Celit pushed the cart, pulling tins of sardines, Vienna sausage, and Spam from the shelves. She took the last carton of Saltine crackers and grabbed several liters of cola. She looked for peanut butter. The flashlights were all gone. She rummaged through batteries scattered on tables like dominoes. “D,” she said out loud. “D. Saan ba ang mga D?”
“Can I help you,” asked the manager as she walked by.
“I need D batteries,” Celit said.
“That’s it right there,” said the manager. “You know how people get.”
Celit felt her way through the pile. There was one more. Two more.
Down the water aisle, she saw wooden pallets where bottles of water had been stacked hours ago. Her shift at the hospital kept her from shopping any sooner. She found two gallons of distilled water hidden behind the paper cups.
At checkout, carts lined up, bumper to bumper, weaving in and out of lanes. The waiting made her think of Manila traffic, long lines of lawless cars traveling three slow hours to get ten kilometers across town. Checking out of Publix today was just like that.
When her cell phone rang, she rolled her eyes and answered it.
“When are you coming home, na?” she asked her cousin.
“Celit,” Gema said. “We been trying to get a flight back. Walang flights.”
“What do you mean no flights?” The cart behind her rolled into her ankle. She turned and smiled at the Cuban vieja.
The old woman grinned back at her. “Permiso, China,” said the lady.
“We can’t get in. No flying into Miami. Not until after the storm.”
“I told you,” Celit said. “She’s gonna hit hard. Sabi nila cat five. She has a temper.”
The Cuban lady tapped Celit on the shoulder and pointed at the conveyor belt. She made a face with her lips, eyes wide, eyebrows up. Celit nodded and pulled items from the cart.
“Don’t worry,” Gema said. “We’ll be back before you know it. Make sure you give my papa food with his meds, okay?”
“Did you hear what they named her,” Celit asked. “Irma. Like Irma from St. Scho, that bitch. Remember her?”
“The one who broke your heart?”
“As if,” Celit answered.
“Just take care of Papa. Wag ka magkulit.”
Celit said nothing.
“You hear me?” Gema asked. “Don’t agitate him.”
“I know,” Celit said, grabbing a candy bar from a nearby bin.
“How is he?” Gema asked.
“Tito Pat? He’s the same.”
The news said Irma was on her way. Celit pushed her cart through the parking lot beneath cloudless skies. The sun was hot. The winds were soft like kisses. Celit could tell Irma was coming by the way people crawled all over town like ants on brown sugar, hunting for hurricane supplies, cutting each other off at gas stations, covering windows with sheets of plywood. All of Miami had gone mad and Tito Pat was her charge.
The townhouse in North Miami had hurricane shutters—accordion wings made of sharp metal. Celit heaved the shutters closed, placing one foot on the ground and the other pushing at the side of the house. The metal was rusty, stiff and stubborn. She jiggled the key inside the locks and the shutters rattled as if to say, no, not today. As Celit secured all twelve windows, the winds picked up. Palm trees dipped and bowed. Avocados from the neighbor’s tree fell like softballs. Debris from the streets swirled. Every now and then a chorus of wind angels sounded and light rain fell from the cloudless sky.
Inside, Tito Pat sat in front of the television. Men and women with pink powdered faces and high-teased hair, barked weather updates and flashed maps with hurricane cones the size of Florida across their picture frame. The shutters blocked light from entering the house. It was dark and the screen was like the sun. But noisy. And angry. And everything that Celit hated about living with her uncle.
“Night time comes too soon,” he said.
She picked up the remote and lowered the volume. “Po, it’s daytime, pa.” She handed him a glass of water. His medication was in her hand, a small array of red and blue and yellow pills. “We’re preparing for the hurricane.”
“A typhoon?” He placed a pill on his tongue, took a swig of water and tossed his head back.
“No, po. A hurricane. Sa Pilipinas, typhoon.”
His eyes were gray and vacant. “Irma, is that one of Gema’s friends?”
“No, po. That’s the hurricane.” She handed him another pill. “You have five more pills, po.”
“What time will Gema be home?” He pushed her hand away.
“Remember Roger and Gema are out of town?” She handed him another pill. He gave her side eye but swallowed the medication anyway. “They’ll be gone for a while.”
