by Christopher Hadin
Clouds were forming in the west. The sky was full of great towering thunderheads that rose up and flattened out on top. The trees between the cornfields were shimmery in the wind, showing the undersides of their leaves, their branches waving on each new gust. Earl passed a poplar in the front yard of a farmhouse that was nearly white against the slate grey clouds of the incoming weather. He drove a Ford that he’d picked up for cheap outside of Jackson. It was old — no radio and a ragtop that wouldn’t do much to keep the rain out. But it ran and Earl didn’t push it. “No rush,” he said to himself. “Easy does it. Taking my time.” But they’d given him only two days to make the delivery. Axler trusted him. It was a good sign.
Earl took farm roads that ran along township lines, travelling as close as he could to the old state highway without actually driving it. Most of the roads were dirt and sand with some paved sections outside of the towns. He crossed the highway a few times, pausing to let traffic go by, then creeping out when traffic was clear. Earl went on this way, going south before again turning west toward Chicago.
He passed farms and barns, all ubiquitous, all interchangeable. The fields were separated by woodlots, small parcels of forest made up of large oaks that were probably there a hundred years ago, at the time of statehood, or whenever the farms had been carved out of the ancient forest, a generation or two before the Civil War.
Earl glanced at the worn and dirty carpenter’s bag on the passenger side floor, its leather handles shiny from use. He looked at it frequently as he drove, even though its place on the floor remained unchanged. The presence of the bag and its contents reminded him of how he woke up to find Axler in his room telling him to get dressed — he was going to Chicago. And then what to do when he got to Chicago and handed the bag off to the people who were waiting for it. But one thing at a time. All he had to do today was drive. Later, he would hand over the bag, dump the car, and take the train back to Detroit. But a nagging thought pulled at the back of his mind; what else was waiting? There was no way to tell. Why did Axler say he needed “his lone wolf to do a job,” somebody with no wife and no kids? Earl had no family at all and Axler loved this. He’d been told to put the bag in the hands of a very important associate — someone named Johnny Vitali, and no one else. Earl had never heard of Johnny Vitali. There was something that bothered him about it. Earl could disappear and no one would ever know.
A few drops of rain spattered against the windshield then stopped. Earl reached up and cranked the wiper a few times. It only smeared the dust, creating a fog of dirt. More rain would clear it, but there wasn’t any more rain. Just a stiff breeze that kicked up the dirt.
He stopped and got out, not bothering to pull off the road, then wiped the windshield with the palm of his hand. It left a thick line of dust on the heel of his palm and his hand left a greasy streak across the windshield, but at least he could see through it. Earl swiped his hands together a few times and most of the dirt came off. He brushed them across his pants leaving dusty patches on the knees. It didn’t matter. When he got to Chicago and handed off the bag, no one would care what he looked like. All they would care about was if he had the bag. Earl glanced over at it.
He was stepping onto the running board when he looked up to see something obscuring his view of the road ahead. It was a beige wave that he thought must be a hill or a dune, but then realized it was a billowing cloud of dust and leaves coming toward him as a violent wind shook the trees.
He scrambled into the Ford, rolled up the window and grabbed the canvas bag, holding it to his chest. As it drew closer, Earl could see leaves and sticks tumbling as the wind churned violently within itself. A second before it hit, he bit down and put his right hand against the steering wheel, pressing himself back into the seat. The wall of dust raced across the remaining twenty feet, obscuring his view and engulfing the Ford. The old car rocked on its loose springs. An oak leaf blew up and pressed against the windshield before a current within the wind plucked it off and sent it flying away. The cloth top of the car fluttered and then fell silent as the gust went past him. Earl could see outside the windows again. Branches lay in the road. Above him dark grey clouds floated in layers, all low and undulating.
Earl switched the canvas bag to his left arm and grabbed the shifter. The gearbox made a grating sound when he jammed it into low and let out the clutch. He took the bag with his right hand, set it down on the floor and drove, crunching over branches that hit the underside of the car as they snapped. A bright shaft of sunlight broke through a hole in the clouds but just as quickly was gone. He felt a rush of cool air come in through a gap between the windshield and the top. The temperature had dropped by about twenty degrees, taking away the hot, dusty air and pushing it to the east. The road went past patches of scrubby woods that were fields a generation ago but had been allowed to become fallow and now were covered with birch and slender pines.
