Robb T. White: Fiction: Oct 2021

Southern Legitimacy Statement: As I expressed three years prior, when you were so kind as to accept “The Neurosurgeon’s Rat,” my Southern legitimacy is honorary and based on my near-decade in Fayetteville with my wife and children as I pursued my master’s and doctorate in English from the U. of Arkansas.

Storm Chaser

He found her online and he liked her photo immediately. It wasn’t a glam shot, the kind favored by teenagers making duck faces or middle-aged women employing photo-shopped bait to hide the sags and wrinkles.

Straight bangs, pretty smile, dimples. Roy thought she was gorgeous—a woman to settle down with now that he was tenured and making decent money. Going deeper into middle age smacked of desperate bachelorhood. Some of his peers were single or divorced; he pitied how they craved attention at every university function. Cassie seemed a confident woman—even possessed of a tender heart for stray animals.

They chatted online every night, finally met on a Sunday at a family diner halfway between them. He lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas; she was a “born and raised Okie cowgirl.” Crow’s-feet and a web of veins crisscrossing the back of her hands belied the age she claimed on her page. Harmless vanity, Roy told himself, even endearing really . . . He was smitten. Roy couldn’t believe his luck in finding a woman like her unattached.

From the beginning, she told him she hoped “Mister Right” would come along. She was full of compliments—for his looks (he worried about thinning hair), his intelligence (a science nerd and college prof at the U. of Arkansas) his personality (geeky, according to colleagues). He spent a day thinking about it before he emailed her that he was “determined to be her Mr. Right.” He congratulated himself on the romantic wording.

Weekend meetings followed. He skipped office hours Fridays to drive the two hours to Muskogee like a giddy teenager. One Sunday afternoon, the bravado of the moment overwhelmed him as they drove around town. Taking a chance, he whipped the car into a Motel Six across the street from her apartment, shut the engine off and turned to face her, heart hammering in his throat. She lowered her eyes demurely, gently scraping the back of his hand with her long, painted fingernails. The effect was electric.

Roy left the motel with mixed feelings of ecstasy and confusion. He’d anticipated a matching shyness. What happened back in that motel room was something a drunken tourist might have experienced in the red-light district in Bangkok.

They were married in a month. He pitied her when she told him “her people” couldn’t attend. Sicknesses, family emergencies, falls down stairs—a plethora of bad luck tantamount to the Black Plague of Europe only served to make him more eager to be her protector, her Mr. Right.

Things went downhill soon after the marriage. She seemed less interested in being the “tidy homemaker” she’d claimed on the dating site. The house he returned to from college was a mess: food congealing on plates, dirty glasses on every flat surface, clothes strewn from one room to another. Worse, Cassie often wasn’t home to greet him.

Before he knew it, he was back to heating TV dinners and buying fast food on his way back from campus just as he had in his bachelor days. Leaving his class, he passed a colleague’s office and overheard his name and Cassie’s mentioned followed by a snicker of contempt.

Cassie would appear and disappear at random like a rogue meteor. He woke hearing her stumbling in the dark bedroom; once, the clock said 3:10. When he asked her where she was, she mumbled incoherently and dropped into bed beside him. The fruity smell of her breath betrayed heavy drinking and the unladylike flatulence secretly appalled him.

He hired a private eye to follow her. The investigator’s report shocked him. She’d been married and divorced four times. One ex-husband was doing life in McAlester; another dead of a cirrhotic liver. A third died in a drunk driving accident and the fourth’s last known residence was Alaska. Arrested three times for shoplifting as a teenager, once in her twenties for soliciting at a truck stop near Tulsa, that Cassie was the true doppelgänger of the woman he’d married. Unable to read further, his stomach revolting, he had to make a dash for the toilet and threw up until his breath came out in great, sobbing heaves.

“That ain’t all,” the private eye told him. “She’s a degenerate gambler. Husbands three and four said she cleaned them out, went through their bank accounts like crap through a goose. Number four said she snuck out to bars to play machine poker. She’d hit strangers up for cash when she ran out.”

Roy made a feeble ,waving gesture, as if trying to ward off any more sickening knowledge about his wife’s deception. It kept coming like a freeway pile-up in a fog.

“Brace yourself, sir. That ain’t even the worst of it. Customers at a few of these redneck bars around Tulsa said they recognized her giving—how to put it?—sexual favors.”

“My God, I’m going to throw up again.”

For days afterward, Roy was numb. He walked around his house like a phone zombie bumping into things. He avoided contact with Cassie whenever he could. If she noticed a change in his attitude toward her, she ignored it. After a series of incoherent lectures and mixed up assignments, his department chair summoned him to a meeting. Roy half-listened to her.

Breakdown, his colleagues said. Some said “the wife” with a knowing leer. Roy heard whispers everywhere he went.

Despite an impressive track record of publications, he was denied a sabbatical leave. He tendered a letter of resignation immediately and applied for a position at a small rural community college in Oklahoma. The Economics faculty were delighted to have him. No one asked why he gave up tenure at a major state university for them. “Let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth,” the search chair told the committee.

Roy found them a ranch house in Moore, although there were plenty of better houses nearer the campus. Cassie was furious at first, and resisted the move, but soon placated she would be returning to her familiar stomping grounds.

