The Vultures of Paradise
Jon R.C. Roller
The hurricane was coming, but the old man hadn't noticed. He sat at his splintered wooden desk with his long white eyebrows hanging over deep-set, furtive eyes hidden behind a spindly pair of glasses. He stared at an endless blue cursive ribbon of words that spilled from the end of his pen and into the soft whiteness of his notebook's pages. By his fluttering hand a stack of filled notebooks brimmed over onto the floor. The stack nearly covered up the window, which looked out onto a world he had left behind: an endless row of trailer homes and an ominous green sky.
Across the way from the old man's trailer, a fat woman glanced with a sigh towards his crooked image framed in the window while the sounds of a hammer and a screaming child rolled around her head.
She looked toward the child, "Bobby Joe! You hush up that cryin' now! What's the matter?"
"Mama, Daddy said I can't take Mickey!" Billy Joe choked back a tear as he clutched a stuffed black mouse. An indignant look crossed the fat woman's face.
"Well I never! Don't worry none, honey. Mickey can come with us surely. We don't want the storm gettin him!" She tried to say the last bit with a bit of comedy, to lighten the situation, but the child did not show any concern for the storm, only for the mouse, which he clutched tighter. "I'm gonna have to have a
talk with daddy." The fat woman went around to the front of the trailer, glancing again at the window of the old man's trailer.
Out front a man was banging on the gate of a truck with a hammer. The bed was full over with boxes and furniture threatening to break out of the gate and spill onto the ground. Across the whole of the trailer park similar scenes played out with cars, station wagons, SUVs, some of which were already driving away, down the gravel entrance way, past the tacky "Welcome to Paradise Mobile Home Community" sign, and out onto the paved road to the interstate. The man kept banging his hammer.
The fat woman yelled at him over the noise, "EARL!!"
The man stopped hammering at the sound of his name and called back, "What is it Edna? Can't you see I'm trying to fix this damn truck!" He gave a swift kick to the gate. It collapsed and two of the precarious boxes fell onto the ground. "Ah Jeezus Fuckin' Christ! Now would you lookit this mess!"
Edna walked up to her husband and gave him a slap across the face.
Earl's eyes grew as big as saucer plates, "Edna! Woman! What in the world was that for?!?"
"For taking the Lord's name in vain for one," said Edna calmly, "And second for telling our son that he can't take Mickey with us."
Earl felt like swearing again, but bit his tongue. "Now, look here Edna," he paused for a long time, looking at his wife's face and her defiant stare,
adjusted his ball cap and kicked a piece of gravel with his boots, "Sorry 'bout the swearing." He hung his head down. Edna continued her stare. "Of course he can take the stuffed mouse with him. It's just that we're so cramped for space already! And that mouse is nothin' but a bag of fleas anyway." He mumbled the last bit while stooping down to pick the boxes up off of the ground and place them back in the truck bed. "I just think he needs to learn to let go, is all."
"Well," said Edna, "I guess he can learn about that when the time is right for him." Lightening flashed across the sky. "And," added Edna, "now is not the time."
The sky belched and the wind swelled, bringing the couple back to their present situation.
"We'd better get going," said Earl. He lifted the truck gate back up and it snapped shut perfectly. Earl shook his head. Edna called for Billy Joe to get his things and come out to the truck. He came running round to the passenger side with Mickey stuffed into a plastic book bag hanging from his shoulders and stopped at the truck's door.
"All right, now" said Edna "go on and get in."
"But, Mama, what about Edwards?"
She gave him a confused look. "Who?"
"You know! That guy who lives right behind us! I just saw him; he still sitting at the window. Ain't he coming with us?"
"Well, we hadn't ever planned on taking him with us. I'm sure he's got his own ride, anyway."
"Billy Joe!" interrupted his father, "Quit arguing with your mother and just get in the truck!"
"But I don't want him to be out here all alone!" whined Billy, "I always watched him sitting there. He's either writing in that book of his or asleep at that crummy old desk. He hasn't hurt nobody."
His mother frowned. "Well," she glanced at Earl. "It'll only take a minute to check on him."
Earl let out a long, big sigh. "I guess not," he said and looked up. The sky had turned a darker shade of green. "But make it quick."
Edna grabbed her purse, "C'mon Billy Joe. You can come along." Billy grabbed his book bag and followed behind his mom.
The two ran back to the old man's trailer. He was still at the window, writing. They passed an ancient mailbox that was vomiting old yellow newspapers and junk mail. The name "Edwards" was painted simply on the side, no address or numbers. The rain had started, first little spits and quickly a full-on rain. They ran to the trailer, up a pile of concrete blocks stacked into makeshift steps, and knocked on the white, plastic, trailer door. There was no answer.
