slowly, her brake lights blinking like Morse code. Traffic was bottlenecked at the freeway; shoe-polished windshields read help us jesus and go away alicia! The city's south side was flooding. Corpus seemed transformed, like a dream version of itself from which a somnolent atmosphere had been cast off; wind made street signs tremble. What he felt behind the wheel was a long-dormant vulnerability. When he had offered Nora his plywood--it lay in his truck bed, under the camper--she had accepted by saying, "So here we go again."
Del Mar was a wide, palm-lined street, a quarter mile from the bay. The house was a five-bedroom with a French garden and greenhouse that Sonny had helped build; Janice grew orchids. She was summering in Italy--"with some Guido," as Nora put it--so she was house-sitting. Janice was an attorney who had never married, and whenever Sonny had passed the house in intervening years, he thought a place so large would depress you to live alone in. Years before, he'd moved into an all-utilities-paid duplex and put the money from the Shamrock house in mutual funds. He wondered if Nora had avoided Shamrock since she'd been back, or if she'd seen the newly painted trim, the garden trellis and oak saplings, the lush elephant ears she'd never been able to grow.
He backed into the gravel driveway, doubting he could finish boarding up before the sky opened again. The house looked larger, the windows higher. Nora had calmed; maybe she'd taken a tranquilizer. She greeted him now with a familiar distractedness, an improbable air of casual lightness, as if she'd just returned from shopping and needed to get some milk into the icebox. Her rejuvenation disappointed him, as did how quickly she disappeared inside. He'd hoped she might ask his opinion on Alicia, maybe even tear up again. He buckled his tool belt and switched out the bit in the cordless drill he'd borrowed from McCoy's. He hoisted each sheet of plywood onto his thigh, held it to the house with his left hand, then screwed the sides, corners, top, bottom. Twice the drill twisted and caught the flesh between his thumb and finger. He took breathers between gusts and each breath felt like a spear in his ribs. Hammers banged on nearby streets; a circular saw whined; a woman started calling for a pet named Scooter. Sonny tried not to stomp the snapdragons and budding hydrangeas, but that proved impossible.
And not unexpectedly he heard Max--the memory of his voice still strong and clear, like a good radio signal. They could've been sitting in the Shamrock kitchen, the boy's elbows propped on the newly laid-in countertop, an evening when they studied for the merit badge test. He was eight, fawn-skinned and sharp-cheeked like Nora, fascinated by windmills and in the habit of climbing into their bed after they'd gone to sleep. Recently he'd been prone to lying, was in fact currently grounded for it. The restriction opened up the after-supper hours to tie knots and practice splinting broken limbs and to review the history of the Karankawa Indians, the first inhabitants of South Texas: Members of the tribe stood over six feet tall, wore no clothes and were known cannibals; they slept on dried palms, tattooed themselves from head to foot and smeared the inside of their leaky pottery with asphaltum that had washed ashore. Sonny asked Max for the translation of the tribe's name.
The boy filled his cheeks with air, pouting, stalling, then he exhaled. He said, "Waterwalkers."
"No," Sonny said. "Dog-raisers."
"But also Waterwalkers," he said. "They can also be called Waterwalkers."
At Janice's, the drill twisted again, and Nora said, "Guess you didn't need help."
Her voice made him feel cornered, ashamed. She had changed into a loose sweater, a fisherman's hat and old sneakers. He'd liked her in the scoop neck and wished she hadn't taken it off, though maybe that was precisely why she had.
"Small potatoes," he said. It was not something he'd said before, and he had no idea where it had come from. His heart was still pumping hard. His face felt raddled, his mind dull; he regretted that he hadn't shaved before work, that he'd worn such a wrinkled shirt.
"That one would've been a bugger," he said.
The front of the two-story house across the street was more glass than brick.
"Architects," she said. "Remember? The Christmas party."
"That's all a blur for me. The old noggin mixes things up lately."
"I doubt that. But if you're serious, at least you held out longer than I did."
He returned to the plywood, cranking down already tight screws. He wanted to shy away from solemn conversations.
"The first storm of the season, in August, and it just turned Category Four."
"Welcome home," he said, but the words sounded laden, riven with an inappropriate, boastful enthusiasm. He said, "We'll get some wind, but she'll spare us. There'll be a good haul of shrimp behind the weather."
"Alicia. They always pick pretty names for the first ones."
She had believed this since he'd known her and had always cited the first storms--Ayla, Antonio, Amelia--to evidence her point. That she still observed it pleased him.
