Cornelius Drake held the sheet of plywood in position while his brother-in-law boarded up the last window. Between each thud of the hammer, he heard his nephew’s squeals as the toddler marched around the driveway in his walker crunching dropped Cheerios. Behind the boy, the swollen Tar River churned its course toward the dam.
“That boy sure loves Cheerios,” Cornelius said.
“I buy mini-basketballs, plastic toolkits, even bought a finger-sized baseball glove,” Ronnie said. “You think he plays with them? Hell no. All he wants to play with is Cheerios and his Momma’s laundry basket.”
“He’s an odd duck,” Cornelius said.
“Got that from your side of the family,” Ronnie said, pounding in the last nail.
Cornelius laughed the same corny duh-huh he and his sister always used when someone poked fun at their last name, which happened more often than not thanks to their father. He led a country-western band called Daddy Drake’s Hens. Cornelius’s grandmother played bass, his mother played fiddle, his aunt played guitar, and his sister played the electric organ. Daddy played drums and sang. It was a family affair and Cornelius considered it a minor miracle that he was born a boy.
The Hens were playing the first of the season’s hurricane parties at the country club. The rich, golfing rednecks gathered at the clubhouse to toast the storm with Hurricane daiquiris mixed in the ladies locker room hot tub. The men wore powder-red tuxedos and the popular ensembles for women were revealing cocktail dresses stitched from hurricane warning flags. When the power went, The Hens played acoustic by candlelight. It was a party.
“You coming in for a beer?” Ronnie asked. “It’s just me and the little man tonight.”
“No, I’m heading home,” Cornelius said. “Check the trailer’s tarp.”
“Stay for the beer,” Ronnie said. “I’ll even cook you a steak.”
“I’ll stay for a bit,” Cornelius said and gathered up the tools while Ronnie chased the little man around the driveway. Each time Ronnie closed in on his son, Coburn tossed a fistful of Cheerios in his direction and scooted away. When Ronnie finally got a hold of him, he held him upside down by the ankles and zerberted his white stomach until his entire head turned red. Coburn’s giggle was infectious and put both men in good spirits.
* * *
From inside, the sky seemed to cast a greenish glow on the darkened house. The men had covered every window, but forgot the skylights. The light gave Cornelius a sunken feeling like he was sitting on the bottom of an emerald lake.
“Hold the little man, will you?” Ronnie said. “I’ll get some beers.”
Cornelius held his nephew in his lap. It felt good to hold Coburn’s warm body and he pulled the boy to his chest to feel him breathe. He thought of his own daughter and how he used to check on her each night by laying his palm on her chest to feel it rise and fall. Before he could remember the night she felt cold, he poked Coburn’s sides to keep him laughing.
Ronnie came back with two Buds, a juice box and the laundry basket. He put the basket on the floor, sat Coburn inside and handed him the juice box.
“Look at the little man,” Ronnie said. “Drinking with the big boys.”
“He put in a hard day’s work,” Cornelius said. “But he forgot to buy wood for the skylights.”
“Damn, Cobe, you can’t win with your Uncle Corn,” Ronnie said and tugged on Coburn’s foot. “Hell, look at that sky. Greener than my shit.”
“What you been eating, Ronnie?” Cornelius asked.
“Beef,” Ronnie said. “That reminds me, let’s get those steaks marinating. Need another beer?”
“I better take it slow,” Cornelius said and peered through the skylight. Before a hurricane the sky almost always takes on a greenish tint–something to do with a drop in atmospheric pressure and an unequal amount of positive and negative ions. Cornelius understood the science, but this sky looked especially menacing. As if to confirm the threat, a thunderclap shook the house and the lights flickered. Coburn dropped his juice box and started to wail. Cornelius pulled him into his lap just as the first drops of rain pounded against the skylight.
“He hates storms,” Ronnie said and took Coburn. He pushed one of the boy’s ears to his chest and pressed his palm to the other one. “Only way to calm him is to put him down.”
“It’s getting close,” Cornelius said. “I ought to get home.”
“It’s aiming for us, you stay here,” Ronnie said. “Drink my beer and start cooking.”
* * *
Cornelius finished off the beers and opened and slammed cabinets looking for a frying pan. Each shelf was labeled based on food groups and the required kitchen utensils to cook them. Enough canned goods lined the shelves to survive a nuclear holocaust. It was obvious his sister had become a banker’s wife–practical to the extent of perversion. Still, he struggled to imagine his sister living in this house and stacking these shelves. It seemed odd to him that two lives could turn out so different.
Cornelius located the frying pan, some green beans and two potatoes. He turned on the TV and sat down with a potato peeler and a third Budweiser. The weather map showed a picture of the Atlantic. Africa fired hurricanes across the ocean into the Carolina coast like a Roman candle–North Carolina jutting out waiting to catch one on the chin. The weather lady, a girl he smoked grass with in high school, traced the hurricane’s patterns and predicted when they would make landfall. Watching her walk back and forth across the ocean, Cornelius admired how well she seemed to have a handle on things. At some point, his hands got wet and things slipped.
“The little man’s down for the count,” Ronnie said and pulled the steaks out of the refrigerator. “What does the weatherlady have to say?”
“Time to open the whiskey and pray.”
“You may get stuck here a couple of days.”
“They’re worse places. At least I won’t starve. I’ll even get proper nutrition.”
“It’s cheaper to buy in bulk.”
“You know all about it, don’t you, Corn?”
Cornelius let it pass. The men didn’t talk while they cooked. Cornelius mashed the potatoes and Ronnie laid the steaks on the frying pan. The marinade smelled sweet and good like wood chips from a whiskey barrel. Cornelius melted butter for the potatoes and fried some bacon to mix with the green beans. The men felt proud of their meal and Ronnie opened a bottle of red wine.
