Christopher X. Shade
Messages from a Storm
From a pier on Dauphin Island there was little that Thurston could see of the Gulf in the night, with the mammoth of a storm charging across the water. It had blacked out the night. Those who had loved ones inland had joined them. Many of his neighbors had gone into Mobile. Some had gone further up, some to up around Georgiana, some all the way up to Montgomery. They left but they were not afraid. A storm was not something to fear. Life comes with storms, and that’s all there is to it. Some people had named this one, like they had Camille back in ’69. The Navy had sent his older brother’s plane into Camille. The Navy wanted ships to know what was happening on the surface. His brother’s plane had made it to the eye, from where it had sent messages, but that was the last anyone had heard.
On the pier Thurston stood with leaden hands. Where had the wind gone? A past storm had put the pier on dry land. A storm could change everything. It moved things. It could take everything away. Ten years after Camille almost to the day, Frederic had slammed into Mobile Bay, and it wasn’t long after that when his wife had walked out on him. She’d had enough. She couldn’t take it anymore, whatever it was that she couldn’t take. He hadn’t shown her enough love. They’d been childless. Her parents had grown old, and now they needed her more than he did. All of these, or other things, or everything all at once. It was like the storm had moved something inside of her to where she couldn’t stand it to be. This pier was now too far from where Thurston wanted to be. He walked down to the sand. Before they’d been married, before everything, this was where they met. They wrote messages in the sand for tomorrow’s sunbathers. Where had they gone, that young couple?
He could not see but he could hear that the waves were not as rough as they should be. Where was the water? The water, he realized, had drawn itself up. A great wave was coming in, black and silent. The wave was woolen at this distance. He wrote in the sand while the wave gathered its surge and carried the first and last of nothing toward him. He wrote the word home. The wave bade him lie down, and it drew itself up over his feet, knees, and chest. It filled his lungs, and his shoulders sank deeper into the sand.
Someone pulled him out and while he was coughing he thought this was his brother, but it was not. It was Frank’s son. Thurston had seen him, now a young man, bagging groceries at the Winn Dixie. He’d seen him cart the bags out for the elderly, for the disabled, probably for anybody who asked. Bagging wasn’t bad work because it taught a young person a little something about helping others. He couldn’t remember his name. Frank had two sons, this one the older of the two. He couldn’t remember much about either of the sons. Thurston got up from the sand and said, “Took me by surprise,” and “Thank you,” as he shook his hand.
The young man said, “Yes, sir.” He kept looking out at the Gulf. He had something to say.
Thurston asked, “What’s it look like?”
“A wind sure is coming. Can see it out there on the water.” He had a way of nodding when he spoke, like he needed someone to agree that his words were worthwhile.
Thurston looked out at the water, at the waves, at what he couldn’t see well. The wind picked up again. He’d always appreciated how some people had it hardwired in them to see wind on water, and the tide and, somehow, the movement of currents under the surface. “True enough,” he said, and “You best get off the beach as well.”
Thurston was not real close to Frank, but he knew him. Frank and the wife and the two sons. Frank was one of those from here, had always been here, the same as Frank’s father had been. When Thurston had first come down from Tennessee, Frank was like one of those buoys in the water, marking the way of Southern Alabama people. Frank went out fishing with his sons on an outboard motor boat. This young man, at this age, must’ve spent time alone on that boat. Anyone who did knew a thing or two about boat engines. It was the engine that took you out to somewhere and it was the engine that brought you home. He turned back to the young man. “You’re Frank’s son, right?”
“Yes, sir. Name’s Ennis.”
The next day, the storm had not let up and seemed to promise it would not ever. Thurston in the service hangar picked up the wall phone and called Frank. The wife picked up, and brought Frank in from the garage where she said he’d been repairing an old shrimp boiler. Frank got on the phone and said the boiler’s propane line might be clogged, or there might be a leak. They talked about what could be done about it. Frank was going to put it under water and run the line to see if there was a leak. Bubbles would show that. Thurston said if there was a leak it could be as far back as the connection at the tank. If it was clogged, there wasn’t a good way to clear it. Best to replace the line. They talked about whether the hardware store would be open. They both knew the man who owned the hardware store and agreed that he probably would not have the store open in this weather. They agreed that the weather was bad. Thurston said no planes were coming in or out of Jack Edwards airport. Not now, of course. Not with this storm blowing the way that it was.
Jack Edwards was where Thurston worked on light aircraft. Nowadays he did wheels and other small parts assembly. He didn’t do engine work as much as he used to. He’d pretty much stopped engine work after he’d lost his brother.
