North Bay Road (Part 1)
First is a trilogy of stories about the drowning of Miami.
It was a good life until the snake arrived…
Mrs. Schwartz, the widow who lived across the street, was standing in her front yard wearing a broad straw hat and white pant suit, one hand resting on her hip, the other cooling herself in the summer heat with a Japanese hand fan, the image of a plantation owner bossing the laborers re-sodding her lawn. She looked up and saw Finnegan. He touched the brim of his old Fedora, a slouching salute, and she snapped the fan closed with a flick of her wrist in acknowledgement. It sounded like a small-caliber handgun.
“Not there,” Finnegan heard her nasal voice. She sighted down the barrel of her fan. “Over there,” she barked at one of the laborers. “How many times do I have to tell you?”
He waited beside the mailbox for Henry Walpole. Walpole was the neighborhood’s mailman. He wore regulation postal shorts, blue with a dark stripe down the side, short sleeve shirt, Birkenstocks with black socks and a Pith helmet.
Walpole delivered the mail to the locked metal box sitting on a metal pole set in concrete. Always. He wouldn’t deliver the mail directly despite the fact that Finnegan was standing beside the mailbox. Walpole opened the locked box with his universal key, looked inside to verify there were no incendiary devices, deposited the mail and locked the box.
“SOP,” Walpole once said when Finnegan asked him. “Standard operating procedure. Like chain of custody. Ensures the security of the U.S. Mail.” Walpole was a pompous prick.
Finnegan retrieved the mail, sorted through the envelopes, glanced at Walpole trudging down the street, bent beneath the weight of his mail sack, then hurried back to the house. He could feel Mrs. Schwartz’s acid gaze between his shoulder blades.
Jose Finnegan was the son of an Irish emigrant and a Nicaraguan mother. He lived alone in a small cottage in a riotous garden designed by the famous Raymond Jungles—Live Oaks and Cypress trees, Sabal palms and pachira aquatic, bromeliads and epiphytes and water gardens. The grounds keeper’s cottage was hidden from the main house by dense foliage. He kept the grounds, cleaned the pool, collected the mail, guarded the empty house, ate his meals alone—a single beer with dinner—and occasionally visited the whores of Little Havana. He never brought a woman home.
The main house was modest by the extravagant standards of North Bay Road, Miami Beach—five bedrooms and floor space just shy of 8,000 square feet, not counting garages, keeper’s cottage, and outbuildings—with a stunning view of the Sunset Isles and the city across Biscayne Bay.
The house was mostly empty. When an arrival was impending, Finnegan was informed by Franklin Durango, personal secretary to Hector Guzmán. Senor Guzmán was the Venezuelan industrialist who name the place Paraiso Fiscal. He never spoke directly to Finnegan.
When informed of an arrival, Finnegan contacted the concierge service. The maids removed the white sheets from the furniture, polished the marble and hardwoods, and washed the linens. The concierge stocked the bar and refrigerator. The great man came with his entourage and filled the night with music and laughter, angry shouts and breaking glass, then left again with empty champagne bottles drowned at the bottom of the infinite pool and spent condoms drooping from palm leaves beneath the bedroom windows.
He learned of the snake’s arrival the day of the flood. The flood didn’t fall from the sky but rose from the sewers.
He woke from an afternoon nap to the sound of dripping water, a persistent and singular drip. The room was dark, the curtains drawn, and the sound echoed like water in a cave. He laid in bed, listening. He could think of no good reason water was dripping indoors, only bad ones. He swung his feet out of bed and stepped into a pool of water.
Water was standing several inches on the tile floor. Lukewarm water. He dipped his finger and tasted it. Salt water. It smelled like a mangrove swamp.
He reached for the light switch beside the bed but thought better of it. Electricity in a house flooded with salt water was problematic.
Instead he waded through the darkness dressed in shorts and t-shirt, from the bedroom to the kitchen where the afternoon light was also flooding in. A pair of rubber sandals bobbed beside the door.
Through the French doors he could see the back of the property, the pool, dock, and across the water to the Sunset Islands. The pool was no longer there, or the dock, and the Sunset Islands seem to ride low in the water, awash, like half-tide rocks. Small waves propagated across the yard and broke against the trunks of Sabal palms and Cypress trees.
