He felt the heart of the storm move over and through him. He went back inside the house and turned on the radio, seeking news of the storm. Bobby Hebb sang “Sunny” on the local AM station. He twisted the dial as lightning sizzled and sparked around the house. Static and conjunto music, ads for improved stamina, angry men talking of politics and hate.
Angry energy formed in the distance. The rain lessened, then stopped. He returned to the porch, drawn by a drop in pressure that filled him with strange fear. Tendrils of black clouds swirled and twisted in the sky. Thunder cracked in the distance.
The light turned from gray to yellow-green. Silence consumed the landscape, as if God was inhaling all sound and oxygen, and he felt it before he heard it, the twister, rumbling across the earth.
He returned to the radio, irrationally seeking denial of what his heart knew. Only static and Conway Twitty as he twisted the dial, then the power died.
The twister was coming closer. From the porch he watched the funnel, trees and dust churning in its wake. At some point the world became timeless and he realized the great beast was moving faster than it appeared, realized he was in the path of it, the awareness slowly turning from fear to reverence to awe. A high-pitched hum slowly differentiated into the sound of wood and debris colliding at high speeds. The funnel roiled closer. As he stepped in the house the pressure of the wind pressed against the window panes, the front wall bowed inward. He crouched in the floor of house’s sole closet as the wind became deafening.
He huddled there, arms wrapped around his head. “Dear Lord,” he moaned. “Dear Lord.” The house began to disintegrate in the force of the wind. Siding ripped from the wall. Shingles blew away like tiny seeds. He felt the floor rise into the air, then come back down. The roof blew apart, and the wind, twirling and twisting, a vision of God, angry and alive, vengeful, a great, sentient, swirling smoke eye, was above him. “Oh Lord. Oh Lord,” he cried. “Oh Lord. Oh Lord.”
He woke to a vision of stars, a great expanse of diamond light shimmering beyond all comprehension and knowledge. The night was quiet and still. A passenger jet crawled across the sky, its unblinking red eye staring down silently at the abstract of dark devastation below. The crescendo chirp of spring peepers rose from the stream bed.
He lay in a bed of shattered siding and two-by-fours. He was woozy, humbled by the power of his vision and grateful for the mercy of God. After what must have been hours he realized no one was coming for him. Even in this realization he lacked the power to move. The night burned from black to deep, somber blue; stars twisted across the sky in a slow, translucent arc. He watched them while he dreamed.
By morning the sky was cloudy, the air once more cold. Dried blood was caked to the side of his head, smeared over a large gash in his skull. He crawled away from the wreckage of the house, pushing board and chunks of drywall aside until he reached bare ground, like a castaway crawling through the surf to the salvation of shore. Wearily but with a heart full of gratitude and mercy and awe, he pushed himself to his feet, praising the sanctity of solid ground. A black dog appeared in the field on the horizon; the animal watched him impassively over the distance. The sight of it filled him with sudden apprehension, as if the twister had returned in specter form to survey its devastation. He walked toward the Allentown Road, casting furtive glances over his shoulder toward the dog. The animal followed at a distance.
IV: Birds and Blood
Isabel lived in a tiny duplex north of town, a few blocks from City Park. That’s where I met her, on the north meadow where no one ever goes except for flocks of starlings and Canada geese. I was sitting on a bench there, watching leaves float in the creek, and Isabel was sitting next to me, smiling.
Something about that smile. Not innocence. Not purity. But warmth. Acceptance. The promise of understanding. She was easy. She gave herself away with her smile. Yes, easy in a sexual way. But also the easiness of a soul that didn’t make demands or impose expectations.
She invited me back to her duplex for a cup of tea and then we made love on the duvet in her bedroom. Afterward we drank cheap red wine and talked of places we wished we could travel, talked about our favorite times of year.
She wasn’t a classic beauty, not your bombshell type. She was delicate, with long, graceful arms and legs, a long neck, flat chest, a sharp, too-long nose. She was delicate like a long-limbed bird. Long wisps of finespun brown hair that floated and fluttered in the slightest breeze, then returned to rest atop her head like spent gossamer. Crooked teeth. A deep, genuine laugh. Clear and empty eyes.
