Sunday, October 9, 2011

Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives (2010)

There is a line buried deep in Brad Watson's latest, luminous collection of short fiction, which signals the overall effect of the stories: A charged, nervous air, the atmospheric equivalent of the feeling you get when you knock your funny bone. It's uncomfortable to be thus jarred, but oddly reassuring to know we can occasionally be hurt without being too deeply scarred. Sadly, the same can’t quite be said for many of the characters limping through the brilliant Aliens in the Prime of their Lives.

Watson's stories, by his own admission in interviews, are this time around a little more personal than the ones in his 1996 collection, Last Days of the Dog-Men. This is evident in small but bold touches, details that carry the whiff of memory, the settled weight of emotion. A recurring location is the Coastal South, which at first seems a timeless reflection but is unmistakably Alabama and Mississippi during the 1960s and 70s. There is, however, no Mad Men-esque nostalgia at work here: more to the front is a kind of matter-of-fact melancholy, a wistful yearning for things not as they were, but how they might have been better, and thus how current times might be improved. The landscape is Flannery O'Connor territory for sure, but Watson isn't just squatting; yes, there are gypsies and hillbillies and even the odd zombie, but Watson moves beyond vibratory strangeness and into the inherent humanity to be found even amongst his most displaced and misinformed characters. He loves them, despite their cavernous fault lines, so that his readers can too.

The collection's opening story, "Vacuum," concerns three languid young boys who come to appreciate the situation of their broken home: if their father could leave, so too could their mother. Worse yet, she's actively threatening to do so, screaming over the roaring vacuum cleaner while they stubbornly stare at Westerns on television. Taking it upon themselves to find a medicine for her malaise, their best scheme involves calling on the lecherous old doctor down the street over for advice. Through their innocently misguided eyes, Watson gingerly evokes a journey into an understanding of the adult world, pickled as it is.

Most often, it is pickled in heartbreak. Several of the stories define the rifts and aftershocks of failed relationships. "Are You Mister Lonelee?" concerns one man's decision to rent his home following the departure of his wife -- whom he considers ipso-facto dead after a scooter accident renders her a "different person." Another, simply titled "Terrible Argument," is partially told through the eyes of a confused dog as it attempts to process the constant, violent fighting between its ill-matched owners.

And then there is the elegiac "Fallen Nellie." This quick and dirty snapshot of a Gulf Shores party girl showcases Watson's talent for finding the richest, purest metaphors in death and dying -- though the subtextual commentary is more overtly about the ravaging of the Gulf's shoreline (from walls of stacked condos or waves of spilled crude oil, matters not, take your pick). The story would not be out of place as a spiritual coda to his National Book award-nominated novel, The Heaven of Mercury, itself plump with such set pieces.

The collection is punctuated by the title novella, which takes place partially in a kind of alternate dream universe -- which is all the so-called "Good Old Days" are, anyway. A teenage pregnant couple moves into an attic room, married against the wishes of their parents, and are promptly visited by a man and woman claiming to be alien beings but are more likely escaped inmates from the nearby asylum, asking for custody of the unborn child. Immediately thereafter, the teen parents find their lives rolling blissfully forward; if it's not postcard-perfect, then it's near enough: fulfilling work, familial stability, a well-built house in the country. But in the offing is a twist that would make Rod Serling proud, as their small-town dreams begin dropping away like the layers of a rotten onion -- a twist both extraordinary and mundane, where real the magic lies.
What we pine for, Watson is telling us, is not some moment of physical, redeemable time. We pine for an ideal place, one parallel to our own, one collectively imagined at some distant point, in some brave moment where we recognized our own potential ... potential which never bloomed. Still, there it is, that hypnotizing possibility, unredeemed, unjustly out of reach, forever. What we wish hardest for sometimes isn't future possibility, but past improbability. And what activity is more human, and less alien, than the wish for a better world, whenever it may be?

