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Faith Colburn

Storm Watch

          Stiff cabbage leaves sweep gently in a rising wind outside the kitchen window. Standing at the butcher block chopping onions with a sharp chef's knife, I pause frequently to listen.  Is that a car engine? 
            No.  Only a fan upstairs.  
            Jesse plays quietly on the floor, but he looks up and waits whenever I pause. Now and then, when the wait gets especially long, he whimpers. 
            I gather the onions into a neat pile and set them aside.  Then I start on the celery, raising my head again to listen. A neighbor passing on the road.  I glance at neat rows of beans and peas, compact beds of carrots and beets, clean, weed-free walkways in my garden outside the kitchen window. I see a weed I missed.
            My son, Dean, comes in from the barn. "Mom, there's a storm watch tonight," he says, grabbing an apple from the refrigerator on the way through.
            "Did you button everything up?"
            "Everything I could."
            "Thanks, son."  Out of hearing already, he thumps upstairs to his bedroom. 
            I put the remaining vegetables back into the left crisper drawer and glance out the window. Onions and celery sizzle in hot butter, while I listen, glancing up again, for a sound.  A car? 
            The wind moaning under the eaves.
            Hot afternoons like this, muted light on the cedars, and yellowish green in the air, mean clouds piling up in the southwest.  A gust rips the door away from Darrel's son, Jake. 
           "The cows are out of feed, Betsy.  I wonder where dad wants them.  I don't think there's any grass left."  He nudges the refrigerator door with his foot, crunches an apple and starts upstairs before I can answer. 
            I notice every change in sound.  My head aches and my breath comes in shallow gulps.  I try to swallow a painful lump in my throat. Tense now, I force myself to keep stirring calmly.  That’s the car.  I hear the door slam.  I turn the stove off and move to the cutting board.  Jesse whines, and I peer warily out the window.
            My husband walks toward the house, each step an effort, as though he’s stomping out a grass fire.   Stiff, each step high, a separate event.  Each step comes down with killing force.  The grass fire is over.  It turned Grandpa's shop into a wall of flame last summer.  Flames reached the shed and five minutes later it sighed deeply and collapsed.  He stamps past the heat-twisted rubble of old parts and tools and disappears around the corner of the house to check on the kids.  I hope he won't find anything to pick about.
            A few minutes later I’m chopping fresh sage when the porch door slams and he enters the kitchen.  "There's an anvil cloud coming up in the southwest," he says.  "You know what that means." 
            I glance at his eyes as he looks around the kitchen.  The table's not set.  He'll start on that.
            "It's six o'clock.  Why isn't dinner on the table?" he demands.
            My face tightens.  The first time in two weeks he's been home by six.  What could possibly induce me to take this? 
            He takes a giant step to the stove, then stands leaning there, blocking me from the vegetables I left in the pan while I chopped the sage, and made bread crumbs. He pulls his voice from somewhere deep, with an effort, like he’s strangling, every syllable a separate burst of sound, like a punch.
            "What's wrong with this kitchen?" he demands.  "It stinks.  It's those leaves you're cutting up.  What is that, skunkweed?"
            We ate this stove-top stuffing just two weeks ago.  He loved it, gobbled up several servings.  I remain silent, continuing to prepare bread crumbs.
            He slams the counter.  Finishing with the bread crumbs and piling them neatly next to a little mound of sage leaves, I try not to jump.  
            Sinking into a straight-backed chair, I prepare to wait him out, as I do so often.  Yelling back doesn't do any good – just makes it worse – and scares Jesse even more.
            When he’d started this yelling, I couldn't contain myself.  I’d slammed doors and broken windows and yelled back, screaming answers that made as much sense as his accusations.  Embarrassed about breaking things, though, I'd felt like a shrew. 
            Pulling Jesse onto my lap, I say nothing.  I wish I had the energy to leave or, better, that he'd just disappear.  Then, I wouldn't have to decide, wouldn't have to get him out of Grandma's house, wouldn't have to worry about keeping Jake safe.  I’m too worn out to think about it.
