A Random Image

Jett Superior laid this on you on || April 30, 2010 || 10:41 pm

In April of nineteen-hundred and eight, a tornado ripped through Albertville, Alabama. The old adage ‘torn from the map’ is a pretty adequate descriptor of what happened to the town. Fifteen people died. The railroad trucked supplies up Sand Mountain from Gadsden.

Albertville rebuilt.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

I’ve lived on this mountain longer than I’ve lived in any one place in my life. That sentence echoes with craziness, because out of all the bouncing I’ve done around the map, this place bears the onus of being the only one that I’ve mostly despised. It also has the stark distinction of being absolutely the only one that has felt –a fair percentage of the time, anyway– as if it were actively pushing me out, trying to condemn me as a squatter and as such, thoroughly eviction-worthy.

But given suitable amounts of time to cruise the backroads, the impossible happens and the red clay of this place pushes its way up through your feet and into your heart: This is both blessing and curse. I don’t want reasons to stay here. I don’t want to feel compelled to sometimes drive ten miles out from town, past the little farmhouse where Mathias got teeth and Sam shot Scout with a b.b. gun and Maxim and I made love on the porch in the throes of a crazy summer storm. I don’t want to have compulsive inclinations to film the old-and-spirited Burke brothers telling their wild tales, stacked precariously high back yonder in their wealthy pasts.

“Patiently biding my time until God commutes my sentence.” I say that sometimes when I’m discussing my residency here. Until that occurs, I push myself to remember to look up past street level, to regard the miles-wide clear skies and the lush flora that drape this place. The trees sing low and steady, the flowers layer in harmonies. The cicadas rattle off percussion and the frogs wail. The song bewilders the birds; they are never on tempo, but they never quit trying.

Those birds, they make me laugh. Some of them have insomnia, too, and I think they sense when I’m two feet from a window at three in the morning, banging out my guts on this keyboard. So they perch on a branch two feet on the other side of the brick and get all chatty. I mutter to them in my head. This is probably a sure sign that in another twenty years I’ll be talking to them. It makes a certain sense to me that we arrive on this planet understanding the language of such things, of birds and water and unbroken afternoons. We spend the first thirty trying to unlearn that language as thoroughly as possible, ten pining for it and thirty years trying to get back to it after our cumbersome human fashion.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

One night, in the neighborhood of six or nine months before I came to Alabama for a brief visit, I had a very vivid dream. In it, Biff and I were driving along. When we came into Alabama, it soon came time for us to cross a bridge. The bridge climbed and climbed, stretching itself in a drastic, thin arc into the sky, nearly skimming the clouds. There was a sense of relief as we crested the peak of the thing, then abject horror as we saw that the bridge ended abruptly at a crumbled edge, the rest of it nowhere in sight. We were sent off into the air, and the car, in a freefall, sailed down through blackness. I woke up heartsick.

I was four months pregnant (but looking seven, easy) when I flew into the lower forty-eight, borrowed a car from my parents and went to pick up Biff from a post in Arkansas, where he had been training for thirty days. We made out in the car, I remember, then I wanted french fries but it was miles and miles before we found any, so I ended up puking up my toes in a Hardee’s parking lot with a vat full of fries maybe ten yards away. This is somewhat indicative of a larger pattern in my life, by the way.

We made our way to Tulsa to see some family, then back to Memphis before heading for Alabama to visit grandmas and grandmas-to-be and other assorted Antsy Folk. Biff was driving along on a highway in Decatur when things began to look astoundingly familiar; I went a little cold upon registering the approach to the bridge from my dream. My heart got all poundy. I should have demanded that Biff stop the car, marching my Keds to the nearest payphone. Then I would wait the three or four hours it would take my daddy to come get me, hauling me back to the Delta where I damn well belonged. Ohhhhh, hindsight, why do you pester the fuck out of humanity?

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

It turns out that dream was pretty prescient. I spent a fair amount of time hurtling through the darkness when I returned –this time on a more permanent, sixteen-year basis– a couple years after that visit. Then I woke up heartsick.

There’s more of me invested in this place than I had ever planned on initially. It took me so long to build a life here.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

Last Saturday, on the one-hundred and second anniversary of the twister that leveled Albertville, another one ambled along nearly the same path and laid large chunks of the town to waste. ‘Million-Dollar Avenue’ became the envy of no one. All around town, people survived (oh hallelujah) but lost livelihoods and lifestyles in the span of a few minutes.