Originally published in the Mobile Register, October 09 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

You were born together, and together you shall be forever more. You shall be together when the white wings of death scatter your days. Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God. But let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another, but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other's cup, but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread, but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other's keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, and the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
     -- Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Ocean's Eleven (2001)

Ex-con Danny Ocean is out to even the score with Las Vegas casino owner Terry Benedict, who's now dating his, Ocean's, ex-wife Tess. The goal is straightforward: rob three casino resorts all sharing the same underground money vault, on fight night when the coffers will be stuffed. This is no simple smash-n-grab, however: Ocean and his buddy Rusty, bankrolled by a rival casino magnate, put together an offbeat team of experts -- pickpockets, explosives and surveillance geniuses, model builders, acrobats -- each assigned a specific task in the overall scheme. Casinos being somewhat protective of their on-hand cash, there are arcane, ridiculously elaborate security measures which must be overcome or disabled without alerting Benedict and his army of watchful goons that criminals are right beneath their impeccably mannered noses. Decadently stylish, sexy, and fun, just like Vegas itself -- and the team of diverse actors (including but in no way limited to Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Elliott Gould, Bernie Mac) is having so much obvious fun, what George Clooney said about the Rat Pack-stocked original is equally true here: "You'd pay money just to watch those guys sit around and drink coffee." So what if the caper ultimately hinges on a couple of unlikely events and improbably timed coincidences? Or does it... The reveal at the end, laying out how the team tricked not only Benedict but also the audience into believing their "multiple cons" are anything other than smoke and mirrors designed to fool the casino goons into doing all the heavy lifting, is classic sleight of hand, if not downright slick dealing from the bottom of the deck. (Extra points for hilarious Trojan Horse usage of those ubiquitous escort brochures and "lady card" handouts that plague pedestrians along the Strip.) Still, this movie leaves burning questions: Does Clooney ever look disheveled, even when he's disheveled? Why is Brad Pitt so hungry? What is the ongoing appeal of Julia Roberts? The world may never know. Followed by imaginatively titled sequels Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Mighty Peking Man (1977)

A giant beast, answering to the name of Utam, stomps the natives flat in some remote Himalayan location that definitely isn't Shangri-La. Greed-headed entrepreneurs scheme to relocate said beast to the city so they can make some moolah. Samantha, an animal-loving white lady in a leather (!!!) bikini swings from vine-to-vine and pontificates the ramifications of the whole affair. Low-rent mashup of elements from King Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949), and Tarzan (1932), timed to piggy-back off the "success" of the 1976 Dino De Laurentiis-model Kong. Throw in some insipid love triangles (including, no kidding, a jealous Utam), some stoned-looking leopards battling sluggish full-bellied pythons, Utam foaming at the mouth like a spoiled Trump at every opportunity, and the best I'm-Just-Sucking-Out-The-Poison scene this side of Alex Cox's Straight to Hell (1987), maybe you won't even mind how cars randomly explode as if the backseats are stuffed with C4. (Samantha's perilously skimpy bikini top, ever threatening to flop off, is an additional distraction.) A conspiracy of back-projected mayhem, clumsy editing, and inappropriate canned music keeps everything stumbling towards the inevitable moment when Utam straddles a skyscraper and shakes his fists at the helicopters circling his noggin. Once again, when the monkey die, nobody cry. AKA Goliathon, AKA Xing Xing Wang. Call it whatever you want, call it a jalapeno-stuffed lychee, when the end credits roll you still won't understand the coppery aftertaste in your mouth.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Super 8 (2011)

