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Storm Chasers

                                    Amy Bernhard

For years my father has worked as a mailman, and when we all lived together in the yellow house he would rise hours before our neighborhood woke to its first cup of coffee, the scrape of his boots soft on the kitchen floor as he slipped out into the pale light of morning, my mother and I still asleep upstairs. In the mail satchel strapped across his shoulder he kept heavy gloves, sunglasses, a thermos of water, sunscreen, a small umbrella, and a blue stocking cap with the United States Postal Service logo stitched across the brim. Every night before bed he picked out his uniform according to the next day’s forecast and laid it across the back of a kitchen chair: rubber boots for rain, a heavy down coat for snow. Always the same blue and grey striped pants and cotton shirt. Some days it was so hot, he returned from his nine-mile route stinking of sweat and melted deodorant, his cheeks flushed, thin black hair sticking in wet arrows to his forehead. In the dead of winter it sometimes took whole minutes for him to pry off his snow boots, his fingers and toes were so stiff and frozen. Clear, blue days were rare, so he liked to prepare for the worst.

After work, my father headed straight for the living room without stopping to change out of his uniform. He eased into his brown recliner, flipped up the footrest, and settled in to watch The Weather Channel’s Local on the 8s while my mother busied herself in the kitchen, setting plates and dipping serving spoons into steaming pots. My father relied on the Local 8s to tell him if it would be a good or a bad week at work. While he watched, I sat on the couch across from him, math homework balanced on my knees. I liked the lightening bolts that danced across the screen, the bold, glowing suns with their perfectly pointed rays rising heroically over Illinois, which looked like a tiny puzzle piece against the sprawling green background of the map. Together my father and I cheered for clear skies and groaned at the sight of rain or snow. “Looks like ‘nother cold front’s due north,” my father would say, and I would shake my head and sigh. At my mother’s urging we took our seats at the dinner table. Ice cubes cracked in our glasses; in the background, the TV hummed like thunder.

I was eleven years old when my father arrived home from work one summer afternoon with a tape he had rented from the video store up the street.

“This one looks good,” he said, tapping the plastic case with his big fingers. On the cover, an impossibly black funnel cloud loomed over a man and woman, who were clutching each other and running across a field. Twister, the movie was called.

It was Movie Night Friday. We were trying to do things as a family. Lately my father spent less time at home and more time after work on my grandparents’ farm, helping his aging father feed the pigs and till the soybeans. He returned tired and moody, retreating to his bedroom (my mother slept in the room across the hall), his presence embodied in the thin blue TV light streaming beneath his closed door. Marooned in darkness, he spent hours listening to muffled TV voices report the very weather he could see in his own window, if only he hadn’t blocked it out with thick velvet curtains, as though letting it inside would make him feel worse. Maybe it had been a grey, wet day, the wind slicing through his raincoat as he walked with newspapers and letters tucked under his arm, his mail bag sopping wet, banging like a dead weight against his thigh, and it had taken him longer to finish his route. Maybe the evening had been hot and bright, the air motionless as he crouched over my grandfather’s cornfield, his shirt soaked through with sweat, glasses slipping down his nose.

That night the three of us gathered in the living room to watch Twister—my father in his chair, my mother and me on the lumpy plaid sofa across from him. I felt deeply content sitting between my parents, exhilarated by the air conditioner and the far-off bounce of a basketball down the street. This is the way things are supposed to be, I thought: fireflies winking in the trees outside, the heat of my mother’s thigh pressed against mine, a bowl of buttered popcorn in my lap. The house settled around me like a soft, cool blanket, and I closed my eyes and sank into it.

My father leaned over and nudged the tape into the VCR. I was startled awake by the movie’s beginning scene. A tornado crashes into a family’s home and sucks its father up into the black sky, still clutching the cellar door meant to keep them safe. I watched as trees, pick-up trucks, barns, houses, tractors, basketball hoops, picket fences, cornfields, even cows, their pink tongues lolling, were uprooted and shuffled through the sky, pulled as if by a current to the spinning center of the tornado, where they were ingested and spat out on another patch of land. Suddenly I was freezing, and I wrapped my arms around my bare, trembling knees. The things that existed around me every day without my noticing had been torn away. Gone, just like that.

My father slapped his knee as the movie father was yanked, screaming, into the sky. “That sonuvabitch isn’t ever comin’ back!” He laughed, a hissing sound that snaked through his teeth.

I looked at my mother, shocked to see that she was laughing, too, so hard that tears filled her eyes. “Did you see that cow fly?” She fanned her face with her hand. “That stupid cow!”