He figured that Ennis had told his father what had happened on the beach. But he wasn’t sure that Ennis had. “That water just about did me in,” Thurston said. “Your son pulled me out of a bad spot. You should be proud of him.”
Frank said, “You all right?”
“Oh, I’m fine. How are you all doing?”
“We’re fine, we’re fine. We’ve got a tree down already.”
They talked about what the storm had done, and what they’d each heard about how long it would last and how bad it would be. Thurston asked, “Does Ennis know anything about motors?”
Frank said, “He’s good with motors.”
“I could use a hand over at Jack Edwards. It pays. I was thinking weekends, when he’s not in school. Working on the engines. I expect he’d be interested in that.”
“Well, I think that’s a good idea and generous of you, Thurston.”
“It’s a busy time. I guess it’s always busy, but with all the planes waiting, there’s plenty to do.”
“Schoolwork’s important. Doesn’t sound like this would get in the way.”
“No, I don’t believe it would. What year is he?”
Ennis was a senior at Baldwin County High School. His brother was a few years behind him. Ennis was applying to colleges. It was never too soon to apply to colleges these days. For kids there was a lot of pressure to have some idea of what you wanted to be and to get ahead of all that college admissions work. Frank said that Ennis didn’t know what he wanted to be. He liked girls a lot, a little too much. There was one girl now that he’d been seeing for a while and Frank was worried that she’d get pregnant. Frank said he was surprised that it hadn’t happened already, because there wasn’t anything anyone could do to prevent teenagers from doing what they were made to do with each other. Frank said he’d made that mistake. His wife had been pregnant when they married, and then she’d miscarried. That was after his second marriage, which had been childless. But then later Ennis came along and he was the best thing that had ever happened to them. Whatever was next for Ennis, no one knew. Frank hoped he’d go to the University of South Alabama and figure things out from there.
In the morning Thurston’s truck was out in the drive like it was alive and waiting for him when he climbed into it as he did every morning this early. It started up eagerly, as reliable as ever. He listened to the engine’s idle before he put it in gear and backed out of the drive. This house he lived in now was full of memories even though he’d never lived in this house with Claire. When she’d left him and it was clear that she wasn’t coming back he’d moved to this smaller house that was less house, more yard. The yard was for a dog, but he never did get one. He and Claire had been in a bigger house because they’d planned to have children. They never had. When he began to live in the smaller house he realized that it was not the house that had memories. The hangar was this way, too, full of memories though it was not the hangar that had memories. She used to visit, back when they were together. She’d make a fresh pot of coffee for the men and she’d sit on a stool back by the tools, deal cards to anyone willing to play twenty-one, and ask them about their wives and children and what it was to work on plane engines. She couldn’t grasp how the simplest thing worked in an engine no matter how many times he or one of the others explained it to her. Likewise, the mechanics of her were such an unfathomable mystery to the men that she may as well have been a lovely airship from another planet.
At the hangar Thurston pulled into the same parking spot that he did every day and he flipped off the headlights. The storm had made everything so dark that he couldn’t know if the sun had come up yet. It probably had. Only one other truck was there and that was Mason’s who cleaned. That’s just what they called him, Mason the cleaner, because he cleaned the tools and put shine on and when that important work was done he cleaned the floor and before a plane rolled out he cleaned what he could of it. No planes would roll out today. It wasn’t the rain that was so bad. Rain on its own would’ve been fine. It was the wind.
The hangar had survived this long. It had been put up after Camille, which had destroyed the first service hangar. Everyone knew that the first hangar had been in an unlucky spot, so they’d rebuilt it on the other side of Jack Edwards where it had stood ever since. Back in that unlucky spot they’d put up a storage hangar that everyone called the honeypot. The idea was that a grizzly storm would wear itself out going at honeypot hangar first. It would tear it open, but wouldn’t find any planes inside. Through the storm Thurston could just make out in the distance that the honeypot was still standing.
Thurston went inside the service hangar. It was only a few steps from his truck but it was raining so hard that he was wet by the time he got inside. Behind him at the door the wind was whipping like a cat at a mouse hole wanting to fit its whole self through. He had to use both hands to close the door on it. Only half the lights were on in the expanse of the hangar’s open interior, and Mason was back by the tools.
Thurston flipped on all the lights. “Morning,” he said, knowing his voice would go the distance. Mason said morning back. Planes were everywhere inside, like scattered origami. He and the others had carefully towed each plane in at whatever angle would take up the least space. The planes were pointing at each other. They were frightened cubs hunched down, looking at each other. The wind blew hard at their thin metal house and howled and whistled.
