What Glenda Wanted
by Russell Helms
“The eye of the storm was upon them,
it saw everything, and it did not blink.”
Having watched the sky all day and waking to vicious thunder at midnight, Glenda stripped out the soaked pad, burst from the bathroom, ran into Gavin’s map-strewn room, and woke him with a shake.
The fuzzy TV weatherman placed the tornado ten miles southwest of Kuhlman, bearing down on the city with force enough to shoot a fingernail through a brick wall. “Hurreh, hurreh!” she shouted. Gavin sat up, spilling books into the floor. Rain hurled itself against the house in crashing waves. Glenda flounced back to the kitchen to a 13-inch black and white roaring with static.
Glenda’s chesty mother Agraina grew heavy after matrimony to Lester, a man not unlike a wooden nickel. Agraina whittled watermelon rind to disremember, made whistles from dried milkweed, and pushed three little girls from her alabaster loins flocked with a frieze of short, thick, red, curly hair.
In the middle of it all, Glenda tied back her thick, red, curly hair into a tapered rod and took on an air of prophecy. Her bouncy hair appendage pulled her face tight, pulled her fuzzy eyebrows high, made her neck veins swell, and gave her a sense of things. She liked mashed potatoes best and was the uncontested queen of double dipping.
“Yes Glenda, you raised your hand,” said Mrs. Wheat, Glenda’s third-grade teacher.
“We got a tornado shelter at our house.”
“Yes Glenda, we know,” said Mrs. Wheat.
“Pa and me done got in there last week and he showed me a big old fleshy spider in there.”
“Well, Glenda, the spider has to have a home. Right?”
Glenda put her hand down slow. The spider had run in a crack. The spider had spurted thousands and thousands of baby spiders. The spider had run in a crack.
The school bell rang. Glenda walked to the flagpole, flying half-mast for Easter Sunday, and hooked her thin, strong arm through her younger sister Jean’s thin, weak arm. Jean liked homemade applesauce and was the only one who didn’t have to pick cotton.
“Scarlet! We gotta go!” Glenda looked at the sky, examined the tall, white, puffy clouds. She licked her good thumb, held it up, double-checking. She closed her eyes and listened to the parboiled silence.
The oldest sister, Scarlet, hung back, slimming her dress down with two hands, talking to her boyfriend Gee. Scarlet glared toward the flagpole and Glenda fiddling with her hair rod.
“Scarlet! Mama’s waiting and Jean’s gotta pee!”
A warm, pulsing wind heavy with cold rain pushed and rocked Gavin and Glenda across the yard. The dogwood in the Hearn’s yard, stripped of its blooms, cracked with a snap. Fingers of lightning scratched and burned the sky.
Mrs. Hearn’s door was unlocked. She lived alone with her son Foggy. Most important, Mrs. Hearn lived in a brick house with a 20-foot TV aerial and a basement. Glenda surged into the house, pushed Gavin in, and slammed the door.
Foggy stood in his plaid robe with a blank look. He dragged an oatmeal cookie to his mouth and held it there. Mrs. Hearn limped into the living room; she was dressed in her black stretch pants and a faded red sweatshirt.
“Glenda, my goodness you’re wet to the bone,” she said.
Glenda was already halfway to the basement. “Better wet than dead!” she yelled from the stairwell.
“Gavin, can I get you a towel?”
Gavin wore red cotton gym shorts and a plain white t-shirt under his green windbreaker. He shivered, drying his aviator-frame glasses on his shirttail. “No ma’am.” A flash of lightning cracked and a cannon boom shook the house.
“Damn alive!” yelled Glenda. “Gawd!”
In the basement, Foggy stood beside the ping-pong table holding a paddle like a cookie. Gavin squeezed into the corner of a yellow floral-pattern couch. A balding weatherman with deep, sad eyes told the story on a shiny, 26-inch, color, black lacquer, cabinet TV.
The white funnel cloud had just slammed through Pond Junction, heading northwest. The weatherman, not used to being on air after 10:30 and drinking too much coffee from the doughnut place, jumped around like a cricket, relaying shouts of information from his producer.
