With everything neatly stored away in the basement there was little left to do but remain at my lonesome vigil. I can’t say I was afraid but the past two weeks were enough to make most Midwesterners feel stalked. Beyond the thin skin of the walls lightning flared in strobic pulses painting the fields bone white before dropping darkness like a curtain. Winds shrieked in the trees and hammered the framework until the house creaked and groaned and thrummed like a taut sail. The thunder was the worse, a subsonic rumble felt in the bones and the soles of my boots as if something large and menacing were erupting from the starless bowels of the earth.
According to reports tornadoes raked the prairies to our north and south and west, and one spearpoint of red crept along the border making a beeline for our town. The telltale bow sent waves of warnings flying in its vanguard with dread mutterings of hook echoes. By that time I was unutterably tired and yet incapable of leaving my electronic post for not only was I watching out for myself but for Marysville, thirteen miles to the north, where Lori was at work. And so I watched and waited, adding new things to a duffel I’d dug out—a small bag of wintergreen Lifesavers, a box of ammo, not because I thought they might come in handy but because it gave me something to do—until the patchwork of doppler colors and patterns blended and merged into a sickeningly familiar pastiche devoid of reason or understanding and my eyes burned with fatigue. And then it started falling apart.
Reds faded to yellow, yellow to green. Scarlet-outlined boxes disappeared entire, in many cases replaced by green rectangles or polygons indicated torrential downpours and swollen creeks. Thunder moved off toward the east. More cells kept popping up to the west but I could sense the worst was over; the storm gods had decided to let us stay.
After a while I closed my laptop and turned off the light, and without undressing climbed into bed. Kill me if you must, I muttered, but take me in my sleep.
What woke me wasn’t the wind but the silence. Soft gray light filtering through the blinds heralded a gray and sodden dawn. No birds sang nor did anything move across that preternaturally frozen landscape. Everything felt leaden and heavy, the wet dripping leaves, the gray-dark bark, the silvered pools, the shadowed woods. My head. I sat up and peered through the slats and groaned with weariness but wrestled out of the covers to stagger into the kitchen to make coffee.
I dully remembered hangovers of my past. One of my more spectacular hangovers followed a night of heavy drinking that reduced me to a blind animal crawling along a levee while puking my guts out. Another involved copious amounts of an inexpensive red wine that faintly tasted of turpentine. This was similar but without the alcoholic intake and on a much broader scale: the entire world seemed dazed by excess.
The half-opened duffel on the kitchen table reminded me that I now had to undo my methodical and inclusive preparations. Much ado about nothing, I thought, and if at first there was a moment of sheepishness it was quickly replaced by a sense of relief untainted by vexation at the extra labor involved. We had been spared, others had not.
Whether this would become a habit remained to be seen. The danger in crying wolf too often isn’t the potential for stampede but the inescapable indifference. No show, no go. Statisticians tell us another story, one based on averages and mathematical formulas. The odds of being hit by a tornado are about one in five million, depending on some sources. Others downgrade the odds to one in a million or even less. One detailed thesis I read calculated the square footage of an average residential home against the average footprint of a tornado and juxtaposed the finding against an Oklahoma map. The author’s finding: why bother? But tell that to the residents of Reading or Joplin or Tuscaloosa, or Oklahoma City for that matter.
Unfortunately for the number-crunchers and their ilk, humans are still half animal and wild and afraid of the dark. Our ancestors were hunted by saber-toothed tigers, and if we’ve forgotten it our genes haven’t. And anyway let’s not forget that in the fairy tales the wolf is always there, just biding its time.
As the coffee brewed I did a quick search to see what the wolf had claimed during the night. A half dozen dead, homes and businesses flattened throughout three states. Statistically speaking I suppose they were the losers, the ones who fell on the wrong end of the equation. Here in Blue Rapids we were virtually unscathed with only minor tree limbs shaken loose and nearly five inches of rain fallen. I went downstairs to start unpacking.
It’s all a crap shoot. Nobody has ever explained to me how to do this day after day and week after week without developing an attitude of acquiescence. In the debilitated mundanity of everyday life we’re not cut out for constant readiness. Tornadoes might indeed be a state of mind but their significance is relative to exposure. After years of misses one begins to gamble on what appears to be sure bets but it’s all smoke and mirrors. Ask penniless gamblers in their exodus from Las Vegas how many times sure bets brought them to ruin and you’ll find all the statistical data you need. The wolf is real and it’s out there in the dark, and if climatologists are right these cyclonic storms are going to become bigger, meaner and more prevalent.
Where this leaves us is anyone’s guess. I unearthed the photo backpack from its waterproof case and slipped into its padded straps, tucked the Glock in my belt and slung the camera over my shoulder. I wasn’t sure about my knee with the weight but clumped up the stairs on the first of several trips, rising from the basement like Lazarus into a morning soft and gloriously intact.