I started this piece a few years ago, but left it unfinished. I had a good idea of how I wanted it to begin and end, it was just that pesky middle part that I could never sort out. I still feel like this is a work in progress, but now it has a beginning, a middle, and an end, so I thought I would share it. Feel free to leave any constructive criticisms you have in the comments section.
Jesse could see the squall line approaching. It was about two miles away; the dark thunderheads looming over Spencer’s Ridge. He could see thin tendrils reaching down from the clouds, threatening to churn themselves into twisters. Overhead the sky was still clear and blue, but the wind was gusting. Miniature cyclones of dust twisted across the farm, and Jesse had to shield his eyes. The last of the animals were now sheltered in the barn, but Jesse lingered before returning to the farmhouse. He stood mesmerized by the maelstrom in the distance, where blue sky gave way to blackness.
He stared out at Spencer’s Ridge. It was ironic that the ridge still bore the family name, even though his family hadn’t owned that land in his lifetime. Some seventy years ago, the Spencer’s had owned practically all he could see from where he now stood. Now all that was left were the few acres that the banks and the gas company hadn’t been able to pry away from Jesse’s father.
“Jesse! Jesse, hurry!”
Jesse turned and looked to where Maggie stood, her figure a dark silhouette in the screen door, obscuring the small kitchen beyond. Jesse looked at her and imagined her as the young girl she had been fifteen years ago, before they were married.
“Jesse, please hurry!”
Jesse looked towards the approaching storm one last time before making his way back to the house. “I’m coming,” he shouted.
Inside, a small weather radio sat on the counter near the door, broadcasting weather bulletins with monotone indifference. Two flashlights, an old Coleman lantern, a first aid kit, and a jug of water were arrayed on the kitchen table. Jesse chuckled a little when he saw these last two items.
“Hush you,” Maggie said. “You know how I hate these storms.”
“Never hurts to be prepared, I suppose,” Jesse said, though he wondered what use a first aid kit would be in a tornado. “Bet you wish you were already down your mother’s place,” Jesse said.
“Not now, Jesse. Let’s not do that now.”
“Just sayin, sounds like the storm’ll miss them completely.”
Maggie studied him for a moment. “Take these down to the cellar; I’m gonna go fetch some blankets.”
Jesse gathered the supplies and stepped back outside. The storm was closer now, and fast approaching. Jesse could hear the wind-chimes out front clashing angrily, and the tiny windmill by Maggie’s flower garden looked as if it were about to take flight. This really could be a bad one, he thought as he made his way to the cellar.
The left door to the storm cellar was newer than the right, Jesse knew, although both were now weathered almost identically. He could remember helping his father replace it when a storm had torn it from its hinges years ago. He remembered his father had smashed his thumb with the hammer. That was the first time he had heard anyone say “fuck,” and he had been startled by the power and emotion of the exclamation. A week later, Jesse used the new word after accidentally smashing a plate on the floor. Jesse’s mother looked at him as if she had been struck dumb. Without a word she hauled him into the bathroom and shoved a bar of soap into his mouth. Later that night, Jesse remembered his parents fighting, and knew it had all started because of that word.
Setting down the supplies, Jesse pulled on the cellar door. It resisted at first, and then threatened to throw him to the ground as the wind grabbed it. Jesse grabbed his load and descended the stairs, pulling the chain to turn on the light as he went. He could hear Maggie on the stairs behind him.
“Hurry, Jesse,” Maggie said over the sound of the wind and the weather radio she now carried, along with the blankets.
Outside, the sky was now dark and fierce. Thunder boomed in the distance and cracks of lightning split the sky on the horizon. Rain began to fall as Jesse struggled with the cellar door, soaking him in seconds. With a final heave Jesse closed the door with a crash, and barred it behind him.
“This place is a mess,” Maggie said. And then, looking at Jesse: “You’re soaked.”
“I’ll dry,” he said.
Jesse looked around the cellar. It was untidy, sure, but hardly what he would call a mess. Several tools hung from nails and pegs along one wall, while the opposite wall held shelves lined with jars and containers. A workbench dominated the back wall, and an old sofa sat in one corner. Many of the items here had once been his father’s, a few his grandfather’s.
“It smells musty down here.”
“I like the smell,” Jesse said.
