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 O R F R O M T H E S T O R M
“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 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 a whirlwind…”
— Hosea 8:7
THE VISITOR FROM THE STORM
A Childhood Fascination
I’m not sure if this is ghost story. It is, however, a true story – true enough to rattle my trust in my first real friend, Tyler Allan. The awful way in which our friendship 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 taught me to be cautious with my heart. It happened well before I was old enough to understand adult problems like jealousy, manipulation, and 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 those two boys who were never able to reconcile.
But my story begins well before I met him, and requires some little introduction to one of my lifelong fascinations and fears, for, as you will have gathered by now, it is also a story about a tornado.
When I was in second grade, I was entranced by all things related to 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 – dragged me 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 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 gliding in the background as it slowly but relentlessly made its way towards the Gale homestead. It shocked me, seeing the adult actors so panicked, and although I didn’t know exactly what they were facing, by its scope and appearance, it was immediately recognizable as some ancient, elemental enemy of mankind – the closest thing I could imagine to a deity or a devil, who visited the mortal world with mysterious motives and irrational violence.
My family had a brush with tornadoes a year later when I was five and we were living in a quiet town north of Dayton on the banks of Grand Lake. Sunday, July 12, 1992 started as a quiet, steamy day, but I can still remember how quickly it grew dark from the fat thunderclouds, how the tornado warning blared at us from the radio, and how my parents hurried us into the basement with the wind slapping leaves and shingles against our rental. When it was over, we learned that two tornadoes had touched down – two F1s on either side of the lake within five minutes of each other. The next day we drove past the damage and a saw its awful fingerprints. It staggered my imagination to think that I had been so close to one of Them: these blind, erratic gods that terrified grownups and treated brick and steel like dry brambles to be kicked aside without a thought. And to think that all this destruction and chaos was caused by a pair of comparatively weak F1 tornadoes (this was before the Enhanced Fujita, or “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 back again 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: everyone’s breathing grew shallower, their jaws and foreheads went tight, and their eyes stayed fixed on the speaker so as not to miss the slightest word of these terrible liturgies.
One month after the Grand Lake twins, my family moved to Berne, Indiana, where I had all twelve years of 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 had much more currency 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 tower accompanied by multiple, smaller, satellite twisters that orbited it in gleeful laps. Dozens upon dozens of locals – both in print media and on online forums – reported leaving their houses to stand outside to “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. Just before it crashed through 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 scored a direct hit on our smaller sister town, 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 and totaling the brick building. 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 suspicious hermits, lonely invalids, and conspiracy theorists. It still boasted some fine old houses, but the village never rebuilt up to its previous standard, nor did the businesses (only a hardware store and dumpster rental remain today) and the streets grew rough and pockmarked. The houses are mostly weathered-looking ranches – distinctly 1970s 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, very few people saw it coming. One of those 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 through 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 he was wrenched 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 of thirty 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 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 down 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 funnel cloud 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 grows nearer and fatter. The ambient light in the house grows increasingly dim and green as the crashing rush outside mounts 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. My face sears with pain – come on now, oh please, oh someone, help me, please, oh what’re you doing? – as 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 horrible 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…
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 overcast days. You know by now that I’m an odd guy, but even this was a little out there. Still, 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 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 have noticed that I go out of my way to 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, Power Rangers, or Beevis and Butthead – things I had no interest in. But Tyler and I watched the same nerdy PBS shows – Wishbone, 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 MondayNight 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 from Phoenix to escape the Crips and Bloods, 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 (of course: what 90s housewife didn’t have saltpeter in their cupboard behind the Tang?). Naturally, 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.
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 days and snow forts. 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 Y.A. 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 no fewer than twenty-one whirlwinds 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 grey monolith storming across the plains like a vengeful god.
As April waxed into May – with three weeks left before summer vacation – we decided to formalize my storm spotting routine into a club: the Berne Tornado Watchers. 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 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 on which he had sketched a plan 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, kids’ 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 warm 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…
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 interest. 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 Yankee – 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), 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 packaging cement at Berne Ready Mix before getting home 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 ‘67 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 had 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 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 barflies. 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 thin-lipped, Nazarene preacher who refused to eat at Pizza Hut because it had beer on its menu.
And so, one day during gym class, I suggested that we interview this 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 it. 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 leaves out of an alcove on the east flank 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 – spawning 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 to that: I’m on m’ shift now and you’re t’ 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-d’-rol, but if you‘ll come over t’ m’ place at Water n’ Main on Sund’y after dinner, and if y’ clean it up an’ bag the lot of it, I’ll give y’ each a glass-a cider as pay, and for’s long as it takes you t’ drink ‘em, I’ll talk. But when the glasses’re dry, you’ll be gettin’ 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 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...
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 reduced to a weak, silver flame guttering behind the clouds. Mr. Gerig’s home was so nondescript and impersonal, that I can barely remember 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 an epitaph. His yard was enshrouded with frosty mounds of blackening 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 – 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’d 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 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 its 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 disciplined 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 streaks of perspiration running 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 t’ 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 t’ 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 butted 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 here?” Tyler asked, interrupting my stupor, gesturing with both arms to the space between the bridge and the far-off out buildings.
“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 t’ be here before the funnels even 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 standing at the edge of where the flank of one of these vortexes had passed, and that nearly three football fields could fit between the borders he described.
Gerig looked out across the river and seemed to eye something between the trees. His good eye flinched sheepishly while the other gleamed defiantly like oiled iron.
