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The

CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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The Visitation: A Ghost Story for Hallowe'en

NOTE: Each October I write a ghost story or weird tale for Hallowe'en and post it here. The following piece is 2022's "Ghost Story for Hallowe'en":


Thinking back on his childhood obsession with tornadoes, the narrator recalls how he bonded with his first best friend – a charismatic new kid – over their interest in twisters and how he ignored the many warning signs that he was falling prey to a master manipulator and liar. With their rocky friendship hanging by a thread, the narrator suggests that they do some field research by talking with the survivor of their small, Indiana town’s most famous disaster: the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak. They agree to talk with Mr. Gerig, a misanthropic janitor whose twin brother was killed in the storm, but when they visit him at his house to hear his version of that hellish April night, they unwittingly step into a threatening drama of hate, revenge, terror, and the sublime – all of which seems to have sinister implications for the boys’ future.


T H E V I S I T A T I O N


“The deepest mystery of the tornado is its actual physical presence. This is something that even now no video image can capture. A tornado funnel has an unforgettable quality of the surreal, or the hyper-real: its unimaginable size (tens of thousands of feet high), its apparent solidity, and its terrifyingly rapid movement all make it appear like a religious vision. A tornado seems to be not a cloud but some sort of inconceivable created structure – one that reaches up from the ground to the heavens as though extending from this world to the next. You can’t help but see it as essentially supernatural…”


— Lee Sandlin, Storm Kings


“The tornado’s ability to exact swift and precise punishment – leaving one man’s house untouched while demolishing that of his neighbor – endows it with quasi-religious powers. So, too, do the uncanny physical effects that often accompany it: a greenish light in the sky, heralding its onset; an anticipatory hush settling over birds and animals … ; the deafening roar likened, often enough, to a moan or a screech, or the din or swarming insects…


“Above all, the mystique of the tornado rests with its transfiguring power. The root of the word itself, a corruption of the Latin tornare (to turn) not only describes the swirling motion of the storm, but indicates its ability to provoke change. The air turns, the terrain is altered; lives are thrown into disarray…"


"‘Many people actually believe that Judgment Day has come, and offer fervent prayers and loud appeals for preservation … but the hand of mercy stays not the dreadful carnage.’”


— Mark Levine, F5


“For they have sown with the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind…”


— Hosea 8:7



THE VISITATION




I.


A Childhood Fascination


I’m not sure if this is ghost story. It is, however, a true story. It was true enough to rattle my friendship with Tyler Allan. The awful way that it finally ended is another story for another time, but this will explain how we came to be friends to begin with and what it was that I saw at our third grade Halloween party that froze my heart over and taught me to be cautious. It happened well before I was old enough to understand adult problems like jealousy, manipulation, and hate (the especially venomous sort of hate that boils up from spoiled friendship) and thinking back on all of these things in my thirties has left me grateful for the suffering that I surely avoided, but heartbroken for the boys who were never able to reconcile.


And, as you will have gathered by now, this is also a story about a tornado.


When I was in second grade, I was deep in the middle of an obsession with violent storms. I think most boys, especially here in the Midwest, go through a phase like this sooner or later, but mine went deep and – as you’ll see – went a lot further than perhaps it should have. It was 1995, and the movie Twister wouldn’t come out until the following summer, but I had been completely fixated on tornadoes since I first saw The Wizard of Oz when I was four years old. There was something sublime about that sweeping, unstoppable funnel cloud gouging its way back and forth in the background as it slowly made its way towards Dorothy’s house. It shocked me, seeing the adults panic about something so faceless and towering; it was the closest thing I could imagine to a deity – or a devil – who visited the mortal world in ways which were stunning in their scope and violence.


My family had had a brush with tornadoes when I was four and we were living in St. Mary’s, Ohio – a quiet town north of Dayton on the edge of Grand Lake St. Marys. One Sunday afternoon on July 12, 1992 – I remember it was a muggy, heavy day, dark with fat thunderclouds – my mom was home alone with my sister and I when a warning came in from the radio, and she hurried us into the basement with the wind slapping leaves and shingles against our rental. When it was over, we learned that two F1 tornadoes had touched down – one on either side of the lake within five minutes of each other – damaging the high school and totaling some cars.


We drove out to the building to see the broken windows from the sidewalk. It staggered my imagination to think that I had been so close to one of Them: these erratic, blind gods that terrified grownups and could shatter brick walls and crumple cars. And to think that all this destruction and chaos was caused by a pair of comparatively weak F1 tornadoes (this was years before the Enhanced Fujita, “EF” scale was introduced) whose 80-mph wind speeds were a third or even a fourth of those which a true monster could generate.


