As a young child, I was enamored with my father’s old Chevy, El Camino. It wasn’t a typical sedan because it had an open flat-bed in the rear and it had a second row for passengers. The car was a dull shade of brown and had a ripped vinyl interior that scratched my skin when I sat for rides. It had a great, loud radio whose temperament was as unpredictable as my father’s. The car had no suspension so I always bounced around the back seat like a rag doll, unrestrained — seat belt laws were non-existent those days. It also seemed to kick up dirt wherever we drove, even on paved roads, and this annoying feature irritated my mother each time we drove to family functions. Its back seat had expansive, loose hips similar to those of the brown-skinned women that sold fire pit cooked chicken by the side of the road.
These women hovered over makeshift pits, their hair covered in kerchiefs, and the whites of their eyes and teeth glowed despite the sweltering heat. With small children at their feet, their voices rang loud and warm as they sold chicken and fried bacalao fritters.
We lived in a seaside community on the eastern side of our island. Cliffs formed high sea walls and small inlets had untouched beaches that brimmed with marine life.
I recall one odd day, I was 8 or 9, when the sun never quite emerged. The skies were stone gray and heavy with dense moisture that clung to my face each time I ventured outside. A hurricane was coming.
My father and our neighbor spent the better part of the day hammering sheets of plywood over our windows and doors. The electricity periodically faltered, televisions sets stuttered news bulletins, and the hand radio was never far from my father’s side.
I walked around our small home, nervous but excited by the bustle of activity. I remember pocketing a nail my father had discarded, digging its sharp point into the small of my hand, willing it to puncture my soft skin, to bleed, but not brave enough to dig in deeper and really feel pain. I collected water in the bathtub and random jars as my mother prepared food for the upcoming days. Despite the imminent hurricane, our neighborhood buzzed with excitement. Nature had provided a small respite from our daily lives.
I don’t recall much of that night except for a deadpan stillness intermittently interrupted by gusts of wind and its deep and piercing exhalations. I remember the wind and rain pounding our home and the sound of objects crashing against our concrete walls. Somewhere between my mother’s face, stricken with fear and my father’s measured pacing, I fell asleep. I woke when I heard my neighbor’s voice. My father had begun to clear the debris from our yard and street. Strategically parked, the Camino survived the night, unharmed.
Hours later we piled into the car to survey our small neighborhood streets. On my lap I held a paper napkin full of saltine crackers. Minutes away from our home, the narrow beach side roads were impassable. Fallen palm trees blocked the roads and coarse brown sand from the bordering sea had washed ashore and completely covered what was left of the road.
As we drove back a squall of rain made the trek difficult. I remember my mother clutching the arm rest as my father steered us home. Every now and then he’d pause and step out of the car to view the waves collide against the sea rocks. Bracing themselves against the wind, my parents stood in awe. I sat in the car, rubbing my fingers on the windows, tasting the salted air that clung to the glass. I listened the ocean hiss and the palms groan as though their bark had snapped and died. It felt as though we alone survived in that strip of barren land.
Making our way home, my dad stopped again. Before us, the tepid light revealed thousands of gray, brown and red crabs crossing the road, deliberately slow, the sound of their tapping claws collectively louder than our car’s motor. I don’t know how long we lingered in that spot, waiting for the fleeing crabs to make their way out of their sandy holes into the grassy sands across the street. Some appeared to stand defiantly, maniacally waving their disproportionately large claws at our fender and wheels. I remember sticking my head out the car window and feeling the sting of my hair as it whipped my face, I looked on as long as I could, fascinated by the pilgrimage of those frantic crabs. I sprinkled my left over crackers, and the wind ripped the napkin right out of my hands.
I cringed as we drove over their masses, the sound of the crunch audible, beneath our wheels. Staring out the back window, I watched the crabs move on. These legions did not mourn the losses. Those that remained crawled into the grass and disappeared.
June 1, 2010