“This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”
There were no clouds, no rain, no storm. The ocean had simply risen up, he thought, or the land sunk beneath the weight of humanity. He remembered a news report on Channel 6 about abnormally high tides. King tides they called them.
“Mierda,” Finnegan said to himself.
He retrieved his floating sandals and pushed the French doors open against the resisting water. Ripples radiated among the plants. He felt for the paving stones with his feet, hidden by sluggish brown water. Something slithered against his ankle. He jerked impulsively.
“Madre de Dios.”
What might have risen with the sea to swim among the jasmine and dwarf oyster and sunshine mimosa? Salt water snakes? Were there such a thing? Certainly there were barracuda. A barracuda had leaped out of the ocean and bit a woman standing in the cockpit of a boat. Severed an artery in her groin. He read it in the Miami Times. Were barracuda swimming in the garden? He pressed his thighs together.
He grabbed a garden rake he had left leaning against the cottage wall and used the handle like a walking stick, prodding the dark water in front of him. There was a swirl of water beneath the hanging peperomia. He raised the rake like a baseball bat, waiting, but nothing leaped out of the water.
Down the driveway to the street, he felt again like a child playing in the flooded gutters of Managua. Mrs. Schwartz was standing in her front yard, surveying her drowned sod like bodies on a battlefield, her eyes red and swollen, mourning her new lawn.
For a moment he felt a common bond with his neighbor, a common sense of loss and realization that the world had become a different, more dangerous place, then her face turned hard as schist, chipped into sharp edges by rage. She raised her manicured fist at the sky and screamed “Damn you, Henry Hidalgo!” flinging spittle like diamonds in the sunlight. Mrs. Schwartz seemed to hold the mayor of Miami Beach personally responsible for the rising sea level. She looked furtively up and down the street, then turned her back on her lawn. She didn’t see him. He didn’t say anything. It was like he had seen her with her knickers around her knees.
Henry Walpole was wading down the sidewalk leaving a wake. He was wearing rubber boots, not the usual Birkenstocks. He was walking cautiously, careful not to step off the curb into deep water. It sounded like his boots were full of water. He squelched with each step.
“Neither rain nor snow nor rising tide, heh, Henry?” Finnegan called out.
“That’s not actually the motto of the U.S. Postal Service,” Walpole said. “It was a translation of Herodotus inscribed on a New York post office building. Not even an accurate translation. The original referred to the angarium. That’s the ancient Persian system of mounted postal carriers. It existed before the birth of Christ. ‘Stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.’ That’s the actual translation.”
Walpole unlocked the mail box, deposited a few pieces of mail—mostly advertising circulars, it looked to Finnegan—and then locked it again, testing the lock to make sure the mail was safe.
“Persian?” Finnegan said. “Maybe the Post Office should issue you a horse. Or a boat.”
Walpole looked at his rubber boots, then leaned against the mailbox. His façade seemed to crumble like old concrete. He shook his head. “This morning I saw an octopus in my parking garage.”
“An octopus?” Finnegan unlocked the mailbox and removed the advertising.
“It must have come up through the storm drains. They were shooting up like fountains. I swear there were clown fish hiding under an Audi. All those cars sitting in salt water above their floor boards. You know what salt does to steel?”
“Nothing good,” Finnegan suggested.
“You see the cars from New York with body rot? Looks like leprosy? That’s what.”
Finnegan had never seen a leper but he understood Walpole’s anxiety. His cell phone rang. It was Franklin Durango. “Excuse me. I have to take this.”
He turned toward the house. Henry Walpole continued to slog down North Bay Road, bent beneath his responsibilities.
“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard.”
“Finnegan,” Durango said, “I have instructions for you. From Senor Guzmán. You’re to pick up a crate at the Port of Miami.”
“A crate of what?”””
“It’s rather exotic. From the Amazon.” There was a theatric pause. “An anaconda.”
“Anaconda?” Finnegan hesitated. “A snake?”
“Yes, exactly. An anaconda. As I said, it’s rare and prohibitively expensive. Take care of it.”
“I don’t know anything about snakes,” Finnegan protested. He didn’t want to know anything, either. He had a healthy aversion to snakes. Those that didn’t poison could still bite. Or crush.
