No control panel

Struck by malevolent storms our Sunday Comics columnist finds the ardour and expense of repairs compounded by the coordinated revolt of machines

My Mother, an orange tabby contentedly sprawled adrape her lap, points across the room at my Father’s empty recliner and says to me with a straight face:  “Jimmy, do you know who the polite elderly gentleman is, the one who always sits in that chair?”

She has forgotten, again, that she has lived with this same “elderly” man for 67 years.  That would be my father, currently away from home on his daily noontime volunteer mission twelve miles to the north at the senior citizen’s center, where he serves hot lunches to “old folks”.  He himself is 99, to be 100 this October.   He is passing a century of whittling out a mark on this planet, but, with the onset of his wife’s losing battle with Alzheimer’s, he is not remembered in his own home.

I had driven the three hours up there into the countryside, to Bayou Robert, this past week to perform one of my ever-more-infrequent sessions of parental maintenance, spelling my sainted younger sister, who supervises the day-to-day functioning of the family household.

I thought I was to enter bedlam, worse than what I myself was experiencing at the time on a daily basis back in the City, but instead I found an unexpected haven of peace.  

The road on which my parents live is called Boeuf Trace, from the Cajun for “cattle trail”, which is indeed what it literally was when they moved into their home.  At its outset, it crosses the actual waterway Bayou Robert, which has become a haven for wild waterfowl, families of geese and young goslings, and a few loud feral roosters who mill with the other more exotic species amicably.

Over the four days of my stay, my father would mow his half-acre of grass, pick a half bushel of last year’s pecans, fertilize his peach and fig trees, use his tiny tractor to uproot some of his out-of-control grapevines (“They think they’re stronger than me, but they’re not,” he proclaimed over the engine roar), and grill a complete rack of barbecue beef baby back ribs for a half dozen guests.  Along with re-introducing himself to the woman in the front room.  My mother.

But for the first time in almost a year, I slept completely through the night, to awaken at daybreak quite confused.  I was in the country.  There were Canadian geese and American chickens, all making noise at the head of the road.  A comforting soundtrack.  I hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in more than twelve months.  And then there it was.

* * *

I returned home to New Orleans, fighting the increasingly deadly Interstate Highway traffic to make my way to exit at Elysian Fields, a boulevard less-aptly named than my parents’ street.

I opened the door to immediately be faced with bad news.  The machines had begun their coordinated revolt.  The DVD had player died two days earlier, and only an hour afterwards the microwave had stopped functioning.  Both electronically dead on same day. 

I was exhausted from the prolonged drive, and decided to forget the incoming nightmares of expensive repairs or replacement.  “At least the TV still works,” I thought happily.   And sure enough there was “Iron Man 2” and “Our Man Flint”, flashing onto  my little bedroom flat-screen on same night, on neighboring channels.  I switched back and forth for an hour of being artificially entertained before dozing off.  To wake up two hours later.  And again two hours later.  I was back in my own home.

Rising with the sun, I heard, of all things, a rooster crowing.  I wondered immediately where I was.  On Boeuf Trace?  No.  Not there.  

I heard it again, even louder, seemingly in front of my house.  I put on shorts and a t-shirt, went outside.   There standing at my gate was, sure enough, a gorgeous and statuesque rooster. He looked at me knowingly and crowed again.  He wanted me to do something.  I instinctively – remembering that I was really still asleep – went into my kitchen, opened a pantry jar, scooped out a handful of sunflower seeds, returned to the gate and tossed them to the bird.  This was the correct action.  He began contentedly clucking and eating them off the side walk.

“Where the hell am I?”  I thought.  A rooster at my gate?  But I knew I was in a major urban area, surrounded by concrete and electric lines.  And yet there was this bird…

Shaking off the strangeness of it all, I remembered the chores at hand.  I chose this day to ignore the machines, as I was fated to oversee the diverse simultaneous work of a large group of Latin American carpenters, to be occupied in the process of repairing my house.  For the last two weeks, starting a week before my trip to the family home, all of us in our little urban community had been preoccupied, seeing as how the entire neighborhood had just come out from hiding under pillows.  We had been sequestered for much of a day from, of all things, a tornado.  In the city.  That was not supposed to happen either.  Tornadoes were pre-ordained to happen out in the country, I had thought.  They were destined to dramatically erase small villages, eat up flimsy mobile homes out of fields, tear down silos.  Not uproot stop lights and turn over dumpsters.

But here a tornado came, confounding my preconceptions.  I did not even know that a pre-existing system for such an inevitability could be in place, but indeed there was.  Every working cell phone in the City lit up at 3:14pm, speaking and texting at the same time one thrice-repeated message:  "There is a tornado in your area.  Go to shelter immediately."   

