Thursday, May 26, 2016

Do You Smell That?

      Some of you know I returned to school this year. One of the degrees I am pursuing is Creative Writing.  I had to take a fiction writing course. WHAT? Like... make stuff up???  I've been writing non-fiction all my life. Journalism is about facts. Real things. Real people. Real events. Fictionalizing anything in a news report can get you in BIG trouble. (Can you say "Brian Williams?)

    I had no idea where to start... until someone gave me an old piece of advice... write what you know. So... I did. Here's a short story about news, hurricanes, aging, and life. Some of it happened. Some of it didn't. Some of the people are real. Some of them aren't. Maybe you'll like it. Maybe you won't. But I bet you laugh! Are you ready for "Do You Smell That?"  

                                    Do You Smell That?
                                      by Drexel Gilbert


“Do you smell that?”
The voice came out of nowhere on the deodorant aisle of Walmart. I was perusing the plethora of antiperspirants, wondering why in the world my go-to roll-on had suddenly decided it was not going to do the job any longer. I turned quickly and saw the open, friendly face of an older woman staring back at me. She had obviously-dyed red hair, mischievous green eyes, and a wide smile that invited me into what was undoubtedly her playful little world. To my surprise, she repeated the question.
“Do you smell that?” And with her question, she edged closer to me, began to giggle, and raised her left arm slightly so that her underarm was pointed in my direction.
“I beg your pardon?” I said, and for some reason I couldn’t explain, I also began to laugh.
“Honey, getting older stinks… and I mean literally! I can’t find one of these products that can keep up with my sweat glands these days.”
She got nose-to-nose with me. I smelled peppermint on her breath and White Rain hairspray in her hair. The crazy concoction made me grin. “What do you use?” she asked.
Never in a million years did I think I would be a middle-aged woman standing in the deodorant aisle of Walmart bonding with a stranger over the stinky side of aging.
And totally getting what she was saying.
I shared the yes’s, no’s, and maybe’s of my antiperspirant trial and error adventures, then watched the redhead prance away, a new brand of deodorant in her hand and a sassy lilt in her step.  I chuckled, shook my head and pushed my buggy around the corner. The mirror on the makeup aisle caught my eye. I stopped cold… and took a long look. Surely I was not that 50-something-year-old woman who stared back at me. The same woman whose gaze I caught each morning in the bathroom mirror. The one with the crinkles and the wrinkles, the sags and the bags, the aches and the pains. No, that couldn’t be me! Surely I was still that 20-something-year-old girl I felt like on the inside. The one who still enjoyed kayaking and paddle boarding, who liked to dance on the beach, run 5 K’s, and sing opera (or Aerosmith) in the shower.
Middle age is a conundrum. Sometimes, it is a great thing filled with wisdom and maturity and a peace that comes only from a lifetime of experience.
Sometimes…well, sometimes…  it stinks to high heaven.
~ ~ ~
When I entered the newsroom that afternoon, the atmosphere was crackling with the kind of electricity that comes only from the excitement of what is commonly known in the industry as “breaking news.” A hurricane was on the way. The weather radar looked like something Satan himself had painted on a canvas. It was filled with the color red. Lots and lots of red. Vivid red. Angry red. Bloody red. Red is the worst color for weather radar. It means “duck and cover.” Or “get the hell out.”  And, so it was on this occasion. Evacuations had been ordered. The highways out of town were clogged with cars filled with families seeking safer ground. People were panicking.   
It was my job to keep them calm, informed, and if at all possible… to keep them safe. I walked away from the cacophony of sounds in the newsroom to the quietness of my dressing room. I stood there and looked at the 50-something woman who was looking back at me. How many times had I danced this dance with a storm named Frederic, or David, or Andrew, or Ivan?
I glanced at the clock on my dressing room wall. My 12 hour “wall-to-wall” shift on the anchor desk was about to begin. Any moment now, a P-A (production assistant) would knock on my door. The thought had barely hit my mind when I heard three sharp raps.
“Hey, Marcy. We need you in the studio. Time to get mic’d up. Jim and Dave are already on the set. The senator is in the green room. Says he wants his interview to be with you and you only. You need anything?”
Yes, I thought. I need to hit rewind.  
My eyes dropped from the brightly lit makeup mirror to the neatly arranged counter below. I reached for the antiperspirant I’d bought with my new friend from Walmart a few days ago. I had a feeling I was going to need it.
~ ~ ~
“Watch out!” Quintin yelled.
I squinted as I looked out of the windshield. Through the blinding rain, I could barely make out the scene that was unfolding in front of me. A huge oak tree was falling, seemingly in slow motion, onto the pavement in front of our car. The year was 1979. Quintin and I were the two rookie TV journalists who’d been sent out to cover our first hurricane. He was the photographer. I was the reporter. We were 20 years old. Why in the world did they send us? I wondered. Probably because we were the only ones stupid enough go out into the storm. 