Stately homes were obliterated while tumbledown shacks remained very small distances away, paint still peeling and vines still climbing and windows still staring lopsided onto streets covered in sheaths of laid-flat trees. Cables snaked everywhere, causing a thick dusting of fear to find the back of my neck.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

This last couple of weeks have been full of personal calamity involving

a) the exuberant usage of my debit card by Persons Other Than Me (not my children or my spouse or anyone related to me that I know of),

b) being midway through an automatic car wash when a bloodcurdling sound alerted me and Mathias to the fact that the bumper of my car was being slowly peeled back –and thus, OFF– by an entity that will henceforward be known as the Brush Bent On Automobile Sodomy,

c) the first full Lexapro week in a handful of months (auuugh, failure, why does this feel like failure? SHIT.),

d) Sam having made the grand decision back in September that my presence wasn’t required for the meeting all about those Wacky Graduation Shenanigans, so when I asked him about invitations two-handsful of days back he was all, “Buh. Ahhh, erm, buuuuhhhh. September?” AND THEN I FLIPPED A COMPLETE BITCH ON MY KID (don’t you judge me, because what will happen when your heart utters those sanctimonious words of condemnation against me? I’ll tell you: they will congeal, growing moldy and rank with time and it will suck royal donkey for you to have to eat those words when your own kid is a teenager and you cannot for the life of you fathom why The Obvious always escapes them, causing you to wonder if they’ll ever be able to –for instance– pay their light bill once you turn them out into the real world.). This has apparently occurred with regard to Graduations past, so we were able to scramble and get in an order a mere four days before the engraved announcements were delivered to the rest of the Senior class. You know, the young men and women whose moms were able to spend a couple weeks back in the fall leisurely doing legwork such as counting up the actual number of people to be invited, finding decent coordinating seals for the inner envelopes and having a yard sale to pay for this little commemorative finance-draining rigamarole,

e) the breaking of my middle toe, left foot, when it was mangled by the inflexibility of a largish bass amp during a bathroom run at one in the fucking morning; I hobbled furiously into the sanctity of our peaceful bedroom, firmly but politely saying, “I NEED. YOU. TO PUTAWAYYOUR EQUIPMENT WHEREITBE. LONGS!” Haha, so cute that we’d had this discussion two days prior to the breaking of said toe.

And this is how it goes.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

And then there you are observing the way that a house has been peeled cleanly off its foundation, lifted and set down some fifty yards to the left, dead-center in the street, the structure pretty much intact.

And then there you are doing a double take at some power lines that have remained standing, because wrapped up between two of them is a sizable fuzzy mass that you think is either some form of large fowl or a pretty well-fed cat.

And then there you are standing on some friends’ deck, marveling at how every hundred-year old tree has been yanked up out of the ground, leaving no dearth of jagged craters in the earth while their house emerged unscathed. The wind has even stripped some trees of their bark entirely, making them into strange albinos, shiny and skinless aliens the likes of which you hope to never see again. The deck gives a little because five people are standing on it. You’ve seen it hold twenty or more people AND their barbeque effortlessly in the past. This little event illustrates the fact that not all damage is readily apparent to the eye. Your friends resign to avoid the deck until the insurance adjuster makes his way to their home.

You take ice, you take groceries, you fumble for the right thing to do and the means to present provisions in a way that is not awkward or pitying.

You decide to not take the many tornado warnings that go out in the early spring and midwinter so lightly in the future; you’ve always been so dismissive (and even impatient!) with them before. How much does a weather radio cost? The internet and cable and phone were useless this time. How prepared are we? Do we even know which walls to huddle against while clinging to one another? Shit, shit, shit.

You show your children the bigness of this outrageous act of nature in this smallish, quiet place. You all startle at how readily visible the landscape is, how obvious scattered rooftops are without the ages-old trees. The blatant showiness of the sky is like a fresh wound.

Your spouse is haunted by the image of a tiny church bus at the edge of a gas station parking lot. The vehicle is desolate, its windows blown out, looking like something from a war movie. “Were there people in that thing?” he worries aloud.