“I’m sure you’ll learn. Google it. Senior Guzmán’s interest probably won’t last long but neither will your employment if the snake isn’t in good health when he arrives.”
He opened his mouth to protest, then closed it. There was no shortage of people eager to do his job. “When will he arrive?”
“A few weeks. Maybe a month. The current political unrest demands a certain fluidity. Probably best to expect little warning.”
“And a snake.”
“Yes, exactly. A snake. An expensive snake. There may be more.”
“Or not.” Durango gave him the name of the shipping agent and the arrival date. It was only a week away. “You’ll need to have the habitat ready.”
“You don’t just put a giant anaconda on a leash and let it wander around the yard. It needs a habitat.”
“A giant?” He felt the panic rising from his stomach like burning bile. “What kind of habitat does a giant anaconda need?”
“I don’t know. That’s what Google is for. Exercise initiative but make sure the snake is happy when Senor Guzmán arrives.”
Finnegan wondered how he could recognize a happy anaconda. Probably the bulge in its belly.
“The lower garden flooded. And my cottage. And the street,” he told Durango.
“Is there a storm?”
“No. High tide.”
“High tide? How high? Never mind. Was the house damaged?”
“No, but the plants…the salt water will have killed many of them.”
“Buy new plants.”
“The ocean will rise again and kill the new plants. We’ll need to plant a mangrove swamp.”
“Then keep it from rising.”
“How do you suggest I keep the ocean from rising? Hold it back with my hands?”
“Build a higher sea wall. Really, Finnegan, do I have to think of everything?”
Finnegan took a deep breath. It felt like he was explaining celestial mechanics to a child. “It doesn’t help if we build a higher wall and our neighbors don’t. It will flood our grounds just the same. And a sea wall won’t keep the water out of the street. The ocean is higher than the storm drains.”
“Tell the mayor to raise the level of the street. Senor Guzmán pays enough property taxes to pave the streets with gold. Have the city council pass an ordinance requiring a minimal height for sea walls. Really, it isn’t rocket science.”
“No, Mr. Durango, it isn’t rocket science.” There was an optimal solution in rocket science.
There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness.
He ignored the first advice he read on the web. Only expert snake wranglers should attempt a big anaconda. The second was the snake needed a dark place to hide and a pool to lounge in. Maybe a floating cozy for a fruity drink with an umbrella?
Some of his research was disconcerting. An anacondas had teeth like crampons that could hold its prey in place while slowly crushing every bone in the hapless beast’s body. The result was a bunch of broken bits, like peanut brittle, in a bag of loose skin. Easier to swallow you, my precious.
The snake could also excrete musk from its asshole—the more authoritative sites politely called it a cloaca—and fling it with disturbing accuracy according to Froglet, an active member of the snake forum at mysmelly.com.
It reminded Finnegan of the gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, an old silverback that amused itself by flinging poo at zoo visitors. It passed the day. The zoo keepers installed a clear Plexiglas barrier to protect the paying customers. The gorilla adapted. It sat casually on its concrete hill and shat casually into its cupped palm, then as casually lofted an overhand lob that landed among the crowds with the devastating accuracy of a 60 millimeter mortar. Perversely, the crowds increased.
He removed the garden tools from the tool shed, painted the windows black, and bought from Wal-Mart a plastic kiddie pool imprinted with copyrighted images from Disney’s The Littlest Mermaid. He built a scaffold that looked like a gallows without the hangman’s noose so the snake could lurk above the pool, ready to fall on Scuttle or Flotsam and Jetsam and wring the life out of them should ever become more than stencils.
The tool shed was hot and humid as a rainforest. Even his socks were wet with sweat when he finished. He wasn’t likely to need a heat lamp unless the snake lasted to winter.
When the call came from Franklin Durango, the tool shed was a serpentarium and his cottage was full of gardening tools.
At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria.
The offices of Tekel-Sprinker Shipping Agents located on Dodge Island, an address on Antarctica Way. The irony of the street name in the sweltering summer heat didn’t amuse him. He had to wait 45 minutes in a room where the air conditioning wheezed like an old man in a hospice bed. They said they were processing his paperwork.
