by Peter Felknor
copyright 1995 / Web posted on August 1, 2000
Author's note:Storm Lake was written during my last semester at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for a fiction-writing seminar taught by Professor Ron Kuka.
The assignment as I recall it was to write a short story having to do with crime and/or criminals, a topic in which I had very little interest. At the same time, I had received quite a bit of good-natured ribbing from the other students in the class (nearly all of whom were pursuing MFA degrees) about being the only science major in our little group.
Anyway, Storm Lake went over pretty well. The tornado in the story was supposed to be an in-joke, although in retrospect I think it served its purpose as a plot device. While not the kind of thing I’d care to write now, I still like the story well enough—probably because it isn’t typical of my "normal" work. Incidentally, Storm Lake, Iowa is a perfectly nice town. I have never met anyone remotely like Porter Bain there.
THE SKY WAS RED, the ground was red--at the crest of a small hill, a tornado siren sat slightly askew atop a pole. Circling eddies of dust blew up the street and seemed to stop at the foot of the pole as if bearing questions. The sun, slightly shifted toward the red of the spectrum, burned above the tinted world.
"You are," Chief Frank McLeod said, "one lucky son of a bitch, Porter Bain. You know that?"
Two men, both getting on in years, stood at the crest of the hill and watched the dust begin to swirl around their feet, sift to a halt, and pile up in miniature red drifts.
"How do you figure, Frank?"
"You know what I mean. Only a lucky son of a bitch would've walked away from that crash. Then Betsy? The sentence? Christ. Now this." McLeod motioned down the street, away from the hill. "Jesus loves you, Bain."
"So they say."
"Don't worry yourself. She'll be back."
Bain said: "Maybe".
"Man, look around you. You've got the only decent dwelling in the whole neighborhood. If that ain't the icing on the cake."
Porter Bain smiled at the older man. "The house is junk. But I could probably do without the bother of building another one right now. Even if I'll never get that family room with the satellite TV, like the rest of you will."
"We'll invite you over to watch," the Chief said sarcastically. "You can find a dark lining in every silver cloud, can't you Bain?"
They stared down the street together, off to the north and west, at the crazy broken trees poking arthritically into the red sky. The trees were all that relieved the monotony of the horizon now that the bulldozers had knocked off for the day. The crews were nearly finished; what had been the west end of town was represented by four conical piles of rubble. Between the piles, the city government had erected a huge signpost on metal stanchions:
STORM LAKE RISES AGAIN!
To Porter Bain, the exclamation point seemed a little hysterical. Maybe the city government should stop and question whether the town ought to exist at all. But then, Porter Bain mused, if there was no Storm Lake, Frank McLeod would be out of a job.
"Got to be getting along home, or Kathy'll put me out without any supper," McLeod said after a spell. He patted Bain on the shoulder and moved off. "Lucky son of a bitch," he repeated as he went.
Porter Bain shook his head and walked toward the yellow house. "Maybe not," he murmured, mostly to himself.
Everybody in Storm Lake knew Porter Bain. Everyone remembered how he had arrived, although few were sure where he had come from. And anyone in town could tell you the twin reasons why Bain had stayed on: Betsy Cassidy and Doctor Zeke Higgins.
Some said Bain was an educated man, and a few even claimed that he had been a college professor once. Most folks disbelieved this. Bain was not much to look at, although something in his presence commanded attention. In Storm Lake, Porter Bain garnered just a little more respectability than the migrants who drifted with the harvest or the Indians at the Welfare Hilton. And most of the respectability he did have was due directly to Betsy Cassidy, and less so to his odd friendship with the police chief--something almost no one understood. Bain drank like a fish and moved from one factory or convenience-store job to another. Parents wouldn't let their children near him.
Almost six years to the day before the tornado struck, Storm Lake got its first look at Porter Bain. Covered with blood and spitting teeth, Bain had poked his head from the passenger window of an upended Chevy Cavalier with Missouri plates. The Cavalier blocked the middle of Iowa 3 a few miles northeast of town, and the first cars screeched to a halt on the highway to see what they could do for the victims. It was raining but not too hard, and unseasonably cold for June.
"Shit" was the first word Porter Bain said. He said it to Per Halvorsen, who farmed south of town.