My interests as a kid were all over the place but tended to cycle in seasons – and I guess they still do. Sometimes I was deep into the Titanic or the Revolutionary War, sometimes Robin Hood or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, or dinosaurs or the solar system or whales, but sooner or later, once I had wrung what I wanted out of a topic and had moved on to a new passion (and another, and another after that) I would come back again to revisit one of my perennial fascinations.


Tornadoes, however, tended to cycle through more often than others: every spring and summer, as the blue-black storm fronts boiled in from the southwest, the old people went to talking about their legendary memories of twisters. Oftentimes these were second or third-hand accounts of what an aunt or neighbor or neighbor’s aunt saw or felt or heard, but they told them in the same hushed tones as a ghost story.


One month after the July 12th twins, my family moved to Berne, Indiana, where I had all my schooling and where my folks still live. As such, I consider it my hometown. Berne and its outskirts had been struck by tornadoes at least four times since it was settled by Swiss immigrants in 1852. The two most devastating events each took place during a nation-wide outbreak, both times on a Palm Sunday. Both were deadly, both passed through multiple counties and across the Ohio state line, and both reached at least F4 intensity. The first Palm Sunday Tornado – a possible F5 – happened in 1920. The second took place in 1965.


Of course, the 1965 twister was much more in the public imagination: hundreds of locals still remembered it, and it was part of one of the most famous tornado sequences in world history, best remembered for a terrifying, black and white photograph taken of twin F4 tornadoes churning angrily towards the photographer in nearby Midway, Indiana. It remains one of the most famous shots of any tornado to this day.


A different F4 smoldered through Berne, that day, and although it was never photographed, the descriptions of it were enough to prove that it had been just as impressive. Backlit by the setting sun, while the skies behind it glowed a pale, fluorescent green, it was described as an oily, black multi-vortex wedge, accompanied by multiple, smaller, satellite twisters that orbited it in gleeful laps. Dozens of locals – both in print media and on online forums – reported leaving their houses to stand outside and “watch it pass by,” but not one of them thought to photograph it: they were too engrossed; it was that stunning of a sight.


I always wished that I could have seen what it looked like, even if only in the blurry smudges of a faded polaroid, or a drawing, or a dream.


The damage was well-documented and can easily be found online. Before it crashed across Berne’s northern outskirts – taking out the bowling alley, grocery store, lumber yard, and half a dozen other businesses which it ground to flecks – it had made a direct hit on our smaller sister town of Linn Grove, a once-idyllic village on the banks of the Wabash River five miles west-southwest of Berne. Linn Grove sent their children to their own high school, and they worshipped in their own churches. But the tornado tore up the shady trees that gave it its name, pulverized most of its houses, gutted its high school, and hurled Elroy Stauffer’s mobile home into the town’s only church – killing him inside it. Those who stayed had no choice but to send their children to the Berne schools, and to worship with Berne congregations. Some rebuilt. Many left.


After that miserable April, the cozy village dried up into a fading hamlet populated by hermits, invalids, and loners. It still boasted some fine old houses, but the village never rebuilt up to its previous standard, nor did the businesses return (only a hardware store and dumpster rental are there today), and the streets grew rough and pockmarked. The remaining houses are mostly weathered-looking ranches – distinctly 1960s in vintage – with faded siding and silent, weed-choked yards. Every time I’ve ever been there the sky has been overcast and glum; when you exit your car there is always a fishy smell of river mud and a musk of motor oil. The photos from before April 11, 1965 show something entirely different: a sleepy community protectively shaded by gigantic elms and dappled in golden sunlight – dreamlike, stable, lovely...


When the ’65 twister gutted Linn Grove, it killed three men (including Mr. Stauffer, whose mobile home was hurled through the brick church), and very few people saw it coming. One of the few who realized what was happening tried to outrun it in his truck: Martin Graber made the mistake of driving north while the twister bore down (as they usually do) southwest-to-northeast at 70 miles per hour, cutting off his escape. His truck was overtaken, and he didn’t survive to tell what it was like to see the sooty funnel burst from the woods directly in front of him, before he was struck head on and pulled into its black bosom. His truck was hurled end over end and wrenched him to pieces.


