March 2012

Frantic Fantastic Life in Oklahoma

I’m trying to make it just over the Texas border to bed-down for the night. I’ve been driving down Route 66 heading to Cali for eight days, road-tripping the Mother Road to see what’s left of America’s Main Street, and now I’m forced to stop in Clinton, Oklahoma. The sky is darkening and I don’t have the wipers to get caught in a downpour, and if it’s more than that I haven’t got a chance—My Scion Xa makes the perfect pinball for these Midwest storms.

I pull in to a Super 8, sliding my car next to an Astro Van with twenty-somethings and teenagers swarming about with laptops and gadgets that look like they’ve been swiped from a 1950’s atomic movie. The lobby of the Super 8 is clean but in a lousy location — fifty feet away from the interstate and fifteen-feet in front of the one-level flea-bag motel the Super 8 was supposed to replace. Clearly the owners kept the mom-and-pop shack for the overflow from this plywood and paper chain motel. The woman checking me in has a high crop of hair — an old-lady bouffant of dyed peach matching the frames of the glasses she’s been wearing since 1984. The calendar behind her reads June 12, 2005, and the clock above reads 5:18 p.m. She says nothing to me, not even a hello, but swipes my credit card with gusto and drops it on the counter.

I throw my bags on the bed and turn on the television. The screen is red with white Helvetica in all caps blinking a screaming ALERT; an alarm buzzes from the speaker. It’s a tornado alert warning me of my impending death. This is one of those moments when people say to you, “I almost shit my pants.” I feel a turd poking out of my ass like a scared fish wondering if it has the all-clear. My stomach is heavy and an anxiety attack is on the way.

In the lobby I look out the glass door at the sky. Dark clouds twist in a yin-yang of green and blue hues. The sky looks as though it’s filling with green cream stirred into grey coffee. I walk outside and smell the air charged with ozone. These clouds are closer to the ground than regular rain clouds. Nausea girdles my gut. I know what I’m seeing but I don’t want to believe it. I’m pulling the turd back into my body. If I defile myself, it’ll be alone — or when I am dead. I look to my left and realize the Astro Van is manned by young storm chasers currently and quickly piling in.

“We gotta get out of here. It’s gonna come this way,” one of the storm chasers screams.

Camcorders in hand they jump into their van and drive away in a cartoon peel-out, and they gas it as the clouds spin faster. I’m about to throw up.

I go back into the motel and ask the woman who checked me in, “What do I do?”

“Just go into your room and sit in your bath tub. You’ll be fine.”

This woman doesn’t care about what happens to me. Hell, she doesn’t even seem to care what happens to herself. She’s wrapping receipts with a rubber band and emptying out the cash drawer.

In my room, where the air conditioner hasn’t even given me a slight chill, I look out the back window. Tree branches and an orange sand bucket are blown across the pavement with ease, and they’re followed by other household items and garbage — paint cans, a Big Wheel, plastic two-liter soda bottles. The wind sounds like an embellished movie sound effect—the barreling of a train that sees the car stuck on he tracks but ‘can’t’ stop. It’s so loud and so strong that the wind blows through my air conditioner, plug outlets, the drop ceiling and the light switches as if they were suspended in air and there were no walls between me and the outside. More objects are blown across the pavement behind the motel — beer cans, trashcans, clothes and lawn chairs. The water is building in the drainage beneath my window. Another three inches and it’ll be pouring through the crack where the air conditioner is stuck through the wall.

I’m going to die. Or, if I don’t die, I’m definitely going to be rag doll-tossed, broken randomly by tree trunks, cars and wood sheds torn apart by the tornado personified like Jack’s giant who’s pissed that I’ve bothered him. Damn you, Yankee. Why’d you come to Oklahoma, the Red Country. Land betrayed by those who colonized her and promised to be good stewards, but let the machines and the greed rape her until her red clay dirt was pounded and sucked into a dry gray dust. She’s fertile now and she doesn’t need anyone else around her to mess things up. Route 66 is bloody Route 66, and not just because of careless driving or bad roads.

I run to the bathroom and sit in the tub. The wind is shaking the building, visibly moving the tiles in the drop ceiling. The doors to the room, the closet and the bathroom shake in anger — something wants in. If I hadn’t pissed five times already my shorts would be wet. The walls are cracking and the shower curtain waves in a vile taunt, blown by the air forced through the crack under the bathroom door. I hear nothing but the sound of wind in the guise of an 1850 steam engine barreling towards me, and things smashing into the outside of the motel. The electricity blinks on and off for two minutes as the wind gets stronger,  the train coo-choos faster, and after struggling with the winds the power gives up and dies. All I think is that I’m next. This is it. And I expect my life to flash in front of my eyes, but it doesn’t. All I think about is how fuckin’ stupid I am for stopping, for coming here, for heading down the old road. Then the wind stops in a hush and there’s only the sound of rain tapping the roof.

