I didn’t want to go that day, but my mother said we were lucky and had to give back. I was fine with just being lucky, but she was feeling all do-goody and dragged me to the church where they were handing out cleaning supplies and clothes and old people in World’s Best Grandma sweatshirts were drinking coffee and telling kids to keep it down. In the kitchen, a lady loaded our summer cooler with hot food coming off a big silver stove.
We were runners, she told us; our job was to deliver meals to the beach, where the storm had hit hardest. At the barricade, I thought it was cool when the National Guard checked off our names and waved us through, but my mother didn’t think it was a list you wanted to be on. These people are in a bad way, she said, driving slow around curbside mountains of trash. “How’d you like to throw out everything you own?” she asked.
I was too busy holding my breath to answer; our car stank from the egg sandwiches in the back. I thought I was just keeping her company until we got to a small white house boxed in by walls of sand, its front door sprayed with a bright orange X. My mother double-checked her paper. “That’s it. 44. Fred and June.” From the back seat she stuffed egg sandwiches, bananas and bottled waters into a plastic bag and shoved it toward me. “Go on.”
I exhaled in protest. “Why do I have to…”
“Don’t argue with me, Spence. These poor people lost everything. And Spence: be polite.”
I was so annoyed I forgot to be nervous. Fred answered the door. He was old—my grandpa old—wearing layers of clothes against the cold: pants tucked into thick white socks that came halfway to his knees, a plaid scarf wrapped around his neck.
I tried to hand him the food at the door and go, but Fred made me come inside. Behind him, in the living room, sparks shot from logs crackling in the fireplace. “What’s your name, son?”
When I told him, he rustled through coffee table newspapers for a scrap of paper, writing down my name with a stubby pencil from his pocket.
In the kitchen, Fred had a saucepan going on every burner, a three-ring circus. “Say hello to June, Spencer.” I raised my hand to the lady at the table. Lit by the sun as she was, June might have been an angel. Everything about her shimmered: snowy hair, pale skin, white nightgown.
“June doesn’t go out any more.” Fred juggled saucepans, pouring this and that on a dish and setting it in front of June, whose clenched hands stayed on her lap. Jumping around the way he was, I was afraid Fred’s scarf would catch fire. In the car, after I said goodbye, I worried he’d forget and leave a burner going.
The next morning, I was in the car before my mother, ducking when she tried to ruffle my hair. I hopped out at number 44, holding my breath until Fred opened the door, taking the day’s offering from me: homemade blueberry muffins, orange juice, hot chicken soup my mother ladled into plastic containers. Fred remembered my name: “Look, June. Spencer’s back.” June, still shimmering by her window, turned to look at me, cocking her head, trying to place me.
School opened again after a couple of weeks. I could only go with my mother on weekends. By then, there were only a few volunteers left at the church. The food they gave us to deliver was store-bought: granola bars, boxes of juice. That Saturday at the beach, a front loader clawed through the sand walls between houses. When I knocked on Fred and June’s door, no one answered. Around the side, I peeked into the kitchen window. Two saucepans sat on Fred’s stove.
Months later, after the soldiers left, I rode my bike up to the beach. I pedaled up and down twice, checking the numbers to be sure I hadn’t made a mistake. All that remained of 44 was a rubbled lot.
Author’s Note: This story was inspired by living in an East Coast community in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Almost three years later, many local families still have not returned to their homes.
Note: This piece was originally published by Page & Spine in 2014.