Afternoon Miniature 3.15.20

Water Funnel

Lucy lay sprawled on the floor of the capacious family room absorbed in her artwork, drawing on an enormous white tablet with a collection of graphite pencils scattered about, and the tin that held them at her elbow. She rubbed lines here and there with the outside edge of her hand to soften them, the way her teacher had demonstrated. The curtain in front of the sliding glass door was pulled back to the halfway point and the door was open, with its screen closed to keep out the bugs but allow in a delicious afternoon breeze. Up a few stairs and around the corner she could hear the reassuring clanking of pots and utensils pushing around ingredients inside them, dinner in the make.

A sudden puff of air made the curtain billow so that its hem grazed Lucy’s forearm; outside it smelt earthy and fresh, like coming rain. She glanced up in time to observe the treetops whip around and then fall still, like some giant being on high had placed a forefinger to lips as if to silence them. Now the air hung heavy around her and her ears felt funny. Odd, she thought, but continued drawing and blurring, shading and making cross-hatched lines with her pencils, which she held in multiples between her fingers as she imagined a serious artist might.

She became aware of her father’s presence only when his figure blocked her light. He stood in front of the screen door, swaying back and forth from his heels to his toes, bending his knees slightly, as was his habit when he was bored or anxious. One hand was thrust inside his pants pocket and the other held the stem of a mainly empty martini glass, save the olive, which he would offer Lucy; he slipped open the screen and stepped outside onto the patio, moving to a corner where he could survey the landscape to the west. The sky had grown notably darker within minutes, and now the wind picked up again. Lucy abandoned her artwork and followed him outside, where the atmosphere above them took on a reddish haze.

“It’s dirt. Little particles that come in from the farm fields all the way across the Mississippi River in West Memphis, Arkansas,” he quipped as he gestured skyward with his martini glass, his index finger outstretched. His voice had almost no modulation to it, like this phenomenon possessed all the interest of a sale on pork chops at the A&P. Lucy followed a map in her mind’s eye, from this whitewashed suburb, through another, less privileged one that bumped up against it, across midtown and thence somewhat awkwardly to downtown, and finally to Front Street, Riverside Drive, and then the river itself. She knew the farm fields he meant from her family’s summer vacation travels, the ones that stretched out across the other side of the big M-shaped bridge, and imagined them now.

“How?” It was the only question she could manage as her head tried to wrap itself around this notion.

“The weather comes from the west, and when it hits the river bluff, it goes over the city. Ten to one it’s a tornado. It’s why the outlying areas get hit hard, and the urban areas rarely do. The bluff acts as a buffer.”

Now the wind resumed with more fury than before, and big raindrops began pelting the two as they stood there. Lucy darted back inside, but her father continued watching the storm, shielding his face with the empty hand. Soon the civil defense sirens began to sound and with them her mother’s soprano voice, urging him back inside the house. In another minute or two, he had answered her, continuing to watch the darkening sky. Nothing drew Lucy’s father’s interest like violent weather.

Later, after the storm had passed, the late afternoon sun would shine brightly on the western horizon; there would be no power inside the house, but the family would gather around the table and eat supper. Then Lucy’s father would push his chair away and invite her to ride along with him to survey all the damage in the hinterlands to the east, against her mother’s strident protests. But Lucy’s curiosity would prevail, and she would ride shotgun while her father pointed at the façade of a nursing home. Looka there, he would say, how the front door and light fixtures are perfectly intact, and how the rest of the building is completely missing. And Lucy would stare with wide eyes, feeling like a piece of her had come forever unglued.

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