Edna banged on the door louder. She put her purse over her head to shield her from the rain. "Mr. Edwards! Mr. Edwards! Mr. Edwards!" They could still see him at the window, oblivious.
"Maybe he's deaf," said Billy Joe.
His mother tried the doorknob. A gust of wind caught it just as she turned the knob and the door flew open. The old man looked up from his book with a start, as if he'd heard the last trumpet sound. "Y-yes?" he stammered, "What is it you want?" He looked over his glasses at Edna, then darted a glance at the boy.
"Are you Mr. Edwards?" asked Edna.
"No, actually, I'm...well, yes, well...Anyway, I am very busy, you see, working on my novel. I'm not going to buy anything...and I'm not interested in your religious beliefs, so if you don't mind, please, could you please go on...and let me get back to work?" The tone was not that of a question, but that of an order given by the captain on a doomed ship. He looked back down the page and started writing again.
"There's a big storm coming, Mr. Edwards!" cried Billy, taking a few steps forward. "Ain't you gonna go for cover?" His mother pulled him back.
"Oh I'm sure I'll be fine here, son," said Mr. Edwards, not looking up from his work.
"Well, Mr.Edwards," said Edna, "This ain't just a regular storm. It's the biggest hurricane since Hugo. It's already hit Charleston and caused over a billion in damage! Now, don't you think it'd be best for you to...well, do you
have someone you can call and come get you to one of the shelters? We can take you if not."
He did not answer or make any sign that he'd heard her offer. He just kept writing. Billy looked up to his mother with imploring eyes, then walked up to the old man slowly, taking his stuffed mouse out of the book bag.
"So, you're just gonna wait it out here, hunh, Mr. Edwards?"
"Hum? Oh yes son, I believe so."
"Well, here you go then. You'll need protection." With that he handed the stuffed mouse to the old man.
This act of kindness caught him off guard. His gnarled hand stopped its flight across the page and reached out for the mouse. He took it from Billy's out- stretched hands, looked into the child's eyes, and for a moment, it seemed to Billy's mom that the old man was more solid and real than he had been just a second before. The old man looked to her for approval. She nodded.
"Why," said the old man "Why thank you very much son...it's good for protection, is it?"
"Mickey's the best! My dad doesn't want me to take it with us anyway." He looked back to his mother. She was picking up one of the filled-up notebooks and thumbing through it.
"So what's this novel of yours about, Mr. Edwards?" asked Edna.
He saw the volume in her hands, leaped up and snatched it from her, crying, "Don't read that!" He sat the volume back in its place on top of the stack with reverence. He looked up at Edna. "I'm sorry, but...It's just that, it isn't finished yet, you see." He gave a little chuckle. "But I'm almost done!" He sat back down at his desk and his hand resumed its flight across the page.
Earl came bumbling up the way, drenched, and yelled over the rushing wind, "Edna what in the world's taking so long?"
"We'll be right there, Earl!" As they left the old man's trailer, Billy cast a longing glance at him still in the window, with Mickey watching over him. Somehow, he knew that the strange old writer was in his place, right or wrong, and that the storm was going to move him from his place and that even an army of Mickeys could not protect him from the storm.
Billy and his family got into their truck just as the lightening began to arch from green cloud to black cloud and back again. They sped past the Paradise Mobile Home welcome sign, the last vehicle to depart.
The old man did not notice them leave. He trained the full intensity of his focus on the page in front of him and wrote. Faster and faster the blue letters came out and down onto the page. Lightening cracked and the sky roared. The rain fell in sheets and still he did not shift. His mind was stuck in the pages like some old leaf pressed in and forgotten. He could not have freed himself even if he had wanted. The wind beat against the trailer harder and harder. Outside the trees were bent in half, bowing in reverence to the almighty wind, then were snapped and uprooted, thrown into the sky without mercy. The storm marched in closer and closer. The "Edwards" mailbox flew away. The roof of the old man's trailer flopped up and down with a metallic whine before the storm peeled it away like a sticker. The rain and debris poured into his sanctuary. The pages of his volumes began to flap, took off into the air and flew around, a flock of black birds against the green sky. The old man scrawled out the words "The End" with a flourish. He looked up to the sky, crying at the top of his lungs “IT'S FINISHED!”. He clutched the stuffed mouse in his hand and rose from the desk triumphantly, slamming the finished work closed as he stood. The last volume caught the full power of the wind, flew into the old writer's chest and pierced his breastbone with a loud snap. Blood and ink mixed and formed a purple stain on his shirt, the last volume hanging from his chest. "It's finished," repeated the old man as he slumped to his knees.
Suddenly, the wind and rain stopped and debris began to drop to the earth. The flock of books plunged toward the old man like vultures descending on
carrion. He looked up and saw the green sky and the vultures of paradise as he cried out one last time.