The hurricane ripped the roof right off of Alice’s apartment building. She wasn’t there to see it (she was sitting in a 14 hour-long traffic jam outside Jackson, Mississippi by then), but she imagined it looked like something out of the tornado scene from The Wizard of Oz, but instead of a cow, a bicycle, and hunks of a house whirling around in the vortex, it was her record player, her vintage hat collection, and endless photographs of ex-boyfriends being tossed about. Alice doesn’t much care about the photos, but she will really miss those hats—bowlers and cloches, and even a doeskin derby.
Alice feels the loss of the hats with a slight pang that other people might associate with the death of a small pet (turtles or hamsters)— a tiny gasp of loss, a brief and momentary sadness, pure and clean, the kind she likes best. Alice is accustomed to losing things: car keys, the words to her favorite songs, her mother. She puts the hats on her mental list of lost things somewhere above the bird cage she lost in Hot Springs, Arkansas and the car (a 1992 Dodge Stratus) that was stolen once in Baltimore and then for good in New Orleans. For Alice, the losing is never the hard part; it’s the missing she has trouble with. She misses everything and everyone like an amputated limb. All of that empty space hurts to touch.
Vintage Hats: Lost Thing # 417.
Her friend Opal has declared her a national disaster area, and each time she visits she tacks up a list of emergency numbers on Alice’s refrigerator. The numbers range from the practical (911), to the ridiculous (the 800 numbers for FEMA and The Red Cross), to the outright absurd (The National Guard). The numbers are a joke, but if anyone needs emergency assistance, it’s Alice. She has had her house catch on fire twice, been robbed three times, stood huddled in doorways during several earthquakes, and now finally, the roof has blown off of her life.
On the way back from New Orleans, where Opal and Alice spent a mournful four hours viewing the wreckage of Alice’s apartment, Opal is silent and fidgety. She drives slowly, and passes rarely. She keeps glancing at Alice as she drives, one hand on the wheel, the other fluttering nervously beside her, floating off the arm rest and up to the radio and back again. She reminds Alice of an anxious mother braced to throw her arm across the chest of a child to cushion the blow of a collision. Alice wants to tell her not to bother, but she is too tired. Disasters always make her sleepy.
“So what now?” Opal finally asks.
Opal’s voice, soft and whispery like Spanish moss, gives life to the question Alice has been asking herself for over a month. She asked herself everyday in the shower. She asked herself each night on Opal’s porch while she smacked at mosquitoes and wondered when she could go back to New Orleans. She asked herself while she watched Anderson Cooper slosh around in water on CNN.
“Duck and cover.” It’s a protection technique Alice knows well. Once, during a third grade tornado drill, she won a ribbon for executing the maneuver the fastest. Alice was an award-winning avoider, but now she is out of practice.
“Where?” Opal asks.
“There’s no place like home, right?”