WEDNESDAY: What to Take and What to Leave Behind

BY KATRINA JOHNSTON

Copyright is held by the author.

TWO MEN stand on the porch sheltering from the endless downpour. They knock until I pull the door wide open. At first, I think they’re cops. But the uniforms are grey. They wear fluorescent vests and serious expressions. Each carries a clipboard. They flash ID at me. They’re from the agricultural district.

“We’re here because there’s been new information as to the flooding and it’s not good,” the taller officer explains. He reminds me of Prince William. He has an aristocratic manner and a premature case of baldness. He is about 35. He shoves a document into my hands.

Evacuation Notice.

I gesture to them. “Please come in. We can talk inside.” Neither makes a move.

“No. But thank you, Miss,” the taller one says. “We have nothing much in the way of time. I’m sure a visit would be pleasant. But . . . this is urgent.” His smile intensifies.

I am intrigued when he calls me “Miss.” I haven’t heard this particular title for more than a decade. “Please, Miss,” he says. “We must be brief and to the point.” His partner studies some riveting information upon a clipboard.

The taller man continues. “We’ve got to move along rapidly and so must you. There are other homes that require notice. They’re up at Royston and further past the highway.”

“My husband, Edwin, is upstairs,” I tell the officers and I holler. “Edwin! You’re wanted down here.”

Edwin shouts back at me: “I’m way too busy. You handle it.”

I sigh. “Edwin is always busy.” I press my lips together. “He’s working on a project. You were saying?”

“Miss . . .”

I feel my pulse pounding with unusual amplitude. A blush is burning on my neck. “My name is Leigh.” I almost whisper. I have to clear my throat. I step outside, but I move at an awkward angle scraping my shoulder against the door. I wince. I am attuned to the taller officer’s cool demeanour. Green eyes drill into mine and I understand his empathy.

“So, you see . . . Uh, Miss, I mean, Leigh. This is serious. Here. We have more details.” His partner proffers another paper entitled: Resident Guidelines. “Your household must comply. You’ve got to pop right up and get in gear. Get moving. Head to higher ground. You got any kids?”

I glance at the paper and I read: What to take and what to leave behind. An itemized list is included. “We have a daughter. She’s away at university in Toronto.”

“OK. Then, she is safe. If you have pets, take them along.

“We do have one old dog,” I tell them. “She’s a mixed breed, a medium sized something or other. A mongrel mutt. Her name is Mush-Mush.”

“I’ve got a mixed-up dog like that,” the shorter officer says. “He’s an old and crotchety canine, the sort that is a Heinz 57 variety. We call him “Oscar Mild.” Sometimes he is “Oscar the Pooch.” Depends. He’s such a noodle fart. He chases rocks; eats everything. Runs away from the lawn mower and the tiniest of birds. We don’t know any details of his lineage.”

“I understand.”

The two men remain standing on my porch like Jehovah’s Witness proselytizers. Sweat accumulates upon my eyebrows. I wipe my hands down the sides of my patched-up jeans.

“The advancing flood . . .” Prince William brings me back from a prolonged moment of unease. “The highest water levels are advancing. The next three days are crucial, probably the worst the river will inflict.”

The shorter guy nods like a bobble-head. “You’ve got approximately six hours, but pack much faster if you manage it. Choose items wisely. Take precisely what you require for the next three days. That’s the prescribed 72 hours.” He nods toward the driveway. “I see you’ve got a sports utility.”

“Ford Ranger,” I tell him. “A trailer hitch in the garage. We could carry a fair amount.”

“Load it to capacity then. A tent if you have one. Squeeze that in. Use all the trunk space and the back-seat areas, but don’t take very long. There’s no guarantee your house will survive the onslaught. If allowed to return to this location your home may not be inhabitable or even salvageable. I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, the taller man says: “Even if the structure remains above the water level it’s still a precarious situation. We have to plan that mud and debris may possibly clobber it.

