I love living in Southern California, but just as Eden had snakes, so the Southland is home to two nasty creatures whose acquaintance I could easily have gone an entire lifetime without making, thank you very much.
The first is the traffic. Darn near 24/7, Los Angeles’s 4 million cars, trucks, vans, buses, shuttles and sundry so clog the city’s arteries that, rather than back out of the garage, I increasingly find myself staying put. Malibu, Palm Springs, Laguna Beach, even Olvera Street downtown may be dandy as candy but, unlike liquor, they most certainly are not quicker. Some trips just aren’t worth the aggravation.
That said, the second serpent coiled within the City of Angels leaves LA traffic snarls in the dust. THIS critter hisses, literally. It also roars and winds and weaves and works itself up until, like Maleficent, the Mistress of All Evil dragon in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, it grows to apocryphal proportions – wreaking havoc on electrical lines, roofs, plant life, cell towers, and my nervous system.
The So Cal weather gods have named this demon ophidian, believe it or not, after a SAINT – Santa Ana, the patron saint of Brittany, Quebec, and housewives and cabinetmakers everywhere. Yet those wild and crazy weather guys were actually on to something. They saw what the rest of us were too busy chortling to recognize.
Before she was a saint, Santa Ana was a mama.
And Santa Ana was not just any old mama, either. Saint Anne was the mother of the MOTHER of all Christendom, the Virgin Mary…And, as any Angeleno can tell you and has the stories to prove, the Santa Anas are one mother of a windstorm.
* * *
In late November, 2012, the Santa Anas decided to hunker down for a visit in my neck of the woods, Pasadena. And, of course, as they are wont to do, they amped up steadily post sunset. By 9 p.m. they were hootin’ and hollerin’ in triplicate fortissimo, hurling crumpled bits of newsprint, leaves and small branches from curb to curb like rock stars tossing beer bottles and chairs from hotel windows.
“Let me know if you need anything,” said my friend Hermine as she dropped me off in front of my condo after an early dinner.
I pushed at the car door. In their own way, European automobiles are as massive and immovable as mountains, with doors that, even under the best of circumstances, can be a Sisyphean challenge for those of us designed along more diminutive lines, particularly if, like me, you abhor gyms.
So, it took a while but, at last, my two arms, my torso, and I managed to move the door just enough for me to slide a leg through to the curb.
“Okay, thanks for the ride,” I told Hermine. “I’ll see –“
The door slammed shut.
“Yikes!” I yelped, nursing my leg as it jiggled and quaked like a tub of hair goo from the close call. How I managed to haul it back in on time I still don’t know.
I took a deep, equally quaky breath. “God’s special effects. Gonna be a night.”
Hermine, who grew up in Hollywood, crinkled her nose in distaste. “Okay,” she informed the skies. “That’s enough. You can turn off the giant fans, now.”
A branch the size of a baseball bat whammed, splat, into the windshield.
“Oops,” said Hermine. “Sorry.”
Hermine was an inch shorter than I was, which means she was SHORT, but when it came to apologizing she was a giant of Jolly Green proportions. Hermine apologized not only when it made sense – like when she failed to RSVP promptly or made a boneheaded maneuver while driving – but abjectly, penitently, damn near on her knees, for stuff that was, frankly, incomprehensible. If my computer crashed or a street sweeper blew grit all over a neighbor’s freshly laundered car, there you’d find Hermine - apologizing.
In this case, however, I kind of saw her point. The skies hadn’t been playing softball when they’d hurled that bat.
“You know,” I said, “if I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was in one of those old margarine commercials – the ones where Mother Nature gets pissed. Do you kind of get the feeling the storm doesn’t exactly have a sense of humor?”
“Just like my dad,” Hermine sniffed. “Everything’s got to be on his schedule.”
There was a lull in the roaring. Carefully, I inched open the door…and promptly a mouthful of leaves and grime blew in as again the wind kicked up. Twigs cavorted across the hood of the car, cackling like spastic skeleton bones. A dog barked. A siren shrieked.
“Go on, get home,” I advised. “It’s getting scary.”
“I could just sit here in the car and get blown there. Like Dorothy.”
“Dorothy went to Oz.”
“Beats LA,” said Hermine, who professed regularly to loathing the place. “And I’d love to see those flying monkeys.”
A loud blast kicked a large palm frond into the street. “Maybe you should stay the night,” I said, watching the frond do cartwheels down the road.
“What, and miss the monkeys?” asked Hermine.
I never saw monkeys, but an hour later – with the winds now reaching 80 to 90 mph – plenty else was flying. Including, it would turn out, 1500 trees and enough power lines to leave over 400,000 of us shivering in the dark for up to a week.
I drained my second glass of wine then, as the building took yet another pummeling, leaned back against the sofa, closed my eyes and took as deep a breath as I could muster, considering I was scared half to death.
I’m riding, riding, I told myself. I’m riding the wind, letting it take me where it may…I’m at one with the wind. At one with the wind, at one with the wind. I’m cupped in the palm of the wind. The wind won’t let me fall.
