Downburst

by Mary Brunini McArdle


Allison Corbett stood at the Wal-mart checkout counter. She pushed her damp blonde hair behind her ears and grabbed her daughter’s hand. “No, Mindy. No Peppermint Patties.”

“They’ll melt in the car anyway,” Allison remarked to the cashier. “Too hot.”

“You got that right,” the woman behind the register replied. “Is this weather ever going to break?”

Allison shrugged. Even though her husband Mike worked with the Weather Service, it didn’t do any good. None of the computer models were predicting when this heat wave would end.

She finished with her debit card, ready to roll Mindy and the contents of the cart away. Allison didn’t notice the two seedy characters in jeans and undershirts behind her in the line. If she had, she would have realized they frequented the same Wal-mart in the summer.

“Mommy, look! Sticky candy!”

“Where, Mindy?”

“Behind you, those mens are buying lots of it. Maybe those don’t melt, Mommy.”

Allison glanced over her shoulder, seeing that the men behind were checking out. Mindy was right -- they had packages full of gumdrops, the big ones -- on top of lunch meat and cans of soup.

“Somebody must like gumdrops,” Allison said.

“Can I have some too?”

“Not now, Mindy. You can have gumdrops another time. Your hands would get all messy and ruin your clothes.”

Allison made a cold supper that night. The heat curbed her ambition for using the stove.

“Are you sure you want to take Mindy to the fireworks show tomorrow night?” Mike asked. “I have to work and there’s always so much traffic. People come from every small town in north Alabama and southern Tennessee.”

“Mindy’s three years old now. I think she’ll enjoy the fireworks.”

“Leave early then. You’ll want to get a good place.”

“We will. Mindy and I’ll climb the big hill. We’ll wear our tennis shoes so we can, won’t we, Mindy girl?”

“I can climb good, Mommy.”

* * *

Just about everybody had air conditioning, but none seemed to work very well. The heat penetrated everything, even at night. Mindy slept in her little-girl panties; Allison added a sleeveless T-shirt to her own cotton briefs.

* * *

Mike and Allison would have been surprised that three blocks away there was a single house with an air-conditioned garage, inhabited by the same two men who had been at the Wal-mart.

“Load’s pretty stable, Danny Price,” Ira commented, “but a closed-up garage can get awful hot. I worry about the containers. Although with the air we can work out here instead of in the house. I guess the vent doesn’t affect the cooling that much.”

Danny Price wouldn’t think of doing anything except agreeing with whatever Ira said. He knew more about chemicals and such things than most people.

Ira and Danny Price had worked fireworks displays in Tennessee for three years. Both men were cordially treated, despite their reticence. Neither talked much. Ira was balding with a mustache and fringes of hair around his ears. Danny Price was chunky and freckled and usually had on a red baseball cap. They had a white Ford Aerostar which Danny Price lovingly kept in first-rate running condition. He didn’t bother to keep it clean, however; it was always mud-streaked.

The garage also housed a workbench and an assortment of tools. Ira and Danny Price were busy men. Especially now, because it was the third of July and they had to be ready for the Fireworks Show at the Reservoir. Only it wasn’t just fireworks Ira and Danny Price were preparing. “Velma appointed us to be the firers as usual, Danny Price. The bitch. She knows neither of us drink or smoke and we’ve got the experience. But listen, Danny Price–no gumdrops on the job.”

“Aw, Ira–”

“You can’t do this kind of work with sticky hands, Danny Price. Bring some hard candy. It’s gonna be real hot, even at night.”

“All right. Have to suck on something,’ you know?”

“I know, Danny Price.”

“Say, Ira–“

“What, Danny Price?”

“Never heard you call Velma a bitch before. Didn’t you two have something goin’ there for a while?”

“She’s getting fatter and fatter and not giving me the time of day. She should be damn grateful for my attention. She’s gonna be real sorry on the fourth.”

“I thought we were givin’ Tennessee a lesson, Ira.”

“Velma’ll get one too.” And so could we, Ira thought, but it’ll be worth it. Danny Price thinks we can get out of the way, but I’m not so sure. I hope the air stays real still, then there’ll be no wind to blow the stuff back at us. Velma’s too overweight to move fast.

The Grand Reservoir Park, situated in southern Tennessee had been the site of fireworks displays every fourth for the last seventeen years. Velma had all the necessary permits; the only corners she cut were regarding the exits. Two were required, and there were two, but few people used the secondary road because of the shaky old bridge that threatened to wash out in a heavy downpour. It had been closed once already that summer. Most of the seven or eight hundred spectators would use the main road, worsening the traffic problem.

* * *

“We shouldn’t have changed so soon,” Allison said. “It’s only five-thirty.”

“Take your cell phone,” Mike said. “In case I need to call you from work. Mindy, give Daddy a kiss. He’s got to drive into Alabama to the airport.”

“Can we go now too, Mommy?”

“It’s early, baby. I’ll put in a video for you.”