“Oh no!” I close my eyes. “I can’t believe —”

“Our advice is this,” the Prince enunciates like a professor. I’ve become his attentive student. “Take the Mount Bethlin Highway. You can bunk at Seaforth. There are a couple of motels and other vacancies. There’s a grocery store and a gas station at the Turnabout.” He hands me a sticker with a 1-800 number and the website address for the Emergency Response Centre.

I swipe a nervous hand along my forehead, chew my lower lip. I slump against the door frame. My knees are buckling.

“Take your memories, but do it ultra fast. One trip only. You must not return here until all water levels return to normal, and only if and when you’re given an all-clear permission.” He lays a hand upon my shoulder. The touch is natural and surprisingly welcome. I feel his kindness magnified. “Take perishable food. Take supplies like toiletries, family jewels, cherished photo albums. The guideline list should help.” He shoots more ideas at me as if they’re rockets.

Then the two messengers of gloom and mayhem, these sentinels of flood and practical information turn away from me and they say “good luck.” They step off the veranda. I watch until the black town car disappears along the drive. A steady amount of grey rain is pelting down as it has been for the last four days. There is an ominous foggy blackness etched upon my horizon lines.

I holler upstairs to Edwin. “We’ve got our final evacuation notice. C’mon help me throw our stuff together.”

He isn’t ready.

“I’m busy,” he says.

“Well, screw your busy. I am busy too.”

Silence.

Edwin isn’t in a pleasant mood. He says he has to keep on working until they pull the electrical plug, has to keep working until the last possible moment when they turn the power off. He’ll chunk away. He has to do his thing.

“Bull shit,” is what I say at him, but all I get is brooding nothing.

I start banging around our bedroom. It is entirely up to me. I am bouncing off the walls. I toss T-shirts into old suitcases, wrap up Edwin’s shoes and my sneakers while Edwin keeps on working. (Or is he playing games?) Whatever he is doing, he does it on that damnable computer.

We’ve gone from low-level alert bulletins throughout this week all the way to this dreadful final warning. We’re in the danger zone. We live in a valley. It’s remote and wooded way out here, out-of-bounds to bring a helicopter or haul in equipment.

I wish we had a boat.

Not a minute to spare. Vacate. Do it fast. “Lock the doors as instructed and go with hopes that the house might  possibly survive.” The odds are dreadful.

The water will first seep into the basement and probably engulf the main floor too. Maybe it will rise to our rooftop? I have already stored Gran’s paintings and the chinaware within the attic rafters but I’m starting to second guess my actions. And there’s no time.

Edwin listens as he always does. I stand just beyond his office cubby hole. I repeat the facts without new rancour, but I’m nagging. I can hear it in my tone. He starts to vibrate like a motor. I watch him tremble. After Edwin has wrung his hands for a full minute and half, he mumbles “okay” to me, but he turns back to his computer screen. So, I leave. He pays more attention to technology than he ever pays to me. I’m in my own dismal state.

This is the third time that flood warnings have come our way in just as many years. The Saxton River bubbles and expands every other June. But according to the latest predictions, this is by far the worst. It’s threatened us with evacuation twice before — but nothing ever came of it.

We have not acquired enough sandbags. (I know it well enough). We have some in place because I planted them in a four-tiered buttress near the fence. Unfortunately, it’s not adequate barrier to avert the river.

I’m getting used to plain hard work. What should I take? I’ve already found the padlocks to secure the entrance. Snoops and thieves and vandals are also possible.

Mush-Mush didn’t bark or howl when the officers came around. She’s an angel. She’s an even-tempered mutt, often times in pain. She’s got a left arthritic hip so she limps. Mush-Mush likes to go for leisurely truck rides. She enjoys any excuse to travel. Well, she’s in for it now. We’ll have to stay with friends who don’t own felines. Maybe Hans and Mary Gershwin? Perhaps the Lawsons?

