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Weathering Trials

An excerpt from local author Roy Hoffman’s newest novel, “Come Landfall,” a gripping tale of strong Southern women settled along the hurricane-beaten Gulf Coast

From Chapter 2, “Men In Uniform”

[Fall, 2002, Biloxi, Mississippi]

The Cotton Gin was a sleek white hotel and casino along the Highway 90 shoreline, its harbor windows looking out to the curve of Deer Island, and toward the channel, where shrimp boats, in smooth weather, eased home with nets spread like wings and cabin cruisers thrummed by with rock ’n’ roll pumping from their decks. Its neon marquee out front of cotton plant, straw hat, and plantation house, invited hotel guests and casino-goers to step into a land of snazzy boutiques, abundant buffets and jackpot dreams. Across the asphalt, pawn shops and church steeples promised restoration as needed.

Nana had first brought Angela to the Cotton Gin on her 14th birthday for a performance of the Cirque du Soleil — Had eight years really passed since then? she marveled — and she had rarely felt more grown up than on that day, arm in arm with Nana in her cream-colored suit. Children were allowed to pass through the casino on the way to the theater, Nana had explained, but not so much as pause in front of the games. No matter. She had glimpsed a magical realm.

The coast had been defined in Nana's heyday by antebellum homes and seafood shacks, resort hotels and juke joints, but the casinos had transformed it into a redneck Vegas. When the Mississippi legislature outlawed gambling on land but approved it “offshore,” the tricked-up riverboats appeared, then gambling palaces like the Cotton Gin on gargantuan pontoons lashed to resort hotels. Locals who had once waited in line for jobs at Waffle House, or manning the desk at beach hotels with kidney-shaped pools with umbrella tables, now worked in hospitality services at resort kingdoms.

Eight hours hard on your feet and tough on your back was what Angela called it, but she smiled on through … Covering for Marilyn from Moss Point, she was at her station at 9 p.m. Friday, tray loaded with drinks, when she heard a ripple of applause. The clapping started near the entrance, and followed a cluster of young men in sky blue uniforms who were walking by the dice tables.

By the craps players and pai gow poker enthusiasts, nodding to the well-wishers, the Keesler boys headed with calm, correct bearing toward the casino’s sports bar restaurant with its giant TV screens.

“Give ’em hell!” shouted the rotund man at the roulette wheel.

“Osama’ll be a dead sonuvabitch,” cried out an old-timer in a VFW hat.  “We'll get him.” …

Phone again. No supervisor was looking; she answered. “Nana, this isn’t a good time. We’ll have a picnic tomorrow, on the beach, OK? I’ll come get you at lunch. Yes, yes, love ya, gotta go, bye.”

“Co’cola?” asked a man’s voice at her shoulder.

“What?”

She turned to find herself looking into the deep brown eyes of an airman.

He repeated the request, then grinned at her.

“Mixed with?” she asked, taking up a golf pencil to jot it down.

“Dinner with a pretty lady.”

“I hope you find her.”

“Just did.”

She put the pencil back down.

“Well, you know, you're not wearing a ring,” he said.

“Well, you know you’re a walking cliché, don’t you?”

Why had she let that slip from her mouth? Always respect the customers was the mantra. Ignore them if they harrass you, call security if they’re mean, but hold that smile.

“I couldn’t help myself,” he said.

“Uniforms don’t impress me.” She nodded to Brandy. “Try over there.”

“I’m ridiculous, I know.”

He was, she figured, a half-inch shorter than her, built like a rock, sandy-haired and with a smile that said expensive orthodontic work as a kid.

She bit her lip, hiding her crooked lower teeth. Why do I care?

“It’s just I was trying to find my buddies when I saw you and couldn’t resist.”

“The pilots are that way.” She stuck her chin in the direction of Sports ’n’ Ribs.

“Weather warriors,” he said.

“Pardon?”

“It’s what we do.”

“You mean, like” — she laughed, another taboo, ridiculing a patron — “fight the clouds?”

“Ride the winds, too!” He beamed.

“So it was you who saddled up Isidore and took him out of here?”

