A tsunami is coming. How do you explain this to a deaf woman who can't hear the sirens?
|Big Jim, “the gentle giant”, beat his steering wheel in terrified frustration. “Move, move, move!” he shouted. Little good that did. No one could hear him. The blaring tsunami sirens made his eardrums ache and his temper rage. The ocean off the western shore of the island looked so tranquil through his rolled up window. He could see nothing dangerous looming up from its glittering blue surface. It was just another sunny tropical day in Hawaii. You wouldn’t know death was coming. It would take him if he didn’t get out of this creeping river of cars. He hit his steering wheel again.
Just like every dawn, he’d been on his way to work at his business, Big Jim’s Auto Repair. It was on the edge of the commercial docks area of the city. This put him deep into the evacuation zone. He had two blocks to go when the sirens screamed to life. An emergency announcement interrupted a country and western song playing on his radio. An earthquake on the western edge of the Pacific had triggered a massive tsunami. It was on its way.
Jim had whipped his pickup truck around and raced recklessly for the mountains up empty streets. In no time at all, cars hemmed him in. Their pace was glacial. He realized his mistake too late to escape from the clogged traffic arteries he’d chosen for his path to safety. Stupid, stupid, stupid!
Cars inched from a side street into his lane. Their frightened faces broke his heart. Hey, wait a second. The sidewalks on the side street were empty. It was a way out. Twisting his steering wheel sharply, he raced up a sidewalk. Dodging sidewalk steps and side-swiping shrubs, braking for abandoned tricycles and hurtling past toy scooters, Jim’s spirit filled with hope. Checking his rear-view mirror, he saw the ocean was still calm. And that a line of vehicles were following him. He laughed with relief. He was going to make it and might save some others, too.
Up ahead, an old Asian lady sat on her porch calmly reading. What the heck? How was that possible with the sirens shrieking? Skidding to a halt, he leaped from his truck. She saw him coming and ran into her house before he could get to her. The sirens hadn’t scared her, but he had. Well, his friends’ nickname for him wasn’t the “gentle giant” because he was a little guy. He was more like a Chewbacca than a Luke Skywalker.
Did the picture window curtain move? It was open. In two steps, he was standing in front of her living room window. There she was. Good grief, she held a butcher knife held up as if to strike him.
“There’s a tsunami coming!” he yelled and pointed toward the ocean.
She made several striking motions with the knife.
A sedan pulled out of the flow of vehicles rushing past and parked behind his pickup. A bronze surfer with dread locks got out. The guy cupped his hands, and Jim could see his mouth moving. Jim shook his head while pointing to his ear. The surfer ran up to him. “Do you need help with your truck?”
“Then you need to get moving. The radio says the tsunami has crossed the shoreline. It will be here in no time at all,” the man said.
“There’s an old lady in there. She may be demented or something. We have to get her out of there,” Jim said.
The surfer looked through the plate-glass window as her scrawny arm made more striking gestures.
Jim said, “I think my size is scaring her. Can you try to talk to her?”
The Good Samaritan said, “My hair will probably scare her too, but I’ll try.” Looking at her, he pointed off to the ocean. “Tsunami!” He pointed at her and then up toward the mountains. “Go! Now!” He repeated his gestures and shouts.
She looked at the surfer, then at Jim. Jim motioned for her to come out. She shook her head.
“Look, man, I want to help, but we are out of time. We have to go now.”
Jim shook his head. “You go. It’s okay. I understand. But I got’ta stay.”
“You’re a brave man,” the surfer said. He pointed once more at the old woman, motioned for her to come, then pointed to Jim. The old woman didn’t move. The man sighed. “Good luck,” he said while shaking Jim’s hand. He waved goodbye to the elder Asian over his car roof, got in, and drove away.
Jim pondered her behavior while staring at her. Maybe she didn’t speak English. He could play charades. It was worth a try. Water. How can I tell her it’s about water? Looking around, he noticed a garden hose coiled by the front water faucet. An arc of water soon flowed from the hose where she could see it from her window. He pointed at it, splashed it, and waved it around. Jim noticed she had lowered her knife and was cocking her head.