Earl’s stomach gave a growl, lurching around inside him and he realized breakfast had been— when? Yesterday? It was when he left Detroit in a car they had given him to make the drive. The car was stolen no doubt, with Ohio plates that were probably stolen too. He had left it by a lake, then flagged down a flatbed, saying he had broken down and needed a ride into town. When Earl saw the Ford with a “4 sail” sign, he hopped off at a railroad crossing and walked the quarter mile back to the farmhouse. He paid cash for the car and drove it away while the old farmer kept blabbing on, telling Earl what a good deal he was getting and how he could have sold it for more in Jackson or Lansing. Earl hit the gas while the old man was in mid-sentence, scattering chickens and leaving him standing in his yard. Driving back roads straight through to Chicago, switching cars, these were extra measures of safety. In case someone was watching the road, waiting for him.
He drove through a stand of mature oak, maple, and beech on both sides of the road. This spot had more significant damage from the wind. Ahead of him was a large branch, too big to drive over. Earl stopped and got out, dragging it to the side of the road. He looked around. The woods were full of limbs that the wind had ripped from the trees. They laid on the ground everywhere, green and fragrant. He drove a hundred feet and had to stop to move another oak branch. It was too large to pull aside. All he could do was heave it sideways a little and force the car through the gap.
Ahead the woods opened up. There was a farm on the right. As Earl approached it there were fewer leaves and branches in the roadway, and when he was adjacent to the farm, the woody debris was replaced with cornstalks, some uprooted, others broken and bent in half. He passed the farmhouse. A man stood in the front yard, close to the road. He stared out over his field then turned and locked eyes with Earl, a look of angry defiance on his face. Earl slowed and looked at the farm. Siding was missing from the barn, revealing the stout oak timbers of the frame. But he didn’t stop. There was nothing he could do to fix the man’s cornfields. A man could put the sides back on a barn, but no one could fix a cornfield.
But Earl had not gone too far when he came upon a massive white pine lying across the road, the upper branches split into matchsticks by the force of its impact with the ground. A rich, piney smell filled the air, thick as syrup. He could taste it. Earl stopped. There was no going around it. He turned the car and went back. He’d have to call Axler and tell him there might be a delay. Axler would hate that.
He pulled into the yard of the farmhouse. The farmer, hands in pockets of clean coveralls, watched him approach, then walked to the driver’s side of the car. “Sorry about your field,” Earl said.
The man nodded but said nothing.
“There’s a tree down across the road ahead. I need a phone.”
The man listened and appeared to consider Earl’s words very carefully before answering. “There’s no telephone here.”
“Do you know where I can find one?”
“Closest phone is five miles that way. But you say there’s a tree down.”
“Huh.” The farmer’s eyes went back to his field.
“Is there another one?”
“Back in Wexlerville there is.”
“How far back?”
“About five miles the way you came.”
Earl looked back at the road and nodded. He was about to ask if any of the houses along the road had a phone when the door of the farmhouse swung open and slammed the side of the house. A boy of about ten, a teenage girl and a woman came out. “Daddy!” the boy called. “Dad!”
His wife was pointing to the southwest. “Twister!”
The farmer ran to the porch where he could see over the trees. He ran back to Earl. “Fella, we got a cellar. C’mon.”
Earl started to put the car in gear, but the man opened the door, reached in and shut it off. “C’mon you don’t have time.” He grabbed a hold of Earl’s sleeve and pulled him out.
“Hold on, I need my — “
Earl yanked his sleeve loose. He grabbed the canvas bag. “Go!” The farmer yelled to his family. “Git!”
They ran through the yard to a bulkhead door in the ground, about twenty feet from the house. The woman opened one of the doors and rushed her children down the stairs into the cellar. Her eyes were on the sky. Earl looked over his shoulder and saw the tornado. He stopped and stared. The man turned, saw him rooted to the spot and grabbed his sleeve again. “I’ll leave ya if I gotta tell ya again.”
A massive column, greyish-black and undulating, reached from the sky to the ground. He could see debris inside it, bits of tree and swirling dust. He watched as a spray of boards was lifted up then scattered. He turned to see the man descending the stairs and closing the door behind him. “No!” Earl called out. “Wait!” The man paused, his arm holding the door open a crack. Earl ran to the cellar. He yanked open the door, threw the canvas bag inside and scrambled down. The man went past him back up the stairs and drew three heavy oak planks across the door, sliding them into holes in the masonry. He then retreated back down and sat on a bench. A single lantern burned.
Earl sat opposite the family. The wife barely acknowledged his presence. She pulled a small Bible from a pocket in her apron and began to read. The boy stared at Earl with large brown eyes. “Who are you?” he said. His sister elbowed him hard. “Oww!” the boy called out. “Dad she poked me with her el—”
“You two shush now.” He turned to his wife. “Kin you read that to all of us.” His wife cleared her throat. Through a vent in the ceiling, a shrill roar could be heard. “Read it, Mary. Please.”
The woman cleared her throat again and began to read. “He got up and rebuked the winds and the waves, and it was completely calm. The men were amazed and asked, ‘What kind of man is this? Even the winds and the waves obey him!’”
