© 2003 Quarterly West

Not People, Not This
Kelly Magee

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--to read Kelly Magee's story, "Not People, Not This" in its entirety, pick up your copy of Quarterly West, volume 56 at your local bookseller or order your subscription today.


                In many rural areas, there is nothing for a tornado to hit, nor anyone to see it.

                                                -The Handy Weather Answer Book


    In Alabama, a tornado touches down.

    Within minutes, things begin to change. Tiny green tomatoes ripen instantly. Chickens lose their feathers. Whole cotton fields spoil; their curled leaves smell like rust. The blotch on the TV map turns blue to red in three counties. Cars scatter like grass clippings.

    A woman in Montgomery opens her cupboard to find every dish cracked in thirds. A man in Mobile gets up from his recliner just as it bursts its seams, spews white stuffing into the living room. People all over the state report prank phone calls - hang-ups. Alarms engage for no reason.

    Grocery stores in Birmingham sell out of raw hamburger, veal, steak. People growl. Animals murmur. The wind blows grills down the street, still lit, still smoking.

    Here, storms make us believe things we never would on a sunny day. We'll accept weather as a defense for almost any crime. Like insanity, you can plead thunderstorm. Full moon. Tornado. We'll believe the lightning made you do it. That the clerk lost the money in the register. The wife just up and disappeared.

    It could happen.


    When the sirens went off in Montgomery, Opelika, a forty minute drive away, had already lost power. Residents emptied the main streets, and the parking lots of Kroger and Super Wal-Mart. Those who had basements retreated to them with flashlights and radios. WKKR reported the tornado to be somewhere in the country, headed directly for town.

    In the lightless Whistling Dixie, two men listened to the weather report and toasted themselves with whiskey. They'd known each other from birth, but they were not friends. They were men, alive at the same time, who exchanged money and nods in the bar. One, Trooper, owned the place. The other, Ames, had been on his way out when the bar went dark, but knew an opportunity for free booze when he saw one. He'd suggested a last toast to the storm, and since their fathers had been neighbors as boys and their mothers still held Bridge parties together - and because, in a way, they were of the same stock - Trooper had agreed. Really, he wanted to be home, ushering his daughter and wife, who'd called the bar three times, into the basement, pulling a mattress over their heads. His own father had tied the family dogs down by their feet, but Trooper wasn't a violent man. Not anymore. He would pack the dogs away in kennels, let them howl and chew on the wire as they always did when the wind picked up.

    The men toasted themselves first, then the weather. On the radio, the tornado played like a slow motion football game: yards lost and gained.

    The second shot went down like bad blood. The sun hadn't quite set - in summer the daylight outlasted the day - and the bar was light enough for Ames to notice Trooper eyeing him. Ames knew that Trooper wouldn't make him pay for the drinks if he caused a fuss. Trooper knew that Ames didn't mind screwing his friends over once in a while, and they weren't even friends.

    "There's nothing like a good drink in the dark," Ames said. He worked at a pawn shop, but might've owned a bar himself, had he gotten his act together in high school. He'd flunked out because he couldn't keep his hands out of trouble. He had a thing for the sucker punch. Everything made him mad, but especially girls: the way they flipped their hair like it didn't drive him crazy. And then, twice he'd gotten caught unzipped in indecent places. Jacking off in the cafeteria bathroom, and a closet in the life science class. The principal had made sure Ames failed four out of seven classes, the requisite amount. He'd left in tenth grade, got hired at the pawn shop where he could pocket a little cash on the side without anyone ever knowing.

    Trooper raised his empty glass. Paused for tact. "Guess you'll be heading home now," he said.

    Ames held his glass in front of his eye. Trooper's face swam.

    "Real nice," he said. "Really, man. Real goddamn nice." He turned the glass on its side, aimed it like a dart at Trooper's face. The bland voice on WKKR warned anyone on the road to seek shelter.

    "What's nice?" Trooper said.

    "You're going to send me out in this." Ames aimed, leveled, aimed. "Aren't you?"

    "Yeah," Trooper said. "I am."

    Ames threw the glass, but not at Trooper. He smashed it on the floor. These days, he was given to fits of rage that didn't amount to much. He wasn't really dangerous - not to Trooper, anyway. He had the social skills of a mosquito. He wanted to be a better man, but didn't quite know how.

    "One drink," Trooper said. "You said one drink. We've had two. Let's go." He was bigger, so he hauled Ames into the parking lot. It wasn't that he didn't feel sorry for the guy. Trooper understood Ames maybe more than anyone else. His wife said it was because of their proximity as babies. Really, it was because they both dealt with fear the same way: they hit. When he got married, Trooper developed a technique for disarming his fists: one finger at a time, five counts in between. He was aware how close he'd been to becoming an Ames. But now he had other worries. He had the wife and kid. He had priorities.

    Ames, on the other hand, he lived in a trailer that stunk of gas from the stove and that wouldn't have a chance in a tornado. If he went home, he'd be surfing the roof in an hour. He'd be heading scalp-first for the nearest tree.

    "Go home," Trooper said, and Ames thought, easy for you.

    "I'm going," Ames said. Trooper backed his pickup onto the road, kicking up gravel dust. Ames toed one of the larger stones in the lot. He dislodged it, tossed it into the air. The wind was picking up. He had nowhere to go. Two years ago, a storm had flattened half his trailer park, and ever since he'd tried to find other kinds of shelter. But he'd run aground. He'd gotten kicked out of the library, state buildings, even churches. He had a temper. He couldn't help himself.

