Severe Storm Watch

by Rivka Galchen


We all thought the weather was god, didn’t we?

Whether it was the golf-ball hailstorm that ruined the business plan of the magnificent mile of cars or the crepuscular rays of a rainstorm at the horizon. A striking tornado was something we really wanted, wasn’t it? A gale of importance, beating pompous and ludicrous as a cape lined in purple satin, sending us to the basements of nearby churches or schools, not that we ever actually went there, to the shelters, but we thought about it, and in the thinking we imaged a mottled kind of festive underground, a noble sharing of crackers and peanut butter with the extended Mormon family from across the street, an oddly jovial game of cards—like a commercial for life insurance—might break out amongst diffident adults.

Yes the “severe storm” would sweep down and make our lives suddenly as important as a Greek tragedy, or at least an early Hollywood film now in Technicolor. Really. In reality, I remember, the few times when the emergency siren went off, no one in my family much cared. My dad would go and stand outside. It was nice, to be able to see in him an indifferent kind of bravery, or foolishness. It was almost a heroic stance, and one didn’t get the chance to see him that way—he didn’t get the chance to appear that way—in the negotiations of the McDonald’s drive-thru or picking up a kid from swim practice.

But with the sirens it was suddenly the lost world of warrior kings. Turn on the wind machine. It was the nobly unwinnable battle. The white buffalo one might even say. Man V. Nature! I’d brave outside too, cinematically. Those wall clouds looked like an advancing army of spirits from 1000 lost civilizations. Our land was one to be conquered; our destiny was hard, and welcome. Soon, if the scenes in one’s mind gathered from movies and Channel Nine News were correct, roofs would lie on the ground, idle as an unreplaced flour jar lid.

A flour jar lid? Or: roofs were blown off as easily as the seeds of a granny dandelion? The cars and trailers would lie scattered like children’s toys out of a trunk, one stuffed bunny missing its button eye[,] the understated note of tragedy. Or… was it that the sky darkened like drippy acrylic paint from fourth period weeping across the newsprint paper?

There had been a poem. The beautifully inscrutable radar images of crayola green and purple molds advanced across the state in the petri dish round of radar signal data. Meanwhile, the rain finally broke. It built and then didn’t. That was the storm, now headed South to Ada. Another storm soon enough. Yes: the storms were wild molds or melodramas or armies or gods or ghosts or historic wraths or good times as had only on screens. The storms were all sorts of things.

But the one thing those storms were not—unlike the 11 items or less express checkout lane, or the pollen count, or the snapped shoelace, or the current price of oil, or the rate of bank foreclosures, or the girl scout cookie time of year, or the way the dryer never quite fully dried denim—yes, in distinction to all that, the one thing those storms weren’t—not the really strong ones, not the scary ones, the beautiful ones, the majestic ones—was real. Or, at least, that wasn’t the part most worth noticing.

Hear Russell Cobb read “Severe Storm Watch,” then tell his own storm story.