“All of the houses in this town was tore up to a degree, but most families was able t’ fix ‘em. But here’s where its dead heart come through, and where it went, nothin’ was left t’ repair. They was swept up like you done them leaves. Arr house, back then, was just over these trees and two fields down, just offa Pine Lake. That day was a Sund’y o’ course, so arr old mother was at church. Me n’ my brother stayed home. We always did. I still do. But my old mother was at the Palm Sund’y meetin’. We didn’t talk too much, me n’ him. He’d been what you might call a ‘heartbreaker’ just a few years afore his accident – a lady-killer. And that’s not a bad way t’ put it. And he did do that. He left hearts all mashed up and thrown about behind him. Arr old mother loved ‘im, too, and he broke her heart, too. He was a hero on the sportin’ fields and a welcome help t’ the farmers at harvest-time ‘cause he was strong and fulla power. But he didn’t use it right; he used his power fer wrong.
“I knowed it and I spited him fer it. I didn’t have the love of a brother fer ‘im, and he knew that, too. But maybe I shoulda changed that after his accident. Mother didn’t even know what the smell of licker was – couldn’ta recognized it if it was spilt all over the davenport in spades. But my brother was right-familiar with it, and he were lickered up when he had that wreck with that Miller girl. She got killed and her folks was paid fer ’t – arr mother saw t’ that – but my brother were a bitter, sullen sinner, and he didn’t feel a wisp-a shame: he just felt sorry fer hisself and fer ‘is lost legs. But that Miller girl was just collat’ral damage, and he never gived her a moment’s thought after he heard she’d been tore in two by the fence they run int’.
“Well, when the storm come, we was home by arr selves. Him in ‘is wheelchair grim’cing at the T.V. set, and me out in the yard toolin’ with the tractor since we was ready fer spring plantin’. I was lucky that I was out there – with m’ hands all up in the oily guts of that old Oliver Super 55 – ‘cause I seen it while he was in there by hisself. It was a rum day from the beginnin’: the sky weren’t right all afternoon – all colored-up like a bad bruise with purples and oranges and greens and blacks – and the clouds t’ the sou’west was nothing but pitch-black, like a gout-a oil, with wild, bright dazzles of blue lightnin’ flashin’ all back an’ forth across it. The sun had just gone down, but the sky under them clouds was still lit up, and it was’na nice color a’tall: a sick and shiny green, all pale an’ bright. But I didn’t think much of it, and I had chores t’ get done even if it was a Sund’y.
“The first thing I noticed that worried me was the dead quiet. All-a a sudden-like they was no more birds or breeze or crickets. It was like somethin’ just shut ‘em off like a faucet, but it weren’t just the sound: the whole air seemed frozen an’ heavy an’ still-like. That’s when I looked up and saw it coming up towards us from west-a town. It was the biggest thing I ever seen – taller ‘an the skyscraper in Fort Wayne and wider ‘an three track fields put together, end t’ end – it swallered up the sky. The set sun was still a-glowin’ behind it, makin’ it stand out like a black, ugly smear-a tar on a green posterboard. It was smokin’ an’ boilin’ an’ jigglin’ side-t’-side, an’ getting’ bigger an’ bigger all the time. Worst-a all, I could see it was some kind of mutant-a nature, like a chicken born with three legs or a lamb born with two heads, the kind you sees and wanna kill with a rock before it can take another breath. It had two smaller brother-tails sweepin’ in mad circles ‘round the fat, tall mother in the middle. They was also black and coaly, but mistier and snake-like, and I could see trees and brush caught up in them before they was sucked inta the mother’s guts.
“I stood up and realized I’d have t’ run towards it t’ get my brother outta the house. The storm cellar was just behind me, but I runned off toward the house. I could see that funnel comin’ on strong towards the Wabash. By that time I could hear it screamin’ through that thick air: a crashin’, thunderin’ rumble that you could feel in your feet an’ teeth an’ skull – a moanin’ hum, all low an’ hoonin’, like a mournin’ wail. The worst of all, though, was I could smell its breath. I’ll never ferget that stench: swampy an’ wet, all cut grass an’ turned-up earth an’ splin’erd wood an' river mud. That’s how I knowed it’d ate up the town – you smelled that burst pine and brick dust ‘cause it had blowed up houses, and then that sour, fishy mash-a river water mistin’ in the air telled me that it’d cut through the Wabash like Moses at the Red Sea. And then the trees at the far edge o’ the field – that one just yonder across the river there – all bent t’ one side then twisted backwards and got wrenched up into one of the brother twisters while the mother was close behind…”
Here he caught himself and his eyes seemed to lock on something across the river from us. His leathery face tightened up in a strange way and his head sunk low on his shoulders as if he was trying to sink out of sight. I listened too: there was something far off in the distance, the dull banging – klamm-klamm-klamm — of a rubber mallet thumping against metal, probably a farmer pounding a dent out of a truck door on the other side of the river, I thought. Gerig’s good eye glittered with wetness – I couldn’t tell if it was from sorrow or fear – and when he spoke again, his voice was hushed and husky, and his fluttering eyes remained fixated on that same distant spot without deviating once.
“So… so it come t’ me, come down through them woods… and up the field, smokin’ an’ plowin’ through the black, wet soil. I run toward the house t’ get my brother, but before I could get there… it pulled off the ruff and the walls come down on top-a him. I had no chance t’ make it t’ the cellar. I got hit in the head – all you young ‘uns know ‘bout that – and I woke up with the house all scattered about an’ my old mother shakin’ me awake with her howl in my ears. We gave up farmin’ after that, and we used the insurance t’ build this here house fer the two-a us. She died on Palm Sund’y in ’74, just days after all them other tornaders come through in dozens ‘cross the whole country – ‘hunered an’ forty-eight of ‘em. Two of ‘em passed by just north-a us in Decatur, and them mem’ries all come back t’ her. I never seen her smile again.”
“Because your brother died,” interjected Tyler, unhelpfully. Gerig’s eyes flinched and swept over to Tyler. They grounded on his face as if searching for something he had already suspected of being there. His eyes narrowed, then they slid over towards me. Our eyes settled on each other and I felt a strange warmth pass between us – a resigned kinship that shamed me and made me feel oddly sad and grown up – and I saw his face soften into a knowing sadness. He looked back at Tyler and his eyes froze back over into a guarded glare.
