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John Fulmer Grand Isle

The wind made the motel's awnings creak. The sound, like sheet metal being cut with a dull hacksaw, shook Wendell awake. His eyes snapped open and his chest tightened. The yellow pin-striped wallpaper felt claustrophobic and he shuddered. For a second, he didn't know where or who he was.

His head lay on its side, on a pillow against the headboard and he looked past a thicket of beer cans on the night stand, trying to focus on a beige object in the corner of the room. It sat on a blurry orange vinyl chair without armrests. As his vision cleared, he recognized the beige object as a plastic cat carrier and things started to make sense.

He heard a clacking noise, and lifted his head. The covers, which matched the wallpaper, lay to one side, rumpled, half hanging off the bed, and a naked woman stood in front of the dresser, shuffling through cassette tapes spread out in a pile next to a boombox. She'd pick up a tape, study it, then drop it back on the pile. Wendell could see her face in the unframed mirror above the dresser but could not remember her name.

Wendell had drifted off for only a minute though he'd been drinking now for close to twenty-four hours. Yesterday morning, a hurricane warning was posted in the Gulf, and he'd been evacuated from an oil rig one hundred and fifty miles off the Louisiana coast. Before takeoff, the copilot's normally rote safety instructions had seemed urgent and once they were airborne, wind gusts batted the twelve-passenger Sikorski like a whiffle ball. For the first time in fifteen years offshore, Wendell had been scared. At his fear's highest point, Wendell peered down at the rigs and production platforms dotting the gray water and, after looking around the cabin at the rest of the men, most of whom dozed with heads cricked uncomfortably, he discretely pressed his fingertips against the fuselage beneath his window. He felt it gave too much, that it was delicate, easily punctured. He tried to pray.

But the feeling vanished when they landed at the Exxon terminal in Intracoastal City and Wendell then bought some Dexedrine tabs at a truck stop in Lafayette. Instead of going straight home to Mobile, he detoured into Biloxi. He had a fat paycheck and wanted to gamble. His wife would never know he'd been choppered into shore. Wendell had several days left on his two-week hitch, but the logistics of working offshore were so haphazard, he might as well be on a secret mission. He found a cheap motel on Highway 90 and, after showering in the mildewed, tiled stall, dressed in his best bar clothes-cowboy hat and boots, Wranglers with a white iron crease, pearl-buttoned Western shirt-and drove down the glaring strip of casinos on the beach. The Dexedrine overamped his system and within ten minutes, his clothes were damp with sweat.

Several hours later, while working a video blackjack table, he saw the woman reeling down the aisle, swinging a plastic cat carrier in one hand. She wore a disheveled glen-plaid business suit and her alligator heels bit into the thick carpet, patterned with red and purple fleurs-de-lis. She sat down with Wendell, placing the carrier between them on an empty black leatherette barrel chair studded with copper rivets.

Wendell stared at her; she looked like she'd passed out in the front seat of her car. Her short, thatched hair was ruffled with cowlicks. What's that for? he said, pointing at the carrier.

Don't worry, she said, as the machine sucked a twenty dollar bill from her hand. The screen lit up with yellow electronic cards. It's empty.

I thought it was a purse, Wendell said, smiling. A big purse.

She chanted, moving her lips silently as she pushed the hit button. Busted, she said, drawing the word out in a hiss. She jabbed her finger at his screen. Come on, monkey-man, she said. Your turn.

Wendell stayed on eighteen and made the dealer bust. They played some more, and Wendell kept pushing it, but the woman refused to explain the carrier. Its presence annoyed him, and he'd sneak looks at her, unconsciously examining her for flaws. He spotted a small red scar that marked up her otherwise perfect chin.

Where'd you get that? he said. Fall off your tricycle?

She laughed, reached for the cat carrier, and stood up. Fucking grease monkey, she said. Come on.

