Monthly Archives: March 2012
“Based on anecdotal evidence, the townhomes began manifesting water intrusion and consequential damages in March of 2003.” D. Bellflower home inspection specialist
The damp cool Northwest air greeted Marjorie as she opened her door, instantly turning her recently flat-ironed hair frizzy. It had been raining, drizzling, dripping, misting and there were even some spring showers, for weeks.
“God dammit,” Marjorie thought as she tried to slam the door. Even the door wouldn’t properly close.
She’d bought the townhome after her divorce in 2000. Despite her father’s dire warnings against any construction newer than the Korean War, she’d gone ahead and bought a brand new place of her own, at what she now realized, was the top of the real estate market. And it was a lemon. She kicked herself for not moving to California when she had the chance.
“Hey Marjorie!” her neighbor Frank called out from his identical front steps. “Didja get the notice about our suit against the roofers? Just need you to sign on to get the case going.”
Still struggling to get her front door closed and locked, while balancing the file of papers with a cup of coffee on it, Marjorie did not immediately respond to Frank. She was done with lawyers and lawsuits and any litigation.
“You need some help over there?” he asked as he approached from his side of the lawn.
“No, no. I’ve got it.” The last thing she wanted was for her overly helpful neighbor coming over and nosing around her business. Frank had moved in before she and took a proprietary view of their shared real estate. And maybe even a proprietary view of her as a single female.
Marjorie finally set her wobbly pile of papers and coffee mug on the porch rail so she could use both hands to grab the doorknob and wrench the warped door firmly closed. As she leaned back giving a final pull on the handle, her hip hit the precariously balanced papers and coffee cup, sending them over the railing and into the Winter Daphne below the porch.
Peering over the side of the rail into the mess of scattered papers splattered with coffee, Marjorie inhaled the Daphne’s sweet perfume. It was the only good thing about the place. Frank watched from his porch as she took out her keys, locked the stubborn door, and walked down the steps to her car. She could probably make it to Northern California by nightfall if the traffic wasn’t bad on I-5.
Although she believed passionately in relationships built on trust, Caroline knew she would never tell anyone about…
The phone rang and I put down my book.
“Is this the lady of the house?”
Click. I hung up before the solicitor could begin his spiel. Today’s salesmen had no style, no showmanship, and no panache. Not like when I was a kid. When I was eleven, my parents were getting a divorce. They didn’t tell me why. All they said about it was, “It’s not about you; it’s about us.” They kept repeating that, over and over, until I stopped asking. Neither of them seemed to want me around. They were always arguing about who should stay home with me, I was sent to spend the summer of 1972 with my Bube Sheinman in Brooklyn. She was my father’s mother and lived on the second floor of a row house. She had a large apartment with old white wallpaper with sprigs of green pine boughs. It had wood floors covered with worn Oriental rugs and a big green horsehair sofa. The well-polished heavy oak furniture was from the 1930s and had come with the apartment. Bube and Zayde had moved there in the 1940s and never left. When Zayde died in 1967, Bube stayed in the apartment, even though my parents begged her to move to Manhattan so she could be closer. Bube said she never considered it for a second. This was her home and she was staying where she wanted to be.
I slept in my dad’s old room, which Bube used as combination sewing and guest room. It was funny to think of my dad as a boy, playing in the back yard or hanging out with other children on the block. Once when we were visiting Bube, before the divorce, he told me about the games he used to play with his friends, like stickball, marbles and Kick-The-Can. He and a pack of children used to run through the neighborhood, only coming inside for meals and to sleep. During hot summer evenings they caught fireflies and put them in jars to light their rooms as they slept. On cold winter days they built snow forts and had raging battles. Now the block was filled with older people and the few children I saw on the street were usually visiting their relatives. I was left to make my own entertainment and Bube let me go around the neighborhood on my own as long as I stayed within a few blocks.
Sunset Park was a great neighborhood. There was an Italian bakery, a Chinese market and even a Norwegian restaurant, all within a few blocks of her flat on 6th Avenue. I loved being able to walk down the street and have those wonderful United Nations moments where each person looked and sounded like they came from a different part of the world. I was happier here than I had been in Manhattan. It was calm at Bube’s and no one was trying to unload me on someone else. Bube was glad to have me at her place and told me so every day. Moreover, she showed it every day in the form of hugs and stories, by teaching me how to cook special dishes, how to iron, how to take care of my things and how to be independent.
Bube had a boyfriend. Every Thursday afternoon at exactly two o’clock, Mr. Eli Lowen, the local Fuller Brush salesman, would ring the bell and come up to Bube’s flat. He was a short, rather slim man of about sixty. He always wore the same bottle green three-piece wool suit with a brightly colored silk tie, a watch on a chain and highly polished shoes. His yarmulke matched his suit and both were shiny with age. I thought he was pretty good looking for an old man (remember, I was eleven!) Mr. Lowen would show us his wonderful collection of brushes, cleaning agents and polishes in his big case. He would lay them out in precise order, largest to smallest, explain with love the special features of each brush. The salesman had a routine so, smooth, so polished, he could sell Bube three brushes before he had been there for five minutes. Bube didn’t mind.
“Mrs. Sheinman,” he would say, “surely you want to know how you can clean your already lovely rugs in half the time with half the effort?” He would sprinkle a handful of popcorn on the floor and just as quickly whisk it away with the Fuller Brush Cordless Bagless Sweeper!
“Mrs. Sheinman,” he continued, “surely you want your kitchen to sparkle like the morning sun? He would scatter a handful of breadcrumbs across the kitchen table and then he would show Bube the wonders of the Fuller Brush Deluxe Table Tidy Crumb Sweeper-In-A-Box.
“Mrs. Sheinman,” and this was his best one yet, “surely you want your granddaughter’s already lovely hair to shine with a luminous glow!” And he would hand Bube the Fuller Brush Lusterbrush. Bube would undo my braids and run the Lusterbrush through my then bright red waist-length hair and the two of them would admire the ripples and shine. I loved my hair and was rather proud of it, and I was thrilled to get a new hairbrush with such a great name.