“Yessir. But —” he said this in a low, raspy voice. “—it didn’t trouble me none. I… I done what I could. What was right… I tried-a save him. What happened weren’t anything t’ be ‘shamed of. It was justice. Maybe the Fates willed it, if Fates there is. He wern-a perfect man. Not a good man a-tall even. He were good-lookin’ an’ folks liked ‘im. He was a good runnin’ back and pitcher and he won some fine trophies fer sport and huntin’ when he still had ‘is legs. But he was a rotten man with a rotten heart. Might be I’m no better, prob’ly I’m not, but he got what was comin’ to ‘im and I’ll… I’ll get… I’ll get what’s comin’ t’ me.”
His face flushed with a vague but potent emotion, and I saw that his forehead shone with sweat.
“What was so bad about him?” asked Tyler – defensively, I thought.
Gerig studied him closely again. “He was a bad ‘un. He had a dead, cold heart. Cold as a stone cellar. He chewed girls up and spat ‘em out. Not just that Miller girl. They was others, some still alive t’day but a little dead in ways that young folks know nothin’ about. He was wicked with ‘em, not that my mother gave a damn about his ways with ‘em. She just saw them silver cups in the parlor and the paper clippin’s in the scrapbooks and the way arr friends smiled and glowed all about ‘im on Sund’ys. It didn’t matter what manner of man he was s’ long as he won them trophies and got arr name in the Witness. Even after he were crippled, she felt the kind pity that folks had towards ‘im an’ she fed on that, too. T’ all the folks in town he was a fallen hero – a Samson, chained n’ blinded at the peak of his powers. They ‘spected him t’ find ‘is strength again, t’ topple his Philistines in some last rally-a force. Sure, a house come down on him, just like Samson, but when it did he was… alone.”
Gerig examined our faces one last time. He looked over at me and spoke to me.
“My brother never let me live down his pop’larity. He never missed a chance t’ rub salt in my wounds. I weren’t good at sports, weren’t well spoke, and weren’t good in school. My name never was in the Witness and I brought home no silver cups. But I knowed his secrets and he knowed mine, and we held these each over t’other, but he was never worried about it. The folks in town all knowed what he done. They knowed his weaknesses. But he did the town good and brought ‘em pride. Pride is more important t’ human hearts than any other thing in nature.
“When we was in high school together, there was a girl, Jane Liechty, who I fancied – kind, pretty thing with sweet eyes and a fine way of holdin’ herself. You’re are too young t’ understand that, but you will. A woman’s smile is a pow’ful force that can chain down a man’s heart and lock it up. She had me wrapped ‘round her li’l finger and my brother knowed it, though she never did. He worked his will over her. He did it in front-a me. Then he had what he wanted from her – what he really wanted from her – and you might know what that is, even if you don’t have the taste fer it yet. But he went and had it, and she was in trouble soon ‘nuff. Her folks had her up t’ Fort Wayne t’ see a dentist there. D’you know what they do when a girl’s in trouble in a family way and she don’t want t’ have a baby? You know they can stop it from comin’, right? They’s surgeries for’t.”
Tyler and I both nodded, though I didn’t really know what he was referring to at the time.
“Well they had her up there to a dentist t’ get one. Not the sound kind they give now: it was secret-like and quick – too quick. But she were in trouble and she were fifteen. Pretty, smart, young thing. She wanted t’ go on to the Bethel College in Mishawak’. She wanted t’ teach. She would-a been a fine edgycatur. But no: she come back from Fort Wayne and though I never seen her after that, they said the surgery was rum and something weren’t right with her from the start. She went inta shock and died before her sixteenth birthday. My brother never blinked a’ eye or paused t’ pray fer her poor soul. But he looked me over when we heard the news – looked me over with them hard, sharp eyes an’ grinned. Looked up at me from his breakfast with his mouth twisted up in a rum sort of smile. I’ll not ferget that. I can’t ferget that. And when them twisters took him down with the house, it was a divine wind of justice that blowed ‘im t’ perdishun. I have my own sins and I’ll scorch fer ‘em, too, but I done the right thing when them twisters come. I done the right thing … ‘spite-a my better judgements.”
His black eyebrows pinched closer, as if trying desperately to clasp each other over the bridge of his nose – possibly to embrace, possibly to exchange blows. His eyes clenched under their shadow, but I noticed them slide in my direction, as he said, with slow deliberation:
“They’s things we wanna see. Things we wanna have happen. Wantin’ ‘em don’t mean you’ll see ‘em. And seein’ ‘em don’t mean you wan’ed ‘em into bein’. But they’s powers of Chance in the world that a mortal mind ain’t able t’ comper’end. They’s a will in the Almighty and a will in Man, and sometimes the two become one… Well, not one, per’aps, but if you will t’ see a thing hard enough… Now I don’t know if there’s a Lord in Heaven, but say they is… Now, just supposin’ He opens a door that oughta be locked tight. He says, ‘Okay, Boss, you want in? You can step on in. You can see it happen. You can have it yer way. But remember: it ain’t My way and it comes with a mortgage on yer future… on’ yer very soul. But go on in if you won’t have it any other way…’ And, just supposin’…” – and as he said this, a pustule of sweat traced its way through the pale channel of his scar, disappearing into his dead, ublinking eye – “…just supposin’ a man says, ‘Fine by me. I’ll step in and live in this room the rest-a eternity if it’ll show me that wish – that thing I wanna see.’ So in he goes… But don’t ferget the cost… Oh, the cost…
“If they is an Almighty, I’ve lived long-a ‘nuff t’ see that he gives a man plen’y-a chances t’ put down the sword and walk ‘way from the battle that ain’t his t’ fight. But if a heart yearns enough… who knows…? wantin’ can come t’ seein’… maybe if you wants it hard ‘nough. And then —” he looked over across the river, his eyes clapped on something, then his whole head sunk to his chest, as if blocking out the sight, “— and then y’might just see it… But they’s some things a man can see that he wishes he could un-see… That he could stop seein’… That it would just go away and leave him with a whisp o’ peace… That his eyes could close ferever without fearin’ who or what’d be there when they opened back up… It was a sin, but ain’t they grace in the Almighty?”
