Tornado Season

Max was already late, but I still looked frightening; my makeup never turns out right when I’m under pressure. I knocked over a pot of glitter and it smeared all over my palm and my chin, I looked deranged. Max’s car pulled up outside, it has a distinct sound from where the alternator is pissed off about something. I rubbed my face with a washcloth and ran to the door. It was windy that evening and the force of the gust pushed me back into the house and pressed my clothes against my skin. The wind had thrown my hair in front of my face and it took a moment for me to wipe it away from my eyes. Max’s car wasn’t parked in front of the house, but turning down my street. Through the windshield, I saw that he was on his phone and when he saw me standing on the porch, he frowned and hung up. He’d been on the phone with her, I was sure of it.

For a moment, I saw him the way he saw me, confused and standing alone in the doorway, holding my purse. When I was very young, I used to see myself from afar, a little girl walking down the hall with pale blonde hair and a green plaid dress. I thought everyone could do that, float away from themselves and look around. I remember meaning to practice, but I was just a kid and never did, and it had not happened since that day I wore that plaid dress to kindergarten. Maybe I will remember what I was wearing when it happened this time, standing on the porch wearing a new dress and red leather boots with a fringe.

“Hey Hon. I was just thinking about you” he said as I buckled my seatbelt, and he kissed me on the cheek.  His smile might have been insincere, but I couldn’t tell.

“Hey.”

He pulled out onto the street and turns the volume up on his CD, some Middle Eastern music I couldn’t identify, probably her favorite. His car smells like cigarette smoke and coffee, and very faintly feminine. We crossed the river into Louisville and once on the bridge the wind buffeted us through a riparian upheaval, knocking us out of our lane slightly and pelting us with bits of river water from far below. I looked down the choppy, brown Ohio where rows barges were lashed together along a towhead. The current was strong and the barges sent geysers of froth upward into the wind where the rusted metal hulls collided with each other. Past the river, the full moon had risen early and the sky was still bright with the sun nearing the horizon behind the woods. The two luminaries looked like tree-tangled kites and I pictured a child holding a slack piece of white twine, about to cry. Life is hard, little girl.

We headed West, out past the city into the black part of town. It’s a respectable place for a black family to live, but most whites don’t live past 9th street, even now. There are bad spots, of course- after several blocks of neatly trimmed yards, we pulled up to a blighted spot on the otherwise middle class street.  A male couple was sitting on the slanted partial front roof of the two-story camelback and music thumped onto the street through the open windows. Plastic insulation sheeting was still nailed up around the windows, leftover from winter, but it billowed outside the building in rags.

“Max, I forget. Where did you meet this guy?”

“I interviewed him once.”

“Interesting.”

Max parked the car under a streetlight and I stuffed my purse under the seat and climbed out. He lifted the latch on the gate in the chain link fence and let me through before closing it again. A slender young man in faded cut off jean shorts stood outside smoking a cigarette, holding it between his middle and ring finger. He winked at Max as Max ushered me through the doorway; Max hurried me along faster then and I noticed that the man’s fingers were flaked with absurd bits of gold leaf.

Once inside the smell, dank furniture and body odor lurking underneath the vaporous spray paint smell, led me to believe this would be a punk squat. The lights were dim inside the house and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust, in that moment, a coven of half dressed transvestites lowered brown bags from their faces. Gold and silver spray paint covered the mouths of several gentlemen sitting on a sunken couch, and glitter filled the air. It seemed they’d been having a party, and we’d just crashed it. One of the men, too masculine an interpretation of the fairer sex to be referred to as “she” in my mind, had perfectly even eyeliner, possibly tattooed on.

“Shit,” Max muttered into my ear.

“This wasn’t what you were expecting?” I asked. He probably takes his new girl to chain restaurants, but he takes me on cultural reconnaissance.

“Not so much.” He said.