Bube would smile, offer Mr. Lowen a cup of tea and some rugelach or cookies or maybe some of the cake we had baked that day, and after re-braiding my hair (using the new Lusterbrush), she would send me upstairs to visit Mrs. Katz, her landlady and best friend. Mrs. Katz was about 80 years old and her apartment always smelled of boiled cabbage, black tea and fresh bread. Mrs. Katz taught me how to play two-handed Bridge that summer and I got pretty good. While we played cards, she told me stories about her family in Poland before World War One. She told me about how rich they had been when they lived in Wroclaw, about their big home outside the city with the pond, horses, large formal gardens, servants and governesses, a wonderful library, a nursery full of toys, and even cars. She said that in 1901, there were only three cars in Wroclaw and her father owned two – a De Dion Bouton and a Locomobile. Her father would take the family driving around the countryside and into the city, frightening horses and chickens and people with the horn.
When Mrs. Katz was ten, her father lost everything in a bad business deal. Gone were the clothes, the cars, the house and the servants. Gone were the books and the toys and their friends. In shame, her father was forced to move the family to Warsaw. Then her stories were about how very poor they were, with all three of them living in one room in the ghetto, with very little food or heat, and how quickly their clothes became shabby from too much wear. It was their bleakest hour! Then, the miracle happened! Her father’s older brother, Uncle Lazlo, sent them money to join him in America. Uncle Lazlo, she said, had come to America when he was only seventeen and had done well. He had started a grocery store on the ground floor of this very building, and had slept in the back room for three years until he could afford to rent a flat on the third floor. Eventually, he saved enough money and bought the building and then he sent for his brother and moved them into the second floor.
Sometimes Mrs. Katz would talk about what it was like being new in America. When Mrs. Katz and her parents arrived in Brooklyn in 1913, the only English words she knew were “Hello, Thank you, and “My address is 5508—6th Avenue in Brooklyn.” She told me about how hard it was to learn English, and that the only thing in school she was any good at was mathematics. She raced through the most complicated math problems the teachers could give her. After the first year, she got the hang of English and did well in high school. Working in the store after school, she said, was the biggest help of all. She was forced to speak English. That’s where she met her husband, Mr. Itzhak Katz, formerly from Riga, now from Brooklyn. He was a few years older and would come into the store every Friday to get a few things before Shabbos and flirt with her. One thing, she said, led to another and they were married in the summer of 1920. Mr. Katz’ apartment was a shabby one, said Mrs. Katz, and as her father was not well, they decided it would be best to live with her parents. In fact, her father’s room had been Mrs. Katz’ room. They lived there until Uncle Lazlo suddenly died from a heart attack in 1944. She said the family sat shiva for a week, covered all the mirrors, wept and tore their clothes and said Kaddish. And the next month, they moved upstairs and Mr. Katz took over the store.
Mrs. Katz and her husband never had any children, Uncle Lazlo had never married, so when her parents passed, she inherited the building. When Mr. Katz died in 1969, she rented the store to a Chinese man, Mr. Zhao. He sold American and Chinese foods, household items and a great assortment of Chinese candies.
A ritual developed every time I came up to see Mrs. Katz. We would play cards and she would tell me stories, then just before I would go back downstairs, Mrs. Katz went into the kitchen and get the old yellow and brown Yuban coffee can she kept in her pantry. She would take out a dollar and give it to me. She told me it was for a treat because when she was my age, she never had money for little things. I felt funny taking the money; I felt a little guilty because Bube probably wouldn’t like me to take it, and also a little angry because my own parents hadn’t given me any money when they sent me to Brooklyn, just a handful of subway tokens. They may have given money to Bube, but I had no idea. To assuage my guilt, I always made sure that I did a few chores, like taking out the trash, or helping her hang out her laundry on the clothesline, strung on a pulley from her kitchen window over the backyard to a pole along the fence. Then I would go downstairs to the store and buy my favorite treats: salted plums and a bottle of ginger ale. I would suck on the plums until I couldn’t bear their saltiness any longer, then take a swig of ginger ale, its sweetness a shocking contrast to the plums.
When I went back to Bube’s flat, Mr. Lowen would be gone and Bube would be humming as she finished brushing crumbs off the table with the new brush, or sweeping the floor with the bagless sweeper, or wiping or dusting with some other Fuller Brush product. I would help Bube make dinner and we would eat it in the kitchen, with the windows open so we could feel the breeze. I would tell Bube a little bit about my afternoon, about Mrs. Katz, and how different things were in the old days. I didn’t tell her that I was lonely and angry and that even though I loved Bube, I wished that I could have been a part of Mrs. Katz’ family. Some things you had to keep to yourself.
Then one day in late August after I came back from a visit to Mrs. Katz, and Bube and I were making dinner, she told me that I was going to stay with her and start school in Brooklyn. I froze. Despite the sweltering heat of the stove, I was chilled. She said my parent’s divorce was final and that my dad was moving to New Jersey and that my mother was going to go to San Francisco to live for a while, to find herself. She said that they had given up the apartment and were brining my things over tonight.
Bube said, “It’s not about you, Rosetta, it’s about them.”
Thank night when they came over, I was silent as they explained the reasons why they had to go and do whatever it was they had to do without me. They said it was only for a little while; I could go to Dad’s on the weekends, and Mom would be back soon. I couldn’t say a word. I was choked with anger and I knew if I opened my mouth, I would scream and scream and never stop.
As they were getting ready to leave, I felt a calm descend on me. What Bube had said, and what my parents had said, was true. I looked up and said quietly, “It’s not about me. It’s about you. You don’t even know me. Or talk to me. Or care about me. It’s about you. And it’s always about you. I’m staying here because here, it’s about me. Goodbye.” I left them standing at the door, went to my room and shut the door.
Bube never mentioned that night. Dad came over a few times that first year. I never did go to his place in New Jersey and after a while, he stopped coming. Mom went to San Francisco and after a few months, moved to Santa Fe and lived with a musician. She worked in a gallery there and would send me little trinkets. She came back once in 1980 for a visit but it was awkward and after an hour of staring at each other, she left. I stayed with Bube, even when I went to art school. She and Mr. Lowen continued their weekly visits until he could no longer manage the stairs and then Bube would go to his place and make him dinner. One day, Bube announced that she was going to move in with Mr. Lowen and that I could have the apartment. Just like that. I was surprised, but only a little.
Bube and Mr. Lowen lived together until he died and then Bube came back and lived with me until she died in her sleep, just a few months after Mr. Lowen. Bube’s death was easy on me and for some reason I was able to accept it. I mourned but it was soft and almost as painless as her death had been. Dad came to her funeral but we didn’t talk much. Mom was in Alaska with her new boyfriend and sent a card.
