It didn’t take long. The afternoon fluttered by. The sky filled with those heavy low soot clouds that always brought high winds and rain drops as long as needles. I was inside sitting on the carpet watching TV, and my granny, Miss Mother, was in the back of the house laid out on her bed trying to get some sleep in the middle of the day. I know the weather turned so quick because at the start of the Passions soap opera I was watching, sunlight broke through the white bedsheet on our front window, glared off the TV’s glass screen, and all I could see was dust. But by the end of the show, I saw all the characters just fine — Fox Crane was half-naked and ready to put a hurt on another man.
A cold draft beat through the house. The kitchen door was open. I wasn’t going to do a damn thing about it, but then I heard Miss Mother turn over on her side. She groaned, and her bed creaked and whined. I got up before she started yelling and walked to the kitchen. The windows over the sink were covered in fat drops, and steady rain pattered on the roof. The kitchen door swung on its hinges in the wind. I stepped outside. Rain hit my hair, and cold wet soaked to my scalp. When I grabbed the handle of the door, headlights lit me up from behind. I turned around and saw a sheriff’s truck coming up our drive.
I pulled the door close, latched it, and went to wake Miss Mother. The sheriff started knocking at the front.
“Abiel, who is that?” Miss Mother called out.
“It’s the sheriff. I just seen him pull up.”
The knocking got louder. He wasn’t using his hand anymore.
“I was coming to wake you up,” I said.
“Don’t leave the man out there. Go answer it.”
I wiped the rain off my face with my hand, walked to the front door, and cracked it open just enough for my face to peek through. A younger sheriff I’d never seen was standing on our steps in a green poncho with a clear plastic shower cap over his hat.
“I never seen you before,” I said.
“I just started last week. Sheriff Kerr asked me to come pick you and your mother up on account you folks don’t have a car.”
“We didn’t do nothing.”
“Haven’t you been watching TV?”
“It’s on, ain’t it?”
I swung the door open wide so he could see.
“There’s a nasty storm coming through,” said the sheriff. “Tornado warnings for the whole county. People are holding up at Caruthersville High for the night.”
“I don’t go to school there no more,” I said.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to be a student. A church group was good enough to set up some cots in the gymnasium. They’re going to have food — the whole bit. Look, this is going to be a bad one.”
“We’ll be alright.”
I started to close the door, but Miss Mother grabbed it from behind me and held it open. I didn’t even hear her walk up.
“Go get you things, Abiel,” she said.
“You should listen to your mom, son,” said the sheriff.
I stared at him. I wanted to push him off the steps, watch him flip around in the mud like a fish. Miss Mother grabbed my cheek, turned my face to her eyes.
“Go get your things,” she said through grit teeth.
“I don’t need nothing.”
“I’ll wait in the truck,” said the sheriff.
I closed the door and sat on the couch to put on my sneakers. Miss Mother went to the back. I heard her open her closet door and the drawers to her dresser. She came back out wearing her big red winter jacket that went to her ankles. Underneath it, she still had on her purple night shirt and a pair of sweat pants pulled up to her knees. She was carrying a long bed pillow under her arm, and her grey hair was a mess to her shoulders — she didn’t even brush it out. Her eyes darted around at the windows, and she licked her lips over and over. Her nerves were starting.
“Did you lock up the kitchen?” she asked.
“I locked it.”
“You’re not going to bring a jacket or put on some pants?”
“You going to put on a skirt?”
The sky wasn’t right. We drove east on Highway 84 right into the end of the world. We were cramped on the truck’s bench seat. The sheriff was leaning on his window, trying to give Miss Mother all the room in the middle or maybe he just didn’t want to touch her because the arms of her big jacket were still wet, and her legs were splashed with specks of mud.
I stared out the passenger window. I was confused because every mile of the highway was different weather. We hadn’t been in the truck but maybe five minutes before the hard rain that had beat on us at our house turned into bright orange, late-day sunlight. I didn’t know where it was coming from. The clouds looked like the underside of a thick jerry-sewn quilt. Deep seams of white separated bursting pockets of black heavy rain. Some of the clouds were so low, they looked like smoke off a plains fire I’d seen as a kid. But instead of rising and taking to the wind, these storm clouds lingered like a diesel ghost in a disappearing dress.
I rolled my window half-way down, closed my eyes, smelled the air. The scent of burning electricity slipped up my nose, and then I smelled summer, and in another mile, a wet musty freezing cold. We hit a patch of rain. Water slapped on my cheeks and eyelids.
