I’ve decided to dust off my older stories and recirculate them in the digital era. This is another previously published piece that is new to the blog. This one was originally published in Absolute in the summer of 2005 and it even won a writing award!
Once, a long time ago, I was truly happy. For one short-lived afternoon my capsulated world was perfect and harmonized and I played as if there were no rules, no pain, and no memories to haunt me. I was twelve, and it was the last time I felt human, the absolute last time I felt whole.
I grew up in a small town in southwestern Oklahoma with my Grandma Carol and her fourth husband, Ted. I lived with my grandma then. Ultimately I would live with many people over the course of my teenage years, but that year was spent in Grandma Carol’s bricked up trailer. She was the kind of woman most people meet only briefly and then walk away wondering what was wrong with the picture. The deep wrinkles, a head of gray hair, and an obvious set of false teeth made her look like she was over seventy, but she was actually closer to fifty that year. Most of the confusion about her age probably stemmed from the fact that she’d gotten married at fourteen and had five children by four different men before she was twenty-eight.
However promiscuous her early years may have been, in her later years she’d decided to make herself seem like an upstanding citizen. So she had Ted buy her the finest trailer and had bricked it up on the outside, adding a carport and a wooden fence to make it seem even more like a “real” home. Then she’d gone to the best bargain furniture store in town and bought a whole living room set with a sofa, loveseat, recliner, and even an ottoman that we were never allowed to sit in lest our dirty rears wore out the seats cushions. Every day I would clean that house, scrubbing it spotless for visitors who usually weren’t even allowed inside.
Grandma Carol was a living contradiction, a world of nicotine stains and bar fights wrapped in a bricked up trailer and tied together by a top of the line Cadillac. It was hard to know what it was she really wanted, hard to know when life would be good enough that I could have her approval for even two seconds.
I would spend all morning scrubbing the wood paneled walls of the trailer, trying to remove the filmy tar coating that had become ingrained into every pore of my very existence with the false scent of lemon Pine-Sol. By the time I got home from school she would have already smoked enough to give the walls another finish. My life was tempered by her cigarettes. I once saw her smoke four at once, and for awhile that made her like some type of superhero to me, able to conquer the evil side effects of smoking with nothing more than sheer determination. A few years later, when I actually did the math on the number of cigarettes she smoked per day, I understood that by most doctor’s calculations Grandma Carol should have dropped dead over twenty years ago.
The best part of my young life that summer was my friend, Ellen, whose short, frizzy hair, dimpled cheeks and sprinkling of freckles covered her face so precisely it was as if they’d been placed there by fairies. She looked like a dirty angel; untouched by the worries and pain that often clouded my world.
One afternoon we were outside in the playhouse Ted had made for me from the scraps of wood from some house he’d been contracted to help build. It wasn’t much, just a plywood shell built over the back half of the tornado shelter, but Ellen and I could always manage to turn those four plain walls into a castle or a grand ballroom depending on the occasion. I can’t be a hundred percent sure what we were doing on that day, but I think that we were taking turns putting on Grandma Carol’s make-up, pretending that we were finalists in the Miss America pageant.
Ellen came over a lot, and she didn’t seem to mind that my grandma was a little dysfunctional. Sure she commented on it like most twelve year olds would, but it didn’t stop her from being my friend. And that acceptance bought her a true friendship that no amount of ridicule in later years could break up.
This was before we thought of boys as anything more than friends. Before sneaking cigarettes and beer became our favorite pastimes. Before time and reality distorted the innocence in our lives as if it were nothing more than a station on the television that could be changed with the click of a button. When I think back at my early childhood I see everything as a two-dimensional picture that has faded over the years, and for the most part it’s hard for me to accept that anything really even happened, that those defining moments were anything more than a dream I had a long time ago.
One thing I definitely remember about that day was that Grandma Carol had tucked herself into the storm cellar and was listening to Gary England’s weather reports. She was smoking so much that a spiraling gray cloud could be seen wafting its way out the cellar vent as if she were a human chimney.
It was the middle of tornado season, and we were in the pressure cooker that is southwestern Oklahoma. A place where the heat and rain can build up into a frenzied culmination of childhood fears and nails bitten down to the quick before the weather would suddenly Snap! releasing everything in one giant whoosh of storms that left the charged air smelling sharply of ozone, only for it to build back up again within a matter of days, sometimes only hours. Storms were the one thing that Grandma Carol was actually terrified of, and she would refuse to emerge from the storm shelter until the all clear had been given by Gary England and the Tornado Watch had been lifted.