"Don't move, sir," Halvorsen told him. "Help is coming. Anyone in the car with you?"
"No." If you ask Per Halvorsen today, he'll tell you that for all the blood on his face, Bain had managed to look thoughtful.
"What happened?" Halvorsen asked.
Bain grinned, showing how few of his front teeth still remained. "Does IMA DOC mean anything to you?"
Halvorsen guessed, "You're a doctor."
"Nope." Bain spat out a couple more teeth. The paramedics screamed up in the ambulance and ran toward the car with metal-cutting tools.
"If you can open the door for me," Bain told them, "I do believe I could climb out."
"Stay still. You're in shock," one of the paramedics ordered.
"Busted up my face. The rest of me just wants to take a leak." Per Halvorsen remembers how he broke out laughing when Bain said that.
Porter Bain did climb out of the car, over the strenuous objections of the paramedics. He draped an arm around Per Halvorsen, whispered a few words, and then agreed to go to the hospital in the ambulance, so he could get the lacerations stitched where his head had shattered the passenger-side window. Turned out that Porter Bain had several broken ribs, a brain concussion, and a little bit of internal bleeding too. But Halvorsen remembers him walking to the ambulance with his head held high: "He didn't even limp."
In the hospital, Bain didn't have much to say until the third day of his visit, when a new nurse came in to replace his IV bottle. She was tall and nicely formed, with short black hair and a serious face. She was startled when Bain said to her, "You've come to rehabilitate me."
"Beg your pardon?"
"I took one look at you, and my headache went away."
People who recall Elizabeth Cassidy as a little girl remember a devoted student with few real friends; not because she was not well liked, but because she enjoyed solitary amusements. Collecting insects and stamps, reading, and riding her bicycle alone along the dusty country roads. Rainy days always found Betsy in the library, where she frowned into her books at a corner cubicle in the adult section. The librarians say she favored English literature from the nineteenth century and just about anything having to do with biology.
Storm Lake is still small enough for everyone to know everyone else, even if not very well. Betsy had dates for every high school dance but no serious romances, and when she returned to Storm Lake after finishing her degree at the University of Iowa, way across the state in Iowa City, the whispering began. Few of the students Storm Lake sent to college ever chose to return; even fewer came back with East Coast hairstyles and too many earrings and rode bikes around town wearing black bodysuits. By the time Porter Bain arrived, almost everyone had written Betsy Cassidy off as a lesbian.
So it was with surprise that the townspeople noted that Porter Bain continued his convalescence on Betsy's front porch, and could usually be seen there from noon onwards reading dog-eared novels and sipping from an ever-present glass of Coca-Cola. Betsy had to rotate her shifts at the hospital, but when she was working nights you could see her in the late afternoon sitting on the porch with Bain. She would laugh and kick her legs back and forth beneath the swing. Now that the town had decided that Betsy probably wasn't a lesbian after all, they talked about how "lovely" she looked. And she did look lovely. She got a suntan and started wearing colors other than black, let her hair grow out a little bit, and began smiling at people again. It was kind of strange the way she'd met Porter Bain, but everyone agreed that he seemed to do her a world of good.
"Where are you going from here, Bain?"
It was the third week of his stay at Betsy Cassidy's little house on the west end of town. They sat on the porch at ten o'clock at night, just after the last light had vanished, and watched lightning play across the horizon. Porter Bain listened for thunder, but didn't hear any. He wasn't sure what to make of Betsy's question.
"Don't know," he said. "I might stick around."
What Betsy liked about Porter Bain was that he didn't feel the need to talk all the time. Wasn't real hipped on selling you his own story, didn't even seem to feel very sorry for himself after the accident. It was all right that she didn't know much about him, if that was the price she had to pay for his company. Betsy wasn't sure, but she thought Porter Bain might be the first man she had ever loved. She liked the way he looked at her, a frankness in his eyes that always stopped short of a leer. She liked the way he didn't push and didn't assume too much. He slept on the couch every night and did not complain.
"I hope you do stick around," Betsy heard herself say.
"You make it mighty tempting. But let's get straight on one thing."
Betsy leaned over to get a closer look at Bain's face in the light from the living room lamp. His hazel eyes were slitted.
