Mark Pleiss is a writer in Denver. He publishes fiction, book reviews, scholarly criticism, and essays. He worked as a freelance journalist for The Omaha World-Herald and The Des Moines Register before completing a doctorate in Spanish Literature and teaching at St. Olaf College, the University of Colorado Boulder, and Metro State University Denver. He is from Omaha, Nebraska. For more, visit Mark’s website at markpleiss.com.
The following is an excerpt from “April Warnings.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Short Stories
The pack of anvils forming out east begins to darken, and I notice our cattle moving to the ditch. They lie in a small huddle with their heads down, and their tails no longer sway from left to right, which means the bugs have gone away. Through the window, I yell to Dad, who’s working on the west side of the house, to see if there’s any weather approaching from that direction. It’s common for one part of the sky to seem normal while a wall cloud sneaks in from the other. Over the years, people have developed a special sensibility toward the weather. They use the texture of the clouds, the feel of the air, and their animals’ behavior to know when to take cover. My grandpa will still point to a puffy cloud in the middle of a sunny day and tell us it’s going to rain. We’ll laugh, but he’ll just nod and spit out some more tobacco from under his lip. “Just you watch,” he’ll say again. Within an hour, we’ll have to grab our things and head inside. Once I asked him how he knew what the weather was going to do, and he said he could just feel it. He said a lot of people used to have that ability, but not as many anymore.
The wind is picking up, and Dad tells me to make damn sure I haven’t left anything out. There’s a nasty one coming, and he doesn’t want any surprises with the equipment. Inexpensive items assume unexpected identities during a tornado: putty knives become throwing darts, ball bearings become birdshot, screwdrivers become nails. Dad says we must be meticulous. Hacksaw frames, caulk guns, and bar clamps must be hung, strapped, and locked. Air compressors, power washers, and welding masks are placed in the truck, shut, and double-checked. I remember when a twister hit Sunnyside Trailer Park. It rained cats and dogs, barbecue grills, and oil filters. Our fields filled with sun lounges, bug tents, and used car batteries. The Gatsons lost their fat old tomcat, Biscuits, because they thought someone else had brought him in the house. A woman in Indie, a town several miles south of here, found him in a tree hissing at a spider.
Going into an underground shelter is a strange Midwestern ritual. We wait downstairs until Dad gives the signal. Then we move to the cellar in the back yard, enter the doors that lead beneath the earth, and pray the rosary until the storm passes. Dad sometimes turns on the radio, but it eventually goes quiet, and the Emergency Warning System fills the air. Finally, the sirens go off. Boys run to their mothers, and dogs tremble beneath the bed. Meteorologists and science teachers have been rehearsing the drills for years. Head to the basement. Stay away from windows. Cover your head with a blanket. If you’re in a car, pull over and find a ditch. Never try to outrun a tornado. Storage items deemed unworthy of the garage inhabit every square foot of the shelter. There’s a bag of Halloween costumes, empty spray paint cans, a riding lawn mower, and even a bag of human hair dad collected from the barber to scare away rabbits in the garden. Mom said her project last summer was to clean everything out, especially all the hair, but she quit after finding a brown recluse in an empty jar of Skippy.
I open one of the shelter doors and wait on the top step to view the clouds as they circle. Then I hear Grandpa’s voice from the darkness a few steps below.
“It’s a slow one,” he says. “We got some time, but it’ll hang around.”
Dad runs inside the house and shuts the upstairs windows, bolts the back door, and quickly lowers the covers protecting the new kitchen window we installed last fall. It’s my job to close the gate during a storm, and my mom looks nervous. I put my hand on her shoulder and tell her I’ll be fine, but she uses her hand like a fly swatter.
“You stay right here. I’m not having my boy go to Oz for a few cattle.”
“But Dad said . . . ”
“Get in that shelter. Don’t worry about your dad.”
