The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 15, No. 3

The Tornado Auction

by Karen Russell


You know, there was never any money in it, even back then. If you were a breakeven, you were a success.
     I'd been fully retired for nearly fifteen years when I decided, on a whim, to return to the sale barn. Driving home from the pharmacy, passing the shoals of purple corn, I watched the wheel turning in my hands. The barn's howling interior, with its warrens of wind hoses, was as familiar to me as my home, but I recognized almost no one. How young the faces had become! Just about everybody I've ever wanted to impress, I've now outlived.
     Baby southerlies whinnied around, shrieking their inhuman sounds. Violet funnels chased one another beneath the shivering ducts. Crocus blue mists, soft as exhalations, fogged their incubator walls. I felt a growl under my navel as I passed chute seven—the doorway out of which my own twisters had flown, once upon a time. New lunacies greeted me on either side. What a catalogue of weathers my peers were now breeding, dreaming up on their ranchlands. Clouds branded Pink Cauliflower and Lucifer's Bridal Veil. Clouds almost too bloated with rain to move. I found plenty to admire, despite the grim forecasts I'd been reading all year.
     Moisture began to clot on my glasses, so I removed them. Some things, I swear, I see better without correction. Tornadoes, for one. My eyes often snag on irrelevancies, when I'm wearing my glasses; without them, I can take in more. The panorama, you know, the whole sublime blur. Estelle, I think, hated the sight of my naked face. (Jesus, Robert! Do you know how scary you look, wandering around out there like Mr. Magoo?)
     The national anthem cranked up, and everyone stood. By the old custom, one of the local families had donated a runty funnel, set to manifest at the crowd's off-key crescendo. So while we sang, hands on hearts—"And the rockets' red glaaaare . . ."—a howler blew out of chute one.
     "Oh my God," I breathed. And I felt the way I always hope to feel in church. As the twister kicked and spun around the arena floor, the howl rose from its center, throbbing without discrimination into and through each of us, and row by row we fell helplessly to our knees.

The auction is a quarterly event, and until my retirement I attended every one. You'll read in the papers that ours is a "graying community," a defunct way of life. But on auction day, it never feels so. Scattered around the parking lot, over a hundred twitching, immature storms dimple the roofs of their trailers, like pipping chicks testing their shells. Their wailing surrounds and fills the barn, harmonizing with the hum of machinery. The viper pit of hoses, the blue convection modules stuck to every wall like big, square dewdrops—the various modern wet nurses that keep a developing storm alive. "Back in the Dark Ages, all we had to work with was liquid propane and the real wind," my old man liked to remind me.
     On my way in, I'd passed a quintet of freshly weaned storms, all sired by the same cumuliform supercell out of Dalhart. Beautiful orphans, thriving independently. I'd known this line of clouds my whole life; that Dalhart stud cell was famous when I was a kid. Its signature thunder went rolling through many a turbulent generation, and I smiled to hear it once more. In the refracted glow of such a shimmering lineage, you get the child-joy, the child-fever. I'll turn seventy-four this March, and it doesn't matter: that joy regresses you.

It's been a bad season for seasons. Not just here in Gosper County but all across the country. After the anthem we sat, while the flag was attacked by the last of the purebred gusts and the cloud danced itself out. Then I saw the one face I'd been counting on seeing, as surely as flipping over a penny to find mournful Lincoln: the Rev.
     "I don't care what your politics are," the Rev crooned. "I think it's time we all admit that the weather is changing . . ."
     A few boos, though most were nodding, hat bills stabbing at the air like a bunch of dour woodpeckers. Everybody here has been hit by the warming. This year, if you wanted cold, moist air, you had to pipe it in. The dry-line days on which we breeders rely did not come.
     Guilt rose from the bleachers like a rippling stink. Relative to the West Texas cloud-seeding corporations, our approach here in southern Nebraska remains pretty Amish. Still, when you're raising weather by artificial means, it's hard to pretend you don't have a hand in the Change.
     I feel less culpable than some because I always stayed small—I didn't mess with the supercells or the silver iodide, I didn't go for broke with the ten-thousand-dollar anemometers, the quarter-million-dollar accelerators. One twister at a time, I raised almost by hand.
     And I raised them for demolition. This was the seventies, on the ranchlands of Tornado Alley. You can bring down a city block with a rental tornado, and I had contracts. My twisters have felled fire-damaged silos and bankrupt casinos, foundering Chick-N-Shacks and neglected libraries. Pry bars, reciprocating and circular saws, jackhammers, trenchers, wrecking balls, human crews with their human needs and fleshy vulnerabilities—all unnecessary. So long as you properly configured the chute and programmed the expulsion vents, a tornado would roll toward a condemned building as inexorably as a pregnant lady toward rocky road ice cream, as Estelle used to joke in her joking days, when the girls were still small. Elsewhere, I hear, they rent out beehives to pollinate fruit trees. Nowadays, of course, armies of American litigators have made weather-assisted demolition illegal. I suppose that's progress.

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