"You can't be my friend," he continued. "I don't mind having someone to shoot the breeze with, but I don't need any friends."
"Who said we were going to be friends, Bain? You want my opinion?"
"I don't know why I brought you here."
Bain laughed. "When I get well..." He laughed more. "Let's say that I find you physically attractive."
"Let's say that you do." He looked up into her serious face in the lamplight, the steady way her eyes focused. She was not afraid of him, not at all.
"Maybe we could have a physical friendship," Bain said. Betsy's eyes never wavered.
"It all rides on something or other, doesn't it?"
"Yes. On my rules."
It's hard to dislike her, Bain thought. Very hard.
"And what are your rules?"
"We'll see," Betsy Cassidy said. "Would you like another drink?"
Bain groaned with the effort of movement, his fractured ribs wanting to push him back into the swing seat. "Don't get up," Betsy said, halting him with her hand. He kissed the hand. Betsy's nails were short and without polish; she wore no rings. She smelled very faintly of some flower he couldn't name, something from way back in his childhood, sunny roadsides in Missouri. She went into the house. Bain saw the lightning flicker again and listened. This time there was thunder, very far away.
Doctor Zeke Higgins drove around town in a black Toyota Camry with a spoiler, red racing stripes, and two phone antennas. He always drove too fast, and he was always talking on one of his telephones. The joke around town was that his personal auto insurance dwarfed his malpractice premiums. Higgins was the only pediatrician in Buena Vista County at that time. That he had never managed to run over one of his own young patients was something of a miracle.
One night, over some notable Cajun-style chicken Betsy had prepared, Bain asked her what she knew about Higgins.
"Why? Was he in the emergency room when they brought you in?"
Bain chopped up chicken with his fork and didn't look up.
"How do you know him?"
"Dumb fuck ran me off the road. Passed me with no room to pass, came in and clobbered me with his bumper. I had bad tires, my old Chevy lost it. Went into a dead spin, hit the ditch, rolled over, somehow wound up back in the road. Upside down."
"Doctor Luccione was out there. He said it was a wonder you survived. He's our trauma specialist; he's seen lots of auto wrecks." It was suddenly very quiet in the room. Betsy thought of leaning over to turn the radio on, but decided against it.
"Yeah? He can thank his good buddy I'm A Doc Higgins for my good health, or lack thereof."
"He didn't stop to help you?"
"Stop? " Bain exploded. "Did he stop? He was probably at the city limits before my car quit spinning."
Betsy was no longer hungry. She pushed her plate aside and lit one of the three cigarettes she allowed herself each day. "You've told the police, of course, haven't you Bain?"
"No. Don't intend to, either."
"You have to tell someone! Bain, you can't just let him walk away like that! Everybody knows what a lunatic he is behind the wheel."
"I've told you," Bain said. "That's enough." He finished the chicken on his plate, then reached across for hers. "Can't stand to see good food go to waste," he explained.
That night, very late, Bain sat on the porch with a glass of straight whiskey, looking at nothing at all. Every hour or so a car might happen by. The edge of Storm Lake was two blocks away, and then the world dissolved into the endless fields rolling on toward the Missouri River. It was easy to see where the girdle of lights ended from the porch. That's the way Bain liked to stare, away from everything.
Betsy came up to the screened-in window behind him, wearing her bathrobe and holding a glass of orange juice. "Come sit on my bed," she said. "Come and tell me a story, Bain."
He didn't look around. "I'd better not," he said.
"If you think I'm teasing you..." Betsy stopped and cleared her throat. "I've never been a tease."
Such simple, terrible dignity. She was a saint, something greater than life, beyond value. Bain took a sip of his whiskey and heard a car swish by, two or three blocks away. He turned halfway around and saw her in the window like a statue. He motioned at his ribcage and said, "It hurts."
Betsy went to bed.
He was there when she opened her eyes in the morning. He was holding a short glass of cloudy amber liquid. He stood above the bed, one elbow on the dresser. The window had been opened and the white drapes fluttered back and forth.
"Hello, Bain," Betsy said.
"Yeah. Bad night."
Betsy brought her legs out from under the covers and swung them over the edge of the bed.
"You're a sight to see," Bain said. "Though you're not the type I generally go for."
