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Longing for a Wicked Wind

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Gary England on television:

“This isn’t the kind of outbreak we saw last May, folks.  Keep your heads up and your television on – we’ll broadcast all night if necessary.  I just don’t think the data bear out multiple F-5s or even F-4s.  Remember, the safest place is underground, and if you can’t get to a shelter, the lowest and most center part of your house, away from windows.”

It ran together, to Jo’s ears, one long sentence in Gary’s signature twang. 

The sky was grey, not green, and the wind was blowing, it hadn’t gone still and silent.  There was no chill from hail somewhere nearby.  But it was early yet.  Jo had seen storms go from benign to terrifying in a matter of minutes.  She turned off the television and went outside, where Aunt Meg was working on one of her sculptures.  They shared a smile of sorts, and both looked back at the house and frowned.

Jo’s mother sat upstairs, drinking whiskey sours and refusing to watch the television if Gary England or any other “damn fool weatherman” was on.  What did they know, she would rant, what good were they, if all the warning anyone ever got was a few minutes?  The F-5 – said with some reverence, some deference to its power and might, to God’s wrath – killed twenty people in five minutes.  Five minutes, they said.  And her husband was one of those twenty, and she was angry.  Still, years later.

And she was scared.

Jo had been small, but she understood the anger.  She wasn’t scared, not anymore, not of twisters.  She was scared about her mom, what was going to happen to her.  The booze, shutting herself away.  Jo closed her eyes and turned her face to the sky.  Don’t take her, too.

It began to rain and Meg went inside, with an admonishment to Jo about not staying outside if it got bad, to stay away from the trees when the lightning started.  Jo nodded, eyes open and still on the sky.

The sky churned, the clouds darkened.  The sirens were silent, and Jo had begun to think England’s forecast was overly cautious.  She squinted, trying to see a wall cloud, a funnel.  But the air was wrong.

She waited an hour, and the storm, such as it was, dropped a couple inches of rain and spit out some unconvincing pea-sized hail.  Jo watched it all from the porch, skin tingling in anticipation and anxiety, but the worst of it passed without even knocking out the power.

Later, Gary England spoke into the darkened living room about how the ingredients were there but didn’t amount to anything, and everyone could stand down.  The National Weather Service kept a watch over the relevant counties until the middle of the night.

In Kansas, two hundred miles from where Jo slept fitfully, an F-3 leveled a farm and wreaked havoc in a small community.  The season continued.

-

She got her license, and Meg helped her buy a truck.

She chased a storm through Stillwater that April.  Her mother died in May.

Jo watched the skies for funnels at the funeral – she was distracted and sad, and she blamed the weather.  Meg watched her closely.  It hadn’t occurred to Jo, her mother and father died on the same day, ten years apart.

Twisters were capricious. Prone to destruction, but unpredictable.  You could trace their paths and you could look at the damage, make estimates about wind speed.  The insurance companies wanted certainty, something they could use as a measurement to determine how much they would pay out, and damage paths were the best anyone could give them.  Jo wanted to tell them, tell everyone, it would be better, they would predict and warn and clear the path ahead of the most unpredictable and wild sidewinders. 

Jo’s mother hadn’t died in a twister.  Everyone who knew her saw her death coming before it happened.  They had warning; they were prepared, in some way.  Jo had known it was coming, she’d heard the labored breathing and saw the greying skin.  Her mother had grabbed her hand, a week before, and begged her not to drive her truck into a storm.

“Stay home, Jo.  Or if you have to go, make it somewhere safe.  Get out of here.”

Her mother had never held her hand like that, not after the F-5.  And Jo knew, she went into the kitchen and ran the water to hide her crying.  Meg, of course, knew anyway, and said nothing.  When it happened, they held each other, and Meg promised she wouldn’t have to leave at all.  When a storm blew up near Tulsa the next day, while they were at the funeral home making arrangements and they heard it on the radio, she handed Jo the keys.

After the funeral, they went back to the house and well-meaning people brought trays of food and casseroles.  Small town Oklahoma was like small town everywhere, except they lived through springs that left nothing but death behind.  The sky began to darken early, and everyone went home, one eye on the sky and the other on the road, grateful they didn’t have to go far and that every home had a shelter they could stop at if necessary.