A fat man with a greasy sheen finally entered the waiting room. “Thank you for your patience, Mr.,” he consulted the paperwork on his clipboard, “Finnegan? Jose Finnegan? Interesting name. We had to confirm your identity with the shipper, you understand. These types of transactions require a certain propriety.” Finnegan suspected that propriety didn’t include the U.S. Customs Service. “Everything’s in order. Your shipment will be available at Loading Dock B. It’s just around the corner. Have a nice day.”
Finnegan never knew whether he was Tekel or Sprinker.
A man with a stained baseball cap with the slogan “All good things smell like fish” delivered the crate to his Jeep Wrangler with a forklift. There was barely enough room to wedge it in the cargo compartment with the back seat pushed forward.
“How am I supposed to get this out of the car?” Finnegan asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question.
The stevedore shrugged. It eloquently, and insultingly, communicated: Not my problem.
“How big is this thing?” Finnegan asked, trying to see into an air hole drilled into the wooden crate. “How much does it weigh?” It was dark inside the crate and smelled foul in the heat. “Good god, is it dead? It smells like it’s dead.”
The man who loved the smell of fish handed him a bill of lading to sign, then wheeled away, the tines of his forklift barely missing Finnegan’s shins.
“Senior Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”
It didn’t smell any better on the MacArthur Causeway. He drove home with the windows open and the air conditioning at full volume. He couldn’t get the crate out of the Jeep however much he pushed and heaved. He tied one end of a line around it, anchored the other to a tree, and drove away. The crate dropped on the driveway with a crash. When he loaded it on a hand truck, the crate rocked, the snake obviously annoyed at the rough handling. Definitely not dead. Less the weight of the wooden crate, he guessed the snake must weigh 50, maybe 75 pounds. An angry, 75 pound snake. Was the tool shed adequate?
It took some maneuvering to get the crate through the shed door. He banged against the door jamb several times. The crate rocked as the irritated snake shifted its weight. He set the crate on the floor beside the kiddie pool, pried the nails from one side with a crowbar, and levered it open a crack. He peered cautiously through the crack, the crow bar raised like a weapon. It was too dark to see anything. He widened the crack and looked again, posed with the crowbar, ready to fight or flee. He never saw the flick of the anaconda’s tail that flung musk in his face. He staggered, gagged, almost retched. It smelled like road kill baking in the Florida heat.
The crate fell open as the snake placed its weight against it. The broad, flat head emerged and looked at him with cold-blooded disdain. There was a black ribbon in the center of eyes brown as fetid swamp water. It was like looking through a crack into the heart of darkness. The body uncoiled from the crate. It took some time. The snake was in no hurry. Its mid-section was as thick as his thigh.
“Holy Mother!” he whispered to himself, closed the shed door and braced it with a kitchen chair.
The consensus of the web’s wisdom was warm-blooded prey. Not dead. Certainly not frozen. The snake was so big mice and rats seemed hopelessly insufficient. He bought live chickens from a supplier in Hialeah. At first the woman who sold him the chickens thought he was gathering eggs. By the third chicken she suspected he was Santeria. When the chickens seemed hardly a bulge in the snake’s belly, he went further afield to find a goat at a sketchy farm in Homestead that also sold hogs. It seemed a likely disposal site for a serial killer.
The man who sold him the goat was missing front teeth and had a swastika tattooed on his wrist. When he learned Finnegan was feeding a snake—a big snake—he offered to sell him an alligator. Apparently pitting alligators against snakes was a thing in South Florida, like bear and bull-baiting in Elizabethan England. Fortunately, Senor Guzmán had expressed no interest in alligators.
He led the goat to his car with a frayed leash of orange polypropylene rope. The goat didn’t smell any better than the snake. It was a long ride home with the windows open and the air conditioning hopelessly trying to hold back the heat that flooded the car like a tide.
He tried to smuggle the goat on the property unobserved—Dade county had restrictive laws about dogs and maybe goats and certainly giant anacondas—but it was impossible to keep the goat quiet. It bleated like it was being led to its death. Looking over his shoulder, he saw the curtain in Mrs. Schwartz’s front window fall back into place. Her front lawn was neatly bisected by the high tide line: green above, brown below.