"Oh, sure. You like blondes. Short little blondes. Am I right?"
"Yeah. Short little blondes."
Betsy looked down below her aquamarine nightie at the fine stubble on her thighs. Have to shave before work. Nice if I could just get rid of this stuff once and for all. Nicer if nobody cared.
"I was married, Betsy. Kids and the whole nine yards."
"Oh, I figured as much. A blonde?"
"Her name was Meredith. Perfume counter at a department store. You've seen her a million times."
"I've got to get ready for work, Bain."
"Mind if I watch?"
"You're the type who watches, go ahead. I don't care."
Betsy got up and stretched. She padded across to the bathroom, stepped inside, peeled off her nightie and her underwear and dropped them to the floor. She kept the door open, but Bain never moved. While she dug her razor from the medicine cabinet, she asked Bain: "Tell me about your kids."
"Two boys. They play soccer and talk like amoebas. They've never had an idea you couldn't fit into a thirty-second commercial."
"That's your wife's fault, of course."
"Not entirely. I never knew what to say to them."
Betsy turned the shower on and stepped inside. She expected Bain to come into the bathroom, but he didn't. She washed the summer sweat from her body and shaved her legs. Then she turned off the shower.
"I'm still here," Bain announced.
"I know." Betsy stepped into the bedroom and stood before him. "Cooling by evaporation," she said. "Nice in this heat."
"I shouldn't touch you," Bain said.
"Not if you came to watch."
"You're beautiful, Betsy."
"I'm all right."
"You know, I like the way we talk to each other. In fact, I like everything about this place." Bain swept his arm around to indicate the room, the house, the flat world outside. He began to speak, then looked at his feet. "You probably think I'm queer, don't you?"
"It's okay. People think I'm queer too."
Bain finished his glass of scotch and laughed. "I told you last night that I didn't want to be your friend, but you're making it damned hard. I have to admit to a genuine regard for you."
"Will you let me get dressed then?"
Bain threw back his head and laughed, left the room, and closed the door softly behind him.
The medical report on Dr. Zeke Higgins listed seven broken ribs, a brain concussion, facial lacerations, numerous broken teeth, and a slight amount of internal bleeding. He was in serious condition at Sacred Heart Hospital in Sioux City, having been transferred there by helicopter from his spacious house along the shore of Storm Lake.
Betsy Cassidy found Bain on the porch with a glass of scotch when she came off her shift at dawn. Bain was reading the morning newspaper.
"Reading about Doc Higgins?" she asked him.
"Yeah. Goddamndest thing, isn't it?"
"Look at this," Betsy said. She drew the ER report on Zeke Higgins from a manila envelope. Bain studied it in silence for a while.
"Seven broken ribs," Bain muttered. "How about that?"
Betsy scooted in alongside Bain on the porch swing. "You did it, didn't you, Porter Bain?"
"I couldn't lie to you. I just can't figure the seven broken ribs. I only meant to break six."
They looked out on the lawn for a spell in silence. It was August now and everything looked dead; it hadn't rained since the middle of July. A little girl rode past on her bicycle and called, "Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Cassidy!" Betsy waved, her other arm around Bain.
"They'll catch you," Betsy said.
"Oh, they probably will. That's all right." Bain was wearing a crazy Hawaiian shirt he had bought at a sidewalk sale downtown. He'd been growing a beard for the past month, but Betsy noticed that the beard was gone this morning. Bain's cheeks looked pale and pitted. "Let's go to the bedroom," he said. "I'll sit on the edge of the bed, and you'll tell me a story."
"I don't know any stories, Bain."
"All right. Then let's just go and sit on the edge of the bed." Bain stood up, took Betsy's hand and helped her from the swing, and then led her inside. The screen door slammed behind them.
Later that morning the phone rang. Bain picked it up and said, "Cassidy's."
Betsy watched as Bain frowned into the phone. "Slow down, pal," he said. After a minute: "That's okay, forget about it. Thanks for the call."
Bain went into the kitchen and poured another glass of scotch. He came out and told Betsy: "Fella named Halvorsen. I kind of remember him, he was the first at the scene when I crashed. Police took a statement from him this morning. They thought the doc's injuries looked a little bit familiar."
