Category Archives: Michael Loyd Gray

Postcard from the Exile

Postcard from the Exile

Michael Loyd Gray

      Aaron often sent postcards to his parents in America, Alice and Randall Wahlgren. The family traced quite a ways back to Sweden. They weren’t famers but lived in a two-story farmhouse five miles south of town at a crossroads. The postcards cost a quarter at a Winnipeg Texaco station and a Queen Elizabeth stamp cost six cents. It was easier than writing letters, didn’t require envelopes, and postcards were too small for explaining much, which was a relief to him. 

     He never quite knew what to say in his postcards and always jotted a few breezy lines about seeing the sights and even mentioned he had picked up some French. He vaguely wondered whether anyone in the two postal services read his postcards. Did they guess he was a draft dodger? He supposed there could be many postcards flowing back to the States.

     He sometimes included French expressions in the postcards but stopped after a while when he figured it would just confuse them. And he worried it might make him seem pretentious. His father mistrusted the French, even though he’d never met any. The French were certainly a rung or two above the Japanese on his ladder, but it was a ladder with many rungs. 

     Aaron never said anything in the postcards about coming home. Or when. When he could, he once wrote. But just that once, fearing it would be seen as a commitment. He always wrote that he was okay and working hard and they shouldn’t worry, but he knew they did. Mostly, he knew they didn’t quite understand why he was gone. He ended each postcard with “Your loving son Aaron.”

     Mostly, the postcards were photos taken in le Vieux Saint-Boniface, but a few times, he mailed photos of The Forks, where the Red and Assiniboine rivers mingled at the heart of the city. He liked going to The Forks on a Saturday for lunch in a café along the riverfront. He could get lost in the milling crowds and pretend he was Canadian. It was easier than pretending to be French. 

     One day he lingered in The Forks until evening and went to a bar with a stage and saw a band he’d heard of – The Guess Who. The song that made him reflect on his life so far was “No Time Left for You.” He hadn’t known the band was from Winnipeg. The song stayed in his head for days and he heard it on the radio. Sometimes he sang the lyrics to himself.

     But on Saturdays when he felt like being alone, when maybe a little homesickness crept in, and uncertainty, too, he would walk across the Esplanade Riel bridge spanning the Red River and stop to look down and wave to himself reflected in the water. If the river was rippled from a breeze, he would look wavy, indistinct – rubbery. Faceless, too. The Red River, he learned, was deceptive: it looked placid – tame — but had dangerous, swift undercurrents. 

     Once, he sent his parents a postcard of Lake Manitoba, a large lake northwest of Winnipeg. Quite a hike out from the city. But he’d never been there. He didn’t have a car, didn’t need one, and figured he’d never get up to the lake anyway. But the lake’s water was deep blue in the postcard, and he thought his mother would appreciate the color. He could picture it fastened on her fridge with a magnet. She collected them. Her favorite was a road runner magnet she got in Phoenix, Arizona, when she was a teenager on a school trip. 

     Aaron believed that his mother understood his absence better than his father, a World War II Navy veteran who was at the Battle of Iron Bottom Sound off Guadalcanal. He had the ribbons to prove his patriotism, kept in shiny cases on the mantle. The ribbons and medals rested in velvet, and he often showed them to guests. He’d won the Navy Cross and even Aaron knew that was a big deal. He kept the Navy Cross in a case on an end table next to his favorite easy chair, within reach. His father once absently said the Navy Cross was the biggest thing that would ever happen in his whole life. 

     His father’s dress unform, neatly pressed, still hung in a closet, and he kept several empty 20mm shell casings on the mantle. The casing came from rounds fired from his destroyer at a Japanese Zero. His father had manned the gun and the crew cheered, he said, when he brought the plane down. It was not the first one he’d shot down. There was a framed photo of the ship on the mantle. The words “Dead Jap” were painted on each casing. Aaron assumed his father painted them, but he never asked. He didn’t think it would be useful to know. Or desirable.

     His father’s destroyer had passed by the Zero’s floating wreckage and the red meatball insignia was still visible on the plane’s sinking fuselage. It was a story Aaron heard his father tell guests many times. Some of the ship’s crew lined up at the railing and saw the Japanese pilot floating face down in the ocean, his flying cap still on his head. His father said they felt nothing but contempt for him. He got what was coming to him. The sharks were welcome to the maggot bastard. He was just a damn Jap. A dead damn Jap. The best kind. The only kind worth a tinker’s damn. 