Good, she doesn’t see me as a threat anymore. Now what do I do? He pointed toward the ocean, and then pointed to the water coming from the hose. Next, he lifted the hose so the water’s arc poured over his head and body. In seconds, he was soaked.
Halleluiah. She was laughing through an age spotted hand that covered her mouth. Maybe he could convince her now to come with him. Jim pointed at the ocean. He pointed to the water flowing from the hose. Pointing to her, he motioned for her to come to him. Then he pointed to his truck.
The elderly woman shook her head. There was a small bit of progress, though. She no longer held a knife. He checked his limited ocean view. The actual rising surge was below his line of sight. What he could see sparkled peacefully.
Tilting his head back, Jim let out a howl of frustration. No one heard it over the still blaring sirens. He fell to his knees, clasped his hands, and begged her to come to him. Tears trickled down his cheeks. She didn’t move. He bowed his head to the ground. As he wept into her lawn, he rapidly considered what remaining desperate measures he could take.
He could kick in her door in and drag her to his pickup. But what if she tried to jump out? Such a leap could badly injure or even kill her.
Could he call the Chinese embassy and get someone to tell her to flee? Maybe she was Korean or Japanese. Did she really not know English, or was he jumping to a conclusion?
Had something touched the back of his head? When jerking up to his hands and knees, the old lady shuffled back. He gave her a big smile and bowed his head to the ground several times. Standing, he pointed to the ocean. “We have to go right now,” Jim shouted over the sirens.
They both could see the advancing wave entering the block below hers. Terror deepened the creases on her face.
In less than 30 seconds, they were racing his bouncing pickup across her neighbors’ residential yards and landscaping. Without warning, they flew off a one foot high terrace and landed hard in a shallow ditch full of water. The tsunami was catching up with them.
“Put on your seat belt,” Jim said.
She didn’t respond.
“Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto,” he said, stomping on the gas and surging up out of the ditch. They swerved into the street’s parking lane.
She didn’t respond. He reached over and touched her upper arm. She turned and looked at him.
“You’re deaf, aren’t you?” Jim asked. She continued to look at him. He had to look at the road, but he laid his palm over his ear, shook his head, and pointed to his mouth.
Well, he thought, that explains the mystery of how she read calmly on her porch while the warning sirens panicked everyone else.
He reduced their speed. Not because he wanted to, but the deepening flood required it. Chugging started coming from his exhaust pipe. A shock of panic jolted him. The rising water had reached the level of his tail pipe. The engine couldn’t keep going for much longer.
There, half way down the street, a parking garage sign pointed to an entrance. The old lady made a noise and grabbed his arm. Water was flooding the carpet and seeping into her shoes. His work boots hadn’t been overtopped so he hadn’t noticed. Pointing to the garage, he smiled and nodded. Jim hoped he’d reassured her but darting a glance her way, he noted her eyes were fixed in alarm at the water rising in the cab. She probably hadn’t noticed his gestures. No matter. They’d arrived.
The garage entrance cut off the blazing sunlight as the ramp rose sharply. Up they drove. Dripping water left a wet trail. Eventually, they drove onto the open top floor. They could go no higher. That was okay; Jim thought while pulling into an available space. They were high enough now, right? He found his assurance from the one hundred or so people milling about. They didn’t look concerned at all. Most stood at the parapet wall, talking, pointing, and taking videos with their smartphones. When he opened his door sea water poured out. I guess I’ll leave the doors open for a while, he thought.
She took his arm as if they were on a date, and he escorted her over to the parapet. The water filled with debris was still slowly rising. It was powerful and unstoppable.
The sirens stopped. Silence felt odd. It made him feel hollow. It’s not right, he thought. Disasters should be loud, not peaceful.
He remembered a story he heard once. A woman, who was born deaf, learned to her surprise that sunsets were silent. She’d watched how hearing people reacted to large things. She’d decided that all big things must be loud. The bigger, the louder.
Looking down at his fellow survivor, Big Jim, the gentle giant, fought back tears. Being unable to communicate with her, he’d realized how awful it must be to face life without sound. Did it feel like drowning in a tsunami; a suffocating, evil, silent wave? She smiled up at him. Or, if silence is all she has ever known, maybe she’s content. It was definitely a blessing that she didn’t have to endure those horrible sirens.
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