“Roll up the window, Abiel, and quit with all that,” said Miss Mother.
“I wasn’t doing anything.”
Miss Mother was scared, but she wouldn’t let on. Her hand gripped tight on my forearm. When we hit dry air, she relaxed, but then we drove through a minute-long squall of hail pellets, and the cab of the truck filled with the slap of a thousand whips. Miss Mother’s nails dug into my skin. She clutched so hard her fingers were bone white.
“We think we’re going to have more than half the county at the high school,” said the sheriff.
“Ain’t no way you’re going to fit all those people in that gymnasium,” I said. “I went to a basketball game there once, and there ain’t but room for a good two hundred bodies.”
“This is all been last minute, Abiel. The church is doing a helluva job considering.”
“Why do you say my name like that?”
“Abiel, quit it,” said Miss Mother.
“No. He talks to me like he knows me. I don’t know him.”
I leaned forward and peered at the young sheriff.
“I don’t know you, sheriff,” I said. “You ain’t even told us your name. It ain’t polite.”
“Damnit, Abiel. Shut your mouth,” said Miss Mother. “We’re sorry, sheriff.”
“I’m not sorry.”
“It’s alright, Ma’am. If you want to know my name, it’s on my badge, son.”
I started thinking about what I would have done if Miss Mother wasn’t there. I wished we weren’t driving, and the sheriff wasn’t in his uniform. I wished I had my flask of McCormick’s. I would have emptied the whole thing in a nickel’s time and gone at him like an Illini tomahawk.
Blue veins of lightening broke above the plains as we drove into Caruthersville. Electric branches tore the air and only started to fade when another bolt pierced a neighboring piece of sky. The highway slowed down to forty miles-per-hour, and we passed a Chinese restaurant, a Wal-Mart, and a used car lot. I saw a Cadillac and a Blazer with spider-webbed windshields from the hail. A man in a yellow raincoat and a brown cowboy hat walked from car to car shaking his head. The rest of the town looked deserted. Gas stations were closed up. Parking lots were empty. We passed three houses in a row with their windows boarded up like they were out of business.
“People in there?” I asked.
“Either in there or at the high school,” said the sheriff.
In front of another house, two men were outside taking down a tall tree with a chainsaw.
“I need to check on these guys,” said the sheriff.
He pulled the truck over to the shoulder of the road. The man with the chainsaw waved and walked over to us. The saw kicked out a little trail of smoke behind him. I rolled my window down so the two could talk.
“How you doing, sheriff?” the man yelled over the saw’s popping engine.
“Fine, fine,” answered the sheriff. “You trying to get that tree down before the worst of it?”
“My wife loves it, but with these winds, the thing is going to bust into our living room — Where you headed in all this?”
“The high school,” said the sheriff. “I’m going to drop these folks off. You want me to swing back around and give you a hand?”
“You know anyone with a winch?” the man asked.
“I got one on my other truck. Let me do that.”
“Just so we can pull it away from the house once we drop it.”
“Sounds good. I’ll go switch cars and come back.”
“Thank you, sheriff.”
We pulled back onto the road. The sheriff gunned the engine, and I rolled up my window.
“You need help?” I asked.
The sheriff looked to me, smiled.
“I probably could, but I think you should keep your mom company, Abiel. There’s going to be a lot of different kinds at the school.”
“Suit yourself. . .And she’s my granny, not my mother.”
“It’s an honest mistake,” said Miss Mother, pinching my arm as hard as she could.
“You should tell that man to be more careful with that chainsaw,” I said. “I seen a guy take his own leg off with one of those things.”
“And where was this?” asked the sheriff.
“You’d be surprised. Happens all the time. ”
Cars and trucks spilled onto both sides of the street in front of the high school. The three parking lots were full. People were leaving their cars wherever they pleased. Some of them had hopped the curb and parked on the basketball courts, in the two empty fields bordering the school, and even right up near the front doors’ steps. Whole families crossed the street on their way inside. Everyone carried something — sleeping bags, pillows, pulling suitcases on wheels. If they didn’t have bags, they had coolers, and if they didn’t have coolers, people lugged their things in black plastic garbage bags.
“Believe me now, Abiel?” asked the sheriff. “This is your stop.”
He put the truck in park and honked at a family who was walking by. The father turned, and at first, he looked angry, but when he saw it was the sheriff, he smiled and waved.
