Goodbye, Tuscaloosa

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Let me tell you about my wife and my dog and our bathtub.  How just minutes prior to the storm—minutes prior to peeling the cushions from the couch and positioning them over our heads—my dog and I stood barefoot in the grass, staring up a swirling sky.

She began to bark at it. 

"Quiet," I hissed.  "No barking at tornadoes."

I didn't know it was a tornado then, nor did I understand it.  I'd never lived through one before.  Instead, I relied upon information I'd gathered from Dorothy's experiences in The Wizard of Oz, though I'd later deem this information suspect.

I pulled the dog back inside, checked the television, but it wasn't until the power cut out that we were prompted to enter the tub.  The meteorologist had just switched from radar screen to video feed, and in the final three seconds before we were plunged (a word reserved solely for tragedies) into darkness, we spotted a single gray cloud narrowing as if sucked to the ground through a straw.  

Flashback to the tornado drills of my youth—pressed head down in the bowels of Lindley Elementary school's hallways, lined up face to butt.  Our prayers were never for safety, but only that the boy ahead of us had refrained from refried beans.  Face down, neck covered, though in the rare moments when the drills turned real, I'd steal a glance at the Lindley Lion mascot painted on the school's cinderblock walls.  This would provide strength, I believed, and as our principal had made clear just a few days before, "nobody messes with the Lindley Lions."

Back in the tub now, and there are no lions here, just a dog that for the first time (in her life) is subdued.  Her head is tucked beneath my knee—her choice, not my safety measure.  

Here, in the bathtub, our vulnerabilities are on display: my dandruff shampoo, my wife's disposable razor.

And if we are to perish under these conditions, I think, we will forever be linked to mango mandarin body wash.

"I had to interview a Vietnam vet once," my wife begins, interrupting my thoughts while buried beneath a cushion.  "Back in high school.  For social studies.  I drove all the way out to his house, and it was when we were having all those really big storms, remember?  And so we got there and he said he'd forgotten I was coming.  He said his son's home had just gotten blown away and our meeting had slipped his mind."

She'd never found the time or occasion to tell this one before, but now we are stuck in a bathtub. 

"We rode around in his golf cart," she continues.  "He told me about destruction."

I listen, nodding, but my mind is already in Kansas.

This morning, just three days after the storm, I have already forgotten where my mind had been that day.  Kansas, I know that now, but a moment ago I had to wake my wife to remind me of Dorothy's home state. 

"Wasn't it Nebraska or something?" I ask my wife, waking her.  "Or Oklahoma?  Doesn't she say something about not being in Oklahoma anymore?"

"Kansas," she groans in half-sleep.  "We're not in Kansas anymore."

We're not—we're still in a bathtub—and my mind is stuck cycling between Kansas and Oz and the boy before me in the hallway who partook in the refried beans. 

As I look down at my knee, I realize that my dog is the spitting image of Toto, or at the very least one of the flying monkeys.  And now I am thinking of flying, of that bicycled witch in the cyclone, of that husky-voiced cowardly lion crying "It's a twista!  It's a twista!" and later, "Put'em up, put'em up!"

In that bathtub, I need courage, but the only lion I know belongs to the Lindley Elementary of my youth.

My wife, dog and I, we fold closer into the tub, and from our hole we wait for what will later be called the second most deadly weather outbreak in recorded history. 

Yet somehow, through some luck, we are the glass eye in the storm that sees nothing.  And we are the deaf ear, too, hearing only the spigot drip.

"Is it done yet?" my wife asks, peeking from beneath her cushion. 

I'm not sure it's even begun.


I will spare you the destruction. 

You can imagine, I'm sure, what a tree might look like horizontal, or a house turned inside out.  You can imagine also what it means when people say "leveled."  What is meant when they say "vanished." 

Stories of legs in the front yard, of victims wrapped in trees.  All that people have left packed tight in a grocery cart. 

Do not read this too closely.

I am trying to spare you the broken glass and the blood.  The problem, though, of living in a town amid writers is that everything is rendered poetic:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black[cloud].

In the [Emergency] Waiting Room   

Too few of us have axes or know how to swing them, though this does not stop us from trying.  Yet as we grow tired, we pick up the tools of which we are better acquainted, rebuilding our town word for word. 

You understand what I mean when I speak of five miles, of tracing every step of it with my wife and my dog.

Surely you know what it means to be there, even though the there is no longer. 

The newspapers report only in disaster rhetoric:  "unrelenting," "unprecedented," "devastating." 

They quote: "digging with their hands" and "sifted through the remains,"and "First responders didn't attend to the dead…"

They quote: "People laid blankets over the bodies of neighbors…" and "Somehow the walls stayed up."  

Each headline has the word ravages or rubble, and depending on which story you read, you're told to turn to page 7A, and you're given a choice:




The morning after, we walk in the center of the streets, taking part in a strange pilgrimage.  My dog tugs hard on her leash.  She doesn't like the sound of chainsaws or sirens, and there is far too much to sniff—the bolt of cloth flung a hundred yards from Hobby Lobby, the milk bottles still in ice in the shell of the Krispy Kreme.     

We hadn't slept well the previous night—our house the scene of scented candles, a cocktail of spiced cider, cranberry woods and pine.  It was uncomfortably hot, too, and trying to piss in the dark only made for further inconvenience. 

(This was the extent of my inconvenience.)   

But we couldn't sleep for another reason as well.  The parties in the apartments behind us made it difficult, music blaring as muffled laughter floated down the balconies and through our bedroom window.  I once read an essay on the same subject—college-town tornadoes—that confirmed a similar response.  These college kids were celebrating their own survival, though few of us fully understood the extent of the damage that night.  Our news traveled only through hearsay, a game of telephone in which death tolls undulated but never held firm.  There are no ethics in grief (just guidelines), and since I was familiar with The Wizard of Oz, I preferred believing that the primary function of tornadoes was simply to carry us to yellow brick roads. 

By morning the students all turned quiet, the seniors waking to hangovers and the understanding that their college careers had abruptly ended: 




In the aftermath, as we walked for miles, the dog kept an ear propped for the chainsaws.  And when she heard one buzzing nearby, she pointed toward it, howling.

"Quiet," I hissed, pulling her forward.  "No barking at the heroes."