A group of geeky suburban preteens led by Charles (he of the camera and vision) and Joe (he of the makeup skills and the Dead Mom) sneak up to the old train depot one school night circa 1979 to surreptitiously film a scene for their ongoing 8mm zombie epic. They've even managed to convince Alice, a hottie from homeroom, to play a crucial supporting role (turns out she's a natural actress, the only one on set, which never hurts). A train approaches, Charles yells "Production value!" and calls for action, but the kids get a little more than they bargain for: their science teacher Dr. Woodward drives his truck onto the tracks, causing a ridiculously massive and elaborate (not to mention fiery) derailment. In the resulting rubble, Joe finds a stash of small white cubes that look like Rubik skeletons; he pockets one just as Shadowy Authority Figures begin arriving at the catastrophe. The kids make their escape -- though not, of course, before being warned by the dying Dr. Woodward they must never speak of this event lest they and their parents be killed. In the days that follow, while the super-8 footage from that night is processed out of town, the mystery of the crash deepens as Joe's dad Jackson (also the deputy sheriff) is stonewalled by the government's cleanup crew; he's additionally frustrated with Joe's burgeoning involvement with Alice (who happens to be the daughter of the man he blames for his wife's/Joe's mom's death). Charles keeps filming, using the train wreck as background for his zombie invasion project, though actual stranger things (see what I did there?) begin happening in town: engines vanish from all the vehicles in a used car lot; bizarre lights are seen in the town graveyard; that weird little cube punches a hole in Joe's bedroom wall so it can fly up and start pecking at the side of the water tower. Once the kids break into Dr. Woodward's storage locker of confiscated property and secret papers, they might find answers -- but can they do it before the Government forces an evacuation and burns down the whole town to erase the mystery forever?

J.J. Abrams may well be the modern master of the Plot Hole, but he has the decency to stuff said holes with enough nostalgic flavor and warm callbacks to other films that it just doesn't matter. He's not crafting cinematic greatness, he's banging out a popcorn movie and he's totally not ashamed of it. Super 8 is quilted from the career of Steven Spielberg (whose company produced), recalling Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the evacuation from town as the Army sweeps in to control the narrative; the final scenes), E.T. the Extraterrestrial (alien stranded far from home), and The Goonies (the kids always know what's up!) though Abrams tosses in his own familiar devices (fictitious documents that provide the key to the plot; all those damn coronas). But chiefly, he accurately recalls a specific time and place better than Spielberg ever could while actually standing in that specific time and place. And let's not even mention Ready Player One (2018), okay?

Full disclosure, I'm in the bullseye of Super 8's target audience: Not only did I traipse in exactly such semi-miserable looking middle class suburbs during the late 1970s, trying to lose myself in afternoon-TV creature features, SnapTite monster models, and comic books, I was part of a small group of likewise fanboys who made 8mm films as a hobby, using a silent Bell & Howell rig to animate our Star Wars action figures (eventually setting them on fire, anticipating the excessive explosions in this film by more than 30 years). My aim back then was to be the kid from Disney's Mystery in Dracula's Castle (which featured a lighthouse instead of a castle, no real mystery to speak of, and certainly no Dracula), stumbling upon some Important Adult Event while out filming in the neighborhood. Abrams is careful, subtle with his cinematic wish fulfillment exercise: no beating the audience over the head with a knowingly packed soundtrack of groovy late-70s tracks; you've got to like a movie that knows just how to use Alan O'Day's "Undercover Angel." A pretty simple come-of-age-&-let-things-go story; things get heavy handed towards the end, but most everything works. Some critics espouse that the best films work like dreams -- non-linear and functioning more off emotion than logic. Super 8 is like those dreams which capture us near the moment of waking, when we know we're dreaming but are still willing to go along with the ride.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Wayne Greenhaw: The Unflinching Observer

A decade ago, I was introduced to Wayne Greenhaw with the words, "He's a friend of Harper Lee." The Mobile Register had recently published a short essay of mine on Ms. Lee; because many in the area love to discuss her, I'd subsequently met many "friends of Harper Lee." (In this neck of the woods, "knowing" Harper Lee is akin to having "been at Woodstock" in 1969: If half as many aging hippies who claim to have been at that festival actually were at that festival, attendance would have numbered in the many millions.) So I shook Wayne's hand with a kind of gentle resignation, thinking, "Sure you are."