      Aaron had never met any Japanese, but he always hated his father’s story about the pilot. He knew the war had been just, necessary, but he couldn’t connect to the hatred. He figured part of that was because there had been no Pearl Harbor for Vietnam. Vietnam seemed more like a campfire no one paid attention to until it somehow grew into a forest fire, and no one could quite explain why. 

     During good weather, his father made a point every morning of running the stars and stripes up a small flagpole next to the front door of their house. He would stand very erect and salute it instead of merely placing his hand over his heart. But sometimes, he did both. He didn’t allow his family to speak during the ceremony. His father wasn’t a churchgoer, but Aaron suspected the flag ceremony was worship.

     He retrieved the flag at dusk and made Aaron help him fold it according to proper regulations. It was always a solemn ceremony, taking down the colors. It reminded his father of serving aboard his destroyer. He said he preferred the regimented life aboard ship. Things were clear-cut. Black and white. Civilian life had too many gray areas for him. He had the same factory job making farm equipment since he got out of the Navy in 1945. But to Aaron it always seemed like he’d never left his ship. Aaron and his mother were his crew. His father wore gray overhauls with his name on a breast pocket to work every day. It was a uniform.   

     Aaron’s mother respected the flag ceremony but was otherwise indifferent. To Aaron, folding the flag was like mowing the lawn, a task he had to do and disliked, but his father saw it as essential elements to building his character. He had a teacher, Mr. Small, who said people were born with whatever character they were capable of. He didn’t much believe in character building. Mr. Small had never gone to war, his father said, and there was a lesson in that. Aaron never knew just what the lesson was. It wasn’t like his father to explain things. It was always his way or the highway.

     Aaron’s mother sent him handwritten letters instead of postcards, explaining that the few postcards at the drug store were mostly about barns and farmland, or flocks of geese and ducks, things he had already seen and knew, and anyway she preferred the extra space of a letter. She kept him abreast of family doings, of what his favorite cousin, Jack, was up to — farming. She said she wasn’t sure what hippies were, but they sounded like mostly gentle people who didn’t shower enough. The year before there had been a big concert in New York, she said, at a place called Woodstock. People still missed The Beatles. 

     She said she did, too.

mage coutesy The Forks (Manitoba) image gallery

Tornado Weather

Tornado Weather

Michael Loyd Gray

     Zach Thompson nudged Wanda, a skinny blond cashier with a ponytail and flat chest. She was counting money at Wally’s Food Mart on the main drag of Argus, Illinois.

     “Quit it,” she says, shaking a wad of bills at him. “You made me lose count.”

     Zach was a meat cutter apprentice. He joked with the cashiers that apprentice meant he was still learning how to beat his meat. None of them thought it was funny except Wanda, who wasn’t too bright to begin with. Zach nudged her again.ic

     “Look here,” Zach says. “Right here in the National Examiner it says rural men have a higher suicide rate. I’m not making that up. Says so right here in black and white.”

     Heather, a cute brunette with long wavy hair working the next register peeked around the magazine rack.

     “Maybe you should go give it a try, Zach,” she says. You wouldn’t want to make a liar out of the National Examiner, would you?

     Zach and Heather had gone out once and ever since, she had a mean streak toward him.

    “Don’t you just wish,” he says, flipping her the bird.

     “A girl can always wish,” Heather says. “Especially when it’s someone as crude as you, Zach Thompson.”

     He stood defiant, hands on his hips.

     “I’m not crude – I’m colorful.”

     “Oh, sure you are,” Heather says. “Don’t you have to go do something with your meat?”

     “I’m off for the day,” Zach says. “Just catching up on my reading. But if you want to give me a hand, I can stick around.”

     “Start without me,” Heather says. “I bet you always do.”

     “I’ll think of you, Heather.”

     “I’m so honored.”

     Zach attempted what he figured to be a seductive smile and pose, an arm dangling nonchalantly across the magazine rack.

     “You’d miss me if I was gone,” he says. “What if I was one of those rural men who couldn’t take it anymore? What if I just plunged into the deep end?”

