“It’s coming,” Mother yelled excitedly. Her sudsy hand threw a yellow plate at the dish holder. It missed, fell and shattered on the kitchen floor with a noisy crash.
“Kids, kids, hurry! Put your shoes on, and your sweaters, too, now. Oh, Roy, it’s so close, come see!” She yelped, wiping her hands on a checked towel. Stepping on crunching pieces of plate, she ran to the living room. Most country farms like this one had the living room off the back porch.
“It’s a funnel cloud, sure is . . . couldn’t be more than five miles off. What should we do, oh, us, open the windows?” She cleared her throat and rubbed the palms of her hands together. “Let’s see, which ones, the southwest ones? I mean, doesn’t the wind blow southwest to northeast, or is it the other way around?” she blurted and stammered as her sharp eyes darted from room to room. She did this during bouts of high-strung nervousness, which came often. Her tone had a more emphatic edge to it this time, though.
Father slowly eased himself out of the chair, and disinterestedly slid into his brown-leather house shoes. Striking up his pipe (which he’s long since given up due to lip cancer) and padding across the floor in his boxer shorts, he was the picture of unastonished composure. My childhood gave me two visions of the contradictory truth, which is healthy for anyone, I’m sure.
The recollection must be twenty years old (when I was five and in the first grade), but some things one never forgets. That scowl on his brow as he placed the book face down (he was a knowledge-motivated man), and his muttering on that day somehow sticks firmly in my mind.
Knuckles white, gripping the sink, Mother’s agitated voice rose an octave higher.
“My Lord, what are we gonna do? Quickly, kids, grab your stuff and come on. We’re going to the storm cellar. . . .”
By this time, we were all bunched around the window, straining our necks to see. With a wild whoop, my eldest, buck-toothed brother exclaimed, “Look at that whirlpool a’ dust. I betcha that cloud kin knock ya off yur feet!”
“It can knock the freckles right off your nose, now go! And help Kevin, too!” she hollered, patting him between the shoulder blades before he dashed off.
“Good God, Roy, it’s goin’ to blow us away! They say when it hits it sounds just like a train.” Mother’s voice trailed as she shook her head. Her eyes were wide and teary.
Trying to find our sweaters and shoes was a major chore in the bedroom I shared with my two sisters. Clothes, toys, and indescribable junk scattered everywhere. It was a wonder we didn’t disappear into Junkdom for ever, where all messy kids deserve to go. My favorite red sweater was located between a night stand and the bed, crumpled into a small bundle. Shaking it out (something Mom always told me to do in case of nesting mice) I put it on and looked out the window.
The yellow-gray sky was beginning to darken to a deep grayish-black color in patches along the horizon. When I opened the window, a few drops of drizzle sprayed into my face. The stillness seemed to silence the frogs’ songs in the wind on the flat plains of this southern Oklahoma farm. Even though I knew very little about tornadoes, the quiescence of the evening did not seem to fit the description of one to me. Tumbleweeds began to roll unsmoothly, like tractor tires in mud, toward the enormous, gray barn.
I was sure the possums, skunks, and owls were burrowing into more secure habitats, sensing intuitively the feeling of dramatic air pressure change. The tall, green stalks of maize were bowing their heads to the ground in reverent Hindu meditation, and the tranquillity turned into a windy, swirling backflow of activity.
A flurry of air belched forth a stench of insect spray that hung in the breeze after the crop dusters had sprayed that morning. Was it for cotton? I don’t remember, but that odor and wet earth trace repelled and thrilled me, and even today still leaves me with associations of tornadoes.
Dad was fond of bringing home treats, and I grabbed the bag of lemon drops from the top of my bed on the way out. Scooping up my shoes and socks, I ran to the hall by the front door to put them on.
Mother’s voice kept getting louder and louder. I suppose she was hollering at one of my siblings, Clamorous sounds came from my brothers’ bedroom at the same time the animals by the four waste sheds took up mooing, quacking, gobbling, and hooting. Inside, the trills, honking, and clucking created comparable pandemonium as well. Off pitch, the sound of thunder came clashing in and managed temporarily to silence the whole lot of us.
The omen of the gods seemed to straddle the red-brick farm house that stood in the open and deserted terrain. Even though the sound frightened me, I always felt excitement before a storm. It meant we could run down to the stock pond, the one with the windmill in the center, and play in the red mud afterwards. In an oozy, sloshy slime, we pretended it was quicksand or a sizable suction cup taking us in, ensnaring us, enmeshed to our elbows. Far-gone into muddy paradise, submerged in an inanimate thick cloak, playing in the stock pond after a rain was the next best thing to mother’s womb.
The windstorm became more forceful. The trees commenced doing something that looked to me like an exotic, tribal dance. I remember trying to duplicate the moves as I popped a lemon drop into my mouth.
