Become a Fan
By Sara K. Penrod
Wednesday, May 15, 2002
The air in the van was cold and dry, making the windows fog up. Amanda’s legs stuck to the vinyl seat. The van was old and smelled of cigarette smoke; the fabric on the ceiling hung down almost to the top of her head. Outside, it was hot and humid, with gray clouds hanging low over the fields. The radio announcer from the National Weather Service read off storm warnings in a monotonous drone. “A severe thunderstorm warning is in effect for Kingfisher County until two p.m.; a tornado watch has been issued for northern Oklahoma County and southern Kingfisher County until seven fifty-five tonight. If you live in any of these areas, it is advised that you go to a safe place in your house or a designated community shelter.”
“Hey, Mandy, maybe you’ll get to chase your first tornado tonight,” Tom said from the driver’s seat.
She shrugged. “Maybe. I hope so.” She leaned over the seat and tapped Brian on the shoulder. “Where are we?”
He turned around, unfolding a map. He poked his finger at the star that was supposed to be Oklahoma City, and then he moved his finger up about a centimeter. “We’re here, about fifteen minutes north of Oklahoma City. Chad’s been doing around forty-five or fifty most of the time, so you figure it out.” He dropped the map into her lap.
Amanda rolled her eyes. “Gee, thanks for the help.” Her cell phone rang, and she dug it out of my backpack as it rang for a third time. “Hello?”
“Amanda, this is Mama.”
“Oh, hi, Mama. Is everything okay?”
“I’m fine. Where are you?” she asked.
Amanda traced her finger along the road on the map. “On a blue line somewhere between two little bitty black dots.”
“Amanda, don’t be silly. Where are you?”
She smiled. “Fifteen minutes north of Oklahoma City heading,” she glanced over at the dashboard, “north northeast at approximately forty-five miles an hour.”
She laughed. “I wanted to know what time you were going to get home tonight. You are on your way, right?”
“Well, no, not really. I don’t think I’m going to get home tonight,” she said.
Amanda could picture her mother on the other end of the line. She would be in the kitchen because the cordless phone in her bedroom always had dead batteries. She would wrap the phone cord around and around her wrist until it got tangled so badly that no one could untwist it.
“Oh,” she said after a pause. “But I’m making your favorite dinner tonight. Spaghetti with meatballs”
She looked out the window. “I’m really sorry, Mama. Conditions are good for a tornado to form a few miles south of Guthrie.”
“You’re supposed to get weekends off,” she said. “I wish you’d come home. I miss you when you’re gone.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry,” Amanda said. “Tornadoes don’t take weekends off; you know that.”
“And what about your old mother? I need my little girl to come home.”
“Mama, I’m twenty-seven. I’m a big girl now; I can take care of myself.”
“Hey, Mandy, come look at this,” Tom called to her from the front passenger seat.
“Mama, I’m really sorry. I have to go now,” she said.
“I love you, sweetie,” she said.
“Love you,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?” Then she hung up the phone and dropped it into her backpack. She unbuckled her seat belt and climbed over the seat, landing in the seat space beside Brian. She crouched between the two front seats to see what Tom wanted. “Yeah?”
He moved the end of his pen in a circle around an area on the Doppler radar screen. “What’s that look like to you?”
She watched the moving blotches of colors. The screen looked like a kindergartener’s finger painting. “The blue part?”
“Yeah,” Tom said.
“It’s a mesocyclone, isn’t it?”
He nodded. “Right. That makes it about ten times more likely that we’ll get a tornado. We’ll just have to hope that everything else goes right.”
“Can we get a pressure reading from here?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “We’re still too far away. In about twenty miles we should be able to get some.”
“Okay,” she said. “Tell me when you can pick them up.” She climbed back to her seat and looked out of the window. The clouds had darkened to a deep grayish-blue color, and fat raindrops splattered on the windows of the car. The van bounced up and down as it hit one of the potholes in the road, and she bumped her head against the window.
“Pressure inside the mesocyclone is eighty-three millibars lower than outside the cloud,” Tom told her several minutes later.
He turned onto a gravel road. As they bumped along, grape-sized balls of hail began to fall, hitting the van with metallic clunks. Tom pulled the van over to the side of the road, and Amanda fastened the snaps on her raincoat, sliding the video camera out from underneath the seat. The only sound after Tom turned off the engine was the rain and the hail.
As usual, she was last to get out of the van. She handed Brian the video camera before she jumped down into the muddy ditch.
“Oh good,” Tom said. “The hail’s letting up.”
Tom and Brian took the portable instrument panel out of the trunk of the van and carried it across the road. As they walked across the vacant field to get closer to the storm, Amanda turned the camera on and took off the lens cap.
Brian set up the tripod in the middle of the field, and Tom laid the instrument panel on it, turning it on so that it could record readings of the storm. The weeds in the field reached up to her waist and almost hid the instrument panel.