I pack whatever I can find and I move quickly. I take Uncle John’s photo albums, a couple of sleeping bags, sweaters, the tarps and Gran’s pen-and-ink depictions of Linwood Lake.

I sort through the fridge. We’ve got enough canned soup and Tupperware salads to last two days. I wonder at my own prosaic choices. It’s always me who must carry on this household. Edwin has no interest when it comes to domestic management.

I stow random items. I really cannot fathom what I should include. Drinkable water? A 24-bottle package, or a bigger stockpile tray of 56?

And Edwin keeps on working. He dithers about this work. He’s a web-page designer; a certified computer geek. I suppose his work is important. I don’t really understand. I don’t want to.

From the back porch, I barely see the river. There’s an expanse of emerald-coloured water. But what I see is unsettling. There’s a new small lake engulfing Cuthbertson. The plateau of water resembles a soup bowl of lime green jello.

At 5 o’clock, I pound outside with a final load for the truck. There’s a jumble inside the back. The seating area is stacked. I’m soaked through to my underwear.

“C’mon Edwin — we gotta move.”

He comes down the stairs at last — electric cords and carry bags in hand. He’s cradling his precious computer terminals, his back-up laptops — three of these — a set of speakers and his satchel full of replacement programs. He’s wearing sandals. When I point out that he’s shod in ill-advised footwear, he shrugs. He gets in. I am in charge. I am the limo driver once again.

Mush-Mush settles atop pile of blankets.

I speed along the tarmac as raindrops splotch the windshield. The wipers screech. I concentrate on driving like an arrow, my hands at two and and 10, my nerves in high fidelity. Random neurons fire. I am sharp with energy, probably adrenalin.

Inside the silent space and the stuffy warm interior of the vehicle, my husband says so precious little. He turns about quite often and tries to look out the rear-view windows. He can’t see anything because the back windows are obscured by junk.

I can’t stop thinking about the handsome agricultural officer. I can’t stop thinking about the shortcomings of my marriage. I’ve got decisions I must ponder. I want my life to change and this flood is as good a time as any. Perhaps it’s worth a shot?

I want more support. I am deserving of someone other than Mush-Mush and my predictable and stolid Edwin. I can’t stop thinking about how life will eventually resume. I can’t stop wishing I could change reality.

Even if I lose the house and whatever remains of our possessions, and all my security is destroyed and then my marriage falls further into the quagmire of stagnation, I am hopeful. I am setting a new course. It comes to me in a flash of insight.

I want someone else to act, someone to be a take-charge partner. I want to coast under the guidance of a masculine presence who will just steady-up the world for me. I want a prince to drive the escape. I want my prince to put his arm around me and tell me everything will be as it should be.

When we’ve parked and registered at the motel, I tell Edwin I need a nap. I claim the bedroom which is luckily in a separate area behind a door.

My own company at last. He’s still fiddling with his multiple computer applications, rigging up temporary top-speed internet and high-resolution audiovisual for his conference calls.

I lie down on the double bed. Mush-Mush keeps me company. Edwin can work his fields of access for all I care. I do not like the dweeb that he’s become.

I dream of green water and green eyes, and a handsome man in an official uniform. I’d like a man who cares, a man of action and decision. A man who knows that I am worthy of protection.

I do not worry yet about the future. I will not miss the empty hulk that is my abandoned home. If it flounders in the flood, it flounders.

Mush-Mush snores. She takes up three quarters of the bed and hogs the coverlet, drooling. I should have put a towel down. She dreams. Her tail switches madly. I lay awake, half- listening to the muted motel sounds generated in this solid plastic atmosphere that surrounds me. I am on the cusp of deep awareness. I don’t know what I’ll really do when this part is history. I’m not overtly fearful. I am full of longing for renewal.

This might be my starting place.

 

 

 

2 comments

  1. Connie Lynn Cook

    Great story! Part of me was hoping she’d leave hubby behind once she’d collected her stuff and the dog. Well done!

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