There was one man, however, who was widely known to have actually seen it from up close just after it ate up the town and flew off towards Berne. Mr. Gerig was one of the three janitors at our elementary, and he had been a young man in his twenties when the twister destroyed his family’s farm on the banks of the Wabash that night. His widowed mother was in Berne at a Palm Sunday vesper service while he was working on the family tractor. His twin brother – Jakob, a local football hero who had been paralyzed in a car accident two years prior – was in the house when it was struck, and although Mr. Gerig ran towards the building in an effort to wheel his brother to their storm cellar, he was too late: he saw the smoking vortex slurp the 60 year old roof off its rafters, then slap and toss the walls inside out, before sucking and spitting them out in a spray of splinters and pulp. Somewhere in that mash was his mangled brother, and before Mr. Gerig had a chance to understand what he had witnessed, he was knocked out cold by a broken shovel blade.


The last thing he saw before the blow was the impossibly vast wall of destruction grinding its way over his house and on towards him. By the deep scouring it left on the grass – the swirling, balding marks and groves torn into the ground by the suction – it was clear that he had missed being pulled into its clutches by just a few dozen feet. I always wondered what he would have seen had he opened his eyes as it passed by. Or, like in some Old Testament story, would he have been struck blind or dead for gazing into the open face of a divine power?


After hearing so many stories like this, I started having recurring nightmares of a greasy, green-black curtain smoking its way towards a farmhouse. Everything feels deserted, my family is missing, and I don’t know if there is a basement to provide safety. The home is strange and rustic. I keep glancing through a nearby window to check its progress, and each time it has grown nearer and fatter. The ambient light in the house grows increasingly dim and green as the crashing rush outside grows in power. I don’t know where to go or what to do. I look out the window one final time, but now I see nothing: it is as though the glass had been painted over black – and yet I can sense that this blackness is alive with incomprehensible speed and motion.


Now I am moving forward – quickly and awkwardly, it feels too fast – towards the front door and then out onto a porch. What follows is a blur. I am falling, have fallen – come on now, oh please, oh God, help me, please, oh what are you doing? – and I look up at the gyrating sky, which is puckering towards some point behind the house – a point that is surging forward. I realize that I am seeing the crotch where the funnel cloud flows into Heaven. There is its miserable head, peering over the top of the house at me. It has seen me and moves faster.


Suddenly, there is a stunning pain, and a metal banging – klamm-klamm-klamm! – rattling in my ears. What’s causing it? It doesn’t last long: everything around me is shredded, and swallowed into a black swarm of dirt and splinters and glass, and I am sucked high above into a churning, grinding vortex…



II.

A New Best Friend


With these strange histories percolating in my head, I decided to mount a pro bono tornado watching service for the area. I was only eight at the time, however, so I could only offer this during recess or when I got home from school. I committed myself to climbing to the highest part of the playground – the platform of the “big slide” – and scanning the low-hanging clouds on dark, overcast days. You know good and well by now that I’m an odd guy and an introvert, but even this was a little far. But I enjoyed it, as strange as it sounds, standing up there by myself while other kids scrambled past me to get to the slide. It felt good to be watchful and to have the secret knowledge that the Thing might be rousing from its sleep overhead, and that I was on alert.


Of course, like any weird kid who does things like this, I filled my lonely time up there with fantasies of shouting out to the recess teacher, pointing towards a fat, low-hanging, grey, pustule on the sky’s belly as it began to gyrate tellingly. Naturally, she would let me lead the way inside and demonstrate to my classmates how to duck and cover in the hallway. When the dust settled and we all safely exited from the wreckage, I would have my picture in the paper and my parents would brag about me to their friends.


Like I said, I was a weird kid. None of that ever happened, of course. Even in the moment I was keenly aware that it was all just an indulgent daydream that would evaporate into space when the bell rang. It wasn’t the only thing that disappeared for me from those days. The school and playground were razed ten years ago, and nothing was ever built on the lot. When I visit my parents I notice that I avoid ever going in that direction. For some reason, I don’t like to see the vacant lot where the school used to be…


It was at this time in my life that Tyler Allan moved to Indiana from Arizona. He was slight and pale, with a shock of bright, blond hair, and a blaze of freckles across his face. He was a prodigious piano player, even then, and was extremely well-read and intelligent. Like me he was eccentric, but also confident and extraverted, which made his strangeness more charming, if more obvious. He was assigned to my second-grade class and we became friends almost immediately: he was the only other boy I knew of who was interested in history, books, and science. To give just one example, the other boys my age all watched shows like COPS, the WWF, Power Rangers, or Beevis and Butthead – things I had no interest in. But Tyler and I watched the same nerdy PBS shows – Wishbone, Bill Nye, Carmen San Diego, and The Magic School Bus. He seemed to instantly understand what it would take to win and maintain my friendship. As I would come to realize, Tyler was very talented at smelling these things out.