I no longer felt that he was speaking to us. His eyes lifted slowly from his knees and stared back across the river.
“Sure they is… Yes… But what if the account ain’t with the Almighty? What’s a poor sinner t’ do then?” He mindlessly laced his trembling fingers, as if in an unconscious posture of prayer. A sharp gush of steam shot from his nostrils, and then, for a while, nothing, as he held his breath. His bulging eyes rested on his folded hands. Suddenly, after a long pause, he breathed out a burst of white steam and sat up in his chair, as if restored from a trance. He moved his jaw side to side and rubbed his knees soothingly with both hands.
“We has arr choices in life and the earlier we make ‘em, the better – s’long as they’re the wise ones. You boys won’t listen to’n old geezer like me – I didn’t listen t’ old geezers either. I’m just whistlin’ in the wind, and I’d best be careful lest something comes a-callin’ after me. My house ain’t big enough fer visitors, though Lord knows—” but his hand slipped over his mouth, stopping his words like a muzzle, and I think he mouthed or whispered to himself the word “visitors.” His hand dropped down and he leaned back, pointing to our mason jars.
“Enough, enough… Now drink them ciders up. Y’ ain’t touched ‘em and that weren’t the deal. Drink ‘em up and get on back home.”
He was right: I had taken just two sips and realized that I was overcome with a staggering thirst that I hadn’t done anything to quench. I drank it up deeply in a single draught and set the jar down on the ground. When I looked up, Gerig was staring out across the river again, through the trees toward something on the other side which I could not see. Tyler seemed disappointed with the story and left abruptly without a word to me.
I nodded in thanks to Gerig. He wordlessly returned my nod, with a cryptic look. It was a glance like that exchanged between two sentries anticipating an overwhelming attack. I left him in the backyard, peering across the river.
Tyler was unimpressed and told me that he had just wasted his weekend afternoon by spending it listening to the old man’s bitter ramblings. He had learned nothing other than to never again offer to clean up for an old codger. We biked home in silence as an ominous fog steamed off the river and out of the gullies and marshes around us.
A Parting Glance
The next week was Halloween, and it was traditional for this to be the last outdoor field trip of the year before winter set in. It was usually a cold week, but the teachers tried to organize some activity just before our fall break to give us a chance to burn up energy and give them time to prepare for the second quarter of the fall term. The school was decorated with vintage wall hangings from the 70s and 80s: cutouts of witches stirring cauldrons, grinning spiders, wheeling bats, jigging skeletons, raggedy scarecrows topped with toothy pumpkin heads, and bristling black cats with green-glowing eyes.
Black and orange streamers were twisted into helices and strung down the hallway, and each teacher had decked their own classroom in a bespoke brand of ghoulish décor – some more intricate than others – with a whole host of mummies, vampires, hags, skeletons, and Frankenstein monsters scowling down at us menacingly. Nothing could have delighted us more, though, and as we piled into the busses on that Thursday the 31st, before the four-day weekend commenced, we compared notes on Halloween costumes, trick-or-treating routes, and the kinds of candy our parents would be handing out while we wandered the neighborhoods, cross-pollinating each other’s’ homes in a mad search for treats.
As we queued up in a line extending back into the building, Tyler and I found ourselves standing in front of the doors that opened into the gymnasium. Muffled in my coat and bouncing with excitement, I almost missed the sight of Mr. Gerig, who was using the opportunity of cancelled gym classes to buff and wax the woodwork. It was an old building, dating to the 1930s, and it had wooden bleachers built on either side of the basketball court. He was just starting to ascend the bleachers on the far side of the court with a handheld rotary waxer and a bottle of polish.
I watched him plug the extension cord in and turn to go up the steps. Just before our line moved forward, and just before he started on the first row of battered seating, his head turned to the side and his eye caught mine. We watched each other – sadly and slowly for a moment that seemed filled with a significance that I was unable to comprehend – before he turned around and the line moved forward out of sight of the gymnasium. It was only later, as we were climbing into the bus that I realized that it had been his dead eye – blind and black and scored over with the white scar…
That day we were taken on a scavenger hunt of what was supposed to be a spooky cemetery – in reality, Cody Lehman’s rural backyard. Cody was another bookish, loner kid in our class and his mom had volunteered to host that month’s outing. She had dressed up her backyard with Styrofoam headstones, rubber monsters, nylon cobwebs, and plastic skeletons amongst other odds and ends. She was a well-off lady and had even gotten her hands on some dry ice, which was percolating discreetly behind the biggest headstone, ushering forth a creamy mist. The other class mothers helped supply the snacks and games while two teacher’s aids, Cody’s adult, wheelchair-bound cousin, and the assistant vice principal watched on passively.
It was unusually cold, even for Northern Indiana in October (33 degrees when we arrived at Cody’s, and the high that day would only reach 45 degrees by 5pm, two hours before trick-or-treating would commence) but we were running around in search of hidden Snickers, Butterfingers, and Three Musketeers, and our faces quickly grew pink and sweaty with excitement. When all was said and done, we were told, there would be hot cider and donuts inside to warm us up. The overweight assistant principal looked up at us from time to time, his attention riveted to a copy of Patrick O’Brian’s TheCommodore, stroking his beard whenever the story got good, and covering his mouth when it became engrossing. The teacher’s aids mostly walked back and forth, smiling and rubbing their arms, dodging ululating third graders, and stealing quick moments to gossip together when they felt that they weren’t being noticed.