Maggie was arranging the blankets she had brought on the old sofa. She had placed the weather radio on the workbench.
“You can turn that off now, you know, the storm’s already here,” said Jesse.
“It makes me feel safe.”
“Sure bet you wish you were down your mother’s,” Jesse said again.
“Do we have to do this again? I wish you’d quit sayin that.”
“What else we s’pose ta do,” Jesse asked, less casually than he would have liked. “Besides, we may not get another chance,” Jesse said, looking at the ceiling as a peel of thunder shook the joists.
“God damn it, don’t say that shit.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jesse.
He looked at her in the harsh light of the hanging bulb. He could still see the young girl he had married, but he could also see the tell-tale crow’s feet and laugh lines that had begun to crease her soft features. Jesse took a step forward, and then hesitated.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, giving the words all the weight he could muster, “for everything.”
“Nuthin your fault,” Maggie said, busying herself with the blankets.
“Ain’t it, though?” Jesse asked.
Jesse turned and began fiddling with an old carburetor that was lying on his workbench. The radio droned out another severe weather advisory.
“I could go down to the community college, take some courses,” Jesse said.
“In what?” Maggie asked. “What are you gonna do?”
“I reckon whatever it is that folks do in the cities.”
“Don’t even start, Jesse. You know it’s too late for that.”
Outside the wind howled, and rain battered against the cellar window. Lightning flashed.
Jesse tossed the carburetor aside. “Well what the fuck do you want me to do,” he yelled, surprised by the sudden onrush of anger. Maggie began to cry.
“I don’t want you to do nuthin, Jesse. Not anymore.”
“Well what in the hell did you want me to do then?” Jesse yelled, wishing he weren’t yelling but unable to stop.
“Anything. Something. I don’t know. But we use to talk about doing things. Leavin’ this place, headin’ west, openin’ a diner; we use to talk about doin’ lots of things. Now we barely talk at all.”
“You know I couldn’t leave, not after dad got sick.”
“Maybe not right then, but he’s been dead nearly fifteen years and you still haven’t left.”
“So I’m just supposed to leave? Just let the banks have the farm?” Jesse paced the floor with nervous energy. He probably would have gone out to the barn, if he weren’t trapped by the storm.
“Yes, damn it! You shoulda sold this place years ago, when it was still worth somethin. This farm was your father’s passion, not yours. It’s just been an excuse for you all these years, a responsibility you gave yourself to hide behind.”
“I guess I just go comfortable. Thought you would too.”
“I never forgot about our plans, our dreams.”
“We were young, that was just talk.”
“Not to me!” Maggie shouted. Lightening flashed outside, and thunder shook the joists again. “Not to me,” Maggie said again, softly.
Jesse sighed. He gathered up the pieces of the carburetor he had scattered earlier, still unsure what to do with himself. The cellar felt like it was closing in around him.
“I love you,” Jesse said.
“Do ya? More’n you love that carburetor you’re fiddlin with?”
Jesse looked down at the carburetor, and at his grimy fingernails. He didn’t know what to say. He looked at Maggie. “I do love you,” he said weakly.
Lightning split the sky again, and the light bulb flickered overhead. Maggie drew closer as the storm raged above them. “We been through this, an you know I can’t stay here no more,” she said.
“We could go on vacation, back to the grand canyon if you wanted,” Jesse said. The words were frail and hollow sounding.
“That’s just more dirt and rocks,” Maggie said. “I’m not gonna stay here and watch this place kill you. I just-”
Thunder shook the house, and Maggie shrieked. The electricity went out. Jesse grabbed a flashlight and handed it to Maggie, who was now clutching his arm. He then set to work getting the old lantern to light.
“Jesse, I’m scared.”
“Lantern will be on in just a second…”
Maggie pushed in close to Jesse, holding onto his shoulder while shining light onto the lantern. Jesse gave the reservoir a few pumps and then lit the mantels; soft light flooded the cellar. Jesse turned and pulled Maggie close, and she nestled her head into his shoulder.
“I do love you,” Maggie said.
“I know,” said Jesse.
Lightning flashed. Rain battered the window.
“I’m still leaving tomorrow,” Maggie said.
“I know,” said Jesse.
As the storm raged outside, Jesse and Maggie held each other in silence. There was nothing left to say. They held each other, and they waited for the storm to pass.