I hit the brakes and went into a slide that only lasted a few seconds, but seemed to go on for a lifetime. We came to a stop, inches from the tree. Quintin and I looked at each other.
“What now?” he asked. The man had nerves of steel.
“You want to keep going?” I replied, knowing before I ever opened my mouth what his answer would be.
“Hell, yeah.”
Youth has its advantages. There’s less fear. More determination. I turned the key, turned the wheel, and turned to maneuver around the tree. The storm was marching relentlessly toward us. We needed to make it to shelter.
But first, we needed to get our story.
~ ~ ~
As I snapped out of my reverie, I mused that “the story” never really changes. Year after year, storm after storm. People prepare. People panic. Some run. Some defiantly stay. Some live. Some die. Each of them has a story. It’s my job to tell it.
I opened the door to my dressing room and as I took one last glance in the mirror, my thoughts jumped back to the worst storm I’d ever covered.  It had happened several years before, but it seemed like yesterday. The beast had been named “Robert.” He took out 300 miles of coastline in one ferocious, relentless, maniacal bite. The storm had a life of its own, pouncing on the coast, mouth wide open, swallowing everything and everyone in its path. No one had thought it would be that bad. The old timers who had ridden out and survived Camille in 1969 thought they’d survived the storm of the century. What could a gentleman named Robert possibly do?
~ ~ ~
“Robert is no gentleman,” I said, as I looked straight into the camera, while standing as close to the water as I could safely get. It was the last live shot Quintin and I would be able to send back to the station before being forced to leave for higher and safer ground. “Robert is a beast and deputies are searching this community diligently for anyone who has failed to evacuate. They are ordering tourists to leave. They cannot force residents to evacuate. However, if residents refuse to leave, they must give officers the name of their next of kin. Anyone who looks this storm in the face is not expected to live to tell about it.  I’m Marcy Nettles reporting live from the coast…and heading for safer ground.”
As I wrapped up my report and the battery powered camera lights clicked off, I turned to face the angry sea for the last time before Robert would come ashore. I caught a whiff of something in the air. Usually, the sea smelled fresh, clean, alive. Today, it smelled like dead fish. It smelled like dirty feet. Today, the sea smelled old. And dangerous.  
I felt a tap on my shoulder. “You ready to pack it in?” Quintin asked. It was hard to believe, but 20 years after that very first storm, we were still a team. We had grown up together. When one of us moved to a new station, the other one moved. We were a package deal. He knew me better than anyone. And he knew I would stay as long as the deputies would let me. He also knew he needed to remind me that it was time to go. Time to get the hell out. He knew.
Age has its advantages. There’s more restraint. More wisdom. I tipped my hat to Mother Nature and maneuvered my way past the other news teams, deputies, aid workers, and ignorant tourists who thought being this close to a killer storm was “cool.”  I headed to the news car. I’d gotten the story.
~ ~ ~
Hurricanes aren’t without humor, I thought, as I eased my mind back into the present and eyeballed the latest radar scan of this most recent bag of wind and waves. There are always those stories that make you smile or even laugh out loud. Like the story of the dog who rode out the storm in a tree. Or the story of that one piece of pine straw that was driven like a nail into a wooden plank. Sometimes, levity comes from the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times.
The senator had just exited the studio. His interview had been good, but unremarkable. He was concerned for the community, would do all he could to ensure the citizens’ safety, and was confident the eventual cleanup would be rapid and complete. Then, he was off to wherever it is that senators go to ride out hurricanes. I turned my attention back to our live coverage.
“Hello? Are you the news lady? Are you Marcy?”
The child’s voice was sweet and soft in my earpiece. I had to strain to hear her and I signaled to the producer to bump up the audio. We were live on the air, taking calls from people who had escaped the storm, people who were running from the storm, and people who were riding out the storm.  
“Hello, yes, this is Marcy. Who is this?”
“My name is Heidi. Are you okay?”
“Hi, Heidi. Yes, I am okay. Can you speak up a little? Are you okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Where are you calling from, sweetie?”
“My bedroom. I have a flashlight. I’m making funny shadows on my walls with it!”
I laughed. So did everyone in the studio.
“Are you alone?”
“No, ma’am. My mommy and daddy are in the living room. They have a little TV. I think it runs on batteries. They have been watching you!”
“They have? Well, good! Then they know what they need to do to keep you safe!”
“Yes, ma’am. I was watching you, too. That’s how I knew the number to call.” She paused, and when she spoke again, her voice had dropped to a near whisper.  “Marcy? It’s really loud outside.”
“I know it is honey. Are you scared?”
“Only a little. My dog is more scared than me. He won’t come out from under the bed.”