Mrs. Katz was still living upstairs. She was 99 years old and no longer able to get out. She had a nurse come in and see her twice a week and I continued to visit her almost every day. When she died, I was more upset than I had been when Bube passed. I mourned her, mourned the loss of her wonderful stories, and the loss of the last of my youth. Even though I am not a very observant Jew, I sat Shiva for Mrs. Katz. I wept. I tore my garments. I said Kaddish. I talked to her spirit and told her everything I had never told her, how she had been my friend, my second mother and my second grandmother. My family. I wept until there were no more tears and I could let her spirit go.
I inherited the house on 6th Avenue. Mrs. Katz left everything to me. When Mr. Zhao decided to close the store, I took it over and opened a coffee shop. I sold rugelach, cookies, cakes, an assortment of Chinese candies, including salted plums and ginger ale. I named it The Bube Katz’ Café.
I looked at the phone and smiled. Then I picked up my book and began to read. I wondered what it was Caroline couldn’t tell anyone.
I lay there in a crepuscular consciousness, not awake and not asleep, my two lives, the dream me and the real me, mingling in the dawn.
I remembered the dream vividly. It was dream I kept having over and over again and I still haven’t been able to figure out what it means. I was carrying on an affair with an artist I met at a Pioneer Square gallery. The feeling of the dream was one of joy at finding someone that I could really talk to on a deep personal level. Every time I’d wake up after the dream I didn’t know if I was awake or asleep or if I was going backwards or forward in time.
He was a sculptor, a great big dirty sculptor, with a huge beard and beautiful eyes. His hands were grimy from his work. I noticed them because he was holding a huge hammer that he used to pound the metal.
I rolled over in my bed, pulled the curtain aside and basked in the warm sunlight streaming through the window. I closed my eyes and drifted away trying to re-find my dream.
My husband, Henry, had already left the house at his usual time, six-thirty. His life was regular and normal, six-thirty to the gym then to the barber for a shave arriving at the office at precisely seven thirty-five, an hour before anyone else.
“What’s your name?” He said to me as I peeked around the giant metal head of Zeus, or at least that’s what I thought the head represented.”
“I’m Flora, I’m just here for the art walk. I’ve never been to this studio before.” I closed my eyes again and there he was before me, a giant standing next to the giant head of Zeus.” Is that Zeus? I’ve been studying mythology and that look just like what I think Zeus’s head would look like.”
My phone alarm played a mambo riff. I let it go on and on and closed my eyes against the sun. “You can’t stay here, my husband will be home at exactly seven.”
“Oh, I don’t care. I can handle him it’s you I want and that’s all I want.” He took me and held me in his burly arms. I could smell the sweat of metal on him.
I looked at the time on my phone. “Oh shit, I have a tarot reading in an hour. I’d better get a move on,” I said aloud to the cat napping on my clothes covered chair. The sun enticed me. I felt his eyes on me. “It must be fate that bought you to me or maybe it was Zeus himself.”
This dream loomed in the back of my mind. I had to know what was going on, I had to take some kind of action. I was tired of feeling taken over by a dream.
I reluctantly got up and went to run a bath. The bubbles reached the top edge of the tub as I submerged my sleepy self into the warm water. Closing my eyes I see him, his arms stretched out to hold me. I wanted to pull away. ”Oh please, please you have to leave. My husband is going to be here at exactly seven.”
He pulled away and floated down the hill away from my house. “But I don’t know your name.” He said the heavy leather apron tied tightly around his waist. The hammer held in a pose of striking metal.
“I was fifty in 2000 and now it’s 2012. ” What was I thinking? He didn’t want to know my age.
“Your cards are really exceptional today. I can’t believe you have the Ace of Wands right next to the Queen of Cups. That’s just the most beautiful sex combination; in fact you can’t get a better sex combination. Who are you seeing on the side? It must be fantastic. Let’s see Wands and Cups. You are going to meet a new love. He will be extremely attractive in a sexual way. Wow! This is really fantastic. I wish I could get cards like this. Whatever you do don’t ignore the meaning in these cards, girl. You are going to be one happy lady. Now let’s see what the next year will be.”
(Ms. Livingston fiddles with Joey’s lavaliere mic until it stops popping and hissing. After prompting him to give one last series of “one two three”s, she gets back behind the home camcorder mounted on an oversized eBay-purchased used tripod. She pushes a couple of buttons simultaneously and cues Joey to begin)
I knew Dave Hoffman all the first fourteen and a half years of my life. That was also all of his life.
I’m supposed to start this with something he and I did together. Something really memorable. I guess it could be the time at camp when we were out in the woods a little too far and found this dead animal. All the way back, we talked about how it was like this thing that was so spectacular and really ugly at the same time. That and how seeing it reminded both of us that life was short and special, there on what turned out to be the last summer camp before he died.
That’s what I said at the memorial service.
His family and my family told me I had to talk at the service, and I had to say something good, about what a good person he was.
Except he really wasn’t.
(Ms. Livingston looks out at Joey, looking a bit confused. He’s not reading from the script that’s scrolling on the laptop, placed on a stool next to the camera.)
Look. Here’s how it really went.
All through the first three days of camp, starting after dinner the first day I’d been getting these texts. They were supposed to be from one of the girls in the camp, who wouldn’t give out her name. They said I was the only hot guy in the camp, and talked about different sex things the girl wanted to do with me.
On Wednesday afternoon, I got a text that said “Meet me 4:35 end of Trail 6. Your secret dear.”
You can probably guess the rest. It was really Dave. He ambushed me from behind a tree. He pulled me over off of the trail. He pushed me on about a hundred yards, to where the dead animal was. “Kissy kissy Joey! It’s YOUR SECRET DEER! HAAA!”
I got out of his grip and ran back to the camp. He followed all the way laughing that brutal laugh of his, until just before we got back into the main camp.
That was one of the last times he was mean to me. It sure wasn’t the first.
His mom and mine were best friends. Neither of them believed the things he did to me.
My mom said I was just exaggerating, that it was all just normal boy stuff. Roughhousing. Being active. She said that’s so much better for you than staying in your room with with PlayStation and the Internet like I liked to do.
Her mom said Dave was, I think this is what she called it, an “Indigo Child.” He was independent, strong willed, with little respect for authority figures. He had a strong sense of self. He always knew what he wanted, and he gave people a hard time if he didn’t get it. He hated the restrictions of being a kid; he wanted to start making a difference in the world.