She pointed the camera at the huge cloud. The water vapor rolled around and over itself like bubbles in a pot of boiling water. “There’s the supercell,” she said into the microphone. “Conditions are looking good for a tornado today. We’ve already found a mesocyclone inside the cloud, and there is enough difference between the air pressure inside the cloud and outside of it to make the conditions favorable.”
Lightning struck inside of the cloud, and a moment later there was thunder, like the sound of a bass drum. The rain came down harder, and the wind picked up. Trees bowed down as if acknowledging the power of the storm. The lightning struck again, this time hitting a tree and splitting it in half.
“Wow,” Amanda said. “Did you see how neat that looked?”
“Yeah, but it killed the tree,” Brian said over the thunderclap that followed.
She shrugged and zoomed in on the cloud with the video camera. “The winds are picking up now, and it’s raining harder,” she said, leaning my head toward the microphone. “Looks like we’re probably going to get to see a funnel cloud tonight.”
The wind blew the hood of her raincoat off of my head, and the rain soaked her before she could pull it back on. As she filmed it, the storm slowly began to dissipate. The rain slowed to a light drizzle, and the supercell began to break up into several smaller clouds.
“No tornado here today,” Tom said as he walked back toward the van. “Better luck next time.”
She turned off the camera and put the lens cap back on. Brian and Tom picked up the instrument panel, and Amanda carried the tripod.
“So I got soaking wet for no reason at all,” she said as Tom started up the van.
“Well, we might have gotten data to help us figure out why certain supercells don’t generate tornadoes even when the situation seems to be ideal,” Tom said.
“Getting soaked is in the job description,” Brian said, wiping the water off of his face with a spare undershirt.
She took a hand towel out of her backpack and tried to dry her hair off as they bounced along the gravel road.
“It’s getting late,” Chad said from the front seat. “Why don’t we drive up into Guthrie and get some dinner and stay in a hotel? We’ll drive back home in the morning. That sound all right to everyone?”
Amanda nodded, and everybody else agreed as well.
Being the only woman on the tornado research team, Amanda got a room to herself in the hotel. It was a cheap place, locally owned, called Guthrie Inn. The air conditioning unit was loud but didn’t cool the room off very much, and part of the TV antenna was broken off. She took off her wet clothes and changed into faded denim shorts and a T-shirt, and then she hung her wet clothes over the towel bar in the bathroom.
Tom knocked on the door of her room. “We’re all going to dinner. Are you coming?”
She slipped my feet into a pair of sandals and ripped a brush through her tangled hair. “I’m coming,” she called.
They took the van to a restaurant a few minutes away called Grandma Bettie’s Home-Style Restaurant. There was a wide front porch that went all the way around the building with rocking chairs to sit in, and the inside looked like a Cracker Barrel.
Amanda ordered a country-fried steak and mashed potatoes. The waitress brought their food quickly, and she ate with out talking. She didn’t follow football, so she couldn’t follow the guys’ conversation or add to it.
Brian grabbed the glass ketchup bottle and twisted the top off of it, shaking it over his hamburger. “How do you make it come out?” he said after shaking it several times. She leaned across the table and took the bottle from him, turning it slowly until she found the tiny fifty-seven printed in raised glass at the base of the bottle’s neck. She held it over his hamburger and hit the number with the heel of her hand. A large puddle of ketchup fell onto his hamburger.
“How did you do that?” he asked.
Amanda smiled smugly. “You hit the bottle on the fifty-seven.” She pointed it out to him.
After everyone had finished eating, they got the bill. Their food had been put all on the same ticket, so each person chipped in for their food. The guys got up, ready to leave.
“Wait,” Amanda said. “We have to leave a tip.”
“What’s the total?” Tom asked.
“Fifty-four twenty,” Amanda said. “Fifteen percent is about,” she paused to calculate it, “five fifty. We can each put in a buck, and leave off the fifty cents, since they didn’t put us on separate tickets like we asked for.”
Everybody threw a dollar bill on the table, and she stacked them up, aligning the edges and smoothing the wrinkles out. She set the tip on the table with the corner of the bills under one of the empty glasses.
Back at the hotel, she took a hot shower and flopped onto the bed. They had been chasing after tornadoes since six o’clock that morning, and she had gone to a late movie the night before. She was tired, but it took her a long time to go to sleep. The sheets on the bed were stiff and scratchy, and the air conditioner made more noise than she was used to.
As she lay in bed, she thought of the conversation she had had with her mother in the van earlier. She remembered how badly her mother always wanted, maybe even needed, her at home with her. It was almost scary, her mother's dependence on her since her brother had killed himself last year.
She turned over in bed and closed her eyes. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn't make it home. Her job was important; she had to make money somehow. She held my watch near her ear until the continuous ticking put her to sleep.
amanda's mother called her cell phone ten minutes after she had pulled my red Explorer out of the University’s parking lot. “How close are you to home?” she asked.
“About twenty minutes away,” she said.
“Good, don’t go home. I want you to come have lunch today.”
“Shoot.” I made an illegal U-turn around a median. “Why did you tell Mom yes?” I said. “You know I don’t get along with her.”
