"Tropical Waters 2" © Dez Pain
How to Get a New Roof
“For He will give His angels charge of you to
guard you in all your ways.” — Psalm 91:11
I kneel before silver icons in a tiny chapel dedicated to Saint Michael in Florida, feeling something akin to a gentle current of electricity. Flickering candles illuminate Michael’s portrait, changing his expression.
One candle burns for my grandmother, who attended mass every morning. Unlike her, I am not here to implore the Archangel of Protection because I am Catholic, but because it’s June 2001 and hurricane season has begun.
Most tropical storms that hit Florida and the Eastern Seaboard foment off the Ivory Coast before sidling across the Atlantic, to the New World. Secretly, I wonder if they don’t build from angry, circulating energy generated centuries ago by those dragged out of Africa as slaves and forced to make the same trip.
Fifteen million people, sundered from home and family to live in chains, were subjected to killing brutality. Six million were tossed from slave ships into the sea en route. For Africans, it was a holocaust. Yet, their slavery began in the name of God, with baptism as their ironic initiation into the hell that lay before them.
Not all hurricanes originate off Africa. Wild storms, poised to migrate toward the western side of Florida and my mobile home, grow out of warming Gulf waters. As a result, every time a disturbance swirls in the Gulf of Mexico, my fears unfurl. If a hurricane whirls through town, much of what I own, including my baby grand, will be destroyed, never to be replaced.
So I do what millions have done before me, which is: talk to God. This is a moment that has been decades in the making. I’ve been an atheist from the first moment I could reason, and mankind’s history of appalling wrongdoing perpetrated in God’s name strengthened my resolve to flee religion as I would the plague.
Yet, despite my best intentions to live a godless life, the pragmatic journey I have traveled over the last two decades has demonstrated to me that God’s fingerprints are not only visible, but lace every detail.
“Protect us,” I whisper to Michael. “If there is anything in us that is attracting destruction, I beg you to undo it. And if I am attracting the destruction of my home, please tell me what I can do to heal myself and prevent it.”
The sizzle within me, along with the breath of candles, seems to fill the chapel. Two decades ago I would have scoffed at anyone so naive as to utter such nonsense; today I feel I am not only heard, but loved and protected.
When I return home, I turn on the radio in time to hear the announcer say that Tropical Storm Allison is bearing west. Breathing a sigh of relief, I give thanks to God and St. Michael, even as rain lashes the sliding-glass door and sudden gusts shake the expanse of glass so hard that it seems to ripple.
What if it breaks?
I don’t need a new door, but I would love a new roof.
The current roof is old, dragged up piece-by-piece by a previous handy owner who also spun a web of wiring not-to-code. Slanted like a wing, the roof looks ready for takeoff. Although I have a bad feeling about it, I can’t afford a new one.
“I’d sure like a new roof,” I tell God, half laughing at my nerve.
The wind begins to howl and the rain beats so hard that I can’t hear myself think. I can’t make out what the radio broadcaster is saying, so I turn him off. This is my first season of weathering storms in a small, metal home and this noisy rapid pelting, like a thousand pebbles dropping, makes me all too aware of the skeletal shell I inhabit.
Since coffee is my antidote for everything—worry, depression, sleepiness and sleeplessness—I turn to the kitchen stove and feel gratitude that, even as this storm bends branches in violent arcs and whips waves into foot-high white-caps, the electricity is on.
I remove the lid and peer at the crusted minerals inside my teakettle. As the rounded vessel fills, I think of my own inner sludge: dried residue left by my own boiled-off emotional storms.
I reach to turn the stove on and the tap off and fit the lid in place. Stray drops sizzle into mist as the kettle clanks onto the reddening burner.
This is a ritual in which I force myself to slow down and become aware of every detail. The stove, running water and the roof over my head are a collection of miracles. To function so effortlessly is a gift. If I had a severed spine I couldn’t reach the stove, much less live here in this 1960s-style mobile home.
Yet, while I think God appreciates my grateful, aware acknowledgements, I admit I would like to see undeniable proof since I’ve been called morbid for such thoughts. Still, this is how I have survived my losses. It’s too easy, in anxious times, to take everything that works for granted, complain about the rest, and see the glass as not just half-empty, but draining.
I grind the Gold Coast beans and pour them with reverence into the glass cylinder of the French press, before reading the description of the coffee I am about to brew: rich and sophisticated. This amuses me.
As a recovering refugee from an unwanted divorce, I use the ritual of coffee-making to imagine myself conjuring and consuming positive qualities, much as a primitive hunter might imagine himself taking on the strength of the beast he has slain. Yet, rather than being rich and sophisticated, I’d rather receive an infusion of faith and joy.
