In Strange Eruptions
The awning of The Sunset pattered softly, caught in a flutter by some sweeping gale that bore forebodings of squalls from the west. Palms swayed in the street; heavy clouds were moving in. Out over the wetland the sky was streaked with gray and the darkness that seemed a shadow some miles out, draping the land like a shroud, was the rain. It appeared to be coming on like a plague.
From the way of the swamp rose a despairing howl, not of the wind but the prevailing whining drone of an engine, a single automobile that appeared in the quarter-mile distance of the otherwise deserted road. Jack Runyon figured it to be the last of the undaunted fishermen. Seated alone at his table outside the café, heavily clothed and capped with a mosquito-netted hat, he looked wearily on as the car sped east away from the storm that was fast moving in off the swamp. The road, he thought, fostered those ominous qualities of emptiness and fear of which he had known only with hurricanes. There wasn’t a soul to be seen out of doors. Looking again west to the glades and the storm, closer now and dark like the coming of midnight, a shudder ran through him not of angst but despair as though the very darkness had been awaited. It had come too soon. He sipped the last of his drink and moved inside the café.
“Its bad news,” said Mike. Behind the counter he was rounding the inside of a highball with a washcloth.
Jack settled at the bar. “Weather to breed,” he nodded.
“To flourish,” said Mike. “They’ll spread like goddamned smallpox. It’s bad news.”
Though the place was open for business it did not appear so; the windows were shut, the door closed, and lights inside had been dimmed to an unpalatable glow. Behind the counter neon signs hung unlit, their mechanical hum silent so as not to attract insects near off the swamp. Through an unshaded pane the rain outside was coming now fitfully in short bursts of wind, blowing in first one way, then another, circling above the street like miniature spouts gathered from the puddles on the pavement. An old rusted pick-up pulled up to The Sunset in the hard driving rain.
“Nolan,” said Mike.
Jack turned to see the boy standing dripping wet in the open doorway, holding in his hand a brown paper sack stained dark and sodden where the rain had soaked through. He wore on his head the same fashion hat that Jack had now laid on the bar, the netting of which hung from the brim to cover his face in a veil, and was dressed as well in dungaree pants and a sweater to cover his arms. Under the tumult of the storm the two looked on at each other in quiet anticipation, both quite similar in clothing and countenance. Without speaking the boy extended his hand with the paper bag when, as if by signal, the bottom tore through and three dead birds fell to stiffly the floor. The men looked down at them in steady dismay.
“Shut the door,” said Mike.
Nolan swept backward with his foot. “More crows,” he said. “Got these from Jim Powell telling me give em’ to you. He says there ain’t no doubt about it now, says he found em’ this morning fallen about his lawn. And his little girl, Emily, she’s sick.”
Jack’s eyes moved to the window and he shifted in noticeable discomfort. “How bad is she?” he said.
Nolan scratched his head, still looking down at the birds. “She fell asleep yesterday afternoon and hasn’t woke since.”
Creeping from behind the bar, Mike stooped and kicked at one of the birds. It was stiff as wood and its wings were unbroken and there was no trace of blood. “Well,” he said. “Now its for certain.”
Jack’s nodded, his head fading in feeble movements off his sunken shoulders. His voice trailed pitifully low. “You go tell Jim to get her to a hospital,” he said. “Anyone else you see on the street, if anyone’s still about, wave them down and have them stay indoors. Tell them that now it’s for certain.” He stared out the window as if considering something else, then turned silently back toward the bar. The boy stood watching him but Jack, with a drooped palm, waved him away. He raised a finger to Mike.
“We’ll take care of them,” said the boy. “Soon as this weather stops.”
“Right,” said Jack. “Soon as it stops.” Mike poured a whiskey floater into his mug, screwing the cap back tight, but Jack took the bottle and set it beside himself. Getting drunk was all he could do now. Two fallen fishermen on the skirts of the swamp, crows dropping from trees like coconuts, he thought: Maybe it will be them who take care of us. Tilting his head back and raising the mug, he cringed as the liquor burned into his throat. The drumming in the rafters told of a furious rain that would hold for a spell. Perhaps in less than a week they would sweep through the county. Shaking himself back from these thoughts, Jack raised the bottle and poured from it another, saying, “Go on. Give Jim’s family my regards.”