He met me with a look I came to know well over the resulting years: a shiny-eyed wink coupled with a wry grin transmitted through pursed lips, the look of a man with a funny secret, a secret he was looking to share with just the right person. He was, after all, wearing a funny shirt, one of those tropical print jobs usually donned by gringos in an effort to validate their citizenship in Margaritaville. What friend of Harper Lee would wear a shirt like that?

Turns out, Wayne Greenhaw.

Prior to knowing Wayne, my ideas of the writing life could be somewhat romantic and limited: wild-haired semi-recluses who observed from afar, perhaps so dedicated to literary craft they were effectively detached from mere human interaction, thus able to comment objectively. Wayne taught me otherwise. Wayne went out and bravely touched the world, and that makes all the difference.

He made his life and his career upon the Alabama earth where he was born and raised, or, rather, forged: Wayne overcame disfiguring polio by a combination of sheer will and the freedom provided by voracious reading while marooned in a body cast after corrective surgery. Early on, he made a habit of difficult, probing questions; upon quizzing his grandfather as to why some of his cousins had participated in a Klan march through his hometown of Tuscaloosa, he was told, "They don't have any sense. But you do." This was a responsibility Wayne took to heart as a reporter in Montgomery, seeking to uncover injustice, to expose those who abused or even simply neglected their power, to give voice to those being denied their say. The list of those he intimately profiled or interviewed (and often befriended) is a Who's Who of the Civil Rights era: from Martin Luther King to George Wallace to Presidents Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton, Wayne covered them all. In the course of a career that included over twenty books, he also managed to scoop the national media not once but twice: beating by a day Seymour Hirsch's famous expose of the My Lai Massacre, and later outing feel-good memoirist Asa "Forrest" Carter as a staunchly racist pro-Segregationist (the author of The Education of Little Tree was the James Frey of his day).

Wayne could have easily angled his career differently, moved up the journalism chain-of-command, probably landed a Pulitzer or two while reporting for the Grey Lady herself. Instead, as Wayne Flynt pointed out in his eulogy, Wayne was the first phone call made by national correspondents who wanted to know what was going on in Alabama when a political story started breaking. He was the man on the ground. He was the touchstone. He held the truth. And all those other boys with their offices in bigger cities, they knew it.

Despite the often painful truth-telling that compelled him, Wayne was a happy man, one of the happiest I've ever known. He relished travel, particularly to his beloved second home of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where he'd once done some drinking with Jack Kerouac (and a locale which explains his love of tropical shirts). If he discovered some new music that thrilled him, he was quick to provide copies for his friends, sharing his enthusiasm. He sought good company and conversation, especially in context of gourmet food and drink. Munificent as he was, his heart belonged to Sally, his wife of four decades, with whom he explored the corners of the world (but always ending up back in either Mexico or Montgomery with their dog, Ellie). And though indeed happy, like the best champions, he was not necessarily satisfied. That much is evident in the fact that he never stopped working; his final book, Fighting the Devil in Dixie, is arguably his best, outlining his time in the trenches, placing him firmly within the history he sought to cover, recalling that the hard work done back in the opening moments of the Civil Rights movement only paved the way for the hard work we must all continue to do.

In February, I traveled to Florida to participate in a writing conference; Wayne was there as well, promoting Dixie. On a panel with three other authors of Civil Rights books, he told a story I'd not heard before (and I'd heard Wayne tell a million), of being clubbed from behind one night while inserting his key in his apartment door. His reporting of Klan members and dirty politics had earned him more than a reputation as a skilled wordsmith -- it also earned him a concussion. And rather than shrink back, Wayne Greenhaw wore his bruises like a badge of honor. He never stopped filing stories. And forty years later, here he was with a nationally acclaimed book, recounting it all.

