Eric Altemus

Dead Air

Out in the field, I waited for the fast ones.

The kind I lived for. Sirens screaming across the plains. Furious systems that could wipe a West Texas football town clean off the map. Those long summer afternoons spent county-hopping in passenger vans or diesel trucks with hailstone cracks running down the windshield, taking cover in Shell stations or Walmart parking lots. Still want to mess with Mother Nature? Be my guest. But first thing’s first: Cut the shit. This ain’t Twister.

I started storm chasing around this time last year. Something to get me out of the house, meet guys my age, compensate for the lack of kids. From afar, I reassured my wife. From the road I sent her picture texts of bluebonnets and bulbous clouds way off in the distance. But I didn’t tell her about last week where, south of Waco, I saw a horse break its leg in a roadside ditch. In an escape attempt, the mare had jumped a barbed wire fence as a funnel cloud formed like a spearpoint overhead. There was nothing I could do. I didn’t stay to see what happened next.

Tornado Alley, home of weather geeks and adrenaline junkies, weirdos and the desperate. I should know. I was one of them.

Kay and I were in the hole bad from the home flipping business we’d started in Austin. We’d maxed out our credit, asked Kay’s parents for money after someone poured concrete down the toilets and smashed the breakfast nook windows over Memorial Day weekend. And then, the final straw, a threat scrawled in spray-paint in one of the living rooms: KILL ALL YUPPIES. Both foreclosures we’d bought at auction now sat rotting from the inside out, back under the bank’s thumb. It was like nobody had been there at all.

We loved those home renovation shows on HGTV. Kay recorded them on our cable box every week so we could watch them before bed. Extreme makeover? You wouldn’t recognize the new place. Love it or list it, it didn’t matter: everyone was always happy in the end. We thought that would be us. But as I scrubbed paint from the walls until my hands were raw, my dumb ass tried telling Kay that this had always been a bad idea. She didn’t speak to me for nearly a week after that. Deep down, we knew the problem with all those shows. It was obvious in hindsight. They never showed the folks that fucked it up.

Then she got sick. They don’t show that, either.

Imagine this: the same woman that pulverized kitchen cabinets with a sledgehammer wouldn’t leave the house because of crippling fatigue and panic. Self-examination in the shower became what ifs and worst-case scenarios: muscle knots one day, lumps the next. It took her two weeks to work up the nerve to get checked out and confirm what we both had been thinking. Meanwhile, days passed as thick pockets of humidity burst and collided, ravaging Austin with roaming thunderstorms.

Statistics dominated the news that season: dogs rescued from cars, heatstroke’s running death toll. And at the top of the hour, that same old story, the one where a family loses everything in the storm. Wide, narrated shots of downed power lines on the street and roof beams forced through a tree. Church relief efforts in a makeshift tent, with a reporter interviewing parents running on no sleep, still dressed in filthy clothes. They gave the same response every time, one we both tried to commit to heart. We’re just grateful to be alive.

*

Kay’s surgery was tomorrow. I drove her downtown for her last consultation before the procedure. The rain picked up; to the west, I’d been watching a supercell developing on my phone’s weather app. SUVs and eighteen-wheelers passed us, kicking up spray from puddles on the highway. I notched the wipers as fast as they would go.

After the biopsy results, I’d learned to keep my hands above Kay’s neckline. I bought sleeveless silk pajamas that wouldn’t brush against her stitches as she slept and pink rubber bracelets that said I LOVE BOOBIES. Kay took it in stride, cracking jokes with the oncologist while I counted pockmarks in the ceiling tiles. But even that wore thin after a while. I found the bracelets on the dining room table before we left for the hospital this morning, still in their packaging and buried underneath a pile of circulars. She hadn’t noticed them at all. I threw them in the trash before we left.

In the passenger seat, Kay thumbed through pamphlets and brochures from previous appointments.

“Quit looking at those,” I said. “You’ll just make yourself upset again.”

“I’m bored, though. Look at them. They’re so fake.” Kay was marking up the pages with a ballpoint pen left in the cup holder.

