Commercials for the technical colleges usually come on shortly after Good Morning America. That’s when I have the day’s first feeling—small like a rib needle but also really big like I’m nothing.
Restaurant managers and paralegals, massage therapists of the future, I wish you well. But a career’s not solving my problems. I don’t even want one. As far as I can tell the one consequence of no career is having no family, and so I say deal; a family sounds as appealing as a junior college medical technician.
On TV a mechanic hooks a banana-yellow Bonneville up to a diagnostic machine and I leave for ESPN’s Sportscenter re-play, then TBS, then to network television. At least the commercials on the networks are buoying, featuring home appliances and detergents and shot in Boca Raton on the set from the Golden Girls. But today there are no commercials, not for hours.
Instead, the network, all networks it turns out, are constant weathermen and “Breaking News.” The weatherman says words I’ve never heard before, says them over and over, indicating on his map a spill of tomato juice over New Mexico and Colorado, sounding agitated. He says the name Santa Missern, says it’s a weather system from Sweden. He’s excited, too, and for the first time ever I hear a chortle.
Over the next 20 minutes the weatherman tells me things that, given his insistence, his sweat, I shouldn’t be hearing for the first time: For five weeks most of the United States has been wholly without clouds. Meteorologists have been lighting their hair on fire trying to tell us; apparently we haven’t been listening. I haven’t been listening. No clouds, none, for five weeks.
I’m skeptical. This sounds like another fraud story. I’m pretty sure that I would’ve known about something like this. I walk to the window, then to the porch and look up at the sky. These fucking people with their noise. I see nothing. I return to the couch. I’m not a devoted person, not a person who pays attention, but I just have to think I would have heard about something like this, picked it up in the checkout line, on an escalator, somewhere.
The weatherman says this is not some coincidence, and not otherwise explainable by chance. No, there’s science to it. Gone for weeks, the clouds have now fused into this formation, this furious redness on the map, the Santa Missern, now parked over a number of states I’ve never been to in the Southwest. After 20 minutes of flipping channels, it’s clear the weather is popping up everywhere, not on Lifetime or E!, but the news places. Men with beards, the science people, fucking hippies and fucking religious people weighing in and debating, and as usual the hippies are losing. The last thing I want is to feel like I did on 9/11, which I watched on television mostly alone and had only for a moment my neighbor Richard to discuss it with—a dumb fuck of a man, Richard.
Katie and I had just broken up then, on the non-shorthand night of 9/10. If only after Katie had broken up with me I had taken a taxi to Boston and stopped all of those Muslims from getting into the airport, somehow. I imagined that precise thing endlessly, for no good reason, and even now I remember it, maybe because I remember so many vivid things from that time. That happens when you’re broken up with. If the relationship meant something, you feel a lot for a while. But for some reason I always think that specific thought, even though I’m from the Midwest and it would have been like a $2800 cab ride.
An hour later and the Santa Missern is now squatting over the really square state, according to CNN. That, I believe, is Kansas. The Santa Missern itself is shaped more like Tennessee except much larger, kind of like a barge but also kind of like a shitty paper airplane. It’s pointed upwards at an angle, northeast like, aimed at the Great Lakes, coming right for us. Five hours, maybe more, until this system will be right over the top of us, my local weatherman says. “But folks, really, there’s no need to evacuate. Not yet.”
I dial my mother and she doesn’t answer. I’m still holding the phone when she calls right back but I no longer feel like speaking to her. My mother still treats me like a child, but she also tolerates me, understands the way I am and the way things are for me, how everything is always heading south. I call my friend Marcus but again no one answers. It’s mid-day, but it doesn’t feel like a nothing day. It feels like a disaster day, a big day, another big day. These fucking people, I’m telling myself, but I guess I’m starting to believe, maybe starting to hope this doesn’t turn out like killer bees or those million other mini-Judgment Days, that there’s actually something happening.
The sound of lawn-watering, like it’s been in the back of my head for many minutes, suddenly comes to the fore in a sad way, since it means that, as before, I have only Richard at a moment like this. That guy’s a real motherfucker. I push open the screen door and there the motherfucker is. I used to think that I and people in general were calmer in the morning. Life just worked that way. Don’t sweat, don’t cuss and don’t be violent in the morning—they were little rules we had. But I no longer think that. It was something I told Katie, since I knew she liked when I said psychological sorts of things. It wasn’t more than a week after I said it to her that I got into a fight with a skinny Mexican guy on the side of the highway around 8:15 am. I was going to the dentist. I beat him badly and left him on the ground. I thought—stupidly, I know—about getting the baseball bat from my trunk and finishing him off on the warm morning asphalt.
