words: Marla Cantrell
Arbor switches off the TV, throws the remote onto the coffee table with a thud. She can’t watch one more minute of Miranda Lambert mooning over her ex, Blake Shelton, singing about her broken heart. Everybody at the Country Music Awards must be squirming in their seats, except maybe Gwen Stefani, who’s sitting by Blake Shelton like she’d just snagged the biggest teddy bear at the state fair.
The next morning, when she flips on the TV to get the weather report, she finds out Miranda won Song of the Year. “Isn’t that something!” Arbor says to her little peanut of a dog, Vinnie. Vinnie turns in a circle, looks at her with his head upturned. If he were people, his eyebrows would be arched just so. He’s anticipating something good, so she reaches into her robe pocket, finds a milkbone, snaps it in two, and hands it over.
She dotes on that dog, she knows she does. Vinnie was a parting gift from Shane, who surprised her with the pup a week before breaking up with her.
The sun is shooting rays through the living room’s picture window. People call this light golden, but she sees it as the yellow of Easter flowers. Of gingham dresses she wore when she was a girl. The light makes her happy, and for a split-second, she feels like she used to before the storm.
That day, the yellow sky was a different thing. It held the dirt of a city street, the mud from a murky river. Yellow wasn’t a good description, but there was no other word she knew. Then the rain started, followed by hail the size of jawbreakers, and all Arbor could think of was her Honda parked beside the house. Two years of payments left. She shined the tires every Friday when she washed it. Not one dent. Not a ding in the windshield. She felt her knees go rubbery listening to the hail.
Her TV runs on satellite, and it turned to static as soon as the hail started, so she’d sat on her sofa and watched the weather unfold through the window that was protected by her porch. Vinnie, nine weeks old, sat on her lap, his tiny gray body shaking, and Arbor rubbed his head. “Just a bad storm, Vinnie. It’ll pass.”
And it did. But not long after, the air turned clammy and still. The sounds of early evening stalled. No tree frogs or birds. Nothing buzzed or chirped or croaked. She was wearing sweats that day, and when the wind picked up again, she tucked Vinnie inside the pouch on her sweatshirt.
When the freight train sound she’d heard about her whole life began, she remembered a joke from junior high. “What did tornadoes sound like before trains were invented?” Not so funny now, she thought, and headed for the bathroom where there were no windows at all.
Once in the tub, she pulled the quilt she’d grabbed from the back of the sofa and covered up. Vinnie whimpered, and she rubbed the front of her sweatshirt with a shaky hand. The last thing she remembers is watching the roof lift off her house, feeling herself held aloft, suspended above the tub for what seemed like a month of Sundays. And then the wallop of the storm shot her through that brutal sky.
She woke up in somebody’s yard on the other side of the interstate. She landed splat on her back, her left foot mangled, her head loud as a drum. Arbor raised herself onto her elbows, soaked through. In the dusky night, she could see trees uprooted, piles of debris that used to be houses, the sharp calls of folks already looking for the lost.
The yard where she lay was littered with tree limbs and other people’s furniture. She knew this because this house, green-shuttered, red-bricked, looked untouched, like the lone tree left in a hay field after harvest.
The old man of the house found her soon after, the glow of his flashlight hitting her eyes, running down the length of her body. The man said, “Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear,” before squatting down to assess the damage.
He tugged at his neck. “You’re going to be fine,” he said, though he didn’t sound convinced. “I can’t move you, though. You could have spinal damage. We don’t want to take a chance.”
By then, the adrenaline that rose with her as she sailed through the spring night, began to subside, and her pain demanded attention. “You’ve got to do something!” she said, and the man pushed himself up.
“I’ll get some covers from the house.” He looked at her as if to ask if this was the right thing to do. She said, “Call a dad-blamed ambulance!”
At that moment, Vinnie yelped from inside Arbor’s sweatshirt, and she wailed with relief. Not everything was lost.
In the hospital, she was told how lucky she was. “Twelve dead so far,” a nurse with a PayDay candy bar sticking up from her pants’ pocket said. She nodded, the nurse pushed a needle into the IV bag and Arbor drifted away.