This hangar had survived lots of storms since Camille, the worst of them Frederic, though it had come out of Frederic severely battered, with roofing sheets torn away, flooding, and the bifold door dented like a giant had thrown itself against it. Important things had been damaged and still it had survived. A hangar was one of those things that people needed to believe in. People needed to know that sturdy shelter was possible. But Thurston knew a metal frame could withstand only so much before it gave in and fell upon itself. The long-span open web-joists were only so strong. The storm blew harder. If the storm got at the right piece of it and tore that away, the whole thing would give in.
At the tools, Thurston wiped his black shoes with a rag and then stuck that rag in his back pocket. He looked at the clipboard while Mason talked to him. He changed out tools on his rolling table. Mason seemed to notice what he was doing because he stopped what he was saying to ask, “Doing engine work today?”
“I see there’s a lot to do.”
“You doing engine work again. It’s some kind of special day.”
“Frank’s son is stopping by. He’s going to do some work with me.”
With Ennis, he had to talk about the tools first because you can’t go head-on at engine work without knowing well what it was you were capable of doing and what it was you were not. A lot of the work was using tools to take apart first the sturdy outer parts and then some of the more delicate innards, but always a part of the work was feeling your way and it always would be. That was what took years to get. It was hard work and on the table with the tools had to be that something inside of you because that inexplicable something became part of the engine when you put the pieces in place and stepped back, because when that engine left you it became so essential to others as to mean life or death.
Ennis had no idea. He was too young. He had women in his head, that great and wonderful distraction. There was that urgency about him.
Ennis worked out a bolt and it dropped from the end of his wrench. Thurston picked it up, wiped it with the rag, and handed it back to Ennis. He told Ennis, “Lots of things hold a plane together. A bolt works its way out at ten thousand or twenty-five and it would be fine. The loss of one bolt is not enough for everything to come apart.” Ennis was working out another bolt. Thurston said, “Try to catch this one off the wrench.”
Ennis dropped things. He even dropped tools. He meant well and he was trying as hard as he could. There were things about Ennis that convinced Thurston he was diligent and capable, but something big preoccupied him, so big that he was failing at this.
“What’s wrong, Ennis?” Thurston asked but Ennis didn’t have a straight answer to explain what was in his head. He said that bad luck plagued him, that was all. He said that sometimes when he bagged groceries everything seemed fine, but then all of it would fall out of the bottom of the bag. It had always been this way for him. He said there was a girl he was seeing and he was clumsy with her. There wasn’t anything smooth or easy about the way he made out with her and when they had sex. It was all awkward and it just didn’t feel right, but they couldn’t stop their flight path. That’s the way he said it. They were on a crash course.
Thurston tried to tell him that there was a whole life ahead of him and there was no point getting so worked up about what was happening now.
Ennis said his application to South wasn’t going to get him in. That was the University of South Alabama. He said he wasn’t smart enough to get in. He wasn’t good at any one thing. He’d kept up his grades but others had better. And there was no scholarship he could get, so it was too expensive. He would wreck the whole thing anyway so it was better not to go at all. He was angry about it, while replacing the panel and putting away the tools. He was in a heated rush. He said he was so angry that he couldn’t work any more. He said he had to go. He left.
A little while later Thurston was back by the tools, worrying about Ennis, and Mason was telling him not to worry about the young man, when the pilot came in to take a look at his plane as pilots like to do—they just couldn’t stay away from their plane for long. Thurston told him the work was finished on that one. It was the one Ennis had worked on. The pilot ran his fingers over some of the bolts and panels, and said if only the wind wasn’t what it was he would take her up. “But it’s not so bad now,” the pilot said. “It really is calmer now. I’ll try and take her up. What do you think?”
“Don’t talk crazy,” Mason said.
Thurston said, “It will be calm soon. A little more time. That’s all it needs. You can’t control this.”
The pilot said he’d show them what he could control. Open the hangar doors, he told them. Tow his plane out. Do it now.
Thurston said he wouldn’t open the doors. He wasn’t about to. There was no way that was going to happen. They didn’t have clearance. He told the pilot to call up the dispatcher to get on a schedule.
The pilot said it was his plane and he wanted it out.
He told the pilot to calm down.
The pilot hit him. It was just about the last thing Thurston expected but he was plenty willing to fight. They tussled beside the plane, hitting each other, until the pilot backed off and spat blood and then left without saying a word.
Mason said, “They’re all drinking.”