He was my first long-term friend, and even though it was not to last – though I’ll tell you about that another time – it was intoxicating to have another person my age who knew who Sherlock Holmes was, understood the difference between Mercury and Mars, and wanted to play Robin Hood instead of Monday Night Raw. His friendship was magnetic to me, and yet my parents were quickly skeptical of how good of a friend he might be: he invented wild stories about himself that I swallowed without hesitation: that his family had moved there to escape the Crips and Bloods (in the ticky-tacky suburbs of Phoenix), that his new house had trapdoors in it, that he had found a bonafide Civil War fort in the woods behind it, that his uncle was a private detective, that he knew several movie stars, that his parents had found pirates’ flintlocks in his basement, and that his mom had the three ingredients to make the gunpowder needed to fire them in their pantry (what 90s housewife didn’t have saltpeter in their cupboard behind the Tang?). Of course, these marvels were never available for me to see, although he promised many times to try to convince his parents, nothing came of it, and there were always excuses.


Later, in middle school he would lie about being on Jeopardy! with his mom, having memorized the entire dictionary, and being a sworn-in member of the “Junior FBI,” at which point he hung a sign for a detective agency in his bedroom window and claimed to be working of the mayor of Berne on a secret case. I hate to admit that I was twelve years old when my own gnawing suspicions and my parents’ gentle ridicule finally sank in, and I realized that I had been had.


All of this is true. Remember that: I am not making any of these details up or goosing them for entertainment’s sake. He literally told me that he was a real-life Encyclopedia Brown, trained by the FBI, and solving cases for the mayor like a Hardy Boy. If I wanted to make up a story about a person like this, I would want to leave that part out for realism; but Tyler was a very real person with very real charisma. However, this is a story about an earlier time in our short, strange friendship. It all took place several years after today’s story.


In reality – thinking back on him as an adult – Tyler was surely nervous in this new home so far from his old friends, and was only too eager to make a quick friendship with another kid who was just enough of an outsider as to be vulnerable to his influence, but not enough of a pariah that I would be a danger to his social career: true, I was odd, but I was well-liked and although I had no solid friendships or social circles, everyone was friendly to me and I had no enemies. I was an easy mark for a charismatic newcomer looking for a disciple.


As that first year turned from autumn into winter and from winter into spring, Tyler and I compared notes on the natural dangers of our respective hometowns. He bragged about surviving the massive black widow spiders and bark scorpions that he claimed overran Phoenix – not to mention the threats of sandstorms, blazing heat, Crips, Bloods, and earthquakes. I had virtually nothing to offer against this: in terms of deadly critters, northeast Indiana harbored timber rattlers, cottonmouth water moccasins, and brown recluse spiders, but I had never seen any. In terms of weather, we had intense winters, but to young boys those were exciting opportunities for snow forts and snow days. We certainly didn’t have gangs or earthquakes.


We did have tornadoes, though, and I was surprised to realize that Tyler was actually impressed by them. What’s more, he genuinely seemed to be afraid of them. Twister hadn’t quite come out at this point in my story – this was the spring of ’96 – but the children’s disaster novel Night of the Twisters was very popular then, and violent tornadoes had recently worked their way into the news: two years earlier an F4 had ground its way through West Lafayette, and that same April twenty-one twisters had scoured across Indiana during a national outbreak.


Like me, Tyler’s hyperactive, boy’s imagination was both arrested and invigorated by the thought of actually seeing a tornado. We obsessively watched VHS compilations of twister home recordings. In our favorite clip, we watched the grainy impressions of ghoulish clouds pursing themselves into a sagging mound that slowly settled its way down to earth, while serpents of dust leapt up in giddy anticipation from the ground below. The recording cut out suddenly, but returned to show it transfigured into a swollen, grey tower tearing thoughtlessly through the dusky landscape like an angry god.


As April waxed into May – with three weeks left before summer vacation – we decided to formalize my storm spotting into a club: the Berne Tornado Watchers’ Club. Tyler now joined me at the top of the big slide whenever the skies turned gloomy. Unfortunately for us, that May was beautiful, and when summer came – although we saw each other at church events and the pool – our watches were put on hold until the fall. In Indiana tornadoes see a slight resurgence in October and November, so we occupied ourselves as Halloween approached.