The next day, the old man who’d found her, whose name was Manford, snuck Vinnie in for a visit. “Smart little cuss,” he said. “Me and the missus have been teaching him to shake.” He put Vinnie on the floor and demonstrated, and Arbor pretended to watch, even though she couldn’t shift enough to see.
For the ten days she was in the hospital, she hoped her Shane would visit. Would hear her story on the news and realize the horror of her transcending from this world to the Great Beyond. But he did not show up or call or send a smoke signal her way. Some days she imagined him dead in the storm. Those were her better days.
Two months later, she turned thirty years old in the rehab center, surrounded by geriatrics with new hips, new knees. Her flimsy ankle, her ruined foot, did the best they could, but she’d always have that limp, that halting reminder of the storm. They let her go on a Wednesday. Manford picked her up.
In his truck, Vinnie waited, freshly washed, a green bandana around his tiny neck. His tongue hung out, and his tail wagged, and he turned in circles on the worn truck seat. That was love.
Manford had taken pity on her and offered to oversee the repairs on her house while she was fighting to get better. With the insurance money, she’d let his wife, Melba, pick out furniture, new drapes, shiny red pots and pans that reminded Arbor of the cherries she used to eat straight from her grandma’s tree. Out back, there was a storm cellar, the earth around it newly dug, the ventilation pipe sticking up like a periscope on a submarine.
Her new bedroom looked like something that belonged to a woman who wore hats to church, who cut the crusts off her sandwiches. Arbor sat on the violet-covered bedspread and felt like a whole different person.
News teams circled her house that day. They wanted to hear from the woman who flew through the air with her dog and landed relatively safely in a stranger’s yard. They’d started calling her Dorothy as a joke, her dog Toto, raising their voices when they refused to answer the door.
Manford pulled himself up to his full height of about five and a half feet and scolded them all, his voice shrill and excited as he called them nincompoops and bottom feeders.
Shouldering through the crowd that day was Shane, wearing jeans that strained against his thighs, a Western shirt with cut off sleeves that showed his golden arms. He looked like an actor in a country song video—that swagger!—carrying flowers from the grocery, the blossoms sagging like an old woman’s bosom.
He called out to Arbor when Manford wouldn’t open the door. “I’ve come back for you!” he said, and she raised her hand to her mouth, then said, “Let him in.”
In the hours that followed, Manford left, Shane stayed, and Vinnie growled. When night fell, Shane kissed her broken foot, the crooked toes, the bum ankle. He said words like forever and never and always and please, and Arbor drank them in like water from a canteen on a dusty trip through the desert.
If he had meant it, they would have gone on in the same way other couples do. Ups and downs. Days of monotony. Nights of splendor. But he did not, and even her story of flight was not enough to interest him after a while.
You might imagine that he left her once again, but that would be wrong. She packed his bags without a tear. She wrote a letter telling him why the two of them didn’t make sense, why even his dimpled smile, his eyes the color of Texas bluebonnets, weren’t enough.
Vinnie barks and Arbor turns back now to the morning news show, dropping back into the present. Footage of Blake Shelton rolls, back when he was with Miranda. He’s as good looking a man as she’d ever seen. The thought makes her tired.
A storm will do things to a woman. She will start to see how quickly trouble starts. She will start to wonder over her life: the mistakes, the mad adventures. She will grow cautious if the doorbell rings after five in the afternoon. She will grow wary of beautiful men.
Tonight, Arbor has a date with Manford’s nephew, a guy with a pouch of a belly and a smattering of freckles across his face. They’ve been talking on the phone for a month now, getting to know each other, laughing sometimes until two in the morning. She can hear Manford in this guy’s voice, in the phrases he uses. When they talk about the tornado, he says, “Lord have mercy!”
Before the storm, he wouldn’t have been good-looking enough for Arbor. But now she sees his delicate construction. She looks in the mirror and sees the fragile elements of her own body. She wonders at the lift of resurrection, of beauty deep and shallow. The night she took flight, it cost her plenty—she’s not naïve. But it gave her eyes that see past broken houses, upturned trees, scattered dishes everywhere. Beyond the brokenness, she found a future with simpler lines, better construction. Arbor takes her cane and taps it on the floor three times. The tapping makes her feel as if she’s casting a spell. It makes her feel like anything’s possible.