... stay alive....
The Boathouse itself was built right over the water and hence a dicey choice for a haven in which to ride out the storm. Still, it was the oldest and sturdiest building on the property, standing on cypress pilings that went down twenty feet into the coral bones of the Key, and except for the barn and the Garcionniere, it was the only place that had a second floor. The storm was approaching from the Atlantic side of the archipelago and so, believing that high water might be more of a danger than high wind, the crewe settled in the Common Room for the duration. We also took heart in the fact that the National Storm Center had dubbed the hurricane James. The locals were already calling it by the more familiar term Jimmy. It must be a good omen, we thought ... surely The Man wouldn't strike at us on two fronts!
Late that afternoon, we had closed the storm shutters and finished boarding up the big windows, leaving a few of them open an inch or two on the leeward side of the Boathouse. Jollymon, experienced in the ways of such storms and certain that our power would fail early on, had wisely invested in a generator which was secured in a wooden housing on the upper deck. His new "Save the Manatee" t-shirt was already soaked from going out to check on the machine and the several Jerry cans of gasoline lashed down next to it. We had food and bottled water in the kitchen, sleeping bags, quilts and pillows stacked in the corners of the Common Room and in the bedrooms, flashlights and radios, and a basket of new batteries. I smiled to myself; the bathroom doors had been relabeled again, too, now reading Himicanes and Hericanes. We're getting a bit slap-happy, I thought, as I checked in on the 'keets who were tucked in the middle bedroom.
Satisfied that the children and the box of baby possums in the corner were all fine and sound asleep, I returned to the hurricane party going strong in the Common Room. A fire roared in the fireplace, keeping the place a bit warm, but dry and cheery. Mojo was mixing margaritas in Jimmy's Buffet with help from Whino. Jhnjb, determined like the rest of us to separate the actions of his landsharks from Jimmy and his music, had cued up the video of "Live By the Bay" for us to watch. Takeitez took turns with MayDay climbing the ladder to the enclosed crow's nest on the top of the Boathouse while MangoMan, unable to sit still, made just as frequent trips down the stairs to watch for water on the ground floor. MangoHombre, NiteOwl, Emilie, Jhat, Angelk38, Irieblue, Sumo and the rest of the crewe lounged on the couches and pillows on the floor around the bigscreen TV.
Dawn BB and FastMovingAngel sat at the kitchen table, quietly conferring over piles of papers and law books. Des perched on one of the stools at the bar, while I tried to relax in my old Stickley rocker. We all affected a carefree, "ain't this a ball" attitude, but there was an undercurrent of tension in the room that built with the sound of the wind outside.
The storm had started eerily, with water moving out of our lagoon as the winds on the other side of the islands sucked up the ocean into the skirts of the hurricane. The air had become heavy and still and the sun disappeared behind gray-green clouds, before a breeze had finally begun to stir threateningly and then gust through the trees on the property. Now, a few hours later, the lagoon was swelling again and the whistling of the wind through the palms and the pelting of the rain against the wooden siding of the Boathouse had increased alarmingly. Those of us who'd been through hurricanes before told the others not to worry. At the same time, we avoided telling them that whatever happened before the eye passed over us would be even stronger when the backside of the storm slapped us from the other direction. I sipped my margarita and thought of the wild things outdoors; I hoped that most of our "locals" had found the openings I'd secretly cut in the baseboards of the Boathouse to give them entrance to a haven from the blow. I figured Drifty, Blackbeard and Gator could gang up on me and have it out later, when they discovered that "their" part of the Boathouse was full of possums, coons, bats, snakes and other critters.
Jimmy had just launched into "Volcano" when MangoMan appeared at the top of the stairs. "Pholks, there's water down below," he announced. As if to punctuate his news, the power died. "I don't knowwwwww," rolled Jimmy's voice into the sudden darkness. The room went silent, making the crackle of the fire and the howl of the wind seem suddenly twice as loud as they had been a moment before.
I had been through earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and almost every other natural disaster short of locust swarms in my time, and never had a flashlight far from my hand. It didn't take me long to light the way to the kitchen where the hurricane lamps, previously filled with oil, were quickly lit and set up around the room. The pungent aroma of newly-struck farmer's matches filled the air, but O.C. wrinkled his nose at a stronger odor.
"What the hell is that smell?" he drawled, sniffing dramatically.
"Patchouli," I smiled.
"Oh shit. You had to get scented lamp oil?"
"Hey, I'm a child of the sixties. Peace, mon....
The tension was broken as Desdemona burst out laughing. Jollymon, soaked to the skin again, ducked back in the door to announce that the generator was running, and Jhnjb abandoned the VCR to crank up the stereo. Emilie donned the radio headphones, doing duty as our liaison to the outside world, and the party resumed.
It was almost 1:00 a.m. when the eye crept over Key Lime Key and the winds calmed. The crewe filed out onto the upper deck to survey the damage so far, deciding to use some of our precious generator power to turn on the big floodlight and sweep it across the property. A light rain spattered on our skin but the air was thick and heavy; it felt as if you could gather it into your hands and make a solid ball of it. The full moon above, shining through scudding clouds, was a spooky mirror of the spotlight's beam; both glowed green in the dense moisture that hung suspended in the atmosphere. We looked out over the railing to the landward side but could see only water, although it didn't seem too deep ... there was hope that the bungalows, on the highest part of the Key and sandbagged, might escape flooding if it didn't get much worse. I left the others and turned to the lagoon side. I blinked, startled, but they were still there when I opened my eyes ... red and green lights filtered through the shadows of the mangrove branches.
"Hey, guys, turn that spot over here ... I think there's a boat in the channel!"
"What!?" "No way!" "It's your imagination!"
"Turn the spot over here!" I insisted. Hoffert swung the beam over the deck and trained it on the mouth of the channel where the lights were glowing ... barely visible was the black wedge of a bow against the darker trees.
"Hey, who's got the biggest mouth on the property?" asked Des.
"HALLOOOOOOO!" hollered O.C. without hesitation. "AHOY, THE JOKER IN THE CHANNEL!"
A faint "hallooooooo" came drifting back.
I didn't have to say a word. Gator and Blackbeard were already down the ladder and into the Boathouse; we heard the doors slide open and the chug of the Bateau Rouge before we saw her shadow on the unnaturally calm lagoon, raising a small ripple as she moved slowly toward the stranded boat. Des and I exchanged worried glances ... the calm wouldn't last long.
Sure enough, the wind had started to pick up before the running lights of the little flat-bottomed bateau could be seen returning to the Boathouse. Raven went inside to grab his first aid bag and headed down to meet the rescuers and rescued. We could hear the gas-powered winch lifting the Bateau Rouge safely back into her sling through the closed doors of the Boathouse as a bedraggled group of figures struggled up the deck ladder through the now-pelting rain. We threw blankets around our heroic crewe and the pholk they'd pulled from the storm and hustled them indoors, where they settled on the hearth in front of the fireplace to towel their hair and huddle shivering in the warmth of the fire.
After a moment, one of the newcomers pushed the blanket back from his head and looked up at us. Chilled and out of breath, he managed an unsteady "Thanks" through chattering teeth. Des and I looked at each other in shock.
His hair was blond. His eyes were blue. There were the beginnings of a respectable mustache on his upper lip. And we both recognized that grin.
Sitting on our hearth, looking like a half-drowned Golden Retriever, was Jimmy Buffett.