She noticed a supervisor looking her way now. “I’ll get you your drink, sir,” she said, picking up the pencil again and writing down the order. She stepped away.

“Hurricane Isidore wasn’t thinking about Mississippi,” he said, following her. “Vectors, water currents, temperature — we could have told you that.”

She paused before an ancient crone, took her order. The supervisor had turned away.

“I don’t need experts,” she said to him over her shoulder. “I can read these things in the sky.”

“A gal who loves weather. Go out with me!”

“Sure bet, rain man.” She made her way to other customers down the labyrinth of slots.

He cut her off at the pass, held out his hand. “Franklin Semmes, Senior Airman, Keesler Air Force Base.”

“Angela Sparks,” she said despite herself.

“Call me Frank.”

She reached out and touched his fingers, the barest gesture she could afford.

“Maybe,” he persisted, “we could have coffee sometimes?”

“I’m moving to Paris tomorrow.”

“I’ll be back,” he said.

“Have a nice life, Frank.”

From Chapter 3, “Love At First Sight”

[Frank returns another day, Angela agrees to go out, and they head out to Ship Island.]

On the dock, the Sunday afternoon breeze felt good against her legs, the Gulf Coast heat subsided, the lovebugs gone until next September. Biloxi fall meant a deep azure sky and the Sound sparkling with sunlight.

“Makes you feel tangled up in blue,” said Frank, looking overhead, as the ferry moved out through the harbor.

“That’s not original, you know.”

“Bob Dylan,” he said.

“I didn’t take you for a Dylanite,” she said.

“Is that like a Canaanite?”

“I didn’t learn all that much in Sunday school,” she said.

“My roommate at Kentucky Faith was a Dylan freak,” he said. “‘Slow Train Coming’ gives me the chills. Dylan’s faith journey’s been amazing.”

“My dad used to listen to him.”

“Cool dad.”

“I think he was getting a different message. Y’all wouldn't agree on much.”

“I can get along with anybody.”

“It’s been three years since I’ve even seen him.”

“I’m so sorry. No wonder you’re hurtin’.”

“Did I say I was hurtin’?”

“We all are in some way.”

“Hey, this isn’t some sort of church thing, is it, you’re doing with me?”

He laughed. “We’re all in different places,” he said.

Gulls came close to the ferry, laughing, too, or maybe crying, she could never tell quite which.

As Frank named far-off clouds — cumulonimbus to the south with cirrus sweeping the horizon — she could not help but look at his bright teeth, his clean jaw. Max had fav-
ored a perpetual dark stubble. Frank was scrubbed by the wind … Her dress whipped around her now, a delicious feeling, like waiting to dive into a pool.

“It’s beautiful out here,” she said.

“Air pressure” — he closed his eyes a moment, turned his head upward, then looked back at her — “I’d put at a thousand and fifteen millibars.”

“Be my guest,” she said.

“A thousand and seven being average. High pressure” — he made a sweeping gesture with the back of his hand, presenting the world to her view — “great weather.”

“I thought all you Air Force guys wanted to be ‘Top Gun’.”

“I was raised in Marks,” he said, “in the Delta. Cotton as far as you could see. Summers I’d come see Grandaddy here in Biloxi. Big Frank, we call him.”

“So you’re Little Frank?”

He shook his head. “That’s my daddy. We're back to just plain Frank again with me. Big Frank was a walking history of hurricanes, or half walking — he lost his leg in the war.”

He told how Big Frank would regale him with tales of yesteryear storms — 1938, 1942, ’51, and on to the named ones.

“Alice was the first girl name for a hurricane,” he said, “in 1953. Bob was the first boy’s name, not until 1979, just in time to make way for Frederic. A year earlier Hurricane Frederic would have been Florence or Fay. ‘Modern times,’ Big Frank would say.

“He kept his old hurricane tracking charts in a kitchen drawer, the kind you get at the grocery store, and I used to take them out and look at the lines. One dead-ended at Biloxi — Camille. ‘How come you didn’t draw her line further, Granddaddy?’ I asked him. ‘Cause she had us runnin’, is why.’