I smiled. “I bet! I have a dog and he is afraid of storms, too! What is your dog’s name?”
“Riley. He’s really cute. But, he smells bad!” she giggled. “He ran out in the rain earlier and got all nasty! But he got away from us before we could clean him up and now he’s under my bed and he’s making my room stink! Ewwwww!!!!”
We laughed out loud at her honest assessment.
“Awww,” I said, “That’s okay! He will feel a lot better after the bad weather is over. You’ll clean him up and he will be as good as new!”
We heard a muffled adult voice in the background, then Heidi spoke again. “My daddy just walked in the room. He heard me talking to you on the TV! He says I need to hang up now.”
“Okay, sweetie, that’s a good idea. You go stay with your mommy and daddy. When the storm passes, ask them to call us and let us know that you are all safe. Okay?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she said. “Hey, Marcy?”
“Yes, Heidi?”
“Thank you for talking to me. I feel better now. But, I’m still a little scared.”
My breath caught in my throat. “I know, sweetie. Be safe. Call me after the storm.”
“I will.”
The line went dead.
Youth has its advantages. There’s more honesty. It’s easier to laugh at stinky situations, but also easier to admit when you are afraid. I turned to my co-anchor and we conversationally maneuvered our way to the weather desk. Our 12-hour shift was drawing to a close.
Once again… I’d gotten the story.
~ ~ ~
The smell of strong coffee roused me from my fatigue-induced sleep. After 12 straight hours on the air, I’d wrapped up in a blanket and crashed on the floor of a salesperson’s office in the television station. I stretched. The knots and kinks in my back protested at the movement. For some reason, a Bette Davis quote sprang to mind. “Old age ain’t no place for sissies!” No kidding, I thought, as the aroma of French Roast began to clear the cobwebs and jumpstart the thought process. I wondered if the storm had passed and if so, what we would find in its wake.
My mind jumped back in time again to Hurricane Robert.
~ ~ ~
I marched down the main hall of the television station and grabbed Quintin by the arm.
 “I’m suffocating in here. I’ve been stuck in this TV station for almost a week now. The storm is over. I’m not needed for live coverage and more roads were cleared for travel this morning. I’ve got to get out of the studio and get some air. Let’s get a car and go.”
“Go where?” he asked.
“We’ll know when we get there. Just start the car and drive.”
The younger reporters and photographers had begun to burn out two days earlier. Who could blame them? They’d been out in the weather for days… and nights. Pre-storm coverage, actual storm coverage, post-storm coverage. As a studio anchor, I had been in relative comfort with lights and air conditioning powered by generators. We even had hot food, while the field crews were dining on emergency rations provided by relief agencies and box lunches packed by the station’s kitchen crew. Let them rest, I thought.
We had to park a mile away from the beach. When we arrived, we were the only news crew in this area. Law enforcement was keeping watch. We flashed our media badges and they let us continue down the shoreline. The stench was overpowering. Sweat, rotting food, dead fish. But, I had a feeling that something bigger and sweeter than the stink of the storm awaited us. I had been doing this a long time. I could smell a story. Quintin and I stood silently side by side, staring alternately at the sea and at the destruction that the winds and water had wrought. Quintin was the first to break the silence.
“Where to?” he asked.
“There,” I said, pointing to half of a house. The back deck was really all that remained. It had once rested on stilts. It now sat flatly on the sand. Like the pine straw needle lodged in a wooden plank, the fact that any of the house at all remained while everything else around it was wiped out, was a mystery. Even more so… what I saw perched on the tatters of the deck. An old man and an old woman were sitting in ragged, folding beach chairs. They were holding hands.
This was the story. I could smell it.
They were in their late 70’s…pushing hard at 80’s door. Like me, they’d danced the hurricane dance before. They had rhumba’d with Rita, hustled with Hugo, and cha-cha’d with Charley. Each time, they had followed instructions and evacuated. But this time, they decided they were tired of running from the blows Mother Nature inflicted. So, they bought provisions. They laid in a supply of water and candles and tuna and Spam. They gave the deputies the names of their next of kin. They met Mother Nature head on. They held hands. They held on. And, they came out on the other side.
Weary, wrinkled, and wonderful.
They told us their story of watching the water rise, of hearing the winds howl, and of clutching each other tightly as half of their house literally broke off and blew away. To where? Who knows?  It doesn’t really matter, they told us. Their lives were spared. They had each other. The sea could steal their home, but it couldn’t steal their hearts… or their love.
“You must have been terrified that you would die,” I said to them, as Quintin recorded every word for the camera.
“Yes, it was frightening. The storm was fierce and we were afraid,” the old man said. “But not necessarily in the way I think you mean.”
