Blackwater River, darker than night and fat with speckled trout, gurgled and pulsed for 44 years past the little metal house up on the bank. V.K.'s house.
V.K. Wiggins, 77 years old and sturdier than most until his right hand started shaking awhile back, liked that little house. And even though he lived there alone most of his life, he had plenty of company. They came for his pretty riverside view, and they came to talk to his next-door neighbor, Andrew Jones, 94, who cooked collards for his "young" friend and steered the fishing boat they kept out back.
All that is gone now. Wiggins's house, built during the Depression, hangs together in flapping shreds. Hurricane Dennis tossed his metal roof down the block, collapsed the shed where he made countless pinwheel ducks and scratched an ugly gash in his riverside wall. While public officials on Monday were conspicuously counting blessings that Hurricane Dennis was not the storm they thought it would be, Wiggins -- far from the media spotlight in this inland town -- was contemplating the end of a way of life.
Like so many aging Floridians in the path of Dennis and the other storms that have descended on the state in the past year, Wiggins was living on a narrow edge. He balanced between a pensioner's fixed-income, humble existence and the ideal of a lovely quiet life, in a lovely quiet spot, just a few steps from Milton's red-brick downtown historic district. Dennis pushed him over.
"I love this place," Wiggins said Monday, stepping over twisted metal with a kind of stilted grace. "Seventy-seven years I worked hard to get somewhere -- I've seen so much work it'd make you sick -- now it's gone."
There's no way he can rebuild, not with new building codes to meet, not with only a Social Security check to sustain him. He's hoping for a check from the federal government, but even that won't be enough to put back together the tiny house he paid $6,500 for when Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the final year of his presidency. Wiggins is sure of that. "They'll make you tear it down," Wiggins's nephew, Joe McLean, declared while dropping by with two squirmy daughters to check on his uncle. "They'll probably make you tear up the slab, too." McLean ought to know. He works as a freelance building inspector during hurricane season.
Wiggins, a tinkerer who hammered four or five extensions onto his little house over the years, didn't even try to clean up Monday. There's no use. His days on the Blackwater will be over soon. And that's hard to swallow, harder than anything he has swallowed in a lifetime of welding metal for other people and steering the heavy equipment that transformed Florida in the boom years. All that time, Wiggins wouldn't budge from this place. The city has wanted his land for years, hoping to expand a boardwalk. But Wiggins kept saying no.
Now, he may have no choice. A broken house and a lack of wind insurance are sure to push away this man who lived to slip into the water, sending him bound for someplace "in town," away from the Blackwater.
He'll be moving deeper into a town tousled and shaken by Dennis. Metal, contorted in the way only a hurricane can contort, litters shopping plazas. Intersections are carpeted with insulation, torn to confetti and deposited, soggy and nasty, on the ground. But Wiggins's town doesn't fit neatly into the dominant story line of Dennis, a conventional wisdom that filled the airwaves Monday with sighs of relief -- metaphorical and literal -- and comments like "we dodged a bullet." Wiggins, who has an infectious cockeyed smile and a dry wit, doesn't fit neatly into the picture, either.
His house, with its tranquil riverside, is off the main roads, at the north of Pensacola Bay, 30 miles inland from vacation hot spots where Dennis came ashore and where most of the post-hurricane attention has been trained. Wiggins can't help but feel a bit off the grid. He has friends, but they're busy with their own troubles. He can't find anyone to untangle the mess that used to be his house, either: The young workers are all off making real money in storm cleanup operations, not the kind that an old man on the river could offer.
As he picked through the remnants of his spartan house, helicopters raced overhead, loud and sleek and powerful. Wiggins looked up, doubting he would ever see the important people inside. "Tell Mr. Bush I need help," he said, not particular about whether help came from President Bush or Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, his brother.
Trouble didn't use to come here so much, Wiggins said. There was a time when a storm, a big one, seemed rare, he said, but now they're coming one after another. Ivan lifted 12 feet of water into his house 10 months ago, ruining his furniture, and worse, drenching his pile of videos, all those John Wayne films that he watched time and again.
Dennis finished what Ivan started, a final torment, enough to make a rugged guy, an optimist to the core, quake. "My nerves are shot," he said, a ring of sweat expanding over his back on a muggy Florida afternoon.
At least he still has Jones, who prepares two meals most days: one for himself and one for his fussier friend. "He's hard to cook for," Jones said in a stage whisper, nodding at Wiggins and smiling.
The two old friends will bunk together for a while in Jones's house, which wasn't as badly damaged. Then they plan to move. Dennis pushed them more than they could stand. They're tired of being in the way.