It was even worse when he stood in front of the tool shed door. The goat caught the snake’s scent, rank even outside of the shed, and bleated more desperately.
He shoved the goat into the shed and closed the door behind it. Afterwards he remembered the polypropylene leash but refused to go back for it.
The goat bleated all afternoon. He could hear it wherever he worked on the grounds. He stuffed cotton balls in his ears to deaden the sound. It helped but not much. Around dusk the bleating ended abruptly. The silence was a condemnation.
He crossed himself. “I’m going to hell for this.” The death of a goat seemed a more venial sin than a chicken.
The goat remained a bulge in the snake’s belly for a week as it lay torpid in the kiddie pool. A happy anaconda. Finnegan cleaned up balls of snake poo embedded with orange polypropylene fibers. The political unrest in Venezuela preoccupied Senor Guzmán for more than a month. It was the end of August before Finnegan received a call from Franklin Durango.
“We will arrive next week,” Durango said brusquely. “I’ve confirmed there are no unusual tides expected. The senor must not be inconvenienced.”
“The house will be ready,” Finnegan said.
“I hope the snake is in good health.”
“Senor Guzmán knows this thing isn’t a pet? I think it could crush a Volkswagen.”
“What Senor Guzmán knows…or doesn’t know…isn’t your concern. You’re paid to follow orders.”
Finnegan wondered what had crawled up Durango’s ass. He suspected things weren’t going well in the home country.
The house was ready three days before Senor Guzmán’s scheduled arrival and two days before Mirabelle. Mirabelle was a Category 2 hurricane pulling a train of hurricanes—Nigel and Ophelia—across the Caribbean. It had only brushed Puerto Rico and the islands of Hispaniola, following the Mona Passage on its way into the Atlantic, but already killed 34 people, mostly on the denuded slopes of the Dominican Republic where mudslides crushed entire villages.
Mirabelle was a thousand miles from Miami when it entered the Atlantic. The ocean that stored humanity’s waste heat for a hundred years fed the hurricane. It rapidly gained ferocity and wind speeds of 115 miles per hour—a strong Category 3. It was forecast to stay offshore, steered by a high pressure system sweeping east across the Great Plains. Mirabelle would likely have minimal impact on Miami, mostly rain, and make landfall somewhere near Boston later in the week.
Finnegan paid little attention to Mirabelle as he scrubbed the tool shed, keeping a wary eye on the snake, draped around the scaffold above the kiddie pool. He hadn’t given it a pet name—too cold blooded and predatory. Even in the conversations inside his head he referred to it as the thing in the tool shed.
The snake followed his movements with calculating eyes. He wondered what it saw with those eyes. The world filtered into simple categories, probably: food, fight, or fuck. Pretty much the same as human beings but without the histrionics of apes.
“Behave yourself until Senor Guzmán leaves and I’ll bring you another goat.” Could you cajole an anaconda? He felt culpable, complicit, like a village elder offering the Aztec overlords a child sacrifice. The snake looked at him dispassionately, licking the air with its tongue.
Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes.
While Finnegan was preoccupied cleaning the snake pit, Mirabelle recurved, hung a hard left, and charged toward Miami like a violated warthog. Throughout the afternoon it gathered speed, closing the distance. Throughout the afternoon the tone of television reporters and meteorologists became more strident. The affluent residents of the city scurried frantically, emptied the store shelves of batteries and bottled water, nailed plywood over windows or abandoned their homes to join long lines of traffic that clogged the two routes out of town. The poor people hunkered down. They had nowhere to go and not much to lose and no option but to shelter in place.
When Finnegan stepped out of the tool shed, his clothes sodden with sweat, the air was still and the sky a sulphurous yellow. Bands of clouds streamed from the northwest. He could taste the metal fillings in his teeth. The air was so heavy with humidity it was hard to breath.
He walked through the kitchen of his cottage into the bedroom, his steps squelching with the sweat pooled in his shoes, stripped of his wet clothes and threw them in the corner. He turned on the television and muted it, then showered. When he returned from the bathroom, his cellphone was vibrating on the nightstand where he had left it in the morning and a man on the television in shirt sleeves and tie was gesturing wildly in front of a weather map. He turned up the sound.