“Who’s that?” I asked.
“A friend of mine.”
“How’s it you know just about everybody, and you said you’ve only been working a week?”
“I grew up around here –”
“Abiel, let the man be,” said Miss Mother.
She turned to the sheriff, put her hand over his on the steering wheel.
“Thank you,” she said, quietly.
“Not a problem, Ma’am. If need be, I can give you a ride back out in the morning.”
“We’ll be alright,” I said.
The sheriff put his hand out to me.
“It’s been a pleasure, Abiel. Take care of your grandma.”
Miss Mother glared at me and cocked her head at the sheriff’s hand. I shook it.
“Like I said, we’ll be alright.”
I opened my door and got out of the truck. Miss Mother scooted across the seat with her pillow under her arm, took my hand, and climbed out.
“Be safe,” said the sheriff, giving us one last smile.
I nodded my head to him and closed the truck’s door.
“He said he grew up around here, but I ain’t never heard of him.”
“That’s cause you never hear about the good ones, Abiel,” said Miss Mother.
His truck rolled through the crowd. He beeped his horn on a few other people, and they all waved and smiled. He was like the mayor or president, and I didn’t know his name. Just then, rain started in again, and cold wind gusted from every direction. My legs were freezing. I wished I had put on a pair of jeans and my jacket. The inside of that truck was so warm I almost forgot how bad the weather was.
“Let’s get inside, Abiel,” said Miss Mother.
“Don’t have to tell me twice.”
Everyone jogged up to the front doors in the downpour, but Miss Mother was scared she would fall so we walked slowly over the wet grass. Two high school boys, not much older than me, ran by and splashed water and mud on the both of us.
“Go to hell!” I yelled at them.
They turned, looked at me, laughed and kept running to the line at the front doors.
“Abiel, I don’t want you acting up when we get inside,” said Miss Mother.
“They got mud all over us.”
“I’m nervous as it is. I don’t need you starting trouble with these people.”
“Screw ‘em,” I said.
Miss Mother yanked me to a stop by my arm.
“Look at me, Abiel.”
“What? I won’t. . .”
People stared at us as they passed. It was as good as dark, and the rain was coming down even harder.
“Look at me right now.”
I turned my face to Miss Mother. She slapped me across my cheek.
“I don’t want any of your shit in there. Do you hear me?”
“Yeah. . .”
“Do you hear me?”
“Take my pillow,” she said.
“It’s all wet. You carry it.”
“Help me with the damn pillow!”
I took it from her hand. The slap didn’t hurt, but tears filled my eyes anyway. I don’t think anyone could tell on account of the rain.
“Why do you got to yell at me like that?” I asked.
“I don’t know why you do this. Something gets up your ass, and you start acting like a shit, damnit.”
Miss Mother walked ahead of me. Even in that cold biting wet, I felt my ears warm and red. I held the drenched pillow at my chest and dragged my feet. I didn’t want to look up. Every rain drop was another laughing eye.
When we got inside Caruthersville High, the line stretched from the front door all the way down to end of the long hallway and then turned into the gymnasium on the other end of the school. Older folks were sitting down in fold-up metal chairs, and little children ran back and forth raising hell. Every time more people came through the front doors, a howl of wind screamed down the length of the hall. No matter what they were doing, people stopped and turned to see who it was.
Two ladies and three pretty girls walked up and down the line with plastic trays filled with short styrofoam cups of hot chocolate and cider. The prettiest of them, a girl with dark brown hair tied back in a pony tail, came up to me and held out her tray.
“Would you care for something warm to drink?” she asked.
She wasn’t smiling, but I still recognized her. We’d gone to grade school together. She had never spoken to me in my life. I wanted to ask her if she remembered me, but I thought of how I looked — all long wet hair, unwashed — I just took two cups off her tray and didn’t say a word. I handed the hot chocolate to Miss Mother and kept the cider for myself.
“Watch out, it’s hot,” I said.
Miss Mother held the cup to her lips with both hands, blew on it, and took a sip.
“Do you like it?” I asked her.
By the time I finished my cider, we were standing at a long table covered with stacks of different colored papers. A woman with shiny red lipstick and a balding man sat behind it. The man handed Miss Mother a pen and a clipboard with a serious looking form on it.
“How you two doing?” the man asked.
“Fine,” said Miss Mother. “What’s all this?”