I glanced over at the brochure Kay was holding. They always looked like a graphic designer’s capstone project. Soft blue, green, and white hues outlined generic titles like “What You Need to Know.” Kay was right: they were fake. Fuck taking them inside where we could see them lying on the coffee table. They were bad news disguised with stock photography. Or even worse, propaganda for the fanatically religious. But I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out either, and piles of heavyweight and glossy paper had slowly accumulated in the backseat of my truck. All of this for nothing more than a speck on a mammogram. Put that on a brochure and you’d mistake it for dust on the cover.

“Big day tomorrow,” I said, exhaling. “It’s going to be fine.”

Kay looked up from her scribbling. “Calm down. They’re not cutting them off just yet.”

“You want Rudy’s after we’re done? I’m buying. Last meal on death row, you know.” I changed lanes and adjusted my grip on the wheel.

“Dr. Williams already told you. I have to fast the night before. Because of the anesthesia, remember?” She flipped one of the glossy printouts over and clicked the pen repeatedly. I hated that sound, like something stuck, grinding inside a machine. “Besides, the weather sucks anyway. The news said it was going to pour all day.”

I glanced down at my phone. “Right.”

“You’re not going out there tonight, are you? On one of those stupid chases?”

“They’re not stupid.” I jammed the phone back into my jeans pocket so hard it activated voice control. “Yeah, okay. No Rudy’s, then. Dr. Williams’ orders. Probably looked it up on WebMD.” The last appointment had felt more like a lecture than a check-up.

“Owen, not this shit again. Please.”

One of the cars ahead braked suddenly. I shot my free arm out in front of Kay. “Sorry. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it,” I said. “Hang on.”

Kay pushed my arm away. “Then what do you mean? Listen. All I want is to be treated normally throughout this whole thing, however long it lasts. None of this waiting on hand and foot, princess-style bullshit you seem to think I need. Okay?” I could feel her eyes burning into the side of my skull. There was a reason she did all the negotiations with the contractors.

“I’m just trying to help,” I said. “Just frustrated, that’s all.”

“So help, then. Promise me.”

I kept my eyes on the road. “Promise.”

We hit a dry patch coming off the highway. I turned the wipers down to a slow whine. As I pulled into the medical complex, I noticed that, somehow, the rain hadn’t managed to wash off some dried bird shit in the corner of the windshield.

“Here. Drop me off at the front. I can check in myself,” Kay said. Her seatbelt was already unbuckled.

I let her off at the door and pulled around to park near the back of the lot. I looked around the truck as the engine faded. Some of the brochures Kay had left in the passenger seat had spilled onto the floorboards. I picked them up and flipped through the stack. At the top of the pile, a child had been framed in ballpoint. In other scenes, men walking on beaches had smoke billowing from their ears, or were attacked by doodles: mutated sharks, giant squid. But I stared at the one sitting at the bottom of her seat for a while. It depicted an older couple, smiling, hands clasped together. Both faces were crossed out.

*

My first chase was down a one-lane highway studded with telephone poles and brilliant swatches of wildflowers. Nothing else but your thoughts and humidity you couldn’t escape if you tried. The heat baked the asphalt as we drove deep into the hill country. The spotter pointed out the window, let his finger hang among the air swirling in a perfect cocktail of violence. The sky had turned green. “Looks like pistachio ice cream,” he’d said, laughing. “Or what happens when you pop a zit.” As we got closer, the wind shifted, and the temperature fell. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck stand up. The clouds ahead were black.

It was the week of our first foreclosure. The brick ranch with the damaged plumbing, the living room windows shattered all over the newly-stained hardwood, and our money all run out. Kay and I met with the bank and handed the keys over in a blur. Two days later, I was riding in the backseat of a busted Chevy with power tools and refrigerator parts rattling around in the bed. It started out as just bar talk after preseason football one night. A friend of a friend, a guy who’d helped drywall a couple of houses and could maybe help us with a few renovation jobs for cheap. After a few rounds, he asked me: “ever seen a tornado up close?” He finished his beer, ordered another, then stared at me. “Want to?”

I stared at the bottom of my glass. What the hell, I thought. I had nothing left to lose.

We pulled off to the side of the road, and everyone got out of the truck to watch. The tornado touched down, pulling up dirt and rock and anything else it could swallow. Someone set up a tripod and took a few pictures with an expensive-looking camera. And then, just as quickly as it came, it was gone. Vanished into nothing. The only thing the tornado had destroyed was half a tree and a few hundred yards of fencerow. Some of the other chasers groaned, swore, lit cigarettes. The radar was clear all the way to El Paso.

