The Blue Tarp
Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Her brother had served two tours in Afghanistan, and her uncle was an injured Vietnam vet. Even still, Dixie wasn’t prepared for life in a veritable war zone. Nearly three days had passed since Hurricane Michael barreled through Panama City, and it still felt dangerous to be out at night. The only way to help her five-year-old son, Conner, fall asleep was to read him a comic book by candle light and then fan his sweaty face with a newspaper until his breathing eventually slowed to a snore. She quickly ran out of entertaining activities to preoccupy him that didn’t require electricity. Her patience thinned significantly as the reality settled in that Conner’s school would not be resuming any time soon.
Dixie realized how fortunate it was that her roof weathered the storm after helping her elderly neighbor, Mr. Murray, wrap half his house in a blue tarp. Dixie’s on-again, off-again Air Force beau, Brad, thankfully lent a hand after showing up in his tank-like truck. As much as Dixie wanted to give Brad the cold shoulder for ditching them during the storm, she knew it was unreasonable to expect him to leave his post at the base. Besides, it was nice to see his muscles.
“Look at your place!” Mr. Murray gushed from a faded lawn chair as they labored to staple the fraying edges of the tarp to the side of his home. He maintained his post as sentinel of their street in his red chair, having left it only during the worst of the storm.
“We were so lucky,” Dixie said, hoping he wasn’t bitter.
“Out of all the houses on this street, yours still looks like it’s in one piece. It’s a wonder. A real blessing.” Mr. Murray’s wrinkled face stretched into a smile.
“It was a God thing,” she said, but then immediately regretted letting the words slip. They sprung from her childhood of influential conversations with her faithful Aunt Judy. Now, believing that she alone had divine protection in this situation seemed pretentious, even cruel. In her embarrassment, Dixie suddenly wanted to be stapled up in the blue tarp, too.
A few nights after the eye passed over, Brad grilled hotdogs he’d smuggled from the Air Force base, and an impromptu block party ensued. The tantalizing smell alone drew a small crowd, which Brad would not turn away. Everyone needed a reason to celebrate, despite the blocked roads and power outage, he told Dixie with a coaxing grin. People seemed friendly and desperate for conversation, but Dixie hated being the center of attention. She was paranoid that people viewed her as the only one left unscathed, offering handouts to her less-fortunate neighbors. Dixie made sure Conner invited Mr. Murray, but she avoided interacting with him again. The old man remained in his chair since the narrow yard between their houses became the focal point of the gathering. She secretly watched Mr. Murray display his blue roof and siding to their neighbors in his ingratiating way.
This collection of buzzing adults and children munching on hotdogs had never before gathered together until now, on Dixie’s lawn, under a blood-red sunset sky that had just turned their lives upside down. It felt like a forced slumber party without any of the popular kids. At least Brad had found some beers, too.
As the days passed slowly, Dixie was most unsettled by the anxiety of waiting. Waiting for something to change. To feel safer, calmer, and cleaner; or more likely, for the worst to happen again. Every sudden sound threatened to be another hurricane. It wasn’t like waiting for her brother to return from overseas or for her son’s due date. It was a waiting that didn’t seem to have an end point.
By the end of the week there was a flurry of activity at the end of her street and news spread quickly that crews of exhausted emergency responders had removed the debris blocking the major roads. Mrs. Baxter with the severely swollen leg was the first to leave, and then many of Dixie’s stir-crazy neighbors filed out by the end of the day. But there was nowhere to go. There were reports that the entire region was littered with downed trees, roofs torn from houses, smashed windows and looted businesses. Dixie got a call when her cell phone came back to life that her job at the local mall was gone, and there was a voicemail from her stepsister saying that she’d left town with her family without plans to return. Loneliness flooded the streets with no sign of receding.
The first few days of the second week consisted mainly of Dixie sipping tea on the stoop outside her kitchen door, since the front porch was too visible, and staring blankly at the ponding water in the empty lot across the street. A pile of debris formed on the marshy soil as her neighbors heaped pieces of their former lives into an offering for the landfill. She was worried about her dwindling supply of food and the next mortgage payment, but somehow watching the growing monument of the hurricane’s destruction kept her anxiety from becoming unbearable.
Time moved slowly, the hours strung out like honey pouring into her tea. Conner was very perceptive and offered to play a round of Connect Four, but this ended abruptly in one of his asthmatic coughing fits. Brad hadn’t shown his face in a while, and he said on the phone that he needed to stay on base to assist with relief efforts. Dixie was so tired of talking only to Conner that she cursed at Brad, standing in the kitchen and yelling into her phone, which was on the verge of dying. Through the window she saw Mr. Murray, always occupying his chair a stone’s throw away, looking back at her red face with a squinting grin. She immediately hung up without saying goodbye.