The sky turned colors, and the birds were silent.  In living rooms across town, women still in their black hose turned on their televisions, in case.

A whiskey bottle was on the nightstand next to the bed where Jo’s mother had breathed her last.  It was empty – Jo had trouble picturing a full one, honestly.  But she picked it up, weighed it in her hand.

Meg called up the stairs, there was rotation on radar in the county to their west.  It probably wouldn’t be long before a warning was called.  This was the most any of them ever had in the way of real warning – ingrained instinct, long experience, and a natural fear of the word “rotation.” 

Jo, whiskey bottle in hand, made her way down the stairs.  Meg had stocked her basement with water and blankets when spring came, and was talking about going down.  Jo put a jacket over one arm, and wrapped her free hand around her keys.  They rattled.

Meg looked at her and said nothing; her shoulders slumped and she sighed.  She still wore her black dress, the pearls that had belonged to her sister.  She put everything she was feeling into the hug she gave Jo.  Be safe.  Don’t be reckless.

Jo nodded and left.

The twister, when she found it, was no ground-scraper; the sky whirled and the wind whipped but Jo, an Oklahoman to her marrow, saw that it was dying, if it was ever a real threat.  She’d seen worse, she would see much worse, and people would be safe.  That was almost true – she would know later, someone’s roof collapsed, trees were leveled, there were injuries; straight-line winds could be worse than tornadoes and the sirens wouldn’t scream.

For now, Jo was watching a storm collapse, the twister’s rope climb back into the clouds, unconvinced of its superiority. 

She positioned herself where she thought it might drop again, if it did.  The path could shift, of course.  But she drove to a spot in the road far enough from immediate danger and climbed out of her truck.

She left the whiskey bottle on the road and said a prayer.

Wherever they are, let them be together.

And Jo went home, to sit in the basement with her Aunt Meg.

-

She was nineteen, studying meteorology at Muskogee State, and she met a guy.  He wasn’t the guy, he was a friend, someone who understood about tornadoes.  Robert Nurick was from McAlester, and he’d lived in two houses that were taken out before he was ten.

Jo liked Robert, and started calling him Rabbit when she saw the way he could find his way around the strangest, tightest places.  He didn’t like to drive, but he gave very good directions – he knew where everything was, even when it was somewhere he’d never been.

And when the storms rose, his nose would twitch.  He always denied this, and it made Jo laugh.

They were the first, of the team that would be.  And that one June, when the storm season lingered and an F-4 went through Lawrence, Kansas, Jo and Rabbit were there and captured the whole thing on film.

That video would later play into Jo’s master’s thesis, about tracking systems for storms.

-

Jo’s team was full.  She wasn’t interested in adding anyone to it.  Rabbit, Dusty, Preacher, Beltzer, and herself.  All weather junkies, all Oklahomans, except Preacher who came from Florida, a refugee from hurricanes desperate for a change, literally, in the weather.

She wasn’t able to tell Bill no, however, after the incident with the liquor bottle and his lack of clothing.  There was something about him, his swagger and arrogance.  His unpredictability.  Jo fell for him, hard, but she hid it, or thought she did. 

She didn’t.  Dusty called her out at a bar one night, over beers after a chase. 

“You have the worst poker face.”

“What?”

“Bill.  There’s….chemistry.”  Dusty grinned.

“How would you know,” Jo growled back.  “Didn’t you fail chemistry? Twice?”

Dusty shrugged.  “I know a horny look when I see one.”

She took his hat off his head and smacked him with it while he laughed.

They asked Bill to join the team, after he tagged along on a chase or three.  And he dodged it and danced around answering. 

Jo got him to commit, in the end, when she asked him about his first twister, and told him about hers.

-

“NSSL says this is gonna be a week.  Gonna make Grand Island look like child’s play.  Do we chase?”

Jo looked at Rabbit and rubbed her eyes.  She was exhausted, hadn’t been sleeping.  On television, behind her, Bill Harding gave the week’s forecast and smiled a shit-eating grin made for an Emmy presentation.

She threw a pen at the television and sighed. 

“Jo?”