“He taught me to respect the elements, he did. I remember one July down here when I was a young teenager, we just stood out in the yard together while the rain was falling — he had me turn my face upwards to taste it — and he said, ‘That’s my church.’”

“He sounds like he was a good grandfather,” she said.

“Was? He’s sitting on his Back Bay dock right now nursing a highball and a peg leg.”

“Oh, that’s nice to hear!”

“A blessing,” he said. “Though he can test your faith when he goes on a tear about this or that.”

“I take care of my Nana,” she said.

“I heard you on the phone with her  that day I met you. I thought right then and there you could be the girl for me.”

She felt herself blush, turned to look out at the Sound. Even as he was oddly appealing, going on about Granddaddy, she knew she had to dash his hopes. Otherwise, it would prove a long afternoon.

“I’m Big Frank’s best friend,” he said, and she felt her heart open like a paper white. 

Q&A with Roy Hoffman

How do you describe “Come Landfall?”
The worlds of three women and the men they love come together in a contemporary Southern novel of hurricanes and war, loss and renewal.

Your first two novels, “Almost Family” and “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” were set largely in Mobile, or a fictional Mobile. What is the setting of your new novel, and why?
“Come Landfall” is set on the coast of Mississippi, centered on Biloxi. Over the years, on trips down the coast, I’ve been fascinated by those juxtapositions of casinos, antebellum homes, seashell shops, Keesler Air Force Base and houses of Vietnamese shrimpers. Side by side, these small worlds, these cultures, create a landscape all its own. That landscape is fragile, too, given the blasts from hurricanes over the years, a phenomenon we know all too well in coastal Alabama.

How did you come up with your title?
Given the way storms have shaped the Gulf Coast, and with one of my main characters, Frank, a U.S. Air Force weather specialist at Keesler, I wanted a title that resonated of weather, and, ideally, could serve as a metaphor for what happens in people’s lives – the way we are engulfed by experience, battered by storms, while keeping our heads above water, determined to survive, to thrive.

And the book’s cover art?
My wife Nancy and I love the paintings of Mobile artist Brad Robertson. In his studio in Mobile one evening we saw a painting of his that evoked, to me, the mystical sense of tropical weather, the way the sky becomes saturated with color. Brad was gracious enough to let me use an image of the painting.

Your character Cam, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, is one of the main figures in your novel. Was it hard to make the imaginative leap across gender and culture?
The reader will have to decide whether I made the leap successfully or not. In writing Cam, I found a path into her consciousness in a way that came more easily than I would have thought. During my journalistic work, I’ve reported on the Southeast Asian community along the Gulf Coast, from Bayou La Batre to New Orleans. She’s inspired, I’m sure, by aspects of Vietnamese newcomers I’ve gotten to know. And I’ve always been drawn to the stories of outsiders, of people new to our shores. My last novel, “Chicken Dreaming Corn,” was nurtured by the experiences, in a profoundly different way, of my grandparents, who fled Eastern Europe and ended up in Mobile in the early 1900s.

What does “Come Landfall” show us about today’s South?
So much Southern literature is still cast as a look-back, and not enough in context of what’s going on today. I’m not a sociologist, of course, but a storyteller. One of the stories I like to tell is about the changing South, the diverse and multicultural South. It’s there, part of us, but often overlooked by the nation when the South is discussed. That’s why I say my novel is a Southern novel with a global sensibility. Far-off wars brought home impact my characters; tides of immigration affect my characters; age and memory shape my characters. But it’s not about any one of those phenomena alone. My intention is to bring to the page a narrative that only comes fully and complexly alive inside another person’s imagination. Readers, I await you.

Upcoming Book Signings for "Come Landfall"

April 9 - Stewartfield, Spring Hill College Friends of the Library, 7 p.m. 
April 10 - Page & Palette, 6 p.m.
May 6 - Museum of Mobile, 6 p.m.

Roy Hoffman is a novelist and journalist in Fairhope. RHoff179@aol.com; facebook.com/RoyHoffmanWriter

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