The first night of Hurricane Harvey, I woke thinking I understood non-attachment. I woke to the rain, the gentlest, most soothing premonition of flash flooding I could have hoped for; or my three-year-old son, who’d woken us a few hours before and now, when it was more comfortable to sleep horizontally between his mom and dad, having kicked his mom and pressed his head into my chest, maneuvering me over the edge; or the cat, who knocked things over when we were stressed; or my teeth, which I’ve gnashed for about three years, two and a half of which into a mouth crutch an over-eager dentist procured for me — free, with complimentary teeth whitening — to make up for all the crowns and attachments I had just started to need.
Before we went to sleep, my wife had used an ingenious version of canning to transform our pots and glassware into water bottles. She’d passed along a message from my mother, who’d heard it from my father, who’d tried to call me, who’d heard it from his brother, that this was going to be “the big one.” Uncle Vince is a storm chaser, was the consultant on Twister (don’t blame him for Bill Paxton tying a belt to a pipe to ride out a tornado while the barn around him is torn into the sky). The reason I lie there, interminably restless? I’d stood on a fire ant colony while my son checked his shoes for pebbles; he’d cried out in pain too late to warn we’d both been swarmed.
Transformations either provide or reveal illusions: make something appear changed that had already mutated, or reveal the picture needed correction. Owen’s haircut a few days before meant he was now a toddler. Or, how in the morning, I’d spoken with my parents about refinancing a ten-year loan they’d offered, asking for twelve years instead, and my mother told me, “That’s not cool, man.” She mentioned my father’s age, 70, and her own, 67. I wanted to say, you’re going to need it just as much then, because I don’t believe they are ever going to die, but I did not, and the actuarial content of her implications lingered like a pressure system. A short phone call. Lauren filling water bottles. I replaced batteries in flashlights littering the apartment. My mom called back as the storm landed in Corpus. I didn’t answer.
In a work of fiction, I make a choice not to call my parents back. In my thirties, I started reading Emerson and Thoreau, troubled by the choice to approach these with criticism and theory. They seemed to me arguments for how to live. But then, I have long been unfamiliar with theory, been creative where I should have been critical. Easier to say a life has a plot than an essay, but to say a hurricane is a plot point does not seem to fully entertain its nature.
I am in my thirties now. Before the hurricane began its deluge, I asked Lauren if she’d remembered to fill her medications; in return, Lauren reminded me about the mole she’d found on my back at the beach. My lack of action is a choice that almost lacks narrative, has no plot value until it does. A hurricane is an event; it is on-going; it will end; it is a text.
I have been thinking of character lately, how to be a good father, how much we learn through imitation and example: Owen, who hums a sweet song when we’re stuck in traffic— his “cars-moving song” — but rolls his window down to curse when people cut us off. Owen, who in my conversations with other parents, has for so long been a character full of a wild and interior agency I’d reduce to hungry, tired, or gassy. I always want to identify with fiction—the magician who studies his craft like a poet, the novelist stalked by a student — hasn’t that been me?—but memoir asks something else of us, to identify with our difference. Owen is coming of age fully online. He is “aware” of the hurricane in a way that is new, that reflects on itself.
Before the storm hits, I pick Owen up from daycare and tell him we need to take some time outside, and he points out the trees around his school. It is tempting to take a narrative — i.e. an account — of these incidents and to give the story of what happened meaning. In this instance, a hurricane is both what was at stake and what was about to occur.
A storm gains force and changes categories. When we take Owen outside to watch the water rise, he asks about the cars. Yes, the water is bad for the cars we say. We forget that all Owen watches on tv is talking cars and buses and trucks, and all his play is making toy buses and cars and trucks talk to each other and race and park and celebrate Jewish holidays. Now we realize he’s watching his friends drown. He fights going back inside, doesn’t want to abandon them. When there’s a break in the rain, we’ll walk to the overpass, marvel at the empty highway.
A crowd has started to form, watching the water pool. I realize these are my neighbors. Someone looks at her phone and announces to the group, water’s getting turned off by the city, and it starts raining again, and later I will be curious about this interaction as an example of folklore, but for now I am running very carefully — I can’t slip while Owen bobs along my shoulder — so I can fill up whatever’s left to fill up in the bath. No umbrella. The dashes I write here seem wrong, as if a break from the action.
Fiction renders character through action, appearance, dialogue and thought. By what criteria does the hurricane portray more of a self than a text? How do we know the hurricane? The rain vs. flash floods, city streets vs. highways, Space City Weather, with its swirling graphics and visualization, vs. our windows — what is reduced and transferred when we know more about the hurricane than what we can see? How do we ascribe plot to a hurricane? How are we honest with Owen about what is happening?