The boy refitted his hat and took a can of repellant from his pants. Spraying a thin stream of the stuff into the air, he stepped into the mist, patted his clothing, then disappeared again out into the rain. Jack slipped off his stool. At the window he stood with his nose to the glass watching the pick-up truck pull away. The town was dark and deserted. From the awning of the place the rain ran heavily, swelling into a river in the flatness of the street. Palm fronds strewed the walk. The wind had picked up quite a bit. A tiny black winged bug, in its hopeless effort to light on Jack’s nose, batted against the windowpane, bounced off, swooped again, bounced, finally settling on the clear sleek surface where Jack had smudged the opposite side. His eyes crossed watching it.
“Haven’t closed a day in fourteen years.” Mike had come up beside Jack and was standing there looking out. He reached behind to tie his apron. “Not for Christmas, never once during hurricane season, sure as heck not for this.”
“No,” muttered Jack. “No need to for this.” Turning aside he winked uneasily, realizing afterward that his guilt had betrayed him. Mike saw this and gave him an awkward sideways glance, then looked back to the windowpane.
“Looks like a flooding.”
“Looks like it’s for certain,” nodded Jack.
“Not much we can do now but to wait for it to clear. Might be days. Might be more.”
“Well,” Jack pursed his lips. “I ought to phone it in, get the word out on the evening news.” He glanced with searching eyes through the runny pane, scratching at his collar and sighing as he turned away from the glass. Mike placed a hand on his shoulder.
“There’s no blame in it, Jack.”
Jack shook him off.
“The hell with it,” Mike said. “It was Jim’s decision as much as it was yours and mine. We all screwed up.”
“It’s a terrible mess,” Jack said. “Depending on how long the rains last, how far the water runs into the swamp,” Cocking his ear toward the rafters, he paused then shook his head. “Coming on heavy now.”
“And with a good rise they’ll spread through Loxahatchee faster than you could kill ten. But there’s nothing we can do about it now. When the weather clears we’ll spray the fields and into the swamp. Until then we’ll just have to sit tight.”
“Right,” muttered Jack. At the bar he took the phone and set it beside the bottle, a sad hollow anguish about his eyes. Picking up the receiver, he put it to his ear, scratched at the stubble of his chin, and set it down. “This should make big news all the way up the coast,” he smirked. Again he dialed and with a deep breath patiently listened for the voice. The door opened, and a young couple scuffled into the café.
The man was tall and slender with very fair skin, not of a southern complexion. He stood dripping wet inside of the open door while the girl, an unbeautiful brunette, removed her poncho, shaking herself from the rain. They were strangers to The Sunset Cafe. Jack and Mike glanced at each other, then looked on at the couple with the same settled discomfort with which they had surveyed the fallen crows.
“This town is positively deserted,” said the girl. She dabbed carefully at her eyes with a tissue.
“Town?” said the man. “This isn’t a town. I could swear we had driven right off the map.” He had some sort of Northern accent. “Excuse me, could you tell us how far up from Key Largo we are?”
“Two hours north,” said Mike. “Shut the door.”
Receiving from the bar two cold and curious stares, the two stopped their primping and took each other’s hand. Jack set down the phone.
“It is a terror out there,” said the girl a little shyly. “And everyone seems to be hiding away. Isn’t it just our luck, honey, to vacation in the middle of a hurricane?”
“It isn’t a hurricane,” said Mike. “Just some squalls moving in off the swamp.”
Suddenly the girl screamed and the man, seeing what had startled her, pulled her roughly toward him. She buried herself into his shirt. Dropping his washcloth Mike was from behind the counter with a trash bag and quickly stooping to the floor. “Two folks fell sick yesterday fishing off the swamp,” he said flatly. “Looks like today we had one in town.” He dangled the last bird by its tail feathers and dropped it into the bag. “You two should be careful out there, put on some heavy clothes.”
Gently the young man stood the girl off. Petting her, he suggested she go to the restroom to make herself a wash from the sink. Nodding her head weakly, looking a bit embarrassed, she quickly ran off to where Mike pointed her to the back of the place. The young man stood unmoved for a moment, looking rather out of sorts, but finally settled on taking to the stool beside Jack. Everything remained silent but for the wind outside and the occasional shifting of a body on the floorboards.
Jack threw his head back for a drink. He was not feeling better but much worse now. Perhaps he was wrong for blaming himself. No, he figured. The responsibility had been his and ultimately the decision was his, and therefore the blame should be his. An image of Jim’s little girl, lying unconscious in her hospital bed, haunted him. Feeling helpless, he glanced up to see the young man studying him from the corner of his eye. The man turned on his stool, smiling, and reached out his hand to Jack.