“Well. Amen,” the man said. He looked at his children. “Amen,” they whispered. “Maybe you could read Isaiah? ‘Fear thou not . . .’”
The woman nodded and flipped through the pages. She began in a quiet voice but then got louder. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness. Amen.”
They all said amen. The boy looked at Earl, then the girl. “Amen,” Earl said, and they nodded.
“I’m Tate,” the boy said.
“What do you got in your bag?” the boy asked.
“Tate Russell Wilkes!” his mother said. “You leave that man alone!” She glanced up briefly. “He don’t get a lot of chances to use his manners, so I reckon he’s out of practice. We don’t have a lot of comp’ny.” She tried to smile, but it flashed by quickly.
Earl nodded. “It’s fine.”
He was about to thank them when the sound coming through the vent became louder and more shrill. Earl hugged the bag to his chest. The man bent forward and stared at the dirt floor, placing his hands on his knees, elbows out. His wife leaned back against the wall and closed her eyes. She held the Bible over her heart and rocked slightly, her lips moving with inaudible prayers. The girl leaned against her mother and looked at the floor, a sad forlorn expression on her young lovely face. But the boy stared at Earl, his eyes wide as the sound of the tornado intensified, reaching a shriek that had no comparison. Earl had never heard anything like it. The doors rattled violently, and he could hear the sound of debris slamming against them.
A look of agony spread across the woman’s face as she took her children’s hands. “Pray! All of you— PRAY!” she said, and the children dutifully closed their eyes, murmuring their prayers. The man didn’t move. He sat as before, hunched over, staring at the floor.
After an unknown amount of time, it could have been twenty seconds or twenty minutes, the sound lessened. The shrill intensity diminished. The man glanced up at Earl, as though suddenly remembering he was there, then turned to his wife. He stood.
“No Harris. Please” she said with eyes still closed, somehow knowing his desire to open the doors. “Not until it’s quiet.”
The man went to the base of a vent pipe and looked up into it. “Sunlight.”
The boy turned to his father. “Can we go up?” But his father didn’t answer. “Is the storm over?” Earl got the feeling that little Tate Russell Wilkes asked a lot of questions, enough that his parents grew tired of answering him. The woman opened her eyes and reached across her daughter, taking the boy’s hands, holding them in her own. The girl placed her hands on top of theirs and the three of them sat, listening to the silence that had replaced the roar of the wind. Earl stared at the family, at the tenderness between them, and how they drew strength from each other. And because he was with them, he felt a little stronger and safer than when he was on his own, relying only on himself.
Earl realized he was staring. He lowered his eyes then glanced at the father who was scrutinizing the doors, moving his head ever so slightly to see the light in the cracks between the doors and the frame. “Blue sky,” he announced. “You wanna gimme a hand? Just in case there’s something up agains’ it.”
The man went up the stairs and slid the oak planks back from the wall. One of the planks wouldn’t come out of the wall, but the man put his weight against the door and rattled it. This loosened the stubborn piece of oak and it too slid back in place with the others. The man pushed one door open and went out. Earl went behind him and opened the other door, stepping into bright sunshine.
The house and barn were gone.
“Kin I come up?” Tate called out. “What’s it like?” The boy emerged from the cellar and stood open-mouthed, staring at the plume of splinters and broken boards that led from the foundation of their house across the field and into the woods. A lone vertical timber marked where the barn once stood. The house seemed to have exploded but the barn was carried away whole. No trace of it could be seen. A horse lay dead on the ground. “Dad, where’s our house?” The man didn’t answer his son. He stared out across where the house, barn and a field of corn had been that morning. Earl’s car was a twisted piece of metal, and it lay among the trees that had stood at the edge of the field but were now snapped off and uprooted.
Earl watched the woman emerge from the cellar and go to her husband’s side. They clung to each other with their eyes closed and their lips pressed tight, holding back tears. The girl came out last. She took the last step up to ground level, and screamed, running toward the empty foundation in a low crouch, knees bent and wobbly. She stopped and turned in a tight circle, taking in the devastation, her arms out to the side. Tate began to cry. The girl took a deep breath and screamed again, running to the woman and burying her face in her neck. Earl squatted down next to Tate. “You’re going to be alright,” he said, not knowing how rightness would come or from where it would descend. “Everything’s going to be okay. Don’t cry. You got a family.”
The mother took a step away from her husband and daughter then turned to face them. “Look at me please,” she said. “Tate. Stand with your father.” She reached into her apron, pulled out the Bible, and thumbed through the pages. In a quavering voice she read. “I will praise the Lord according to his righteousness.” The girl cried, trying to hold back the tears but they burst out of her in great wailing sobs. “And will sing praise to the Lord Most High.” A bird flew overhead against the flawless blue sky. She turned a few pages. “And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.”
