WHEN THE FIRST hurricane hit Florida, I lay in bed. The day was dark as night. Dark inside, too, since the power had gone out. By noon the winds had come in full fury, east to west, no swirling, and no gusts like normal storms, just a sheer wall of sound, trees bent, not billowing.
Otherwise it was eerily quiet, for there is little electrical activity during hurricanes, unlike the usual cataclysmic thunderstorms that erupt every afternoon. Plant City is far enough inland, maybe 40 miles from the Gulf Coast and even farther from the Atlantic, so the danger was not great.
I did jump onto the floor a few times, crouched between bed and dresser as the huge oak tree curled over my bedroom screamed with broken limbs. After a while I got used to the falling branches; the roof was strong enough to withstand a few thumps.
I just lay in bed all day, into late evening, the window cracked to better hear the rushing torrents, and let in cooler air.
The power stayed out for two weeks, much longer for some. There was one local restaurant/bar that had a generator, so they reopened the night after the storm. With the summer heat returning and most businesses and schools closed, the only reasonable thing to do was buy a newspaper and head to the bar when they opened at 11 in the morning, driving on twig and leaf littered roads, through intersections left chaotic by deadened traffic lights.
Once at the bar I would order icy mugs of beer – only light domestics available – and pass the time, maybe stare at the TV, or into the void, or gnaw on fried cheese.
By the next Friday another hurricane was bearing down. The bar was sparsely filled now, only the dedicated flies were out, while most stayed at home, lest an early slap of wind knock a tree onto their car, or send a projectile right through their God-fearing face – and to prepare, of course, lighting candles, taping windows, filling bathtubs with emergency water.
Hurricanes came every weekend that August, and with each of Mother Nature’s wolf cries the populace grew more at ease, the numbers at the bar on the eve of storms increased, and the conversation about the nearing storm had the tone of chatting about the local football team. There might even be a bit of an argument, “I think it’s cutting south,” “No, I think it’s going to hook up the coast.”
August ended. The power came back on. Lawns were raked clean.
And nothing changed. Nothing ever changes in Plant City. I left four years ago, after doing 24 years’ time, and when I visit now and then it’s exactly the same. The locals swear that change is constant and it seems to even sadden some, though most are proud of their growth. A new hardware store, a new chain restaurant, a new neighborhood where an orange grove used to be.
In the bars, the waitresses had children at fifteen, the fathers gone from memory by kindergarten. Aging beauty queens sit at round tables, faces frozen, beside their fawning royal court and their fattened quarterbacks and plastic babies. They look the same as in junior high, just a bit softer, smaller, tired, scared. All with eyes as unaware as a doll’s. All laughing on schedule like jack-in-the-boxes. They don’t realize they are barely even the approximation of aristocrats.
At the bar counter the patrons mumble in your ear about the niggers and spics that plague them, as they give you that knowing look, a little grin, because it’s something to bond over: fear and ignorance. It’s a tradition.