Running outside to find Tiger, the newest, feline member of the family, I noticed the windmill was violently shaking, as if almost losing its balance. A sharp crash turned my attention to a glass, gallon milk container that we kept our fresh milk in. It had blown off the porch onto the sidewalk.
“Where are you, baby? Come on, kitty.”
My blue print shirt, enveloping my skinny frame, blew up in gusts around my chin. The cows were standing together at the salt licks. The long, red hairs on their backs were fluttering in tufts and their tails were floating in smooth waves, all pointing northeast. Swirling dust blinded me temporarily. A screen door slammed, and whimpering, nervous voices came out. Mother was still inside, trying to gather her last chick beneath her wing.
“Now, Roy, don’t be foolish. That tornado is on its way, and you’d be a fool not to take cover . . . please!” she chided, agitation making her jaw set just so.
“Oh, that thing isn’t going to hit, Linnie. You’re just being over-hysterical as usual. Why don’t you just calm down? You’re frightening all the kids, now.” Full lips were pursed together, his look serious. During those rough times, only the youngest children could bring a smile to my father’s face. We were poor even though Dad worked overtime. Bless his heart, he had a definite calamity of spirit with too many indefinite reasons. My mother worked also (this perhaps an understatement) as a nurse at a local hospital Although it was hard labor, to sure, it was also a relief for her to get away from the free-spirited country children that we had become. Later her job turned into a midnight shift.
Many times during those months, she was angry and frustrated. I once interrupted one of her tirades by saying, “You don’t care about us at all!” Viciously said, it was meant to invoke guilt within her. I was scared when I saw the family breaking up. Later that night, I heard her crying in the living room, my father’s even-toned voice trying to console her, and the words were low and indistinguishable. She never got over feeling guilty for leaving the oldest kids at home alone sometimes. That was the first time I heard the word divorce.
“You just don’t want to pull yourself away from that damn TV!” her voice brawled, “You self-destructive, lazy bum!”
“Maybe I will take a little break, just to get me a fresh beer. You sure could use one. You’re raving mad,” he said choppily, with ice in his voice. His attitude during arguments became more unaffected and bovine with each passing criticism. He sighed heavily and marched from the room with a smug look on his face.
“What a great example you set for the children. You can go to hell!” she attacked in rage.
“Aah, go on, hysterical woman. You’re disturbing the reception,” he stated matter-of-factly in a monotone voice.
She turned and stomped out with one last, cutting remark on her lips. “I hope the tornado splinters that easy chair, fellah!”
Lord knows, one remark was an unfair statement, for the old TV we burned hot night and day back then was strictly for the benefit of the children—a cheap babysitter. My father rarely had time for such luxuries. It was plain to me that there was a greater tempest indoors than out.
Overreacting is what my father called her zealous animation, but, truthfully, she was more full of life than he was, had boundless energy, and got bored easily. The county was no place for a city woman. That had been his idea, and he felt ashamed to admit his mistake.
Now she was concerned for her family—the big one she had always wanted. My dad felt trapped and unsuccessful; there was no denying it in his eyes. Life provided him with an endless supply of mouths to feed. His traditional mind told him, “If only I was rich, my wife wouldn’t have to work. She’d be happy, and I could spend more time teaching Cory how to throw a ball and Jenny her ABCs.”
After my mother had gained weight, she would criticize my father for bringing home too many groceries, sweets in particular.
“If you bring all that junk home, I can’t help but eat it. Help me, will you? I’m addicted to sweets just like an alcoholic.”
“Linnie, I’m not going to deny the kids food they like just because you can’t control your appetite. Just go on a regular diet.”
“Roy, you overbuy. Some of that stuff will just spoil. Do you always have to play the great provider?”
“You mean, you over-eat. You don’t make use of some of that food I see you throw away. You waste instead of making leftovers from excess food.”
“I’m not Suzy Homemaker that can make T-bone steak out of ground round. You expect me to be perfect, and I try as hard as I can. A brown head of lettuce is inedible!”
“But not the chocolate cake!” he threw back. So, when he refused to stop, she ate to spite him, and because she loved chocolate cake. Soon, she enveloped herself in layers of soft cushion that would protect her from her hostility, guilt, and boredom. So, they were both to blame for saying ruinous things to one another, but neither one could help the other’s discontent.
What my mother had forgotten was that my father was an artist. Oh, not by profession, but he was a most excellent painter and sculptor. Eventually, he would forget this, too. New oils and canvas were spendthrift items not included in the budget. Chocolate cake and beer were, though. Food for their stomachs, but no food for their souls. So, little by little, he dried up like a twisted, empty foil tube of paint, and never said a word about it to anyone.
