I needed an adventure, and I got one today.
After the neighbor’s frightening tantrum over the weekend, the workmen came back, with a machine that goes brrr. They are, inexplicably, still not done with painting the house. They put a yard sign advertising their home improvement business in her yard, as if what they’ve done is a good representation of their company: picking away at her old paint job and slowly adding a new one, little by little since mid-May, and digging a small place to put a fence on the wrong side of the property line, all the while politely laughing at her harassment of us. On Monday, she was out on the lawn talking a mile a minute, words coming out of her mouth like bullets from a machine gun. She was informing the workmen that she will have them forcibly dragged into court to testify at our “trial,” when we are arrested, which she’s confident will happen any moment.
And then things got worse. I woke up this morning and found that the refrigerator was warm, due to the freezer icing up and paralyzing the fan. Michael had figured out how to fix the problem with a hairdryer and by letting it stand open for hours, but that cost us all the perishables we’d just bought. There was no cream for the coffee, no milk for Rosie’s cereal. My expensive ketogenic pizza leftovers were ruined.
I generously offered to go shopping to re-stock the fridge myself, as long as I could go to the store in a town half an hour away instead of this one, just for a change of scenery. I ignored the weather report which promised a rain shower later that day. I left Rosie and Michael to play games at home, and fled to East Liverpool.
East Liverpool is another town in the Ohio Valley that has existed as nothing but a name on a road sign for me for more than a decade. I’ve been in Steubenville without my own transportation since fall of 2006. I got rides to church on Sunday, and for nearly everything else I took the bus. Places not on the bus route appeared in white print on green signs, impossibly far away, and I’d make up stories about what the must be like. Now that I have a car, I’m going to the small towns just to see them and find out if I was right. Toronto I imagined to be a miniature Canada with Mounties riding around on horses; in fact, it’s a quiet riverside town with a little pier and some parks. Mingo Junction, I pictured as a quaint railway station where all the train engines had smiling faces. In fact, it’s a terrifying maze of steep hills and dead ends, where the roads haven’t been paved in 30 years or more, and no train station at all. Cadiz I pretended was a fanciful abandoned city made of dark gray brick and abstract stained glass, a location you’d visit in the Myst series of video games, but in fact it’s a quiet rural town barely big enough for the courthouse and a hospital. Wintersville, the part out beyond the bus route, was the land of Narnia where it’s always winter and never Christmas, but in fact Wintersville is a housing development. I thought of East Liverpool as a small town in England, the birthplace of the Beatles and a famous Doctor Who star. In fact, it’s a small town in Eastern Ohio.
In East Liverpool I dawdled, taking as long as I could before I had to go home. There is a beautiful Carnegie library downtown, built like a cathedral for books. I wandered up and down the stairs reverently for some time. Then I went to see the pottery museum, but it was already closed for the day because I’d taken too long at the library, so I just walked around downtown. Then I went for a stroll in their park, which is shady and comforting. There’s a big climbing structure for children and a weird little playhouse as well. Next to it is the pool, nice and wide, with a small diving board at one end that children were jumping off of. I made a note to take Rosie to swim at the East Liverpool park pool before it closed for the season. I saw an alarming cloud front moving in, so I left the park sooner than I would have liked. I went to a nearby grocery store, and then I turned to drive back, a little sorry there hadn’t been more excitement.
It was at that moment that the clouds burst.
I have only been driving for four months. I’m still not used to rain on the road. I had no idea whatsoever how to drive when it was coming down in sheets, too thick to see clearly, but I couldn’t even see well enough to get off the road and wait it out. I followed the tail lights in front of me and squinted for stop signs; eventually it lifted, and I got back on the freeway to drive home. And then the rain started again, worse than ever.
I couldn’t see the Ohio far to the left of me. I couldn’t see the median, a few feet to the left. I could see the semi truck behind me because its lights were on. I could see tail lights now and again. Eventually I slowed to a crawl as I drove through a construction zone, praying with relief whenever I safely avoided an orange plastic barrel.
The rain was so loud, I could barely hear either. I had the Garmin on to help me get home just in case I got off the wrong exit. After awhile, I realized the Garmin was making noise, but it wasn’t talking. It was bleating.
It was bleating the three sharp alarms I remembered from television weather alerts growing up in Columbus, which is flat as a board and much more prone to twisters.
Just then my phone joined in– not the jingle that tells me I have a text, but the bleat that tells me there’s a weather disaster.
I didn’t dare glance down at either device. I un-clenched one set of knuckles from the wheel and turned on the radio. It also began to bleat, and then came the words: the newscaster cautioning that every single county in the tri-state area was under a tornado warning.
Growing up in Columbus, you quickly learn that a tornado watch means almost nothing. There can be a tornado watch when it’s not even raining, if the cloud conditions are right. We laugh at tornado watches. But a tornado warning is different. A warning means the tornado has already been spotted. And when the tornado has been spotted, the only safe place is to go duck and cover in the cellar. It had been drilled into my mind in school and on public television that you absolutely had to retreat to the cellar, crouch with your face to the wall, and link your hands over your neck, during a tornado warning. But there wasn’t a cellar in the car. I remembered something about getting off the road and going to take the duck-and-cover position in a ditch if you were on the road, but I couldn’t even see the side of the road. I didn’t think there was room to pull over with all the construction barrels. If there was a ditch, it was flooded.
I vaguely remembered watching a movie where the heroes are driving on the freeway, filming a nearby tornado, when they see the chilling spectacle of the headlights right behind them getting sucked up into the cyclone and realize they’re going to die.
I glanced in the rearview mirror at the semi truck. Part of me expected to see it sucked away just like the film, but it didn’t get sucked. It kept driving, and so did I– slowly, listening to three sets of warning bleats in irritating dissonance.
They bleated for twenty minutes.
I didn’t dare turn the radio off, but I got tired of the constant noise. I started to sing Shapenote hymns, taking the Soprano line.
David the King was grieved and moved
He went to his chamber his chamber and wept.
And as he went, he wept and said
O My Son! O My Son!
Would to God I had died. Would to God I had died! Would to God I had died for thee O Absalom, my son!
In and out of the rectangular tunnel that goes right by the nightmare-inducing W. H. Sammis Power Plant, belting “Absalom” at the top of my lungs to drown out the tornado warning. I thought for a moment about just parking the car inside the tunnel to wait out the emergency, but that truck was still behind me.
When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
when I was sinking down, sinking down, O My Soul!
When I was sinking down, beneath God’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul, O My Soul,
He laid aside His crown for my soul!
Around the bends of the Ohio, taking the Soprano line and screeching about God’s righteous frown, straight down to Steubenville and onto University Boulevard, where the water was so deep I thought I’d be swept away.
By the time I got back to LaBelle, it was starting to clear up. Rosie and Michael were safe and glad to see me.
I checked the news and found that there had been a twister in Wintersville, just a breath away from home, and another nearby. Houses had been destroyed and trees were down. I’d actually been driving toward the danger and not away from it, though I’d had no way of knowing that and nowhere was really safe.
I’m still not sure what I’m supposed to have done, but I had a day out and I got the groceries home.
And it did take my mind off things.
Image via Pixabay
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.
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