By Tim Hayes

Dock sat, unmoving, nearly unblinking, on the spare rollout sofa bed in his sister’s cellar in Atlanta.

The ‘70s-era Sears color TV, the ones that served as a monstrous piece of furniture, complete with sharp-angled heavy wood casing and channel knobs the size of baseballs, flickered over in a corner of the semi-finished basement.  A hint of mustiness, of once and probably perpetually damp carpeting, pierced his nostrils unpleasantly.

The time was 2:30 in the afternoon.  He hadn’t budged since he woke up at 6 a.m.  Truth be told, he hadn’t slept much at all during the night either.  Nodded off for a couple of minutes at a time, maybe, then startled himself back into semi-consciousness with a jerk.  His neck hurt and the metal bar beneath that foldout mattress did a real job on his back, too.  But asleep, awake, somewhere in between – what’s the difference?  What was the point?

With no cable service connected to the talking box, Dock had his choice from a rich menu of five – count ‘em, five! – different channels.  Not that he found himself in a very discriminating mood anyway, sitting there, existing only, listening to himself breathing, wondering why.  As a result, he left the TV tuned to the channel it showed when he pulled the On button.  The local PBS station.

On the screen, some laid-back, super-mellow hippie-dippie dude with an enormous fuzzy hairdo and beard, holding a palette of paint and looking at a blank canvas before him, spoke in a soft, soothing, intensely earnest voice.  Dock heard, but barely listened…

* * * * *

>>>“Now, we take some blue and some white and maybe mix in a tiniest hint of yellow…load up your brush nice and full…and we’re going to just create a bright, sunny sky…that’s it, just let the brush become an extension of you and your positive thoughts today…”<<<

* * * * *

Jeannie never liked the cold.  She would admit that the snow might have been pretty the first time it fell each year, then it became something to dread, to have to deal with, to find ways around.  Precipitation and Jeannie never quite got along.

As she and Dock got older, the cold seemed to find its way deeper into her skin and bones each year, slowing them down, creating new aches and pains, causing them to question more and more why they still lived in upstate New York.

“You know, we ought to live someplace warmer,” she’d say every night as they slid between their crisp, chilly January sheets, with blankets, quilts, and comforters piled over themselves.  “The kids live all over the country now.  There’s no good reason for us to keep knocking around this big old house any longer, with that killer wind blowing off the lake constantly.  It was 79 degrees in Bradenton today, did you know that?”

“Hrrmmph, yeah.  G’night, Hon,” Dock would mumble, rolling onto his side, facing away from Jeannie, trying to stay non-committal about the whole thing.

* * * * *

>>>“Since we have such a beautiful sky, let’s just make some gentle hills down here…that’s it, get some brown and some red and maybe a touch of black in there, fill that brush up with color…and just swoop those hills into whatever shape you think they should be in your world…you’re in charge here…you make all the decisions…there are no mistakes in painting, just happy accidents…”<<<

* * * * *

After she slipped and fell on the ice coming out of Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, Jeannie told Dock that she’d had enough.  They needed to put the house up for sale and move to Florida that spring.  And they did.  Amazingly, the house sold in three days, but they needed time to clean the place out – you’d be staggered by how much stuff can accumulate in a house after 32 years – and find a new domicile in the Sunshine State.

Dock would do anything for Jeannie, and he knew she made a lot of sense about this warm-weather preference, so he agreed and really didn’t put up much of a fuss about any of it.

But something gnawed at Dock about the whole move.  He couldn’t pin it down.  He couldn’t even legitimately award this misgiving of his much credence.  But still, something just didn’t sit right.

* * * * *

>>>“I think this little scene we’re painting should have some water in it, so get some blue and green on that magic brush of yours, and let’s make a little shoreline across the bottom…yes, that looks terrific…now get your fan brush and some bright white on there, and just feather in some foam as the waves gently roll up onto the shoreline…there you go…what a soothing sound at the water’s edge, isn’t it?”<<<

* * * * *

They found a small, one-floor carriage home near the ocean outside of Sarasota, and moved in with their greatly reduced collection of items.  Dock had to admit, it sure beat shoveling snow and wearing three layers of clothes to go outside.  Jeannie looked so happy, and that made Dock happy too.