The woman smiled and said, “It’s just a liability waiver for the school.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“In case something happens,” said the woman. “We just need your names and signatures, an emergency contact.”
“What’s going to happen?” I asked.
Miss Mother shoved the clipboard and pen into my hands.
“Can we fill this out in there?” she asked.
“Just bring it right back,” said the man.
Miss Mother pushed me into the gymnasium. The bleachers were collapsed against the walls up to the ceiling, and a ton of cots were set up in row after row on the hardwood floors. On the far wall, people stood in another line waiting for their turn at two long tables of food. Others lay on their cots with their babies on their chest, while their older children slid around on the brown lacquered floor. The place still smelled of school, but with all the different voices and sounds bouncing off the walls, it felt like a hospital.
“Where do we go?” I asked Miss Mother.
“I don’t know, Abiel.”
I followed her carrying the wet pillow in my arms. It stank of hairspray and mothballs. We walked to the last row of cots and found two of them with untouched folded blue blankets and clean white pillows.
“You didn’t even need this,” I said, holding up the wet pillow.
“Plenty of people brought their own.”
“But yours is all wet.”
I leaned over to put the pillow down on Miss Mother’s cot, but she stopped me.
“Don’t put it there, Abiel, that’s where I’m sleeping.”
“I’m not using it,” I said.
“Then put it on the ground.”
“Where? It’ll get all dirty.”
“Give it to me –”
Miss Mother grabbed the pillow from my hands and set it underneath her cot.
“It’s like we’re camping,” I said.
Miss Mother took off her big jacket, folded it in half, and set it next to her blanket.
“Where’s the bathroom in here?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. You went to school here for a year,”
“But I ain’t a girl.”
Miss Mother took a deep breath and looked back and forth across the gymnasium before she started back to the doors where we came in.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
“I told you, I need to find a bathroom.”
“Do you want me to come with you? There’s a lot of people here.”
“No. Fill out that form for the lady and take it up to her.”
“My handwriting’s all jacked up.”
I watched Miss Mother walk away. She stopped a lady, asked for directions. The lady smiled and pointed to the side of the gym where people were lined up for food. Just as Miss Mother was going to say, “thank you,” a door slammed shut, loud as a gunshot. I felt a blast of cold air like I had at the house, and then the lights clipped off. People gasped. A few kids started crying, and then different sized flashlights turned on all over. A man yelled into the black,
“Everyone, stay calm. We’re going to see about the lights.”
For the next ten minutes, people talked in low voices all around me. I didn’t know if they were scared or if the the dark made them quiet. More kids started wailing, making everything worse. I couldn’t see Miss Mother and even though my clothes were still wet, I felt hot and had to breathe slow to keep my wits.
I heard a lighter’s flint scratching over and over out in the dark. I couldn’t tell if it was near or far. I stood up and looked around. I didn’t see a flame between all the glowing flashlights. I closed my eyes, cupped a hand to my ear. I heard everything. Rain spanking the metal air conditioners on the roof. Nasty winds bawling curses at the side of the building. Wet cold air filling the gaps between the bricks of the high school, cracking the walls, knocking the rotted dry wall loose.
The scratching stopped. I opened my eyes.
Two trays of tall colored candles had been lit on the other side of the gym. They were being picked up and handed out among the cots. If I squinted, it looked like a magic trick. The candles rose off the trays in pairs and floated in the black. They landed in lines in front of me and slowly the gymnasium looked like a giant cave filled with low, yellow light. People’s faces looked fat and warm, and the children were all angels, even if they were crying.
A single candle broke off from the trays and made its way down the side of the cots. I was watching it all come together, and for a second, I thought it was that pretty cider girl going out of her way to make sure I could see in the dark. But as it got closer, I opened my eyes wide and saw it was Miss Mother. She was carrying a candle in one hand and a plate of food in the other.
“You gave me a scare,” I said.
“Take the candle. I got us some food.”
“What’d you get?” I asked, setting the candle on the floor between our cots.
“I don’t know. I can’t see a damn thing. It’s a stew, I think. Maybe pot roast.”
“I saw you talking to that lady. Did you find the bathroom?”
“She was fine, but I had to beg one of those people to let me use a flashlight.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t going to run off. Where am I gonna go in this? A man finally loaned me his. Take this plate, Abiel.”
“Don’t you want any?”
“You go ahead. No point sitting up in this dark.”