Earl realized the bag was still in the cellar and went back down to get it. When he came up the woman was still reading. “Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat, or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.”
Earl tried to open the bag. It was sealed tight. Six brass screws had been put through the wooden frame of the top. Below that, he saw a line of stitching that secured the contents. “You gotta knife?” he asked the farmer.
“You gotta knife? I need a knife.”
The man reached into his coveralls and pulled out a worn folding knife with a hooked blade. He handed it to Earl. Earl opened it and tried to cut the canvas, but it was thick and resisted the dull blade. Earl jabbed the tip of the knife in, held the bag close to his chest and drew the blade through the canvas. A neatly wrapped stack of hundred-dollar bills fell out on the ground.
Earl picked it up. He took the man by the elbow and pulled him twenty feet away from his family. “I was never here. I was never with you. There are people who would kill me.” Earl began stuffing money into his jacket pockets. He shoved a stack of bills into the hands of the farmer who pushed it away.
“Fella, don’t hand me money that was made from your sin.”
“It wasn’t,” Earl lied. “It was honest-made but still they would kill me. It’s you that found it. Finders, keep—”
“I cain lie and I cain take this.” The farmer stared at him.
Earl’s voice dropped to a hiss. “You can and you will and you’ll take more.” He pushed the money toward the man. “You found it by that wreck of a car over there.” When the farmer didn’t take it, Earl shoved the bundle of money back into the bag then threw the bag into the man’s arms. “You say the driver was sucked up into the cloud. You begged him to go into the cellar with you but he wouldn’t and now he’s dead. You never got his name.” He shoved another stack into the hole in the bag. “You found this in your field, all tore up. Scuff it up. Make it dirty.”
The man stared at Earl. “And what happens when they come looking?”
“Nobody will come looking. Half this county’s probably matchwood. The people that want this bag will have to eat the loss. Just like the bank would’a made you do with that field a corn. Total loss. And that’d be on you!” Earl leaned in closer to the man’s face. “And then you’d owe that bank—how much more? How much is another house and barn? You’ll never pass this place on to that kid. That bank’s already whittled you down to nothin’. And you know and I know what comes next: Yer out. Foreclosure! Yer out!” The man looked at the ground. “What was it your missus was just reading to them kids? The good Lord takes care of his own. Right?”
The man’s head jerked up and he locked eyes with Earl. “This ain’t of God,” he said, looking at the bag of money in his hands. “You can’t say that this is God’s.”
“Yeah? But this is?” Earl gestured to the missing house and barn. He pointed at the dead horse. “What about his hand bein’ in all things? Don’t everything come from him?”
The man looked at his wife and children clinging to each other. She was trying to hold them and turn the thin pages of her Bible at the same time.
“You found it,” Earl said through his teeth, quietly hissing the words as he stepped up close to the man. “On the goddam ground!” He took another stack of bills from his pocket, put it in the man’s hand, and then forced his fingers closed on it. The man stared Earl in the eye and then carefully slipped the money through the slit in the bag.
“And what do you do now?” the man said. “Where do you—” His words trailed off. He looked at the ground, then squinted at the horizon.
“I take the rest of it. That wind sucked me up and it’s gonna spit me out somewhere else. Not Detroit and not Chicago.”
The man pointed across a field. “Two miles that way is Clayton. It's on a feeder line for the Lake Shore & Southern. You can take a train from there to anywhere.”
The money bulged out of Earl’s jacket pockets. He’d find some less conspicuous way to carry it later. The important thing now was to go. He looked at the man one last time. “Buy that boy a few sodas.”
“A muzzle’d be more like it,” the farmer muttered and cracked a small smile. He went back to his family, huddled around their Bible.
Earl walked in the direction the farmer had pointed. He could hear the boy firing off questions. “Dad! Where’s he goin’? What did you an’ him talk about? Why do you got that bag?”
“Listen to your mother. What are you reading?”
“She’s reading Matthew,” Tate said.
“But daddy, where are we gonna live?” the girl asked between sobs, her voice strained and cracking.
“Listen to your mother read,” he said.
The woman stared at her husband, aware that something had shifted, but she didn’t know what. She read. “For I hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me . . .”
The man looked in the direction Earl had taken, but he had already walked below the rise of a small hill and was gone from sight.
Christopher Hadin teaches horticulture/environmental enrichment for adults with disabilities. He is a graduate of Michigan State. His work will appear this fall in Sky Island Journal, Schuylkill Valley Journal, October Hill Magazine and The Thieving Magpie. He lives in Bethel, Connecticut.
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