“Name’s Ellis,” he offered aloud.
Jack stood and moved away to the end of the bar, letting his head fall heavily to the counter. Mike hung a glass and took another from the rack, checking it thoroughly for spots.
“Well,” said the young man. “He’s awfully nice.”
“He doesn’t want to be bothered,” said Mike.
“No kidding,” said the man. “Is he a drunk?”
“No,” said Mike. “He’s the mayor.”
Ellis let a short nervous holler but Mike, glancing up silently, showed that he was not being joked with. The man’s mouth quickly settled.
When the brunette returned from the restroom she appeared somewhat less shaken. Softly she stood whispering to her husband while tugging at the collar of his shirt. The young man thanked Mike, laying some money down upon the counter, and they turned to leave when suddenly the wind rushed through the place. Glasses rattled with menacing chime. A highball fell from its rack and shattered to the floor. The boy was back in the open doorway. Clutching at his head with one hand while the other held tightly to a citronella torch, he used the weight of his body to shut the door against the squall. With a breath of ease he set the torch against the wall, removing his hat to lay it on the counter where Jack looked as if he had fallen dead. Nolan looked down on him and then up to Mike, who shrugged as he bent to gather the broken glass.
“From what I hear Lou Hayes’s got a dead bull,” said Nolan.
Jack neither budged nor made a sound.
“And Mrs. Wallis says she’s ain’t feeling right, but that’s no surprise.”
Mike stood up with a dustpan, shaking his head with discouragement.
“Lotsa folks are real scared, Jack.”
There was no answer.
“Leave him be,” said Mike. “He’s brooding.”
The boy noticed the young couple down the bar. Staring at them stone-faced for nearly a minute, conspicuously studying their summer attire, he reached into his pants pocket and fumbled around to produce box of matches. “Ought to be dressed better than that,” he said. Taking up the torch, carefully lighting the wick, he approached the young man with a black bitter stream of smoke trailing in the air behind him. “That’ll keep em’ away if any sneak in,” he handed over the torch. “It’s because they can’t stand the smell.”
The young man took the torch and held it away from himself. Wrinkling his nose, he offered it back. “We were just leaving.”
Nolan shook his head. “This here’s no weather to be driving around in.”
The girl eyed the man pleadingly. He looked to the window. The sky was gone to darkness. Where the pavement had been a near inch of water rushed rampant toward the swamp. Fronds swept along as coconuts rolled with the current. Palms bent like sawgrass in the wind. Setting the torch against the bar, its black bitter stream drifting up toward the rafters, he took the girl’s hand and pulled her down onto the stool where the smoke wafted between them. She gave a huff of annoyance.
“Smells awful,” she said frowning.
“Sure,” nodded Nolan, sitting down. “That’s why they don’t come near.”
“Won’t come near?” said Ellis.
“Mosquitoes,” said Nolan. “Ain’t you heard?” Jack looked up from the end of the bar and the boy, catching Mike’s eye as well, lowered his voice to a whisper. “Mosquitoes are carrying encephalitis.”
The girl gasped and looked frantically into the air around her.
“Had some folks fall sick in the past few days. Seems they’ve been about for nearly a week now, getting into the pastures and such. They breed when it’s wet so the rain’s no good at all.”
Slowly Jack rose from his stool and reached for the bottle, mumbling to himself as he disappeared into the back with the telephone cord trailing behind him.
“Mayor Jack,” Nolan said. “He’s awful down about this whole mess.”
The girl pouted, whisking away the smoke. “I’d say he’s drunk.”
“Yeah,” Nolan said. “He feels bad about it.”
From the back came cursing and a slam of the phone.
“Christ,” said Ellis, snickering. “You’d think he imported encephalitic mosquitoes.
“No,” said Nolan, leaning in close. “Three dozen ibis.”
“Ibis. Cattle egret. It’s a long, skinny bird with a beak about so.” The boy held his hands eight inches apart to show the length. “Stays in the fields mostly, eating up insects.”
“More birds,” said the girl, straightening herself. “Lovely, they can eat the mosquitoes. Honey, can we please go?”
“You’ve got it backward,” Nolan said. “The birds came in last month from the east and now people are getting sick. Some of those birds must have carried it over with them. Mosquito’s feed off the birds and, well, you see how we’ve got a problem.”