She said that meant he was gifted. He was special. Maybe he was even part of the next stage of evolution.
I think just meant she thought he was as superior as he thought he was, and just as immune from the rules and the boundaries us ordinary people have to obey.
(Joey is weaving in and out of his prepared script. A resigned Ms. Livingston stops looking at the script, and just lets the camera keep recording.)
My mom just wanted me out of the house as much as possible; so a lot of afternoons, weekends, and summers, she’d just drop me off at the Hoffmans. No matter how much I asked not to be. As soon as Dave’s mom left the room, his face distorted into that horrible smirk. It still haunts me.
I saw that smirk after every mean thing he did to me; from preschool through the end of middle school.
In our early years, it was enough for him to pick fights and call me dumb names. Then came the pranks, the practical “jokes,” the “accidental” trippings and door-slamming in my face.
I think these little power trips stopped giving him the emotional high he was always after. So he kept escalating them every year.
By the fifth grade, my mom started sending me to counselors. It was because she said I had an “over active fantasy life.” That just meant I told her the truth about Dave and she never believed me.
The counselors all said the same thing that NEVER worked. They always said I should just “ignore him.” That ONLY made his attacks EVEN WORSE.
By the time I got into middle school, where you weren’t in the same class with the same people all day, I learned to plan my electives and my after school activities around things Dave wasn’t likely to want to sit through. That strategy got me into the computer lab and the jazz band. It was in the jazz band that I slowly figured something out. I learned I could do things, I could be things, and at least some people would like what I did, would support me. Maybe, I thought, one of these people would even believe me.
A few other kids did. None of the grownups. Dave was too popular among them. He was a great suckup to authorities when it served him. And he showed a lot of promise in sports. He was going to be our town’s high school’s next big star.
With girls it was always like this: A girl would be nice to me, hoping I would fix her up with my supposed best friend Dave. Then later she’d come up to me, sometimes crying, asking what she’d done wrong that had made Dave cuss her and send her away. And what she could do to get Dave to like her again.
I never told anyone what really happened the day he died. Except my counselor. But he just took it as a “story,” something I’d made up, that he could take apart and put back together to find some hidden meaning about what was wrong with me.
He’d gotten some guys together. He’d told me the name for his gang was the “Get Joey Club.” Their job was to make my every waking moment a living hell. Their goal was to drive me completely insane. Then everyone would know just how unstable I had always been, especially when I had said anything bad about him. He said if I knew what was good for me, I should just go hang myself now.
The first week of freshman class in high school, he’d planned a major humiliation stunt. I learned about all of it afterward. He was going to have his goons abduct me. Then they were going to shove me onto a stretch of road out in the country where nobody would hear me. Then he was going to drive up behind me in his mom’s car. Slowly, to make me run and stumble and plead for mercy. Then he was going to make me plead for him to spare my life. Then he was going to make me do, well, just “do things.” He was going to make videos of all of it. Every student’s email would get the videos, edited down to show the most humiliating parts.
Who knows what would have happened if he had realized, despite his total belief that he was completely perfect, that he didn’t really know how to drive. The first time he took his mom’s car, to rehearse the scheme with his gang, he crashed it.
The other guys got out alive; it’s one of them who told me what happened. He asked me to forgive him for being part of it.
I said yes. Fuck, I didn’t give a shit about settling old scores. That would have been a Dave thing to do.
(Ms. Livingston silently cues for Joey to stop. She turns the camera off. She tells him she doesn’t think this will work for the five-year anniversary memorial. He tells her he doesn’t have to lie anymore. He leaves the room.)
The bright yellow sun hovered high in the sky, beating down on the scorched earth. Its rays stretched towards the parched ground and reflected off of windows and sidewalks. The summer felt like a walking furnace as it baked the land from all directions.
I lazily swirled my fingers in the cool blue water of the swimming pool sending ripples of water to lap against my blow-up raft. The waves caressed my stomach and butt, where they sank lower into the pool, cooling me off for a brief moment or two. I reached over and grabbed the spray bottle sitting on the deck and spritzed my chest and arms, watching as the water beaded up before it evaporated from my overheated skin.
“I hate the summer,” I murmured to Claire.
“Me too,” she replied. “How many days until winter?”
“One hundred and fifty eight,” I sighed and pushed my sunglasses up from where they had slid down the sweaty bridge of my nose. I hated sweat, I hated the heat, and most of all, I hated summer. If I had my way, I would sleep through the months of June, July, August, and September, and only wake when the sweet release of the autumn breeze blew through the air. Anything to hide from the sweltering nebula that forced itself on us in the guise of summer. But, unfortunately, it was the dog days and I was at a stalemate.
A trickle of sweat ran along my hairline and rolled slowly down my cheek. I could feel more sweat gathering at the nape of my neck, saturating my limp, damp hair. The hot summer air was thick with a cloud of chlorine, sunscreen, and bug spray. Heat vapors hissed and rose from the sidewalks, melting everything in sight and turning asphalt into gooey black tar that softened under your feet. The sweet stench of things left out to rot in the sun was all around as the sticky gaze of society stumbled in the flames.
“Snowflakes falling from the sky. Big, white, fluffy snowflakes, landing on my eyelashes,” Claire said. The stagnant impasse was broken and I mused over a response.
“Ice fishing in the middle of a lake wearing only woolen socks.” It was a game we played when the heat became too unbearable. We would think of something cold, something winter, anything to remind us that this heat was only temporary and that soon the sun would retreat behind a veil of clouds and snow. Something to remind us that the summer was just a passing phase and wouldn’t last forever.
“Doing the polar plunge wearing a bikini.”
Sometimes I forget what it feels like to be cold. Sometimes when it is hot like it is now, when the sun is so intense it feels like it is bigger than the sky, I wonder how it can ever be so cold that I would want to wear a hat, gloves, and wool coat. I wonder why I would ever want to put more clothes on, when all I want to do now is take clothes off.
“A snowcone,” I replied. “A big snowcone in a white paper holder, half red and half blue, melting, with water running down my arm.”
Claire laughed. “Do you remember that day when we were kids, when the cold air stung us and we played until our bodies glowed?”
“Yeah,” I smiled. “That was the best day.” I squinted up at the blazing inferno in the sky. One hundred and fifty eight more days.
