By David Duer
The sky was a bruise the color of my wife’s arms after a tough day with the combatives at the nursing home. It was July, when the vegetation grows rank and you don’t even pretend to control it anymore. I’d left early from work, but by the time I got home, Pat had already been on the phone with our neighbor Helen and heard about the sightings. I’m sure the tornado sirens in town were wailing to god-almighty-heaven, but unless the wind’s blowing just right, their mechanical scream won’t carry across the interstate and the two miles farther as the crow flies to our place. Pat and the kids were already hunkered down in the basement — sitting on a pile of blankets between the furnace and the fuel oil tanks, tuning in the staticky weather-eye-spotter reports and playing a desultory game of Monopoly.
Like I said, the sky was a bruise and the wind was picking up. I joined the vigil in the basement, candles and flashlights ready for the inevitable power outage. The weatherman interrupted Bob Seger’s whiskey-soaked wail to announce that a funnel cloud had been sighted five miles west of West Liberty moving in a northeasterly direction. Toward us.
While Pat was sidetracked by the weather report, I crept upstairs and stepped outside. I wanted to see it coming across the fields, ploughing up the corn, twirling a barn or two in the air.
The wind whispered mild obscenities into my ears — Pigsausage! Beefcake! Kittendeath! Sodomy! — and sprinkled me with a parsimonious aspergillum of rain. Nothing more.
Back down in the basement, no one wanted Baltic Avenue. I’ll take it, my own little piece of the pie, my purple corner of heaven, that place just beyond GO. Tornado Alert was being downgraded to Tornado Warning. We went around the board a few more times; Pat and I told tales about the twisters that had gotten away — the ones our granddaddies had tried to outrun, racing up from the barn three leaps in front of a funnel cloud with two pails of milk exploding either side of them — all the famously wacky things that tornadoes do — the telephone pole impaled by the ubiquitous piece of straw, the rowboat firmly moored in the topmost branches of an oak tree. The radio hadn’t given the all-clear signal yet, but heck, they didn’t know where we were. The world seemed quiet outside.
I climbed the stairs to the kitchen and started doing the lunch dishes, watching the rain outside, washing cups and plates, measuring the angle of the rain, the sway of the trees in the windbreak, then the rain flattening out, going horizontal, the trees doing a hula dance, leaves flying by, twigs, then whole green branches, small trees, sheet metal pig sheds tumbling across the fields, billboards from the interstate. Wild absolutions! Hullabaloo! All the summer’s accumulations swept off the back porch. Great day in the morning! The mighty Rock Island Line roaring by. A large moment standing still all around us. Whirling dervishes! The Wicked Witch of the West in drag! Hail Mary, full of grace! There went Miles Davis and John Coltrane! Eric Clapton and Ginger Baker! Janis Joplin and Joan Jett! Shake, Rattle, and Rock this Joint! . . .
When it was all over, we wandered out of the house, mouths agape, wearing the blank stares of survivors striving to comprehend. It was a total mess. The aftermath of some hellacious party. The small garage that’d been built unattached to the house had been picked up, folded into parts, shuffled, and dealt out into a stand of black locusts about fifty yards east of where it had previously stood. All the kids’ bikes that had been in the garage — they were left untouched, still resting on their kickstands. Of the twenty boxes of used books being stored there for the next Friends of the Library book sale, just one had been emptied out, all romance novels. Those bodice busters now littered the cornfield. Tender Harvest, Ripe for the Picking, Rapture in the Hayloft — all these titles will be ploughed under next spring before planting.
The farm a half mile to the east was virtually unscathed. We were just lucky, I guess.
David Duer is an English language arts teacher at Cedar Rapids Washington High School and advisor for the Washington Literary Press. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 199.