Mrs. Lehman’s lanky but good-looking nephew had shyly wheeled himself over to a corner spot under the shade of an ash tree where he watched us with a chilly mixture of wounded pride and jealousy as the little imps ran back and forth, squealing at every find. A few days before, Cody had mentioned to Tyler that his cousin, who was majoring in agri-business at Purdue, would be staying with them for a week while he recovered from a car accident. Apparently he’d become bored enough to leave his sickbed to help chaperone, but it must be admitted that his heart clearly wasn’t in it. I looked over at him and he gave me an asymmetrical grin that felt forced and painful and decided to leave him be.
Cody’s mother was oddly beautiful in a massive, Walmart witch’s hat, and a black, satin graduation gown, while her hair tumbled over one shoulder in a blonde ponytail. She oversaw everything with a relieved pride that expressed itself in how she always kept her chin tilted, with one hand akimbo and the other relaxed at her side. She grinned winningly at her visitors, supervising their fracas with all the delight of a high sorceress on Walpurgis Night.
By and by, I found myself at the edge of their property, which was marked by a low, picket fence where I uncovered a pair of Skittles packets hidden behind a tall tombstone that read “BARRY M. DEEP, REST IN PIECES.” As I stood and dropped the packets into my plastic pumpkin, I glanced over the edge of the fence and was suddenly aware that we were on the outskirts of Linn Grove, about a quarter mile northeast from the Wabash. I was not good friends with Cody and had no idea where he lived, of course, but I now recognized my bearings: on the horizon I could see the brown, spiny band of the trees on the other side of the river from Mr. Gerig’s house.
During our interview, his eyes had constantly been fixed on some spot in the fields between the spot where I now stood and the line of trees just beyond me. But now that I had a better view of the area, it was clear that there was nothing to see but a dry expanse of denuded cornfields being picked over by a squad of croaking ravens. Maybe, though, I was still a little too far away – whatever he was looking at might be hidden by a roll in the land or a trick of distance; if I could get just a little closer, I thought, perhaps I could see what had been bothering him so much.
For a moment I forgot the scavenger hunt and walked up to the fence, placing my hands on it and realizing that I was at a gate. I found the latch and absent-mindedly lifted it, stepping out onto a wild stretch of prairie that reached out to the fields between the Lehman property and the trees of Linn Grove.
I looked back to see if I was being watched: the assistant principal was fascinated by his novel; Mrs. Lehman was adding dry ice to the bucket; her nephew – who looked increasingly unwell – was staring off into space with vacant, blue eyes; the teachers’ aids were giggling in a corner; none of my classmates were in my part of the yard.
I was truly alone, so I looked forward and reached out to feel the tall grass with my hands.
What happened next began very gradually, although I can’t explain how long it took, for I know that it must have taken place much more quickly than it seemed to me…
A Vision out of Time
The first sensation I had – one which immediately arrested my attention – was the complete loss of my hearing. I don’t mean that it grew quiet, the way that Gerig described the moments before the tornado, but that my ability to hear any sound suddenly stopped. It was as though the nerve between my ears and brain had been slit. There was simply a vacuum of sound that stunned and terrified me.
The second thing that I noticed was that my vision was being tampered with: the best that I can do to describe it is to say that it was like slowly sinking into agitated water with your eyes open, looking up. Each passing second brought escalating dimness and distortion. My vision was restlessly boiling in front of me – maybe “shimmering” is a better word – and I had a sense of constant change taking place around me. Now something was passing overhead, a gradual collecting of dark masses from different quadrants of the sky, which cast deep gloom over the landscape and turned my surroundings black and opaque, except for a pale band of horizon across from me where I sensed the sun was now rapidly setting.
Through my foggy vision I could sense new shapes and forms rising in front of me. They were too indistinct to recognize, but the flat fields ahead were unquestionably blooming with new undulations and rises which might be trees or buildings or vehicles – I knew not what – but just as I was beginning to try to guess at what I was seeing, I sensed a third change: the air around me was no longer cold and sharp, but warm and steamy. I began to sweat under my winter coat, and I fought for breath as my lungs reacted to the sudden ingestion of unexpected humidity.
Now, something truly large and black was growing out of the ground, something tall and pointed, probably 75 yards away. And now it was as though the scene had been set because my vision began to focus as if I was rising back to the surface of the dusky waters. I realized that I was staring at an old, gingerbread farmhouse silhouetted against a fluorescent band of horizon glowing between what I could now see to be a low-hanging bank of storm clouds and a steaming stretch of rain-saturated farmland. The thunderheads were sporadically illuminated by veins of ice-blue lightning that either flickered in spasmic pulses from inside the clouds’ oily guts or shot down to the ground below in sudden spear-thrusts of jagged blue light.
As my eyes sharpened, I became aware that the light under the clouds was unnervingly strange: an unwholesome medley of sulphureous yellows and sea greens, liquid and luminous like a fish tank glowing in a darkened house. The iridescent colors stirred, blending and boiling, as though the very air was made up of psychedelic gases, undulating in a way that made my eyes sick.
I looked instead to the farmhouse where I could see the red outline of a curtained window on the first floor. The window belonged to a room lit by a single, shaded lamp, and as I peered through the gauzy curtain I thought I could make out the silhouette of a man slumping in a chair. Off to the side of the house I saw an old-fashioned tractor outlined against the green sky: a second man appeared to be bent over it with a pair of wrenches and an oil gun which he traded out for one another as he adjusted something in the engine.