     “The deep end of what?” Heather says, wiping strands of hair from the corner of her mouth.

     “The Sangamon River,” Zach says. “That’s the only place round here where any rural men could off themselves by drowning.”

     “Don’t forget Beverley Patterson’s new pool,” Heather says. “It’s supposed to be nine feet in the deep end. That would work just fine, Zach, and it’s a lot closer than the river.”

     “I heard it wasn’t filled yet,” Zach says, glancing at his shoes.

     “It was when I was there yesterday,” Heather says. “Why don’t you go over and practice plunging into the deep end? It ain’t like you’ve got anything to do, Zachary.”

     “Yeah?” Zach says. “Well, it just so happens there’s a good reason why I can’t go down to the river. Or that pool. And drowning ain’t the only way to go, Miss Heather Smarty Pants.”

     Wanda abruptly whacked her drawer shut with a loud bang.

     “Yeah, but drowning has flair,” she says. “And it’s not messy.”

     “Honey,” Heather says, “your basic rural man ain’t got any flair. They can’t even leave the toilet seat down, so why should they be tidy when they kill themselves?”

     Heather and Wanda high-fived each other and the smack of their colliding palms reverberated. 

     “You’re right,” Wanda says. “But the Patterson pool would still be a lot cleaner than that muddy old Sangamon, if you don’t mind chlorine, that is.” 

     Zach threw his hands up.

     “Somebody trying to off himself wouldn’t care about chlorine one way or another,” he says. “Don’t you know anything, Wanda?”

     Wanda looked puzzled.

     “Could someone die from too much chlorine?” she says.  

     “I have no idea,” Heather says. “But it sure sounds like a job for Zach.”

     Zach smirked.

     “I’ve got more important stuff to do than stand around yakking with retards,” he says.

     Heather popped the gum she’d been chewing.

     “Look who’s talking about retards. What could you do, Zach, that could possibly count as important?”

     Zach shrugged.

     “Oh, nothing much, I suppose – except there’s a huge weather front ready to roar in here. It’s tornado weather, for God’s sake.”

     “Where’d you hear that?” Heather says. “You’re making it up.”

     “I heard it on the radio. Weather cells and all that.”

     “And your point would be what, Mister Rural Man?”

     “I just might go chase one of those suckers, like those guys do on TV.” 

     “You’re shitting me,” Heather says. “You’re suicidal after all.”

     But Zach felt he was on to something. It had come to him real sudden-like.

     “All I need is experience chasing a tornado here and then I can go out to Oklahoma and join one of those teams. I could get on TV. I could become a famous tornado chaser.”

     “How do you list that on your resume?” Wanda said. “And what do you do once you’ve caught up to the tornado?”

     Zach frowned and then appeared confused.

     “What do you mean?”

     “I mean, what’s the point?” Wanda says. “What’s the reason for all the chasing?”

     Zach didn’t want to admit he wasn’t sure about that part of it. He had the vague notion that it was about experiencing a tornado and being somehow changed by it. And to be on TV, to do it as a job that people looked up to and even admired. Like being an actor in a sitcom. A celebrity. Somebody.

     “To become something, of course,” he says quietly.

     Heather couldn’t keep a straight face.

     “You’re something alright,” she says. “I can just see you on TV now, Zach.”

     “Can you?” he says hopefully.

     “Oh, sure. You’d have a reality series – Zach the Incredible Pinhead and Tornado Groupie. Guest morons would join you each week and fly through the air in your crappy old pickup in the center of a tornado and wave bye at cameras before getting squished into pulp. Wheeee!”

     “Doesn’t sound like a series,” Wanda says. “More like a one-shot deal.”

     Wanda and Heather high five each other again.

     Zach felt queasy.

     “Well, I wouldn’t be famous right off,” he says. “I’d break in and work my way up to maybe wind velocity guy.”

     “What the crap is a wind velocity guy?” Heather says. “You’re an apprentice meat cutter, Zach. Not even the real deal yet. Before that, you were an apprentice high school dropout. What makes you believe you’ll ever be on TV?”

     Wicked smirks passed between the two girls. Zach felt like knives had passed through his shins. The kind of big, heavy knives he used in the store’s meat locker on carcasses of hanging meat. The sort of blades that could strip flesh with just a flick of the wrist. That could split bone.