After Twister came out that summer, the topic of tornadoes became wildly popular with all the boys in our class. We faked our way into being considered experts in the field, and our watches began to attract attention: at times we had three or four other boys join us on dark, muggy days when the clouds scudded in low-hanging heaps.


Tyler was increasing in popularity, too, especially with the girls, who saw him as a mature, interesting outsider. He had all the charm that I lacked and none of my aloofness. Although we were still sworn best friends, I was beginning to sense the cracks in our closeness: he was moving on to bigger things, and although puberty hadn’t activated in me yet, I was starting to resent his success with the girls. If anything, I was also jealous of them for how easily they dominated his attention: as the year wore on, I realized that – more often than not – he spent recess stirring around with a bevy of girls while I rummaged about the playground simultaneously trying to repress my envy and find something to do.


Things came to a head on my birthday in late September when we had a scalding fight during recess over a fake treasure map to a fake treasure. We were entering the third grade and I think that, perhaps, the shine was wearing off on my perception of him, but I was still gullible enough to believe that a crumpled square of butcher paper he had sketched over in colored pencil was a genuine chart leading the way to a buried cache of hidden Confederate gold from the Civil War. He showed it to me in front of a cluster of his girlfriends and told me that his dad had found it in their attic. According to the place names (sloppily written in awkward cursive), it was buried in the wooded park east of Linn Grove.


At first I jumped at his suggestion that we have my parents drop us off with some shovels to dig it up, but then I saw something flinch in his eyes – for just a moment they darted towards Kelly Ryan, his favorite, and I saw that they were in on a joke. She was quiet and maternal, and although I wasn’t yet interested in girls, I had always nursed a quiet admiration of her kindness and pretty, dark eyes. When I realized that she had been invited into a prank against me, it ignited a spark among the gathering gases of resentment in my heart, and I exploded. He was the Outsider who had needed a friend when I took him in, and now I seethed to realize that our roles and power dynamics had completely reversed. I knocked the map out of his hand and shoved him down into the wood chips.


A teacher immediately collared us and I was humiliated by the process of explaining my motive: it sounded so asinine to claim – as a third grader – that I had been duped into believing that another kid had a secret treasure map. But it was the truth and saying it out loud dampened my anger with shame and embarrassment. For Tyler’s part, he glowed with importance after the teacher released us, and instead of ending our friendship for my act of rebellion, he tapped into a new vein of power by extending a gesture of magnanimous forgiveness to me. Already I knew that he would lord it over me whenever it became expedient, but I had been an ass and knew it: I had to swallow my medicine. But I also knew that my heart was growing sick with jealousy and hate, and I wasn’t sure if I desperately wanted to have Tyler hug me and tell me that we would always be friends or yearned to shove him in front of traffic and watch his face before the big rig tore him inside out…


III.


A Dead Man’s Eye


It was about this time, in the fall of ’96, that I came up with an idea to impress Tyler – and hopefully resecure his friendship and attention. He hadn’t yet been “trained” by the Junior FBI or hung his detective’s shingle in his bedroom window, but even in those early days he was fascinated by detective work, and I came up with a means of merging this interest of his with our tornado watching service. Hopefully, I thought, I could recover his attention and things could go back to the way they had been when he first moved to Berne.


It had occurred to me that the best way we could learn how to detect tornadoes was to interview someone who had actually seen a tornado: what was it like? What had they seen, heard, felt, smelled? What had happened before the tornado appeared? Had there been any clues? Any omens or premonitions? And I knew exactly who to ask...


Mr. Gerig was a bachelor. He was a thin, sour man who snarled in the course, peculiar accent – part Appalachian, part rural New England, part Cornish – that used to mark the working classes of the industrial Midwest before World War II. He was nearing retirement, but no one expected him to leave the job voluntarily. It wasn’t that he loved his work (he didn’t appear to), but that he took so little pleasure in life that he would certainly dry up and die in a matter of months if he was ever forced to spend time alone with himself. All day he worked in the school, and at closing time he microwaved a supper of beans and bacon in the staff lounge, then drove out to his part-time job at Berne Ready Mix (a cement and concrete supplier) before getting home – or so we’d heard – around ten. He had just enough time to read the Berne Witness and eat an evening snack of pickles and crackers before he went to bed and had to be up again by five.


