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.