I count each of the seven steps on the way down. Then I move to the back corner, climb onto the riding lawn mower, and rest my head on my knees. As my body starts to relax, I feel someone shake my arm. It’s Dad, and the wrinkles on his face look hard as leather.
“You know what the problem is, don’t you?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, haven’t I?”
“The minute this storm has a hiccup you’re running out there and closing that gate. If the animals get out, you’ll be spending the next month moving their carcasses from the side of the road.”
Dad shakes his head at me, but I ignore it. We’ve done this plenty of times. He’ll mumble to himself and sit back down near Mom. Then they’ll argue for a few minutes. He’ll know she’s right but won’t admit it, and she’ll let him have the last word. Once they’ve finished, he’ll lower his head, and Mom will start her Hail Mary’s. Before I know it, Dad will be asleep, and she’ll be on her second decade.
Grandpa drags a 5-gallon bucket next to me and sits down. He looks at Mom and Dad over his shoulder, looks back at me, and then asks if I want to hear a story. Grandpa doesn’t talk very often, but when he does, I like to listen. He fumbles with his words while his hands search for the protrusion in the breast pocket of his t-shirt. Grandpa always keeps his emotions in the three-inch tin of chewing tobacco near his heart. His fingers are shaky, but he gets his dip in. Storms affect him in strange ways. He stares blindly in all directions and starts to swallow his tobacco instead of spitting it on the floor.
He asks me if I’d believe a story he told me, even if it was a little crazy. He tells me it was something that happened a long time ago, before he really knew what to make of it. I tell him to continue, just as Dad gets the radio to work. The shelter fills with AM static, which changes in pitch and register as the dial moves at different kilohertz. I hope my favorite station will come on, but all I hear are the voices of weathermen. They’re announcing funnels and floods, wind and rain, tornado watches becoming tornado warnings. This is the Emergency Warning System. This is not a test. Then there’s a pause, and a woman with a Minnesota accent tells us to turn to 1110 for an important weather announcement.
Grandpa spits on the floor and rubs it in with his boot. Mom hates it that her father-in-law chews, but at least he doesn’t smell like cigarettes. Grandpa tells me his dad was hard on him too, mostly because his mind wandered while he was working. Once he even forgot to put the tractor into park, and it damn near rolled into the creek.
He squeezes his bottom lip until it forms a fleshy U. Then he pulls on it and lets it go like a thick rubber band.
“There were still wagon tracks on the prairie then. Some places you can still see them, but they’re mostly gone now. The railroad came into town sometime later, or sometime around then.”
He says he doesn’t remember things like before. He says his memory has almost vanished completely.
“The tribe soon left, and the Irish came in to work. The Irish and the Chinese. The trains don’t come by anymore, but back then the tracks had a purpose, lots of jobs and lots of movement. The house shook when the trains would come by, all lights flashing and engines pumping, like something from another world blowing across the prairie.”
Grandpa’s eyes roll back as he searches for more words. It’s clear he isn’t struggling to see the past. He wants to reveal something.
“I still don’t know if it was a train,” he starts. “But for some reason, I know it wasn’t. It had to be something else. One night I got up because I heard a noise coming from out past the barn, so I went to check it out. Once I was away from the house I saw flashes. As I got closer, the lights started taking more shape, and the noises got louder.”
Grandpa stops talking and looks behind his shoulder. The others continue listening to the radio or praying the rosary. He looks back at me.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy. I never told this to anyone, not even Grandma. I swear I saw a space ship. It was out by the cemetery. I saw the lights, I heard the noises, and I even saw someone”—he looks behind him and spits—“or something driving the damn thing.
Grandpa spits more tobacco from his shaking lip. Half of it lands on his knee, and the rest lands on my foot. It’s thick and black, like used coffee grinds spilled from a filter, and it stains my shoelaces. But he doesn’t notice what he’s done. His mind is somewhere else.
“The next thing I knew I woke up in the cemetery. Sometimes I wonder if it took me for a ride that night and erased my memory.”