I was struck anew, then, by this warm and generous man I'd known for years -- a drinking buddy, a confidant, a rascal of a guru if ever there was one -- reminded of his honorable place in an otherwise brutal history. We often view our friends as simply our friends, rarely taking time to consider how their works have shaped them, and how these works have, in ways large and small, equally shaped the world we live in. Or how this, in turn, makes us responsible for shaping our own world in whatever ways are available to us. Wayne Greenhaw persistently chose the tools of Truth and Joy, and he worked to shape his world despite all resistance. We should all work so hard, for so long, towards such an accomplished ending.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, June 19 2011

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Projectile Motion

Sometime around 6:45 p.m. that Wednesday evening, I received a single-word text message: Homeless.

My fiancée Jaime had, for the better part of an hour, been picking her way south through Tuscaloosa toward the Charleston Square apartment complex, her home for the previous two years while attending the University of Alabama School of Law. I was in Montgomery awaiting word, barely breathing. For those of us uninterested in listening to the "fast busy signal," the cell networks were useless; only intermittent texts were getting through.

She had taken shelter from the afternoon storm at the law office where she was clerking. It was a last-minute decision to stay there rather than return home -- a place of at least familiar comfort if not actual security. It was not a decision she’d made easily: Her nine-year-old polydactyl calico, Audrey, was waiting back home -- a cat she and I both referred to as our "daughter" (especially when she was getting into trouble, climbing into kitchen cabinets and knocking spice bottles and coffee mugs to the floor. "Look what your daughter is doing," we would say). Jaime's apartment complex was large, squat, and made predominantly of brick. It had been there for a generation if the Swinging Sixties-era light fixtures in the hallway and bathroom were any indication. Probably very safe.

After hearing James Spann report that the tornado was "downtown," Jaime and her co-workers locked themselves in a basement stairwell to wait it out. Long minutes passed silently -- no muffled howling, no creaking foundations. Turned out the law offices were well out of harm's way; it was the busy mall district just south of the University of Alabama campus that had been erroneously referred to as "downtown." When Jaime reached an upper-story window and looked out, she glimpsed the grinding, dirty edge of the funnel cloud, a wicked superimposition over a regular afternoon.

So, she had forewarning. The only question remaining was where, exactly, the damage would be -- how close to home. Answer: Very. More than a mile from her front door, blocked roadways forced Jaime to abandon her car and hike in work shoes down 10th Avenue, every step bringing her deeper into nightmare: a small grocery store with its front knocked off revealing unharmed stocked shelves; a muttering neighbor who could not be consoled; the National Guard armory on the corner of her street appeared to have been bombed, the Humvees and canopied trucks tossed like sandbox toys. Several blocks of the Rosedale Court neighborhood were simply gone.

Satellite photos now show the path of the storm -- nearly a mile wide -- crossing directly over Charleston Square, smearing the bold outline the buildings made around the lush four-acre courtyard -- a courtyard where Jaime and I had spent much of the previous Easter weekend, soaking up the sunshine while our laundry tumbled dry, watching mockingbird chicks flit from oak tree to pine tree and back again, their new wings lightly snapping in the air, wishing management would open the pool, already.

It was Saturday, three days after the tornado, before I saw the aftermath for myself. Carrying bins of empty duffel bags, our plan was to pick through the rubble to salvage what we could. Jaime had assembled a rough list of specific clothes and mementos; larger items and furniture were either buried or otherwise obstructed by fallen brick, a truth we had to reluctantly tell friends offering to drive up from as far as the Gulf Coast to help us. But the main concern was finding Audrey. We were armed with a stack of flyers, good shoes, and ready voices; I was prepared to upturn stones and call that cat's name for hours, didn't care how goofy I would look, how hoarse I would get, didn't care who I annoyed.