::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::

Today, six days into the whole mess, Tess and I moved from helping friends to volunteering in the community. I expected the process to be more difficult, but ten minutes after strolling into the rec center, we emerged with badges hanging around our necks from silver ball chains. We assisted in unloading a truck full of frozen food (a case of ground turkey is fucking heavy, the twentieth consecutive one is Not Your Friend). A wisecracking fireman made me laugh as he buddy-taped my throbbing toe while we awaited another assignment.

We were then joined by two other women bearing chainsaws and coolers. We made our way across town, donned thick cotton work gloves and began sawing and dragging and hauling and sweating. God help me, I hated the reason we were doing it but I had some fun muscling my way around a yard, nose filled with the sharp tang of pine pitch, shoulder blades yelling betrayal. We made a pile of log and limbs that was eight feet high and ten feet across.

“How high do we pile?” I asked the pretty, athletic blonde who has been doing this every day since the tornado hit.

“As high as it’ll let us.” she said matter-of-factly, grinning at me.

I pulled my shoe off. My toe was bullying my foot into a misery that climbed up my leg. I would trade the risk of a punctured foot for the cushion of cool grass. I wanted to vomit. The smell of the chainsaw wasn’t helping.

A news van trundled up the street. Shortly thereafter, a man in a fluorescent green tee-shirt came pounding (with effort) behind it, yelling for the attentions of those inside. He gestured back up the street at a two-story house with half a dozen other fluorescent-clad men crawling all over its top. The van reversed, beeping maddeningly as the man hollered, “Hey! There’s your story up there!” I noted the Methodist flame and cross on the back of his shirt. I can’t be sure, but I think I grimaced.

Tess and I lifted a ten-foot limb, negotiating its toss onto the top of our brush heap. She paused, putting one gloved hand on her hip, drawing the back of the other one heavily across her soaked forehead. She turned her head to spit, then turned back to me.

“Yeah,” she said,”’cause a skeleton crew of four women wielding chainsaws isn’t news.” She’d woken in a world-don’t-fuck-with-me state of mind this morning.

Last week my bank balance mattered. Tonight, eighteen years and three months after I first held Sam to my breast, I mailed his graduation invitations all over the country and a couple other parts of the world. It is with my husband resting soundly and deeply beside me that I tell you all of the previous.

We are simultaneously tentative and fierce, every last one of us.

7 worked it out »

  1. angelynn 5.1.2010

    I wish there was a whole book to read…a post is never enough. Your writing makes me feel like I’m standing right next to you. I’m glad you all made it through the storm intact. Thank you for sharing the story.

  2. Kristine 5.1.2010

    Your writing always feels so effortless and yet precise. Pretty much my idea of amazing.

    But why is this your last post? Surely you’re just moving it?

  3. scott 5.2.2010

    This is beautiful. I love the way you write. Hello, Jett Superior.

  4. Jettomatika 5.3.2010

    angelynn: Ohhhhh, thank you….one always hopes for clarity and expression in their writing, but it’s hard to know if you’ve achieved that when you are the one writing. Maybe a book, maybe someday. I’m thinking lately that I would like to do this (at least part-time) and get paid for it. BECAUSE I LOVE IT AND IT’S SO MUCH FUNNNN.

    Kristine: I didn’t even know you were here reading! Hello, lurkey-pants, and thank you for the nice things you said! I’m putting down roots elsewhere. The new place should be done within a couple of weeks.

    Scott: Thank you, sir. I love the way you do what you do, as well. It’s like a small, sweet victory to hear your compliments.

  5. TwoBusy 5.3.2010

    (I’m doing that thing where I can’t figure out what to say, so intead I just sit here grinning in awe and wonder. Wow.)

  6. Whit 5.3.2010

    Tentative and fierce.

    Great post.

  7. Bejewell 5.8.2010

    The bridge dream is my only recurring nightmare. I’ve had it on and off for years and think of it every time I drive over a bridge in the City of Bridges in which I reside. I’ve read up on it a little and the theory is, if you have that dream your subconscious is trying to tell you you’re on the wrong path and need to make a change. (The fact that I’ve had this dream on and off for the upside of twenty years now is only slightly disturbing.)

    I think it’s clear you’re on the right path now – it may not be the path you expected or wanted but you’re leaving a trail of pretty flowers and big ass bootprints in your stead.

    I don’t know what could be more newsworthy than you.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

(you know you want to)