“How come, if NSSL and the NWS are saying there’s gonna be an outbreak, if it’s May and there will be storms because this is Okla-fucking-homa, the weatherman,” she spit the word, “can’t be bothered to let folks know?  I really don’t understand this.  Are we just going to wait and see, let the next F-5 come barreling across the turnpike and pray?

“Jo.”

She’d ranted like this for years now, as the science improved and they learned more, but the system refused to shift.  Gary England was still on television, but his breed was being shoved aside for younger, shinier types and the networks wanted peace and calm and sunshine forecasting.  The ratings had begun to matter, because people had cable where ten years before they’d had rabbit ears wrapped in foil, and the Weather Channel told them all they thought they needed.

Oklahomans had instinct.  Who needed warnings?

Jo clenched her fists.  She’d seen the data from NSSL and her stomach had tied in knots.  Dorothy sat in their storage unit, ready for the season, for the first viable chase.  The time was now, would be now, and Jo could agree with one thing – instinct did work, and hers was clamoring that this was it.

“Yes,” she said, in a less fraught voice.  Rabbit had turned off the television, Bill’s face and voice were gone, and Jo could think.

“Start mapping the route so we can get an idea of where to begin.  I don’t want us anywhere near Jonas, and keep it quiet, I don’t want him following us until it’s inevitable.  Tell Dusty and the others to get supplies, pick a few of the grad students to tag along.  We’ll need the whole team for this.”

Rabbit grinned.  “Ahead of you, boss.”  He handed her the atlas and showed her the plan he had in mind.  Jo nodded along, glad she could count on someone these days.  They wrapped up what they could and called it a night – Jo claimed the need for sleep, and urged Rabbit to do the same, but she went back to her apartment and did everything but.

Earlier that day, she’d been chased down by a courier, served with papers.  Papers.  This was the second time.  She’d told Bill she’d lost the first ones, or they didn’t go to the right Jo Harding, some lame and false excuse that he doubtless saw through.

He was in a hurry, though.  He wanted it done.

He has someone new.

Dusty had hinted at it, in his unsubtle way.  Preacher stood next to him, asking Jo if she wanted to talk, and no, she didn’t want to talk, she wanted to work, and could they get on the analysis of the data from the weather station in Wichita Falls already?

Bill had been a serial monogamist before Jo.  She knew, he didn’t really like being alone, and he was charming, good-looking, smart, a catch.  He’d done the breaking up, he told her, but their world was pretty small, their circle smaller, and she heard the stories.  His ambition, his drive, his work always came first.

Until Jo, whose work superseded everyone else’s, if they were lucky enough to be close to her.

He wanted kids, a house in the suburbs.  Wanted Jo to take that job at OU, the money was better. It rang so painfully in Jo's ears - the Extreme would never settle down like that, who was this new "Billy" Harding?Moore was nice, he said, and easy distance to campus.  Norman was okay, too.  But they could afford Nichols Hills and why not?  He wanted Jo to trade in her truck.  He wanted a sedan and calm.  He wasn’t the Bill with the liquor bottle, tossing it to the wind and screaming curse words.  He told her he was thinking about television.

Weatherman.

She said no, hell no, she liked the apartment near campus, she had her classes and she had the team so why have kids, and didn’t he get a vasectomy any way, and Nichols Hills was for debutantes’ mothers and she was definitely not that.

She thought he wasn’t either, and said so, the night he told her he took the job with KFOR.

Weatherman.

But Jo didn’t believe he would want a divorce.  They’d make it work – moreover, spring would come and she would finish Dorothy and they would chase.  They would chase, damn it, and Bill, accused of sniffing dirt and putting a finger to the wind instead of studying the science but so successful at moving the needle on the research, a name in the field….Bill would know, he’d been wrong, and KFOR and the Emmys be damned.

Jo knew it.

The papers were on her counter.  She read them, over and over.  Dissolution of relationship.  No fault.  He accused her of nothing, because there had been nothing, except ambition.  Except science.

Those weren’t legal causes for divorce.

She stayed up all night, eyes gritty but adrenaline high.  Rabbit called her early, told her NSSL had doubled down, that he was calling the team.  She agreed and climbed in her truck.

Divorce papers still in her hand.

She shoved them in the glove compartment.

And she drove off, to start the chase.