“…mandatory evacuations. If you haven’t evacuated from those areas—almost everyplace along the coast of Dade County—you’re probably safer staying where you are. The roads are gridlocked. Hurricane Mirabelle is approaching at over 60 miles per hour. The outer rain bands are already over Fort Lauderdale and headed south. Within the next hour we can expect the wind to increase to 30 or 40 miles per hour, and in four hours, the full strength of the hurricane. Currently Mirabelle is a strong Category 3, bordering on Category 4, with sustained winds of 120 miles per hour.”
His cellphone vibrated off the edge of the nightstand and fell to the tiled floor, angry as a sidewinder in a frying pan. There was an instant message from Dade County Emergency Management with a long list of communities under mandatory evacuation. Miami Beach was one of them.
He filled his bathtub with water and took inventory. Enough canned goods to last a week and a Coleman stove with bottled gas to cook them. He brought bottled water from the main house. By the time he taped the cottage windows with duct tape it was raining. Palms were bent by the freshening wind. Palm fronds were flying through the air like shrapnel. The rain tasted of salt from waves breaking against the sea wall. He walked the grounds one last time, buffeted by the wind, his wet clothes luffing like a sail, then abandoned the tastefully designed landscaping to the storm.
The last thing he saw before closing the door was a string of waterspouts spinning through the yellow light above the ocean.
By five o’clock it was dark as night. He sat beside the TV, reassured by the voice of the weather forecasters, until the electricity failed. Then he listened to the portable radio until the voice of the announcer was lost in the background static. He was conservative with the batteries in his flashlight but occasionally needed reassurance that he was still surrounded by familiar things and hadn’t been spirited to hell in the darkness.
For several hours the wind increased. He heard trees fall and strike the ground like a hammer on anvil. The wind beneath the eves sounded alive, a vast creature tortured to madness. Something crashed nearby. Wood splintered.
At 2:37 a.m. the windows blew in, one quickly following another like an artillery salvo. He retreated to the bathroom and shoved towels under the door to keep the water out. Fifteen minutes later the bathroom door blew in and knocked him off his feet. Water rapidly flooded the room. Bleeding from a shallow head wound where the door had struck him, hunched to protect himself from debris, he waded from the cottage toward the main house, through the water and the darkness and the wind, the beam of his flashlight almost drowned by the rain.
The flood was rising fast. The water already reached his thigh. A strong current rushed down the driveway as the bay rushed to fill the street. It was difficult to keep his footing. A child’s tricycle, tumbling in the current, knocked him from his feet. He lost his flashlight. The storm pummeled him from every direction. He stumbled like a blind fighter. A searing flash of lighting exposed the scene with the harsh clarity of an x-ray, stripping flesh from bone. In that one moment of unforgiving light it seemed that the world had been unmade and gravity annulled. The air was full of heavy things that should properly be pinned to the earth, not flying about like witches on the summer solstice.
The current carried him down the driveway to the front of the house. He stood waist-deep in water, braced against the current that dragged him toward the street. He saw Mrs. Schwartz’ house across a field of breaking waves. He hoped she had evacuated while there was still time. There was no one who could help her now.
He reached the front door at the same time the rising water climbed the steps. The door was locked. His key was somewhere in the cottage or carried out to sea. Senor Guzmán insisted on hiding a spare key in the potted palm beside the door. In case he ever came home without his pants, Franklin Durango claimed. The palm was still there, at least the stems. The potting soil was mostly mud. He found the key after several minutes filtering the mud through his fingers.
When he turned the handle, the door opened violently, pulling him into the foyer. He slid across the marble floor like a flat stone skipped across the water.
The windows were shattered, the drapes whipping in the wind like the rags of a banshee, and broken glass underfoot. A flash of lighting revealed Senor Guzmán’s portrait still hanging in the foyer, his dark skin in dire contrast to the white sweater, white shirt, and white pants of his tennis costume. To the best of Finnegan’s knowledge, lighting wasn’t characteristic of hurricanes and Senor Guzmán didn’t play tennis. The portrait looked like the man’s ghost pinned to the wall. Senor Guzmán wasn’t dead yet but when he died, Finnegan hoped he would be condemned to a hell full of wealthy Palm Beach pricks in tennis costumes. Serve him right.