My hearing was still dead, but I now felt something in my feet: a deep, buzzing vibration like the barely-audible rumble of a pipe organ’s lowest drone. It burned its way up my leg and into my thighs, pelvis, and belly. By the time it was ringing in my head I could see what I – and you – had been expecting to see: an impossibly tall curtain of oily cloud convulsing its way toward the house from the southwest. A pair of lightning strikes to my left lit up its bulbous flank with ghostly, lavender light, and I could see how the whole organism was buzzing with constant, shifting motion. It was no slim, smooth-ribbed tube reaching down from the heavens like a chrome vacuum attachment, but a churning, black swarm swaying from side to side with each yard it gained and writhing all over with trembling excitement.
Years later, during a trip home from college I was briefly reminded of its hideous energy when I was at a Happ’s and a wiry, tobacco-browned woman – in her fifties and already drunk – staggered through the door with two cackling friends in tow. They giddily rushed to the juke box, and after selecting Pink Floyd’s “Young Lust,” they flailed from table to table looking for dance partners, while the stunned regulars grew grim and quiet. They would not be stopped or shamed or reasoned with.
The twister rolling towards me likewise refused to stop – changing shapes and size with hysterical whimsy, and all the time growing larger and nearer and fatter. Lashing around it, like the folds of a skirt or a pair of wild children, were two distinct satellites – tentacles of boiling cloud that faded in and out of sight, not quite latching onto the ground like their heavy-footed mother, but still wrenching up trees and outbuildings and hurling them into their mother’s ravenous mouth to be gobbled and purged. These trunks greedily drank up anything that they touched, all the while whirling around their mother like mad planets in orbit around a black sun.
The longer the scene unrolled before me, the more deeply I craved my hearing: although my other senses were undiluted and even strengthened, I felt a desperate need to hear what was happening in front of me. This was only exacerbated when a salvo of lightning behind me lit up the face of the house in an eerie blaze of electric blue, and I could see the man at the tractor backing away from the machine and towards the house. It was only then that I registered the fact that the tractor was between the house and the twister, not in front of it. As the mechanic ran towards me, I could see his mouth opening and closing in shouts before he disappeared into the house’s backdoor. Shadows were shifting anxiously behind the curtains of the illuminated window, and in just a few moments I was aware that the room had been evacuated.
Before I could see what became of the occupants, I was hit by the sudden and overwhelming stench of the creature’s breath. In other circumstances, or by themselves, these might have even been pleasant smells: the most powerful of them was a heavy musk of cut grass – imagine an overgrown lawn being mowed on a humid day. Under this, like a resinous incense, were the lemony tang of cut pine, and the petrichor of wet soil being turned – clean and coppery, like blood. And then, at sickening intervals, came bursts of odors that reminded me of a construction site – sawdust, tar, drywall – although my mind didn’t grasp their significance until years later.
Suddenly the front door burst open and two men appeared: the amateur mechanic pushing the other in a wheelchair down a new-looking ramp that had been built alongside the house’s older front steps. Their faces were hidden in shadow, but they were similar in build and age. The one in the wheelchair seemed to be shouting furiously, gesticulating to some place just ahead of them where, after squinting, I noticed the crude superstructure of a ramshackle storm cellar. The twister was aimed directly at it, growing in size and violence with every second.
The two men gained the yard and began to roll their way towards the shelter. It was still far too dark and they were far too distant to see their faces, but as they were clearing the porch there was a spasm of purple lightning and in the strobing illumination I could see the crucial next few moments with some limited clarity.
Before I could gather what was happening, the man pushing the wheelchair stopped what he was doing, and his dimly-lit face hardened as if it was cast in metal. His face – I will never forget this – his face dropped down to the man in front of him, and then slowly, slowly rose to meet my gaze. Even from seventy yards away I could tell that his shadowed eye sockets were aimed at me. For a moment we were looking into one another’s faces, and he seemed to try to silently communicate something – to project a message across the distance. What it was I will never likely know, but after a moment, his chin slowly dipped down to his chest, but I swear that his eyes maintained their electric latch on mine, and in the next few seconds I saw his lips curl slowly into a nasty smile which gradually unfurled above a row of clenched teeth. The gleaming eyes then fell down to the man in front of him, like a trapdoor dropping beneath its victim, and he started dragging the chair backwards, to the house.
The man in the chair twisted around, painfully, and flourished his hands at the man pulling him towards destruction. He grabbed desperately for something to hold onto, and finally gripped a spade sticking out a motherly-looking flowerbed. Using both hands he heaved it over his shoulder. The other man was looking over his shoulder, watching his footing, when his head swiveled back to center just in time to receive the blow full on: the edge sank into his face, splitting it open and unleashing a torrent of black blood.
Without a moment’s pause, he toppled the chair, depositing its occupant onto the front steps, wrenched the spade from his hand, and used both hands and his whole body to bring it down on the fallen man’s face. Before he did, and before the face burst in half and poured out its contents, a brief moment of sound cut through the oppressive silence – splitting its way through the wall of my consciousness, out from time and oblivion, like a bullet through a brain. I heard these barely-audible words screamed under a crashing roar like a waterfall:
“Come on now, oh please, oh someone, help me, please, oh what’re you doing?! Esau, ESAU!!”
But it was too late: the spade had arched through the air and came down like a spoon on an egg. The standing man left the fallen one on the steps. Silence resumed just after I was forced to hear the soggy crunch of his skull, and I watched the living man step away from the house slowly. He looked behind him once to gauge the trajectory of the approaching twister and appeared – or so it seemed to me – satisfied with its direction. He trudged towards the grassy mound while gripping his face and holding his eye in its socket.