On the weekends he did maintenance on his house – a 1967 ranch built across the river from the former site of the Gerig farm – ran errands and delivered cement to customers. Although our community was almost unanimously religious, he hadn’t attended a service on a Sunday since the Kennedy administration. The most enjoyment he seemed to take from life came on Saturday afternoons when he would use some of the money he hoarded to get drunk in a corner at Happy’s Place, our only local bar, while he betted on sporting events with a coterie of equally miserable, equally elderly bar regulars who – for all their gloom – at least spent time with one another on the other six days of the week. For Mr. Gerig, however, his days were artificially busy and unnecessarily burdensome.


Mr. Gerig stood out from the other janitors for more things that his lack of a social life: his face was unforgettable. The shovel blade thrown by the tornado had sliced through the right side of his face, blinding him and leaving a stark, white weal from hairline to jawline – like a lash of frozen lightning. His deep-set eyes were valanced by thick eyebrows – black and wild, almost meeting in the middle like two overgrown fields reaching out to one another across a drainage ditch. His healthy, left eye was a pale, milky blue with a narrow pupil that seemed to have dried up from years of drought, but the iris of his mangled, right eye was pure black and reflective, like polished ebony or the gleaming surface of a glass stovetop. Its pupil had exploded in the blow, and it glared without looking, while the white sclera around it faded to a leprous yellow, like newspaper in a forgotten attic. It was the fixed eye of a dead man, while the blue one opposite cast the wilted, languorous gaze of a man who wanted to die but could not summon the energy to arrange it himself.


In spite of his ghostliness, Mr. Gerig was adored by the children: he was stern and grim, but spoke to us in the same drab, country lingo he used for the principal and the teachers and the crossing guard. He addressed us like adults, and for that we respected and even loved him. He neither romanticized us as adorable innocents nor resented us for our childishness. In some respects, he seemed to approve of us more than the adults, though, because we despised the pretentions of grownups and rejected their hypocrisies as much as he did. In many ways, aside from his trademark world-weariness, he preferred the company of children: few adults were willing to claim him, and I don’t believe he had a single friend.


He had no use for material goods, fine clothes, or public opinions, and he had no time for church, smalltown gossip, or politics. Bourgeois morality was beneath him – a waste of energy – but so were the manic, indulgent vices of the local bar-flies. Naturally, he was coarse and offensive to the “upstanding” set, with their tidy homes and repressed appetites, but the foul-mouthed rummies at Happ’s found him even more repulsive. Yes, they drank with him on Saturdays, but he always headed for the door hours before closing time, and they shook their heads at his unwillingness to rage and blaspheme with them during the weekdays. They reviled him as a killjoy and a wet blanket who was missing out on a helluva lotta fun, and who struck many of them as grimmer and glummer and much less of a good sport than the sour-mouthed, Nazarene preacher who refused to so much as fill his car with gasoline on a Sunday or eat at a restaurant that had beer on its menu.


And so, one day during gym class, I suggested that we interview an up-close survivor of a twister’s fury. Tyler surprised me: he was delighted by my proposal and wondered why he’d never thought of that. He patted me warmly on the back and congratulated me on a great idea, using a fond nickname for me that I hadn’t heard from him in some time. I tried to contain my smile, but I’m sure my relief was incandescent: I was back in business with my best friend and his approval meant worlds to me.


We both agreed that it would still be a challenge to screw up our courage to ask Gerig about the worst day of his life, but with Tyler’s charisma to lead us, it didn’t take long: we hunted him down during recess one October day while he was raking up leaves in an alcove on the side of the building – a large, recessed side entrance that was only to be used during an evacuation – where the breeze delighted in piling them up. This spot was oddly fitting for the conversation, because the wind always acted strangely there: it was drawn into the alcove by a draught from the doors – like water slurped into a drain – which created tight, spinning eddies of dust and leaves anytime that the wind was up. It was like a nursery for tornados, with the detritus swirling in slow, wide vortexes that narrowed and sped up gradually with the wind, growing higher and tighter until they spun above our heads in playful whirlwinds.


I can’t remember exactly how our conversation started, but when one such translucent vortex sucked up a handful of Gerig’s leaves into an infantile twister, Tyler clumsily drew the comparison, explained to him that we were part of the “Berne Tornado Watchers’ Club” and asked – crudely, with a lack of polish that surprised me – if the old man could tell us what it had been like “when that big one took out Linn Grove.” Gerig quietly paused his work. We knew, Tyler clarified, that his scar had come from the twister, and that his house and brother had also been lost in the storm. There was an awkward silence while Gerig sized us up, then Tyler took a quick breath and blurted, “I mean what was it like; what did you see when it came to you?”


