He liked to have his house in order, which was why he’d never had a family or pets. He liked his routines and there was nothing wrong with that. Every day in the summer months, he wore his father’s old Fire Department windbreaker, with a blue FDNY polo shirt, khaki shorts and flip-flops, so he could walk down to the beach without getting a chill from the ocean. When the weather turned, he had a half-dozen identical blue sweatshirts that he wore with velour track pants and thick wool socks for going out on the deck.
Fortunately, he only had to go out once a week for groceries at the Stop & Shop on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, because the settlement he got from the city after the accident let him stay home and mind his business. So naturally he wasn’t going to open the door for a stranger in the middle of a storm.
The doorbell started ringing just after the first commercial break for the Cheers rerun. He didn’t like sports or these new shows with singing and dancing contests, where crazy people screamed with joy and disappointment and there was no telling how things would end up. It was much better when you could anticipate and prepare yourself beforehand. Which was why he’d been paying attention to the weather reports. He had the generator running and the storm windows latched tight with foam and sealing tape around the edges. It gave him a secure feeling when he heard the first few drops on the glass like the claws of hungry little animals that would eventually give up and go look for shelter somewhere else. But then the bell started.
It was a soft modulated two-tone, the sound of the same bell his parents had put in when they bought the house on stilts in 1970. He liked that sound because it didn’t disturb him too much when he had to get up for a delivery.
He ignored the bell the first time it rang because it was after nine o’clock and who would be out on a night like this? It went off a second time a half-minute later and he reached for the remote to turn the sound up. All his life he’d lived in Rockaway, maintaining his parents’ house just the way they’d had it—plus painting the shingles every four years and putting in fiberglass insulation and a new alarm system—while the rest of the neighborhood was going to hell with those people from the projects and the ocean was getting filthy. He could count on less than one hand the times a stranger had come to his door for a legitimate reason. Ten seconds later, the bell went off for a third time. It felt like someone poking a dirty fingernail in his ear over and over.
He crossed his arms and ankles, and made himself all tight and tense as he leaned back in the Barcalounger, wishing they’d just go away. But of course, they didn’t. The bell started ringing more frantically, so that he couldn’t hear his show, couldn’t think about anything except to ask himself the question, why wouldn’t people just leave him alone? He realized he was going to have to get up or else this would be going on all night.
As soon as he stood, he could hear the wind howling and feel the storm trying to get in the house. He went to the door and looked out the peephole. Three hooded figures were on his front porch, like something from a nightmare or a Lord of the Rings movie. Ghoul-wraiths of unequal size in silhouette, with curtains of wild monsoon rain moving back and forth across the sidewalk behind them. Just seeing them put the dampness in his bones.
“Hello,” a high ragged voice called out. “Can you please help us?”
He kept his eye at the peephole and blinked, glad they couldn’t see him.
“I’m sorry to bother you. But your house is the only one that has a light on the block. All the others are dark.”
The ghoul to the right of the speaker went into a squat. The other leaned on one of the porch columns and sucked its thumb.
“Our car has stalled and the streets are flooding. We’re just trying to get to my sister’s in Brooklyn.”
When he didn’t answer, the speaker suddenly reached out and banged on the door with the brass knocker. It had been years since anyone used it and he jumped back, almost slipping on his mother’s old throw rug. From the living room, he could hear the laughter from the Cheers audience, reminding him of the warmth and comfort he’d left behind. His tea and cell phone were on the coffee table. He knew it would useless to try to call 911. With the way the government had been whipping people up about this hurricane, he knew the police and fire department would never come. He was alone and unprotected.
“We only need to come inside for a while. It’s not safe out here.”
It was a black woman’s voice. He was sure of that now. With a slight Caribbean lilt when she said “Brooklyn.” This was how it started. Sometimes they pretended to be emergency workers from Con Ed or the gas company, coming to check on the lines. Why wouldn’t they send a woman with small children up to some trusting idiot’s door?
“Go away,” he yelled.
It was the awful how his voice cracked when he was nervous and made him sound like his mother. He should have kept pestering his brother, the big macho state trooper, to help him get a gun a few years ago, instead of letting the subject drop when it was suggested that he could just drive to Florida or some place like that and buy one himself with a driver’s license. Obviously, that wasn’t going to happen. But now he was here by himself, defenseless, with these creatures at his door, demanding to be let in.
“Mister, it’s dark out here. My children are shivering. Cars are getting carried away by the water. We just need to be inside.”
He saw the one that was crouching hang its head and sniffle. He pictured this wet little urchin curled up on his sofa, coughing and spewing bacteria on the cushions.
“I can’t,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“What’d he tell you, mom?” the thumb-sucker asked.
“I know you’re a good person, sir.” The woman pushed her body against his door. “I know you want to help us.”
He could hear her clothes squish. All of them sodden. Dying to come into his house, to soak the carpets and use the bathrooms. The little ones would probably miss the toilet and piss on the fluffy white rugs. They’d blow their noses on the good towels, and use the nice soap, and then they’d be hungry and thirsty and he’d have to stand there and watch them drink his orange juice straight out of the container. They’d go into his bedroom and look through his closets for dry clothes. Then they’d want to come downstairs, and the little ones would want to sit in his Barcalounger, and use the remote to change the channel and watch their own programs. And their mother would want to talk. She’d want to tell him about all the misery in her life that had led her to being alone on a street where she didn’t belong, with two children in the middle of a hurricane, and he’d be expected to nod, listen and say the right things without wanting to scream and jump out of his skin. Then she’d yawn, and smile, and put her hand on top of his, and ask if it would be all right if they just stayed until the storm passed and the sun came up. After that, he knew he would never be able to get rid of them.
“You’re not coming in my house,” he said.
He stepped back from the peephole, clenching his jaw and bracing himself against the door in case she hit it again or had her children start crying. He could hear the wind getting fiercer now, pelting the rain harder against the side of his house and ripping away part of the awning over the front door. He could hear it go flapping off like a wounded vulture, while his garbage cans rolled down the street and sirens wailed in the far distance, as cops and paramedics attended to other people’s emergencies.
From the living room, the Cheers crowd was enjoying being in a friendly place where everybody knows your name. He stood in the foyer for a few more seconds, not daring to move in case she heard him and called out again. But now the only sound was the yowling of natural forces tearing at the boardwalk and sluicing water into the streets. So he went back to his show and told himself that none of this had really happened or mattered.
The news van showed up on the block two days later. There was still water in the street, not just from the storm but also the fire truck hoses that had spewed the dozens of houses around him in vain, since they’d still burned down. There were cars turned over on lawns, refrigerators, planks from the boardwalk, and large fallen trees blocking every other side street and showing their roots obscenely.
A man with gray hair wearing a news team windbreaker stood in front of his house with a microphone and a camera trained on the front door. He came out and told them to go away. They were trespassing. The newsman replied they were on a public street doing a story about a woman who’d lost her daughters on the corner during the storm. Supposedly they were swept out of her arms during the deluge and had been found dead a half-mile down the road. A six-year-old and a three-year-old, drowned within a few feet of each other. Their mother said a man who lived in this house had refused them shelter a few seconds before she lost them.
Well, of course, that was a damn lie. What was she doing out on a night like that anyway? He’d heard no one. It was just another smear. Spread by those animals who’d already ruined the rest of the neighborhood. Why wouldn’t they leave a man in peace? And even if what they said was true, it wasn’t against the law—was it? Everyone has a right to be left alone. Anyway, that was all he had to say. Then he went back inside to watch a M*A*S*H rerun. A show about people who knew how to laugh and take care of each other in troubled times. They used to make those kinds of shows so well. What happened?