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.


  1. I loved reading this Jim. Thank you and well wishes to you and yours!

  2. God's grace can come in amazing ways.

  3. Can I pass this down to those who teach my Weather Climate and Society class after me?

  4. jim,
    thank you for sharing that. a whole lot of emotion, beautifully conveyed. and ALL of us feel the happiness of the three of you being...together.

    shine on...

  5. AND...
    thanks for teaching me a new word: "polydactyl". well done sir.


  6. That was fantastic, Jim. I was so happy I cried when I heard you guys found Audrey. As much as I know that cat hates me, I'll gladly let her rip me to shreds when I see her next.