Only a minute, and I’d forgotten everything: our houses, the meeting with the bank, even the endless worry. I’d never seen anything like it before or felt so insignificant. My legs were shaking, and I leaned against the truck to steady myself. I stood there on the side of the road for what felt like forever, looking out at the field, until the spotter clapped me on the back and told me we were clearing out. A lone tornado siren wailed somewhere in the distance, then died out as we got back in the truck, leaving the warm air still and quiet again.

We stopped on the way back for pool and darts, but I wasn’t in the mood. I drank at the bar, replaying the afternoon in my mind. It was almost eleven o’clock by the time I made it home. Kay had waited up for me, curled up on the couch with her nose buried in her phone and the television on low in the background, playing our usual renovation shows. I staggered inside, fumbled with the words to make a coherent excuse. I was caked in dirt and sweat.

She asked me where the hell I’d been, that she’d tried to get a hold of me for the past two hours and didn’t get so much as a text back. What if I’d gotten into a wreck somewhere or been mugged on Sixth Street? I could tell she’d been crying. I should have slept on the couch that night. But no matter how much I tried to explain what I saw out there, Kay wouldn’t listen. It was just weather to her, a nuisance, something to avoid rather than seek out. We went to bed without speaking.

I didn’t know she was sick then, but looking back, it was obvious. We’d learned at the hospital that these things take time to develop, but she’d probably been hiding it for a while. You could see it in her face and the way she moved. All it took was one last thing to break.

*

I caught the flash of the nurse’s name tag, magnet-clipped to her scrubs, as she left the examination room: JADE. The ones with the stripper names were the worst. Last time, it took them nearly ten minutes to draw from one of Kay’s veins, which left her arm mapped with bruises. Already, the appointments had become variations on a theme: the waiting-room buzzer with three burgundy crosses atop a taupe hill; a young child coughing into their mother’s shoulder; the oncology wing and the decorative, old-fashioned scale that tipped drunkenly to one side. It was always the same.

The room felt frozen with no clock on the wall. An after-shower of Lysol hung in the air over the laminate charts of organs and muscle groups, the glass jars of cotton balls and tongue depressants. Kay sat at the edge of the table, crinkling the tissue paper.

“You can wait in the lobby if you want. It’ll only take a few minutes,” Kay said, picking at a fingernail. “I know how much you hate these appointments.”

No princess-style bullshit, I’d heard Kay the first time. Before I could respond, the door opened again.

“Afternoon, folks,” the man said. Dr. Williams. The one cutting them off in the morning, to put it her way. He looked like a carbon copy of all the doctors you saw in prescription commercials: starched coat, crisp oxford shirt. But everything about him felt off, as though it was in the process of fading; his wireframe glasses, even the fancy-ass watch he wore on his left wrist, had started to develop some sort of dullness. I fought the urge to tune out every time he spoke.

He closed the door behind him, pulled out a small stool near the examination table, and set his clipboard down on the counter next to a computer. “I’d like to confirm a few last minute details, go over the procedure before we meet again in the morning,” he said. “Have you been following the news lately? I’ve heard the weather’s about to get bad here before long.”

When I reached for my phone to check the radar, Kay rolled her eyes. Alerts flashed across the screen: Tornado Watch for Travis County, Flash Flood Advisory throughout the evening.

“We’ll only be a few minutes.” Dr. Williams made Kay sit up. He pressed his stethoscope to her chest. “And how’s business?” he asked. “What was it again? Landscaping?”

“Homes,” Kay said. “We fix homes. Flip them, actually.”

“Flip?” Dr. Williams listened intently to Kay’s rising and falling chest.

“Business is fine,” I said. “Not much to talk about, really. We get by. Some years are better than others. You know, the usual stuff.”

Kay started to turn her head, but Dr. Williams gently cupped her chin. “Need you facing forward,” he said. “There. A few more breaths.”

Dr. Williams wrapped his stethoscope around his neck again. “Now, lie back,” he said, patting the tissue papered pillow. “Just a few formalities, and then we can review tomorrow’s agenda.”