I didn’t notice him disappear into the bowels of the storm cellar, though I assume he did. My senses were overwhelmed by the fishy stench of the riverbed being atomized as the mother and her children crossed it, perfuming the countryside with this stale soup. The Thing gained the opposite side as it shot forward at highway speed, with her children tearing around her in frantic circles. Her fat body jiggled and rolled as she sped towards the house, and the lightning on all sides revealed her sides to be plump and glossy, as with sweat or grease. I could now see where her mouth latched itself to the earth: two concentric rings of debris were spinning out from her lips, like the spray of a seed broadcaster, and I saw the land just outside of these rings being plowed up and torn by the invisible ends of her children’s tails, which scored the ground before she rumbled over it.
I thought that the drama was over, but there was one last detail that I was made to see: the crumpled form on the front yard suddenly started wrenching from side to side, throwing his arms back and forth until he was able to roll over on his front. It was too dark to see his face, but the lightning glinted in the thick wetness that was dripping from his head. He dug his nails into the sodden earth, dragging himself forward with shocking speed, wriggling through the mud like a crocodile, while his busted head waggled limply, as if struggling to retain consciousness. But he was strong and quick: in a matter of seconds he had crawled his way to the storm cellar door, and began pounding – KLAMM-KLAMM-KLAMM!! KLAMM- KLAMM-KLAMM!!! – on the rusted steel. His head had sunk against it, either because he was too tired to hold it up, or too terrified to watch the approaching vortex. But he kept pounding and pounding and pounding, and still the door remained shut to him.
As I watched in terror, I saw that the wedge was filling the sky in front of me, no longer a looming curtain, but now a divine tidal wave, wider and taller than anything I had or ever would see in my life. One of the satellites swung out from behind the roaring mother and rushed down on the Gerig homestead. It swept in from the mother’s right side, stoving in the house and shredding it like a woodchipper, before the mother rolled over the foundation, ground it into powder, and buzzed towards the man banging on the storm cellar at sixty miles an hour until—
Suddenly everything was cold and bright. My eyes couldn’t bear even the tepid, silver light of the overcast October sky, and I grabbed my head with both hands and fell down with a moan. My skull throbbed, and I felt the veins pumping under my sweaty hands.
“What are you doing here? Come on now, kid. You know you shouldn’t be here, snoopin’ where you don’t belong. Now get on back into the yard with the others.”
It was Mrs. Lehman’s injured nephew who had followed me out into the yard. I looked down at his wheelchair and at first the sight of it turned my stomach. But he was a pleasant-looking young man, with his sad, blue eyes and arch smile, and I knew that, despite his sharp tone, he was just worried about me getting hit by a car or falling into a culvert. I nodded and returned, but I had no more interest in candy and was starting to dread trick-or-treating.
A Visitor for Mr. Gerig
When we returned in the bus, we quickly noticed the flashing red lights of emergency vehicles parked in front of the gym. You will have certainly guessed by now that something happened to Mr. Gerig. I would like to say what, but in small towns there are two phenomena surrounding these kinds of tragedies that offset each other. The first is that the honor of an institution, family, or workplace can lead to an agreed-upon silence regarding the details of some shameful or sensitive affair. We would all know that something bad happened, but the details would never be fully acknowledged: innuendoes would take the place of facts around the dinner table.
Sometimes only the children were left out of the loop. Other times even adults who weren’t in influential families would be excluded from knowing the truth about some inconvenient scandal. Let me give an example: the year I graduated from college the mother of one of my classmates died unexpectedly the week before his wedding. Just a sad freak of fortune that cast a gloom over the nuptials, but apparently nothing untoward. It was another five years before even I – a 28-year-old married man – was trusted with the truth: that she had driven to the Ceylon covered bridge outside of town and shot herself through the head.
The second phenomenon – a reaction to the first – is that wild rumors spread, filling in the redacted details with lurid exaggerations. This happened many times: when I was in eighth grade one of the sixth-grade science teachers – a handsome bachelor – was fired at the same time that one of the fifth grade history teachers – a pretty wife and mother – retired unexpectedly in her thirties. Rumors about affairs, nude pictures, and vulgar emails flourished, but I still don’t know the truth. Perhaps it was all a coincidence. It happened again when the lead pastor at our church – an extremely popular but secretive man – suddenly announced that he was resigning effective later that month. In fact, that Sunday ended up being his last day: without a word of explanation, he was gone. The church board members didn’t seem surprised or upset though: they were relieved and angry, but they never explained why they evidently fired him with so little fanfare or dialogue. Instead, stories spread about indiscretions in his office – with the secretary, a friend’s wife, a teenager, a child. Twelve years later I still don’t know what really happened, nor do my parents, so the rumors persist and grow.
What happened in the elementary school gym that afternoon became an urban legend. Shortly after Mr. Gerig died some boys noticed a dark red stain smeared on one of the floorboards. No one could remember if it was there before, but the story went that it was his blood, and the spectral stain never went away (I know this because a few years ago I saw it there – the week before they demolished the school). Some stories described how he had been at the top of the bleachers when he was stunned by a heart attack, fell down, cracked his head open on the floor, and bled out.
Others – driven by parents – simply said that, yes, he had died of a heart attack, sans any gore, although they had no authoritative source: it was what one mom had told another. Others whispered that he had been found hanging from one of the rafters near the top of the bleachers, or in the center of the dark performance stage perpendicular to the basketball court. Some kids could point to a certain rafter, or to a twist of frayed rope inexplicably looped around a beam and reported that their older brother or cousin had seen him there, his face swollen and purple, blood weeping from his scar, which had ruptured from the pressure…
All that I can say is that Mr. Esau Gerig died at the South Adams Elementary School on Thursday October 31st, 1996. He may have simply sat down on a bench, found himself struggling to breathe, and fallen over quietly. He may also have died in a far nastier manner.