What my father had forgotten was that my mother enjoyed dancing. She was full of rhythm and loved to move her feet. She had learned to tap dance in the orphan’s home she was brought up in. Eventually, she would forget this too. Nights out at the local “Corral J” were not in the budget, even though new jeans for the kids were. My father was not a dancer, nor did he even try to learn. Luxuries like this seemed frivolous next to the overwhelming worries of “getting by,” so little by little her feet stopped tapping to the transistor radio on the kitchen window ledge.
They always forgave each other.
When she slammed the door, a deluge of pouring rain halted her steps. The children were all playing in the torrent, squealing with delight, quite forgetting all about the catastrophic tornado in the wake.
“Help me lift this, Lezley. It’s heavy. We need to get in here fast.”
“But what about Daddy? Isn’t he coming?” Lezley asked with a look of horror coming over her face.
“Oh, I hope the wind blows that stubborn ol’ goat away!” she bit, almost chewing with delight on the words.
“Where Dada?” the baby boy, Kevin, asked with a slight tip of his tow-head.
“Inside, dear. He’s hiding from the storm inside, but we are hiding in here. OK? He’s watching TV.”
“Uh, uh. Me go inside. Wanna watch TV,” he whimpered, sensing the obvious uneasiness in her voice.
“Don’t get bossy with me, young man, or I’ll turn you across my knee. You kids never do as I say anymore. It’s living out in this damn country that did it. You just run wild! Come on! Let’s go. NOW!” I suppose she overused that tone and cried wolf one too many times, because it had grown somewhat ineffective.
As they opened the heavy, metal door that was almost parallel to the ground, Lezley remarked, “I’m not going in there, no siree. There’s bugs and everything crawly in that place.”
“Me, neither,” I joined in, feeling a sweat rise to my brow. Nothing had ever seemed scarier. Every child was soon in unison. Usually, when one refused to do something, say for instance eating cabbage, invariably we all did. It was blood code and very offensive to break the pact, even if it meant severe punishment, which it usually did.
I spotted Tiger, the cat, about to pounce on a sand-colored grasshopper and swept her up in my arms.
“Ya can’t crawl in the bottle any more, Tiger. It broke on the steps, look,” I said, turning the cat’s face to the porch.
Finally relenting, due to the intermittent rain soaking us to the bone, Cory went first. Cory and Lezley were twins, and they usually made all the important decisions for the younger ones (I survived many bloody noses with those two).
By now, the funnel was up against our backbones. As I turned to look at it, my insides felt like viscid and heavy. There was a crack of jagged, purple lightning filling the sky with a light show then booming deep-voiced thunder. We all screamed in accord.
The storm cellar was a sunken dugout with red dirt, now mud, packed on a concrete roof above rotten, wooden-framed walls. What light was left in the dark sky cast only enough illumination for us to see five concrete steps leading to oblivion. A black hole.
Some cried louder than others when Mother ordered us down the stairs behind her, single file. Holding on to each other, we gritted our teeth and never lost contact—well-trained elephants in a circus.
I was on the end. Something in me knew this was just as bad as any ol’ tornado, and I couldn’t decide which was the worst of the two evils. I let go of my sister’s shirttail. When they got to the bottom, I was still at the top of the stairs, rain pelting my forehead.
“Come on, come, Jenny. Help her, Cory,” Mother’s alarmed voice urged frantically.
I stumbled down the steps. Cory saw the kitten poking from under my sweater, damp and wild-eyed. He suddenly bolted out the door.
“Freckles! Maaamaaah, we forgot Freckles!”
He ran full-lunged, out into the storm, wailing the dog’s name over and over again. Mama ran out after him. Several minutes passed. The rest of the children cried, fearing for Father’s and Mother’s lives, as well as Freckles’s and Cory’s, repeating over and over what sounded suspiciously like the “Lord’s Prayer.” Not being a churchly family, that was the only prayer we knew. Those few minutes seemed like a wicked eternity.
Severe retributions overflowed on Mama’s lips as she returned. She had Cory by the collar, and closed the door. Cory, with his arms full of a muddied Freckles, looked like a form of lower animal life himself. His expression told us the storm was overhead. Spankings never made him that pale.
In the meantime, we caught a whiff of Freckles, the rankest dog this side of Kansas. A short-haired, brown and white spotted terrier, he managed to chase skunks down and inevitably lose. To this day, that is a pleasant, even comforting smell to me.
Just as our fears were easing, a rat’s alarmed squeak broke the stillness of the musty, grave-like quarters and made me choke on the lemon drop. With a white, utility candle and two matches Dad kept on the front shelving, our courage bolstered, and we struck one of the match sticks and lit the candle. The little flicker became a steady light and no sooner than our eyes adjusted, did we see a huge, black spider crawling on Dena’s toe. (Yes, one shoe was missing—she couldn’t find it amid the junk.) She shrieked and began to cry all over again.