* * *

While it was still daylight Ira and Danny Price, along with the other workers were checking the site. An area for spectators was roped off with red, white, and blue streamers. Paths led to the parking lot connecting with the exits.

Even in the late afternoon, the vent on the white Aerostar wasn’t noticeable and a tarp covered the cargo area, hiding the thirty cylinders hooked into an upright position. They were disguised to look like the rockets surrounding them.

The unloading began; Danny Price opened the back of the van while Ira blocked sight of the contents with his body. Ira lifted the tarp and unhooked the center cylinders, laying them down alongside the rockets.

Danny Price had the wooden frames set up; Ira loaded the rockets. “We’ll check the fireworks one more time before dark,” Ira called out, as the rest of the workers finished unloading and left the firing site.

Random stars sparkled as twilight fell. The air felt heavy with heat and unreleased moisture. The first cars arrived at the parking lot reserved for the spectators.

The crowd was assembling when Allison and Mindy reached the bottom of the big hill. Allison reached in her purse to turn on her cell phone when Mindy suddenly let out a whoop of delight. “Look, Mommy, Miss Kathy and Camille are here!” Allison waved to Kathy, forgetting about the phone. “Do you want to sit with Camille, Mindy?”

“Uh, huh.”

“Then let’s go.”

* * *

A little earlier Mike had greeted his coworkers.

“Mike, want some coffee?”

“Too hot, Al. Anything going on?”

“Nah.”

“I wouldn’t say that.” Their Afro-American meteorologist Nathan turned from his computer screen.

“Nathan, you’re an alarmist,” Al said.

“Mike, come look at this.” Nathan ignored Al’s remark. “It’s coming from east Texas, but I’m seeing circular movement.”

“We’ll watch it,” Mike said, as Al shrugged.

* * *

Danny Price popped a butterscotch in his mouth. Things could get exciting within the next hour. He wished he had a gumdrop.

Dark fell; Ira and Danny Price took their places as the firers. Pretending to carry out a last check, the pair lightly tilted a large percentage of their rockets. There were stewards mingled throughout the crowd in case of emergencies, but Ira noted relatively few police cars. Maybe a half dozen.

* * *

“There’s gonna be one hell of a storm when this weather breaks,” Al said.

“Sooner than you think.” This from Nathan, who despite the weather always wore a white shirt and a tie to work. He had, however, loosened the tie and rolled up his shirtsleeves.

“What are you talking about, Nathan?”

“That stuff in east Texas I showed you, Mike–it’s in Louisiana now and I’m seeing a couple of hook echoes.”

“Where?”

Nathan pointed.

“Maybe so, maybe not. What does the Severe Storms Forecast Center say?”

“Same as before–thirty per cent chance of evening thundershowers.”

“Evening’s half over,” Al chuckled. “And there’s usually a slight chance of thundershowers in weather this hot.”

“Yeah, but this stuff is moving fast and now it looks like there’s a squall line forming in Mississippi.”

“They’re reporting a ten-degree temperature drop in Rolling Fork and Vicksburg,” Mike said.

“There we go–tornado watch!” Nathan affirmed.

“For -- “

“Western and north central Mississippi.”

Mike bit his lip. “I’m not sure I want Allison and Mindy at that Fireworks Show. I’m gonna call Allison.”

“Damn,” he said, putting down the phone. “She’s not picking up.”

“They’ll be home before we get weather,” Al said.

Mike wasn’t reassured.

* * *

“I’m supposed to get off at nine,” Caleb remarked to his partner in the patrol car.

“Well, we’re here now–nothin’ to do but go with it,” replied Bill.

“The other cars can handle whatever. At nine I’m leaving.”

Bill grunted and scratched his ear. “Got any chewing gum?”

* * *

“Oh, no!”

“What’s the matter, Allison?”

“I forgot to turn on my cell, Kathy. Mike’ll kill me.”

“Turn it on now.”

“Done. Mindy, stop pulling on your pony tail.”

“When are the fireworks gonna start, Mommy? I’m tired of waiting.”

“So am I,” Allison said to Kathy. “I’m perspiring so much my shirt is wet.”

“Yeah. We’re going to have to bathe these girls again, however late it is.”

* * *

“Mike.”

“What, Nathan?”

“Somebody’s sleepin’ on the job at NOAA. Because it’s July, not tornado season. Look, cells developing in northeast Mississippi, moving at an angle south of Tupelo–at 70 miles per hour!”

“What does Memphis say?”

“Severe thunderstorm watch for southern Tennessee and northwest Alabama.”

“What about Huntsville?”

“Late. Scared to hype it up?”

“Christ, we’re all scared of that. Only Huntsville usually does anyway. They should have gone with the tornado watch.” Mike picked up the phone. “It’s ringing,” he said. “Allison? Hi.”

“Oh, Mike, I just remembered to turn on the phone. Have you been trying to get me?”

“Yeah. Allison, there’s bad weather coming. I want you and Mindy to go home.”

