The Perfect Opportunity for People-Watching

IN July it rained in Florida, and it rained, and it rained. A leak appeared in the roof. I kept a garbage can underneath the living-room ceiling to catch the flow. I could watch television and listen to the waterfall at the same time.

When the sun came out again briefly, I was on the roof with a gallon can of tar and a putty knife, trying to locate that leak. The shingles had been on the roof so long the sun had turned them into something like potato chips.

Then the thunder boomed, and the rain came again. I had not fixed the leak. The TV played, and the waterfall spilled. There were lakes forming on the lawn. A hundred thousand frogs were saying ''dribbit'' in unison, and the harder the rainfall, the louder the chorus.

I began to wonder: If that 60-gallon garbage can fills with water, how do I get it out the front door? But nature was merciful. When the can was half-full, I emptied it into the rice field that used to be the backyard.

The sun came out again. I made another examination of the roof. Where in that gable valley was the leak? There was one solution: Spread tar up and down the whole gable valley. That did the trick. The garbage can could be used again for garbage.

Roofing tar is unfriendly to clothes. If it gets spilled or smudged on a shirt, that shirt is sentenced to be a polishing rag. When I wear such a shirt in public, my mother is not happy at all. She called up and asked me to come to lunch. Fixing a roof leak is cause for celebration.

I began driving to her condo, but traffic was slowed to a standstill. What had happened to the street? Up ahead was the river wild. The street descended into an enormous deep-brown waterway. There used to be medians to divide the highway. They were gone today. This was the Mississippi River with stop signs.

Motorists were honking behind me, demanding that I cross this river. I couldn't do it. The car would go ''glug glug'' before I reached the other side. This was a Chevrolet I was driving, not the African Queen.

Over to the right was a restaurant on dry ground. I maneuvered in that direction. Motorists did not like me changing lanes in the middle of a river. The water was getting deep, and the exhaust pipe on the car was beginning to gurgle, but I reached the higher-ground parking lot, the car rising out of the current like a metallic sea turtle. The rain was still pouring down. The radio in the car was playing a song, ''listen to the rhythm of the falling rain....'' Some disc jockeys enjoy being smart alecks.

I called Mom at the restaurant, saying lunch was out. The car would need a snorkel to go from one end of town to the other. The restaurant was serving bean soup that day. I ordered a bowl from a choice booth where I could look out the window and watch cars cross a river without a bridge. I've always learned a lot from watching others.

Every motorist has a different attitude toward finding a river where a street should be. There were cowboys in four-wheel-drive pickups who went charging across like General Patton heading for Berlin. Others were timid, driving a little way across, then wanting to back up once they saw the water was too deep. But the hundred cars behind wouldn't let them back up. Some of the minicars tried driving across, and they looked like toy boats in a big brown bathtub, gravitating from one side of the street to the other.

The rain poured, but teenagers were having a happy time earning pocket money by pushing stalled cars to dry ground. One of the stalled cars was a stretch limo, and it took a lot of teenagers to push that through thigh-deep water, and the way the rain was coming down, dry ground was getting farther and farther away.

The rain began to slow and then stop in the early afternoon. I started the car and drove home through back roads.

The police were putting up barricades, detouring motorists away from the river wild. The teenagers could not earn any more money. I was going home and would be grateful for the leftovers in the fridge and the fact that I had a roof that didn't leak. I also had a car that didn't need to be pushed. There would come a day when the yard would be dry enough to use the lawn mower.

But at 8 o'clock that night, the thunder boomed, and the rain began again. The hundred thousand frogs began to sing. They were the maestros of ''dribbit.'' I had forgotten to go to the bank that day, and tomorrow I was going to get there if I had to rent a canoe.

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