“Chef Begby, is that right? Oh. Yes. Chief Begby. The fire chief. The fire chief of Pond Junction is on the phone with us. Chief Begby...”
The live phone call swallowed itself, yawning weird outer space sounds. “This Chief Begby!”
“We have Chief Begby on the line. Chief Begby... What’s that? Seems we have lost Chef Begby...”
“Oh my gawd,” said Glenda, renting the edge of a beige folding chair. She reached over and latched onto Gavin’s straw-colored arm, her eyes fixed on the TV. “Reminds me of the ’03 twister back home. Easter time, late at night. Oh my gawd, Gavin. Ran for twenty miles and killed twenty, all of ’em dead asleep. Daddy never told me about that one, but I learned it.”
Gavin looked at Foggy and back at his mom. He held a wet copy of Lord of the Flies between his knees. He pushed his glasses up and ran his thumb across the book’s fore edge, fanning the pages. “And you know they say it was a hundred yards across? Oh. My. Gawd.”
Hammers on a thousand cookie sheets shook the walls.
Third tornado warning of the month, Mrs. Hearn limped down the stairs, resting halfway. A mop of graying brown curls dripped over her eyes. She held a flashlight in her free hand. “Ya’ll okay?” she asked, stepping onto the worn green outdoor carpet. “Foggy, you okay?” The whole house vibrated and hummed.
Glenda unhugged herself, reached behind, and squeezed Foggy’s thick arm. “He’s good. Aint’cha Foggy?” She reached over and squeezed Gavin’s skinny thigh.
Gavin looked up from his book. Foggy tapped the ping-pong paddle on the table twice.
“Betty, you got another flashlight? I left ours at the house.”
“I just got this one here,” said Mrs. Hearn. “Candle’s over there on the table.”
A heavy thunderclap and the phone jangled out half a ring.
“Take shelter right now folks, if you live anywhere in the county,” said the weatherman. He stepped quickly to a poster map of the county and jabbed at it with his index finger, making the easel wobble. “From what we know the funnel cloud is tearing through Crooked Toe and headed right toward Kuhlman. If you have a basement or a tornado room, head on down with your TV. Take your dog, too. I got two dogs...” He held up two fingers.
Glenda nodded at Mrs. Hearn. “I called my sister today...”
Lightning struck, a blue ghost filled the basement, and the lights flamed out.
“Gavin!” screamed Glenda.
“Mama!” screamed Foggy.
Gavin held the book up to his face but it was pitch black. The wind howled.
“Foggy? Mama’s here,” said Mrs. Hearn. A beam of light bored across the room. Mrs. Hearn shined it in Gavin’s eyes, then Glenda’s eyes, then Foggy’s eyes. “Foggy, walk toward the light honey.” She maneuvered to the couch and sat down hard, scattering light beams all over. Foggy tripped over Gavin’s feet.
The roar of the storm grew forever louder. Gavin pulled a small blue AM transistor radio from his windbreaker pocket, turned it on by feel, and finagled the squeal into the breathy voice of WEUP’s midnight son, the Reverend James Squint. Over a malingering squelch, the reverend spoke.
“Now we know Jesus calmed the storm. He walked into the waves, trod ’em asunder with his holy feet. But right now you good people need to find that shelter. My good friends the Hilltoppers just last week buried a big hollow steel ball between the house and the barn. I’m praying that you are safe in your steel ball, your basement, your bathtub. Make sure you put a mattress over the bathtub or whatever your shelter from the storm may be, and make sure you put the little ones in the bathtub first...”
“Jesus!” shouted Glenda. “How many people can you get in a dingdang tub?” She remembered something and jumped up. “Damn alive!”
Halfway home and the clouds stacked to Heaven, Glenda and Jean walked behind Scarlet, keeping to the side of the wide, dry, dirt lane. When they reached Missionary Baptist Church, Jean took off to the outhouse behind the cemetery. Glenda followed her at a trot. A purple cloth hung limply on a rough cross of railroad ties.