Miss Mother picked up her jacket and set it under her cot next to her pillow. She lay down, unfolded the short blanket over herself. The cot’s feet squeaked on the floor.
“You warm enough?” I asked. “You want my blanket?”
“I’m fine. I’m tired.”
Miss Mother closed her eyes. The candle lit up her face, and I saw what she looked like when she was young. The wrinkles of her face disappeared, and her skin didn’t hang loose like drapes. Her liver spots weren’t so plain, and the dark skin under her eyes wasn’t swollen.
“I’m worried, Abiel,” she said.
I waited, but Miss Mother didn’t answer. Her face relaxed into sleep. I lowered myself to the floor as quiet as I could and held the plate of food up to the candle. It was chili with some chips and greens. I didn’t have a fork so I used the chips to scoop the food into my mouth, and when I ran out of chips, I used three fingers of my right hand.
The lights never came back on, and the storm didn’t quit. I fell asleep with that clipboard and pen on my chest. I had meant to fill out the form and leave it on the front table so they would find it in the morning. But before long, ours was the only candle lit in the whole gymnasium, and when I started to write mine and Miss Mother’s names, the storm got loud, violent, and wild. I took Miss Mother’s long pillow from under her cot, propped my head up, and pulled my blanket all the way over my lips. I didn’t care anymore that the pillow was still damp and stank like mothballs and Miss Mother’s hairspray. The smells were familiar and made it easier to believe I was safe.
I was restless the whole night. I kept waking up in frights. I was scared the winds would tear off the roof. No one would be awake to tell everyone to run. I thought of Miss Mother getting swept up. Her heart stopping in the sky. I knew I’d wet myself if I was stolen away, and when they found my body two days later ten miles away sunk deep into the ground of some man’s cleared field, I’d have splinters through my cheek, and whatever forgotten, long-gone family that showed up besides Miss Mother would be ashamed they ever knew me because my drawers were messed like a coward, because I did not hold in my terror like a strong Missouri man.
I saw the young sheriff standing over me in my dreams. He smiled, shook his head, and kept taking off his wide-brimmed sheriff’s hat, patting it over his heart, and putting it back on like he was looking in a mirror. He polished his badge on his white teeth. His skin shined like chrome. I saw people’s faces I had seen in line, and I ran to a show in the gymnasium. The Dixie Chicks were playing, but none of them looked the same. They wore see-through black bras, and it rained inside. Their fiddles warped, so when they sang their songs, their voices were cheap electric guitars piped through church organs playing inside a tunnel.
Near morning, my heart finally calmed. When Miss Mother got up, I cracked open my eyes but didn’t move. The lights were back on in the gymnasium. Different footsteps snapped up and down on the hardwood floors. People whispered, laughed quietly. Children whined. I waited until Miss Mother sat back down on her cot before I pushed the blanket away from my face. I smiled. I was happy to see her.
“What’d you do, Abiel?” she asked.
“I know that look.”
“I’m just smiling is all.”
I sat up on my cot. My shirt and shorts were dry, but my drawers still stuck to my skin.
“Why didn’t you throw away your plate when you were done eating?” asked Miss Mother.
“It was too damn dark last night. I couldn’t get around.”
“You could’ve taken the candle with you.”
“I didn’t think.”
Miss Mother picked up the paper plate and folded it in two.
“What do we do now?” I asked.
“We gotta see about finding a ride home.”
“There goes that sheriff,” I said.
Across the gym, the sheriff was drinking coffee and having a laugh with two other men.
“Abiel, I want you to go ask him to take us back home,” said Miss Mother.
“Why do I gotta do it?”
“Because I said. Go clean yourself up and talk to him before he leaves.”
I lay back down, kicked the blanket off my cot.
“Get up, now, Abiel.”
“I will, just give me a second.”
“We can walk back for all I care,” said Miss Mother.
I threw my legs off my cot and stood up.
“Christ, look at you,” she said. “You’ve got crud all over your face.”
“Yes — Go wash up. I don’t want him to leave.”
I started off to the bathrooms, but Miss Mother called out to me one more time.
“Stand up straight, and be polite to the man. You hear me?”