"If Halvorsen was a witness, how come they never picked up Higgins after the crash?"
"Halvorsen doesn't know what he saw. A wrecked car in the middle of the highway. So what." Absently, Bain tucked his shirttail into his trousers. "Well. Suppose I'd best be getting ready." He went into the hall closet and withdrew an awful tweed sport coat he'd bought at the same sidewalk sale, threw it over his Hawaiian shirt, and slicked back his hair in the parlor mirror. He looked, Betsy thought, like a junior racket enforcer from Nevada, or a third-rate pimp. He looked like a criminal.
Bain poured another finger of scotch and walked out to the front porch, and five minutes later the police chief's car arrived. Bain said simply: "I'm not armed, and I'll be happy to give you a statement. Which way, gentlemen?"
Chief Frank McLeod, in full uniform, and one of his detectives--muscular in a black T-shirt that said STORM LAKE POLICE in bright yellow letters--looked puzzled. The detective held a shotgun, but the chief waved him off, approaching cautiously with his service revolver. "Well," Bain said. "Keep that thing out, I guess, if you'll sleep better at night." He turned around and raised his arms high and put them against the porch column next to the front steps.
Porter Bain was sentenced to four years in the Iowa State Penitentiary at Correctionville for aggravated assault. The initial charge had been attempted murder, but there was not enough evidence to make it stick. Bain's only motive had been to avenge himself for injuries sustained in the auto accident; a thorough search of the well-appointed Higgins household in which the assault had taken place turned up nothing missing. Against the advice of his attorney--there
was plenty of evidence to implicate Higgins in the auto accident--Bain declined to press charges against the doctor. Bain considered the matter settled, although Higgins grumbled about a personal injury suit against Bain and even Betsy Cassidy.
Betsy testified that Porter Bain had been in her care almost continually since the third day following the crash, and that he had undergone extensive emotional trauma due to his facial disfigurement. She tried to avoid looking at Bain when she told this to the court. When asked her relationship to the defendant, Betsy Cassidy said: "Nurse. And friend."
Formerly the town's best-known lesbian, Betsy Cassidy had a new identity. She was "The Jail Lady". She drove the fifty-odd miles to Correctionville every Saturday to visit Porter Bain. And she had a new gentleman caller in Chief Frank McLeod, who would stop by in the evening and sit on the porch with Betsy and drink beer. They'd talk about Bain. Betsy told the Chief that Bain didn't mind jail too much, that he'd made friends among the convicts. Bain was a man who'd rather do time than violate the law of the streets, and that bought its own kind of respect in the House.
"Bain's unusual," the Chief said one Saturday night while he and Betsy split a six-pack of longnecks. "Not one of our typical rough boys. Ever look at his hands?"
"Of course," Betsy smiled.
"Hands like a goddamned piano player. Like a college boy, if you'll pardon my expression. Not the kind of hands you'd think would take and beat the shit out of somebody."
"Bain taught logic at St. Louis University."
"Logic, huh. You'd think he might use some of it on himself."
"He does. To his mind." It was October now and uncomfortable to sit on the porch much past sundown, but Betsy wasn't sure she wanted to invite the Chief inside. His eyes were not nearly as difficult to penetrate as Porter Bain's, and she did not want to hear their message put into words. Eventually the Chief would stretch, pat his belly, and make his way down the steps to the street. A night or two later he'd be there again, and they'd talk about Bain, and to Betsy it seemed to extend the summer, to bring a strange warmth to the short fall evenings.
She had always been a thinker, and now she thought long and hard about Porter Bain. Sometimes in the dark, with only the shadowy form of the bedroom ceiling above her; sometimes in the aquatic blue glow of the operating room; sometimes on the country roads with her bicycle beneath her and the million megawatts of the summer sun above.
In the light Bain usually seemed far off, farther than even the hop, skip and jump that was the trip to Correctionville. In the darkness, on the front porch swing or in her bed, he could be very close. Close enough that she might feel like calling out to him, wondering if he'd answer.
Then she could see his broken face above her and feel him within her, a quizzical sandpapery pain that might have belonged to someone else. I have to relax you, he'd said--Christ, you're still a kid. Relax. Take a sip of your drink. Here.
