Hurricane Christi. (August 18-20, 1982) When the rain did come it came in sheets, like plate-glass windows, and it stayed for the better part of a month. The creek beds filled again and soon overran, and it wasn’t long before their streets and then sidewalks, and then front lawns and then porches, all disappeared under a thick brown tide. But the people of Caledonia FL exhibited a serene calm through it all. A docility like those struck still, struck dumb by grace. Even as the water lashed across their shoulders and necks like knotted rope, even as the current took away their swingsets and birdbaths, cars and snow-blowers, propane grills and satellite dishes, even as they barked their shins on submerged park benches or decorative planters, even as the transformers on 1st Street shorted out and the court house caught fire—imagine it: so much water and the court house is burning, its charred frame showing faintly through an orange haze like a faded pencil sketch, the skeleton of some aquatic beast lumbering up out of the water, a whale perhaps, or something extinct—even under all this a certain resolve held over them: they would not be broken.
But we are not all of us cut from the same cloth. Billy Boylann, one of six brothers, the one who stayed, looked on as the water rose up and around his father’s store, Boylann’s Grocery, Serving the Community Since 1959, and threatened to swallow it whole. He watched as the ice machine, which had stood out front like a sentry for all those years, which had always impressed him with its gravity, tipped on its side and, slow at first, then with incredible speed, washed away, tumbling and pinwheeling on the current like a paper boat.
Billy Boylann, 34 and big as a Honda Civic, was not a smart man, nor was he a patient man—not patient, that is, in the immediate sense, in the short term—but he had a certain faith, a faith that things would one day work out for him, that if he only stuck with it in this town where so little worked out, for anyone, he would find happiness. He would take over the store—despite the old man’s clear misgivings—he would fix up the house, find some nice girl somewhere, and things would, eventually and lastingly, fall into place for him.
There’s a joke that goes something like this: The flood comes and there’s one good Christian, let’s call him Job, who puts all his faith in God. As the water reaches his ankles, one of his neighbors comes by in a car and offers him a ride. Job shakes his head. No, no, no. God will provide, he says. Before too long, the water is up to his waist. A man, a stranger, rows past in a boat. Get in, says the stranger. I’ll row you to safety. No, thank you, Job says. God will provide. The water continues to rise and rise, and eventually Job is forced up onto his roof. A National Guardsman hovers above him in a helicopter and tells Job over the loudspeaker to climb aboard, to fly away with him to higher ground. God will provide, Job shouts, his voice thin and wavering in the wash of the helicopter’s rotor blades. And still the rain doesn’t stop. Job scrambles atop his chimney. God will provide, he says to no one at all, to the sky, to the very rain, to the water itself. Eventually, though, Job drowns. He opens his eyes and finds that he’s in heaven, standing before the throne of the Lord in all his finery. Where the hell were you, Job says, I was counting on you. God looks at Job then and says, Where the hell was I? Where the hell were you? Didn’t you see the car I sent? Or the boat? Or the helicopter?
Of course, Billy Boylann had heard that one before. It was a regular part of Father McFarlane’s repertoire, Father McFarlane who ended all of his services—except Good Friday—with a joke. You may have heard this one already, he’d say to the congregation, but you can laugh anyway. And Billy Boylann always thought he’d understood it, that it had something to do with the machinations if this world being mysterious, hidden, yet always there, always at work. But now, as he thought on it, as he watched his father’s store, his inheritance, disappear slowly under water—and it was the funniest thing, but inside the television still flickered away, marooned atop the Pepsi cooler—it dawned on him that the joke was about something else entirely: faith, it said, was rewarded with disappointment. Faith killed. Faith smothered, and you were a sucker if you couldn’t see that.
As a young man Billy Boylann had been afforded a certain amount of luxury because he was big, and that bigness lent itself to a modest success on the football field. Not that his team was all that good, or that the part he played on it was all that significant. But Caledonia was a small and close-knit community, and its high school smaller still, and a young man like Billy Boylann could stand out easily there. He’d loved a girl then too: Krystal Ostrowski, who was herself a little big, Krystal Ostrowski, the only redhead in school—her hair was a dull and coppery red, the red of Irish stock that’s been diluted by generations of Italian and Polish blood. She’d asked of him one night, in the dark of a parked car, in the afterglow of some party or other, something that at that moment seemed to Billy Boylann entirely unreasonable. So he’d left her, assured that this girl would be but one of many, and he’d never really looked back.
The television inside Boylann’s Grocery shorted out with a flash-bulb pop, and the rain moved in large swaths over downtown Caledonia. The water already past his stomach, Billy Boylann waded lumberingly across Main Street, and executed a clumsy breast stroke through the store’s already open front door. In the water around him bags of pretzels and chips, boxes of cereal, shrink-wrapped rolls of paper toweling, bobbed and foundered on the calm. He stood for a moment, feeling his pants legs swish in the undercurrent, then thrashed over to the dead television, the television that he turned on first thing every morning and shut off just before he locked up at night, the big Zenith from a time when things had weight, when things were permanent, and lifted it from atop the Pepsi cooler. A pocket of ozone hung in the air around it, and its faux-walnut grain chassis was still warm to the touch. Billy Boylann leaned back and cradled the television at his chest. He half turned to leave, then stood and held it there, just barely above the water, till his knees began to wobble beneath him, until his feet began to slip on the linoleum. It was then that everything fell into place for him. His breath came out in puffs and spurts, and eventually the burden was too much to bear. Billy Boylann sank beneath the weight of the television, held it to him as the flood waters closed around him, as the noise and confusion of this world fell away and were replaced by a cold silence.
Outside, the rain fell. The current split and rushed around either side of Boylann’s Grocery and met again and went on, washing away and rushing outward, taking pieces of the town with it, leaving them God only knows where.