The movie follows the adventures of a group of men called the storm chasers who drive around in pick-up trucks with all sorts of technical equipment clanging in the back. They wear shaggy hair and Hawaiian shirts and baseball caps turned backward. They curse and spit and drink alcohol out of little bottles tucked inside their shirt pockets. When a storm is close, they jump out of their trucks and yell into walkie-talkies. “She’s an F-5,” one bellowed into his headset. In the distance a funnel cloud hovered in the sky like a big grey brain.

I asked my father what an F-5 was.

“Them’re big suckers,” he said, his eyes excited. “One of them’ll kill you.”

I watched the rest of the movie with my back pressed against the couch. My father was having such a good time that he didn’t notice my wide eyes, my fists digging deep into the cushions. Looking back, I’m sure he would have stopped the movie had I asked, but I didn’t know how to tell him I was afraid.      

My parents talked about Twister long after the credits rolled, after the last barnyard animal had wheeled through the sky. It was the funniest movie they’d ever seen. For weeks my mother left the dinner dishes piled in a grimy heap in the sink and joined my father in the living room. They rewound the tape and started it from the beginning. Again and again the movie father flew into the sky, arms and legs waving like a toppled ant’s, groping in vain for something to hold on to. My father laughed the hardest at this part, delighted by the storm’s ability to overwhelm, render its victims helpless. It was safe to laugh because the humans prevailed in the end, their narrow escapes and comic close calls a mockery of the storm’s power, the weather something to be tamed. Storm chasers hung out of truck windows, reaching toward tornadoes as if to lasso them. Cars were lifted and launched through the air with their drivers still inside, cheering and whooping when they crashed back down, unharmed.

Still, the expressions on the faces of the movie father’s family terrified me. I watched the daughter shrink into a shadowy corner of the crawl space, tears streaking her dirty cheeks, and felt my throat tighten. “They’re just actors, Aim,” my father said one night when he caught me misty-eyed. “It isn’t real.”

But often it seemed that it was. My parents had seen Twister so many times that they memorized favorite lines, recited them out of context as private little inside jokes. “Don’t fold the maps, roll the maps,” my father said to my mother as he passed her in the hallway. She retorted with her personal favorite: “Loser, move on!” For his birthday, she cooked him the storm chasers’ favorite dinner: fried steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, and sunny-side-up eggs.

My father had started having what she called spells, fits of anger that came on swiftly, without warning. No one knew what set him off. Maybe my mother had overcooked the meat and the whole meal would have to be swept off the table, drinking glasses exploding against the walls, plastic plates tumbling to the floor in a nerve-jangling clatter. Maybe my father had taken a wrong turn on a trip to Pennsylvania, steering the car off the highway and onto unmarked gravel roads, where buggies pulled by panting horses were the only other vehicles. The Amish peered beneath bonnets and floppy straw hats as one by one my father crushed six Pepsi cans in his fist and chucked them, fizzing and hissing like bottle rockets, into the cornfield where we had stopped to consult a map.

“Don’t fold the maps, roll the maps!” My mother tried to calm him as the last can burst between his hands. The movie line only enraged him further. His face twisted into a hard red knot; puddles of sticky pop spread at his feet. My father’s strength terrified me, but at the same time I admired his large veiney hands, the muscles that coiled like snakes beneath his shirtsleeves.

His spells were unpredictable, but still my mother and I tried to anticipate them. There were warning signs: the pressure in the air right before a dish was thrown, a wooden chair taken over a knee and splintered. After it was all over, a charged silence fell upon our house, an unease that made our muscles tighten in anticipation of the next outburst. We felt the tremor of his rages in our bodies, in each carefully placed step as we tiptoed around his armchair, offering him soothing words and glasses of milk. One night a glass slipped from my hands and he was up, spewing curses and flinging pages of the newspaper, showering me with the Sunday ads.

Like him I came to reject helplessness. I joined the junior high basketball team and ran nightly laps around the block, collapsing in a breathless heap once I reached our driveway. I thought if I pushed harder, ran myself dizzy until I couldn’t stand, only then would I know my physical limits, know just how much I was capable of. My fifty-year-old father walked nine miles a day in the worst conditions. If he could do it, so could I.

It was a July evening, the air humid, stifling, electric; I was fourteen years old. We had just finished dinner, and I was in the backyard, swinging. I held tight to the rusty chains and propelled myself higher and higher, my sneakered feet thrust toward the swaying tree branches above. I threw back my head and looked at the sky moving in waves, a slow, creeping dark. My throat itched with heat.