They drove to Maura’s parents’ house without too much incident, despite the piles of wreckage and other cyclone detritus scattered across the town. There was one close call, driving up over the hill at the end of Cheyenne St. The road there dips right after the crest of the ridge and Maura saw the giant uprooted oak tree with just enough time to slam on the brakes, barely avoiding the wall of bark and branches.
Maura realized she had been holding her breath and slowly exhaled. Andrea, pale at the happiest of times, was the color of a sheet.
“Can you make sure there’s no one behind us?” asked Maura, preparing to back up and turn around.
Andrea had begun crying again, had never totally stopped, actually. But she wiped her eyes and turned around in the passenger seat.
“You’re all clear, I think.”
They backtracked down the hill and found a parallel street going back the right direction. What was normally a 45 minute drive took them almost three hours. Streets were closed, aid vehicles blocked passage, and there was random stuff strewn across every roadway. When they finally arrived at the parsonage tucked behind the Methodist church where Maura’s dad preached, Maura’s mother, Janet, was outside waiting for them.
“You girls okay?”
Maura held back, but Andrea rushed forward into Janet’s arms, taking Janet somewhat by surprise.
“It was terrible, Mrs. Bell! Our apartment building, it’s completely gone. All of our stuff. All of our neighbors,”she looked up, embarrassed about the order of her complaints.
Maura finally approached, carrying the empty water bottle Andrea had been gripping all afternoon.
“Do you have any coffee, Mom? Something to eat? Andrea, here, is a wreck and I’m not doing much better.”
“Yes, of course. Let me get you inside.”
Once Marua and Andrea were settled down at the kitchen table Janet started asking questions about the damage to the town. She’d been in a panic when she heard the tornado had touched down in Cedar Bluffs. Was relieved by Maura’s brief call that they were safe and headed her way, and then worried that something would happen to them on route (there was plenty of coverage on the evening news of blocked and torn-up roads and subsequent car accidents). And then she had worried about having Maura back in the house, her own personal raincloud. Maura was never quite disrespectful as a child or teenager, but always quietly judging and disapproving. It wasn’t until she moved out that Janet realized how oppressive she found her daughter’s company, and her disappointment that Maura rarely came to visit was mixed with guilty relief.
Maura seemed to have totally lost (or maybe never accepted) the values that Janet and her husband had worked so hard to instill. She was a smart girl, too smart for her own good, probably. And she could be sweet, too, but it was rare that her parents saw that side of her. Especially her dad.
“Where is Pastor Bell?” asked Andrea, spooning more sugar into her milky coffee.
“Tending to poor sinners, right Mom?”
“Warren answered the call of our sister church in Cedar Bluff and is helping the minister there check on congregants and arrange shelter for families that have lost their homes. Helping people, Maura, like he always does.”
Andrea continued to dig into the plate of sandwiches Janet had made them, as if she hadn’t eaten in days. Maura rolled her eyes at Andrea, but Andrea couldn’t determine if it was in solidarity against Janet or if she, Andrea, was the target of Maura’s ire. She stuffed another sandwich in her mouth.
The phone rang.
“Yes, this is the Bell residence…Yes, this is Maura Bell’s mother…Oh, she’s fine, she’s actually right here, sitting ten feet from me…Yes, I promise, she’s fine…Oh, I’m very relieved, too….Oh, yes? Oh no, that’s awful…That’s awful! I’m so sorry to hear it…Oh no! Yes, just terrible, I know…Well, of course, we have plenty of space here…Yes, that’s right. 615 Dunlap…Okay. We’ll see you, then.”
Janet hung up the phone and sat back down at the table.
“Who was that, Mom?”
“That was a friend of yours. Rebecca. Worried sick because she couldn’t get a hold of you!”
“Uh-huh. So you told her I was okay?”
“Yes, told her you were just fine. All in one piece.”
“And, the most awful thing, she was visiting her brother…”
“That’s right, Jackson, and they barely made it to the cellar before his apartment was blown off the top of them, and her place was also destroyed and then, apparently, they went looking for you…”
“And couldn’t find you and they have nowhere to go! So I told them they could of course come stay here!”
“I mean, she’s a good friend of yours, right?”
“Yes!” Andrea piped up, her mouth still full of ham and swiss cheese, “I’d say a very good friend!”
Maura glared at Andrea, who began to choke on her sandwich.
“So that settles it.” Janet handed Andrea her milky coffee and patted her vigorously on the back. “You and Andrea can have the two main floor bedrooms, we’ll put Rebecca upstairs and her brother in the den. Your dad should be home by 8:00 and we can all have dinner together.”
Andrea finally swallowed the bite that had caught in her throat. Her eyes were watering, and she had a funny look on her face.
“Come on, Andrea.” Maura took their plates to the sink and nudged Andrea up and out of the kitchen. “I think you should give those sandwiches a break. I’ll show you your room. You might want to get settled in before the circus starts.”
The tornado spun up from nothing and spared nobody while it turned the town of Riverbend Bluff to nowhere.
Or at least that’s the legend everybody learned from the popular ballads and novels written years later, and from the vaudeville tour by the storm’s supposed “last living survivor.”
Sarah Maguire Twichell, the Heroine of Riverbend Bluff, toured for more than a decade with her spirited account of the storm, her noble family life before the storm, and her struggles immediately after the storm. She was written up I daily and weekly newspapers from Albuquerque to Providence.
At every stop she sold copies of her memoir, “A Lady Still Standing.” Written in florid Victorian “feminine” prose, it was essentially an expanded version of her standard “talk,” which itself had several different versions.
There was the ten-minute program she gave on the vaudeville stages, a tight, emotionally charged presentation guaranteed to not leave a dry eye in the house.
This always began with her quoting the town grocer on that fateful morning, as saying the air “felt funny.”
Then the heavy clouds; the night in the middle of the day.
Then the WHOOSH-ing of the westerly wind. Then the town marshal hustling as best he could, against the wind, to find people to ring the bells at all five of the town’s churches. She, Sarah, was told to ring the bell at the Lutheran Church. From the bell tower she had a view of the whole community, her family’s farm in the distance, and the funnel clouds even further out but coming very close very quickly.
Then the HIT! Right below her!
And then the quick, curvy path the twister took, absorbing or decimating everything in its way.
The stables, gone! Horses either flung to their deaths by the twister, or caged up in stalls beneath a roof that plummeted to crush them.
The bank: reduced to the vault, and the steel cage surrounding the teller window.