            I remember shopping for groceries in the afternoon, standing in the aisle overcome with anxiety about what brand of pork and beans to buy.  Van Camp's cost the same as Campbell's and I couldn't decide,   
     My knife jumps as he slams the counter with his open palm.  I hug Jesse, his compact little body rigid.  Probably Jesse knows, like me, that there's no point fighting back.  My control only makes him madder.  I don't choose to be rigid.  He forces that on me and then hates me for it, calls me a castrating female.
            He yanks me back with a tirade about how I control and demean him.
            "Darrel," I say without raising my voice, "you admired my strength and independence.  You married me because of it.  You know I don't try to run you."
            He says nothing.  Just looks at me.  Then, real slow, he says, "Yes, but I didn't know what it would be like to live with it."
            "It?  Live with what?"
            "You.  I'm never good enough."
            "I never said that."
            Quiet a moment, he shifts gears and begins on something else.  But I hang there on that nail.  He's denied me, everything I've cultivated, sometimes rather painfully.  He's turned away from what he just admitted he once loved.  Could my strength and independence really cause his self doubt, cause him to drink as a defense?  I dismiss that— at least consciously.
            Just like dozens of other nights – till this minute – suddenly this night becomes different.  This cancer has metastasized.  Can I save anything out of this?   
            While he screams, I wonder when I’ll get a turn to rant and rave.  In an asylum, perhaps.  Suppressing my rage, I've gunnysacked everything else I might feel, like affection for the kids, my lust for him, love, everything.  
            He shouts that I don't respond to him anymore.  Thought of lovemaking makes me shudder.  Instead of facing my lost desire, I slam it into a black hole, somewhere in my head or in my heart, that vacuums up more of my energy every day.
            His eyes turn red.  I hadn't realized at first that a person's eyes could really turn red.  The first time, I'd stared at him, fascinated.  But that had made him more furious. 
            He slams the counter a couple more times.  Just checking to make sure I’m awake, I suppose.  I haven't the faintest idea what he just said. 
            I tried walking out once, back when he started yelling and screaming, but he wrestled the car keys away and threw them into the grass.  Dean found them a week later.  By then, I'd cooled off.
            I glance at the door and wonder if I can push him out and slam it on him.  But we live in Grandma’s house and there are no locks here.  Never needed them.
            His yelling intrudes again.  He yells his litany about how my sister and I should kick our no-good husbands out and run the farm.  He says this as though the idea were preposterous.  I think of my great-great-great-grandmother who raised ten kids alone and made a little plot of virgin prairie into a farm.  I don't find the idea so crazy.
            "You just move me out and go to it.  You'll probably do better," he taunts me.
            I think about Jake living alone with his father.  Darrel's good at bullying children.   I know I provide some control just as an observer.
            He starts on my sister.  He doesn't approve of anyone.  My mother's a castrating bitch.  Like me, I guess.  Dad's stupid and overbearing.  My oldest friend's an Amazon.  He hates me to talk to anyone.  I haven't, really, for years.  Talking takes time.  I never have enough.  Where’s it all go?  I only work twenty hours a week.            
            I wonder with a start if anyone has let the dog out.  Darrel always has a puppy around whether he has time for it or not.  You raise puppies in the house, he thinks.  You must never discipline a dog for messing on the floor, he thinks.  That breaks their spirit.  No one but me ever remembers to put them out, though.  The carpets smell of dog urine.  I can't keep track of the dogs to let them out in time.
            I remember a day with him, years ago, running his dog.  His gentle hands on the setter, pulling out cockleburs, drew me to him in the first place.  Now he doubles them into fists.
            He draws me back with another string of punch-words.  "I can't re-mem-ber when we have held each oth-er!" he yells, one syllable at a time.
            At four o'clock in the morning when you wanted sex, I think. 
            He comes home from work and passes out, or pushes by me to go to the phone and tries to make deals.  That's as close as we come to touching.  Then he wakes me in the middle of the night wanting sex.  
            I can remember myself, though, when I enjoyed being a woman, a sexy new dress, a nice scent, dinner at a really great Chinese place I knew.  I almost smile. That would set him off.  
            Sometimes I wish I could respond as I once did.  I wish I could get aroused and finish quickly and easily.  I wish it didn't take so much energy to make love, such complete focus to finish.    
