We had candles but no flashlights, so I drove down South Hill to the Walmart on Route 96.
This was in July, when there were the flashflood warnings and water was running all over the roads. It was about nine o’clock, right before it got really bad.
My wife Lynne and I had spent the evening preparing the house. We moved boxes out of the basement. Lynne filled the bathtub. I cleared the storm drain.
We hadn’t eaten dinner yet. I was going to pick up those flashlights, and maybe see if I could grab a taco platter to go from that Mexican place at the same plaza.
I would bring back food and light, I said to Lynne. She smiled at that.
I would be a hero.
I parked in front of the Walmart. Big pools were forming across the parking lot. I saw a few people huddled in their cars with the lights on, like they were waiting it out. But I knew it was going to keep right on coming.
I opened my door and ducked my head.
When I was near the sliding doors, I saw the Walmart lights flicker then go back on steady again but a little bit dimmer. There was some trouble with the power.
The place was mostly empty. The light was unusually flat. There was a weird quiet like the store had just been humming then stopped for more breath.
I walked past the palettes of Wheat Thins and paper towels. I looked over at the cashiers, who were mostly teenage kids. Some of them looked annoyed, but some were having a good time.
Some kind of wrench had been thrown in the works.
I was thinking they better still let me buy my flashlights.
I made a beeline for the hardware section. I walked down the center hallway, past five or six people who were just standing at the end of aisles, looking back and forth.
I couldn’t find the flashlights anywhere. I looked down the aisles with the light bulbs, then lawn gear. I looked in a section called Do-It-Yourself.
I saw a guy with a red vest walking past, and I asked him if he knew where the flashlights were.
“Sold out,” he said. He gave me a look like he’d been talking to poor-suckers like me all day.
I was bummed that I’d driven all the way down South Hill in flashflood conditions for practically nothing.
“We still have headlamps,” he said. I wanted him to know that I wasn’t just some bum. I knew a thing or two. One time I went to Arizona and camped in the snow for three days.
“You still have headlamps?” I said, “Even better.”
I asked him if he thought they would let me buy them. He didn’t see any reason why they wouldn’t.
I was starving. I just wanted to get out of there and get an order in at the Mexican place. Then I realized all of a sudden that power at Casa de Juan was no sure thing.
I wasn’t sure which register to go down because all the teenage kids were hanging around in one place. Two girls were eating out of a bag of hot fries. One of the boys was spinning a bottle of Mountain Dew Code Red in his hand. I walked up to a girl with bleached blonde hair and glasses and asked if I could still buy things.
“Do you have cash?” she asked.
I actually did.
I handed her a twenty and a ten. She picked up her wallet from beside the register and handed me a five back. It was a few more dollars than I was owed. She put my cash in her wallet, looked around, and then set it back down.
“Do you think Casa de Juan is still open?” I asked her.
“Aw, son. Their burritos are bomb,” she said. “I could eat, like, three of them.”
“So you think they’re open?” I didn’t want to disappoint Lynne. Plus my stomach was giving me a hard time. I needed to get something in there.
She shrugged her shoulders. “Depends,” she said.
There was a small crowd of people gathered by the sliding doors, looking out at the pouring rain.
“Whole plaza’s closed down,” said an elderly man with his t-shirt tucked into his jeans.
We looked at each other and he knew – he knew how hungry and disappointed I was.
Thank you for understanding, I thought.
I moved the plastic bag to my other hand and slid out into the rain.
Water shook through the night. I felt the puddles spilling over the ankles of my shoes. There was a big van parked in the middle of the parking lot lane, and I lowered my head to hide from the headlights.
“Hey!” somebody shouted at me from inside the van. I stopped quickly. I took two steps over to get a better look.
“Hey!” A man shouted. “I’m handicapped. I need some help.”
There was nobody in the front seat. I saw that the sliding door on the side was open and I leaned forward to look through the spilling rain.
I saw the silhouette of a big man – about three hundred pounds big – sitting in the darkness of the large van. He was slouched back in a large motorized wheelchair.
“Can you help me?” he said.
Water gathered in the palm of my open hand. It ran down my temples and dripped off my chin.
“Sure,” I said. “What do you need?”
“I’m handicapped,” he said. He had a beard running down past the neckline of his shirt. He was breathing heavily and seemed distressed. “I need you to open my front door.”
I wanted to get this done quick. I ran around to the other side of the van and popped the door open. The van was larger than I even initially thought. It was more of an RV, really. I looked at him between the broad passenger and driver seats. I couldn’t really see his face, but I could sense him watching me closely back there in the darkness.