I walked fast. Men were at all four urinals and sinks. I bent over and went down the line of stalls and found an empty one near the end. I pissed, washed my hands, and used some brown paper towels to scrub off my face and cheeks. I wet my hair, pulled it behind my ears, and rinsed my mouth out with warm tap water. I looked at myself in the mirror. Stray hairs popped out all over my chin. I wished I had a razor, but then I saw an old unshaven geezer a couple sinks down. He wore a green flannel shirt and a loose pair of cover-alls, and his wrinkled pale face was nearly pressed against the mirror. He was doing the exact same thing. I figured if he could walk around hairy and filthy, I could too.
When I left the bathroom, the sheriff was standing by the front doors. His back was to me, and he was talking with the woman who had welcomed us at the table. As I got closer, I saw she hadn’t slept on the cots. Her hair was done up and permed, and her lipstick looked like wet paint.
“Hey there,” I said.
The sheriff didn’t turn around. The woman shot me a nasty look over his shoulder and kept talking.
“I said, ‘hey there, sheriff.’”
This time I said it loud so there’d be no mistake. He turned around slowly like he was checking his shoe.
“Abiel, can you give me a minute?” he asked.
He turned back to the lady. I don’t know why, but I felt nervous. I looked across the cots for Miss Mother but didn’t see her.
“How was your night, Abiel?” asked the sheriff, smiling.
“Is that the same uniform you were wearing yesterday?”
“No, this one’s fresh. I got a few of them.”
“That’s smart,” I said.
There wasn’t a wrinkle on him, and his badge gleamed like in my dream.
“Sheriff, I came to –”
“My name’s Troy, Abiel.”
“That’s fine, Troy –”
“Let me finish. My name’s Troy Barry, but you can call me Sheriff Barry.”
“I like Troy. We know each other.”
“How ‘bout you call me Sheriff Troy?”
He took a sip from his coffee, waved at some people behind me.
“I came to see about that ride you offered up. Me and Miss Mother — I mean, my granny — we need a ride back.”
“I can swing that. Have you two eaten breakfast?”
I looked back again for Miss Mother. She was watching me from our cots.
“I’ve gotta stick around for at least another half hour,” said the sheriff.
“Because those are my orders. Why don’t you and your grandma grab some breakfast, and I’ll be ready by the time you’re finished.”
“They gonna have more food here?”
The sheriff pointed behind me. People were lining up at the same two tables from the night before.
“Pretty great, isn’t it?” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“That they pulled this all together so quick.”
“The lights went off last night,” I said.
“But they’re on now.”
He patted me on the shoulder and walked over to the line of people. He smiled, shook people’s hands the whole way. Then he looked back and shouted,
“Come get some eats, Abiel, before it’s all gone.”
My face turned red. I looked around to see if anyone else saw. I ran back to Miss Mother, light on my feet.
“Well?” she asked.
“Let’s go get some breakfast.”
“What did he say, Abiel?”
“Come on, before it’s all gone.”
“Abiel, what did he say?”
“He said he’d give us a ride.”
Miss Mother smiled and put out her hand. I helped her up, and we started over to the food line.
“His name’s Troy Barry. Sheriff Troy,” I said.
“That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
I ate scrambled eggs, a couple of lousy, dry sausages, and a biscuit. Miss Mother got the same, but she didn’t eat. She just drank two cups of coffee and pushed her food around her plate with a plastic spoon. She was fretting again. When we were standing in line, people were talking. There was panic in all their voices. No one had been back to their homes, and it seemed to me no one wanted to go. People were afraid their houses were gone or their land was torn up beyond repair. The geezer I’d seen in the bathroom said he had lived through thousands of storms, and this one didn’t seem so bad. But then his son — who was a grown man himself — reminded the geezer about a particular set of clouds that blew through on a single night fifteen years ago. The geezer spat up his orange juice when he remembered. Then he said,
“That’s true. You’re right. The sky looked the same –”
He wiped the orange spittle from his chin. Everyone was listening, even if they were acting like they weren’t.
“In the morning, everything was gone — like it was never there to begin with.”
After breakfast, the balding man from the front table made an announcement to the gymnasium. I figured he had spent the night on a cot because he looked like he hadn’t slept a wink. He was wearing the same sweater he had on the day before, and his little bit of hair was jacked up every which way. He told everyone to be quiet, and then he took a deep breath and said the Mississippi had flooded a good patch of Caruthersville. He told us, overnight, tornadoes had touched down all across Pemiscot County, and he didn’t know much more. He was sorry for that.
He fought back tears as he read off streets in town that had been closed because of fallen trees and bare electrical wires. When he said, “Bushley Avenue,” a woman cried, and her husband wrapped both his arms around her and rocked her like a baby. The balding man announced they were going to say some prayers under the basketball hoop, and whoever wanted to pray could join in.