While waiting for the water to boil, I peer out the through a watery gray veil. Just discernable from river and sky, pale shapes hunker low in the mangroves beyond. Buffeted and stoic, egrets and herons wait out the downpour, each clinging to a branch, beak into the wind. When unexpected hail pocks the river, pelted and alarmed birds fly off their branches into the water and then back again, but find no relief.
Unbelievable, I think while ice bounces off my patio, but the unbelievable has not yet happened.
Steam rises and the kettle spits, resounding with a two-toned whistle like a plantation train. After pouring steaming water into the press, I heat a creamer of milk in the microwave while waiting for the pulverized arabica to steep.
Moments are snails as sprays of heavy rain splat against the windows like a smacking hand. Pressing the plunger down, I trap the grounds before pouring liquid the color of chestnut shells. Pale streaks of foam rotate in my cup, a pinwheel catching the first gusts that signal a brewing storm.
Adjust my perceptions, canephora.
Percolate joy in my heart.
Fill the solid mug, liberica
With freedom I can hold to, impart
Warmth as I gather myself, arabica,
Centuries old from a cobalt Red Sea,
Comfort as I huddle by this tribal fire
Swathed in ragged thoughts, spill into me.
This poem of mine, as I recite it, works as a touchstone by quieting my doubts and urging me to believe in myself not just as a writer, but as a participant in a larger reality.
Like a man in the desert who huddles within a narrow ring of fire, I know the predators, all the forces within and without that would consume me. I glimpse the red lights in their eyes as they slink past, but do not look over my shoulder.
Instead, I stoke my small flame and keep my mind busy, writing to corral and contain my fears about being alone in old age, without children or family. A life lived through words goes only so far. Despite the noise of the storm, the room seems very still as the loneliness within cries out that it is Sunday afternoon, and I miss the life I had.
Just let me sip this coffee. Just for this moment, I bargain.
Standing before the sink, clutching the mug for warmth, I lift coffee to my lips like the Eucharist, as the fury unfolds and the shell around me creaks.
Then it happens.
Blasting my mobile, the squall takes hold. I feel myself—along with the floor, sink, and entire mobile—being lifted. It isn’t by much, yet the implications are terrifying.
“Help me!” I cry to God, petrified. Afterwards I remember the sob of humility in my voice.
Over in an instant, the wind releases my home like a toy, and I stand stunned, alive, and upright, with everything still intact.
Between heartbeats, my imagination shows me images of this great box flipped over. Like Cracker Jack, its contents would have tumbled and jumbled together. I might have been lucky and landed on top of the heap, but against what?
My wooden table and iron chairs?
The metal coat rack?
And what about my dishes? Heavy china for eight would have burst through cupboards and cascaded upon me, along with fine shards of lilac, green, and yellow glass.
But that didn’t happen.
Although my legs are weak, I’m still standing. Wind still lashes the windows. Coffee still sits on the counter. Dishes remain sandwiched in cupboards. Crystals dangle before unbroken kitchen windows. Confounded, I hear this thought:
All is well.
A rap makes me jump. The door to the kitchen opens, and my neighbor from across the way steps in, his yellow slicker dripping.
“Are you alright?”
“Do you know what happened?”
“The top layer of your roof’s been torn off.”
With these words, a raindrop falls from my ceiling.
The next morning, amidst a sea of thin blue tarps, I phone my insurance agent. Insistent upon surveying the damage himself, he arrives within the hour.
St. John is his last name, and he looks around in distress. A handsome British import with wavy black hair and a dark, flaring raincoat, he could be an English actor playing the role of either sleuth or avenging angel.
“I’ll get someone out here immed-jately,” he says with authority before departing.
Around two in the afternoon a roofing crew climbs onto my home, while their estimator and I discuss costs. Unwilling to settle for replacement, I choose superior construction.
“Those tarps will do the trick until the storm passes. On Friday we’ll put the new roof on,” the estimator says.
After he pulls the hood of his jacket over his head and swaggers through the downpour to his big truck, another man arrives in a compact. Shielded by a windbreaker, the claims adjuster for my case wears glasses and carries a clipboard.
We stand beneath the drumming carport as he reviews the estimate and asks questions about the old roof. Scaling the ladder used by the crew, he holds his hand like a visor to shield his eyes from the rain as he takes a look for himself.
Back down, he notes every piece of bent or banged-up sheet metal on my home. After wiping drops from his lenses, he scribbles numbers on a form. Kind in his approach, he seems to be figuring out what he can give me, adding extras here and there.
“Is that alright?” he asks, handing me my copy.
“It’s more than fair,” I say, surprised and beyond grateful.
A check will be cut that will pay for the entire cost of my beautiful new roof. My five-hundred-dollar deductible has, in essence, been nullified.