To my surprise, something in Tyler’s inept wording caught the old man off guard. His blue eye flashed in alert and he peered anxiously at Tyler. The wind caught the leaves at our feet up and drew them up into a crackling, cone-shaped flurry before settling back down as gently as feathers.


What happened next was so cryptic and uncomfortable that I can see and hear each second of it in my memory as if I had just walked away from the alcove with Tyler by my side. I can imagine it right now:


Gerig steels himself a bit, tightens his face and looks at Tyler, then over at me, resting on me for a tense moment and I feel him unpacking me, perhaps both of us, perhaps our friendship. The moment exceeds what is comfortable, and I am about to back away when he shifts his gaze to Tyler, then back to me, then rests searchingly on Tyler. His face then darkens and something happens around his mouth, though I can’t process the thoughts and emotions as they brew in the lines in his face, but ultimately, he glances up into the corner of the alcove as if looking up at a hidden camera, consulting with an unseen authority before making his decision. His mouth cocks to one side, and – seemingly satisfied by something he has pondered – he looks back at me, and answers Tyler’s question while glaring directly into my right eye.


“Here’s what I’ll say tuh that: I’m on m’ shift now and you’re tuh be out there playin’, not botherin’ the staff with a whole lot-a pers’nal-like questions. That bein’ said, it’s fall-time and I’m a busy man with a yard full-a leaves that needs rakin’. I don’t got time for all that fol-dee-rol, but if you’uns ‘ll come over tuh my place at Wudder an’ Main on Sund’y after dinner, and if you clean it up an’ bag the lot of it, I’ll give you’uns a glass of cider as pay, and for ‘s long as it takes you tuh drink ‘em, I’ll talk. But when the glasses’re dry, you’ll be getting’ on your way, and I won’t wantcha talkin’ me up again after that. Understood?”


Without consulting each other, we agreed, excited by the prospect of this tertiary contact with the great event. It was easy enough – especially during the ‘90s – to convince our parents to let us bike the five miles down to Linn Grove in the name of doing a good deed for an elderly janitor. Today wise parents would insist on driving us down there and staying in the vicinity – probably watching from a distance or even participating – rather than let two prepubescent boys slip off to a different town to spend the afternoon at the house of an antisocial bachelor for an indeterminate amount of time, especially with the express promise of open-container beverages that could have any manner of substances slipped into them. However, it was a time when JonBenét Ramsey was still alive (she would not be murdered for another two months), the Satanic Panic had been discredited as mass hysteria, and small-town adults still seemed to share an implicit trust with one another – even with a secretive hermit – as long as they knew their family and shared a zip-code. We were given permission and agreed to set out for Linn Grove that Sunday afternoon...


IV.


A Strange Testimony


It took a half hour to bike from my house to Linn Grove. The day was cold and drab, with a scaly frost on the ground and the sun glowing through the clouds in weak, silver flashes. Mr. Gerig’s home was so nondescript and plain that I hesitate to describe it, other than to say that it was a ranch house with dirty white siding, blinds covering all the windows, and not a single distinguishing touch in the yard or exterior: not a flag, bush, gazing ball, planter, lamp post, wheel barrow, flower bed, bird bath, or garden gnome – none of the eccentricities that one expects from an older person’s lawn. Its only decoration were the leaden house numbers screwed into the door jamb, like a fading epitaph. His yard was completely littered with frosty mounds of blacking leaves from the maples and sycamores.


His house was the only one on his side of the block – a stretch of Water Street that was bookended by Main Street to the south and Center Street to the north. Water Street, for its part, formed the eastern border of the village, with the Wabash River rolling parallel with it, shadowed by thick briers and tangled trees. His house was tucked away, snugged up against the Main Street bridge on its left, with its back to the Wabash, and three vacant, wooded lots to its right. The house across the street from it faced Main Street, not Water, as if it was turning a cold shoulder to its neighbor – either bitterly shunning it or uneasily denying its existence. Bushy trees cast purple shadows over his yard, and in the morning the eastern sun caused the bridge – which loomed to his left, overlooking his backyard – to contribute to that shadow. It had an air of rejection, as if it had been put on time out or was being ostracized from the rest of the town for a crime that was not to be discussed.


Tyler had strapped two rakes across the back of his bike and I had brought a roll of orange garbage bags, which we brought to the door when we rang the bell. It buzzed like a cicada – dry and irritated – but the door immediately opened. There was Old Man Gerig, but instead of ushering us in or explaining his expectations in detail during a tour of the yard, he nodded in cold recognition, stared for a moment, then darted his good eye impatiently to the yard around us.