Thurston took out his rag and spit into it.
Ennis didn’t show up at the hangar the next day, Sunday. Thurston wasn’t sure Ennis had understood that he could come in on Sundays as well. He wasn’t sure Ennis would come in again at all given the way he’d left. Mason had been manning the phone all morning. Pilots were calling in. Even though some measuring equipment at the airport had reported a reduced wind speed, it did not seem true. The wind howled at the hangar. There were gusts. There was wind shear. Everyone knew the conditions were not safe and so the pilots were all grounded. Mason handed the phone over to Thurston when one pilot wanted to hear Thurston tell him that his plane was securely tied down inside the hangar. This pilot wanted to know if anything else could be done. Thurston told him the service hangar had always withstood and there was no reason to believe it wouldn’t this time. The pilot said he wasn’t afraid of wind. Thurston told him it wasn’t about fear, and hung up on him. Thurston told Mason they should secure the door with heavy chains to keep the pilots from taking their planes out. Mason did that.
Thurston on the phone tried a few times to reach Ennis but there was no answer.
On Monday morning it was still raining but the wind had dropped. Thurston did not want to deal with the pilots so he did not go in. He knew the pilots would not be cleared to go anywhere anytime soon. It was not his job to hold off an angry mob. He called the service hangar but no one picked up. Mason may have had the same instinct. It was still early, and dark out. Thurston with a cup of hot coffee stood at the windows looking out at what he could see of the rain falling on the yard.
When the phone rang, it was Mason, telling him that there had been an accident.
A plane had gone up. How was that possible? The pilot had convinced somebody to give him clearance. Mason had been called in early to tow out the plane. It was the same pilot who’d fought Thurston.
After the plane went up, everything seemed to be all right. But the pilot turned back. He radioed in that he’d seen a panel up by the engine blow off. When the wheels touched down on the runway, a swirl of wind lifted the plane’s tail like a giant hand. The plane bounced on its nose back up into the air. When it touched down again, it banked and the wing clipped the ground. The plane tumbled, fire leaping up from somewhere on itself. It burst into flames. The plane slid for some distance, on fire and upside down. The pilot was killed.
After the call Thurston dumped the coffee and poured in whiskey. He drank some but it was not what he wanted. He dumped it. The blown panel was not what had caused the crash. Some might think it was, but it was just one of those things that happen and lead to other things happening. Earlier, some fool had cleared the plane for take-off. Earlier than that, the pilot had the fool idea of going up in this weather. A number of fool things had happened. This pilot had thrown punches at him on Saturday. Thurston stared at a lightbulb’s tungsten filament, what looked like a plane on fire. All of this had nothing to do with anything he’d himself done. Or Ennis, who’d worked on that plane’s engine, and who’d put that panel on. Others might not see it that way. When Claire had left him, she’d said it wasn’t anyone’s fault. It was like water had boiled itself out of the pot.
The plane and the pilot were lost. There wouldn’t be anything worth seeing at the crash site. He had to see all of that anyway. He drove out to Jack Edwards. He stared at the wreckage on the runway with rain falling on him. The storm was still so bad that one wouldn’t know day or night without a clock to tell him. A car drove onto the airfield and stopped at some distance. A woman in a raincoat got out and stood in the headlights. He knew next to nothing about whatever home the pilot had had outside the cockpit. This woman had been part of that. She’d lost what she had and she would never be the same. But it was someone else’s theatre. As he walked toward her to say something, at the very least to acknowledge her loss, she got back in the car and drove away.
A man walked over and identified himself as airport police. He seemed to already know who Thurston was. He asked if Thurston recognized this plane. Thurston said he did. The policeman said he’d come to understand that an assault had taken place on Saturday in the service hangar.
“Sure, he hit me,” Thurston said.
“You two had a fist fight.”
“He’d been drinking,” said Thurston. “He wanted his plane out and there wasn’t clearance so I wouldn’t let him.”
Thurston got in his truck. At the service hangar he stopped for a poncho and flashlight. He drove out east and up and down Roscoe Road. He knew there was too much area to search but he did anyway. He stopped the truck on the side of the road and walked through the rain, throwing the flashlight’s beam. He could not know the flight path or the distance the plane had gone, and even if he knew the flight path and other calculables the wind could’ve blown the panel to somewhere he’d never think to look.
Thurston had been putting things in boxes all day when Mason called from the hangar to tell him that Ennis had stopped by there, and might show up at the house. Mason said, “He wants to say goodbye.”
“Does he know that was the plane he worked on?”