“I’d rather leave here with you than live here without you,” the old woman said as she turned and looked at his lined face. “That’s what he told me when the house began to fall apart. It was the thought of one of us living without the other that scared us. Not the thought of dying together. Somehow, we held on,” she said, their fingers... and their lives… intertwined. “We are still holding on.”
“We lived to tell about it, Now, that’s some story!” the old man chuckled. Indeed. They smiled at each other… and then at me… their wrinkled, weary, and wonderful faces telling a story that only time could write. We hugged them, gave them some water and sweet-smelling fresh fruit that we’d carried with us, packed up our gear and said our goodbyes. They assured us that the deputies had promised to take care of them until their family arrived.
“You did it, again,” Quintin said as we began the long walk back to the car. “You got the story. You made magic.”
“No. They made the magic. We just helped them tell about it.”
I stood at the edge of the sea and drew a deep breath. As foul as the air had smelled when we arrived, I now caught a whiff of something that smelled fresh, clean, and alive.
Old age has its advantages. There’s more clarity about what’s important. There’s less fear about what the future holds. “Things” become less attractive, while relationships become more beautiful. The image in the dresser mirror…the one you don’t really recognize…  reflects wisdom in the wrinkles.    
The old couple’s story made the national news that night.
~ ~ ~
Back in the moment of this year’s storm, I stood in my dressing room again and wondered about Heidi. I was on my second cup of French Roast and was beginning to feel ready for my next round of 12 hours on the anchor desk. What would today hold?
“Marcy?” the P.A. asked quietly from the other side of my closed dressing room door,
“Yes?”
“There’s a phone call for you. It’s about Heidi.”
My heart couldn’t decide if it wanted to stop dead in its tracks, or lurch forward at a frightening speed. Was the child okay? Dear Jesus, please let it be so, I thought. My normally steady hand began to shake as I reached for the phone on the dressing room wall. I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear.
“Hello?”
“Marcy?”
Her voice was thin and weak. But, she was alive!
“Yes, sweetie. Are you okay?”
“Yes, ma’am.” She began to cry. “But my mommy isn’t. A tree came through the house during the storm and hit her. The policeman and an ambulance came to get her a little while ago. My daddy went with them.”
“Is someone with you, Heidi?”
“Yes, ma’am. But, I’m scared.”
“I know. Just hold on, sweetie.”
“I will. I just wanted you to know.”
Sometimes youth has its disadvantages. You believe everything will work out just the way you want it to work out. Then it doesn’t. Seems like it’s not just old age that can stink to high heaven.
~ ~ ~
“Do you smell that?”
I began to smile before I ever turned around. I was on the deodorant aisle of Walmart again. It was two weeks after that most recent storm. I’d followed up the story of Heidi and her family.  Her mom had recovered. Heidi was back in school… a makeshift location until the school building could be repaired. The dog had finally come out from under Heidi’s bed and had gotten a bath, washing away the smell of the storm.  Life was beginning to return to normal in our community.
She said it again with a delightful snicker in her voice, “Hey, you! Do you smell that?”
I faced her with a big grin on my face. “I don’t smell a thing!” I replied as I laughed out loud. The funny redhead reached out and grabbed me like we’d known each other for a lifetime.
“Exactly!” she squealed as she held up a tube of antiperspirant. “I found one that works! Now, I’m smellin’ like a rose!”
She got nose-to-nose with me again, just like she had the first day we’d met. Her eyes locked on mine. She still smelled of peppermint and White Rain. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “I know who you are now,” she said with an exaggerated wink. “I recognized you from the hurricane coverage. You did good, girlfriend.” She hugged me tightly. I hugged her back.  We swapped hurricane stories, then she dashed off to what undoubtedly was the next adventure in what appeared to be a spirited life.
Age looks good on her, I thought. I reached up and grabbed the antiperspirant she’d recommended. Couldn’t hurt.
I glanced up and caught sight of my reflection in the security mirror at the end of the aisle. I smiled. For the first time in a long time, the crinkles and the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth smiled back.
Middle age was still a conundrum to me. Reconciling the 50-something woman on the outside with the 20-something woman on the inside was a work in progress. But my encounters with the little girl named Heidi, with the middle-aged redhead whose name I never did get, and with the old couple who held on through the storm, were beginning to give me a new take on aging. Memories of chasing storms in my youth, and of catching up with that old couple by the sea all those storms later, prompted me to consider the idea that time is not the stinkin’ enemy.
Perhaps, time is a friend.
Perhaps time is a fun-loving friend that stands at the edge of the water each breaking dawn and is excited at the prospect of a new day and of making the most of the time in that day. Maybe when time breathes in, it discovers that the air smells clean, fresh, and alive.  Standing in the middle of the deodorant aisle, I took a deep breath.
“Do you smell that?” I said aloud, to no one in particular.
It smelled like a story to me. The beginning of a new story. A story I was looking forward to writing.

A story I was looking forward to living.