Max, my psychopomp into this limbo for the genders, ushered me back to the kitchen. The paint was a warm yellow under the nicotine creosote and had probably been cheery once– sometime long before a presumably empty nitrous tank had been leaned against the wall. Out back, a group of men sat around a small bonfire, burning green from all the trash they’d thrown in, smoking cigarettes. Didn’t figure they’d have the common sense to avoid smoking near a room full of people using inhalants, but there they were, staring at the fire. One touched himself listlessly under a spotty women’s slip, watching as the wind pulled the paneling off the side of the house. A man in a top hat crouched by the fire, feeding it pages from a tattered copy of Penthouse. The sun was setting behind him in a citron-green tornado season sky, and when he looked up at us, the tangential vespertine light gently filled his face. “Max,” he said, standing up “Good to see you.”

He brushed his hands on his pants and shook Max’s hand. He had a man’s handshake, firm with a decisive up-and-down pump. Still holding his hand, Matt reached out and clasped Max’s hand between his own palms, it was a gesture both familiar and ostentatious. Next to one another, they shared a remarkable resemblance, closer than brothers, with the same coloring and thick beard, it was eerie. He took my hand and tipped his hat, “I’m Matt.” This Matt was the ringleader of his own circus of glittery clowns, and I wondered if we were to be part of the audience or the spectacle.

Max parked the car under a streetlight and I stuffed my purse under the seat and climbed out. Max hurried me along faster then and I noticed that the man’s fingers were flaked with absurd bits of gold leaf. We followed him through the screen door into the dim kitchen

“Nice place you’ve got here,” I told him.

Matt smiled widely, “Come on inside, I have something I want to show you.”

We followed him through the screen door into the dim kitchen, down a hall. One of the bedrooms had a couple inside on the bed. When we walked past, one of them stared at us angrily, though the door was wide open for anybody to see. Matt must have one incredible surprise for us, to get Max into a charnel house in the West end. Matt’s bedroom was upstairs at the end of the hall. The room was empty, save for a bare mattress on the floor, and the windows were lined with aluminum foil to block out the last of the day’s light.

Matt took off his hat and set it on the floor by his feet, rubbed his dirty hair with his palm. “I’ve been practicing this for months,” he said to Max, and turned to me and winked.  We sat on the matted carpet in front of him, and waited in the dark. Outside, a spray paint canister exploded in the fire with a tinny “pop” and the weather sirens started to wail in the distance- for some reason I felt the two things must be connected. Matt touched the brim of his hat softly, and closed his eyes and started to hum, finding a pitch more than a tune.

Downstairs some partygoer cackled in a broken falsetto and Matt started a low chant, speaking on the inhalation; he started to rock back and forth slightly. Max looked over at me, and in the darkness a faint light illuminated the traces of silver spray paint on his shirt. A light grew from inside the hat and caught the flecks of glitter on Matt’s beard. Soft at first, then brighter, it gained a green tinge as Matt chanted more forcefully, phonemes from some language, something old and sacramental.

Matt rocked back and forth on the stained mattress, conjuring this light from his hat. He leaned back on a long inhalation, his eyes rolled back in his head under his closed eyelids before he lurched forward and blew into the hat violently. A spark flashed from the floor, then plume of green flame grew from the hat and Matt stopped and sat still. The green flame emanated no heat but filled our little space with light. I looked at the fire, speechless, it was the same fire as outside in the yard, green from burning dyes and plastic. Max laughed lightly and Matt looked up from the flame and it died.

“How?” Max sputtered.

“I told you, I’ve been practicing.” Matt answered.

The cackling rang out again downstairs, but this time it ended with the crack of an open handed slap across the face. A male voice howled and there was a commotion.

“So….. You guys drove yourselves here?” Matt asked.

“Yeah, my car is on the street.”

“Cool. Fuck this crowd. I’ll meet you outside, let me grab my cooler from the yard.” The crude words clashed with the sacerdotal exchange he’d arranged for us.

Max and I sneaked down the stairs, cringing at the noise. They were trashing the furniture now, and as we stepped out into the hall, I had to avoid being hit by a mis-thrown spray paint can. The couple was still in the bedroom. One of the men was wearing a brown bobbed wig and lifted his pale, saggy leg to cover his crumpled genitals in what was meant to be a demure gesture. The other, who I identified as the man I’d seen on the front porch, stood with his hands outstretched and drooled thickly onto the floor, staring out into a nothingness past his painted face.