The newspaper office: come right off its foundation, leaving the heavy iron press alone. Huge spools of paper unfurled over the countryside.
Everywhere, fences knocked down, dog houses and delivery wagons blown high in the air, milk bottles and mailboxes crashing to the ground far from where the storm had swallowed them up.
Her own parents and siblings: hurled into the air while on their way to the root cellar.
Why did the storm skirt right by the church building she was in, leaving the structure with only some busted up wall boards and some loose eaves on the rooftop? Why, it could have ONLY been a GIFT from the Lord Himself! A gift for which she remains wholly grateful.
She would always end her presentation with a call for everyone within the sound of her voice to tell their family and friends how much they cherished them, several times each day; for one never knew when the local air would suddenly “feel funny.”
In addition to this dynamic, emotional rendering, Sarah also had a thirty-minute (plus question period) presentation. This was a quieter version of her tale, devised for more intimate settings such as local ladies’ clubs and Elks Lodge auxiliaries along the vaudeville circuit’s various stops. In this version of her story, she slowed her pace to include informative anecdotes about the parents and siblings and family farm she’d lost, the reason she was one of the few children in the town that day (every family that could afford it had sent its children to boarding schools), and why the town was never rebuilt (the railroad had passed it by).
It was during the question periods following these longer presentations when someone always asked the current whereabouts of Mr. Twichell, the tender young man Sarah had married in the years just after the disaster. Sarah calmly explained that this brave young man had perished in a factory accident the year before she’d begun her storytelling tours. This was a simpler, more sympathetic, and more effective story than the truth, in which he remained half alive in an unaccredited sanitarium, dazed out on laudanum and strong drink. A man who barely noticed that his wife was away ten months out of the year, and who seldom recognized her when she was with him.
She supported his continued treatment with her near-constant touring.
And, truth be told, she enjoyed the life afforded to her thusly.
Being on stages, night after night and twice on Saturdays. The attention. The adoration.
The chance to see so much of this great country, from the vaudeville circuit’s reserved private train cars.
The company of such personable fellow entertainers—musicians, singers, illusionists, joke-tellers. Their camaraderie, their friendship, and most of all their discretion.
She knew that, except for those who were parts of husband-and-wife duo acts, she could request the intimate company of any of the gentlemen on the tour. Such assignations would never be spoken about, would never become the stuff of gossip. She did not always avail herself of this temptation; often she was sufficiently consoled by the knowledge that it was there.
There were always handsome and energetic menfolk in all the towns. But they were riskier. Someone could tell someone, who could tell someone, who might know her remaining family back home.
Besides, she knew the other rumors that were already spreading about her.
The rumors that claimed Sarah was not really the last living survivor; that several other fortunate former townspeople, even some who had been adults at the time of the storm, still lived quietly, scattered about the nation as if the storm had directly strewn them there.
And there was the rumor that she, the brave young Sarah Maguire, had not really been in the church bell tower, could not have seen the storm’s fury so closely yet safely, that she must have retreated to the nearest cellar, just as any good child facing such a predicament ought to do.
But after so many performances of both the shorter and longer versions of her account, the story as she told it had become so much more real in her mind than anything that had actually happened that fateful day, even if she could have remembered it all after the shock of learning her sudden orphan-hood.
No. Sarah intended to go to her eventual grave asserting the legend as she knew it.
And enjoying the occasional guest in her hotel room or her Pullman-car berth.
For she believed what she always said about showing her appreciation to those who were close to her, just in case the air outside ever did begin to “feel funny.”
The tornado spun up from nothing and spared nobody while it turned the town of Riverbend Bluff to nowhere. Lightning crackled and the shrieking winds battered the terrain, but as twilight fell, the earth was still.
A beaver crawled out from the underbrush where he had taken shelter from the storm. The silence surrounded him and was soothing after the roar of the tornado. He could hear the river rushing, but the sounds of the town – traffic, the hum of people talking and rushing about, birds tweeting – were gone. He sniffed the air. It smelled clean, free of exhaust and of the stench of the human population. In return, the beaver could detect the smells of the woods around him, the smell of tree sap and wood shavings and the crisp water that flowed through the river.
The beaver looked at the destruction around him. Buildings reduced to piles of rubble as far as he could see. Houses had disappeared, trees were uprooted, and streets were in ruins. Debris littered the ground and then, a light began to shine for the beaver. The beaver stared, wide-eyed and stunned, for all around him was his own private treasure trove. The beaver was ecstatic, for within the town wreckage was twigs, sticks, branches, and wood. There was more wood than the beaver had ever seen and he couldn’t believe his luck. He could use this wood to build his dam.
The beaver dragged his squat body out from his hiding spot and scurried over to where some branches were laying on the ground, his short stocky legs carrying him. He grabbed a branch in-between his buck teeth and ran back to the river. He dropped it on the bank and rushed to get more. Some other beavers gathered to watch the beaver hurry back and forth.
“What are you doing?” asked the other beavers.
“Building,” said the beaver. “I’m going to build my dam here.”
“Here?” said the other beavers. They laughed at the beaver as he stood there with the wood in his mouth.
“You can’t build your dam here.” The eldest beaver spoke up. “The current is too fast and when it rains the river overflows. I’ve seen many beavers build dams here, but in the end they are always washed away.”
The beaver looked around. In his eyes, the area was ideal. “What are you talking about?” he said. “This is the perfect place to build. The humans have all left so there is no one to pollute the river or trample on the vegetation. There are plenty of water-lilies to eat and plus, there is all this fabulous wood that will just go to waste. I’m going to build here.” The beaver turned his back and ran to gather more wood.
The others beavers sat and watched as the beaver amassed a large pile of wood on the riverbank and slowly started to construct his home.
A girl beaver swam up to him, her webbed feet cutting through the water. “Can I help?” she asked.
The beaver looked at her. “You don’t think I’m crazy?”
“No,” said the girl beaver. “In fact, I think you’re very determined.”
The beaver smiled at her. “Thank you.”
The girl beaver carried some of the sticks and branches over to the beaver to help him form the dam. “I haven’t seen you before,” she said. “What brought you to this area of the river?”
“Well,” said the beaver, “I was living upstream, with a woodchuck, but we did nothing but argue. The woodchuck just wanted to sling wood all day and had no interest in building. He had no ambition, so I left. I was passing through this area when the tornado hit and when it was safe to come out I saw all the wood and knew this would be the place to build my dam.”