Cornelius cut the volume on the weather report and they sat down to eat. They watched the muted reporters–backed against telephone poles or hunched low to the ground–dodge tree limbs, awnings and shopping carts while reporting live from the hurricane. Once a cute young reporter lost her footing and the wind sat her down and blew her across a parking lot. The men laughed until they heard the wind blowing like a train over the pounding rain on the skylight.
“This one might do some damage,” Cornelius said. “I can’t afford to lose my trailer.”
“Have another glass of wine,” Ronnie said.
“You aren’t a little uneasy? What about The Hens out at the country club?”
“Worrying is a waste of my time.”
“Aren’t you an enlightened son-of-a-bitch?”
“You got insurance, don’t you?”
Cornelius chugged his glass of wine and poured another.
“Shit. Time to take the weatherlady’s advice.” Ronnie unlocked the liquor cabinet and poured two Irish whiskeys; the men finished their meal in silence.
The power went while they were washing dishes. Ronnie lit some candles and rounded up the weather radio and the bottle of whiskey. He cleared his throat to break the silence. “Speaking of insurance, I got some news that may help you rest easy.”
“I’m sleeping fine these days.”
“It’s a business opportunity, Corn. I’m trying to do you a favor.”
Cornelius hated it when Ronnie talked down to him, but it was dark and Cornelius decided he could handle it as long as he couldn’t see Ronnie’s face. Cornelius sat down at the kitchen table, fumbled for the whiskey bottle and settled back to hear his brother-in-law’s bullshit.
“I appreciate your help with the windows, Corn,” Ronnie said and sat down across from Cornelius. He tried to search Cornelius’s eyes out in the dark. “How’s your drinking? I know we’ve been drinking tonight.”
“Goddamn it, Ronnie. You’ve drunk as much as me,” Cornelius said and then counted up the drinks in his head to make sure this was true. “I mean, goddamn.”
“That ain’t what I mean,” Ronnie said. “Just me and Lisbeth have noticed how at ease you are with Coburn. We just thought you were getting over things.”
“She isn’t a thing you get over.”
“But you’re not self-medicating anymore?”
Cornelius slid his chair back. “I know what it cost me.”
Ronnie stood up and held both his hands out over the table. “I found a job for you, is all. I just wanted to make sure you’re straight.”
“What’s the job?”
“Your Daddy offered me the manager position at the farm,” Ronnie said. “I told him I wouldn’t take it unless I could rehire you as assistant.”
“He agreed to that?”
“You know all about farming,” Ronnie said. “As long as you stay clean and don’t blow payroll on crack.”
Cornelius pushed his chair under the table and walked to the door. He gripped the doorknob and felt it rattle in his hand. The vibration stopped and Cornelius pulled open the door. Black river water flooded the driveway. “Jesus,” Cornelius said and stepped onto the stoop. He slipped on the wet bricks and splashed down on his hip in front of his car.
* * *
Cornelius stood naked on the kitchen linoleum and laid his wet clothes on the backs of chairs. He dried himself off with a soft yellow towel. It was Ronnie’s towel. Cornelius knew this because ‘Ronnie’ was embroidered across the bottom. A good-sized bruise was starting to form on his hip. He poked it a few times to see the white spots his fingertips made. Then he wrapped the towel around his waist and walked into the den.
Ronnie lay on the couch. The weather radio, tuned to a rock station, sat on the television stand. “Rock and Roll Band” by Boston played and Ronnie sang along with the chorus. Cornelius spotted a fresh whiskey bottle stuffed in between the couch cushions. “You have a bathrobe for me?”
Ronnie nodded to a silk robe laid across a leather recliner. Cornelius dropped the towel and wrapped himself up. He pointed to his sister’s initials embroidered where her boob would be.
“You are pretty,” Ronnie said. “You better hope I don’t get lonely tonight.”
Both men laughed, hoping to shake off the tension between them. After they caught their breath, they looked at each other and felt rid of it.
“I know shit about farming,” Ronnie said.
“I could teach you,” Cornelius said. “But if that rattle was the dam giving way then we may not have a chance. I don’t see the farm recovering from that.”
“Maybe the government will bail us out.”
“I think you better let me have that whiskey,” Cornelius said. “You think The Hens will be alright?”
“If the water don’t rise,” Ronnie said. “We’re so far upriver. I doubt it will.”
“I bet they’re having a hell of time.”
“That a boy. Don’t let your worries ruin our fun.”
The men weathered the storm by drinking whiskey and singing along with the radio until they passed out.
* * *
Sometime in the night Cornelius woke up shaking. At first he thought he was sick, but it was a different kind of cold. Most of the candles had burned out; the lit ones were just flames floating in pools of wax. While he waited for his eyes to adjust, he listened to the wind and rain buffeting the house. He knew they were in the thick of the storm.
As the objects in the room distinguished themselves from the shadows, Cornelius recognized that something was wrong. He sat up in his recliner and his feet splashed into water. “Ronnie. The house is flooding.”
Ronnie stood up and tripped over the coffee table. The water was up to his knees. He waded across the living room into the kitchen. “Goddamn,” he said, looking down the hall to Coburn’s room. He opened the liquor cabinet and started drinking. Cornelius waded past him. The water was deeper at this end of the house and Cornelius had to lean against the boy’s door to push it open. His nephew’s crib floated on top of the water. The little man lay on his back.
Cornelius pushed through the water and steadied the crib. He laid his cold hand on his nephew’s chest and felt it rise and fall.