After my roof is replaced, a chain-smoking neighbor flags me down, gesturing invitation. I head over with the consolation that her patio offers a glorious view of the river.
Brushed by indulgent breezes and sprawled under a canopy of seabird calls, she bemoans the loss of my roof. I cannot swallow the bait.
“It was a blessing,” I say, in gentle contradiction.
She switches subjects.
“You know, I thought I was off my rocker when I walked past the sea wall and heard some weird sounds. Remember I told you?” she remarks to her husband.
“You told me,” he agrees, nodding. His nutmeg-colored limbs are rail-thin. She tells him to get her a glass of ice water and he hauls himself out of his chair. He offers to get me a beer, but I decline.
Deformed from osteoporosis and seeming to wobble, he gains momentum once on his feet. Misty wisps of mottled hair stick through his baseball cap, which seems perched on a head with no neck. Cap and man disappear inside their mobile.
“I wondered what the hell it was and whether it was bees. Bees and wasps love to build nests in the walls of these trailers.
“But somebody said it was you, chanting or meditating. Was it?” my neighbor asks, her eyebrows raised as though ready to pounce.
“Yes, it was,” I say. I neglect to add that, since I started chanting, it’s hard to be angry or afraid. Nor do I tell her that I’ve grown to need meditation as much as water. I especially don’t reveal that when I meditate, I think I feel the presence of God.
Still, she laughs with her head thrown back and, like a chimney, blows cigarette smoke straight up into the air as though she’s heard my ridiculous thoughts. Yet, maybe I’m projecting, since belief is such a personal thing, and the skeptic in me still has a voice.
“We hear you because the sound travels at night when we’re sitting out here,” her husband says, as he comes back with ice water for her and a beer for himself.
“You hear me?”
“Like I say, the walls in these tin cans are thin,” he chuckles, a twinkle in his eye.
“And what does it do for you?” she asks while flicking the end of her smoke into an abalone shell.
I want to tell her that I think it got me a new roof. Instead, I repeat the cliche that it gives me a sense of peace.
“Well, if you’re talking to Jesus, I just hope he’s talking back,” she laughs before coughing like a cat ridding itself of a hairball.
“This is a special place except for a few A-holes,” she says after recovering.
“But we won’t name them,” her husband laughs. Priming me for these future conflicts, she’s a spring wound tight as she describes what’s wrong with the park. Her most pointed criticisms skewer Canadian snowbirds who converse around her in French and a woman who claims to speak with Jesus.
Angry over how expensive her husband’s medications are, how his benefits have been cut, and how she won’t be able to live without his pension once he dies, she fans herself, then gestures toward him, saying, “—because he’s not going to last forever. And I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to move. But everything’s changing. Our best friends passed away. The four of us used to play cards every day.”
She talks about another friend who called her the previous week, with news that the woman’s husband has prostate cancer and they might not be back.
“She’ll be back,” her husband says, gesturing with gnarled fingers after picking a grain of tobacco off his tongue.
“I hope you’re right,” my neighbor says, puffing twice on her cigarette before flicking the ash, because things are going to hell.
With feeling, she launches into a discourse on lazy neighbors, switches to disasters and insurance delays, and bets I had problems getting the roof fixed.
Frowning when I correct her mistaken assumptions, she gazes into her ashtray and becomes more and more agitated.
“Well,” she snorts, bursting out of her chair to march around and pick minute bits of debris from her outdoor carpeting. “You were lucky. What did it cost you?”
“Nothing, except the fright. The insurance company paid for the whole thing.”
“This looks like hell,” she interjects, examining fresh paint on her handrail, “it needs to be redone.”
Lighting another cigarette in a rush, she sits down and crosses her legs. Bouncing her foot, she looks out at the river and says, “Those damn companies usually don’t pay. My friend was told that her wind damage was an act of God.”
“Talk about an act of God. You know that was a tornado hit your place,” her husband says, shaking his head. “Sheared that roof off like a knife through butter.”
“It’s a good thing no one was outside when it happened,” she says. “Someone would have been killed. And I can’t believe there wasn’t more damage.”
“Yeah,” says her husband. “Funny how all them big pieces blew off down the road and went in between all them tin cans. A little bit to the right or left,” he says, demonstrating angles with bent fingers, “and it would of been different. Kinda odd that your place was the only one that got hit.”
“Can you believe it only took the roof?” she asks him.
“Kinda like it was done on purpose,” he laughs.
With sunset approaching, burnt orange reflects in the water beyond.
Realizing I have completed my journey from cynical atheist to absolute believer, I smile to myself as a leaping mullet creates a ripple of gold.
Copyright © 2008 by Clyo Beck