Jaime, of course, had already looked. She looked that Wednesday night, arriving ninety or so minutes after the horror struck, so shell shocked she couldn't see that the roof had been ripped from the entire building, not just above her own unit, where the living room yawned into the sky. She looked again on Thursday morning as Sealy maintenance persons shouted at her to get out of the wreckage, consoling herself by collecting as much fiberglass-infused clothing as she could before surrendering to the long car ride south to Montgomery, to me. "I managed to get a bunch of stuff," she said over the phone. My heart didn't break so much as collapse when I opened the hatch of her Focus to see only one small suitcase, one half-empty basket of dirty clothes, and some random waterlogged cardboard sheets from photo albums obviously blown apart, collected by the co-worker who had accompanied her that morning, who had known better than Jaime, in that moment, what might later be more important than some few handfuls of clothes. Because Jaime had nothing to unpack, we sat down on my living room floor and began peeling the photo-album pages apart, futilely trying to wipe the pictures clean of tornado grime. Because there was nothing to say, we said nothing.

Audrey was an inside cat, venturing out only on a harness, and even then usually just to hide in a nearby bush and thump her tail at birds. But she and I had begun making a morning ritual of "going for a sniff." I'd scoop her up against my shoulder, open the front door, and step out. Audrey would crane her neck, rotate her head this way and that, sniffing so hard it was more like snorting. Until some motion or noise would spook her, that is. Then she'd twist, piston her back feet off my chest, and project herself several feet into the living room.

It was exactly this survival instinct, based in happy cowardice, that gave me faith Audrey had ridden the storm out safely. How many times, on clear quiet days, had she gotten low and scooted down the hall to cover? She quite possibly heard the tornado form, miles away, sharp as her ears were; by the time it finished chewing Rosedale, she was probably not just under the bed, but inside. (Literally. Thanks to a convenient rip in the bottom fabric, Audrey had begun making the box spring her private clubhouse -- particularly when she sensed it was time to travel in her loathed pet carrier.) She would wait out the storm there, terrified but safe, hearing the wind test, then peel back, then eventually take the roof to scattered points to the north-northeast; the exterior brick wall collapsing into the living room, crushing all the furniture; the refrigerator banging from one side of the kitchen to the other while the windows exploded, while the trees were mangled bare, while mud flew like shrapnel, while cars were pummeled with heavy debris until the parking lot became a junkyard, while one section of an adjoining building collapsed into splinters, while the neighborhoods to all sides were blown, shrieking, into elemental pieces.

Audrey probably waited until all of this was over, until it was relatively quiet. Perhaps as long as an hour. Then, she went for a sniff. I imagined her, confused but alert, picking her way over the bricks, those extra toes splayed for traction, nose lifting as she embarked on an adventurous, unlimited sniff. I repeated this, as time crawled past, like a Zen mantra to myself and to Jaime: Audrey is fine. She's on a walk. We'll find her. At times, I could believe -- particularly when I knew Jaime, more than anything, needed to believe. At other times, usually while sleeplessly beached on the edge of the bed, it was a wish made on someone else's birthday cake.

Saturday we rose early, eager for the quest. We'd spent the previous day trying to relax, regroup -- venturing to the dry cleaners, to Saigon Deli for lunch, to the grocery store -- but it didn't work. We obsessed over news tidbits as they rolled in; Jaime found a terrifying account from her now-former next-door neighbors, who described the sound of the tornado as "nails on a chalkboard" and afterwards discovered a young woman dying outside the building. If I'd been there, Jaime would start, and never finish. We held each other, talked each other up, talked each other down, best we could. Jaime rationalized losing ninety-nine percent of everything she owned by calling it all "stuff we don't have to worry about moving out of Tuscaloosa, now." Because we couldn't process everything that had happened, and was still happening to so many people, we worried and grieved over the one small thing we could: our cat. By 5 p.m. on Friday, we'd tag-team called every vet office and shelter in northwest Alabama, leaving messages describing Audrey. Polydactyl calico, mostly black with gold flecks, yellow-green eyes, big white spot on her chest, little white toes, we love her very much.