“Scarlet, you better wait up! Mama says you can’t leave us!” shouted Glenda, hands on hips. Scarlet stopped on the road and glared. Outside the creaky outhouse, Glenda peered through the weathered boards at the vague shadow of Jean squatting over the hole. She hit the door with the back of her fist. A fine mist of dust filtered down onto Jean. “Hey, any spiders in there?”
“Shut up,” said Jean. The soiled vapors swaddled her. She held her breath and watched Glenda through the cracks. Glenda stood stiff, looking up at the sky, one hand shielding her eyes, a licked thumb testing for wind. Jean finished, yelled to Glenda that no spiders had got on her privates, and pushed into the stillness. Another quarter-mile to go.
“Mama, mama!” Glenda ran up and across the ditch, splitting between two burly oaks circled by a dirt driveway.
Agraina sat in a white rocker on the porch. She waved, pulled a dry square of tissue paper loaded with fine snuff from her mouth and tucked it on the other side between her cheek and gum. Scoot the hound sat at her feet, a necklace of fat ticks ringing his neck. She reached down, rolled one between her fingers and plucked it. The tick’s tiny legs beat the still, humid air. Agraina pinched it and wiped her bloody fingers on Scoot’s hindquarter. She pushed herself up with two big hands and held out her arms.
“Mama, mama, I’m feeling a tornado! I been feeling it all day. I’m scared mama. And Pa ain’t never got them black widders out the shelter!”
“I been feeling it too, honey.” She smoothed her dress down. “Let’s walk on back and clean them spiders out before Pa comes in here wanting to eat.”
Agraina wiped the sweat from her upper lip. She gazed across the road to the far pasture where Pa was bushhogging the young clover. A grunting motor sound. A sweet sticky smell. Glenda pulled away and took off running for the cement bunker.
“Mom!?” The basement smelled clean, pure.
Gavin jumped up and knocked over Mrs. Hearn. The flashlight went black. Glenda was already up the stairs, pummeling the umbrella stand, and unlocking the door. Gavin dropped his book.
Foggy wailed and Mrs. Hearn crawled toward him. The little blue radio kept talking from beneath the couch. “I will fear no evil...” A crack of lightning on top of a freight train shook the brick house.
“Foggy, get down, get down on the floor!” screamed Mrs. Hearn. Foggy hollered long and hard. Mrs. Hearn crawled toward him, feeling her way. Loud whistles filled the basement and a wind had joined them.
“Mama! mama! mama!” A big pee stain spread down Foggy’s pants. Mrs. Hearn grabbed his thick, sockless ankle.
“Down, Foggy, down! Get down!”
Wailing like a fire truck, Foggy stood there like a lighthouse and then collapsed. He held onto his mama for dear life.
A howl was all there was of the world. Glenda slipped in the flood in front of the porch, clawed the grass, lost a black loafer, stood, and fell back with the wind. She dropped to her knees. The wind beat her, tore her clothes, and something flashed by her head. She reached the door in her bra, grabbed the doorknob, her black zip skirt flapping around one ankle. The screen door ripped off and went. Windows exploded inward.
“Gawd! Gawd! Gawd!”
The door was locked. She hit it with the back of her fist.
The wind swung Gavin back into the Hearn’s house. The screen door flew out, straining and thrashing. He fell to the cream pile carpet and pushed into the fracas. He stood with his hands outstretched, slammed back against the bricks, tumbled off the porch, and nearly blew into Bluebird Avenue, his windbreaker already a thousand feet in the sky, swirling with refrigerators, pine needles, vinyl siding, tires, and a topless woman in her panties with one black loafer and one good thumb yielding all to the maelstrom.
Gavin slipped and struggled through the roaring din to the front door.
Glenda’s rabbit-foot keychain hung from the fake brass doorknob. A piece of aluminum downspout bounced off his head, and knocked him to his knees. The door ripped off the hinges and flew in.