“I dropped my burrito,” he said. “I need your help.”
I looked down at the floor of the van and saw the shape of a Casa de Juan burrito, curled just slightly, on top of the dirty mat in front of the drivers seat.
“Can you just pick it up and drop it in the container on the dashboard?”
I didn’t know why he couldn’t do this himself. I didn’t know why he was in the back of the van while the burrito was up front. But I wasn’t going to ask questions. I was going to do what the handicapped man asked and get out of there.
I switched the plastic bag to my left hand and reached down to get the burrito.
I couldn’t see well. I assumed the burrito still had its wrapper on. But my hand sunk right through the soggy tortilla – into the refried beans and melted cheese – and as I lifted it I thought, Jesus, I’m gonna lose this thing.
I thought I might need to set it back down and get a better grip.
Water was running down my spine.
I took a gamble on the grip I had, and flung the burrito up through the air and into the plastic container on the dashboard.
I was thinking, How’d I get into this. My hand was warm and coated in slime.
“OK,” I said. I was getting ready to turn and make a run for my car. I felt like I’d just finished up with some messy surgery.
“Hold on,” the man said. He spoke in a heavy, guttural way, and he seemed kind of worked up. He was moving around more than I liked.
Lightning cracked through the sky.
“There are some napkins there on the floor.” He coughed loudly then cleared his throat until he sounded ready to spit. “Clean that up a little bit for me.” He gargled the phlegm in his throat. “I would do it, but I’m handicapped.”
I turned and looked down the quivering aisle of the parking lot. I said, “OK, but then I have to go.”
“Just clean it up a little bit for me,” he said. He was getting pushier. He was talking like I owed him something, and maybe because he was handicapped I felt like I did.
I grabbed the short stack of napkins off the floor and leaned into the van. Like I was using a sponge on a kitchen counter, I squeegeed the greasy beef and beans off the car mat and scooped them into the napkin. I balled the napkin into my fist and reached up and dropped it onto the burrito.
“I have to go,” I said.
Lightning flashed again in the sky, and I saw his face. Sweat was running down his cheeks. He looked about soaked through.
“There’s just a little bit more right back here,” he said.
“I can’t,” I said. I stepped back. I waited for his permission to turn and go.
“Just help me with this back here,” he said. “I would do it, but I’m handicapped.”
“I’m in a rush,” I said. I felt like if he would just say thanks and see you later I could try to decide that this whole thing was normal. But he was more stubborn than that.
“You don’t leave a handicapped man,” he said. He seemed mad. “Come here, boy. Get back here.”
Instead I ran. I stopped a couple times and swiped my greasy hand through the puddles. I kept smelling my palm to see if I’d gotten it, then stopping again to wash it across the pavement to be sure.
I drove home over the flooded roads, and felt confused. I wondered what might have happened if I’d gone further into that van. I felt indignant and taken advantage of. I wondered if he was really handicapped.
I went home and didn’t tell Lynne anything. I didn’t want to upset her.
I wondered if I left a poor handicapped man stranded in the rain with a Casa de Juan burrito smeared across the floor of his van.
That night the power went off and we wore the headlights around the house for about fifteen minutes. Then we just went to bed.
That flood took out half the roads climbing up toward the college. It made traffic hell for two weeks. Lots of stuff got destroyed. When they built that Walmart, people talked about how it was going to block off the water table, and it did – thousands of feet of pavement in the place of arable soil. Water flooded across the bottom shelves of the entire plaza.
On the news the next morning, they showed a video they’d taken around midnight. I watched a rescue crew running a motorboat across the parking lot of the Walmart plaza. They were shining a floodlight across the water.
“Look at that,” said Lynne, a little excited about the whole thing. “It’s like 96 got dumped in the ocean.”
They were saving stranded passengers from their vehicles.
I looked for the handicap van and I didn’t see it. I sat in front of the TV for forty-five minutes until they showed the clip again. I taped it on the DVR. I watched it and I watched it and I didn’t see that van.
I wanted to know what would have happened if I went crawling back toward him for that last bit of burrito. Was that what it would have taken to please him? Or would that have been when life turned real unfamiliar?
I watched the video. Would somebody else try to save him, too, or was it just me? Was I a savior or a fool?
Which is it?
About the author:
Nathan Scott McNamara is an MFA candidate in Fiction at Johns Hopkins University. He is also the recipient of the 2010 Vassar College Ann E. Imbrie Award for Excellence in Fiction Writing.