    On the third toss, the wind pushed the rock forward in the air, and Ames had to run to catch it. That was the last thing Trooper saw in his rearview: Ames hurrying across the parking lot to catch a rock that, just then, seemed light as a bubble. Behind him, miles of abandoned fields - the Whistling Dixie's backyard. In front, the sky, still blue.


    In Birmingham, weather was nothing if not conversation. Three out of every five families were on the phone. Grandmothers called grandkids up north - they worried. Parents called dorms in Auburn and Tuscaloosa, told their new college students to go to the lobby. People tuned their TVs to the Weather Channel, then dialed up somebody to tell about The Time. The Time crazy uncle so-and-so went outside in red, flannel p.j.s to video a twister. The Time they found a cow at the intersection of Thatch and King, alive and mooing. Pencils through trees and trees through houses. Strip malls turned on end. Near misses. Almosts. Danger that made their teeth chatter when it was two hundred miles away.

    "Obsessing about weather is a southern thing, isn't it," our friends in the north say. And it's true: down here, we're tied as much to climate as to place. We're up to our necks in it. But this is not geography, we tell them. This is realism. This is eight hundred confirmed touchdowns, this is ten thousand deaths this century. This is deviant meteorology. That's why the whole state pays attention. That's what we mean when - surveying the wreckage, giving a statement to the news - we say we've been saved.

    We're not kidding ourselves. The sky, like God or Santa Claus, knows when we're asleep.

    "The sky is watching," our mothers warned us before bed. "Go to sleep fast and it won't fall on you."


    May called Judy, her neighbor, at five till eight. It took three tries to get someone to pick up.

    "We were down in the basement," Judy's husband said.

    "I just wanted to check in," May said, and her voice sounded older to herself. She always felt elderly when she was checking in. And she wasn't elderly. Not yet, anyway. "I'm leaving now for Saving Grace."

    "Why don't you come over," Judy's husband said. "It's closer."

    "I don't mind the walk," May said. Children were yelling in the background, and the thought of weathering a storm with a seven- and nine-year-old made her head ache. The children were fine, children were fine, but May preferred the company of softer species - the dogs she kept in her house that'd just had puppies. She'd had one little girl, long ago, who she'd since ceased to speak to. Her daughter would be thirty-two now, and lived out west. She'd left for college in Arizona, and returned queer. Literally. She came home talking about how flat it was here, how green, and by the way, mom, I'm in love with a woman. They didn't keep in touch. At times, May missed her. Especially in heavy weather. She'd checked the train schedule twice in the past year. Pretty soon, she'd be too old to travel.

    "Anyway," May said, "I've got plenty of time. It's not even dark yet."

    "Okay," Judy's husband said. "Be careful."

    "Of course," May said.

    She made a bed of towels in her bathtub and, one by one, transferred the litter of puppies into it. They were just opening their eyes. She kissed their wet noses.

    "Good luck," she said as she shut the door. She knew people who loved pets like babies, but she was practical. She loved them like animals, which wasn't more or less, but different. And like animals, they had to fend for themselves. She, on the other hand, needed the help of the Saving Grace church, where the walls were sturdy and volunteers helped steady her nerves. She'd gone there for years. She knew when to leave her house by the way the clouds started churning. She gathered her rain slicker and boots, her flashlight. She looked forward to the walk - twenty minutes while the squall built up behind her.

    Judy called just as May was walking out the door. They had something of a psychic bond, the two of them. Often, they guessed each other's thoughts.

    "Let us drive you, May," Judy said. "Please."

    "You know I like to walk." May surveyed the sky, looked at the clock over the kitchen stove.

    "It'll take me five minutes to get the kids settled down, and I'll take you myself."

    "Really," May said. "Don't worry."

    In five minutes May would be halfway down the road, thinking of the puppies in her bathtub. She'd be rounding the corner where the hardware store was, halfway to Kmart, then the Whistling Dixie. She'd cut through fields until she arrived at the rear entrance of the church. By the time Judy had coaxed the kids back down into the basement, May would be knee deep in greenery. Soft clay staining the soles of her shoes.

    "She's thinking of Ana," Judy told her husband. "That feud's got to end."


    That's all there is. A bar confrontation, two phone calls. The evidence is hard to piece together - the tornado got most of it. There are missing person reports and police records and a bit of investigative work, but nothing that adds up to much. Except the stories, but those are harder to find. In Opelika, we're all telling each other's stories, but you have to know how to get at them. Nobody likes to think they're a gossip.

    The tornado touched down, and it changed things. Afterward, May came up missing. Ames' car was still parked outside the Whistling Dixie, and one window in the bar was broken. Trooper found a rock on the bar floor. Judy broke into May's house when she didn't get a return phone call, and found the dogs still in the bathroom. Ames didn't come to work for a week, and when he finally turned up, his story kept changing. He'd gotten sick of his life and had headed south. He'd taken the bus to Montgomery the morning after the tornado. He'd hitchhiked. He'd stayed with friends he couldn't name.

    A bar confrontation, two phone calls. Everything else, the sky sucked up.

    When asked about May, Ames first said, "Never heard of her."

    As for May, popular belief was that she'd been redeemed, taken body and soul into the lap of heaven. It'd happened to several of the town's great-grandmothers. Some people said Ames had killed her in a rage and used the storm to cover up his crime. The police said the two cases weren't related, and they warned reporters about unduly frightening the public.

    "Nobody killed anybody," Officer Gary Scott said. "There's no evidence that even puts these two in the same place."

    Still others suggested May might've gone to see the forsaken daughter. Judy, who could guess May's thoughts, kept quiet. Efforts to contact the daughter were unsuccessful.

Kelly Magee is pursuing her MFA at The Ohio State University. This is her first published story.