She wasn’t a prostitute. Far from it. But I wanted to do things for her. Fix things. Buy her things. Lighten her load. Sometimes I would bring her groceries. She always smiled easily, glowingly, like my offerings were an unexpected gift, even if we both knew that wasn’t true.
I always knew she had other men. Their signs were everywhere: a new kitchen faucet here, a repaired floorboard there. Venison in the freezer. Screen door on a shiny new hinge. One time I arrived at her place to find a flat-screen TV expertly mounted on the wall. She didn’t have cable, though, or even a DVD player, so we stared in amusement at the empty silver-brown screen.
The only thing I didn’t like about being at Isabel’s was the bird, a large silver parrot Isabel told me was an African Grey. The parrot was always nervously prancing around an undersized cage muttering “Pretty Polly” and “Pretty Bird.” Something about that bird was unnatural and strange, the way it was always watching Isabel, the way Isabel, in the back of her mind, was always watching that bird.
“Why don’t you get rid of that thing,” I said one evening. “It makes me nervous.”
“Somebody gave it to me,” she said. “They’re supposed to live fifty to seventy years. I guess we’ll be together forever.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. I mean, who would want to spend their whole life with a creepy bird? Who liked contemplating eternity?
But then again, who was I to complain, the way I indulged in Isabel? I loved to whisper her name while we were making love. “Isabel. Isabel. Isabel,” the sound of it like some ancient incantation. “Oh Isabel.”
Once when I was leaving Isabel’s house there was a man sitting inside a white car across the street. The car looked grimy and outdated, five years past its prime. He had his window down and he watched me as I walked away. He was the kind of man with red, faraway eyes, like he hadn’t slept in years. He spoke to me as I passed: “I don’t want you staying with Polly. Don’t come back to Polly’s, you hear?”
It wasn’t that there was menace in the voice. Far from it. That voice held only sad desperation, like a condemned man. At first I couldn’t understand what he was saying. Who was Polly? Was he talking about the bird?
Maybe I should’ve been concerned. Maybe I should’ve confronted him, or gone back to Isabel’s house to warn her there was some creep outside her house.
But I didn’t. The guy looked too sad and washed out to be dangerous. Or maybe I was in a rush. Maybe I just didn’t want to get involved in another part of Isabel’s life, the part that wasn’t easy.
I watched the police cars collect at the north meadow of City Park a few days later and I knew, I just knew, they were there for Isabel. They found her body in the creek. According to the newspaper story, she’d been dead for three days, her long graceful neck sliced open with a kitchen knife, her body stashed in the culvert running under the street until it was flushed into the creek by spring storms.
The paper said her name was Polly Murphy, that she’d grown up in the children’s home in Rockwell, that she had no family, no next of kin. I guess she gave herself the name “Isabel.”
I almost called the police to tell them what I’d seen. But I never did. I thought about Isabel, how a young woman with nothing, no family, no roots, could seek those things in the men who desired her. How her isolation opened her to the world, her freedom made her something men desired because it was something they once knew inside themselves. I thought about the man in the car with the red-rimmed eyes and the lost, hopeless look on his face. I thought how, in another time, another life, that man could’ve been me. How an easy abandon like Isabel’s only fills some men with blood and rage.
And what was the point? It wouldn’t bring Isabel back. She died as she lived, giving herself away, requiring only adoration and sustenance in return, like a bird in an undersized cage. A creature like that is too delicate to live very long. I still like to say her name. “Isabel. Oh Isabel.” I still think of her when I am drinking tea or when I am watching birds alight upon an empty field.
Interlude: Frankie’s Gun
The front promised on Saturday moves in on Sunday, cold, with cold, misting rain. A remnant knot of police tape is still tied around a crepe myrtle as Francis recovers the Sunday paper from the sidewalk in the gray rain. Otherwise the street is empty, silent, as it was before, without trace of death.
The newspaper tells the story. Anthony “Bonedaddy” Dupree, age 23, was shot in self-defense by a resident at 923 N. Lee Street as he attempted to rob the home. Dupree fled the house and died on the porch of the home across the street from Francis’s as he sought help for his wound. Dupree, the story says, was well known to local authorities, with an extensive criminal record.