“Because you should see your mother every once in a while,” he said.
“Yeah, and after every time we go over there, you’re whining all day the next day about how we never stop bickering,” I said.
He didn’t answer for a long time. “Well, with everything else that’s going on, we sure don’t need her mad at us, too.”
I frowned, leaning to the right to look in the passenger-side mirror. “Everything else what?” I said. “And what do you mean by ‘we don’t need her mad at us, too’?”
I could hear him blow air out of his nose the way he did when he was frustrated. “Nothing, Mandy. You’re twisting my words again.” He coughed. “I don’t know why you started chasing tornadoes. You would’ve made a great lawyer.”
“Because tornadoes are a lot more interesting than courtrooms, because I’m doing things to help the world, and because there aren’t any tornado researcher jokes.”
“Hey, cool off. I wasn’t trying to insult you,” he said. “Listen. I have to go; I’m almost to your mom’s house. I’ll tell her you’re on your way.”
“Okay,” I said. “Bye.”
“See you in a few,” he said, and then he hung up.
I turned the doorknob of the front door using only my fingertips, as if it were hot and might burn me. The door creaked a little as I opened it, and Mom came running. I always thought that she liked the squeaky door—she always knew when someone came in.
“Amanda,” she said, hugging me. “I’m so glad you came. We haven’t seen you in eons.” She looked at me. “You’re a mess.”
“I just came from work,” I said. “I haven’t even been home since Thursday morning.”
She frowned. “They made you work today? You really need to learn to stick up for yourself. Tell them you’re not going to work. Sunday is the Lord’s Day, you know.”
“Mom, I like my job. I don’t mind working Sundays,” I said. I went past her into the kitchen, and she followed me. Jared sat at the kitchen table.
“But it’s the principle,” she said. “You never would stand up for yourself, and now that you’re an adult, you have to start.” She filled a glass with ice. “Can I get you something to drink, Jared? Some tea, or Sprite, maybe?”
“Just a glass of water would be great,” he said. “Thanks.”
“See,” Mom said, filling the glass at the sink. “Your husband knows how to say what he wants. You ought to take some lessons from him.”
I opened the refrigerator and grabbed a can of Sprite. When I popped the top, it fizzed all over my hands and the front of my shirt. “Shoot,” I said, wiping my hands on my shorts.
Mom turned around. “Heavens, Amanda, you’re a mess. I just mopped the kitchen floor.”
“I’m an adult; I can clean up my own messes. If you’re that concerned about the floor I’ll mop it for you before I leave.”
My mother handed Jared his drink. He sipped it and sat at the table, smirking at me.
“You’re overreacting again,” she said. “I really thought that you would have outgrown that by now.” She turned and looked at Jared. “Does she do that to you, too?”
I shot him a look. My mother watched him too, trying to guess what he would say. Jared cleared his throat and looked past me into the living room. Conveniently, the oven timer beeped.
Mom put on oven mitts and pulled the oven door open. “Lasagna casserole,” she said, holding up the aluminum pan. “Do you like lasagna casserole?” she asked Jared. “Amanda never would eat it.”
“Mrs. Calabria, I’m sure the casserole is wonderful.” Jared turned to me and whispered in my ear. “Let’s go in the living room.”
I got up and followed him out of the kitchen. “What?” I said when we were out of my mother’s earshot.
“I wanted to tell you that I made us an appointment with a marriage counselor for Friday at 11:30.”
“What?” I said, forgetting to keep my voice down.
“Ssh.” He tilted his head toward the living room. “It’s not working for us, Manda. I want to keep this together. I love you.”
“Amanda, Jared, where’d you go? It’s time to eat.”
“Look,” he said, “we have to go eat. We’ll discuss this later.” He turned toward the kitchen.
I grabbed his arm. “No. Jared, I want to know what you mean.”
“Amanda?” my mother called.
“Later,” Jared said. He hurried into the kitchen. “Sorry. Manda’s coming.”
I took a deep breath and counted to ten. It didn’t work. I crossed the living room and opened the front door quietly. The front steps were wet from rain, and a light mist fell from the clouds. I got into the Explorer and drove until I was out of Oklahoma City.
I stopped ten miles west of the city and got out of my car when I spotted a supercell that was starting to produce a funnel. I crossed a wheat field, my boots squelching in the mud. My clothes got wet, but I didn’t care. I was already a mess.
The tornado touched down on the far end of the field, and the winds tore off wheat stalks and blew my hair across my face. It was a relatively weak storm, no more than an F-1 or F-2, and it only lasted about two minutes. Then it dissipated, but the thunderstorm was still there. The rain started to pour right as I got into my car, drumming angrily on the metal roof.
Site: Volta: A Literary E-Zine
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|Reviewed by Karla Dorman, The StormSpinner
|WOW! intense, scary write--i could never do this, i love to study weather, but from inside a safe place :) A BASEMENT WOULD BE NICE LOL
great job! a keeper--thanks for sharing
(((HUGS))) and love, karla. :)