Copyright 2007 Teresa Phillips. No portion of this may be used without the express permission of the author.Thank you.
Zola Gorgon, a woman with a single eyebrow, was arrested in the aftermath of the melee brought about by the rising waters in the gulf coast town of Mayhem, Texas, it was reported by the San Antonio Chronicler last week. In the Sang Froid neighborhood, a gated community with moats and alligators, the drawbridges were raised and the surrounding waters coated in oil and set on fire to seal out the riffraff and keep the Sangfroidians safely inside amongst their own. Helen deTroi, mayor of this tiny, gated community situated on an elevated man-made island just off the coast of Corpus Christi, spoke out strongly against the ensuing chaos. – Billy Gumball, Mayhem Avalanche Tribune
“This is a disgrace, an absolute disgrace,” she said before turning off the cameras and sending the reporters home, settling back into her double-wide recliner sofa with the cooler in the arms, popping open a cold one and turning on her favorite episode of “Lost in Space.” “Danger, danger, Will Robinson,” she said and woggled her arms robot-like, spilling beer in her bowl of cinnamon dots.
“Heckuva job, heckuva job” shrieked her parrot, Sigmund Fraud, who had once belonged to a pirate. But a pirate’s life is short, and a parrot’s is long, and his pirate – Jimmie Bambino from Jupiter Creek, Mississippi – fell blind drunk from the mizzenmast onto the poop deck. He didn’t die right away but was eventually swept away on a sea of therapies and plastic surgeons and disability parking stickers.
Sigmund Fraud was abandoned with nothing but repressed and distorted memories of his peg-legged friend and master. A dozen pet stores and two or three pet psychics later, Sigmund found his way to Helen deTroi. He stayed with her until he was a very old bird, a miracle of an old bird, singing the songs of Jimmy Bambino’s childhood, reciting the Boy Scout Pledge. “I promise to be clean, honest and brave, to do my duty to God and my country,” followed by the filthy invectives of pirate life and fortune tellers, gypsy prophecies – “You will meet a beautiful dark-haired woman,” he whispered to Mayor deTroi on the day of the storm. “She will break your heart.” Helen sighed and popped another Shiner Bock.
Billy Gumball was a journalist by trade, a gardener by inclination. He grew flowers and herbs – forget-me-nots, baby’s breath, geranium, mint, basil and sage. He worked in his mama’s candy store on weekends so she could go gamble at the Sky’s the Limit Casino and Heavenly Redemption Center – Save Your Soul and Win Big Cash Prizes Every Sunday Morning. He drove her to the Sky’s the Limit every Saturday afternoon and picked her up 24 hours later, come hell or high water. Billy was a height-weight proportionate single girlie-man, a pear-shaped fellow with a likeable manner. He made himself popular in Mayhem Texas with his not-quite-threatening feminine masculinity, his not-quite-sentimental masculine femininity.
Until the weekend when the waters rose and all the big jackpot winners in Sang Froid sat high and dry with their mint juleps on the safe side of that fiery moat. His mama met her maker while the parrot sang Kumbaya and the mayor slept in her Lay-Z-Boy Lady Barcalounger. That same day, he pissed off his first elected official. He had an unexpected flair for revenge, a fact that Mayor deTroi came to know far too well.
Zola’s first memory is of standing in her playpen, holding a blue tin cup in her hand. Her mama is standing behind her, sprinkling water on a striped shirt, thunking the iron down on top of it in steamy, regular intervals. She is smoking; the smoke mingles with the steam rising off the damp sheets. She’s set her Dr. Pepper down on the end table almost within reach of Zola, who loves sweets. Zola sticks the cup handle in her mouth and looks at the Dr. Pepper. The TV is on; it is an old black and white with the round screen in a light wood console. On the screen, cars are moving in a procession, then confusion and men leaning over the president, the camera veering, mama crying out, burning her hand. Zola insistently bangs the tin cup against the bars of the playpen, demanding to be let out.