“No, he doesn’t,” Mason said.
“You didn’t tell him?”
“You told me not to. So I didn’t say anything to him about that. But shouldn’t he know?”
Thurston said, “No, he’s got enough in his head. If we add this, it might snap him in two. You see that, don’t you? He’s just starting out in life. Nobody needs to know that he touched that plane. He’s a good kid. Promise me, Mason. Promise me you won’t ever tell anyone.”
“I already promised you.”
“Promise me again.”
“I promise, Thurston. You know you don’t have to worry about that. Call from the road, will you? Let us know you’re all right. These men are fools.”
“It’s nobody’s fault. But it had to be somebody’s.”
Mason asked, “You want me to call Claire?”
Thurston hadn’t decided what to say to Claire before he left town. He didn’t know how much she knew about all that had happened. He had a notion that she and Mason had already spoken. “You’ve talked to her, haven’t you?”
“She called here,” said Mason. “I didn’t know what to say.”
“After some time, call her up and see if she will check in on Ennis. To make sure he’s doing all right. I won’t be able to.”
Mason said, “I sure will.”
After the phone call Thurston stopped what he was doing. He’d put just about everything in boxes. There were tools that he had not. He had the sense to put away tools last, he always had. Some of the tools at the service hangar had been his own, and he’d brought those home. He also had tow line and small parts for wheels and other small parts of things he’d collected over the years, some parts he honestly did not know what they were for or how they went together but it was best to hold onto spare parts. You needed what you didn’t know you needed.
Ennis drove up in his father’s truck. Thurston went out onto the porch. It was late morning, and it wasn’t a clear day. A sort of fog hung in the air and wouldn’t burn off.
Ennis walked over. They shook hands, and Ennis said, “I’m sorry to hear.”
They sat in two chairs Thurston still had on the porch. They talked for a while. Ennis didn’t have a lot of time. He had to get to his job at Winn Dixie. There were things Thurston wanted to tell him that he knew he would not be able to, not in this short time. Thurston said, “A fool pilot goes up and when he comes down in a fiery ball he kills himself and ruins the lives of plenty others.”
After Ennis left, Thurston finished loading the truck. The storm was dissipating. It would form again somewhere else, some other time. It was dark when he locked the door of the house, though it didn’t matter that he locked it, and he backed out of the drive. Now it would be someone else’s house, maybe even a home.
He drove out to the pier on Dauphin Island. He found the candle in the back of the truck and a few other things, and went down to the sand. The next tide would wash his footprints away along with those of sea birds and crabs. With the wind what it was, it took some time to light the candle with a lighter but when it caught, it held. He dripped wax into the bottom of the jar, blew out the candle, and stood the candle in the jar. It stayed upright. He lit the candle again inside the jar, and then he placed the jar on the sand. This was his farewell to the beach. He walked away and looked at it from the pier. Life comes with storms, and life comes with a solitary candle on the beach. Life comes with losing people.
A figure came walking along the beach, sandals in her hand. It was Claire. Something in his chest kicked like a young pup. The wind blew her hair and skirt. She was ghost-like at first. He’d met her, all those years ago, about this time of night, in about the same way as this. She was a lovely airship arriving from another world.
On the pier Thurston felt the wind begin to blow right through him, as if he was less than he’d ever been. He was fading away already, this soon. What had happened to him, to them both? She didn’t look up at him on the pier and he didn’t call out to her but she had to know that he was there. She stopped at the candle and wrote in the sand. She wrote the word home, and then she walked away.
He went back to the truck and drove out onto the sand and up the beach. He could not find her. He wasn’t thinking about anything else but finding her. She couldn’t have gone too far. He sped across the sand about as far as she could’ve gone. Then he stopped the truck, backed it up, and pointed it at the water. The headlights shone on the waves. Waves broke. Water pushed up onto the sand and receded, again and again. It was an offer. She could climb in and leave with him, though they both knew that going somewhere else wouldn’t change a thing about a person. Wherever she was now, she could call out for him across the sand and that would be enough because he would hear her, and if she did that then he would not leave without her. But she did not. After a while, he backed up the truck and drove off the beach. He headed in the direction, as he’d told Ennis, of somewhere entirely different but exactly the same, as everywhere was.
Christopher X. Shade’s stories have appeared in about twenty publications, and he has a novel set in France in agent circulation. He is an editor of Epiphany literary journal. A member of the NBCC, his book reviews have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Southern Literary Review, New Orleans Review, Saint Ann’s Review, and elsewhere. He was raised in the South, and now lives and works in NYC.