“Who are you?” he asked.
“Your favorite niece, Celit.”
“Are you a boy or a girl, I can’t tell.”
“Po, I’m your niece.”
“You should dress like a girl then.”
Celit held her breath. Counted to ten.
When Celit was a girl, she could feel a typhoon coming weeks before the wind picked up, before the clouds formed dark swirls over the baranggay, before palm trees lay flat to the earth only to rise again. She could smell the rain coming. She dreamed it.
Tito Pat squinted at her. Shook a finger at her. “I remember when you were little, so pretty!” He nodded. “Penelope’s girl, di ba?”
“Opo,” Celit said. “Do you want to have your lunch? It’s ready.”
“Not hungry. Bring me a San Miguel.”
“Po, you have to eat. You just took your meds.” She gave him her hand. His was soft and knobby, white ash covering brown, wrinkled skin. “We’ll have to put lotion later, po.”
“Your hair is like a boy.”
She sat him down before a bowl of tinola, the steam rose in small, savory puffs, pieces of chicken swam in a broth along with potatoes, carrots and spinach leaves. They ate in silence, mostly.
“How will you ever find a husband if no one can tell if you are girl or boy?”
“Tito, eat your soup before it gets cold.” She put a plate of rice before him. “You want Coke?”
“Gusto kong cerveza. How about San Miguel?”
“I’ll get you Coke.”
She watched him slurp his soup up with a spoon and fork, the way his mouth moved in circles, the way the chicken slipped off the side of his lip.”
“Tito, where are your teeth?” she asked him.
He winked at her and she smiled.
“I guess I forgot to put them in again.”
She took a deep breath. “I will get them for you.”
Celit searched the old man’s bedroom. Ran her hands along the side tables, crawled under the bed. She went into his bathroom and rattled the cup he kept them in. “Shit,” she whispered. “Lost again.”
She called to him as she went into the kitchen. “Po, look in your pockets.”
“What?” he answered, reading last Sunday’s paper. “What am I looking for?”
“Ipin mo, po. Your teeth!”
She helped him stand and watched him jiggle his pant pockets, pat his shirt down. “Nothing!”
“Po! Ano yan?” she asked him, patting a bulge in his khaki pants.
He pulled a wad of tissue out, opened it like a gift wrapped in gold. There they were, a set of gums with coffee stained teeth. Tops and bottoms. He raised his shoulders like a question mark.
“I forgot I put them there.”
He smiled, mouth wet and gummy, his unshaven face spotted with whiskers. She laughed and kissed his cheek. “Tito Pat! Ano ba yan?”
The rain came down on Friday in rounds. Pissed off, violent, nasty, Irma screamed all night long. Sometimes she was high pitched and shrill. Other times she growled, running at trees and buildings, turning over loose pots, untethered lawn furniture, branches that had snapped in her horrific yawp. The worst moments were when she quieted down.
Celit slept on the chair in Tito Pat’s room and listened to Irma cast a witch’s tantrum. Tito didn’t move. His slumber was deep, and his face slackened. Celit stood over him. She tried to imagine him in his younger days, when they were living in a fishing village, swimming in the dagat with the whole family on a Sunday. The other cousins used to gang up on Celit. She was too quiet for one thing. They talked too much, she thought. Too frivolous and plastic, always talking about boys.
One Sunday, only Celit and Tito Pat remained in the fishing boat, while the others had leapt into the sea.
“Anak,” he said, tugging at her pony tail, “why aren’t you swimming?”
The cousins swam like minnows. “Ayaw ko,” she told him in a whisper.
“Why not?” he asked. “You don’t want to play with your pinsan?”
He picked her up and held her on his knee, looked into her eyes, said nothing. He was a handsome man then with a full head of wavy black hair, and a smile of big white teeth. Finally, he said, “It’s okay, child. You stay with Tito Pat. You help me with boat.”
She leaned over now, and kissed his weathered hand.