            The wind picks up, tearing through the screens.  I can almost see a film of dust settling on the counter.  A door slams.  He must have left one open when he checked the barn.  The wind will shatter it.
            "What's hap-pen-ing to us?" he demands.
            Always demanding.  He must know what’s happening.  I ask him, occasionally, to do something with me, but he always has something "important" to do. 
            Desperate for quiet, I focus on the sharp chef's knife on the cutting board.  He rages on, though, oblivious.   He doesn't need me as a participant.  Only as an audience.  
            Actually, he couldn't complete his agenda if I said anything.  He always covers certain things, certain wrongs.  After about the third time I had it all memorized.  Sometimes I even feel bad for him, that he can't remember saying it all a couple of million times before.  It occurs to me that I have a right to resent the way he takes up my precious time.  My life is valuable and he’s squandering it. I've almost lost the sense that my time is precious.
            Dill in the zucchini.  That would be good.  Jesse needs his DPT booster.  I must call for an appointment.                           
            I glimpse the clock on the stove behind him.  Seven o'clock and I’m starved.  Jesse’s  hungry.  He’s been at this for an hour.  The rest of the kids must be hungry.  I wish he'd just get this over, so life could go on.
            He staggers a little, even leaning against the stove.  Reminds me of some idle chatter I've overheard at the bar where he stops after work.  He's actually taken me there a couple of times.  A night out.  A pint every night, they say.  Every night.  He must finished them off and pitch them out the window on the way home. 
            If I just give him a shove.  He probably couldn't resist.  If he doesn't fall down in the bathroom I'll just shove him into the bed.  He'll probably pass out.  Probably can't even crawl out.  If he falls in the bathroom, he can just sleep there. 
            I gather my muscles, steady my nerves.  I'll only get to make my move once.  I focus on the moves I'll make. "Am I going crazy?" I wonder.  Jesse stirs on my lap.
            I really fear these rages.  Mine, too.  I suppose that's why I can't admit how mad I am.  I know my own capacity for violence.  I almost choked my sister to death once when we were kids.  If I let go, I might never stop.  Someone could die.  I knew that, if I lose control, too, we'll fight to the death – literally. 
            What happened to the Phillips screwdriver?  I could tighten the knob on that cupboard door if I could find the screwdriver.  He carries off all the tools, even the ones I hide for household repairs. The missing tools get me started again, and he pounds on the counter at the same time.  I watch the knife turn slowly as it bounces.
            He’s saving this broken-down old wreck of a farm again.  Putting this spread on a paying basis.  No time to pamper spoiled kids.  Acid bubbles into my throat.  I've married my kids into this – hiding in their bedrooms from screamed obscenities, name calling, wild accusations.  They didn't ask to live with this maniac.  
            Once I actually thought Darrel would make a good stepparent, a role model for my boy who'd had only me to imitate.  Only me.  Like I was nothing.  Women can teach boys to be men – maybe even kinder, gentler men.  But I took myself away and gave Dean and Dawn chaos in return. 
            I swallow some foam in my throat while he yells and I think of my part-time job, a menial scrubbing up after the old folks at the nursing home.  My BA means nothing here.  After ten years working in Omaha, no one in Webster County has even seen my work.  No one knows I paint. 
            When we came back to the farm, I actually thought I'd have time for my work, time to paint my own subjects.  He wanted to farm.  I thought I'd help him, of course, but he assured me he'd have my old home place up to peak efficiency in a year or two.  He might have, too, if he hadn't been so busy talking.  Over coffee, he talks for hours, days, to feed salesmen and seed salesmen and neighbors, everyone who comes near.  While I cleaned shit out of the hog barn four or five hours a day, he disappeared.  I’d find him, hours later, in the house talking to a neighbor . . . At least, since the bankruptcy, I don't smell like hog shit anymore.
            He got an off-farm job – after the bankruptcy.  The kids run the place after school and during the summer, while he jabbers on the phone.
            Is the load of clothes in the dryer done?  The kids need clean clothes.  Dawn needs a check for her photography class.  The curtains above the sink need to be washed.     