Literature is often faulted for tying plot and feeling so closely together, the narrative of a life sentimentalized. Children remind us that feeling precedes understanding. “He hurt my feelings” becomes “He met with HR before I was reprimanded.” Owen’s feelings often have the single-minded purpose I put on a hurricane. We figurate its landing, its brewing, and it’s our character the hurricane reveals. What is rendered — got out — is separate from the act of getting. I haven’t called my parents yet. They’d extended the loan to help with debt we accrued when Owen was born.
During the tax day flood, our last car flooded out. We saw two AAA vehicles, a tow truck and a charger car, the charger car on the back of the tow truck and headed for repair. That was a year before, but now it seems as if it were a prelude to this storm, a prelude to make sense of the trip just a month before, when we’d been driving to the beach at Galveston, the weekend so we just kept driving. We could make out lines on the road from the other cars staying between them until there wasn’t road anymore, just water. We made it so close to the beach and while we were there the coast kept creeping closer, cutting off more of our routes home. We were just trying to make the most of our trip until the rain stopped and August vomited up a perfect summer afternoon. It didn’t seem important then.
I didn’t realize the pain I’d caused my parents by not calling them back, thinking myself too busy, too focused on the hurricane. I could tell you the hurricane seeped into neighboring apartments, almost at random, or how Owen would unlock the door and march outside in his socks, the food dwindling, forecasts swerving high and low.
Diagram a hurricane’s changing shape, its mechanics, as unconscious, contradictory, interior and exterior collapsing. Do you want literature to teach you how to live in the same way that you want stories to surprise you, by having some revealed meaning?
An archivist says the last hurricane left mold everywhere, but she had too much work to do. A lawyer friend, whose clients were stuck in their home after filing for divorce. My students, who just started college a week before.
Or the grocery store before the storm and the grocery store afterward, empty shelves until it was just grocery store again. One of the older women, who loves Owen, who makes him special samples of cheese and crackers, her property survived everything but the dams’ water letting, which spared downtown the worst of the destruction. How could I console her without minimizing her pain?
A mentor says, “the world cracked open and now back in it,” says he felt the storm in his neck “because his pain medication ran out.” But he was feeling the storm in his neck. The meds couldn’t be shipped across state lines.
We expect to learn something redemptive: to make our pain productive, look at how much we have come together, or helped or raised money.
Owen singing rain rain go away, saying he has a flood song, telling us he’s worried about it flooding weeks later — why not? This is the signal event of his short consciousness, his being able to think about thinking. Owen keeps talking about the cars, says they’re okay. He warns us now whenever it starts to rain. The reservoirs are still full, built into soccer fields, their releases timed.
At the coast, Owen says the car isn’t going to go in the water. We go to find nature beautiful again. He’s so excited he demands the beach when we arrive at night, dark waves crashing on the big rocks that moor the seawall, the two of us holding hands, walking down those steep, slippery steps.
The monks at the Asia Society had left a week before Harvey, their lessons on impermanence treated with the respect we give all abstractions. As the community mandala was finished, after my son added one of the last touches of colored sand, I asked the curator when we would witness its ceremonial destruction. Nothing was planned. It was going in a dumpster.
The sun was blotted out by partial eclipse; our friends got lice; my wife driven by an infection to the ER the morning the hurricane would hit — her lucky timing, that the hurricane did not change our lives despite its horror. My rabbi — an unapologetically fair-weather fan who got caught up in Astros-mania and who watched Game 7 at her new home because her old one was wrecked by Harvey — as the newspaper describes her, said, “You can climb into the game, into the television, and you’re not thinking about your flooded house.”
In October, Lauren says, “Owen told me the flood is over.” The debris was finally removed from our street corner, the grass dead. He wasn’t wrong. Owen kept playing “Hurricane” with his cars and buses and trucks.
The hurricane did change him, or did it just change how we saw him? For Owen, the hurricane was present, then past, then future, as if his consciousness correlated with the hurricane or gave him reason to make its leaping obvious, or that’s just how kids are: constantly in the present, watching the movie one hundred times. We try to know what’s in his mind, want him to be happy. Witnessing his consciousness is like trying to understand my own, but I don’t understand his, and I only think I understand my own.
You know the old joke, my father says: “he was home all the time and drove his wife crazy.” He didn’t know that, being retired, he’d have to find purpose every day. He says he needs purpose, was about do some weeding before he called. We don’t talk about our conversations before the storm.
People kept checking in during the hurricane, and months later, when a friend asks me what I’m working on, he goes, “Oh, right. So much has been going on I almost forgot about Houston.”
Or Owen, who is not a character, or a text, but an author. Who asks us now, “What’s a hurricane?”
Joshua Gottlieb-Miller’s poems can be found in Four Way Review, Pleiades, Indiana Review and elsewhere, and a prose/poetry hybrid is online at Pacifica Lit Review. He is the Digital Nonfiction Editor for Gulf Coast and a PhD student at the University of Houston.