e liked to have his house in order, which was why he'd never had a family or pets. He liked his routines and there was nothing wrong with that. Every day, in the summer months, he wore his father's old Fire Department windbreaker, with a blue FDNY polo shirt, khaki shorts, and flip-flops, so he could walk down to the beach without getting a chill from the ocean. When the weather turned, he had a half-dozen identical blue sweatshirts that he wore with velour track pants and thick wool socks for going out on the deck that faced the Atlantic on one side and Rockaway Beach Boulevard on the other. Fortunately, he only had to go out once a week for groceries at C-Town, because the settlement he got from the city after the accident let him stay home and mind his business. So naturally he wasn't going to open a door to a stranger in the middle of a storm.
The doorbell started ringing just after the first commercial break for the Cheers rerun. He didn't like sports or these new shows with singing and dancing contests, where crazy people screamed with joy and disappointment and there was no telling how things went end up. It was much better when you could anticipate and prepare yourself beforehand. Not that he hadn't been paying attention to the weather reports. He had the generator running and the storm windows his brother had put in latched tight with foam and sealing tape around the edges to keep the air out. It gave him a secure feeling when he heard the little drops on the glass like the claws of hungry little animals that would eventually give up and go look for shelter somewhere else. But then the bell started.
It was a soft modulated two-tone, the same one his parents had put in when they bought the house in 1970. He liked it because it didn't disturb him too much when he had to get up and answer the door for a delivery. He ignored it the first time it rang because it was after nine o'clock and who would be out on a night like this? It went a second time a half-minute later and he reached for the remote to put the sound up. All his life he'd lived in Rockaway, maintaining his parents' beach house just the way they'd had it - plus painting the shingles every four years and putting in fiberglass insulation and a new alarm system - while the rest of the neighborhood was going to hell and the ocean was getting filthy. He could count on less than one hand the times a stranger had come to his door for a legitimate reason. Ten seconds later, the bell went a third time, like someone poking a dirty finger in your ear over and over.
He'd crossed his arms and crossed his ankles, and made himself all tight and tense as he leaned back in the Barcalounger, wishing they'd just stop and go away. But of course, they didn't. The bell started ringing more frantically, the two-tones on a continuous loop, so that he couldn't hear his show, couldn't think about anything except why wouldn't people just leave him alone, until he realized he was going to have to get up or else this would be going on all night.
As he went to look out the peephole, he could hear the wind howling and feel the storm trying to get in house. Just standing by the threshold put the dampness in his bones. Three hooded figures were outside on his doorstep, having come up the front brick steps. They were like something from a nightmare or a Lord of the Rings movie. Ghoul-wraiths of unequal size in silhouette, with curtains of wild monsoon rain moving back and forth across the sidewalk behind them.
"Hello," a high ragged voice was calling out. "Can you please help us?"
He kept his eye at the peephole and blinked, glad they couldn't see him.
"I'm sorry to bother you. But your house is the only one with a light on the block. All the others are dark."
There were two small ghouls on either side of the speaking silhouette. One went into a crouching squat and the other leaned on one of the porch columns and sucked its thumb.
"Our car has stalled and the streets are flooding. We're just trying to get to my sister's in Brooklyn."
When he didn't answer, the figure suddenly reached out and banged on the door with the brass knocker. It had been years since anyone used it and he jumped back, almost slipping on his mother's old throw-rug. From the living room, he could hear the laughter from the Cheers audience, reminding him of the warmth and comfort he'd left behind. His tea and cell phone were on the coffee table. But he knew it would useless to try to call 911. With the way the government had been whipping people up about this hurricane, he knew the police and fire department would never come. He was alone, forced to protect his home by himself.
"We only need to come inside for a while. It's not safe out here."
It was a black woman's voice. He was sure of that now. With a slight Caribbean lilt that he'd first noticed when she said Brooklyn. This was how they did it. The same thing happened in the black-out all those years ago. Looters came over from the projects across the boulevard and tried to break it into the good houses closer to the beach. Sometimes they pretended to be emergency workers from Con Ed or the gas company, coming to check on the lines. Why wouldn't they send a woman with small children up to some trusting idiot's door?