The girl beaver watched as the beaver talked and laid the branches in the river to assemble the dam. She knew that this area of the river was a dangerous place to build a dam, but there was something about the beaver that made her think his dam would prevail.
The two beavers worked through the night, moving the wood and packing weeds and mud onto the sides of the dam. In the morning, when the sun rose and shone down on the river, all the other beavers could see the massive dam rising up from the water. It sat lengthwise, reaching across the river, creating a pond area for the beaver house, the rushing current having no effect.
And when the Red Cross workers arrived to begin the clean up and repair of Riverbend Bluff, all would marvel that in the midst of tragedy, a beaver dam had sprung up overnight.
Tornado Part 1 by Karen Uffelman
The tornado had plowed through Cedar Bluff, leaving swaths of bare foundations and holes where trees had finally surrendered, taking their root balls with them. Smashed up cars were piled to one side or the other. There was broken glass everywhere.
Andrea and Maura had been on a rare joint shopping excursion in the next town, luckily out of the path of the tornado. Andrea had to buy a bridesmaid dress for some cousin’s wedding and had begged Maura to go with her. Andrea felt intimidated by department store clerks, hated the way they offered helpful suggestions. “You actually have a nice figure, dear, let me get you a smaller size – that sweater is like a tent on you!” She thought Maura could scare off the extra help, as well as navigate the traffic on the freeway.
Strictly speaking, Andrea could drive on the freeway, in an emergency, for example, but she tried to avoid it at all cost. And it would have taken her forever to get to Mount Vernon on back roads. Which is why Maura had finally given in and agreed to go and drive. She had promised Andrea could borrow her car, but needed it to get to work later and there was no telling how lost Andrea might get and how long it would take her to get back if she were left to her own devices. Plus, Maura was trying to be a nicer housemate, and this seemed like a perfect opportunity to put that intention into action. It also probably saved Maura’s life, but that didn’t occur to her until she was standing in front what used to be their apartment building.
The three-story building had been razed, the cover from the parking lot blown to kingdom come, no sign of their furniture, or clothes, or the banana bread Maura’s girlfriend had left at their door as a peace offering. Everything was gone.
The air was dead still now, and a pack of crows was flying overhead. Too many crows, it seemed. Maura shivered. There were some petunias that the building manager had planted in a row in the parking strip that had miraculously survived. They looked completely out of place, too bright. Artificial.
Andrea, always so sensitive and nervous, seemed unusually calm. She did wonder out loud about the cats that lived in the now-completely-missing house just east of their apartment building. She’d always loved those cats.
“Shut up about the cats,” Maura said.
They got back in the car and sat for a long time, just staring at the hole where they used to live.
“Maybe we could go stay at my parents’,” Andrea finally broke the silence.
Maura looked over at Andrea, who was still staring a the tangle of rebar jutting out of their building’s foundation. “Your parents’ house is pretty small, and isn’t your aunt living there these days?”
“Yeah, she is, she’s got my old room. I guess we could stay in the basement,” Andrea scratched her neck a couple of times. “What about your folks?”
Maura sighed. “I suppose that’s our best option.”
“I like your dad, and I’m sure they’ll be happy to have us. I know you don’t get along with them but it’s, like, a catastrophe, right? I mean, we are in the middle of a CATASTOPHE. We could have been killed. How many people do you think were in our apartment building? I mean, how MANY?” Andrea began to cry, big heaving sobs.
Maura felt kind of like crying, too, which she never did. Certainly not in front of someone like Andrea. And to think she would have been blown to smithereens if she hadn’t been trying out this good Samaritan thing. She put her arm around Andrea and said, “It’s going to be alright. We’ll go to my folk’s house. My mom will cook us dinner. They’ve got lots of room. It’s going to be fine.”
Andrea wiped her eyes with her sleeve and pulled some lip balm out of her jacket pocket. Her entire body was shaking and she had a hard time getting the lid off the lip balm tube. Maura found a half-empty bottle of water under her seat and handed it to Andrea, who gave her a pitiful, grateful smile.
“Thanks for driving me to Mount Vernon,” Andrea whispered.
“Thanks for asking me to,” Maura put the car in reverse and drove west.
The tornado spun up from nothing and spared nobody, while it turned the
town of River Bend Bluff to nowhere.
Jeannie slowly emerged from the black void, her back sore and her head
throbbing. Bright sunlight burned her eyes. She quickly shut them, and
everything went dark again.
Jeannie jerked awake. Her forehead hurt and her head was pounding. She
gingerly felt the back of her head through her long gray hair. She looked
at her hand. It was red and sticky with blood. She felt her forehead. Same
thing; wet and sticky, her hand smeared with clotted blood. She was hungry.
She wondered how long she had been out.
She looked up. She realized the sun shining on her face was streaming
through what had once been her roof. The roof was now completely gone.
Jeannie was wide awake now. She sat up, and pulled herself to her feet
using the arm of her faded sofa. She staggered through the shell of her
house to what oddly enough was still her front door. She looked out to the
street at the piles of rubble that was once her neighborhood. It looked
like the Arabs had crashed a couple of planes square on top of the town.
“Jesus,” she whispered. It seemed inadequate to describe the mess before
her. “Jesus H. Christ.”
Jeannie turned around and looked at her house. There was no roof, no glass
in the windows, and a big hole in the wall instead of her screened porch,
but other than that it was mostly intact. She had the sudden urge to go to
the bathroom. She staggered down the hall, and breathed a sigh of relief
when she saw the toilet was still there. She glanced up at the sky, pulled
down her underpants, and sat down.
After she dried herself, she looked in the mirror. Jeannie didn’t like what
she saw. There was an ugly gash across her forehead, deep enough to show a
white glimpse of what must be her skull. She had blood all over her face,
like Jesus did after a few days of wearing his crown of thorns. She
thought it just as well that she couldn’t see the back of her head. She
combed her hair, ripping through the matted blood. She grabbed her purse,
thought about locking her front door, pushed that from her mind, and
started walking towards town.
She picked her way through the mess, and prayed that the little clinic
wasn’t destroyed. River Bend Bluff wasn’t wasn’t exactly a place where a
lot of rich people lived and could afford a nice hospital. The clinic –
funded by government money – was full of earnest young volunteer doctors
and nurses, who tried not to appear horrified by the general health of the
residents of this southeast Missouri town.