“Zola Marie, I keep telling you, you weren’t even born yet when Kennedy was shot. 1963, 1974 – you can’t remember something that happened 11 years before you were even born.” Her mama has been telling Zola this for 30 years. Zola stopped arguing with Imelda about it once she was a grown woman, figuring there are more important things to worry about than trying to justify the inside of your own personal memory bank. She also remembered sitting at her parents’ feet, them in full Victorian drag, arguing over the Scopes Monkey Trial, and that happened almost 50 before she was born. Didn’t mean it hadn’t happened, was the way she looked at it.
“Hell, we never even had a black and white when you were little. I swear, I don’t know where you get this stuff,” Imelda said.
Zola wasn’t born with one eyebrow; it just grew in that way at puberty. She liked the feel of it, a furry caterpillar resting on her face. She stroked it often when thinking, particularly when the thoughts were pleasant. At birth, she was covered in soft, dark brown hair, in circular whorls all over her tiny, perfectly formed body. Zola’s daddy was hairless, lot of Indian in him, but Imelda had her secret share of wax and bleaches, and later went for electrolysis. This was another sore point between them, Zola’s overt eyebrow-stroking delight in her own hairy self. Fortunately, their second daughter came out pretty, hairless and pink, taking the pressure off, making life easier on the entire Gorgon family.
On the day that Hurricane Margarita took a sudden westward veer from the murky waters off the coast of Louisiana toward Mayhem, Billy Gumball’s first concern was for the young flowering quince he’d just planted, thinking the storm season was basically over. He’d been thinning his mother’s overgrown iris bed, digging them up and cutting them back to expose the rhizomes, thinking about their bearded faces coming up next spring. His hands were in the dirt, the radio was on, and Mrs. Gumball was happily shaking hands with the one-armed preachers at the Sky.
It was a clear calm Saturday for Billy, no big news expected, when the radio blasted its shrill weather alert. He turned his head toward the sound, thinking of Sigmund, the mayor’s parrot. Billy had photographed Sigmund at numerous village council meetings, where the parrot was often the most vocal member of the community. Sigmund was acknowledged to be as reliable as the radio, singing either shipwreck songs or Gloria Gaynor whenever a storm was approaching. Billy put down a bulb, wiped his hands on his apron, and sat back on his heels to listen.
There are six main ingredients that go into the making of a tropical storm:
- sufficiently warm sea surface temperatures
- atmospheric instability
- high humidity in the lower to middle levels of the troposphere
- enough Coriolis force to develop a low pressure center
- a preexisting low level focus or disturbance
- low vertical wind shear
Combine all ingredients, shake briskly, pour over coastal communities, garnish with fresh mint. Serves 275,000.
At 4 p.m. that day, Hurricane Margarita was weakening, with decreasing wind sheer that confirmed its probable course as a tropical storm rather than a hurricane. The winds were up, the whirligigs flying over the candy store were spinning. There was a smell in the air. Peppermint and ozone. The hair on Billy’s arms stood up.
Billy Gumball sat through council meetings, read police reports, covered the gardening beat and occasionally ran a cooking column in the Mayhem Avalanche Tribune. He fell into journalism by accident, mostly, and because he was friends with the publisher’s wife, who raised orchids. He had a long-standing fascination with storms, going back to when he and his mother first moved to the gulf coast, while he was in high school.
Mother Gumball had inherited a number of properties and businesses from Billy’s father, including a bowling alley in Blanco, two car lots in Albuquerque, a candy store in Mayhem, and a waffle shop in Austin. They lived in a small clapboard house across the street from the bowling alley in Blanco until Billy was 14. Billy helped his mother out, setting up the pins, mopping the floors, keeping the rental shoes sorted and clean. A nice boy, Billy was popular with the many small business owners in his slow, muggy town. What made him so likeable with his mother’s friends made him the inevitable target for virtually everyone else, though, harassed and smacked down by football players, perky girls, bag boys. It was fate, destiny, kismet, only logical that he and Zola were friends from the playpen on.