Now, fully awake, Wendell reached for a Budweiser on the crowded night stand and took half the can in one gulp, hoping to offset the Dexedrine. He listened to the wind, blowing in short, intense bursts that rattled the windows, and watched her face in the mirror. She frowned with mild concentration as she picked through the tapes. When he thought he had her name right, he set the can on his sternum. "What do you do," he said cautiously, "Sandra?"

"I'm a lawyer."

He laughed. "You don't act like one."

She held at eye-level an old Barbra Streisand tape of Broadway show tunes and standards. "I act exactly like a lawyer." She tossed the tape back toward the edge of the pile, picked up another and held it above her shoulder.

"You must have twenty Streisand tapes here," she said. "I thought you worked on an oil rig or something."

"Yeah. So what?"

"I don't know." She threw the tape on the dresser. "I guess it doesn't fit the profile."

Wendell pointed to the cat carrier; it looked like a small, odd piece of luggage. "Are you going to tell me about that thing?"

"What thing?" She swiveled her head quickly, then turned back. "Oh, that thing. That's a conversation piece. In case we run out of things to say," she said and nodded vaguely toward the carrier, "there it is."

"Come on. What's the deal? You want me to know, so why don't you just tell me and get it over with?"

"The deal is," Sandra said, still scanning the tapes, "my husband took off last week and left his cat behind. You're going to give it a home."

Wendell laughed. "I don't think so."

"Help me out here. I've given you my precious body."

"Take it to the pound."

"I've got a better idea. Why don't I just drown it?"

"All right. So why don't you keep it?"

She turned her head, stared at him for an instant, then began rifling slowly through the tapes again. "After he left, I got rid of all the furniture," she said. "He already fucking sat down everywhere."

Wendell laughed and adjusted the beer can. The beer had been lukewarm but the can still felt cool against his skin.

"Well," she said. "What about it?"

"The cat?" He shook his head. "Sorry. No cats."

"You'll change your mind," she said quietly, nodding her head. "Before the night's over."

"When we were kids, we used to tie firecrackers to their tails."

"'Getting to know you, getting to know all about you,'" she sang, then made a clumsy pirouette and stood facing him. "No Merle Haggard. How come, Junior?"

Wendell smiled. People often said he was a dead ringer for Haggard, and she'd called him Junior several times last night. "I got a greatest hits out in the car," he said. "I don't play it much, though."

"You could impersonate Haggard at one of the casinos." Sandra leaned against the edge of the dresser and folded her arms across her chest. "I'll be your manager. Forget 'Junior.' We'll call you 'Lil' Merle.' Something like that. No wait. I've got it." She unfolded her arms and spread her hands slowly in the air, as though imagining a marquee. "'The Okie From Biloxi.'"

"Yeah, well, I like what I do."

"Working on an oil rig? Come on," she said. "I want to hitch my wagon to your star."

"Nah, I'm happy." Wendell laughed and shook his head. "It doesn't matter anyway. I can't sing."

"Sure you can." She turned back toward the dresser, found the Streisand show tape, popped it in the boombox and punched the fast-forward button a couple times until she came to "The Man I Love." She looked at him in the mirror; her smile was unsteady. "Everybody can sing. It's a gift from God."

"Not me."

"Yes, you can. Anybody can."

"Nope. Can't do it." Wendell laughed again but felt vulnerable-a naked man lying flat on his back, an aluminum can stuck on his chest like a target for .22 practice. "Even if my life depended on it."

"Maybe it does." She turned up the volume. Streisand's voice was soft, barely audible above the orchestra. "Come on. Sing along. You can do it."

"I told you, I can't sing."

"Just a little bit." She turned her head around and with the same, fading grin said, "Don't make me beg."

"How about giving me a break here?"

"Please?" she said. "Sing like a bird. Like a little birdy-bird."

"I'm not going to sing, okay? I don't want to sing."

"Please?" she said. "For me."

"Fuck off, okay?"

"Okay, okay. I'm sorry." She turned back to the boombox, hit the stop button, and ejected the tape. She took a very deep breath and let it out. "I'll find something else. Anything you want to hear?"