He felt his way blindly along the walls of the foyer and the formal dining room toward the kitchen and the pantry where the flashlights were stored. He walked on broken glass. In the hard light of a billion volts the glass looked like gilded splinters.
The house shook as something crashed against a windward wall with the force of artillery fire. Finnegan crossed himself. He wasn’t a religious man, despite his mother’s early insistence, but the force of the storm seemed vast, inhuman, even godly. It was easier for him to believe in hell than heaven but it wouldn’t hurt to hedge his bets.
The water was already rising to his shins by the time he found a flashlight. In the commercial kitchen cupboard doors were banging in the wind that entered one broken window and left by another. Pots and pans and Tupperware were sailing on an inland sea. He shuffled his way to the locked liquor cabinet in the library, barging through the buoyant debris of a wealthy man’s life. Without remorse he broke the glass and stole a bottle of Cragganmore Single Malt that was older than he was.
He took his stand on the second floor landing of the grand staircase. More exactly, he took his seat, the bottle of Scotch cradled between his crossed legs, his body sheltering it from flying debris. He took a deep swig and swirled the whisky in his mouth as his hair whipped in the wind. For a $500 dollar bottle of Scotch, it tasted a lot like a bottle of Johnny Walker he could buy at Sobe Liquors down the street. Except Sobe wasn’t down the street any longer. Down river or down lake, maybe. Or nowhere at all anymore.
He had no idea of the time. Maybe near dawn, maybe the middle of the night. He turned his flashlight on occasionally, checking the rise of the water up each step of the staircase. He didn’t know which was more disturbing, the sound of the house being torn apart in the darkness or its confirmation in the light. He used the light sparingly, conserving its batteries. He could have taken more from the pantry but the thought of mixing batteries and salt water in his pockets was disconcerting. Now the pantry was probably underwater.
There was a sound like 12-penny nails being pulled from hardwood by bloody fingers. Part of the roof—the southern part above the guest rooms—carried away in the storm. He took another deep swallow of Scotch, surprised the bottle was half empty.
How remarkable. All of Senor Guzmán’s power and wealth, his authority and arrogance, dismembered one shingle at a time, turned into molding drywall, shattered glass, rusted metal, rotting cloth. Nothing the great man could build couldn’t be destroyed, slowly or all at once. There was probably not much difference between them, Finnegan thought. In Guzmán’s place, he would probably be just as arrogant, just as willfully mindless. Except that he was here, in the center of a murderous storm, and Guzmán wasn’t. He took bitter solace that the storm would eventually find Guzmán. When had he stopped calling him Senor?
He turned on the flashlight. Confused seas roiled across the ground floor, the harrowing wind wildly shifting, driving waves in every direction, colliding and crashing in gouts of white water lopped off by the wind. In that field of broken water—a storm in miniature, a tempest in a teacup—a child’s rubber duck floated defiantly, tossed and drop kicked and bitch slapped by waves, bouncing like an old pickup down a washboard road, sometimes submerged but always rising with irrepressible buoyancy. In the chaos intersected by the flashlight’s narrow beam, the rubber duck seemed less like a child’s harmless toy and more like an evil clown mocking him, a bright yellow reminder of his own mortality, a memento mori with a beak. The water was at the last step before the landing.
He took the Cragganmore and retreated to the master bedroom, dodging overturned furniture and ruined drapes flogged by the wind. The canopy above the enormous bed was shredded. The heavy bed cloths levitated. The wind outside the broken windows sounded like a tortured animal a hundred miles wide. Its agony extended beyond human hearing. He heard it with the marrow of his bones and the roots of his teeth. The sheer volume made coherent thought impossible. Each thought severed from the one preceding and the one following, like isolated victims in a storm.
He retreated to the walk-in closet and shouldered the door shut against the wind. Guzmán’s closet was almost as big as the grounds keeper’s cottage. There were racks and shelves rising to the ceiling, a chandelier, even a pair of overstuffed leather chairs. A hat tree made of mahogany shaped like a clinging vine coiled from floor to ceiling. Montecristi Panama hats hung from the tree like blossoms. He sat in one of the leather chairs, took another pull from the bottle of Scotch, then lunged for the corner and vomited on a pair of Dolce & Gabbana oxfords.