My father stepped onto the porch. “Get inside.” He cocked his head, and I dug my shoes into the ground, bringing the swing down in a loud, clumsy clatter. The clouds were knuckling lower, heavy with the promise of rain. I ran into the living room, where my mother was sitting. The TV began to beep and whine. She took my hand and we hurried through the kitchen and into the garage. We climbed down a tiny wooden ladder into the dank, cobwebby mouth of the crawl space. My father cupped my mother’s head so she wouldn’t hurt herself on the low ceiling and followed us down to the shelter, where we crouched over a little radio. The crawl space looked like a room out of a horror movie. A bare, single bulb swung above our heads. In a corner, a dead crow lay in a pile of stones. Whenever we hid down here I always imagined it would be the last time, that the storm would pick our bones clean like it had the crow’s and leave them bare and shining beneath the crumbled foundation of our home.

After what felt like an hour, my father climbed up the ladder and opened the garage door. Rain pelted the driveway in cold, hard sheets; thunder rumbled softly, like an aching belly. We waited for his signal.

“Okay, guys. Nothin’s happenin’ out here.” He looked like a superhero with his hands on his hips, flannel shirt unbuttoned and billowing out behind him. My mother went inside the house and I joined him at the edge of the garage. Around us, garbage cans lay strewn in the streets. Dogs yapped and strained at the ends of leashes, held by neighbors beginning to emerge from their houses. Lightning had splintered the giant oak tree at the end of the block in half, branches splayed every which way, its insides stripped and spilling toward the ground. My father surveyed the damage to our yard and let loose one long, plummeting sigh. He looked up into the unsettled sky, eyes soft, shoulders slumped.   

Standing there, the air between my father and me grew thicker. I had sensed some uncertainty in him, and now his body was very close to mine, the hand on my shoulder squeezing hard like it was afraid to let go. We looked overhead. My father named the clouds—cumulus, nimbus, stratus—while we watched them drift through the churning sky.   

After that night in the garage, I met my father head on with little rages of my own. I pushed my running shoes to the back of my closet, joined the drama club and the speech team. I had too many opinions; my father had none at all. Over dinner I brought up the news I’d seen on CNN that morning in homeroom, the books we were reading in my advanced English class.

“Dad, have you read 1984?” I asked one night as soon as my mother sat and began passing bowls of pasta salad and corn around the table.

“No.” He tilted back his head and took a swig of lemonade.

“Why not? It’s a great book.”

“Just a damn book,” he muttered through a mouthful of corn. “Dana, please pass the potatoes.”

As he reached across the table, I caught a whiff of stale sweat, the mushroomy scent of damp earth releasing something in me. “It’s about a society that’s controlled by the government,” I said. “About people who can’t think for themselves.”

My father stared into his plate, his jaw tightening. A fork trembled in his right hand, and my mother tensed beside me. “More lemonade?” she asked, and after a long moment he pushed his glass forward without raising his eyes. My mother united us over food, casseroles and pork chops and fresh-baked pies, dinners cooked so expertly we were forced to enjoy them, grumbling our shared appreciation of her sweet potatoes, the tomatoes plucked ripe from our own garden.
We both wanted her on our side. We pointed fingers whenever possible, cornered her coming out of the bathroom to complain about the other.

One night, I intercepted her in the hallway, but before I could speak she sighed and rolled her eyes. “I’m fed up with the two of you,” she said. “Make your own dinner.” She went upstairs to her bedroom, leaving my father and me to fumble in the kitchen, our backs carefully turned to one another as we searched through cupboards and slowly swiped peanut butter onto bread.

Our arguments were preludes to many sleepless nights. I lay in bed, rehearsing little speeches in my head that would explain to him my conflicting desire for approval and independence. He, too, was often awake. I heard him late at night, in the bathroom next door. The sound of the faucet sputtering on and the twist of the cap from the toothpaste was the closest we came to conversation.

On a Friday night in August, my father took my mother and me to Fermilab, a science lab in Batavia, Illinois, where Tom Skilling, a meteorologist from TV, was to give a public lecture. All week my father was giddy with excitement. He came straight home after work, kissing my mother’s cheek at the back door and catching me in a headlock, grinding his big knuckles against my scalp.