The group had coalesced into the living room, pulling each other’s hair and screaming. One man in a nursing bra was throwing punches, but for the most part, the group seemed unsure to which gender their brawl belonged. Max sheltered me with his body and ushered me back out the door, same as we’d come in. He started the car just as Matt jumped the fence from beside the house and stumbled out into the street. His hat fell off his head and rolled a few steps and when he picked it up from the sidewalk, he made it do a Charlie Chaplin-esque roll up the arm that wasn’t carrying a red cooler.

He sat in the back behind Max and immediately opened the cooler and pulled out a bottle of Colt 45 from the slurry of melting ice that sloshed inside. The brawl seemed to have picked up some momentum and the group spilled outside into the yard. In the orange light of the streetlight, I could see that one of the men with paint all over his mouth was bleeding profusely. “Yeah, like I said- Fuck them.” Matt said to himself.

Matt popped the cap off the bottle with his back teeth and offered the bottle to me. Max already had the car in gear, and I was in the middle of climbing over the console into the backseat when he peeled out. I fell forward and put my hand in the ice, but managed to land in the empty seat. Max was visibly on edge and concentrating on the road, and did not see when Matt took my hand and wiped the cold water off on his own chest. He took my hand in both of his, as he had with Max’s before, and held them to him chest for a heartbeat before releasing me. He’d held the bottle between his knees for the interim, and when he handed it to me, I took a long drink.

“Max,” he said, looking at him in the rearview mirror.

“What?”

“Head to 64 East, I want to take you out where I am from.”

By the time we got to the expressway, the air conditioning had kicked in. Max rolled up the windows to let the chilly air circulate. We reeked of spray paint. In the back seat, Matt and I slouched down to drink inconspicuously. Max turned on the stereo, some Brian Eno or something quiet.

“So Matt, you’re from the East End?” I asked. I hadn’t figured him for an East Ender. The East End is upper middle class suburban sprawl, dotted with boutiques and Catholic schools.

“Not exactly, I’m from out in the country.”

He directed us through the city and out the other side, to a Taylorsville Road off ramp in a declining commercial area. As I drank, strip malls gave way to farm land and finally we were alone on a country road lined with black fences and shadowy horses grazing or sleeping out in their pastures.

“Have you guys heard of the Goat Man?” Matt said.

“The what?” I asked.

“A half-man, half-goat monster who lives out here.”

“You’re full of shit,” Max interjected from the front seat.

“No, I’m not. I’ve seen him.” Matt replied, opening another bottle and handing it to me.

“I’ve heard of him, from my Dad.” I took a drink, “There’s a train?”

“Yeah, a train trestle. He scares you off.
“Sound great.” Max deadpanned.

“You want to go back to the party?” Matt asked.

“Are the cops there yet, you think?” I asked them.

“Hard to say. The question is if the cops are gone yet.” Max chuckled. “Hey, turn here.” Matt pointed over Max’s shoulder to a blind turn. We were going fast, so Max had to slam on the breaks. We turned off the two-lane country road to a gravel road, and through a clearing in the trees above us, I saw a spiny rail bridge looming overhead in the moonlight. Max pulled up under it and we all got out and stared straight up at the trestle, far above our heads. It had started to rain lightly, and the wind threw the crowns trees around. The limbs clashed against each other and sent a few limbs clattering down.

“Did you guys like the fire I made back at the house?” Matt asked into the trees.

“Yeah, I did actually. How the hell did you do that? Mirrors?” Max said.

“Get back in the car, I have one more thing to show you.”

“Are you going to pull a rabbit out of your hat?” I teased. It had been almost romantic, riding down moonlit country roads conspiratorially drinking malt liquor. Somewhere around the horse farms, I’d decided that I liked this strange man, and crushes make me talk like a five year old. Matt grinned and took off his hat with a flourish. Max and I watched, waiting for Matt to pull a rabbit or a fallen star out of his hat. He pushed up his sleeve, grinned broadly and plunged his hand deep into the top hat. He reached and clawed at the bottom of the hat and for a moment seemed to have gained purchase on some inscrutable creature before jerking his hand away. He howled and bit his hand.