The two of them made friends with the neighbors, enjoyed the ocean, hosted their married children along with their spouses and kids for vacations.  They went to as many spring training baseball games as they could when March rolled around.  Their expenses seemed to go down as their enjoyment of life increased.  They became true Floridians in no time flat.  Jeannie even became an accomplished gardener, raising beautiful rows of purple coneflowers, a special flower indigenous to Florida’s climate.

That unsettling feeling he had as they made the move from New York State hadn’t crossed Dock’s mind for three full years, he thought, as he lazily cooked up some fresh salmon on the backyard grill for himself and Jeannie that Labor Day.

* * * * *

>>>“Right about here, set back a bit, we need a little house…you get the edge of your painting knife into the paint on your palette, then scrape it across to get just a line of paint along the edge, then slide the edge across the canvas to make the outline of a house…don’t worry, we’ll add some detail later…we’re just building the house now…oh, that’s a good, sturdy looking house, isn’t it?…you can create anything in the world with paint…a perfect world, just for you…”<<<

* * * * *

The local news had been talking about a storm forming out in the Atlantic for about four days now.  The “American model” said it would move just below Miami into the Gulf, maybe making landfall in southern Texas or northern Mexico.  The “European model,” however, differed greatly, with the storm – building rapidly into a Category 4 hurricane – twisting north and raking the Gulf coast of Florida.  Including Sarasota.

With three years of hurricane preparation under their belts, Dock and Jeannie knew what to do.  Up went the plywood over the windows, water and dry food got stockpiled, emergency lanterns checked and supplied with fresh batteries.  They’d hunker down and ride this one out like the other two that blew through since they’d arrived.

* * * * *

>>>”And right along the ridge, let’s put some happy little trees…get some dark green on your brush, and just let it dance downward, creating branches as you go…and let’s make a nice big tree beside our little house…”<<<

* * * * *

Night had fallen when it approached.  That cliché about a hurricane sounding like a freight train?  That’s entirely accurate.  An immense, powerful, impressive, frightening freight train.  One that wouldn’t slow down, much less stop, for two straight hours.

And the rain!  Dock learned later that more than a foot of rain – 12 inches of water – fell in a little over an hour.  That’s an inch every five minutes.  The street in front of their little carriage house filled rapidly, then began behaving like a river.  Water will always seek the lowest point, and water dumped onto a neighborhood behaves the same way.

Dock and Jeannie stayed in a central spot, trying to remain calm amid the crashing, splashing mayhem occurring just outside their front door.

“My purple coneflowers!” she said, tears welling up in her eyes.  “Don’t worry about those,” Dock responded, putting his arm around her.  “We can get some more, and your garden will look just as beautiful.”

“But I was just out there this afternoon, doing a little work around the edges of the garden, Dock.  How can things change so quickly?  So mercilessly?” Jeannie cried, as the wind and rain continued to batter away outside.

After about 45 minutes into the hurricane’s arrival, Dock actually fell asleep.  The man could nod off in the middle of a marching band.  That was one of the things Jeannie loved about him – his absolute calm, no matter the situation.  He even fell asleep as their third child was being born.  Some coach, she recalled, softly chuckling to herself.

Suddenly, Jeannie’s head snapped up.  “Oh my dear lord,” she thought to herself.  “I took my wedding ring off before I got into my gardening today.  It’s still out there – unless it’s been blown away, and who knows where it might end up.”

It was the original ring Dock presented to her on their wedding day, almost 40 years ago.  He scraped and saved for a year, working in the neighborhood hardware store near where they went to college, to pay it off.  That ring meant everything to her, because she knew that she meant everything to him.

* * * * *

>>>”So grab one of your small brushes now…we’re going to add some detail to our little tableau…it’s fun to use those big brush strokes to set the stage, but a painting only comes to real life when you get down to the details…here’s where you can tell what the picture is really saying…it’s all up to you…”<<<

* * * * *

As Dock slumbered on, Jeannie carefully stood up, walked gingerly through the living room, carefully and slowly opened the front door, saw the chaos transpiring outside, took a deep breath, and stepped out past her garden to look for her wedding ring.

It wasn’t on the lawn chair where she thought she had left it.  As violent wind buffeted her about and sheets of stinging rain lashed at her face and hands, Jeannie took another few cautious steps further away from the house.  Maybe the ring was just a few more feet toward the street.