“So you’re here,” he murmured. “Gitta work, then.”


His brevity wasn’t unwarranted: the project was self-explanatory and could be easily done. The property was large for an in-town ranch, but not massive, so we went to work, with our breath smoking in the fall air and the gritty scratch of our rakes breaking the Sabbath stillness along with the occasional scream of a distant bird or the hum of a diesel pickup driving over the bridge without stopping.


The solemn Wabash River rolled behind his house, in a wide, brown smear, lapping sluggishly against its banks, mostly hidden behind a black tangle of trees and briers reaching up from the far end of Gerig’s backyard. As we moved back and forth down his property, my eye kept surveilling the movement of it silent swirl behind the trees, and in spite of myself, I kept catching my breath and looking up sporadically, troubled by some instinct or impression that something watchful and patient was moving towards us from the other side of those trees. Worse than this, twice I thought – with complete conviction – that I saw something pulling itself towards us: a scrawny, mud-colored thing crawling up the riverbank at a discipline pace, like a hungry dog sneaking up on a bird. I couldn’t explain the deception – no woodchucks or beavers or groundhogs seemed to be out that cold afternoon – but I found myself wishing that our chore would be over soon, at times regretting that we had sought it out at all.


By the time we finished, we were both steaming and flushed, with perspiration running in streaks down our faces and necks. I had been confused about Mr. Gerig’s offer of chilled cider on such a cold day, but when he came out the back door with two mason jars (he only had two cups in the house and they were both dirty, he said), I was delighted to see the grey frost clinging to their sides, promising icy refreshment.


Gerig was quick to the punch: he sat us down on two overturned, five-gallon buckets across from a rusted, iron patio chair – the sole piece of lawn furniture. We both took a sharp but measured drag from our ciders: they were deliciously cold and sweet, but we were mindful that when we finished them, we would be asked to leave.


“So,” he began, “you wanna know how it was. Well here’s as good-a place’s any tuh talk about it. The Things went right over us here. Leveled the houses that was here: everything was ate up between this house and just beyond them buildin’s way down there” – and he pointed to a cluster sheds and garages gathered protectively around a house on the other side of the spot where Center Street terminated into Water Street. I looked out over the three vacant lots between his place and the property at the far end of the road and realized, for the first time, that if you looked carefully, you could see strange, sunken, squarish discolorations in the grass which seemed to mark the places where the foundations and basements of demolished houses had been filled in. I also seemed to recognize what looked like overgrown driveways and walkways extending from Water Street and terminating in these weed-choked beds.


“Dija ever notice how the parks in town butt up against each other, comin’ up sou’west tuh nor’east?”


I didn’t exactly know my directions, but I saw what he meant anyway: at the far, southwest side of town there was a massive playground – strangely large for such a small town with so few children – that hosted a sun scorched basketball court which no one ever used and a baseball diamond which was always in danger of being eaten up by weeds. This was bordered, on its northeast side, by a public lot that hosted a dark, kidney-shaped, man-made swimming pond – another nonsequitor – which snugged up against three more empty, rectangular lots the same size and shape of three small houses and their yards. Between here were a smattering of houses – 70s-looking ranches and trailers – occupying largely-empty blocks. Even across the street from him there were only two houses: the one facing Main Street and a small, cheap-looking micro-house flanked by empty space. I suddenly realized that the tornado’s story was hardly one that needed to be deciphered through painstaking detective work: the town itself was a monument to its trajectory and size – a cenotaph to the devastation that had happened there three decades prior.


“So it came through there?” Tyler asked, interrupting my stupor, pointing to the lot next door.


“Yeah, they come through there: a big mother’n her two ragin’ sons. The house that stood here was crushed under by the tall trees that used tuh be here even before the funnels run over it. They was all blowed down by her great, wheelin’ scythe o’ junk: all the broke up bricks and lumber and glass. But everything between that spot there” – he indicated a swell of riverbank on the opposite side of the bridge – “and beyond them sheds was ate up and spitted out.”


We tried to take that in: the distance he was describing was nearly eight hundred feet wide. In all of the pictures I’d seen of twisters, even the impressive ones, they seemed so tidy and remote, with their smooth points tapering into a single, thin spot of earth that hardly seemed to cover more than fifty feet of space. Even with the knowledge that many famous storms had engulfed multiple sequential blocks and vaporized entire neighborhoods in other cities and states, I realized that I was now standin