With a sudden start the boy jumped in his stool, slapping down hard at the nape of his neck. Drawing back his hand he frowned, and with a quick tug at the collar of his shirt he came off with a loose string.
Now Ellis became low and curious. “But then why the ibis?”
“Brought them in to eat the weevils,” Nolan said shortly, dropping the string into the torch.
“Weevils?” Huffed the girl.
“We’ve been having a problem with the weevils this past year, destroying all the town’s bottlebrush.”
The girl was growing irritable. “Mosquitoes and weevils. Do you hear this honey? This is some place you’ve brought us.”
“Used to be the best fishing spot on the east bank of the Everglades,” Nolan nodded proudly. “Bass and catfish bigger than most dogs.” Ellis watched as the pride slipped slowly from the boy’s face. “But that was some while back,” he said. “You heard of Australian Melaleuca?”
“No,” said Ellis.
“It’s a weed that spreads root deep and quick, sucking up all the water from the ground. The land down here was never so good for planting, too wet see, until some while back a farmer brought this Melaleuca thinking to soak up his marsh fields. Problem was the weed spread too quick, out into the glades, drying up all the water out of the swamp. It’s been about for quite a few years now, spreading nearly an acre a day, drying up the land so fast can’t anybody stop it.”
“So they brought in weevils to eat the Melaleuca?” Ellis figured.
Nolan nodded. “That didn’t hardly work, neither. Weeds still spreading and now we’ve got weevils eating up the town’s bottlebrush.” He looked to the window with a sullen glance. “Its an awful mess,” he said, leaning back. “And now with the weather here and all, and it not likely to ease up for maybe a week, it’s quite a problem, yes sir.”
From the back Jack came stumbling with the phone. Clumsily setting it upon the counter, he poured a heavy drink, then fell into a drunken slump to the stool at the end of the bar.
“Goodness,” said the girl.
Steadying himself with some difficulty, Jack made an unfortunate attempt to switch the television set. He let his eyes fall to the young couple watching him. Feeling the grief but no longer thinking or wanting to care, he took up his glass and went to the window that was now teeming violently with rain.
“Strange fellow,” Ellis said. “Strange place.”
Jack believed that was right; this was about as ruined a place as he’d ever seen. It belongs now, he thought, to the weevils and weeds. With wretched eyes he looked to the median of the street where the palms were stripped bare and a stop sign had blown in from somewhere, lying red-streaked with mud like a great pinprick in the flesh of the earth. The shame weighed upon him like a wet blanket. It was really one hell of a storm. Turning back he saw the place cast with an eerie glow, shadows dancing like ghosts in the light of the flickering torch. Jack was tired now. Shuffling to the bar he managed to switch on the local news. Mike did not look up from his highballs, but kept at them for some time while nothing sounded but the rain in the rafters over the static hum of the television set.
Ellis looked to the girl, patted her knee and winked, as if promising to soon be leaving. The boy stared somberly into the torch against the bar as it sputtered in the dim light of The Sunset. Suddenly the smoke stopped rising and the flame went out and there was nothing left of the bitter smell. Slipping off his stool Nolan went to the window, staring transfixed into the furious storm. Briefly a strong gale blew in sideways, guiding the rain away from the glass, and as the pane ran off the surface cleared and three black, winged bugs lighted from the outside. Reaching back the boy fingered the flesh of his neck while smoothing it over with the palm of his hand.
“I suppose it’s like any disease,” Nolan said, his voice muffled beneath din in the rafters. Ellis smiled consolingly at the brunette, while Jack at the bar had fallen asleep to the frantic transmission of the weather report.
“Somehow there’s got to be a cure.”
Woodenly Mike reached across the counter and took the bottle, screwing the cap back tight. He then stepped quietly to the cash drawer where, without counting anything, he proceeded to empty its contents into the front pouch of his apron.
“Surely there is,” Ellis said, patting the girl’s knee.
“Sure there is,” the boy repeated absently. From the television came the sudden, blaring, high-pitched trumpet of an emergency broadcast. Ellis and the girl started at the sound. The boy did not stir, but remained squinting sharply down his nose to where he had pressed it against the window. “But if the problem is what I think it is,” he said, tapping at the glass where the insects spotted the wet pane. They scattered momentarily but quickly returned, now numbering five instead of three. “We might not want to keep searching so bad for that cure, because I really hate to think what it could be.”