“Oh my God, Matt- are you okay?” I rushed to him and took his hand.

“What the fuck was that?” Max asked.

“It wasn’t anything,” Matt said. “It’s a fucking top hat. Now get in the car.”

I dropped his hand.

I sat in the front and Matt sat in the back drinking the last of the beer. He took a swallow and began, “So we sit here, parked, and wait. Watch the keys, and leave them in the ignition.”  We sat in the car sulkily, with old-growth trees groaning above us in the wind. It had been a tumultuous ride and I wished Matt would disappear and let me resent my adulterous boyfriend in peace. “You’re not looking,” Matt barked into the front seat, still annoyed we’d teased him about his hat and his magic. I felt a little bad, the fire trick had been impressive, but I wanted to go home.

“How long are we going to sit here?” I asked.

“Quiet,” Matt said, “You need to focus. Watch them carefully.”

Max and I pressed our backs into our seats resignedly. It had been a long night already and we had a long drive back home. With the wind blowing like this, traffic lights would be out, trees down. “Hey,” Matt tapped my shoulder, “I told you to focus.” I relaxed my shoulders and realized the car was filling with the faint scent of ozone from the storm, then settled and watched the keys. I did not look at them, or think about them, I just watched them, hanging there, and then I watched them vanish.

For a moment I was lost again, that little girl face standing outside my door, staring at an empty ignition. It couldn’t be real, the round metallic lines of the bottom of the ignition were nonsensical. Max jerked his knee up, unwilling to reach out into the space that the keys had occupied. There was no clinking of metal, no swing of inconsequential human detritus through space, settling back towards earth on its prescribed arc. Max jerked forward. He clawed at the ignition with his fingernails, pulled the steering wheel as if to remove it and finally turned and lunged at Matt. He had his hands around Matt’s neck, screaming, “Where are they!? Where are the fucking keys?” Matt’s hat fell off and for a moment I smelled his dirty hair. I was stunned still and when Max shook Matt by the neck, I saw Matt’s head bounce a bit when his skull hit the rear windshield.  Matt managed to get his hands up to defend himself by the time I managed to interfere.

“I don’t fucking have them, this isn’t a magic trick. None of this has been a fucking magic trick, you fucking yuppie tourist.” Matt’s voice was broken and a touch hoarse but the last three words he spat out in contempt.

“Okay, stop. Stop.” I said. “If you don’t have them, then where are they?”

Matt reflexively looked up to the trestle above our heads, looming far above the trees.  I put my head in my hands.

“I ask again, how the fuck did you do that?” Matt said.

“I didn’t. It just happens. It’s sort of part of the deal that you go up and get them, they are right in the middle.”

“And why the fuck would we go up there in this storm? Matt said.

“Because that’s what you do, You. Fucking. Voyeur. This is Oz. Now let’s go get your keys.

 The two former friends got out and slammed their doors, leaving me inside. When I opened my car door, the wind caught it and almost landed on my hand. I yelped from surprise, but the wind caught my voice and the two men walked on without me into the dark. I hurried up behind them.

The slope up to the trestle was steep, covered with white train-ballast quartzite and littered with broken bottles. The men kept climbing, never looking up as if being led by some third man, and I kept my eyes on the windy woods. What in the collective subconscious of the region had mythologized into a cryptid? Back off a ways, I could see a fence come out of the woods and run along the side of the road for a while. Black fences usually mean horses, but horses don’t much like the woods.

The top of the ravine was bare and light brightly by the moon. The wind howled and took my breath away.  The two men stood looking out at the tracks, stretching out into the darkness with a gleaming gunmetal reflection of the moonlight. White drops of paint dotted every few rail ties and even intervals, breadcrumbs out into the next world.

“I can’t see them.” Max said.

“They are out there.” Matt said.

“So go get them.”

“Chicken Shit? Don’t want to try it yourself?”

“You brought us out here, now go get my fucking keys.”