More falls from Grandpa’s mouth, and he cleans his lips with the wool of his sleeve. I don’t know if the story is true, but it feels as real as the tobacco and spit between us.
“Maybe I’m crazy,” he says. “But I hope there’s more out there than cornfields and silos.”
Maybe that’s why strange stories are always floating around town. People still talk about the formations at the McMullen ranch about an hour from here. There’s a guy Dad knows, Professor Anderson, who came from the college in town to look at them. He said the circles were done with perfect geometry, straight lines and a clean grid. Professor Anderson is a friend of Dad, and a lot of farmers talk to him about chemical mixes, new technologies, and the sort of stuff farmers don’t learn from their dads. He said he didn’t know what the circles were, but he didn’t think they were from outer space. There’s probably a pretty normal explanation for it, but I like to think it was something else, maybe something from the sky.
Grandpa keeps talking as the storm starts to fade. I don’t know how long we’ve been in the shelter, but Dad is walking up the seven steps to the surface. He stops on the third step and turns around.
“Everyone stay here,” he says. “Except you. Go close the gate and count the animals. I want to know whether we’re spending the rest of the day on the highway looking for cows.”
Mom gives Dad a look, but he ignores it. She tells me to take something before I go. The beads are as big as cherries, and a small man with long hair is attached to the cross at his limbs. I tell her I’ll be all right, that it will only take a minute, and she smiles as I try to fit the whole thing into my pocket. Grandpa tells me to be careful. He says something feels funny. The air isn’t right.
“Just hurry up.”
One cow is a big investment, lots of time, money, and grass. After my third recount I realize there’s one missing. Hopefully it’s a mistake. I close the gate, and thunder sounds above me. The last cow might not have gotten out. It could be in the drainage ditch near the cemetery.
Dad buried his mother there thinking the only remains were those of his family, but he discovered a cheekbone several yards from the grave. He was digging out a tough piece of earth while repairing a sinkhole, and it came up like a potato in his shovel. Dad ignored it, but Grandpa called Professor Anderson. He said the cemetery is filled with the bodies of Irish and Chinese immigrants who came to farm the land and build the railroad. Grandpa told the story to my brother, who used it to scare me. My brother said a lot of people died near our property while they were laying the track. Apparently, the soil was more difficult near our land than the engineers had guessed. They had to use dynamite to break through the rock and sediment. At that time, the mixes were unbalanced and unpredictable, and the Chinese were the only ones who would touch it. A lot of people lost their lives without any closure, and that’s why Grandpa said the ground was still haunted.
I squint my eyes as I approach the ditch, and I make out a cow through the vertical dashes of freezing water. She’s lying on the ground, comfortably protected between two bushes in the decline toward the creek bed. She moans as I get closer, but the animal doesn’t move. I pat the cow on the head, remove my rosary, and put it around her head. I pat the same tender spot on the cow again, and then I head to lower ground.
I soon hear my name. I call back in the loudest voice I can make, but the words crack in my throat. The other voice is strong though. It is low and consistent, hardened from years of giving orders. He has a few feet of rope wrapped around his right shoulder, and his face is expressionless. He makes a large loop, puts me inside, and tightens it around my waist. He kneels and feels the roots. He pulls on them to test their strength and then ties a cinch knot around the thickest part. He yells directly into my ear, but I can barely make out the words. I look to his mouth.
“Pull,” his lips are saying. “As hard as you can.”
Our muscles clinch, and the knot tightens. Dad grabs me again by the neck and takes me to my knees. We lodge ourselves beneath one of the roots, and I hear the words “hold on” as every leaf, ant, and crab apple heads to the sky.
The funnel looks like it was crafted on a throwing wheel. It slowly descends toward us, and it feels like it’s going to tear the ears from my head and the skin from my bones. My body suddenly begins to levitate, but the rope catches me in the air. Soon I return to the surface, and I hear my ribs crack. I think I hear Dad tell me that we’re going to make it, but I can’t make out the words. I force my eyes shut and see a swirl of colors. Then everything goes black.