She had been down there six hours before we heard anything. Ellen and I had taken bets as to how long she could remain down there without needing to go the bathroom, and so far she’d held out longer than either of us had expected. She knew that May was the culmination of tornado season. A time of year when any normal, bright sunny day can turn into a nightmare in under thirty minutes and the heat and humidity can be as real as a fleece blanket pressing over every inch of your skin.
Just as we were beginning to believe she had turned herself into a shelter hermit for no reason, Grandma Carol’s shrill voice rang through the thick air, warning that there was a tornado headed right for us. Ellen and I looked at each other, the excitement lighting up our faces like they were Christmas trees. We’d never actually seen a tornado.
“Marie! Ellen! You’d better get down here right now. I’m shutting the doors in thirty seconds.” I can still hear her voice calling to us from that cement dungeon, but we never made it in. I took Ellen’s hand in mine and ran to the front of the house, determined to see a real tornado, to look that god-driven fear in the face and say that I was not afraid.
In fact, I felt liberated for the first time in my life, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as free as I did when we rounded the gravel driveway and saw the thin spindle touch the ground. Now I know it couldn’t have been more than an F1 tornado, but then it was a giant, the most beautiful and majestic thing I’d ever seen. It seemed far enough away that we felt safe even when we shouldn’t have. The wind seemed to have sprung out of nowhere, as if there were a volcano of hot, pulsating air just beneath us. It circled around us, pulling at our hair and whipping it around our faces, punishing us by turning our hair into a cat-o-nine-tails.
Despite everything we didn’t hesitate for more than a second before we began running through the field, climbing the low-riding fence and burrowing through the wheat towards that storm, sweaty palm touching sweaty palm the entire time, binding us to each other permanently.
I’ve never been able to remember what happened when we crossed that threshold and stood in the embrace of Mother Nature. Nothing’s ever brought those lost minutes back, and now I’m not sure I want them. They found us a few hours after the tornado, huddled together and half-buried by uprooted plants and debris. They took pictures when they found us, the earth beneath our two curled and interconnected bodies the only area of ground not touched by the tornado. Our trailer had even been partially mangled by the force of the wind, and my playhouse was nothing more than another memory, but our clothes hadn’t even been torn, and not a single cut or bruise graced our bodies. Grandma Carol proclaimed it a miracle and pronounced me terminally stupid at the same time.
The next year I was traded back to my mother in Maine, and the year after that I went to my father’s house with his new wife and three new kids in Arkansas, and the whole time I was gone I missed the embrace of the wind as if there was a vacancy in my body that I couldn’t fill no matter how many times I tried. Eventually, I found my way back to Grandma Carol’s. When I went back to school I found that Ellen, my dirty angel, was halfway to being a harbinger of hell. Her face was pocked and half-eaten by her meth addiction, the careful dusting of fairy freckles transformed into symptoms of a horribly ravaging disease. The cuts and scrapes of her tormented soul sewn clearly across her flesh with interconnecting lines and marks that showed more of her insecurity than she ever realized. I think now that she must have missed the wind too.
Within six months of my return I found myself one of the few people attending her funeral. I could still feel her sweaty palm pushing into mine. The hollow roar of the wind filled my ears where the preacher’s words should have been. The wind was with me for the first time in four years, comforting me through Ellen’s death the same way it is comforting me now. The same hollow roar is pulsating through my ears. The unsubstantial weight of the wind cocoons me, just like it did both of us back then.
In the movies, the people standing on a ledge about to kill themselves always draw such a crowd. That’s not true in real life. In fact, the only thing that seems to notice my presence is the wind. It’s been cushioning me, cradling me, and yes, even beckoning me for the last hour or so as I’ve remained here, a living gargoyle on the urban skyline, watching the people below me move across the sidewalk in meaningless patterns; nothing more than simple drones.
I stand up on the ledge and close my eyes, letting the wind work its way into my veins like a junkie begging for that last hit. There are still no cries from those below. No warning shouts or screams of horror to acknowledge my existence. There is nothing, just the wind rushing past my body, the roar in my ears, a small sweaty palm encased within my own, and the weightlessness of worries floating through thirty stories of air….