He woke disoriented, uncertain of the time, the place. The smell of something rancid hung in the humid air, his skin glued to the leather chair by his sweat. It was dark. Of course. He was in a closet. Sheltering from the storm. Had it passed? It was quiet in the closet. How long had he passed out?
He groped for the flashlight on his knees and put his hand in something pasty. The smell confirmed it was his own vomit. He cleaned his hand as best he could on the hardwood floor and eventually found the flashlight at the base of the hat tree.
He opened the closet door tentatively, leading with the flashlight as if something might leap from his dark imagination. The room was oddly still. Only a few drapes remained like shredded sails hanging from their yards. Through the empty windows he could see moonlight reflected on Biscayne Bay except it was no longer the bay of memory. It seemed to go on forever. He couldn’t see the far shore or even the near shore. The Sunset and Venetian Islands were gone. The moon polished empty water that washed against the high-rises of Edgewater on the mainland.
The air was still. Not even a whisper disturbed the moonlit night. He leaned out a window and could almost touch the still water surrounding the house. He was on an island, a rock half awash in an ocean that had risen with a vengeance. He could see a few stripped palm trunks like sticks emerging from the water and everywhere drifting debris. Some of it looked human.
The sky directly above was clear but the moon sailed above a wrack of clouds to the west. The clouds wrapped the horizon like a curtain. The eye wall. He could see lightning writhing among the clouds. There was the sound of distant thunder like an artillery battle fought beyond the horizon. He was in the eye of the hurricane. It wasn’t over. Not nearly.
He retreated into the darkness of the room. He sat heavily on the edge of the bed, rested elbows on knees and head in hands. Not over, not nearly. He doubted the house could withstand the far side of the storm. He had no chance of surviving in the water with the wreckage of houses—beams and rafters and entire roofs grinding in the flood like a logjam. There was nowhere to go, nothing to do, and the liquor cabinet was 15 feet underwater.
It felt like someone struck him with a 2X4. He fell to the floor, struggled to rise, pressed down by a heavy weight. There was a sharp pain in his shoulder. He tried to wriggle free of the weight but he was held fast. He flailed about but found nothing to strike. Something thick and sinuous held him. It felt like a strong man had wrapped his arms around his chest and was crushing him. Looters, he thought. Maybe they weren’t waiting for the storm to end.
He tried to roll over and break the man’s grip. The pressure didn’t slacken. It was like the man was rolling with him, glued to him. The pressure on chest made it hard to breath. Whoever had him in a bear hug was as strong as a circus freak.
He struggled to his knees but was unable to stand. The weight of the freakish strong man held him down. He reached behind to claw the man’s face or tear off his ear but could find nothing to claw or tear. There was a bright arc of lightning to the west and an immediate clap of thunder. In the searing light he found himself staring into a pair of alien eyes above his shoulder, a familiar thread of darkness in pools of fetid water. The damned snake. It had its fangs embedded in his shoulder.
In a flash of intuition, like being kicked in the head, he realized he was caught in the coils of the anaconda. It had climbed to high ground, same as him. The highest ground for a snake was Guzmán’s four poster. It must have slithered up the bed post like the gallows in the tool shed. When he sat on the bed he was right beneath it, another goat on an orange leash. It wasn’t the storm that would kill him but a rich man’s reptile.
He tried to rip the snake’s head from his shoulder but the fangs sank deeper, grating on bone. His whole body was a cloud of pain. He could feel things popping and tearing inside.
He heard a distant sound approaching like a freight train. The storm was returning. It was getting dark again. He couldn’t tell whether the moon was obscured by clouds or his brain was starved of oxygen. In his blindness he could see he wasn’t going to survive the night. In the belly of a snake or the belly of a storm, he thought, we all end up as food.
An unlikely peace settled on him. He could no longer feel the snake’s fangs buried in his shoulder or the crushing pressure on his chest. It felt like he was floating in a dark sea, weightless, fearless, without hope or despair. He thought he should be struggling for his life, clawing toward the light, fighting for breath but it didn’t seem to matter much anymore. There was nothing more he need do, nothing else he need accomplish. For the first time in his life he was completely present, completely in the moment, the last moment. “What a relief,” he thought and then he became the darkness.