By Wendy Hodge
The storm is coming. The weather channel is positively giddy with fear and predictions. “The worst we’ve seen in decades!” “Prepare yourself!” “Irma will be one to remember!” So like any good southerner who knows we’re about to “have weather,” I headed to Wal-Mart last night. And it was weird. Not normal Wal-Mart weird, but WEIRD weird. In the parking lot was an assembly of foreigners (I spotted a Georgia license plate or two) who were gathered around a grill – one of those Giant Cook Daddy Grill master Supreme grills. Their dinner smelled like steak. The group included about 25 adults, a dozen kids, 3 dogs, and a goat. An honest-to-goodness goat.
I couldn’t resist. I stepped up to the group and made eye contact with a large man who was a dead ringer for Santa Claus, if Santa wore camo and dipped Skoal. Fifteen minutes later, I left the assembly having learned that they were a mix of Florida and Georgia evacuees who stopped in Opelika because it seemed like “a nice place to wait out the storm.” They felt lucky to have found rooms at a local motel, as everything was booked up. I assured them that this only happened during natural disasters and the Iron Bowl. One teenager, whose name escapes me, said, “Aint’ that the same thing?” Georgia fans – God bless ‘em.
Once inside the store, it’s clear this is no ordinary night. Things are quiet, almost too quiet. Apparently I’ve missed the stampede….and the aftermath is not pretty. Abandoned buggies sit cattywampus in the aisles. There is a bean bag chair in front of the pharmacy counter. Did someone get tired of standing in line and decide to lounge, or was it discarded in favor of heart medication? The bottled water aisle looks like an old man’s mouth – just plain empty. The canned goods aisle isn’t much better. But there’s Spam. Spam? Nah. I have never been that hungry.
The overhead fluorescents flicker frequently enough to induce seizures, casting a green glow on the whole place. It’s starting to feel like a scene from American Horror Story. (I swear, if one single clown shows up, I am so outta here!) But the spell is broken as I hear a woman with a baby approaching. The baby is screaming, and the mom looks exhausted. She wants to say something, I can tell, but she’s hesitant. “Are you ok?” I ask. And she cracks. Like a shattered bowl full of water, she breaks and tears spill down her face. “I need diapers,” she wails. It’s true. The child’s pans appear to be at their saturation point.”I don’t have enough money for diapers and formula. I need both. I don’t know what to do.” My hand involuntarily reaches out to her, and she latches on to me. We walk to the infant section, and I get diapers and formula and, because I can’t help myself, a red stuffed giraffe. Her son’s baby fingers open and close as if he’s already holding the toy. I hand it to him, and my prize is a toothless, drooling grin. I just may melt. I wish I could buy the whole store for them.
I gather my few essentials, and we head for checkout. There are no lines. Did you get that? No. Lines. I’m not sure if that’s a gift or a sign of the apocalypse. I’ll go with the former. Our cashier is not wearing the standard Wal-Mart blue. She has on a neon yellow tank top, leggings that are so tight they hurt my eyes, and high heels. Her weave is magnificent, and she smiles at us like we’re the first guests at her party. I imagine her at home thinking, “Oh goody! It’s a storm… I’ll finally get to wear that hurricane outfit I’ve been saving!” She tells us her name is Monique, she’s visiting from South Carolina, and she’s just filling in for her cousin who “doesn’t do bad weather.” We all laugh at this poor cousin, who is obviously missing out on all the fun.
I hand over my money, and we stand there, reluctant to leave…the desperate, displaced young mom and her son; the quirky, smiling Wal-Mart substitute, and me – a local who was fortunate enough to be there in that moment.
The mom and I hug, and Monique holds the baby. We will, more than likely, never cross paths again, but I’ll carry them around in my mental bank of treasured things.
As I exit, the party around the grill has bowed their heads to pray before they begin to eat their steaks. I look at my phone and see a message from a local business owner who has opened her cafe to any and all for a free meal. As I drive away, the radio tells me of several shelters that are receiving humans and their pets. And I pass an abandoned lot where tents are being set up, and a huge sign sits at the entrance saying, “Opelika Welcomes You.” O Town – God Bless It.
Today we’re one day closer to Irma, and the city is ready. But as I sit here on the courthouse square, writing in the shade, bad weather seems so far away. Instead the world just feels safe and easy. It’s hard to muster a sense of panic. I mean, let’s face it, storms are always coming, right? In some form or other, isn’t life constantly dishing up one challenge after another? Someone you love is sick; the car finally died; your job is not going well; you don’t HAVE a job… only takes a minute or two to make a list of problems, doesn’t it? Shoot, there have been days my whole life felt like one big hurricane, and I wondered if I’d come out the other side. But I did.
The certainty that there will always be another storm is what makes every other day, every other moment, so precious. That’s why sitting here in my town, eating Ritz crackers, watching a boy and his dog play with a Frisbee on the grass, and hearing the clock tower chime off another hour, I am as rich as I could dare to hope to be. Somewhere a baby plays with his red giraffe, and Monique struts in her heels.
The wind has picked up, and the spray from the fountain throws mist in the air. A little girl on the lawn has lost her balloon shaped like Spongebob Squarepants, and we all pause to look up and watch him dance away over the First Baptist steeple. He smiles as he flies away.
I should get home. After all, there’s a storm coming. And there’s a house full of people prepared to “wait out the weather” together.