So I immediately ran to the kitchen, poured a quite tall glass of bourbon over ice, then sloughed away to sit in the closet under the stairs with the door closed.  I conscientiously and dutifully sipped at the medicinal beverage until I thought I was safe and suitably anaesthetized against possible wind injury.  I sneaked out for a second preventative dose, although I remained quite convinced even at that point that tornadoes were a rural phenomenon.

I was wrong yet again.  It had been a close call.  I by no means took the full brunt of the storm, but even the small edges of the whirling wind that brushed my block took the gutters off one side of the house and all the copper flashing off portions of the roof.  I was properly admonished about meteorological possibilities, and swore after seeing the damage that I would immediately go to the closet upon my next cell-storm notification.  I thought I might even begin to permanently store liquor in the small room.  

Guilt assuaged or no, I quickly assessed on my own that the damage was to be more than a tad expensive to repair.  However, as an alternative to bodily maiming – and now in retrospect, comparing my microscopic and minor loss to the horrific destruction this past week in Oklahoma -- I thought it a not-so-bad alternative.  I decided to mount both the cash, and the will, to go economically strapped into this summer.  

Maybe I am fated this year to a vacation of simple camping in a tent at the corner bus stop, after all.  Waving to the passengers on the Bywater express as I sip a lemonaide.

When the carpenter crew chief handed me his official estimate, as part of a perfectly timed and coordinated cosmic joke, the mailman instantly walked up and placed my city property tax bill right in the very same hand.  And then the full construction crew drove up, ready to spend any spare money that might be lining my jean pockets.

I did not guffaw.  Instead I thought, “You know, there it is.”  The old insult-added-to-injury chestnut once again drops from the tree of proverbs right into reality.

But the arduously-funded house repairs did not go as efficiently I had hoped.  

The all-Costa-Rican carpentry crew had been partially delayed by a diversion to another rush job, but then they were finally at my place in force.  Their chief estimated that their hammering and nailing spree would run over until late the next morning.  I could do these repairs myself, I know, but I just can’t handle heights any more.  Besides, it would take me a week on my own, balancing ten foot gutters between ladders.  No, let the real carpenters do it.

Then I suddenly was forced to consider the matter of paying for all this activity.  

The DVD and micro are down, right?  I must work.  I must gather funds.

But then I discovered that I can't do any of that either.  While completing one of its automatic updates from an obscure hardware manufacturer in my absence, the desktop has somehow become infected with the infamous IRS virus.  If your computer has been caught by that vicious prank, then you know what I mean.   Everyone I know has had it, or knows someone who has. There must be a simple solution, but the desktop was locked up, and I could not do real work with the limited software on this ancient laptop. So I had to either get the desktop de-bugged, or buy a new one and drop my back-up files on it ASAP.

This meant I had to drive 168 miles round-trip westward to Baton Rouge to beg my brother Bill to de-virus the desktop on the spot. I must travel up and down the highway between the carpenter's various jobs and get back to the house here in NOLA before they quit at noon or earlier.  

You see, the roof needs to be fixed before the night's predicted rains set in. That first malevolent storm front two weeks ago seems to have spawned another batch of bad weather.  Swirls of new disturbances are on the way.

Coincidentally, two weeks ago, I was on the phone with my parents when the storm occurred.  My cell phone alert went off mid-conversation as my father was calmly describing to me a tornado which he could actually see touching down close to his house there on Bayou Robert.  I was worried for him, but he said the dark column was headed the other way.  I was satisfied that he was safe, told him goodbye, and was just about to hang up.  And immediately was in the center of what the weathermen are now calling a "micro-burst", a tornadic blast that wrecked my roof down here in the city, three hours southeast of my Dad.  

Of course the final cost to get workers to come quick, before this next storm, was magnified by the rush, with a ridiculously high surcharge to drop everything else and climb onto my roof, but the final amount was still just a bit less than the insurance deductible for wind damage.  I had to pay for everything being done myself.

So instead of getting a new computer to replace the infected one, or a new DVD or a microwave, I had to first pay for a working roof.

* * *  

Again, upon waking up this morning, I heard the rooster calling for breakfast outside my house.   He was insistent.  First a tornado and then this bird, both of whom should be out there in the countryside, but now at my door.

I shook my head, thinking, “There is no control panel for life.  It runs on its own.”  

Maybe I need to consult the Independent Rooster Union about this.  Ask further advice from my century-old Dad.  They obviously have something in common, these higher, rural creatures.  They know something that I do not.

About the author

Jim Gabour is a film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. His New Orleans novel Unimportant People is available via Kindle.