Agenda. Like it was part of a conference session or something. Fucker.

More crinkling as Kay shifted back and lay down. She stared at the ceiling, blank-faced. Kay had told me about the first examination once, and only once. The one before the imaging had revealed everything. How embarrassing it was to undress when she knew what was coming, to have the nurse run her hands over her trembling body, working slowly toward the top of her chest, near her clavicle, and then finally she found the delicate area, near the crook of Kay’s right arm. And in her mind all hell broke loose as she let the fear take over, that yes, this was about to become her life, and more than a moment’s notice passed before the nurse noticed her hyperventilating and left her breasts exposed there under the room’s sharp and antiseptic light.

Meanwhile, a cluster of low pressure was about to collide a hundred miles west and explode over I-10. I stared at the radar, watching it all take shape. Wait and see, wait and see. This was all I could do. Every day I woke up and hoped that this wasn’t happening, and when I rolled over in bed she’d be sleeping there peacefully. Or this was just something routine, a quick procedure before her fortieth birthday. And at my lowest moments I retreated into fantasy: those were supposed to be my hands, replaying our wedding night, an anniversary, a carefree evening downtown.

I felt a sharp flick on my shoulder.

“Up, Simba.” Kay was standing over me. Her shirt was still on; there was paperwork cradled in her hands. “Let’s get out of here.”

I looked down at my phone. The screen was dark, and I could see my face in my phone’s reflection. “I was listening. Just because I had my eyes closed doesn’t mean I wasn’t paying attention.”

Dr. Williams turned around and detached a few papers from his clipboard. “Everything alright?” he asked. “Take all the time that you need. There’s a chapel near the entrance to the wing if you need. Remember, I’ll need you to get here tomorrow morning—”

I stood up. Kay held up a hand. “We know where it is. Thank you.”

We walked out to the parking lot. I kicked stray pebbles from the outdoor zen garden onto the blacktop. Some of them fell down a storm drain, where they clattered all the way to the bottom.

“Serves them right for getting in our way,” I said.

Kay sighed and tapped me on the ass. “Whatever you say, tough guy.”

I looked up at the sky as we headed for the truck. More darkness ahead with the low-hanging clouds rolling in. The kind you can taste in the air or make old arm fractures flare up again. I looked for anything that seemed more than a thunderhead. But it was like trying to read the Old Testament or make sense out of smoke signals. I wanted action floating in and out of the gray. Not just the possibility of it.

I unlocked the truck. I felt a drop of rain on my forehead. Then another.

*

Rain pelted the windows in stippled waves as Kay paced back and forth in the living room, pawing at her necklace. The evening forecast displayed on the television: angry crimson and purple squalls slowly marched toward downtown Austin. In the distance, thunder pealed and faded as she muted the reporter’s home safety review.

“You can’t honestly tell me that you want to go out there right now,” Kay said. She set the remote back down on the coffee table. The foreclosure papers we’d signed were still there, remnants of what felt like a past life. “Of all the times you could possibly want to leave. Now.”

“Kay,” I said. “It’s the biggest—”

“So what am I supposed to do when you don’t come back, and I’m a fucking widow? Sell everything to cover the debt? Move to a trailer park and hope for the best? And then what?”

Pick any corner of the kitchen table and there’d be some sort of bill, buried underneath junk mail and old wedding invitations: electric, past due; cable, final notice; contractor’s fees, sent to collections. The hospital bills? We gave up a long time ago. Each time I opened a different envelope, I replayed the same doomsday scenarios. They’ll repossess the house because we can’t afford our mortgage. They’ll take the truck because I can’t make the payments. They’ll find some way to drop Kay from our insurance. And then what? I thought about the rubber bracelets still buried in the trash somewhere and my face grew hot.

Gusts of wind blew against the house, rattling the windows in their panes. More thunder. “I’m not going to die. You think this is some suicide pact?” I said. I thought about that horse in Waco. Those frantic, begging eyes you could still see from the highway.

“That’s not the point.” Kay walked over to the couch and started fraying the ends of an afghan blanket. “No. I can’t stay here by myself tonight. I just can’t, Owen.”