Super 8’s lobby is dark. There’s barely any light shining in though the glass front door because the clouds are charcoal and have completely occupied the sky as an evil presence. I press my face up against the door and try to count how many cars are stranded on the elevated concrete of interstate in front of me, headlights glowing dim through the rain coming down in violence. Part of the intersection below the bridge has flooded and cars can’t pass. They turn around and drive at slow speeds hoping not to get overtaken by the random rivers of murky water that form in this part of the country when the skies open up.

Inside the lobby with me is a tall, thin man with a brown goatee, a white t-shirt and jeans. His hair is long and covered with a green mesh John Deere baseball cap. His friend, a young man in his early 20’s, in thin black nylon Nike wind-pants, slick-stuck to his legs and a white t-shirt turned to see-through gauze with rain water, sits on the couch spacing-out towards the ceiling.

“Did the tornado pass?” I ask.

“Nah, it never formed,” he says, his southern accent thick and friendly. “But the radio says we got winds of 60 miles per hour outside. Stay away from your windows if you’re stayin’ here.”

“God. When the motel clerk told me to hide in the tub I pretty much shit my pants. I’ve never lived near a tornado-prone area, let alone been in one.”

The man laughs at me. “Bath tub,” he says, and then laughs again. “Tell you what. I’ve lived and worked in this area all my life. I’ve been in two tornados, and, I have to tell you, I still shit my pants when I hear those sirens. Sitting in the tub is just a good way to die slowly… Warning’s over.”

Outside, the blaring of what sounds like air-raid sirens fades, like a slow-dying moan. I didn’t notice the sound until he mentioned it.

The wind pushes the side of the motel and I hear creaks and bangs with no location of identification—this place might collapse after all. A billboard across the street is forced over, and then the one behind it falls as if a ghost pushed them out of the way. This is all a game for the weather, for Okies—breaking buildings, flooding homes, taunting possessions and school children who cry at what their parents call an everyday occurrence. The people of Clinton, Oklahoma are used to it.

“Are you staying here?” I ask.

“Nah. We were just passing through. Picked this guy up on the road. He’s heading to Oklahoma City and I’m on my way to Tulsa. We had to turn off. We saw that swirling and got of the highway and picked this place to get out of the rain. We’ll be following this storm. Shit.”

“Is it really worth living here? This whole area is prone to tornados, why not just move somewhere safer?”

“I grew up here—my life’s here. And where is safer? Is anywhere safer? Was Oklahoma City safer? New York City safer? Tornados, murderers, terrorists. I’ll take a tornado over an exploding building.”

I wish the man luck and head back to my room. I look out the back of the window and see the Super 8 clerk crawling out of a storm cellar by the motel behind us. She was all safe and cozy the whole time—probably watching her stories on TV while sucking on a few American Spirit cigarettes. What if the tornado did hit and we were all dead? Would she have cleaned us up, or spent the night in the flea-bag behind us and waited for someone else to do the dirty work? Would her conscience have bothered her at all?

She comes back to the hotel carrying a brown Pyrex casserole dish in her hands. I wash up in my sink and go back to the lobby to ask her if she knows when the electricity would be on.

“Probably not tonight,” and in mid-sentence stops talking to me and says to the woman and her young daughter behind me, “Help yourself to chicken and dumplings. It’s in the dish over there,” she says, pointing to the Pyrex bakeware full of steaming food.

The clerk walks away and starts to dish food out to the woman staying in the room next to me, who thanks her with a southern twang in her y’all, but she doesn’t ask me if I want some. She dumps a few spoonfuls of her dumplings on a plate.

“There’s some peach cobbler, too.”

I go back into my room and sit on the toilet. It offers very little relief as now I’m constipated and feel unwelcomed. No electricity — no lights, TV, cable, radio, no chicken and dumplings, no peach cobbler — nothing to sweeten the deal, which means I’ve spent $50 on a room with no air conditioning and windows that won’t open, no place to get food and I’m in the dark with nothing to do but sleep. I don’t care about anything right now and I have to say, that’s the only thing that feels really good because I believe I almost died, which is the only thing I’m thankful for right now.