Jeannie was happy the doctors and nurses were there, and liked the clinic
even though most folks thought it was yet another example of the government
wasting taxpayer dollars. She liked talking to the staff about the places
they were from. Like her, some had lived in New York City. In exchange for
city talk, Jeannie filled the staff in on the various family histories of
all the sick folks sitting grimly in the clinic waiting room.
Today, River Bend Bluff was silent. Jeannie looked around for her
neighbors. The government census people said there were about 10,000 folks
living in the town, give or take a few. She didn’t see even one person. For
a brief moment, Jeannie wondered if the rapture had taken place, and she
had not been deemed worthy by the Lord to be taken to the promised land.
Although if that was really the case, Jeannie thought she would be seeing a
lot more people. She pushed that thought from her mind, and continued
The sidewalk was a mess, full of stuff a person didn’t typically see on the
streets. Jeannie stepped over clothes, toys, lawnmowers, a big screen TV,
bricks, and broken dishes. Power wires were sizzling in the middle of the
street. A dead cow lay on it’s back, legs stiff, stomach bloated, eyes
crawling with blowflies. Most of the houses were gone; only concrete
foundations marked the places where houses once stood. She glanced down at
an old tinted wedding photo and wondered if she should pick it up and try
to return it to its’ owner. But her head throbbed, so she kept walking
Jeannie knew that most of the people in Red Bend Bluff would probably blame
the colored President for this current mess, just like they did everything
else that had gone wrong for the past 4 years. Though she tended to agree
on principle that there must be plenty of white men that could do the job,
Jeannie secretly liked the President and his tall, sharp-faced wife. She
wouldn’t dare tell anyone at her church or the grocery store that she
thought this way when people complained about him as they did several times
a day. At least the President talked like a white man, and seemed a lot
smarter than the last one, with his blank beady eyes and crazy giggle.
There was a huge oak tree laying across the sidewalk, the upended roots
covered with dirt that was still damp from from the ground it was ripped
from. Jeannie tried to swing her leg over the huge trunk, but she was weak
and fell back to the sidewalk. “Sweet Jesus, help me,” she prayed silently.
She lay on the concrete for a few minutes, the sun warm on her face. At
least the rain, lightning and hail were gone. That was something to be
thankful for. She gazed at the Ozarks in the distance, low and dark green.
As she lay there, she thought she heard a thin scream.
Jeannie pulled herself to her feet and listened. There it was again. She
limped toward the direction of the sound, and saw the baby laying on its
back, fists clenched, eyes squeezed shut. It was a boy. The tornado must
have stripped him of his clothes like it stripped the roof off of her
house. He must have been lying there naked for hours. The sun had blistered
his baby skin to a soft angry pink. Jeannie half-walked, half-ran over to
him and snatched him up. “Poor, poor baby,” she murmured. The last time she
held a baby this small, she was 25 and living in New York City.
Jeannie was born and raised in River Bend Bluff, Missouri. She liked it
well enough, but even so she left town the day she turned 17. Her mom Ada
wasn’t sorry to see her go; she thought it best that Jeannie move to a
bigger place with a brighter future. She wanted Jeannie to find a husband
who wasn’t a slave to the whims of the weather or the land, or didn’t cater
to the alcoholic tastes of many of the locals with moonshine.
They lived together in the same brick house that Jeannie lived in now. Ada
didn’t have a husband, so Jeannie didn’t have a daddy. She never wondered
or cared about this situation much until she went to school and the other
kids asked. Her mom wasn’t too talkative in the first place, and Jeannie’s
missing daddy wasn’t a subject she wanted to waste her few words to Jeannie
For years, Ada worked at the River Bend Bluff Bank and Trust, making
deposits for the wheat and cowpea farmers. That was about the extent of the
banking business done in town in those days. Not many people had enough
money to even worry about putting it in the bank. In fact, most people
didn’t trust the bank at all; the Great Depression was still fresh in a lot
of folks minds.
The bank was one of the oldest buildings in town, and wasn’t a even bank
anymore. Now it was the Ozark Heritage Center, and tourists passing through
town on the way to see Andy Williams in Branson would stop and take
pictures of the old brick building and maybe visit the little museum
inside. Tourists tended not to linger in River Bend Bluff; the locals were
a suspicious lot and not exactly examples of small town wholesome living.
The lack of jobs, combined with a booming demand for crystal meth, lent a
the locals a certain suspicion toward strangers.
Everybody in town liked Jeannie when she was a girl, despite her missing
dad. Ada had one of the few good jobs in town, and Jeannie never lacked for
much. The other kids in school might have had two parents, but for most it
didn’t matter too much. Most of the kids Jeannie went to school with were
from poor families; their families considered mandatory school attendance
just one more way that the rest of the world wanted to interfere in their
lives. A lot of the kids were skinny, with pale eyes and pale hair, from
large families. Jeannie, being an only child, meant there was only one
mouth to feed for Ada.
When she was a 15, Jeannie got a job taking tickets at the Rialto, the only
movie theatre in town. Jeannie liked getting out of her house at night,
away from the silent Ada. Her red uniform had big brass buttons and she
wore a red matching hat with gold trim. Jeannie liked taking money for
tickets, and sold popcorn and brightly packaged candy. When the movie was
over, the unpleasant part of her job began. Jeannie had to pick up all the
garbage left under the seats; candy bar wrappers, popcorn boxes, and the
occasional Four Roses whiskey bottle. She didn’t like picking up trash and
scraping old gum off the seats, but she make a little bit of money and got
to see every movie for free.
Jeannie loved the movies, just like everybody else in town, probably for
the same reason; a glimpse of life outside the Ozarks. Jeannie thought that
maybe she could move out of River Bend Bluff to a big city and get a job
where she didn’t have to pick up other people’s trash. The movies she liked
best were about busy offices in the city. Girls in these movies worked as
secretaries for smart men who wore suits to work each day, not overalls or
worn jeans like most of the men Jeannie saw in town. If she moved to a
city, she would have nice clothes, she could eat at the Automat, and she
could meet a fancier man than the ones she knew from town.
The movie city she liked the best was New York. Her favorite was “On The
Town.” A lot of the girls she knew liked Frank Sinatra the best, but not
Jeannie. Gene Kelly was her kind of man, with his broad shoulders and big
smile. The girls in “On The Town” all worked – the funniest girl drove a
cab! Jeannie didn’t know how to drive and didn’t care to learn, but she
could ride the subway to her job in New York City.