At first she'd wanted it to end but then she hadn't, it got easier, suddenly the pain was her own. It was exactly the hurt that matched his face, or more exactly the hurt his face made her feel. Whenever he looked at her and his eyes slammed shut. She remembered then another pain discovered on a basketball court long ago and carried home within her like a small flame in the damp darkness, her burden of difference. She'd flung it upward and outward there in the dark but it wouldn't fly away. Most of the time her books and the solitude of the rural roads were enough, but a sultry stranger stared back at her from the mirror and wanted more. There was nothing here in Storm Lake where there was no understanding, but in another sense it was the only place where Betsy knew she was understood. When she bought the little yellow house with the front porch swing, Betsy knew she'd made the right decision. She could drink in the nights that unwound west to east across the tiny space of her yard, knowing that somewhere in those limitless fields salvation was creeping toward her in the darkness.
Porter Bain served the entire four years of his sentence, because he expressed no remorse to the parole board. "Do you realize," they would ask, "the shambles you made of the doctor's life?"
"Don't care," Bain would say. "He did the same to me."
"You make a mockery of the law. You hold yourself above it."
"You turned your back on people who loved you and depended on you. You turned your back on your own profession and the privilege of your education."
"I did that. Yessir."
"Have you nothing you might care to say to Doctor Higgins, if he was in this room right now?"
Bain would return to his cell, exchanging high fives with the convicts up and down the block as he did.
On the last day of Bain's sentence, he stepped into the yard and squinted into the bright sunlight. Picnic tables were set up and banners strung between the light poles. He hadn't quite adjusted his vision when a woman appeared from out of the shadows, a long-legged woman in a beige print dress.
"You're here," Bain said.
"I cleared my calendar."
"Never saw you in a dress before."
"And you never will again."
Bain was allowed three hours for a small celebration. Even though the other convicts hadn't been so close to a beautiful woman in years, their regard for Bain was evident in the courtly manner with which they treated Betsy. Chief Frank McLeod had even arranged for a keg of beer to be brought in on the sly. Everyone drank beer in little styrofoam cups, ate sandwiches, and played horseshoes over in the corner of the yard. Late in the afternoon, just before his sentence would expire at five o'clock, Bain stood near the prison wall and looked out on the scene. Maybe he could make the world stand still, so that they would always be frozen there in the yard.
Toward the end of June, there were two momentous events that had everybody in Storm Lake talking: the Casey's mini-mart holdup, and the great tornado.
The first happened about sixteen hours before the second. Bain had been out of jail for a year, and by all accounts had gone nowhere but downhill. He couldn't keep a job. The easiest place to find Porter Bain was the same as it had been before he went to prison, swinging back and forth on the front porch of Betsy Cassidy's house. After his prison term was up he didn't bother to hide the bottle of Johnny Walker Red scotch that he mixed with his Coca-Cola. He read his novels, listened to rhythm and blues music on Betsy's miniature boom box, and slept. Once in a while Bain got mixed up in a bar fight at the Lakeside Tavern, but Chief McLeod would read him the riot act at the police desk and have a patrolman drive him back home to sleep it off. The town liked to talk about Porter Bain's relationship with the Chief and with Betsy, and the consensus was that he abused them both. And that he was worthy of neither of them.
The night before the tornado, or just before dawn on the day of the tornado, Betsy Cassidy and Porter Bain had a terrible fight. No one had ever heard Betsy scream before, but neighbors all up and down the block heard her scream in the pale gathering light that dark day. She called Bain a murderer, swore that she was going to murder him, that she would not rest until he was in a goddamned pine box where he couldn't hurt anyone anymore. That he had used her like a rag doll, like a rag, when she had loved him more than anything on this earth. And then he'd called her a bitch in low and confident tones, people heard him slap her in the still morning air, and that's when Ken Stoddard of the Western Iowa Travelers' Insurance Bureau had burst into the little yellow house with his Bren 9 millimeter and knocked Bain to the floor and stuck the gun right down his throat. Give me one good reason not to pull this trigger right now, Stoddard had said, one good reason not to send you back to Hell where you belong, you cheap sponging son of a bitch.
"Ken. Don't kill him," Betsy had sobbed. There were finger marks around her throat.
Stoddard grunted, cold-cocked Bain with the butt end of the pistol, kicked him hard in the ribs, and left.