Something crash-landed on the roof. My eyes flew open and, before I was even aware I was doing it, I was off my bucking bronco of Go-with-the-Flowness and peering out the French doors to the courtyard. Was it SNOWING?
No, those weren’t ice crystals that were raining…It was pansy petals. Hundreds and hundreds of petals. At the same time, a chorus line of decorative trees bowed, ballerina-like, heads past their knees, nearly to their toes. The winds screamed. Sirens pealed almost ceaselessly, like hard labor pains. I reached for my phone.
I hate this, I texted Hermine. It’s like the sacrifice from Rite of Spring out there. Diaghilev ’s shade must love this.
Who’s Diaghilev? she texted back.
A coach, I typed, just to be weird. There wasn’t a sport on the planet – except, MAYBE, camel wrestling or croquet – that Hermine didn’t follow.
LOLOLOLOLOL. I looked him up. Power?
So far so good, I typed.
Here too. Knock on wood.
Plenty of that here. Branches ankle deep on patio.
Keep in touch.
Will do. Text or call if you lose power and want to come over.
It was an easy offer to make – and not just because I was feeling cowardly. No one was going to sleep much tonight. You can’t when there are Santa Anas. It’s just too NOISY. They say misery loves company. Why not gather together and stick it to those mean old nasty winds?
I refilled my wine glass then spent the next five or so minutes getting myself and my bum leg up the flight and a half of stairs leading to the bedroom. (I had fractured my ankle a month earlier, after an ill-advised binge of overtraining.) Eventually I stopped limping to the window long enough to free myself of my walking cast and nestle into position against the headboard of the bed. The skylight in the hallway rattled – and, though it was like trying not to scratch an itch, I ignored it, clenching my eyes shut instead.
I am riding the wind…riding, riding…riding the wind…
Unbidden, an image of Miss Gulch on her bicycle amidst the clouds and the ruckus in the thick of Dorothy’s twister broke in. I could even hear the soundtrack: da da da da DAH da…da da da da DAH da…DAAAAH!
When, suddenly, downstairs there was the sound of shattering glass.
The sound of shattering glass IN MY LIVING ROOM.
I was out of bed and halfway down the staircase when I realized that I had forgotten my cast. But no way on earth was I taking the time to lumber back up and fetch the thing. Already, thick gusts of cold air that just felt WRONG were coiling themselves about my legs. Had the front door blown open?
No, the door was closed. I rounded the corner....
The first thing I saw were the draperies, blowing as wildly as long hair in a speeding convertible. The large glass pane of the window they framed was in pieces. Glass shards lay everywhere – across the baby grand piano, on the floor, over the sofa – while leaves and bits of dusty gunk and dirt spewed rat a tat tat through the gap.
And I was all alone.
And it was midnight.
And I was crippled.
Worse yet, the window looked right out on to the sidewalk, and we were on the first floor. Catnip for any passing thug or thief – or stray cat, for that matter. I didn’t dare leave.
But I didn’t dare stay either. Girding myself against our building’s biannual infestation of stinkbugs was a challenge of monumental proportions. I hadn’t a prayer against human ones.
“DO YOU REALLY THINK I DESERVE THIS?” I hollered.
No reply. Silence. The wind stopped.
Think. Think. I told myself. Don’t panic. THINK.
The answer came almost instantly as the storm resumed. With trembling fingers, I punched the proper keys on my phone. Or attempted to. It took about a dozen tries.
“Please answer, please answer,” I breathed as the phone rang.
From his tone, two things were instantly obvious: 1. He recognized the phone number 2. He was smiling.
Steve smiled frequently when in our presence. Not because he was particularly cheery, although he was, and not because we were particularly funny, because we weren’t. It was more that the two of us, my husband and I, were so mindbogglingly inept at stuff most people found instinctual. The list of requests Steve had taken on since becoming our handyman ranged from changing light bulbs (yes, really) to overnighting a forgotten suitcase (my goof). Our finest moment, however, HAD to be the time we swore to the skies that the U-verse thingy was broken and Steve arrived, only to fix the matter within moments.
The television was unplugged.
I surveyed the mess before me – the broken window, the wild night, the relentless fusillade of leaves and glass and grit. “Steve…Oh thank GOD, Steve, you picked up.”
His tone changed instantly. “How can I help?”
Somehow I explained.
A pause. The wind kept screeching, and somewhere someone attempted to shout over it. I could feel Steve thinking.
“I’m sorry to bother you with this at this hour, Steve. Really. Please apologize to Elizabeth, too. But Kevin is out of town. I’m DESPERATE.”
“I understand. Don’t worry about it.”
“I will too worry. If you get over here – please please please come – I’m paying you double time. I insist.”
A soft chuckle. “Did I tell you I’ve raised my rates to $400 an hour?”
I sort of laughed. “Do I need to tell you I’ll pay it?”
“Okay…” More thinking. “Do you have any large slats of wood?”
Another chuckle. “Sorry, I was confusing you with someone else.”
The wind howled. The lights flickered. The draperies went spastic. I swallowed.
“Steve, it’s really bad here. And the wind…It won’t stop. It keeps blowing in.”