Helen deTroi, governor of Mayhem Texas, had no confidence in government whatsoever. Her second husband, Cliff asked her (before he ran off with a girl who waited tables at Chelsea Street Pub) what the hell she was doing running for public office if she didn’t believe in it. “Well, that’s what makes it right, don’t you see?” she asked him. “Someone’s got to do it, but if you’re fool enough to believe in it, well you’re too big a fool to do it right.” Helen ran and was elected unopposed, and was pleased to be photographed, parrot in hand, at local charity fundraisers, parades, and at meetings, looking mayoral in tailored red suits that brought out the blue and yellow beauty of her bird.
When the alert sounded, it startled Helen out of a Saturday afternoon snooze on her sun porch. Sigmund shrieked and stamped on his mango slices. The air was warm, still. The wind hadn’t started quite yet. Helen told the radio to shut up, she didn’t need the damn government interrupting her weekend with some bogus alerts on her tax dollars. Put in a call to Armand, scheduled a spa day and some highlights, maybe some lowlights mixed in for fun. Looked at the calendar: harvest day festival in the Mayhem town square next Saturday. She got up and went into the kitchen to make herself a sandwich. Sigmund stayed on the sun porch, mashing mango between his parrot toes. Started singing. The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald, whistling the refrain. He broke a peanut, then switched to I Will Survive, bobbing his head, picturing the light striking off a disco ball on a cruise ship as they climbed over the sides in his pirating days. He jumped off of his perch and onto the screen door, climbing up beak over claw to the solid brass screen door mortise latch. Turned his head and tasted it with his tongue. Twiddled it with beak and tongue together. Held the handle steady with one claw, turned the latch with his beak. Left the door standing open behind him. Ten minutes or so later it started to bang, rhythmic, primitive, an accelerating heartbeat, as the wind picked up.
Zola and Billy stand on the malecon in the wind, helicoptering their arms, not going to the dance after all. Halloween in the muggy warm fall, make-up and wigs a little sweaty. They are laughing – Billy makes a beautiful Marilyn, and Zola only needed a shawl to be Frida incarnate. They kiss, they blush, they play helicopter some more. There is a preeixting low level focus or disturbance in the atmosphere around them that is beyond exciting, weather and sex and self all moving together into a new and separate entity, waiting for its moment to wake and rise.
In 1943, a spontaneous (and some would say reckless) experiment proved that pilots can indeed fly right into the severe turbulence and heavy rain of a hurricane — and live to tell about it. Colonel Joseph Duckworth, a U.S. Army pilot and World War II hero, flew his single engine, two-seater AT-6 plane straight into the eye of a hurricane with 132-mph winds that was bearing down on Texas, winning a bet for highballs at the officer’s club that night. Although meteorologists had theorized that the eye of a hurricane was warmer than the surrounding air, the thermometer in Duckworth’s plane gave them tangible proof: It showed a whopping 25-degree discrepancy. The daring feat paved the way for today’s hurricane-hunting.
— The Old Farmer’s Almanac
Zola learned to fly in the bean fields east of Fresno, riding along with a crop duster while on her way to somewhere else. Her first storm hit her right between the eyes, right there where her eyebrows were hiding that third eye of hers that made her the best storm predictor in California’s central valley farmland. She stayed there in Fresno for longer than she intended, watching the storms moving in and out on her internal radar. The crop duster was a nice man, with a slightly chemical smell to his skin, but excellent manners and a habit of rubbing the soft hair on the back of her neck. They flew together, excellent companions, until the day her range of storm predictions suddenly expanded, California, Florida, Louisiana, Texas. Mayhem.
“Time to go home,” she told the crop duster. “I got a storm to attend to.”
In 1965, Ima Gumball packed up her china, her two-year-old son and the family Bible and moved to Blanco, leaving a cousin in charge of the candy store. Mr. Gumball, bless his heart, was 48 years old when he asked his favorite customer to marry him, giving her a bag full of toffees, a ring, and his heartfelt devotion. Ima had one son, William Taft Gumball, before her sugar-pie husband died of an aneurism, leaving her the Sweetest Spot in Texas and other assorted properties and businesses. She raised the little boy in Blanco, safe as a bug, but took him back to Mayhem when puberty made him no less sweet but considerably more likely to get his assed kicked.
Billy put away his tools and made