With the exception of the four years I spent at a small college on the east coast, I’ve lived in Chicago all my life. Anyone who grew up in the Midwest, or spent any significant amount of time there in the oppressive heat of summer can tell you about at least one memorable storm. There’s an aspect to the big ones that I can only describe as biblical, streaks of lightning ripping into city parks and framing a sky full of clouds like black mountains.
Certain days you can feel them gather all through the summer afternoon. Streams of heat that hovered over stippled city sidewalks and washed between the snap of pressed trousers in motion gather and rise slowly. Atmospheric pressures build with a violence collected from the eerie silence that blankets the towns and miles of corn that spread into Ohio once you get out past Chicago’s city center and the suburbs that surround it. It casts a haze that spreads through the city and over Midwestern plains, backlit by an orange sky, like the glow that comes off streetlamps when they’re wet. When the storm finally comes, it’s a release full of cords of blue light, powerful weather, thick ropes of power line lit up from the electricity inside, wiring from the sky into my city.
M and S died in a house fire the summer of my junior year of high school, in the early hours of the morning after a brutal Midwestern storm. Their son, Q, was my own age in school, and they were two of my parents’ best friends. I remember going to Passover dinner at their house every couple years when I was in middle school. M, Q’s father, would hide little plastic eggs full of chocolate or money all over the first floor of their home, behind sofa cushions, beneath dark wooden dressers lined with pictures of S and Q flying kites in the park; Q and I in over-sized baseball caps on a sun-baked little league field, tongues poking out between freshly fallen-out teeth. Between the traditional Passover stories from the Old Testament that M would tell, he’d sneak his son and I Dixie cups full of wine until S caught him and threw a napkin his way. He’d throw his hands up and swear it was only grape juice, spread his palms over the tablecloth and move into the next story as S shook her head and smiled. I’d listen and stare at the legs of wine that clung to the sides of M’s glass, get lost in the stories of drought and floods, and picture the wine as beads of rainwater collecting and shedding on panes of glass during storms.
The morning they died, I woke to the jittery buzz of my cell phone needling me from somewhere beneath my pillow, head heavy with alcohol from the night before and sunlight swimming all over. I’d left the blinds open before bed to watch the clouds move over the city like a map of bad news, and when I pulled the phone free and looked out on the street it was crossed over by felled branches and painted with a green layer of leaves that had fallen and settled. On the phone was a friend from school, asking me if I had heard. Heard what? I asked. He said I had better go downstairs and talk to my mother. He had been calling for hours and when I hadn’t answered earlier he had called the house. My mother picked up and he had not known what else to do but tell her what happened. Heard What? I asked again. It’s Q‘s parents, he said, their house burned down last night. There was a long pause on the line. The branches arced inches over the street and I thought of water flowing past rocks, watched a balloon escape from a child on the sidewalk and catch in the boughs above, waiting. They didn’t make it out, he said.
When I went downstairs, I found my mother in her nightgown at the kitchen desk with her cell phone in her hands. Her mouth hung open and her hands shook around the phone. I called her for hours, she said, meaning S. We were going to have breakfast this morning. We were supposed to have breakfast, she said, with a desperation and fear you can only know by hands.
When we got to their house, fire trucks angled all over the street; there was orange tape stretched and ribboned on trees, burnt out rafters. My mother stumbled to edge of the lawn. I followed and wrapped an arm around her neck, clutched at her slender collarbone and thought how frail it felt, saw the wet faces of so many people I knew. Furniture sat in the lawn like a yard-sale, perfectly untouched, stained oak throwing off the light from the sun and catching rays of dust floating all around. We stood there on the edge of the lawn staring at the house. Sometime later, I felt hands on my shoulder and breath on my ear. A man’s voice: There is work required, he said, and those words would not leave my head.
I graduated from college a little over a year ago, graduating with a degree in political science and a minor in creative writing. When my parents came out to the east coast for graduation, I bore a fresh scar on the center of my forehead from a fall I had taken out of a tree just several nights prior. When asked, I made vague reference to a roller hockey game and a wayward stick, and was not asked again. At dinner that first night, toasts were made to my girlfriend and I, to our successful completion of college. I lifted a glass of water to my lips and my hands shook, the toll of three weeks of celebrating said completion. In the early summer heat of rural New York, we walked across the stage to applause and flashes of camera light, shook many hands and received a square of cardboard with a blank cut-out where a diploma should be. They would be mailed to us in the coming months, we were told, and we were sent on our way with trunks full of boxes, the vague idea that we had completed something and the certainty that we did not know what to do next.
So I returned to Chicago and its summer storms, and found an apartment with a friend from college. My girlfriend returned to Washington State, spent two months traveling around Europe, and when she returned it was not to me. I found a job doing public policy research at a prominent foundation in the city. Nights I’d get off work and return to my apartment, make a cursory nod to my roommate and the doings of his day, and climb into bed as the sun completed the last of its wet arc across the sky, leaving dusk.
In the evening heat I lay in damp underwear as a sheen of sweat rose to coat my skin. I’d lay there for hours, immobile, unable to write and without the motivation to even pick up a book and lose myself in the stories of others that I had once found to be such a source of comfort, a feeling of being less alone. And I thought often of M and S. It was nearing the fifth anniversary of their death, and as darkness came a panic would rise in me, a fear that didn’t seem specific to anything, but slept as I went through the routines of my day and rose to greet me just as I sought to shut off everything and begged for a sleep that would bring no dreams of cubed rafters, sky above, of anything. When I’d hear my roommate click the lights off in the apartment, feel the thin shudder of walls as he closed his bedroom door for the night, I’d rise and walk out into the unlit living room, unlock and re-lock all of the doors, and before going back to my bedroom, light matches over the burners of the stove and watch them burn out, making sure not a lisp of gas could escape from anywhere. When my eyes finally closed I saw the glow of power lines, orange tape wrapped around trees, and I’d pray for something to wake me and keep me.
Where I write is in storms, in my bed, in the hours just between the end of night and the peak of sun over a horizon penciled in above the lake, somewhere between memory, anger, and need. I woke one night to a symphony of lightning and a despair that I knew well to be quelled by motion. I hadn’t written a word for months, but as I sat wrapped in sheets and watched lightning climb the walls of my room, I found myself three years back, surrounded by fire trucks, clinging to my mother on a lawn. And there I found anger. Anger and a hate for an inevitable end that has come too early for so many people I’ve known and loved. I thought of death, of the friends that I’d lost, and in that bed, back on that lawn, I found I only had one way to reckon with it, and I penciled out a thought of death my mind would not let go: paper fucking face, eyes the color of highways and bone, slender bone.
The storms this summer come at night, always at night. Days of heat have built up like children stuffed into church pews. They break out in splits of power only hinted at in the clouds that gather over the city in the day. There is a beauty in watching the day shift in the mirrors of downtown high-rises. On the streets people stop for a moment, are still for one moment, lift their heads and look up to watch the clouds plowing westward over the lake. Those nights I wake to the shuffle and scrape of the birds outside my window pushing off gutters to descend to lower ground before the storm. When I hear this and sense the future pulse of powerful weather, I know there is still work required. I lift the thin sheets off, flick on the lamp beside my bed, and sit up to write.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.