The wind picked up again, howling, yelping, calling all the aswang to run the boulevards with their wicked hands and webbed feet, shoving banyan trees in her way. One by one they fell like giants. The world collapsed in grunts and sighs, too exhausted to go on. The old man snored through most of it, didn’t even notice the lights flickering in the house, the television going silent, the darkness filling every room. The air conditioner stopped humming. Celit felt the storm around them, banging on the shuttered windows, threatening to come in.
Irma left as suddenly as she came. She took with her the winds, the banging, the night. She took with her electricity—air conditioning, overhead lights, access to the stove and microwave. Heat seeped into the tiny house, sneaking in through the vents, rising up from the floorboards. It warmed the darkness like the hot breath of a sleeping lover.
When Celit was in nursing school and Manila was knee high in baja, she waded through the streets in rubber boots, wearing garbage bags for ponchos. These things were not new to her and she was not afraid of the rain—nor the brownouts, nor the tropical heat in a room hot as a tinder box. Still, Celit stayed awake through the storm, sitting at her uncle’s bedside, pulling at her fingers.
Tito Pat cried out only once during the storm. He sat straight up and spoke to his parents. Talked as if they were standing near his bedside.
Celit put her hand on him. Rubbed his arm. “Po, you are dreaming again.”
The room was dark. The heat, rising.
He pulled his arm away from her. “Don’t interrupt. Inay is talking. Listen.”
“Po, wala na si Lola Emmy. Dream lang.” She put her hand on him again. “You are dreaming your inay, but she is gone.”
Celit tried to think of him as one of her patients. She tried her best to be clinical, but his dreaming scared her, made her think of ghosts and aswang stealing pieces of her—little bit by little bit.
The next morning, Celit worked the keys through every rusty lock and wrenched the metal sleeves back, let the sun shine through the house. She picked her way around fallen palm fronds and unripe fruit to get to all the shutters. Across the street, a neighbor’s house was crushed under the weight of a one-hundred-year-old banyan tree. The sun baked the earth hot and steam rose from the ground. Inside, the house was like a pressure cooker. Heat sucked all the air from the rooms. Tito Pat sat in his chair, waving a newspaper. He called for Tita Aida, his beautiful dead wife. He called to her as if she were in the other room, making soup for breakfast. Celit heard him, but she didn’t have time today. She wanted to bring light back into the house. She wanted to conjure up a breeze. To give some semblance of order before Gema and Roger got home. When Celit finally stepped through the doorway, he cried like a baby.
“Did she leave me?” he asked Celit. “Why is she not answering?”
“Po, wala na si Tita Aida,” Celit told him, handing him a bowl of sardines over cold rice. “She died ten years ago.”
“What? Dead?” he yelled. He placed his hands to his face and screamed. He tossed the bowl to the floor.
“Po, you have to eat something,” she said. “You have to take your meds.”
Heat slipped into the house in waves, penetrated the windows and sunk through the curtains like fire. Celit picked up the landline, called the power company, and sat on hold. She wanted to talk to a person, but what she got was a robotic voice reciting a litany of addresses where the electricity had gone cold. Finally, an operator, from a call center. She could tell from the accent the woman was Filipina.
“A crew will be out in your neighborhood tomorrow. Thank you for calling.”
“Celit!” yelled Tito Pat from his recliner. “What’s wrong with the television?” He waved a remote at the screen like a magic wand, his skinny arms bent like chicken wings, his face distraught. He wiped his brow with a hanky.
“Sandali, po! I’m on the phone,” she whispered.
To the voice on the phone, she spoke slowly. “Every day you say you are coming.”
“There are many neighborhoods without power, ma’am.”
“But you don’t understand, my uncle is old. He can’t take this heat. He’s not eating right.”
Tito Pat pushed himself up off his recliner, nearly losing his balance. Celit put her hand up as if to catch him. “Po, sit down!”
He whacked the television with the palm of his hand. “Putangina!”
Tito Pat refused to eat. To drink water. He refused everything. He woke up later each day, which worried Celit. It was nearly noon and he had not gotten up. She cooled his face with a moist hand towel, humming a Philippine folksong. She bathed his arms and shoulders, cleansed the sweat from behind his neck. He continued to sleep. She combed his hair, thinking of the night before when he called her a stranger. He thought she was a boy stealing pesos from his pockets. A murderer, torturing him with fire. He would not eat the can of sausages she had sliced and placed on crackers. “You trying to poison me? What have you done with my daughter?”