Though I tried not to show it, I was just as excited as my father about our visit to Fermilab. We rarely went on vacations or weekend outings, and I envied the extravagant trips taken by my seventh grade classmates to Hawaii and Disneyland. Every fall semester began the same way. The lucky ones stood before the class and read out loud from summer journals about the white beaches they had sunbathed on, the exotic dark-skinned men who had served them Shirley Temples beneath swaying palm trees.

I had already been to Fermilab once. Several years ago, our fourth grade science class took a field trip there. We squatted beside a pond and drew samples of the murky water with syringes. Everyone loved it, especially eating lunch in the cafeteria, surrounded by scientists in gleaming white coats. These were men of intelligence, their chatter hushed, intense, exciting. I wanted badly to belong to their world.  

The night of the lecture, my father parked in the lot behind the building and ushered us toward Fermilab’s heavy glass doors. The lab was built in the shape of a futuristic arch that rose from the ground and towered for miles, the clouds resting atop its sleek, stylish roof. With tall metal spires and tiny flags flanking its entrance, Fermilab looked like something alien, a transplant to the grassy field and flat steely lake surrounding it. Inside, the halls were still, the silence occasionally punctuated by the click of men’s dress shoes. A sign pointed us down a sterile white hallway to the auditorium. We filed through the dark and slid into a middle row, where a smattering of men dressed in dirt-stained flannel sat, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes.

In a plaid shirt and blue jeans, my father looked just like them. He settled into his seat, taking in hundreds of middle-aged farmers and weather enthusiasts who had come from as far as Wisconsin and Michigan just to hear Tom speak. Their faces were as worn as their clothes, their arms tanned and taut. Some sat next to wives and children, but most were alone, slumped in their seats, jaws working at gum or a piece of hard candy.

A projection screen lowered, and Tom Skilling walked onto the stage. The auditorium hummed with anticipation; even the men trying hard to look bored straightened in their seats. My father leaned forward, and my mother nudged my arm and winked. I watched his eyes follow Tom’s pointer along a diagram composed of green and red lines, which I recognized from the Local 8s as a Doppler radar. Tom discussed the dangers of derechos and downbursts, last spring’s lightning injury rate, and the frequency of F2 tornadoes across the Chicago area. He spoke of radar networks and supercomputers that would help forecasters make predictions more accurately. My father nodded along. I watched him jot down notes in the margins of a newspaper he had taken from a dispenser outside the auditorium. I noticed how he tilted his head to the side when something interested him, how he drew a column beneath his notes and wrote unfamiliar words inside it. His pen moved quickly across the paper, and I leaned closer, trying to read.

In the back, the creak of seat springs. Coughs. I turned and locked eyes with a woman whose hand was rustling in her purse.

Tom peered out into the restless audience. “I think this might be a good time for my videos.”

On the projection screen appeared footage of a chase in Oklahoma. Gusts of wind stirred up gravel, rain beat against a truck’s windshield. In the near distance, the sky was lowering, bringing with it blankets of fat black clouds. A tornado touched down close by, on the other side of a cornfield. People screamed curses; the camera wobbled and tipped. Men scrambled for cover, ducked down in the back seat of the truck and shielded their heads with their arms. The scene was just as chaotic as the ones in Twister, and I fidgeted in my seat, bored with the familiar destruction I’d watched on TV nearly every night with my parents growing up. My father had stopped writing and was staring at the pen in his hand, turning it between his thumb and forefinger.

The audience clapped and yelled its encouragement as the truck swerved to avoid bits of flying debris. Tom laughed with them. He wiggled his fingers in mock-fright as the truck sped away from the twister, ending his lecture to a roar of applause. The projection screen snapped back into place. The lights flickered on and left us stunned in our seats.

I looked over at my father. He sat with his back straight, arms folded across his chest. His mouth was pressed into a hard, tight line, his eyes bright with disappointment.

“Why don’t you shake his hand?” My mother pointed to the front doors, where Tom was mingling with fans. In her eyes burned a kind of challenge. She searched his face for familiar signs of anger or rebuttal but he was tired, discouraged by the day.     

“Let’s just go.”

“We can’t leave without talking to Tom.“ Her voice climbed notes too high, clear and sickly sweet like the taunts of a schoolyard bully. “We drove all this way.”  

“I said no.” He turned and walked up the far most aisle, away from Tom and the men. My mother and I followed, jackets bundled in our arms. Outside dusk was settling in. Cicadas chirred in the trees, insects gathered and buzzed around the top of the light posts. They cast a pale, ghostly film across the parking lot, making my mother’s eyes glow like the streaks left by fireflies in the night.