By Saturday morning I was desperate and wired as Yosemite Sam, ready to hit the road at the first hint of light. The Jeep was packed with Hefty bags of my old clothes for donation; we had a long list of what to salvage and a rough plan for Audrey’s search-and-rescue operation, our ultimate purpose. But a renegade tree root beneath the foundations of my Montgomery apartment had other ideas. I had the car keys in my hand when the bathtub began to gurgle, gallon after gallon of dirty water belching upwards into the tub. (Had I been in possession of a Yosemite Sam mustache, the curled ends would surely have steamed themselves straight.) Our departure was delayed for nearly an hour while the superintendent was called, plumbers summoned, the bathtub bleached clean -- Mother Nature conspiring against us at every turn, or so it felt.

I've prepared for, witnessed, lived through, and cleaned up after hurricanes of Category 3 and Category 4 strength -- forces of nature large enough to shift coastlines. I've never seen anything like the destruction brought by the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa three days after Easter Sunday in 2011. You could say the devastation was wall-to-wall, but there were few walls left by which to judge. Words fail in the same way as when trying to describe the Grand Canyon to someone who has never seen a single square inch of the American West. Resorting to clichés like "war zone" or "movie set" only underlines the surreality of how quickly a familiar landscape can be turned inside out to reveal a kind of Shadow Hell you never knew was ever there.

Hurricane damage, by measure of contrast, is spread out -- diffused, if you like. Tornado damage is condensed, alarmingly specific, almost personal. In Tuscaloosa, I experienced it like a jump cut in a film: One moment I was walking up 10th Avenue, toward 27th; the next, I was surrounded by relentless destruction, a transition as sudden and heartless as if I'd dropped down a sixty-foot hole. Familiar landmarks had disappeared. I stopped short for a moment, transformed into a common rubbernecker, while Jaime took several strides ahead of me, handing flyers to volunteers stationed to pass out water and food to those who needed it. "Have you seen a cat? Has anyone seen a cat?"

"Yeah, I saw a cat over there," said a young boy, pointing to some half-gone house with rubble piled at all sides. What a fool's errand we had embarked upon: one skittish cat in a tornado. Three days had passed. We might as well have been wading a river in search of one particular fish.

We continued up to Charleston Square, passing the wrecked armory next door. Jaime's complex looked indistinguishable from it, or from any other debris pile in the vicinity. We stepped across the girded iron fencing, flattened as if by bulldozer, which had surrounded the grounds. My first impression was that fire, not wind, had been the factor of destruction, so thick were the building's outer walls coated with black dust and tornado filth. A car in the parking lot had been lifted up, then slammed back down atop a footlocker-sized beer cooler. A roofing beam jutted from the windshield of a nearby truck as though someone had used it in an attempt to pole-vault away from the damage. A quarter of the front building on the far right side had collapsed completely, granting a previously unavailable view of the courtyard and the interior side of Jaime's building, or what was left of it. All the second-story apartments were as roofless as ancient ruins, fronted by redbrick rubble, a drywall version of Jericho.

Jaime approached a cluster of Sealy personnel, flyers outstretched. We'd been in Tuscaloosa all of fifteen minutes. "They just found a cat, go look over there," a maintenance worker pointed toward a second group of Sealy personnel stationed at tables arranged near what was left of the gated entrance, now an impromptu check-in point for residents coming to scavenge their former homes. On a table off to one side, sheltered by a particolored beach umbrella, sat a small laundry basket covered with a sheet.


A half-hour earlier, maintenance had conducted a sweep of the buildings, still looking for people. They found Audrey under a bed in unit #95, downstairs and across from Jaime's apartment, #122. Nervous, understandably thirsty, a little grumpy about being cramped down in the bottom of the basket (she's a large cat), but otherwise not a scratch on her -- just some nugget of paste stuck to her fur, easily snipped away later on. They had situated her beneath the umbrella just moments prior, not long after we parked and started walking up 10th Avenue. Meaning: The root-clogged plumbing lines of my own apartment had not delayed us at all. We were right on time.