“Mike wants us to go home,” Allison mouthed to Kathy. “Bad weather.”

“Do you think you can get out of the parking lot? It’s so crowded.”

“Oh, gosh. Listen, Mike, we’ll try. The parking lot’s really crowded.”

“Call me from the car.”

“Maybe I ought to leave too,” Kathy said. “But I think I’ll wait a little longer.”

* * *

“Mike, the TV stations in Memphis are telling people to stay home. Tornado warnings for Tupelo, Memphis, and Water Valley.”

“See if you can get me the local police.”

“Okay. Here.” Nathan handed Mike the phone.

“This is Mike Corbett, NOAA at the airport. Can your people get word out to cancel that Fireworks Display at Grand Reservoir Park? Yes, I do think it’s necessary. I don’t hype. Okay. Thanks.”

Mike dialed Allison’s number again. “Where are you, honey?”

“Trying to get down this damn hill.”

“Call me when you leave.”

“Okay. Mike?”

“What?”

“They’re making an announcement on the loudspeaker system. Canceling the show.” “Allison, you’re breaking up. Get on home.”

* * *

Velma puffed out on the field as soon as the announcement was made. Spectators were folding up portable seats, grumbling at the unexpected development.

“Guys, bad weather on the way. Everybody load up as soon as possible. Be ready to follow the public out.”

“Jesus, shit,” Ira muttered.

“Ira? What do we do now?” Danny Price was sweating profusely.

“We load. Quietly and carefully. Hand me the VX cylinders first.”

* * *

Spectators scrambled down the hill, Allison and Mindy among them. Lightning flared in the west; the hair on the back of Allison’s neck stood up. The crowd became uneasy like a huge animal. People quickened their pace.

Allison unlocked her car. “Mindy, get in your seat so I can buckle you in.”

“But, Mommy, what about the fireworks?”

“Darling, there’s going to be a storm. You can’t watch fireworks in the rain.”

“Yes, I could.”

Allison started her engine. I’m going the back way, she thought. This traffic isn’t moving. I just hope that bridge is in good condition.

* * *

“Caleb, what are you doing?”

“I’m taking the secondary road. I’m supposed to get off duty, Bill.”

“Well, hell. Don’t care if you get me in trouble too?”

“The other patrol cars can handle the traffic.”

* * *

“Get in the van, Danny Price.”

“Ira! We have to get outta here!”

“I know that,” Ira growled, turning the key in the ignition.

“Them cars are hardly moving, and we’re at the tail end.”

“Danny Price, do you take me for a fool? We’re going the back way.”

* * *

Six cars braved the secondary road that night. Rain began falling in torrents and wind rocked the vehicles as they approached the bridge. It was difficult to see, but the muddy white van led the way, followed by Allison’s blue Altima, the lone police car, and three others.

Ira could barely make out where the bridge began. No way to assess its condition. He decided to speed up. Allison, on the other hand, slowed down. The white van made it halfway across before its right front wheel crashed through the wooden bridge. The creek below was rising rapidly; the van slanted crazily.

Allison brought her Altima to a dead stop. Despite the poor visibility and the sounds of the storm, Caleb and Bill heard the crash of the van’s wheel and the splintering of the bridge, which continued to creak and groan. So Caleb did what any sensible cop would do; he turned on his flashing lights.

“Ira! Cops! Aw, we’re dead!”

“Keep your voice down, Danny Price. Just stay cool. We’ll ask the cops to call us a tow truck.”

Danny Price was breathing in short gasps. Ira was always right, wasn’t he? Wasn’t he? They were going to ask the nice cops to call a tow truck and wait in the middle of a tornado and hope nobody would see what was in the van?

Danny Price, sans gumdrops, panicked. He jumped out, slid down the embankment, and took off for the woods.

Oh, shit, Ira thought. Now he’s done it. They’ll spot him easy with that red cap.

Ira’s mind raced. I’ve got to get around the van–there’s room to the right and the bridge looks solid there. I need that little car behind me--pull the driver from the front seat, back up and ram the cops, then cut around, fast.

Ira ran toward the road and yanked open Allison’s door, not seeing the frightened child in the back. He shoved Allison roughly onto the pavement, trying at the same time to kick her out of the way.

Aware only that Mindy was in danger, Allison flailed at him and screamed. Caleb called for backup; Bill shot out the rear tires of the Altima.

“Put your hands on the roof of the car,” Caleb shouted. Ira hesitated and Allison grabbed his foot with both hands, pulling as hard as she could. He slipped, clumsy and half-blinded by the rain.

* * *

A soaked and grimy Allison holding Mindy in her arms was reunited with Mike at the Fayetteville, Tennessee police station.

“Daddy!” Mindy squealed. “A bad man grabbed Mommy in the storm and the policemens found really scary things in his van!” Mindy rubbed her eyes with a chubby fist. “We went up the hill. We went down the hill. But, Daddy, we missed the fireworks!”


Copyright © 2006 by Mary Brunini McArdle

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