The story that bothered me the most told of how the secretary, knowing the school to be almost entirely deserted, was surprised by the sudden sound of loud pounding on a metal door coming from the gymnasium. It sounded desperate but stopped abruptly just as she stood up to investigate it. Leaving the office, she heard what sounded like the gentle squeal of a wheels coming from inside the gym, which was down the hall from her desk. Rounding the corner, she caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar man in a wheelchair turning down an unlit, adjacent corridor. Following him, she looked down the darkened hallway but saw nothing other than the crimson light of the exit sign gleaming on rows of locked doors.
She said that he had looked horribly ill – “thin and wet, and all in nasty clothes” – and was worried that he might be lost or in need of medical assistance. When she came back down the hallway, wondering whether she should call an ambulance or the police, she noticed Mr. Gerig crumpled in the fetal position with his face all stove into bone shards and brain. Blood peppered the floor, and it spread out from the skull in a heavy, black flow. A thin set of four tire tracks led from the messy, red slick towards the hall where the secretary had seen the man slip quietly out in his chair…
Of course, rumors about Gerig’s relationship with his brother and his hate for the man – famously wheelchair-bound after the wreck that killed the Miller girl and known to be responsible for the pregnancy (and subsequent death) of his high school crush – were widespread. It wouldn’t have taken much creativity for a fourth grader to generate this rounded out legend. But it is a genuine rumor: I have heard it from classmates who were on the school bus with me that day, and I’ve heard it from local kids who were born after the school was demolished and are a quarter-century younger than me.
Another thing that is undeniable is that the school secretary was hospitalized for nerves that Friday, November 1st, and that she quit her job the following week because of something she had seen at work. That is true…
A Detail that Keeps Me Up At Night
A simple search of public records could clear most of the mystery up, but after what happened to me at Mrs. Lehman’s scavenger hunt I have learned to be less curious about personal tragedies. My longing to see a tornado carve its way across a landscape was completely squelched; Tyler and I never discussed storm-watching again. I think he was affected by Mr. Gerig’s death in a wholly different way, but I’m not sure how because I haven’t spoken with him since high school. What I do know is that until I graduated from college and got married I never breathed a word of what I saw to anyone. Tyler certainly never knew what I had seen, but he also mysteriously dropped his obsession with cyclones that week, and I often wonder why. He was at that party, too. Maybe he saw something that he never told me about. Either way, we both treated each other quite differently after that day. There were times when I’d catch him looking warily at me, and I realized that he was afraid… of me. Watchful, perhaps. Cautious. Warry of some possibility that he hadn’t previously considered, maybe. For my part I stopped letting his popularity bother me. He was no longer worth my jealousy or hate. As a result, our friendship grew shallower and more indifferent over time.
Two years later we did attempt to rekindle it, but this resulted in a horrible misadventure one summer night in the abandoned Dunbar Factory – a rotting ruin on the eastern outskirts of town. It was also the second and final time that I have ever experienced something uncanny (that is to say, something possibly supernatural). The terror and betrayal I experienced on that night in 1998 finally killed our trust and friendship forever. But we both survived, and I gather that he is well and successful in life. That, however, is very much another story for another evening, and my time is running out before we must turn in for the night.
In any case I don’t care to hear from him again, and when I think of Mr. Gerig, I know that it is best that I let some things lie buried and undisturbed.
My fascination with tornadoes, I’m somewhat embarrassed to say, never fully abated, and I still find them mesmerizing, if repulsive. But I realized and understand now that my obsession with them had absolutely nothing to do with science or meteorology or even helping people get to safety: I just wanted to see. I wanted to be visited by this ephemeral Outer Power that manifested to so few people that even the ones whose lives had been ruined by them walked around with a strangely honorable distinction: they had been visited; they had seen. I still haven’t seen a real twister and – fascinations notwithstanding – I dearly hope that I never do. But I was visited: I felt its footsteps and smelled its breath and even briefly heard its scream. But it was the voice I heard screaming under that roar that has stuck with me.
Someday I will be visited again – probably not by a funnel cloud, but by everything that is baked into that image and everything that people fear. Jakob Gerig was visited on April 11, 1965, and his brother was visited – in what shape I cannot say and dare not imagine – on October 31, 1996. I wonder, sometimes, if I have not been visited at other times since then – discreetly, like brushing arms against an old acquaintance in a crowded street without realizing it. I also wonder whether I will see it before it calls on me, and whether it will take a familiar shape, or a sound or smell that I have not thought of for decades. Will it be a simple realization, or a faint odor, or something clearer – more definite and solid. Will I recognize it immediately, and will it recognize me? Will we share a glance? Will it smile? Will I scream? Can it run? Can it grab? Can it bite?
I don’t know, but I think on these matters oftener and oftener as I age, and I while I try to fall asleep I find myself looking up more frequently at tall shadows that surely have not moved and doors that surely are not slowly being opened. Sometimes I stare at the door in the dark, waiting to watch the handle turn, until I fall asleep. I now know a little something – I’m sorry to say – of what worried Mr. Gerig, and why he was always watching for those visitors whom we couldn’t quite yet see. I still shudder when I remember my impressions of something crawling up the riverbank, dragging itself through the grass.
As I said at the beginning, this might be a ghost story. It might also be a bizarre case of a terrible daydream – or seizure or hallucination or false memory – that just happened to coincide with a rough-living, elderly janitor’s very natural death. In any case, it is certainly a story about a haunted man. There was, however, one more matter that I sometimes think about – a detail that bothers me whenever it comes to mind. I learned, seventeen years later, when I was talking to Mrs. Lehman – quite absentmindedly, at Cody’s funeral – that one of the details in my story was undoubtedly mistaken: because of a sudden, bad reaction to his pain medication, Cody’s cousin – notoriously extraverted and heavy-set with muddy eyes and a face like a ham – had been unable to visit them that week. Although I pushed back against her on this (a bit too much, I’m afraid, considering the tragic occasion) she insisted that there were absolutely no young men in attendance, and that no one at the party, of any age or gender, was in a wheelchair.