A kettle whistled inside Janice's kitchen, a room where he'd carved beef for holidays, Super Bowls, the funeral. The night of the architects' party, he'd crossed the street for more gin and spied Janice bent over the butcher-block table, the architect biting her neck and groping her breasts.
A stiff breeze riffled the palms near the street. Across Ocean Drive, the sky faded downward by degrees, violet to lavender to oyster silver, until at last it softened into a seam of sallow light on the horizon.
Nora said, "I boiled water. I thought some tea might take our mind off things."
Once, he'd seen Janice in the clubhouse of Oso Municipal Golf Course. She'd played nine holes with partners from the law firm and sat at the bar drinking screwdrivers. Raking her fingers through her hair and leaning back to expel plumes of smoke, she resembled Nora. The men around her burst into laughter at a joke she made while fishing through her purse. One of them said, "That is a hole in one," as she started for the door. Sonny thought he'd escaped her, then she shuffled over to his booth. He was finishing a Reuben--gratis, like his rounds, because he maintained the course's carts and sprinklers on weekends--and he was reading about Karankawas.
He said, "These fellas used to slather themselves with mud and shark grease."
"Injun Old Spice," said Janice. Her eyes were red-rimmed, her lips slow.
"Repelled mosquitoes," he said. "They also talked--communicated--with their mouths closed."
"So do those lawyers." She pointed at them with her chin.
Her hair was cropped, highlighted white and gold. Not a style Nora would ever wear, so having confused the resemblance irritated him. He'd intended to carry on about the Karankawas, explain how they would tie lanterns to a mule's neck and lead it in circles on darkened beaches to attract vessels at sea. A captain would read the distant light as a buoy and steer his boat toward the harbor he assumed it marked. By the time he realized his mistake, he'd have struck the outer sandbar and the naked Indians would emerge with spears. But now all of that seemed trivial and Sonny explained nothing. He heard himself say, "I haven't gotten a word in a while."
Immediately he wished he'd not mentioned Nora, and at the same time he wanted Janice to spill what she knew. For a while, he'd received postcards and late-night weepy calls. He told her that he'd not contested when Coastal proposed the early retirement; she said she missed hearing surf reports on the radio, missed good chalupas. He resisted the urge to call her Honey or Love or No-No. They never spoke of Max. Then the communications dwindled, and a blankness set in, as if not reporting his actions to Nora, not even planning to report them, stripped them of any significance. She had lived in Michigan, Arizona, Nebraska and North Dakota, locales untouched by the ocean, and he knew she would never return to Corpus. His days were incurably wide and ponderous, and at night he fought phantom jealousies of other men.
After the retirement, he'd moved through life like a fugitive, trepidatious and worried that he would meet someone from the old times. If he glimpsed an acquaintance in the supermarket, he lingered on a far-off aisle or abandoned a full cart of groceries and fled to his truck. If someone caught him, at McCoy's or Oso or a pre-dawn bait stand, his veins surged with dreadful eagerness. Those mundane encounters left him utterly unsure of his identity. No longer a father, no longer a husband. And though he felt on the verge of some old, indolent connection--maybe they felt that, too--he'd erected such sturdy walls, perfected such inconspicuous deflections that the conversations passed without even the slightest revelation. The men told him about the refinery hub, which plants were producing more barrels per day, who had passed on and who was stealing compressors to sell out of his garage; they avoided mention of families. Sonny spoke of golf and fishing; he told them he was living the life he'd always worked for.
At the clubhouse Janice had run her tongue between her teeth and lips. She was older than Nora by five years, but people had always thought her younger.
"She's working at a bakery. In Ann Arbor," she said. "But that's yesterday's sad tune. I want to hear about good old Sonny."
He said, "I put one foot in front of the other, like a good soldier."
"And the ladies? Still need a stick to keep them away?"
He washed down the last of his Reuben and wiped his mouth with a napkin. Lois Whipple was at her house, slow-cooking a roast, vacuuming, and curling her hair for tonight. He'd been seeing her for two months, but already he smelled the relationship rotting on the vine.
"No," he said. "Mostly they stay away on their own."
That same afternoon his shoulder numbed. On the sixth green, he recognized the tingling in his fingers and sharp punches in his chest with an almost grateful, razorlike clarity. In his mind was the image of a fist squeezing an aorta, of a child clenching a water balloon, dreading and courting the moment it bursts. He replaced his putter, sat down and waited.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston. Copyright © 2004 by Bret Anthony Johnston. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.