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By Gregory Jeffers
On the ridge, I straddled two new rafters I’d just finished nailing. The blue tarp below—protecting what remained of the home—thwapped in the wind.
Ernesto turned off the generator, jerked free an extension cord, and wound it around his angled forearm. “Caluroso,” he grumbled.
I stretched my back, hitched up my tool belt, and picked my way along the ridge to the ladder; watched Ernesto loading tools into his battered twenty-year-old, mostly red Tacoma. One door blue. One fender green. The right headlight hanging by a couple wires like a crazy bug eye.
Sixty inches of rain in the five weeks following Hurricane Maria. The tortured fauna was fighting back to life. Even Christmas palms, twisted off at ground level, were greening in the cores of their knotted stumps.
My wife and I survived the storm, taking turns buttressing the bathroom door against the category five winds for twelve hours, hoping our neighbors were also somehow enduring. After the storm, all of us stumbled out of the remains of our homes in shock. The verdant landscape had become a sepia-toned eight millimeter movie, almost everything grey or brown.
From the ridge, the light of sunset, thin as buttermilk, leant waving grasses a yellow hue, like wheat ready for harvest. Wheat. The people here should be so lucky. How long would it take for the earth to yield a harvest of anything?
Three horses moseyed onto the brownfield between us and the beach, two mares and a foal. The foal scampered in the unmistakable Paso Fino gait, that slightly diagonal canter that makes you think they’ve eaten fermented mangos. Why this little one had not blown away in the storm was anyone’s guess. Or, it had been born after. That’s how things would be understood now, I figured.
Before and after.
The island horses had done surprisingly well. Ernesto reckoned they knew where to hunker down. Perhaps in the concrete bunkers the Navy had built on the west end of the island in the 40’s and abandoned in 2001. The other critters had not done so well. The goats, the cattle. Who knew about the mongoose or the iguanas? The geckos probably tumbled away like little brown leaves.
I dry-scrubbed my face with an open palm. No one had ever promised there would be an understanding of things.
A fourth horse limped into view and stood under a hurricane-bonsaied mango that once probably towered sixty feet. Its new leaves sprouted in bobs the size of beach balls.
I figured this one as the stallion. Not that it mattered much, with the limp and all.
Two wild dogs crossed, the horses trying not to pay attention. The big dog in front looked mostly beach dog. Beach dog is purely Viequense; they all look alike. Some big yellow tourist-dog lost back in ‘90s breeding with Chihuahuas or some shit. The scrappy one about ten feet behind was the white-with-black-spots sort that came from a Dalmatian watered down over forty years. They both wore hungered resignation only strays and the homeless can’t hide.
Their spatial relationship: I’d had some like that. I’d been in both positions, front and behind. Generally, I’d liked front better. Riskier, but you got whatever choice there was. Behind, you’re always worrying about your ass.
Still, the curiosity of it all gnawed. I was the one who had chosen to stay. Except for a stint in Atlanta, she’d lived here all her life. Taught me to cook mofongo. Showed me how a white boy might pretend to dance the Merengue.
I lifted my gaze out to the blue-green Atlantic, wave crests unzipping, gleaming like chrome. Three sea birds drifted like small clouds. The only sound was the incessant and reassuring shuaah, shuaah, shuaah of the surf slapping the shore. A sallied breeze with hints of brine and seaweed and marshy mangroves cooled my close-shaven scalp.
Some things are forever.
Looking up at me, Ernesto knuckle-rapped the top of the truck cab. “Hey, Gringo, you dreaming again?”
I grinned. Eighteen years and he still called me Gringo.
“How many times I tell you? She’s not coming back.”
I didn’t know which one he was referring to. Hurricane or wife.
He yanked the ratty Boston Braves cap off his head and slapped it against a pant leg, knocking the dust off. “You coming? Beans and rice. Maybe a warm beer. Quitting time.”
I stared into his rheumy eyes for a moment then bent to grasp the ladder.
Perhaps it was.