Forty-eight hours prior to finding Audrey, as we sorted through what few clothes Jaime had salvaged, she extracted a foreign torn scrap of paper from within one of her blouses. It is a printed fragment, crumpled and flyspecked with mud, from someone's science-class Powerpoint presentation. It is headed PROJECTILE MOTION. Below that are two lines: An object may move in both the X and Y directions simultaneously. The form of two-dimensional motion we will deal with is called projectile motion. In other words, what goes up will come back down. What leaves you will find its way home.

The scary mystery of what Audrey must have seen and heard just after the tornado and in the long days and nights that followed only deepens for Jaime and me as we learn more about what happened to others. It does not escape us that, compared to many, Jaime (like Audrey) emerged visibly unscathed. It is an inconvenience, and a massive one, to lose everything but what's on your back -- including much that will not have a replacement awaiting purchase on some store shelf and cannot be covered by any amount of insurance. But, in the end, even these are only things. Many in Tuscaloosa and across the South lost far more than some physical objects, however treasured. Treasures can be fondly remembered as we work to forget the trauma; the long road towards healing begins with the rubble around us.

Though she can't voice her adventures, it's clear Audrey can show us the way. Jaime's mother works at a veterinarian's office near Huntsville and cautioned us to watch our daughter, monitor her behavior; she was certain to be affected by her experiences. But soon after arriving back in Montgomery, after eating her fill and submitting to as many bellyrubs as Jaime and I could dish out, Audrey was back to her usual cat business, jumping onto the refrigerator and getting inside the kitchen cabinets. Let her break all the mugs she wants, I told Jaime. We'll buy more. Because the important thing is: We're home.

On April 23 2012, the Oxford American republished "Projectile Motion" as an online original.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Poems Jeanne Leiby Was Glad to Know

This post was part of the "Poems I'm Glad to Know" series the Southern Review Lagniappe blog featured for National Poetry Month 2011; it originally appeared there on 4/19/2011. I am reposting it out of the utmost respect. Godspeed to you, Jeanne. It will always be the poets.

POEMS I'M GLAD I KNOW (Jeanne Leiby's 2011 National Poetry Month Picks)

Not only was it difficult to pick only five poems, it was extremely difficult to pick single pieces by poets whose work I have loved for so long. Nevertheless, here are five poems that have shaped me as a writer and reader:

"What Work Is" by Philip Levine (This poem -- above all else and every other piece of writing I’ve ever read -- has had the biggest impact on me. It taught me there is poetry in the industrial landscape of my native Detroit and its suburbs. No lesson has been more significant to me as a writer.)

"Poetry" by Marianne Moore. (I remember reading this poem in my introduction to poetry workshop at UMich, a course taught by the great writer Richard Tillinghast. It was eye opening to discover poetry can have wit and humor. The phrase "imaginary gardens with real toads in them" still hangs above my home computer.)

"In the Waiting Room" by Elizabeth Bishop (although it was really hard to choose between "In the Waiting Room" and "Filling Station" and let us not forget "The Man-moth." Okay, yes, this is three poems instead of one.)

"1st September, 1939" by W. H. Auden (I was introduced to this poem via the play The Normal Heart by Larry Kramer. Just after graduating from college, I moved to London. It was the first West End play I ever saw, and the production starred Tom Hulce who was just off his Academy-award winning performance in Amadeus. It was the first time I experienced -- and internalized -- the interaction between poetry and performance.)

"View With a Grain of Sand" by Wislawa Szymborska. (I love the poetry of Wislawa Szymborska, and if I ever get to publish her, I will be a happy editor.)

-- Jeanne Leiby, 1964-2011