The rain came again the following morning, violent and heavy. The sky emptied in minutes but intermittent roof leaks dripped for hours, ringing unkindly against the metal pots scattered around the house. In some strange way, it was a relief to Dixie that her house finally showed its vulnerability. Conner curled into a ball on the couch and slept all morning. As soon as her head began throbbing, Dixie retrieved her emergency pack of cigarettes and retreated out the kitchen door into the humidity. She smoked one, and then another and another. It was therapeutic, except for the coughing, which she expected would elicit a scolding from her son. At least her headache relented.
The mist cleared eventually and Dixie strolled to the front yard to survey her neighbor’s houses. Across the riverine street, a fallen tree had been sectioned and stacked away from the house catty corner to hers, which looked like it had been sliced through the living room with a carving knife. The driveway was empty; she guessed that the couple, who the day before had added many items to the trash pile, may have now abandoned the house. The pink house down the row was outwardly still intact, but Dixie could see the recent storm runoff ponding against the house again as it had during the hurricane. Children splashed around in the murky water, but their parents, peering sullenly through a partially-boarded window, seemed too tired to tell them to stop.
“Hey, you.” It was the old man next door.
“Hi, Mr. Murray.” Dixie wiped her face with the back of her hand and discretely snuffed her cigarette into the concrete sidewalk below her feet.
“I haven’t seen that man come around in a while.” Mr. Murray smiled, his dentures glowing eerily in the shadow cast over his face. Dixie bit her lip to avoid laughing, even though the old man’s question caused her pain over her would-be boyfriend.
“You look good, Mr. Murray. Do you still have enough water?”
He motioned her over, and Dixie reluctantly hobbled over to sit on a cinder block next to the remnants of his carport awning. The gaping hole and leaning roof were still patched up in the blue tarp, a gigantic bandaid on a festering wound that would not see the attention it required anytime soon. Up close, Mr. Murray looked even thinner than usual, and his eyes were barely open beneath his bushy eyebrows.
“I need a cigarette,” he wheezed.
“I’ll do you one better.” Buoyed by a rush of purpose, Dixie returned to her kitchen and prepared some food for them after checking on Conner. The adults ate and then shared a smoke in the quiet. It was eerie to not see any cars pass by. Dixie sensed her neighbor’s breathing even out, but she did not look at him again. Instead, she gazed over the wind-torn roofs to the clear sky that had so recently betrayed them. What a cruel twist of fate that brought the pair together, even though they had lived footsteps apart for so long. An hour had passed when she was startled at the sound of Mr. Murray’s sobs, muffled at first, but then growing like the waves of an oncoming storm.
“What did I do to deserve this?” He sat hunched over with his face pressed into his gnarled hands, murmuring after his outburst. Dixie blinked a few times before her empathy kicked in.
“It’s ok, Mr. Murray. You’re not alone in this.” Dixie craned her neck to try to get his attention. The old man’s body continued to shake as he let his hands fall limply into his lap.
“I’m not sad. I’m just... glad to still be alive.” Mr. Murray looked up, and his tear-filled gaze caught Dixie off guard. “And to be living next to such nice folks. Thank you, thank you for helping me.” His lips trembled as he tried to close them around his fake teeth.
“It was the right thing to do.” Dixie took one of his hands into hers. Her nose twitched in an attempt to hold back her own tears.
“There’s always evil people around. But the good people, God’s children, come and help.” Mr. Murray shook his head solemnly.
I don’t know if it’s that simple, she wanted to say, but Mr. Murray was very forceful in his words. She just nodded along.
“If my legs worked better I’d be up helping, too. And telling the other people about how you reached out to me.”
“I know you’re doing what you can. We all are.” She glanced around again at the remains of the houses along their street.
“I’m just happy. You know what I mean?” Mr. Murray squeezed her hand. Dixie extended her arm around the man’s frail shoulders and hugged him. She felt seen, close, and peaceful for the first time since the storm. She wanted to hold onto this moment for as long as she could.
“I’m glad for you. It’s hard to be happy when things can’t go back to normal,” Dixie whispered on Mr. Murray’s shoulder. She thought about her brother in his wheelchair, his arms still strong but his legs missing, left behind in the Middle East. The stubborn excuses for not calling him seemed thin and fragile now.
“It’s ok if you don’t feel it,” Mr. Murray said as they parted. “But there’s hope, I know there is. Something better at the end of this.” He sighed deeply as Dixie stood up.
“Thanks for believing in it. For both of us,” Dixie said softly.
She turned back to her own house, its brick facade and roof unscathed. Her neighbor over her shoulder was no longer a caricature, but a person she had touched, embraced, eaten with.
A God thing, Dixie conceded.