Matt was already leaning into the wind when he walked out onto the ties, placing each foot in the middle of the black tie. I edged up next to Max and tested the first one myself. I stepped back off the narrow block of wood, sick with the fear of falling through the slats and a hundred feet down into the dark. Matt had clearly done this before, and though he crouched down in the wind, he was surefooted.  Sirens in the city began to wail plaintively in the distance. Max took my hand.

Matt made it to the middle, and knelt down to pick something up. He turned and began to walk back to us, moving deliberately in the storm. Max and I were standing on the tracks and felt a shudder underfoot. Matt must have felt it to, because he began to run, once falling between the ties up to his thigh before catching himself and crawling back up.

“Matt!” I was screaming into the wind. I realized he couldn’t hear me and that if he were shouting, I couldn’t hear him either. A terrible metallic roar approached from behind us, chugging and clanking closer. Matt ran back up the track to flag down the train’s engineer, and I stayed behind. The trestle was long and I kept screaming, but it took an eternity. He’d made it most of the way back, so close that I could see the keys in his hand, when he stopped. His leg was bleeding all the way down to his boot. “Matt, Come on! The train is coming, run!” I kept screaming over and over.

He took a step toward me on the increasingly violent track before stopping again, covering his face and jumping off the side. The wind caught him and flung him underneath the trestle and though I did not hear him hit the metal underneath, I saw it dimly. Matt was beside me now, and grabbed me by the shoulders and wrenched me off the tracks, down the crushed white ballast. He held my arm and pulled me down underneath the tracks and threw me down. I was still crying, but he laid his body over mine. Overhead, the groaning of metal and the roar of the storm increased and I felt a great upward force pull me slightly off the ground. It was like being trapped in a wave underwater, there was no air, just terrible noise and chaos as the trees fell into each other in the woods.

It passed, and I could hear the wind whine through the buttressed logs. The funnel ground through the air and went along the tracks over us. We sat up in the comparative quiet, surrounded by the thick, sour ozone and the sulfur smell of the quartzite rock. Matt’s body was down a few feet from us, twisted and broken, covered with blood. He was face down and still clutched our keys in one hand, outstretched on the end of a crooked arm. It had been a bad trick, if it had been a trick.

We left him there and went to the car. I wasn’t crying anymore, I don’t remember feeling much of anything. The car was as we’d left it, with a few twigs strewn across the hood. The key fit in the ignition and the engine turned over, the alternator still whined pitifully. The way back was long, the air was clear and quiet and it began to rain lightly. The clouds had rolled in behind the wind and the sky was dark save for the glow of lightning in the distance. It began to rain lightly and we drove slowly. The first barn we came to had been ripped apart by the funnel cloud, shingles and hay bales lay pell-mell on the grass. The horses were mostly gone, I thought at first, but as we approached a tree in the pasture, I saw them hanging from the branches. Their heavily muscled necks drooped awkwardly toward the ground and their long legs reached out into the darkness. The lightning flashes glinted on their lacquered hooves. Expensive Thoroughbreds, surely, and I grieved for their owner.

The lights were all out in town and we coasted through the darkened intersections. It took us three stops to find a pay phone that worked. Max stood under the first working streetlight we’d seen, hiding his face. In the car, a gray crescent of fabric peeked out from between the seats. I hesitated, but ventured my hand out to touch the material; it was soft and light and surely belonged to a woman. I pulled it out, ready to ask who she was, and drop another bomb onto my life– but when I tugged it out, the air was filled with my perfume. For a moment I did not recognize it and it startled me. Max came back from the phone with his head tucked down to his chest.

“I told them I saw a person fall off the trestle.” He said, climbing in.

“And?” I said.

“And then I hung up.”

“Good.”

I stretched my cardigan over my knees, which I now realized were bleeding. The horses were in the trees. The river was in revolt. Matt was dead and his top hat was in our backseat, filling it with witchcraft.

“Are you going to be okay?” He asked.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine.”

He drove me home through a disaster area: trees leaning on power lines, dogs wandering the streets, a house had caught fire and smoldered under the rain. The river was quiet as we passed over it back to my house. He parked outside and followed me up the stairs, taking my keys from my trembling hand and opening the door.

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