     Heather blew a big bubble and popped it loudly. It jumpstarted Zach, suddenly aware he’d stood there a long time without a word. A galling, sickening realization washed over him. He’d never done a damn thing in his whole wretched life. He’d never finished anything, not high school, not his GED, not even an appointment he failed to keep once with an Army recruiter. He’d even failed to acquire the knack for selling drugs for an old high school buddy and that sure didn’t require a high school diploma. Zach was already 25 and hadn’t done anything worth bragging about. He was an apprentice meat cutter, only a month into his training, because his uncle owned the store and worried Zach might drift into oblivion.

     “Earth to Zach,” Wanda says. “You just going to stand there all day?”

     Zach wished he could just disappear in a flash of smoke. He longed to be immediately beamed up to the Starship Enterprise, his molecules snatched off the planet and reassembled elsewhere into a much wiser man – a man of action. Any action. And anywhere but where he was, which was certainly nowhere, and now, just plain old pathetic as he realized he had staked his notion of redemption on chasing tornadoes and living to go on TV to tell the tale.

     His head was abuzz with random thoughts and paper-thin plots to appear less of a fool when suddenly, the Argus Civil Defense siren went off, signaling a tornado warning. The siren wailed obscenely. It was mounted on the water tower just down the block. It was so loud that Zach thought it sounded like the ominous death wail of impending nuclear attack everybody knew from movies. 

     The siren drowned out everything and made thinking nearly impossible. Everyone in the store stopped in their tracks. Then customers went to windows and looked up into the sky. Heather and Wanda calmly removed their cash drawers and headed for the store’s basement. 

     Zach refused to go. He stood on the sidewalk with a knot of people, scanning the sky, shading bis eyes with a hand. He hoped for a funnel spinning crazily out of very cloud he saw.  He wished for a big old goober of a black funnel, twisting madly like a giant top. But if one was up there, it was hidden by clouds.

     But one could be there. Everybody knew a tornado could simply appear out of nowhere, in an instant. Zach began to believe one was coming. Don’t panic, he told himself, because this really is happening. It all stated low-key. That’s the way it was on the TV show, just folk sitting around having a smoke and shooting the shit, and then, boom – off to the races in a flash, tires squealing, motors racing wildly, people pointing and gawking out their car windows, pulses racing, sweat beads skiing down their foreheads.

     And then nobody was ever the same after they’d chased one and caught up to it. Sort of like in school when they read about Ahab and Moby Dick, he supposed. Zach was certain nobody could possibly be the same after feeling a tornado’s power and witnessing its strength. Yeah, it was a hell of a lot like Moby Dick, for sure.

     Zach felt pulled and pushed by an unseen force. He got in his pickup and sped down Main Street, frantically twisting the radio dial for a station with weather news. Doppler radar over in Bloomington had picked up a possible tornado just outside Argus, near the river, and Zach floored it. He made it to the river in record time, most of the way with his head stuck out the window, wind howling like a banshee and blasting his face like God himself had reached down from the heavens to playfully slap him around. Zach tingled all over. He knew it had to be like this out in Oklahoma with the real tornado chasers. Just like this. He was one of them now.

     At the river, the wind became vicious, violently shoving his truck toward a ditch several times, Zach fighting to keep control, but loving every second of it. It rained hard, about as hard and fast and thick as anyone could ever recall. More than two inches an hour, according to a TV meteorologist in Champaign. 

     The Sangamon River jumped its banks and Zach tried to plow through a deep pool on River Road, but instead stalled his truck and had to wade to high ground. He walked halfway back to Argus in cold rain and wind before he got a ride from a county sheriffs deputy, who tuned out to be a guy he’d gone to high school with. The weather service decided it had been a bad storm alright, and record rainfall, but not really a tornado. All that turbulence eventually just fell apart and became normal air again. 

     For a few days, Zach swore to everybody he met that he would empty his savings account of exactly $847.58 and drive out to Oklahoma to hook up with the tornado people. But when the tornado siren went off again, just a week later, Zach trudged wordlessly to the store’s basement with Wanda and Heather. He sat quietly by himself in a corner with his eyes closed tight and waited for the all-clear.

photomontage image by Jason Weingart (Wikimedia images)