Ronald Reagan says he wants everyone to begin this crusade joined together in a moment of silence, and really you know he means praying to God. The people in cowboy hats take them off and bow their heads, but my mother keeps eating her sandwich. She doesnt like Ronald Reagan because she thinks hell get us all blown up with nuclear bombs. She says all somebody has to do is get mad and push a button and well all be dead within half an hour, all the houses melted, the whales cooked in the sea, and Eileen can think shell hear angels singing all she wants, but really she wont be able to hear a damn thing because shell be just as dead as everybody else. She says she used to not worry so much about things like this, but now she has me, and the idea of somebody pushing this button makes her crazy, makes her scared when she hears even an airplane in the sky.
I tell her if we had half an hour, we could go downstairs the way we do when the tornado sirens go off. We dont have our own basement, but theres a storage space underneath our apartment building, and my mother has a key. There would even be enough time to go outside and wave people down on the highway, tell them they better get inside. I would stay outside until I could see the missiles, and then I would run back and have my mother shut the door behind me.
My mother says no, Evelyn, it wouldnt work like that. A nuclear bomb would blow up the basement too. Just one bomb in Wichita or even Kansas City would be enough to get us, even all the way out here. If the bombs start going off, theyll get everyone, she says. Itll be curtains for us all.
But the next time Eileen is here she says yes, Evelyn, sometimes it does work like that. Whenever a lot of people get killed, there are always a few people who dont.
We are sitting at the kitchen table, Eileen and I, eating the barbecued ribs she brought with her from Wichita. She says when she was a little girl in Alabama, a tornado came, and her family lived while other families died. Shed been standing outside looking up at the sky as it got darker, feeling the raindrops turn into tiny balls of hail that stung when they landed on the backs of her arms, and then she looked up and saw a cloud turning over on itself and filling up the sky, like smoke coming out the windows of a burning building. And then a man not wearing any shoes blew right past her, his feet not touching the ground, his legs moving like he was riding a bicycle.
"He looked at me," Eileen says. "He looked right into my eyes."
She turned and saw the funnel then, dark and thin like a snake. Her father grabbed her around the waist and carried her down to the cellar, and he kept his arms tight around her and her mother while the house rattled and shook over their heads.
"It sounded like a train," Eileen says. "Just like a train going right over us."
My mother rolls her eyes and says thats what everyone always says about tornados. Shes standing behind Eileen, doing dishes. She wont eat the ribs with us. She doesnt eat meat since she started working at Petersons.
Eileen says maybe because thats exactly what tornados sound like, and when it was over, she and her father and mother came out to nothing but quiet, and already the sun was shining through the clouds. The air was pale green, she says, the color of the ocean, and she could see the flying mans shoeless feet sticking straight up out of the ground, as if he had dived into the earth.
Eileens neighbors died too. They had two daughters. Before the tornado, Eileen played with one of the daughters, but not the other one because she was special and couldnt walk. When the tornado came, they went down to their basement too, carried the special daughter with them, but even so the whole family, even the chickens they kept in the yard if you want to count them, ended up dead, sucked up into the funnel or crushed under the ceiling of their cellar with their hands on top of their heads.
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