Just then a 100-year-old, 70-foot-tall, majestic, mammoth palm tree came loose from its dead and dying root system, falling into the street and carried along on the rushing current.  Jeannie turned at the sound, her eyes wide, her voice choked, her legs frozen, her heart seized in waves of pure panic…

* * * * *

>>>”It’s so important, when painting a landscape like this, to decide what should be seen in the light and what needs to be placed in darkness, in shadow…”<<<

* * * * *

When Dock blinked his eyes open, the house felt eerily quiet.  Not a sound, anywhere.  He couldn’t believe he’d slept through a hurricane.  What a story this will make at the next block party!

He rubbed any lingering sleep from his eyes, stood up and called for Jeannie.  If he knew his wife, she was probably taking the plywood down and stacking it in the garage already.  Dock checked every room twice, but no Jeannie.  He called out her name repeatedly, thinking maybe she had gone to check on the neighbors, but didn’t get any response.

Since the landline and cell service both had yet to return, he walked next door to see if Jeannie had gone over there.  But, no.  In fact, no one had seen her since everyone headed inside prior to the storm.  The last the neighbors had seen Jeannie had been that afternoon, in her garden.

* * * * *

>>>”The best paintings have some drama to them…they make you wonder about why things look and feel and happen the way they do…they draw you in, if even for a moment…see the power you have?…doesn’t it make you feel great to know that you can control your own world, when you create?…you bet it does…”<<<

* * * * *

Dock called every police station, every hospital, every morgue in Manatee and surrounding counties.  He couldn’t believe Jeannie was gone.  Literally, gone.  Without a trace, without a clue.  The only evidence of her Dock found when the sun came up the next day was her wedding ring.  She’d placed it in their mailbox.

What did that mean?  Where was his Jeannie?  How did his life change so quickly?  So mercilessly?

His sister insisted that Dock come to stay at her place in Atlanta for a few days.  She worried that her little brother would collapse, either physically, emotionally, or both, in the aftermath of Jeannie’s loss.  And so she and her husband drove to Sarasota, brought him north, and made up the rollaway bed in the basement for him.  If Dock needed to grieve, at least he had family around to help.

* * * * *

>>>”I hope you’ve enjoyed creating this special painting with me today…keep exploring, keep trying new things, keep painting, and may God bless…”<<<

* * * * *

Dock remained in his near-catatonic state as the painting show ended on that basement TV.  He heard the telephone ring upstairs, but took no real notice of it.  His heart wasn’t ready to beat in the same way as before.  Not yet.

“Dock!  Phone call for you!” his sister shouted from the kitchen at the top of the basement stairs.  He couldn’t believe anybody of any consequence would be calling him here.  How would they even know the number?  His sister brought the cordless phone down to him.

“Is this Mr. Michael Dockerty?” asked the voice.  “Yes, that’s me.  What do you want?”  “Well, Mr. Dockerty, this is Sgt. Mills of the Florida State Police.  You’re a difficult man to track down.  I think there’s someone here who would like to talk to you.  She’s a little banged up.  She took a pretty serious bump on the head, and it took her quite a while to remember things.  Her name, for instance.”

Dock braced himself for disappointment.  He had let himself sink to an emotional depth he’d never experienced before.  He couldn’t go any lower.  Not yet, not now.

He heard the police officer hand the phone over.  His eyes closed tight, his hand anxiously gripping the receiver, he fearfully, tearfully waited for the next word.

“Dock?  Honey?  I’m okay.  I did something so stupid, Baby,” came the sweetest voice Dock had ever heard, even as he could tell she was crying a little.

He collapsed onto a kitchen chair, sobbing with relief and exploding with joy.  Jeannie.  Jeannie was alive.  “Honey, you could never do anything stupid.  Where are you?  I love you, Jeannie!”

“Oh, Dock.  I love you too.  But Dock – you won’t believe this.  I’m so sorry, Honey, but I think I lost my wedding ring.”

Dock knew that his reunion with his bride just became even more special.  They renewed their wedding vows two months later.  Jeannie can be found today back in her garden, tending to her purple coneflowers.

And Dock, for some odd reason that no one saw coming, has taken up painting.

Copyright 2017 Timothy P. Hayes