"Hey, look." Wendell grabbed his beer and raised up halfway, supporting himself on his forearms. "I didn't mean it like that."

"It's okay." She sorted quickly through the tapes, picking them up without looking at them closely and dropping them back on the pile. "Forget it."

"Really. If I could sing, I wouldn't mind."

She held up a tape. "Do you want to hear this?"

"I'll tell you what. I'll give it a try."

"Stop it. Please."

"No, no. Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Listen." Wendell cleared his throat. "'And he'll be big and strong,'" he sang, "'the man I love.'" He looked at Sandra's face in the mirror. "How's that? Not too bad, eh? I might have a future."

Sandra stood still for a moment, then put down the tape slowly. "No. That wasn't too bad," she said and turned around, smiling a little. "Not bad at all." She walked toward Wendell, stopping at the window next to the bed to part the drapes. Wendell could see a slice of sky-deep violet with a thin pink streak on the bottom edge. "It's dawn," she said. "Pretty."

Wendell felt like his insides were on fire. He laid back on the bed and set the beer can on the night stand. "You ought to see the sunrise offshore," he said. "It's something else."

She parted the drapes farther. Some skinny loblolly pines by the motel pool swayed in the wind. "The storm's coming. Look." She stared out the window for a few seconds, then walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed. She held out her hand. "Remote."

Wendell handed her the remote control, anchored in a bracket screwed into the night stand. She switched channels, and after finding a weather report from the Louisiana coast, pushed the mute button. The TV, which had been playing a noiseless HBO movie, barked to life. A reporter, dressed in a yellow slicker, his face streaming wet, stood on a beach road holding an umbrella that threatened to jackknife. Behind him, waves crashed against a seawall, sending plumes of water high into the air, and a couple combed the beach, walking bent into the wind.

"Some people love disaster," Wendell said.

Sandra snorted in response and surfed with the remote, lingering on weather reports from other local stations and the Weather Channel. There were the usual remote hurricane broadcasts; Wendell might as well have been watching stock footage from Hurricanes Camille or Frederick. People snapped up batteries and candles, canned goods and bottled water. A black woman wearing pink mules held a package of toilet paper under her arm while a store clerk showed her how to work a Coleman stove.

"Guy's crazy," Wendell said, watching a man cross a picture window with a long X of duct tape. "That'll never hold. He needs plywood."

"Sssh. Listen." Sandra pointed to the screen. A camera crew had invaded a hurricane party at an apartment complex near the beach. People danced in the living room, and the reporter interviewed a man who swayed noticeably. She casually grabbed his arm to steady him.

"Look at them!" Wendell laughed. "Six a.m. and drunk as skunks."

Sandra turned her head to look at Wendell. After a second, she returned her attention to the screen with a determined look on her face. "We ought to find that party. What do you say?" She turned again to Wendell, this time excitedly. "Grand Isle's not that far. What? A couple hundred miles? When's landfall? Did they say?"

"Around noon," Wendell said. He paused. "What about the cat?"

"The cat can come," Sandra said. She grabbed Wendell's ankles. "Come on, Junior. How about it? We've got plenty of time."

He took a tiny sip. "Kinda dangerous, isn't it?"

She shook him gently. "That's the whole point, dumbo."

Wendell looked at her closely, then his face broke out into an uncontrollable grin. Maybe this one was worth the risk, he thought. Maybe this one was worth every minute.

She smiled back, like it was contagious. "You're with me, aren't you? You're with me all the way."

"Sure," he said. "Why not?"

"Any beer left?"

"Last one." He lifted his beer from the night stand. "Want a sip?"

"No," she said. She crawled into bed on her hands and knees, and straddling him, licked the wet spot on his chest. Then she sprawled over and searched the floor for her clothes. "But we'll need a couple for the road."

"Wait a minute. I'll go."

"Steady there, Junior." She straightened up, put her hand lightly on his chest, and gently pushed him back down. She smiled again. "It's my treat."

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