7

A THUNDERSTORM warning was broadcast the following day, and many people went to supermarkets to buy nonperishable foods, bottled water, and other supplies. No customers showed up at the Gold Wok after four o’clock, so the Wus closed early and went home to prepare for the severe storm due to hit the area in the evening. They were worried about the massive oak near the east end of their house. If it fell, it might crush the roofs of their carport and living room. The tree belonged to both the Wus and Gerald, the property line going right through its trunk. Several times Nan and Pingping had talked to Gerald about bringing the oak down, since it could fall on his roof as well, but he wouldn’t share the cost of six hundred dollars, saying he had no money. However, Alan had told Nan that oaks had deep roots and wouldn’t fall easily. It was pines that were more likely to cause damage; that was why Alan had taken down nineteen of his pine trees two years ago and had kept the oaks in his yard. Now all the Wus could do was cross their fingers and watch the television showing destroyed houses and overturned vehicles in the wake of the storm. A newsman said, “Besides the thunderstorm, it’s reported that some places in the northern suburbs got hammered by a tornado. We’ll bring you more on that once we have the details.”

The Wus moved a couch into the dining room, where they could stay to avoid being crushed by the oak if it fell. Around nine o’clock, after a series of thunderclaps, the night suddenly turned whitish- all the trees and lights beyond the lake vanished at once. Then came the ghostly rustle that sounded like a harvester cutting crops, though at a much faster speed. Taotao wanted to look out the window, whose panes kept up a steady rattling, but Nan stopped him for fear that the storm might crash into the room. In no time the power went out. The Wus realized this was a tornado, and wordlessly they cowered on the couch, set in a corner. Try as he might, Nan couldn’t hear the earth-shaking booms made by trees hitting the ground, and somehow all the noises were muffled, though their roof creaked and echoed with objects pelting it. He wondered if it was hailing as well.

Three minutes later the tornado passed, but the night was darker than before as all the lights were gone. The Wus looked out the broad window of the dining room and saw some boughs and branches on the grass. To their relief, all the trees were still standing in the backyard. In the north a fire engine or ambulance was howling. Because electricity might not come back on soon, they went to bed early.

After Taotao left for school the next morning, Nan took a walk in the neighborhood to see the havoc. Several houses had been damaged by fallen pines, and on the streets electric wires were mangled here and there. Fortunately the tornado hadn’t touched Beaver Hill Plaza, and there was still electricity at the Gold Wok. Nan was pleased to find his freezer and refrigerators all droning as before. He realized there might be a lot of business today since many households in the area had no power. Hurriedly he went back and told Pingping to stop cleaning the front yard. Together they set out for work.

Indeed, for a whole day people came in nonstop. The Wus and Niyan had a hectic time, though all were happy about the business. Owing to the power outage, Taotao stayed at the restaurant after school, doing his homework. Toward dark, electricity finally came back to the neighborhood, where the smell of barbecued meat and fried chicken from cookouts still hovered.

Shortly after the Wus returned home that night, Gerald knocked on their door. Nan answered it. Gerald had been ill lately and out of work. He looked gaunt and aged, in jean overalls smudged with grease; the stubble on his chin was grizzled, and his eyes shone with a stiff light like a crazed man’s. He had lost his dog, Goby, a week earlier. It was Taotao who had found the dog dead the other morning- a pair of crows were standing on Goby’s belly, shrieking like mad, so the boy called to his parents, who went out but couldn’t rouse the animal. Goby had died of heartworm. According to Gerald, the collie had carried the disease since it was a puppy. In a way, the Wus were pleased by Goby’s disappearance, because now no dog would bark in the dead of night and wake them up.

“Kin-kin I borra some juice from ya?” Gerald asked Nan, apparently embarrassed.

“Orange juice?”

“No. I mean ‘lectricity.”

“Oh, what happened to your house? Your power isn’t back yet?”

“No. I called ’em. They said they gonna come work on it tomorra.”

“How can you borrow electricity?” Nan was puzzled, though he knew Georgia Power must have cut off Gerald’s supply because of unpaid bills.

“I kin connec’ a cord to your carpo’t.”

“I see.” Indeed, there was a wall outlet near the side door of the house. “Two days. You don’t have to borrow it from us. I can let you use zer line for two days.”

“Two days’re plenty. I’ll git my powa back by then.”

Gerald looked hungry and probably had not cooked that day. As a matter of fact the Wus hadn’t seen him for a long time. He wouldn’t come out of his house nowadays, as if in hibernation, though their neighbor Alan would bang on Gerald’s door to remind him that his lawn needed mowing or that he should trim his trees. Gerald would rejoin, “I’ll take care of that when I feel like. I won’t be push’ around by nobody.” But he never did anything to put his property in order, except that once in a while he cut his grass with a tractor mower. When he drove that thing in his front yard, he’d kick up a thundering din and clouds of dust. To show his gratitude to the Wus, he once mowed their lawn with his machine as well, but its blades had been set so low that after the mowing, the grass turned yellow and shriveled for many days. So Pingping begged him to leave their lawn alone.

By nature Gerald was a kind fellow and a sort of craftsman, always ready to give a hand to someone. He’d get on Mrs. Lodge’s roof and blow down leaves for her. He had laid drainage pipes for the Utleys, a retired couple living a few houses down the street, so that rainwater could flow directly into the lake instead of sluicing and furrowing the roadside and their yard. Also, he had helped two families set their hardwood floors. People in the neighborhood went to those houses to look at the superb work, and everyone agreed that Gerald had done “a beautiful job.” Yet he simply wouldn’t bother about his own property, perhaps because no one would pay him for working on it.

“The other day I saw his ex-wife and daughter in his front yard,” Pingping told Nan after Gerald left.

“What’s she like?”

“She looks very young, with permed hair. She waits tables at the Waffle House near Berkmar High School.”

“But I remember Gerald once said his ex was older than he was.”

” I guess she is, but she really looks young and pretty. She said she couldn’t stand Gerald because he always collected too much junk. She called him a ‘pack rat.’ “

“That can’t be the reason for the divorce.”

” She also said he used to drink a lot. “

“But he isn’t an alcoholic anymore.”

“She seemed happy without him. Maybe she has another man now, I don’t know. His daughter looked happy too.”

Nan turned the tap and let warm water fall into a plastic bucket, in which he was going to bathe his feet. Tonight he was too tired to take a shower, which he’d do tomorrow morning. He thought about Gerald’s situation and realized that if his life were like that fellow’s, he might have killed himself by now. In a way, Gerald was tough. Nan felt fortunate that he could hold his family together.

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