That day, when I got back in and drove away I remember looking at the clock and I didn’t believe that it was 8:20 in the morning. I had to tell myself that I wasn’t on some long, morning-reaching bender of the night before. I remember my hands were shaking on the steering wheel, and I sat in the parking lot at the dentist’s office and just stared at the clock. The one fucking rule I thought of myself and I broke it.
In other words, I guess that morning is no longer so sacred, so I go outside and try not to insult Richard and turn him into another skinny Mexican guy on the shoulder of the highway, which I’ve had to stop myself from doing to Richard like eight times.
It’s pathetic but I must be too lonely and watching too much TV, because from my porch I see a car pass on the road and I have the urge to flag it down and tell the passengers about Santa Missern. It’s the good person in me, I think, wanting to help people. But I’ve done such things before, helping people who don’t really need it—the Mexican had been changing a tire—and the awkwardness of the moment is probably one of the most powerful emotions I’ve ever felt.
To Richard, wagging a garden hose like it’s a penis never ever gets old. The moment my screen door slaps shut, he lowers his hand down the hose and lets it flop around near his zipper.
“Morning,” he thunders, in the other direction.
“Heard about this thing going on with the clouds? This thing on TV?” I say after a moment.
Richard turns to me, fat ropes of water slopping, gives a shrug, then oscillates away.
“On TV,” I continue, “It looks like Santa’s rosacea or something, red-like on the country’s face. I don’t fucking know.” It was something a newswoman on TV had said and I thought, since it wasn’t funny to me and Richard’s usually a jackass, maybe it would be funny to him. And then, I guess I was still trying to sound out the name of this weather system for myself. There was something vaguely Santa about the thing, jolly, like a sleigh tugged by reindeer gliding over the nation’s midsection. Maybe there was something Missern about it too, whatever that meant—maybe a dermatology word.
Overhead the sky is, as they were saying, cloudless in the extreme. It’s funny though because it still isn’t perfectly blue. Parts of it are less blue than others, like watery blue. Richard comes over to the fence. He’s not wearing a shirt and the long skinny worm of his heart surgery lays down the middle of his chest like a leather string or bad tribal jewelry. He’s young and it always scares me to see the scar, but I can’t help but stare at it.
“So what, we’re getting weather in the form of huge clouds? Whatever. You ask me, the weather’s been kicking ass here. Hasn’t rained in weeks, right?”
“Nope. Hence the need to water the lawn, huh?”
“Maybe you can get your girlfriend to sue someone over it. She’s a hippie lawyer, right? Sues all those mean nasty polluters?”
“We broke up.”
Richard is bearded, bearded like a bird made of hair has slammed into his face, and when he begins to giggle at the fact that I’ve been broken up with he starts to squeak.
“How’s your wife?” I say, wanting to be mean but not really knowing what to say next.
“She’s a bitch.” His eyes widen. “Something to say?”
Fuck you and die, rat. Richard sprays hose-water on my feet. Pathetic fucking rat, I’m thinking as I look away, imagining the Santa Missern slipping quietly over us—over our yards and houses and our block and our township and our lives, then angling downward and smashing Richard into his soggy fucking lawn.
I’m sixty feet away on the sidewalk, walking down the block. I get about five houses down before the feeling wears off, then return to the house for shoes and car keys and depart in earnest toward the Santa Missern.
When I get to the outskirts of town, the sky is still light-blue and deep and empty so I just keep driving, speeding occasionally when I get the feeling that if I drive fast enough I can drive into the Santa Missern.
My phone finally rings close to an hour later, and when it goes off I find the that I'm holding it tightly in my hand. I can’t and don’t answer it, for spite, maybe, or for fear. But the resisting is hard and within the minute I dial Katie, thinking maybe I’ll just tell her about the Santa Missern, give her a warning.
Laughing, Katie answers the phone. The sound makes me feel ill and I hate her but try to sound like I don’t have any really intense feelings either way—like she, me and everything in the fucking world are just, well, ok.
“Hey,” I say. “What’s up?”
“Oh, hey, nothing. How’re you? Are you ok?”
I don’t know what to make of her questions. She sounds distracted, intentionally distracted, like she’s just trying to make me feel bad.
“You heard about this weather shit? This Santa Missern thing?”
