Before Hurricanes Had Names

by Alice Owens Johnson

The world is crisscrossed
in tape and gnarled limbs, fallen and split
by a fierce, howling wind that gives Daddy a fit,
he dashes outside in his purple bathrobe,
it flaps like a cape in the stiff mighty blow.

My mother cooks red beans, as he slings his sharp axe
giving the oak branch another hard whack while
inside the kitchen windows are steamed, the shiny tall pots
are hot with alarm. On tile kitchen tops, dead ducks defrost,
eyes black patent leather
like my shoes in the closet all heaped together,
the place where my grandmother’s spared scary weather.

She stares into rows of wool jackets and sweaters,
she pees in her chair; it pools then it dribbles
I try to tell stories, dumb jokes and riddles
but she’s deaf, blank and frozen in her wheelchair
and now she is sopped in old underwear.

The trolleys are locked up off wide city streets
in the green streetcar barn that shudders and creaks.
Outside is the sound of lines going POP,
boats clunk like bottles I’ve seen in the lake.

Gertrude our cook says this is the end. She’s lighting candles
shouting prayers and amens
to her boyfriend the preacher outside on the stoop
scaling fish that stink awful, need to be cooked.
My father unwraps vials of long needles
to shoot us with typhoid but my arm is too little so

I bend over “the barrel” pull down my pants,
show him my bottom, the shot makes me rant, get
angry and shiver like tin gutters outside
that rattle and quiver.

No water, no lights, rats run amok
on the wires of big boats tied up to the docks
and still the rain falls in sheets of wet silver.

The world has gone crazy is all I can figure.
Oaks bending and falling right through the roof,
shingles sing by, whistling and hissing,
like birds on the branches, that now have gone missing.

in the cellar the rats move right in
and frighten us all as they gnaw in our home.
The radio stutters, clears throat then dies
and so does the world, the news from outside.

The mess, the mess, my mother is fretting
while upstairs my grandmother’s
lost in forgetting. Noise from the kitchen, jangle and clatter
the splatter of soup from the bowl that just shattered.

Soon air becomes still, the sun pokes on down,
we throw open the windows, fresh air returns,
but wires are still live, hot and unsafe,
would frazzle and fry me, mean as a snake.
Go to the closet, tell grandma it’s safe.
Now it is time to tear down the tape.

Alice Owens Johnson has published poetry, short stories and nonfiction in publications including The Lyricist, The Crucible, Kakalak, Pembroke Magazine, The Guilford Review, and the O.Henry Festival of Stories. Her stories have also appeared in NPR’s National Story Project, I Thought My Father Was God, and Alice Redux. She has won several prizes, and was a finalist in the Mighty River Short Story Contest as well as for the Doris Betts Fiction Prize.

About Before Hurricanes Had Names—This hurricane is the first one I remember. I was four and heard my father hacking away at a tree limb. Before the hurricane hit, the sky turned greenish.