The gas station is quiet today. I pull in and keep the radio running. The announcer is talking about two tropical storms heading for the Gulf Coast.
Where the storms will land, nobody knows. The meteorologists have taken to calling the two approaching systems “dueling storms.”
As of this morning, the storms are veering for Texas and Louisiana. That could all change tomorrow.
The announcer says: “…And the dueling storms could combine in a rarely seen natural occurrence, circulating together, and the catastrophic destruction would be…”
There is a woman at the pump beside me. She is Latina, with a backseat full of children. I ask what she thinks about the storms. Just to get a feel for what people are thinking.
She has a red surgical mask and a soft voice. “Oh, I never know what to think. I don’t feel right hoping for storms to go somewhere else. That would just mean it’s gonna hurt other people. So I don’t know.”
I notice a crucifix hanging from her rearview mirror.
She’s right. A hurricane is coming. It’s going somewhere. Someone’s losing a house. Hoping for such a storm to avoid me personally seems like a selfish thought.
The woman goes on, “So I just pray for everyone to be safe. This is what I tell my kids. We pray maybe for the storm to weaken.”
On my other side, a man is tying lumber to his truck, pumping diesel. No mask. I ask what his thoughts are about the dueling storms. At first he ignores me. He’s not exactly Joe Friendly.
Finally, he says, “I don’t care what happens, dude, as long as it’s not hitting me.” Then he drives away.
Funny. Ask two people, and you will get two different answers.
The cashier behind the gas-station counter has an even more distinct outlook. She is tall, wiry, with a surgical mask bearing the Wonder Woman logo.
“My family lives in Louisiana,” she says. “I was gonna evacuate to my mom’s house if the storms came here. But now…” She laughs. “I think my family’s coming to me.”
She gets four text messages during our short chat. All from family members, she tells me.
“What else can go wrong in 2020?” she says.
I crawl back into my truck, take off my surgical mask, then turn on the radio. It’s ironic. The novel coronavirus isn’t being talked about on the radio this morning. Only dueling storms.
In a weird way, it’s almost nice having a change of discussion.
“…The storms are projected to make landfall early in the a.m. on Tuesday, and might strengthen into a major system unlike anything we’ve ever…”
I pull into the grocery store. I hate supermarket shopping during a pandemic, but my wife needs butter.
Back when the pandemic began, some supermarkets had security guards out front who would zap your head with thermometer guns before you entered. I once saw two older people get turned away because they had temperatures.
When they walked back to their cars everyone backed away from them like they had Black Plague. I felt sorry for them. I don’t think they knew they had fevers. What a way to find out.
The store is empty today. There is an employee stocking shelves. She is masked and gloved. I would guess that she’s in her 30s, but she’s wearing so much surgical protective gear that she could be 70 or 15 for all I know. All I can see are her eyes. I ask for her thoughts about the storms.
“Sucks,” she says. “I told my mom I’m moving to Dothan next month. I already put in my notice here. Last thing I need is hurricanes, I got kids to think about.”
She sounds like she’s mad that I interrupted her. “I gotta get back to work,” she says.
I can’t help but notice how different people have become after this trying summer. Some have become more generous. Others have become sharp. I hope I fall into the first category. But I’m not so sure. There are too many moments when I behave like a fool.
I wander toward the checkout line. Ahead of me, standing ten feet away, is a man wearing a T-shirt that reads: “I’m Local.”
I’m immediately smiling. Just the kind of guy I’ve been waiting for. You don’t see many locals in this store anymore. Back in the day I used to see 9,128 familiar faces in these aisles. But now it’s hard to find one face I recognize.
“I like your shirt,” I say.
“Thanks.” The man speaks with a New York accent. “I’m not really a local, but we’re trying to be. My wife and I moved here two years ago.”
I ask him how he likes it.
“Compared to New York? You kidding? Man, listen. This place is heaven. Everyone is so nice and hospitable.”
He goes on to tell me that his wife had an autoimmune disease flare-up last year. Everyone in his neighborhood banded together to take turns cooking them casseroles for a month during her treatment.
“That kinda thing don’t happen in Queens,” he says.
I ask what he thinks about the two incoming storms.
“Look, I don’t care how bad the storms are, or where they hit, ‘cause I know that no matter where they go, I’m gonna be out there helping clean up. I have a truck, I have chainsaws. I ain’t afraid to work. That’s what we do for each other, isn’t it?”
We bump elbows. Because I have to admit, this man makes a very good point.
Dueling storms. May God have mercy on us all.