She hated him. The weight of him. The sounds he made. Garbled. Off color. She knew he was her blood. She knew she loved him, but in those moments, her stomach curled into itself and she wanted to spit.
Celit walked up and down their street, stepping around debris, slipping under eaves of broken branches. She saw no sign of the crews—not working on her neighbors’ houses, nor on the apartment buildings a block over, not fixing street lamps on the boulevard around the bend. Seven days without electricity.
The heat was Manila heat. Piles of garbage, broken furniture and storm debris were stacked along the sides of the road. Unbearable sunshine made everything stink. Back home, near Dagat-Dagatan, there was a trash heap called Smokey Mountain. Celit used to ride past on her way to nursing school and see the wisps of smoke trailing from different parts of the hill. Now, palm fronds, and trunks of fallen mango trees were pulled to the side of the road. Banyan trees tipped to their sides, fifteen feet in diameter, exposing gnarly roots, their branches reaching up like arms in motion. The old trees were dying. The lushness of Miami had grown brown and crisp as autumn.
Celit made her way to the nearest Publix, hoping the store would be open. With Tito Pat sleeping most of the day, she thought she might steal a moment to replenish their supplies. She walked past other people who seemed lost in their own neighborhood. She pulled out her cell phone. Still dead.
At the grocery, she walked the aisle and saw nothing in the shelves. It was as if Irma had made it into aisle nine, swept through ten, torn down eleven, twelve and thirteen. People pushed empty carts past her, as if they were shopping. But there was nothing.
Outside, she hiked her way around the block, and saw a young woman handing out containers of water.
“How much,” Celit asked.
“Just take it,” said the woman.
Celit took three gallons of water and carried them home.
At the front door, Celit placed the jugs on the welcome mat as she dug for keys. She unlocked the bolt, then the lock and pushed the impact resistant glass door open. Inside, hot air rose up in rays of dust and swirled before the living room window.
“Tito Pat,” she called. “Gising ka?” He should be awake by now she thought. “Uncle, you awake?”
When she got to his bedroom, the covers were thrown to the ground and the pillows were cocked to the side of the bed like dog ears. She smelled urine coming from the bed and saw the stained sheets crinkled and damp. She tossed them as if to find him there, hidden at the foot of the bed.
Celit knocked on the bathroom door. “Tito Pat?” she called. When he didn’t answer, she barged in. She drew the shower curtain. Light from the bathroom window streamed into the small room, making everything hot to the touch.
Celit’s heartbeat was loud in her ear. She ran from room to room, calling his name, beseeching him to answer. But there was only silence.
“Don’t agitate him,” Gema had said. “Make sure he eats when you give him meds.”
And when the old man refused to come out, Celit thought Gema was there, saying, “You hear me, ha? You hear me, Celit? Wag ka makulit!”
She moved through the house like a hurricane, pushing furniture aside, looking behind doors, and hunting under tables. When she couldn’t find him, the tears began to rise up out of her, a kind of rain, spilling everywhere.
And then she heard him crying. Celit ran out the back door and found her uncle sitting in the grass, bent over like a child. His teeth were in his hand and he was calling for his mother. For the first time in days, Celit saw him in the light, and he was small and bony. He had lost weight since Irma. When Tito Pat saw Celit running toward him, his eyes went wide.
“Inay?” he said. “Inay?”
Celit put her arms around her uncle, answered him yes, yes, yes. She wiped the tears from his face.
“I couldn’t find you,” he said. “Inay. Where did you go?”
She looked into his eyes, but still could not find him. “I went to the store.”
“And where is Papa,” he asked.
“You know where he is.”
Celit embraced Tito Pat, humming in his ear. He smelled of old cigars and perspiration. He smelled of urine. He felt small and tired in her arms. She held him tighter even as he squirmed.
She closed her eyes, pictured the fishing village where she grew up. The blue green sea. The boats. The cousins in the water. She was singing now. She held him close. Rocked him. Waited. Held him until the wind came rushing through, until a cloud swooped in to shade them and then, the rain.
Rumpus original art by Lauren Kaelin.