I sat down next to her on the couch. Kay curled up her legs and stared at the silent television, broadcasting doom for the next six to eight hours. Her face was painted with the colorful reflection of the storm: bands moving across the screen, then retracting to their original location again. The pattern morphed and mutated around rivers and cities, conforming to whatever source would let it grow. It was beautiful, in an abstract sort of way.

“You don’t get it, do you? What it’s like?” Kay pulled the blanket tight around her waist. “I have dreams where, just before they start the surgery, I realize the anesthesia hasn’t taken effect yet, and I’m still awake on the operating table,” she said. “And nobody notices. It happens almost every night. Each time I scream out for them to stop, but they never do. Sometimes it takes a while for me to wake up.”

“Jesus, Kay. Why didn’t you tell me?” I said. I put my arms around her.

“Because I thought that if I said it, it’d actually come true.” Kay pressed her face into my shoulder. I felt the fabric grow damp as she shuddered and trembled. We sat there for a while as the storm painted the walls of our living room with the illusion of light. The ceiling fan’s blades cast long, thick shadows along the walls.

Before we lost the houses, before the diagnosis and concrete dumped down the drain and spray-paint dripping from the walls that signified the end of our lives, Kay and I had talked about the kind of people we envisioned at our first open house. Well-dressed couples in their early thirties, looking to start a family soon. Or maybe they already had kids, and they’d be running through the bedrooms and hallways, laughter echoing off the walls. Careers in non-profit sectors or high earners in law or medicine. Good people. The kind you’d invite over for brunch if you knew what to cook. We could live vicariously through them, no longer ashamed of our own mistakes.

*

It was almost two o’clock in the morning when the sirens went off.

I drove west along farm roads labeled with numbers instead of names. Humidity fogged the windshield, turning taillights to cherry smears. Heat lightning illuminated the hills ahead and the reflective mile markers along the roadside shoulder. Kay had fallen asleep on the couch around midnight. I helped her to bed, switched off the television in the living room, told her I’d be along shortly. Every so often my eyes drifted toward the foreclosure papers on the coffee table as I stared at the radar on my phone. Before I left, I turned the porch light on and left it there, like a beacon, hoping we wouldn’t lose power.

We gathered a few miles ahead of the storm’s predicted route, setting up on a small hill. A farmhouse on several acres of land bordered a neighborhood under construction; ranches and model homes lay scattered between open plots and gravel piles. As the storm began to pick up, the temperature fell, that telltale sign. Some of the chasers grabbed cameras and phones, radios and meteorological equipment from their trucks. One of them grinned and gave me the thumbs-up as he passed by. Touchdown.

In the distance, the tornado gained speed, framed by lightning forking throughout its ugly, swollen clouds. Cellular division, accelerating heat, a killing season: they all begin the same way. It writhed as it moved across the fields, collecting dead branches and crop dust; the sound of the nearby sirens seemed to be sucked into the vortex. Bluebonnets and tall patches of grass were blown back by the wind. The rooster-shaped weathervane atop the farmhouse roof spun, unsure of what direction to face.

I could hardly breathe; the tornado was headed right for it. Some chasers found cover, where others held their positions, focusing their cameras and equipment on the developing scene. I ran over to the truck and keyed the ignition as hailstones pinged and rattled off the roof. Blink and you’d miss it. The tornado surrounded, enveloped the farmhouse. The weathervane, the van parked in the gravel driveway outside, even the basketball hoop nailed to the garage roof. Gone. Three bright flashes as the power lines were snapped, and then it was over. The tornado was already spreading the remains of the farmhouse in a lazy circle. Pieces of vinyl siding and roof shingles had started to land nearby.

I didn’t know how I’d explain things to Kay in the morning. How could I show her this, tell her I wasn’t able to save anything? The radar already showed another squall line forming to the west, promising a long night ahead. Something told me there was still time. But I wasn’t thinking of an excuse, or that long drive home. No, not even the lightning, or the hail coming down hard. I looked down at all the brochures now scattered across the floorboards, covered with mud and gravel.

The tornado hovered over a clearing. I put the truck in drive, waiting to see what it would do next. I was thinking of what this place would look like tomorrow. I wanted to know what we’d say if we survived.

Eric Altemus

Eric Altemus is a graduate of Oregon State University’s MFA program in Creative Writing. Currently, he lives in Michigan, and his work is forthcoming in Sou’wester.