My father opened the car door and slid behind the wheel. My mother got in next to him, and I climbed into the back seat. “Buncha kooks in there.” He tried to laugh, but beneath his words was a hint of sadness. He started the engine and steered us back onto the road. We drove in silence, and as trees and houses whipped past I wondered what I would tell my friends. Against my knees I felt the curve of my mother’s back, her spine sighing into the plush red seats.

A year later, my parents divorced. I expected a fight, but none came. My father packed up his bedroom, his movements stiff, careful, each box folded and taped and labeled in permanent marker—socks, shirts, belts. He hefted suitcases in his arms, grunted as he loaded everything into the trunk of his blue pick-up and eased shut the driver’s side door, its click barely audible from the window where I watched. He pulled a seatbelt across his chest, turned to look over his shoulder as he backed down the driveway.

I went upstairs to his bedroom, empty except for a few overturned cardboard boxes and flimsy hangars swaying gently in his closet, stripped only moments before of flannel shirts and jeans. The door to his TV cabinet hung open, and scattered at the bottom were several videotapes. One of them was Twister. I sat on the floor with the tape in my hands, trying to remember what it had felt like to watch it—the movie father, flying cows, the steak and egg dinner. I tried conjuring the fear I felt as an eleven year old, sitting between my parents on our old plaid couch. I squeezed shut my eyes, clenched my fists, but all I felt was numbness.

I put the tape back into the cabinet and stood. Leaving Twister behind, it was like my father had left me a part of himself, the part that frightened me more than the movie ever had. Destroying it felt impossible, but I wasn’t sure what to do with the memories of that time in my family’s life, with the hurt that still glowed in my chest like a small, sparking fire.  

During the years after my parents’ divorce, I visited my father every Sunday in Minooka, a small town where my grandparents lived and farmed.  He didn’t know what else to do but return to the land he had always tended.

I dreaded these Sundays. From the moment he picked me up at one o’clock I counted down the minutes till eight, when he would take me home. He rarely listened to the radio, so we spent the fifteen-minute drive in silence. I rolled down my window and listened to the shushing of passing cornfields, the crunch of gravel beneath tires echoing in my bones. Six hours, thirty-five minutes. The air smelled bitter, of sweat and manure and overturned earth.

At the farmhouse we watched movie after movie, killing time until dinner. He always let me choose, though he didn’t care for the bloody slasher films to which I had recently taken a liking. He reclined in an armchair while I sprawled on the floor at his feet, watching as a girl was pinned by a masked killer against a tree in the woods, a knife held to her pale, shivering throat. “Gross, huh?” I turned, tried to catch his eyes, but he kept them on his hands knotted in his lap. Eventually the shrieks and whirring chainsaw noises got to be too much, and together we cringed and groaned and begged the young blonde lead to stay away from the empty warehouse. For those few moments, we forgot the uncertainty of our own relationship, so invested were we in the fates of our movie characters.

When I left home for college in Iowa, I kept with tradition and called my father once a week, every Sunday. I wait until noon, when I know he’ll just be getting home from grocery shopping with my grandmother, the whisper of his socks over the smooth wood floor as he carries the plastic bags to the kitchen counter. He begins to unpack them when the phone rings once, twice. He pulls it from the wall and clears his throat. “Hello?”

“Hi, Dad.”

His voice is small and faraway, and I am momentarily surprised—part of me expects the gruff rasp of my childhood. I’ve forgotten the last time I saw him, the last time I noticed the creases in his cheeks, the age lines splicing the corners of his mouth. His black hair is thinning to silver, the crown of his scalp an ever-expanding island of skin surrounded by red sore spots where he’s scratched. He’s lost weight and wears bifocals. “It’s rainin’ here.”

“Here, too,” I say. I’ve carved out a space for myself in this new town, but some days I am lonely for what I’ve left behind—my boots click on the empty sidewalks as I walk to class, a brown messenger bag slung over my shoulder. Over the phone, with two hundred miles between us, he sounds like a father talking to his daughter: Do you have sunscreen? How about a hat? Is that air conditioner working okay? And on colder days: Is your coat warm enough? Do you keep gloves with you?

“Yes, Dad.” I fight to keep the impatience out of my voice, try to stop my eyes from rolling up to the ceiling. We talk a bit more—about school, the farm, a change in his mail route. When the time comes to hang up, after we’ve made promises to talk next Sunday, there is a split second when we are both uncertain how to let the other go. Both of us know the words we should say, but, fearing their impact, I set the phone back into its cradle.

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