"Go away," he yelled.
It was the awful the way his voice cracked when he was nervous and made him sound more like his mother than his father at times of stress. He should have kept pestering his brother, the big New Jersey state trooper, to help him get a gun a few years ago, instead of letting the subject drop when it was suggested that he could just drive to Florida or some place like that and buy one himself with just a driver's license. Obviously, that wasn't going to happen. But now he was here by himself, abandoned and defenseless, with these creatures at his door, demanding to be let in.
"Mister, it's dark out here. My children are shivering. Cars are getting carried away by the water in the street. We just need to be in a little while."
He saw the one that was crouching hang its head and sniffle. He pictured a damp little urchin coughing on the sofa and spewing yellow snot full of bacterial infections on his cushions.
"I can't," he said. "I'm sorry."
"What'd he tell you, mom?" The thumb-sucker asked, looking up.
"I know you're a good person." The woman pushed her body against his door. "I know you want to help us."
She was wearing a heavy down coat and he could hear it squish with water. All of them sodden. Dying to come into his house, to soak his furniture and piss on the fluffy white bathroom rugs. They'd want to blow their noses on the towels, and use the good soap, and drink his orange juice straight out of the container and then go into his bedroom and look through his closets for dry clothes. Then they'd want to come downstairs, and sit in his Barcalounger, and use the remote to change the channel and watch their own programs. And in the meantime, the woman would want to talk. She'd want to tell him about all the misery that happened in her life that had led her to being alone on the street with two children in the middle of a hurricane and he'd be expected to nod, listen and say the right things in response without wanting to scream and jump out of his skin. Then she'd yawn, and smile, and put her hand on top of his, and ask if it would be all right if they just stayed until the storm passed and the sun came up. And after that, he knew he would never be able to get them to leave.
"You're not getting in my house," he said.
He was standing a foot away from the peephole, clenching his jaw and bracing in case she hit the door again or had her children start crying. He could hear the wind off the ocean getting fiercer now, pelting the rain harder against the side of his house and ripping away part of the awning over the front door. He could hear it go flapping away, while his garbage cans went rolling down the street and sirens wailed in the far distance, attending to other people's emergencies.
From the living room, the Cheers crowd was laughing again, enjoying being in a friendly place where everybody knows your name. He stood in the foyer for a few more seconds, not daring to move in case she heard him and called out again. But now it was just the yowling of natural forces tearing at the boardwalk and sluicing water into the streets, so he went back to his show and told himself that none of this had really happened or mattered.
The news van showed up on the block two days later. There was still water in the street, not just from the storm but from the fire truck hoses that had sprayed in vain at the eighty houses that had burned down that night and now sat in smoldering ruins. There were cars turned over on people's lawns, refrigerators and planks of the boardwalk found blocks from the beach, and large fallen trees blocking every other side street and showing their roots obscenely.
He saw a man with thinning gray hair and a windbreaker standing in front of his house with a microphone and a camera trained on him, and came out to tell the crew to get lost and stop trespassing. The newsman said they were on a public street, doing a story about a woman who'd lost her daughters on the corner during the storm. Supposedly they got swept out of her arms during the deluge and had just been found dead a half-mile down the road. A six-year-old and a three-year-old drowned within a few feet of each other. Their mother said a man who lived in this house had refused them shelter moments before.
Well, of course, that was a damn lie. What was she doing out on a night like that anyway? He'd heard no one. It was just a dirty smear. From the people across the way who'd ruined the rest of the neighborhood. And wouldn't leave a man in peace. And even it was true, it wasn't against the law - was it? A man has a right to be left alone. Anyway, that was all he had to say about it. Then he went back inside to watch his M*A*S*H rerun. A show about people who cared. They used to make those. What happened?
© Peter Blauner
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