The Disaster Year


First Person

Photo courtesy of NOAA.

A neon-yellow flyer was tucked underneath the blade of my windshield wiper after work that Friday. It promised that the world would end the following day: Saturday, May 21, 2011. That morning in class, Ivan, a lanky boy who was always raising his hand to make pointless comments, had peeked from around his laptop screen and announced, “We don’t have time to talk about Beloved, Mr. Shelton.” Another student added, “With all due respect, sir, we’re all going to be smited tomorrow.”

I had landed in Joplin, Missouri, completely by mistake. I moved back to Indiana at the tail end of the Great Recession. “You need to press the reset button,” my mother had told me. I tried everything: registered with staffing agencies, mowed lawns, took career-aptitude tests, babysat, substitute-taught in the local school system, dodged loan officers. As a last-ditch effort I intended to go overseas and teach English in Japan. A number of my friends were teachers there already; it seemed to be some sort of small oasis in the occupational wasteland that awaits humanities majors. 

But, finally, a teacher-placement agency referred me to four schools. The one in Joplin was the first to contact me and offer a job. I desperately needed one.

I rented a rickety two-bedroom house in the south of town. The place was terrible: horribly constructed, with sketchy neighbors and a sketchier landlord. But for $425 a month, I had more space than I’d ever had in my life.

For the past five months, I’d spent every Sunday trying to convince myself that I didn’t have to wake up early the next day and teach English to a unique assemblage of middle and high school students. This usually involved pouting, watching movies, manically checking the time, and surmising ways to strategically miss school and still get paid for it.

This Sunday was different. I woke up smugly happy. I felt that I had somehow cheated death. It’s an immensely empowering feeling, living on borrowed time. I laughed about it while my coffee percolated. I called my ex-girlfriend and spent the majority of the afternoon talking to her, trying to convince her to visit.

“I don’t see that happening,” she said.

“At all?” I asked. “Or in the near future?”

“Both, C.I.”

“All I’m saying is that it makes sense for us to stay in contact for the time being. I mean, we’re both going through a very strange patch in our lives—”

“And what patch would that be?” she interrupted.

“Our middle twenties, sweetheart. Do you own a crystal ball?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Do you in any way, shape, or form foresee the future?” I asked.

“You know I don’t.”

“Well then, you can’t entirely tell me that it’s completely over.”

“All I know is that I’m in D.C.,” she huffed. “And you’re wherever you are.”

We’d met our saturation point. We said our good-byes. I went to scrounge up something to eat. There wasn’t anything in the refrigerator except instant coffee and creamer.

All but two of the windows in the house were painted shut: one upstairs in the bedroom and the other in the kitchen downstairs. I couldn’t afford to keep the air-conditioning on and I was growing increasingly accustomed to broiling throughout the day. But it was unseasonably cool that afternoon in the kitchen. A cold wind moved through. I looked out the window, and thought to myself that I’d never seen the sky turn such a cartoon color of green. It looked like lime sherbet. Then the rain began.

It was somehow more than rain, though. It began instantly and was the most violent, unnatural amount of precipitation I’d ever witnessed. Water sloshed through the kitchen window and onto the floor. I closed the window and began to mop up the mess with a stray towel. Suddenly it was pitch-dark, inside and out.

I’d always heard that tornadoes sound like a train. But the truth is that a tornado doesn’t sound like anything at all. What I remember most is that near-complete silence, the quietest moment of my life: nearly nothing. That void was then pierced by a small, shrill whistle, which was in turn replaced by an insistent crackling noise that reminded me of hail pinging against aluminum gutters.

By the time I realized that the house didn’t have any gutters, it was too late. I know now that those sounds were the glass in the windows beginning to purse. They then exploded, sequentially, starting from the mud room in the back of the house and wrapping around to the front windows. I curled into a ball and manically scrambled for cover, but there was nowhere to hide. Once all the windows were gone, the debris and rain came rushing in. Whole branches from trees, roof shingles, mud, leaves, lawn ornaments, the pickets from fences, and hubcaps, not to mention all of my things, were suddenly sucked out of the other side of the house. The east wall of the house began to buckle under the weight of the roof. I ran to the closet that separated the living room from the downstairs bedroom and tried to close it but couldn’t. As I struggled with it, the east wall collapsed. Within a matter of seconds, there was no barrier between me and the rest of the neighborhood, swirling outside. Half of my house was water-logged, on the verge of collapse. The other half was rubble. It wasn’t until then, when I saw the last vestiges of the tornado, that I realized what had happened. It may have been the residue of my guilt-obsessed, Methodist childhood in the Midwest, or maybe the prodding of my students, but I honestly thought that I was witnessing the Rapture. I hadn’t even heard the warning siren.