I sat on my cot at the other end of the gym and watched them all — men, women, little boys and girls — come together in a big circle and hold hands. I couldn’t hear their words, but I saw they were taking turns. One by one, they said something into the center of the circle, and together they all said, “Amen.” Miss Mother watched them next to me. She was frozen. I wanted to make her laugh.
“You think they’re going to sing a song?” I asked her.
She looked down at me on my cot. Her eyes were blank like she had forgotten she was alive.
“It looks like any minute they might start singing a good Christian song,” I said.
She picked up her pillow and beat it out with one hand. The sound boomed across the tall ceilings of the gym. A few people in the prayer circle turned and scowled at us.
“Where’s that sheriff, Abiel?” asked Miss Mother.
“I don’t see him.”
“He needs to hurry up.”
The circle broke apart. Everyone walked back to their cots and got ready to leave. The women did the packing, while the men talked with the hopeless balding man. He didn’t have the answers they wanted. I felt sorry for him — all these people demanding their fortunes — he couldn’t find his words. Then Sheriff Troy walked through the front doors in his wide-brimmed hat. He stepped right in front of those fuming men and held both his hands up, and they quieted down. They all asked questions. Sheriff Troy answered every single one. They walked away. Their fears settled. The balding man thanked him again and again.
We drove home on Highway 84 the same way we had came. The sky was clear, and the sun blazed warm light across the empty fields speeding past my window. We listened to local reporters on the radio counting up the damage to buildings and homes. Miss Mother breathed heavier and heavier the longer they went on. She rolled the fabric of her sweat pants between her fingers and licked her lips like she was thirsty. Sheriff Troy reached down and turned off the radio.
“I don’t think you two have anything to worry about,” he said. “I’ve already been out to some houses, and it’s been nothing but broken windows and dented cars.”
“Hear that?” I said. “The sheriff’s already seen the worst of it.”
“Crack your window, Abiel,” said Miss Mother.
I rolled my window half-way down. Cool clean air blew into the truck. Miss Mother took my hand. She held me tight, and I squeezed her back.
“Don’t worry, Miss Mother,” I whispered into her ear. “I bet you a Pepsi, everything’s fine.”
We exited off the highway and drove another fifteen minutes on a farm road to our property. We took a right through our gate, and then drove slowly over freshly washed-out ruts and potholes on our unpaved drive. The truck’s suspension groaned, and we slid right and left on the seat like we were on a boat. Sheriff Troy parked his truck in our front yard and turned it off. We all looked out the windows for a long time before we got out. Here’s what I saw in pieces:
All the walls of our home were on the ground leaving the rooms naked for the first time in their lives. The kitchen wasn’t a kitchen anymore, and my bedroom looked like it got dragged out by the floorboards. My mattress and magazines trailed out to our back field like a strong blind child went into a fit trying to read something he wouldn’t ever see. Our TV was bashed out like someone took a square point shovel to its face. The fridge turned on its side like a giant brick of chalk. Little and big pieces of glass spread across the ground like ice shattered by boots. Bare wood splintered from the roof and the ceiling, some of it dark grey and close to rot, but the meat of some of the crossbeams was still clean, yellow, and white. The couch was broken in two — split by God’s axe. Same with the kitchen table and the kitchen sink. Everywhere, everything broken and wretched thrown across the ground.
Miss Mother tied back her stringy, grey hair and picked up a dishrag from the mud like she had just left it there for the twister’s waste. She wrang it out with both hands and wiped her cheeks and neck till her skin was raw and pink in the sun.
“I’m so tired, Abiel,” she said. “We don’t have anything, and I’m just so tired.”
Sheriff Troy stared at the ground in front of him as he walked across the yard. He stopped and looked at Miss Mother. He didn’t have anything for her. I went to her. I rubbed the back of her neck, put my arm around her shoulder.
“Go on in the shade,” I said. “Watch me fix this right up.”
Pemiscot Man, first published in Palooka literary journal (2011), was sparked by the photograph Little Brown House taken by my friend and remarkable photographer, Amanda Beaumont. The photo documented the remains of a prairie home destroyed by a tornado in Pemiscot County, Missouri. Amanda’s body of work is a continual inspiration as it captures the raw America that I know and love. Thanks for reading. — WR