Roy took up a new hobby: storm chasing.

“You really are losing it,” Cassie told him.

But the benefits of Roy’s hobby appealed to her darker side. He’d be out of her hair, fewer nagging queries about her whereabouts. Better yet, gone for whole days chasing his thunderstorms, all of which left her free to pursue her real interests. When Cassie made a note to remind him to re-up his life insurance policy, he obliged at once to her amazement. He named her on his and himself on hers. She complained about the “extra” policy on her but ceased complaining when he said he’d name her mother instead.

“Hell, no,” she snapped; “the old bitch is rotting away in the Alzheimer’s clinic in Ardmore.”

Without the arduous teaching and publishing load he was used to, Roy had time to study his meteorological charts and plot his course for his “storm” outings. He’d be out of the house for entire weekends and longer during vacations. He became an expert at reading doppler radar scans online and could determine tornadic “hook” formations as easily as the professionals on TV. He checked his weather app constantly for tornado-spawning shelf clouds.

“See that?” 

He pointed to his laptop monitor revealing a real-time dense cloud formation over a great swathe of western Oklahoma. 

“It looks like a PET scan,” Cassie said.   

“See how it stands out,” he told her, pointing at the dense center.

“So don’t a dog’s balls,” Cassie replied. “Big deal.”

Tornado alerts were a weekly event in spring and summers. Roy was prepared for bigger storms in this el Niño year. Tornados that gained intensity, climbed the Enhanced Fujita Scale to F3s and F4s all over Tornado Alley. Friends who kept in contact called his obsession a wholesome “distraction” from his unfortunate marriage.

Roy studied graphs and charts, looking for the big one—the rare F5. Throughout that spring, the jet stream stirred the pot of cold winds coming down from Canada and mixed it with the moist, heavy air from the Gulf of Mexico.

One morning, he woke up, his heart fluttering. Cassie had dragged herself home in the early hours as usual and was deep in a booze fog. Her face was slick with sweat despite the air-conditioning. She would sleep for hours. Roy dashed to the front porch and looked up at the sky. The hairs on his arms prickled from humidity; the winds aloft were bringing massive cumuli-nimbus clouds from the southwest—exactly the right direction. He bolted for his study and checked his online sites. There she was, a thing of beauty: a huge supercell forming just west of the city limits. 

The TV confirmed it with high-pitched alerts crawling across the top of the screen. He immediately muted the sound. The TV meteorologist’s eyes bugged. He was animated as Roy had never seen before during these storm warnings, burbling excitedly about “wind shear and golf-ball-sized hail.  Folks, this could be it . . .”

Then he said the magic words: “. . . same conditions as May twentieth, Twenty-Thirteen—”

Roy ran back to his laptop to check the interactive radar map, which the Doppler confirmed: just northwest of the city, exactly where the killer tornado of 2013 had touched down.

One thing he left to do: he grabbed the hammer and the large building nails he kept under the sofa. Racing to the bedroom at the very moment the city’s tornado sirens rippled the air with piercing wails, he banged the first nails home. 

Cassie’s groggy voice” “What the hell’s going on, Roy?”

Roy kept the quaver out of his voice: “Nothing, go back to sleep.

He pounded the last few nails in haphazardly. The wind was picking up with every passing second. The skin of his arms prickled. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of several pieces of his neighbor’s tin soffit flying past.

Thenk yew, Jesus—

The sky was matte black overhead with an ugly smear of pus-yellow boiling up in the underbelly of clouds hanging so low he thought he could reach up and touch them. Roy barely made it into the storm cellar as the winds whipped everything around him into a filthy curtain of dirt and flying yard debris. The last thing he heard before he pulled the metal doors shut and slammed the bolt home was Cassie’s scream from the bedroom.

The tornado was a bigger cousin of the infamous 2013 Moore tornado everyone remembered—massive, fast-moving, and ground-hugging. It blasted houses apart, flattened buildings, and smashed 100-year-old cottonwood trees into matchsticks.

Twenty-nine people died—including Cassie.

At her funeral—closed casket because of the hideous damage incurred when the house imploded and she was sucked into the vortex of a tornado spawning 200-hundred mile-per-hour winds. Her corpse was found draped over a tree limb three hundred yards away. The fireman who retrieved the mud-spattered body peppered with shards of debris did not know if the body was male or female at first.

Roy waited a month before filing for the insurance payout, paid without demur. A month after that he was in St. Lucia watching the sun set over the Piton Mountains from a chalk-white beach, gentle turquoise waters lapping at his ankles. Tanned, fit, and in great spirits that day because an attractive widow from Memphis agreed to have dinner with him at his cabana.

After dinner they spoke freely of themselves. He briefly mentioned his wife’s “tragic” death in the tornado.

“I hope you don’t think me insensitive,” the woman replied, “but isn’t that town, Moore, an unlucky place for tornadoes?”

“It has had more than its fair share of violent storms,” he agreed.

She reached out to cover his hand with hers—a gesture of comfort. “How are you getting through it?”

He looked down and softened his voice: “My teaching helps me a great deal.”

“What is it you teach?”

“Probabilities and Statistics.”