“Damn those Santa Anas, they’re stubborn that way.” I heard soft, unhurried footsteps, a door closing. “Okay, give me time to see what I’ve got and load it into the truck.”
“Oh, thank you. Thank you, Steve. I’ll owe you forever.”
“All in a day’s adventure,” he said. Then he hung up.
* * *
I passed the time collecting and dumping broken glass. The leaves were a lost cause; no sooner did I sweep up one batch than a flurry of new ones twice its size blew in. The bumps in the night, meanwhile, continued apace – so much so that I had taken a break from shard removal to move some especially fragile mementos into the underground garage. The lights had continued to flicker, too – harrowingly so. But the power remained on – a bit of luck for which I was on-my-knees-grateful because, while I had amassed crates of flashlights during our move, now when I needed one, just one, I couldn’t find so much as a matchstick anywhere.
“Nice night, eh?”
I know I jumped about a foot.
“You’re lucky,” I said to the window once I could breathe again.
Steve was standing outside, grinning in at me through the broken pane. “Lucky?”
“You almost had a human carcass to deal with on top of the window one.”
“You? You’re a tough old bird.”
My throat closed and I looked away, not wanting Steve to have to deal with girly stuff like the vapors on top of everything else. My vision cleared, and I saw that he was now leaning inward and making hmmmm sounds as he measured the window frame and peered down at the baseboards.
“Ah hah! The culprit!” he cried, shimmying in just enough to fetch a large tree branch.
“How’d that get in here?” I asked stupidly. He reminded me of a mini, male Statue of Liberty with an oversized lantern, the way he was brandishing the thing.
More brandishing – along with torpedo sounds and motions, as Steve replayed the branch’s trajectory through the window. “Wanna hazard a guess?”
“I hate this.”
“Aw, it’s just a little wind.” He nodded toward the front door, his hair lifting skyward in a sudden gust, as if a hand had grabbed hold of his roots and yanked. “Are you going to let me in? Or would you prefer I take the short cut?”
Steve was not a tall man – stretching, he was lucky to make 5’8” – and years of rescuing the severely household handicapped had done a major number on his back. I motioned toward the door.
“Give me a second.” Cast-less, my ankle was killing me.
For whatever reason, Steve had already vaulted over the window. “Ah,” he drawled, straightening from his leap, “I do love a good challenge…”
I shot him a look.
He grinned then gestured at the chaos. “A little behind on the housekeeping?”
“Do you think you can fix it?”
“The mess? You should have called Elizabeth for that, not me.”
“Very funny.” I nodded toward the window. “That.”
A nod. “Pretty sure. I brought all the leftover wood I could find. Hopefully something will work.”
“Look,” I said, “Anything’s better than nothing. Long as it keeps the bad guys out.”
He gave a start. “Oh, I almost forgot. That reminds me...I brought this for you.”
I stared at what had emerged from his coat pocket. “What’s that?”
“What do you think it is?”
“Is it real?” I asked.
“No, it’s my boys’ water pistol. Of course it’s real.”
Steve was a gun enthusiast and, once I began to evince some interest in this pursuit, we often chatted pre, mid and post household repair – Steve was as champion a chatterer as Hermine an apologizer – about his taking me along with him to the shooting range. There, he promised, he would teach me whatever it was I needed to know were I ever to take the plunge and purchase a gun of my own. Currently an “Extreme Pink” Cobra featured on gunbroker.com topped my wishlist.
This one was black, however, and not at all cute. “Thought you might want it tonight,” Steve told me, setting the gun beside me on the sofa. “In case you’re afraid. Or need help convincing the birds they’re not welcome.”
“The birds? What birds?”
He cocked his head toward the open window. “Any flown in yet?”
His brow lifted.
“No birds came in,” I retorted, although, of course, now I was wondering madly about that. How long had I been in the garage? “I’m not shooting any birds!”
“You may revise that when you find yourself knee deep in droppings.”
I eyed him evilly and, picking up the gun, aimed it in what I assumed was his direction. Who knew guns were so heavy? “If I find birds, you’re coming back. I don’t care what hour of the night it is. You hear me?”
Steve watched the theatrics before him with much the same expression he had sported that time with the TV. “That thing’s loaded, you know.”
I dropped it – straight to the floor.
Steve rubbed his temples and heaved a long sigh. “Ah the trials of my chosen profession,” he remarked, stooping to retrieve the gun. “A small suggestion. You might think twice, next time, before dropping a loaded firearm.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.” The moon was back – a star, too. Or perhaps it was a plane.
Or a bird. Or Superman.
Except Superman was right here beside me.
Impulsively I clutched Steve’s arm. “You’re boarding up the window, right? Tight?”
“Correct. Not even the Big Bad Wolf’ll be able to blow it down.”
I pushed the gun toward him. “Then thanks but no thanks. I won’t need it. My luck, I’d accidentally wind up shooting myself instead of the bad guys anyway.”
“Naw, don’t need a gun to do that,” said Steve. “I have the sore toes to prove it.”
Then, leaving me to ponder whatever it was he had meant by that, he let himself into the wind to fetch some wood to keep me safe through the storm.
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