By the time the storm died down, I was still bent in the closet. A woman came to the window directly adjacent to the closet and shouted, “Is everyone okay?” I must have looked like a swamp creature. The way I shouted, “Here! I’m here!” startled her as much as it did me. The vast majority of my house was gone—as was hers. Outside, a masked elderly man was standing in the middle of the street leaning against his oxygen-tank dolly. The storm’s winds were so violent that they’d stripped the bark from the trees.

The tornado was past, but I didn’t know where to go. I’d only been in Joplin for five months. I barely knew anyone, let alone where they lived. I didn’t have any clothes other than the soggy boxer shorts and t-shirt I’d been wearing. Everything had blown away. The streets in my neighborhood were so congested with fallen trees and toppled automobiles that I couldn’t walk on the sidewalk. I cut through people’s yards when possible, through the remnants of their houses when necessary. There was the incessant noise of horns bleating, engines revving, tires peeling, voices shouting. At the outer edge of the afflicted area there was bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as I could see. The cars were all empty—some still left running in idle. Spectators. People had abandoned their cars to walk through the skeletons of the neighborhood, taking pictures with their cellphones. The disparity in damage was surreal. On one side of Twentieth Street, Joplin was fully intact, as if nothing had happened. The other side appeared to have undergone a nuclear fallout.

An older black woman waved me down and asked me where I’d come from. I told her 2327 South Sergeant Avenue. She wasn’t deterred at all by my appearance or lack of clothing. She began picking the grass and twigs from my hair. “Where you headed, Sweets?” she preened.

I’d never seen so many people seemingly walking nowhere.

I spent the week following the tornado jumping from house to house. Everywhere I went people were barbecuing. That’s what the air smelled like: char.

One man told me about how his apartment complex pancaked. He smushed one hand on top of the other and rubbed them together to simulate. He claimed he wasn’t scared at all the whole time. “We live right smack dab on the buckle of the Bible Belt, son,” he explained. “I mean, maybe,” he scratched at his ear. “Maybe it was the Big Man’s way of telling people to get their minds right.”

I moved back in with my mother. She asked me if I was scared, if I cried, if I had insurance, why not, if I’d gotten any sympathy sex, why not.

She was going through menopause and kept her place unfathomably cold. But she’d left my room just as I’ve always kept it: a disintegrating poster of Scottie Pippen looming on the wall over my desk; stacks of magazines, credit-card offers, and bank statements. I began wading in, separating the trash from the skim-worthy, the skim-worthy from the essential, wondering how so many credit-card offers can accumulate in such a short time. I was contemplating giving up on the endeavor when I saw that my E-2 Work Visa, passport, and federal criminal background check had arrived.

Here were the documents that had separated me from my run at Japan. I opened the letter; I had been accepted into the program. I didn’t get past the first line. “Congratulations and welcome,” it read. “We look forward to your presence and expertise in Fukushima.” It was the very same city that had been decimated by a concurrent earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear disaster earlier that spring. They’d been expecting me.

I slept in the living room that night, bathing in the warm, soft glow of television. I watched the residue of my new hometown plastered across every channel. I could still feel the wobble-and-toss from the first jolt of wind. I could still taste the upturned soil and grass. I could still smell the errant gasoline that hovered in the air for nearly a week. At one point, I muted the screen and closed my eyes. I tried to picture the exact moment when I first looked into the swirling green void and heard nothing—the exact moment when I realized that there was absolutely nothing separating me from the unknown and the thereafter. And that there never had been.

C.I. Shelton is a writer living in Joplin, Missouri. His short fiction has appeared in Open City.