Earlier that night, the Casey's convenience store out on Highway 7 had been robbed by a short man wearing a black ski mask. The clerk, a high school track star named Matt Bealing, had been pistol-whipped and kicked around with heavy boots. One hundred and twelve dollars and sixty-seven cents, the contents of the cash register, was missing. Matt Bealing lost several teeth and sustained four broken ribs, and was not able to run track during his senior year.
There was quiet for a few hours from the little house in the West End, and then either Betsy or Porter Bain woke up and the argument started all over again. It was early afternoon now and the wind had come up, spinning dust from the dry spring along the streets of the West End. The weather bulletins were full of tornado watches, but to the people of Storm Lake this was a harbinger of much-needed rain and little else. Clouds sailed overhead in angry hues of yellow and gray, shadowing the ground and the faces of the people on the street. Just before five word came that a tornado was on the ground at Aurelia, only a few miles to the north and west. The tornado was said to be on a dead-ahead bearing for Storm Lake.
At five o'clock people on Second Street heard Betsy Cassidy scream: "I can't take care of you anymore!" They saw her run outside and climb into her silver Volkswagen Cabriolet, gun the engine and take off in a plume of dust, headed west toward the junction with Highway 7.
And they saw Porter Bain ease himself onto the porch with a tall glass of amber liquid and settle into the swing with a magazine. Behind the yellow house, folks on the other side of Second Street could see the yellow clouds speeding to the northwest as if being sucked into a vacuum hose, and then they saw the tornado slung low to the ground on the hill behind Graetzinger's farm, they saw the silos explode into the air and headed down into their basements and storm cellars.
Five minutes later it was still as death, and those who lived between First and Sixth Streets crawled outside into a war zone. Red dust sifted and settled around a ruin as absolute as ground zero in a nuclear blast. The only thing still standing was the yellow house. Porter Bain sat on the porch, picking fiberglass and plaster out of his greasy yellow hair, his glass of scotch planted firmly in his other hand. His neighbor across the street, Johnny Roth, remembers approaching Bain in amazement, utter amazement, and asking Bain if he was all right.
"Shit," Bain had said. "I'm right as rain, fella."
A week later, the evening that Chief McLeod and Porter Bain had stood in the street and watched the dust swirl, the phone rang on the nightstand where Bain was halfway through a story in Penthouse magazine. It was the Chief calling. "Say," Frank McLeod said. "You don't know anything about that little old robbery at the Casey's the other night, do you pal?"
"Too bad about the kid," Porter Bain told him. "Listen, Frank, I'm trying to balance my checkbook. Stop by tomorrow?"
Milton Knebel farmed out near Sulphur Springs, a hamlet some miles east of Storm Lake. He was spreading fertilizer on a Wednesday afternoon, over a week after the tornado, when something caught his eye in a bushy draw that ran through his property. Some kind of metal contraption that caught the sun and threw it back at him. Knebel remembers a crazy thought that ran through his head right then: "I've stumbled upon the secret of the crop rings."
Knebel left the air-conditioned comfort of his tractor cab and moved closer to the contraption. It seemed to have no shape at all. When he was almost upon the thing, he saw the word CABRIOLET and a human hand sticking out from the metal, trying in vain to make a fist. Then the wind shifted and he had to wretch. His eyes teared and he could hardly make out his tractor in the distance. "Jesus," he gasped. "Jesus Lord..."
Chief Frank McLeod stopped by as promised the next evening to see Porter Bain. He had questions about the robbery at Casey's and questions about a body that had been found at Sulphur Springs. "Bain?" he called from the porch. "Bain? It's Frank. Come on out here and let's talk. Come on out, Bain. If you don't give a shit about me, maybe at least you give a shit about your lady friend. Bain? Goddamn it, I've got to talk to you about Betsy Cassidy. Goddamn it, Bain!"
The Chief kicked the door open. When he stepped inside, he could smell the remnants of a microwave dinner. The white drapes blew back and forth in the wind. Without even looking, he knew that Bain was not there, that no one was there in fact, that no one would ever be there again. He opened the refrigerator and found a lone bottle of Corona beer. He shrugged his shoulders, cracked open the beer, and went out.