“Santa Missern,” she repeats, then pauses, as though covering the phone to whisper to a lover. “I know, I know,” she says, suddenly intense and interested. “Isn’t it fucking crazy? People here are just losing it.”
“Fucking hippies,” I say, which is weird since I’ve never said anything like that to her before.
Katie ignores it, refuses to engage. “I think we’re going out to watch it now, or you know, go somewhere and take the afternoon off, watch it pass over or whatever.”
“Be careful,” I say. “They said there could be monster storms in it.”
“Yeah, I heard that. Tornadoes and stuff with the mix of air temperatures. We’ll be careful. You do the same, ok?”
“Ok,” I say, not realizing until I say it that she has already hung up.
For a long time it’s just country and then a horrible stink comes over everything, comes like swine. In the sky nothing’s changed and I finally pass it, a hog farm like an airport. Immediately after it there’s a small tavern that sits on the dinner table of the expanse of light-brown flat farmland like a forgotten dinner roll. I stop and make my way in, but just as the bells parked on the tavern’s doorknob let out a clinkle my eye catches red in the horizon.
I slide into a table by the window and order a Dr. Pepper. A table over from me, an old couple sits behind soup, the napkin dispenser and condiments between them like props in a horror movie.
“Getting close,” I say, right at the old man’s giant satellite dish of an ear. “Off in the horizon. I just saw it. But we probably still have a few hours.”
Both of them look at me, then back down at their soup. I open my mouth to add just a bit more, to add that I’ve just caught a glimpse of the front end of the Santa Missern barge and my lips must part noisily because the old man cuts me off before I can push a word out.
“Please. Please, we’re just trying to enjoy our lunch,” he says, sounding almost pained.
Almost immediately I can feel the people starting to look up at me and I make no eye contact and try not to smile with the attention.
I want to get really close to the old man—step slowly up to his table, lay my hand over his hand like I’m about to do something sweet, ease my mouth in and whisper “Fuck you and die with me this afternoon,” real calmly and gently into his huge old man ear. Instead I order onion rings and a club sandwich and eat quickly. I hear the people sitting at a table near the bathroom say “Santa Missern” but I hear nothing else and don’t bother investigating. I pay and return outside, then spend 20 minutes staring at the sky and saying ‘fuck’ over and over to myself. It’s coming. It’s coming and it looks like nothing I could ever believe possible, like a pineapple cross-bred with a manatee cross-bred with a spell book, like there’s nothing that such a breeding could produce, like it’s part magic and the best of reality. And here it comes.
I get to my car and call my mother, finally, and at a time like this.
“Hey, where are you?” I ask so quickly that she thinks something is wrong and I have to slow way down and be tolerant and patient.
“Right,” I say. “You watching the news?”
“Not really, no. I was out in the yard picking up some leaves.”
“The leaves are falling off the trees? It’s July.”
“Ok, not really leaves. I was just picking up sticks, I guess. Geez. You caught me. Intense much?”
“I don’t know. I’ve been following this weird weather thing. The Santa Missern.”
“The Santa Missern,” she repeats. “Yeah, I heard that, too. It’s a hurricane?”
“Clouds, like a system of them.”
“I’m making drinks. You interested?”
I get out and sit down on the road beside my car, staring into distance, into blood. I’m thankful that I talked to Katie, though I hate her. Even if she’s a crazy whore, she proves I’m not imagining things; she proves this mess is real.
“Where are you at? Are you out in your yard?” my mom asks.
“No. Yes,” I say. I’m not a liar, but it’s better to be in the yard than out in the middle of Plano, or wherever this nowhere is.
“Do you want to come over? Maybe we’ll watch this system of clouds together, if it comes through here or something.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. We’ll see. Maybe I’ll head over a little later.”
“Ok, hun. I’ll make us something to eat.”
I hang up and open my car door and almost immediately a man is on top of me, flicking his thumb on an imaginary lighter. I tell him I think I might have one in the glove box. I get into the car and root around.
“Heard about this Santa Missern thing?” I say.
I give him the lighter. He lights his cigarette and gets smoke in his eye, making him wince hard, nearly doubled over. “I heard it’s from Saddam burning his oil fields. That fucking rat.”
“Oh? Really? That’s probably something that, yeah, could have done it.”
“And, you see it wouldn’t burn black,” the old man continued, “because coming over the ocean it picks up all that fucking, what’s it called? Iodine. It picks up fucking iodine and changes colors. That motherfucking shit rains, boy, and we’ve got a fuckfest on our hands.”