            Through the curtains I see dark, old cedars.  Grandpa planted them by hand and watered them a bucket at a time.  They break the wind, except where the fire opened a gash through them.
            The screen on Dawn's window has popped out of its frame.  Can I find a screwdriver to replace it?  I hear cows bellowing and wonder if they have water.             
            He wears himself out and stalks off to bed, rustling around in the bedroom.  Probably dropping his jeans on the floor where I can trip on them in the dark.  I want to grab them and fling them across his sleeping face.
            I sit still for a moment.  I used to practically read people's minds.  It unnerved people sometimes what I knew about them.  If my judgment is this bad, how can I have done that?
            Leaping to my feet, I hustle dinner onto the table, neatly setting spoon and knife on the right, fork on the left, glasses at the tips of the knives. 
            The kids come silently, when I call.  They eat quietly and quickly without looking at me or each other, then excuse themselves and disappear. 
            Jess plays on the floor, while I run out to fasten the banging barn door, not sure why I bother.  The entire corner of the barn has been kicked out.  He says you have to let the animal know who's in charge.  He has nothing but contempt for "bleeding hearts" who spoil their stock.  A spoiled animal is dangerous, he says.  I wonder how I'll ever make amends for all the destruction.
            Once Jesse's in bed, I prowl the house, thinking about his jeans on the floor, the months in the hog barn. 
            Cumulonimbus clouds build in the southwest.  Boiling upward, they engulf even the massive shoulders of the prairie, shoulders that extend from mountain range to mountain range.  Blue and purple and green, the clouds build and tower, blotting out thousands of stars. 
            I watch the stars on clear nights, walking in moonlit pastures.  One especially bright night, I watched a family of skunks that picnicked at my feet as I sat in the grass; Mama crunching grasshoppers and Junebugs while the kids rolled and tussled.  I'd laid my gunnysack on the prairie that night, a gift for the skunks and the grasshoppers, and trudged back to the house to wait— for him to wise up, to decide to live instead of die.  I still thought he could make that decision.  I just couldn't give up on another human being.
            Pressed against the window frame, I watch stars disappear, a hundred at a time, before fast-moving clouds.  I revel in the approaching storm.  I want to paint it, the sweep of wind and rain coming on.   Above the howl of the wind and the rumble of thunder, though, Darrel's snoring confounds me.  My whole body sags.  I feel my belly droop and my back fall into a long S curve.
            I glance in the bedroom door, straight across from the window.  Spreadeagled, cattycornered across the bed he thrashes about in his sleep, fighting demons.  I'm probably  one of them.  I want to pound him with my fists or choke him until he’s still.  Even in sleep he tears up my peace.  
            Lightning flashes very near, outlining trees doubled over by wind.  Thunder cracks, shaking floors.  Something drops in an upstairs bedroom.  In another flash, I see my face, unreal in the mirror over the dresser.  What’s this making of me?  Nobody lives without stress, but I absorb his, too.  Would anyone know me if my anxieties suddenly dissolved?  I stand, held by the hollows of my eyes, the stark shadows on my face.
            I turn back into the storm.  Most folks think of thunderstorms as death and destruction, but the colors and movement, the stark contrasts, the energy, make me breathless.  As I watch fermenting violet and indigo and mauve, I pick up the shreds of my intelligence. 
            A faint odor of dog assails the sweet freshness of rain that dampens the screen on the lee side of the house.  I slump into a chair like I've been punched. 
            But lightning seers an old cedar in the yard.  Through the six foot window by my chair, I see electricity arc from sky to ground.  I hear it sizzle.   The house shakes.  Windows rattle in their frames.   The tempest yanks me back as its fury passes on, the wind howling on its heels.
            When the wind stills, I step outside to watch seething clouds in the dark.  Above the house they swarm and churn.  I wish myself part of them, lifted out over the prairie, a swirling of atoms.  What does it look like in there?  I try to imagine the rich color.  I could spend a lifetime trying to duplicate it on my palette.
            A spiral sorts itself out.  A little, black tongue drops and recedes, moving to the northeast and dropping again.  Tornado.  Someone not far away has lost something tonight.