“Stop,” I whimpered. “You’ll scare Tiger.”
Old tin boxes, a window pane of glass, and grocery crates with their labels peeling and faded, surrounded us from all sides. We made the crates our seating in this smothering limbo.
On the right, wooden shelves appeared to be hammered into dirt walls, and held unordered rows of glass, mason jars filled with fruit preserves, green beans, and pickled somethings. The cobwebbed dungeon smelled damp and ancient. It also had a rat smell that I attributed to the grain and potatoes stored in burlap bags down there. Dad said they had a distinct smell, and he grumbled each time he threw away many half-eaten potatoes. There seemed to be an oily substance on the dirt floor, probably leaking out of a rusted piece of farm equipment that stood monsterlike, snaggle-toothed, and ironbound in the corner.
The rain sounded tinny on the door and seemed to beat out its urgent message for us to listen to. We all lost our voices, except for occasional streams of moaning, and in awe we waited for the sound of the train.
Dena’s mouth was set in clenched and repressed fear, which was really quite hilarious in retrospect. Mother was, without a doubt, the most unnerved and emotional of us all. Probably because she had stayed up late and never seemed to sleep very long. Determined not to lose any of the flock, she counted heads. I thought that was one of the most ridiculous and silliest gestures she could have done. Maybe she was trying to keep her mind off the pulverization of the door overhead, that was by now starting to drip around the edges. Water was leaking from half a dozen places in this bottled-up purgatory. We remained for more than an hour in this condition, and I prayed silently for Dad’s stubborn soul, sure he had been left for dead. We were in an interment camp, being tested for endurance by something savage and cruel. Condemned in this cave, nothing could have seemed more frightening, except for the punishing noises our of doors. Mama was our head jailer.
From the outside, I suppose we looked like a family of mice, secretly hiding ourselves in a tin can as Zeus not only pissed through a sieve but blew his potent breath upon us.
“Maybe this storm will pass, and we can all go in and have chicken and dumplings. Would you like that?” Mama whispered.
“Dena, sit on this overturned milk stool here,” Mama said, trying to take her mind off spiders.
“Can’t, Mama, tump over,” Dena mumbled.
“Oh, I see, one of the legs is broken. Well, come over and sit on my lap, too,” I noticed she always held more than one of us when she was afraid.
The tonality of the little faces brightened as the rain began to stop. My mother’s beautifully gentle face was dewy and glistening in the half-light. The slight wrinkles by the side of her eyes constricted as she drew picture in the dirt with a stick to amuse the younger ones. It was obvious that she was scared to predict the storm was over. There was dirt smeared on one fleshy applecheek and strands of auburn hair pasted to her thick neck. Her chest lifted and heaved softly. Then she turned to me and, with tears in her eyes, weakly smiled to comfort me. Oh, how I longed to rip out all of the fretful misery that clung to her life and take her into my arms and tell her, “Don’t worry, Mama. Everything’s goin’ to be all right.” It was on this day, so early in my lifetime, that I realized how truly sacrificial and gracious a woman she really was. I also discovered her never-ending concern and realized how purely she loved us all. Angry shouts lost their volume in my mind, and bad words she had spoken in frustration lost their meaning. In that instant, I felt free to grow toward something special, learn how to read, and run the maize fields.
The cat mewed loudly, and the dog ran from one corner of the cellar to another. Because it was such close quarters, that probably meant four or five steps. He began doing backflips. When Freckles got anxious, he would jump high in the air and twist his body in such a way that he would actually flip. Mother spanked him on the rump and scolded him.
“This smelly hold isn’t big enough for you to perform now, you stinky dog!”
In order to cope with disaster, one needed a great deal of patience, coolness, and presence of mind. Mother possessed none of these qualities.
All became quiet. Wet and shivering, Mother finally opened the lid to our coffin and walked up the steps to a somewhat startling, quiet world.
One screen had been carried several yards from the picture window in front, and a few shingles from the roof were missing, too. Lawn furniture was strewn on the porch steps. The windmill had collapsed into the muddy stock pond. Tin sheds were missing their flimsy roofs. And, the treehouse, built by Cory, had not proved storm worthy, despite his boastful comments at every turn about its sturdiness.
Mother tore into the house in search of Father’s body.
“No, no, Roy my darling, oooh. . . .”
As we ran into the house, the silence was unbearable. Slowly we peeked around the corner, holding our breaths. With a look of complete surprise on her face, she knelt beside the couch to touch my father’s hair. There he was, with glasses atop his head, stretched out in languid stillness. His pipe was smoking on the coffee table beside the book and a can of beer. She kissed him on the lips. He was sleeping so soundly, he had missed the storm.
This story originally appeared in Dialog magazine and is reprinted in The Best of Dialog.