Screaming wind, the American elm in the front yard disappeared. He looked back and the roof of a neighbor’s brick rancher lifted and burst without a sound. A yellow school bus with a black stripe down the side silently walked end over end down the street.
The roof snapped. The doorframe to the hallway shattered. He scrambled down the short hall and dove into a bathtub filled with debris, glass, a National Geographic featuring a tribute to President Kennedy, and a can of Redken hairspray. He pressed his face to his knees, covered his head, and briefly remembered what his father looked like. The roof left, the sky fell, and Gavin gripped something soft and wet.
And the rain fell in quiet sheets for what seemed liked days.
Wracked and broken but held firmly in the palm of His hand, Glenda ascended to glory. She saw her dear sister Jean for the first time in 26 years. Jean wore a white dress and she hugged Glenda with thin but strong arms. Her color was bright and Glenda wept, clinging to her baby sister.
And then Glenda descended to Hell, where she saw her Pa caught in a spider web. A black widow the size of a mule laid eggs into his stomach. He screamed, “Glender! Glender!” over and over. She wept, her tears splashing down onto her father’s wiry frame as he bobbed up and down in the sticky web.
And then she felt the terror melt from her cold body. She opened her eyes and saw her dear mother Agraina smiling down on her from far above, two giant breasts threatening to tear her white robe. She lifted her arms toward that tremendous bosom and found complete darkness.
“Tell us now what you exactly seen, Brother Frank?” The Reverend James Squint laughed nervously. “Praise God! Just tell us what you saw. Wearing one black shoe!”
“Well, sir, me and the family, we live up highway 231 there in Pond Junction in the BCA trailer park. We was asleep but I woke up and knowed something was wrong.”
“You knowed something was wrong! Praise God!”
“Well, sir, me and the two kids, my wife, and our dog Jumpy, we piled in the bathtub. I just laid on top cause we didn’t have time to get the mattress. Anyhow, it was over in a second and God spared us but he did see fit to take away our Mercury Bobcat and the push mower.”
“He spared you! Yes, brother. Tell it all!”
“Well it was dark and all and everbody was in a mess so I told my wife Cindy we might as well get some sleep and wait till sun-up to work out the damage.”
“Waiting for the light!”
“Because it was dark!”
“Brother Frank, let’s just pause right here for prayer and a message from one of our sponsors.”
Reverend Squint pulled the microphone closer. “Dear precious Father, we thank you for the news that we are about to receive from our Brother here. We thank you Jesus for sparing him, his wife Cindy, their two precious children, and Jumpy the dog. We have not the power to know your will, Father, but what we do know is that you always have our best in mind.” The reverend nudged Frank.
“Uh, thank you, Lord,” said Frank.
“Yes, thank you, Lord. We ask this in your sweet name. Amen. Now, Brother Frank, do you believe in the sanctity of fresh eggs?”
“I do like eggs.”
“Well everybody likes eggs and if you like your eggs fresh, Hopkins Egg Farm just outside what used to be Crooked Toe, a hop, skip, and a holler from Highway 72, is where you need to be getting your eggs. They got brown eggs, white eggs, big eggs, little eggs, they even got pickled eggs for holidays and boiled eggs to eat right there in the parking lot. Makes you hungry don’t it?”
“Yes, sir, it does.”
“Well, Brother Frank, I know your family is out in your neighbor’s pickup and you need to be getting to the Easter service. So tell us what you found. Tell us what all the big news channels want to know...”
No one witnessed it, but after the tornado tore through Pond Junction, Crooked Toe, and Kuhlman, killing 39, the roiling white cloud stumbled and slowed, toppled, and turned to its side, cascading across the grassy fields, unfolding like a soft, roll of paper towels, depositing coin-operated washing machines, boxes of cloth diapers, a dead heifer, lawn sprinklers, Easter Eggs, a bag of blue aquarium gravel, and a bruised, naked woman wearing one black shoe on her left foot and a smile on her face.
“Ma’am, you all right?” asked Frank, averting his eyes.
Copyright © 2011 by Russell Helms