Hurricane in the Mountains
Sam came home from his first faculty meeting with the news that he put his name on the volunteer list for the storm. Gwen had been napping in the spare bedroom when he called up to her to come downstairs. “You hold a door for an old person, offer a seat to a pregnant woman,” Sam explained to her, “and if you have a spare room and live in the mountains, you offer to house people from the coast during a hurricane.”
“I thought the meeting was about funding,” Gwen said.
Gwen’s husband took off his blazer but did not loosen his tie. “It was. But then Professor Dwight passed around the list. I couldn’t leave my name off, could I?”
No, Gwen, thought, except that his name was her name now. An equivalence that carried shared responsibilities, but not necessarily shared prestige, as Gwen, with her adjunct position in the same department, but uninvited to the meeting, knew all too well.
The storm was due to hit the coast that night. Gwen stayed up late watching footage on TV. The ocean a monster’s mouth, devouring piers, reedy dunes. As a teenager she once went to a beach not far from the one being chewed by the sea. Coin-jangling arcades, bonfires foolishly close to the surf, taut boys with Carolina accents and field-worker strong hands. Any relic of those times was being washed away, only to survive afloat in memory. Upstairs, Gwen found Sam starfished on the mattress and snoring. She went down the short hallway to the spare room. Her room. Direct and earnest, the space was unadorned, its only comforts a casement window and a double bed. The sole light came from the small task lamp on the floor. Bare walls painted beige, the room was a cave.
The storm moved fast overnight, pushing clouds over the mountain town so opaque and bleak it looked to be midwinter, not September. The rain started at dawn. Relentless, a spurned lover on a rampage.
Midmorning, Gwen left the spare room to get coffee. Sam sat at the kitchen counter doing the previous day’s crossword. Sheet marks patterned his left cheek like scars, made him look tough and rugged, if Gwen squinted and ignored everything she knew about him.
The call came in the afternoon. Sam’s voice, magnanimous, thundered up through the floorboards. Of course they could collect the guest from the town hall. Of course they could put up the guest for as long as necessary. He came up to the spare room, poked his head around the door. Gwen pretended to read.
Sam glanced around the room. His silence was thick, judgmental. “I’ll be back soon.”
By the time his car pulled into the driveway, Gwen had managed to change the sheets, brew a fresh pot of coffee. From the window of the spare room she watched her husband and another man, clutching a cardboard box, sprint to the front steps. She ran down and opened the door to a roaring wind that drenched her as if a bucket had overturned. Sam and the guest settled in the hall, sheets of water falling from their bodies to the linoleum.
“This is Luis,” Sam said.
Luis reached a hand out from beneath the sodden box. He had an imploring face, like he was the one hosting. Tar sand stubble on his chin. His clothes were too wet to make anything of them. He smelled vegetal, buttery. Gwen gripped his hand, and the hall light drew contours on the muscles in Luis’ forearm.
Gwen took the box from their guest. It was heavy and cumbersome, filled with what seemed a number of loose objects. Probably what Luis could manage to save before his home flooded. She felt a flash of gratitude that her husband signed his name on that list.
“For you,” Luis said.
Gwen balanced the box on a knee, tried to loosen the top flaps. Luis stepped closer to help. Inside: the black-green, stippled skin of avocados, dozens of them.
“May I?” Luis put the box on the floor. “We keep a few varieties in the pantry. This one,” he said, picking up an avocado and holding it out to her in his palm, “is the Fuerte. A Mexican-Guatemalan hybrid. And this one,” he said, pulling out another avocado, “the Gwen.”
“That’s my wife’s name,” Sam said.
Luis smiled at Gwen. He had a gold incisor. “Smoky, like chipotle. My favorite.”
“I almost got a halved avocado tattooed in my armpit,” Gwen said. “I thought it would be funny, the pit of the avocado right where my armpit was.”
Sam came up behind Gwen and landed his hands on her shoulders. “And then you met me and came to your senses.”
Gwen took Luis up to the spare room. On the stairs he explained that he lived in an apartment above the restaurant he managed and would have stayed had the owner of the building not panicked when he came to install the storm battens and heard Luis’s plan. “Told me I was crazy, would get him in trouble. Made me leave, but I was ready for her, you know?”
Luis paused at the threshold to the room. Gwen had laid towels at the foot of the bed, and Luis sat down next to them. When Sam came into the spare she felt crowded, but with Luis the room widened.
That night in the main bedroom, Gwen tried to find some terrain on the bed Sam hadn’t already claimed. Her husband slept impervious, like he was the haven no storm could touch. She got up and walked down the hall. Luis slept on his side, his breath gently soughing. Her own breath fell into pace with his. Gwen summoned her feelings and they aligned like a front.
She could be the storm.
Lesley Finn holds an MFA from the University of British Columbia at Vancouver. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Litro UK, Phoebe, and Calyx. Born and raised in Baltimore, she currently lives near New Haven.
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Art Winslow Homer (Amelia B. Lazarus Fund, 1910) Public Domain