The first weather forecast by a rodent meteorologist took place on February 2, 1887, in the metropolis of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. His groupies, members of the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, in an effort to stifle all competition, declared that Phil (for that was his name), the Punxsutawney groundhog, was the one and only true weather-forecasting groundhog in all of North America. Pay no mind to those wanna-bes like Birmingham Bill, Staten Island Chuck, or Canada’s Shubenacadie Sam. Phil’s original prediction has been lost to history, but it was either six more weeks of winter or an early spring.
As a celebrity, Punxsutawney Phil can be temperamental, occasionally biting or scratching an adoring fan if given the chance, but Phil’s rude behavior doesn’t hold a candle to that of Staten Island Chuck. Sure New Yorkers are accused of being rude and Staten Islanders are certainly outliers — but biting the mayor that feeds you is a bit over the top.
The lucky mayor was Michael Bloomberg, the occasion was Groundhog Day 2009, and some would say it was the mayor’s own fault. Practically anyone, groundhog or otherwise, would not enjoy being roused out of a deep sleep at seven in the morning and asked to pontificate on the weather. Chuck wasn’t up for the celebration and the mayor was just a little too persistent, so of course Chuck bit him. Wouldn’t you?
Later in the day, Mayor Bloomberg, his left finger bandaged, was keeping mum. “Given the heightened response against terrorism, and clearly in this case a terrorist rodent who could very well have been trained by Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, I’m not at liberty to say any more than that,” the mayor said.
Harriet studied the two men. She was an outgoing and trusting lady, but she was no fool, and she didn’t want to get stiffed for a night’s rent even if the New Orleans Suite was between guests this particular night. Nor did she want any of her semi-precious belongings spirited out during the night. As if sensing her apprehension, the shorter man produced a handful of twenty dollar bills as an unspoken offer of payment in advance, something Harriet couldn’t have brought herself to ask for but was more than willing, in this particular case, to accept. “The New Orleans Suite is available this evening,” she said, “Would you care to look it over. Some folks find it doesn’t fit their taste.”
“No need to ma’am,” the man answered. “We’re very tired. Won’t be doing nothing but sleep and we’ll be out right early.” He smiled at her, eyes twinkling. “So we really don’t care about ambiance.” He pronounced the word perfectly. “And what do you charge for your New Orleans room?”
“Ninety dollars,” said Harriet. “That includes a full breakfast.”
He counted out five twenties and handed them to Harriet. “Here you go. But I’m afraid we’ll be skipping breakfast. We’ll be leaving at the crack of dawn.”
“In that case, I’ll make it eighty,” said Harriet, handing back a twenty.
“If you insist,” said the man with another of his disarming smiles.
Harriet dug the key out of her pocket and handed it to him. ” It’s through that door and to the right. Hope you have a pleasant sleep.”
“I’m sure we will,” said the shorter man turning. The other man smiled for the first time as he turned to follow his partner. He was missing a tooth.
Harriet, sensing that the young couple were uneasy about sleeping under the same roof with the two strangers – the young woman was, in fact, certain they’d all be murdered in their sleep – said: “We get a lot of sailors and fishermen here. They pretty much keep to themselves. You know, aloof. But if you ever get them talking, well honey, they can really spin some stories. Too bad they’re not staying for breakfast. You’d get a pretty good picture about this part of the world.”
Harriet’s cheerfulness calmed the young couple and a few moments later they sought the privacy of their room to do fifth anniversary things. Malachi finished his beer and headed off down the road to his own apartment over Gunny’s Restaurant. Everett scribbled in his spiral notebook for a while, then made for his loft, where he would probably punch numbers into his pocket calculator for a good hour before going to sleep. Harriet mixed a batch of muffin dough, refrigerated it, and returned to the porch where she sat staring at the starry sky and swaying with the steady lapping of the surf. She loved this porch; she loved this place. She realized sitting here that this place was more important than any silly pirate treasure, even if she believed in such a thing, which she didn’t. Finally, she reluctantly quit the porch and went upstairs to bed.
She slept in spurts. More than once she thought she heard noises above the natural rhythm of the night but when she listened carefully, even sitting right up once, she heard nothing, and she went back to sleep. Asleep, she dreamed about the man with the missing tooth. He was carrying water up the beach and pouring it on her porch. And then there were two of him, four of him, eight of him, just like the brooms in Fantasia. The water was up to her knees when she woke up to sunshine.
She shuddered at the nightmare, dressed quickly and hurried to the New Orleans Suite. The men were gone, and the only mementos of their stay were an empty whiskey bottle in the garbage can and a Fats Waller record out of its jacket on the floor in front of the stereo. Otherwise the room was perfect; they had even made the bed. She went back to the kitchen, poured herself a glass of half tomato juice half Bloody Mary mix, put the coffee on, beat ten eggs, and whipped up some Hollandaise sauce, all the while singing it’s still the same old story, a fight for love and glory, a case of do or die; the fundamental things apply, as time goes by.
Breakfast preparation complete, she walked around to the front of the house, picked up the newspaper and headed for her spot on the porch to wait for her guests to arise. What she found on the porch was not her favorite chair; that had been tossed into the hibiscus bush. What she found were weathered boards strewn for ten feet around a yawning hole in the ground where her porch had been the night before. She stared into the hole in disbelief. At the bottom of the whole, she spotted indentations in the dirt suggesting that something heavy and rectangular had been sitting down there.
Then she spotted a coin at the edge of the hole. She reached down and picked it up. It was gold, and it had Spanish words engraved on it. She stared back at the hole then studied the coin again. Laughing, she said aloud: “Poor, poor Malachi. He won’t be a happy man.”
She pushed the coin into her pocket and went inside. After calling the carpenter, she returned to the kitchen where she put the muffins in the oven and wondered, just briefly, if the floorboards beneath her weren’t a little spongier than usual.
Coconut Woman originally appeared in Tampa Tribune Fiction Quarterly. It is one of the 15 stories included in Calypso: Stories of the Caribbean.