I have no idea what the hell’s going on with this guy. For the next 10 minutes I tell him he’s probably on to something. Then he brings up the Koran and I’m starting to feel really stupid. I don’t know, maybe this Santa Missern is a thing for these crazy types, but the idea that it’s just another thing you can’t believe in hurts so thoroughly and intensely that I reject it as impossible.
When he leaves I head for my mother’s. I’m not sure which direction I’m really going and after a few minutes, not knowing for sure, I turn around and go the other way. I feel sad and a little sick from turning around and being lost. I pass nothing for a long time and then there are a bunch of cars lining both sides of the road. People are getting out of their cars and walking somewhere. I slow and then see it, people in the open-air top of a barn. The barn is not so much dilapidated as newly bought by non-farmers, people who see a barn as having really big patio potential and so have either allowed or made sure that the barn would lose most of its roof. People are milling around up there and the sight is wonderful, like out of a movie, like we’re all in this together. I drive faster, brazenly singing along to songs I don’t know the words to.
While driving, I start to figure that I’m right in how I’m thinking about all this. I’m so right and have been so right that I could almost vomit. This Santa Missern is the thing we’ve all been killing ourselves for. The radio signal was swirling with static but news is squeaking out now that the Santa Missern has slipped overtop Missouri. “Jesus, Jesus for the people of Missouri,” comes a newsman. Hundreds, probably thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands are dead. “Like the five fingers of a giant red hand,” the newsman says amidst flicks that sound like rain on his microphone. In the background it’s all tornado sirens and nothing that can be done.
The wind is blowing hard by the time I pull into my mother’s driveway but I just keep thinking about the people atop the barn, the possibility, and try not to betray what I’m feeling when I see my mother at the kitchen table, balancing her checkbook and drinking a gin and tonic. I don’t come over very often but she doesn’t acknowledge me when I enter, not in the way of ignoring but in the way of comfort.
I pour myself a very weak drink because I don’t need escape and I’m not bored. What I need is to be clear-headed and make some sense of things. A lot of things. I look back at the sky through the window and I see the green leafy branches of a tree suddenly flapping around hard in the wind. A stern breeze rushes through everything with loud noise, tearing over the lawn like a herd of invisible animals and making the grass bend and the evergreens dance. It must be here. It must be now.
I tell my mom to come outside.
I want to admit what I think. I want to admit how I really hope this is something terribly devastating that ruins a million lives.
I don’t know why I think it.
It confirms everything, though, confirms that all the little worries I’ve had since I was a child were really enormous worries being misunderstood or incompletely appreciated. That the little pains, the little feelings, are as serious as I’ve worried all along. That I want bad things to happen because I’m ruthless and malformed and my crushing is inescapable. This thing, this Santa Missern, just has to be the ruining thing I’ve been waiting for, praying for, for who knows how long. For my whole life, I guess.
I look out at the lawn and know I’m scared, that this is what terrified feels like. But I feel that if this thing, this Santa Missern, comes in and does its horror, I’ll be just fine. Everything will be just fine. Then I feel my mom staring at me through the kitchen window.
I feel her eyes and step off the porch, out to the old pipe and red-wood picnic table in the corner of the lawn. The breeze is full of oxygen, the kind of air you want to eat.
I lie down on one side of the table’s bench. Over the top of the house I can see the sky is bleeding red, like a barge coming over us, its merlot bottom ripped with orange and yellow. My stomach sinks into my knees, because it looks just like it needs to look, just like hell.
My mom comes out with her drink, like this is a fun thing to do on a Tuesday, but also like she’s starting to lose me a little in the head. She’s staring hard at me when I look at her and I look away.
“Look at that,” I say, pointing over the house and resting my head back down on the bench. “Look at what’s coming.”
“Oh, it’ll pass—”, she says, before turning. Then she sees what I’ve been seeing, what I’ve always been seeing, and she whispers, “Oh, Jesus.”
My mom keeps talking, saying the same thing over and over, showing me just the back of her head. I just lie there on my back on the bench, staring up at the empty but expectant sky.
BRIAN F LAULE'S fiction has appeared recently in The Coe Review ("A Suitcase Full of Instant Messages") and the University of Chicago's Euphony Magazine ("Defenestration Station"). A novella of his, entitled The Eyes that Jewel Our Heads, appeared in Triplopia and can be found in the archives at Triplopia.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.