April 28, 2011
I hadn’t eaten since after the blackout the night of the tornadoes. I’d sat in the darkness, eating tuna from a foil packet that reminded me of the astronaut snacks we used to buy in the Orlando Science Center gift shop when I was a kid.
In another example of poor planning on my part, I had neglected to grab a breakfast bar from the kitchen before taking Huck on our big gas hunt.
The drive to Athens really drove home for me how woefully unprepared I seemed to be. Had I given it any real thought, I would’ve stopped by the apartment before making the run to Athens. I would have grabbed some food. Fed the cat. Grabbed my luggage. And then I would be ready to just get the hell out of town once the Scion’s tank was full.
But, no, I played this far too much by the seat of my pants. While the gas dwindled toward empty, I found myself contemplating what might happen if we ran out of fuel. Huck and I would be stuck out between Huntsville and Athens, and we would become an unnecessary problem for emergency personnel. Calling AAA wouldn’t do much good: I had very little signal, if any, most of the time. On the radio, they kept saying, again and again, “Stay home. Don’t travel on the roads. Don’t become a problem.”
Yet here I was, potentially doing just that. No, I’m not proud. But, the simple fact was that I had made plans to get out of Alabama before this disaster struck, my girlfriend was stuck at the airport, and if I could get us out of town – well, we would no longer be a risky drain on local resources.
So, it was foolish, but I meant well.
While I waited in line at the gas station, I tried sending texts to family, friends, and co-workers. I texted my cousin Donna, a longtime Huntsville resident, but the message didn’t go through. I messaged my boss, Jamie, and that went through – but I wouldn’t hear back from him until the next day. I messaged my old friend Jeff in Florida, so I could follow up on plans to meet with him and his wife on Saturday, but that didn’t go through. I contacted my mother in Deltona, and that text transmitted just fine. I heard from Josh Drescher, one of my co-workers, who was heading north to Nashville with his wife. I tried calling and texting Catherine at the airport, and only got through to her once to let her know I was alive and well and seeking gasoline.
I had not seen any of the horrifying footage of the giant tornado wall that churned across Tuscaloosa. Since the power outage, I had been cut off from TV news, the Internet, and, for all intents and purposes, my iPhone. My only source of information: Local radio. It may be antiquated, but it sure is reliable in crisis situations.
Primarily, I listened to Lite 96.9, which has offices on Memorial Parkway, not far from my apartment. Their transmitter was on generator power. They asked for donations of fuel to keep the generators running. They talked about a TV meteorologist who had tried going into his house, only to have it blown away by a tornado. A church and a Doppler radar station had been obliterated outside town, they said. A neighborhood called Anderson Hills was largely destroyed. A huge swath of TVA power distribution lines were down and would have to be rebuilt practically from scratch.
It was a little piece of Armageddon, right in our back yard. I couldn’t wait to leave town.
As I drove south from Athens on I-65, I saw more devastation with my own eyes: A wrecked fuel tanker, shattered billboards, downed power lines, twisted trees. Traffic driving north to Nashville had slowed to a crawl, but the southbound lanes toward Madison and the airport were relatively clear.
Within 20 minutes, I pulled up in front of the airport terminal to find Catherine waiting for me. We loaded her bag in the back of the Juicebox and then drove onto I-565, making the eastward run to the apartment so that I could get my luggage and make sure the cat had plenty of food and water for the long weekend.
Again, I didn’t think this through. If I had, I would’ve packed Sienna along with Huck in the back seat. By just leaving Sienna with a limited ration of food and water, I created an unnecessary time pressure on myself that might require me to return to Huntsville prematurely. What if power wasn’t back on at my place for more than a week?
I opened a window for the cat so she wouldn’t get too hot, filled several food bowls for her, left a door open to the toilet and gave her a couple of large bowls of water. Then we locked up the apartment, jumped in the car, and drove west on I-565 toward the airport and I-65.
We then drove south. We made our way past more wreckage of the storm – outside Birmingham, we saw highway light poles that had been twisted like soda straws. We saw caravans of power crew trucks rolling north. We saw what might have been a Secret Service detail proceeding north, escorting a presidential-looking golf cart on a flatbed truck. NPR reported that President Barack Obama, fresh off the silly birth certificate issue, would be stopping by tornado-shattered Alabama on Friday morning.
Eventually, we stopped a couple hours south of Birmingham for gas and food. My first meal of the day? A burger and fries from Jack’s, with sweet tea to wash it down. Not diet friendly. Not cholesterol friendly. But, hey, I felt stressed. I needed comfort food.
My goal that day was the Florida Panhandle. We reached that goal at about 8:30 p.m., when we pulled off I-10 into the little town of Marianna and checked into the Super 8. This motel was conveniently located next to a Sonny’s BBQ. I called just before 9 to see what their hours were.
“Actually,” said the man who answered, “we’re closing right now.”
So much for barbecue!
We left Huck in the motel and drove to a strip mall across the street, where we found a little Mexican hole-in-the-wall restaurant that appeared to close at 9, but the waiter insisted that we could come right in. However, we had to order everything we wanted right then – even dessert – because the kitchen was closing.
We passed on dessert.
April 27, 2011
I woke up before dawn on my day off so that I could walk Huck before my 7 a.m. appointment at Firestone. The Juicebox needed new brakes, especially since I was planning to carry Catherine and the dog in it on our drive to Florida so that she could meet my folks.
The news on TV chattered about storms rumbling toward the Deep South from Arkansas. They talked about tornado concerns. I’d been living in Huntsville for more than four months. The words “tornado watch” and “tornado warning” came up with numbing regularity. Longtime residents talked about the freak tornado of 1989 that wiped out Airport Road with a sort of reverence that suggested it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing that would never happen again.
I didn’t take the early warnings seriously on Wednesday. All I cared about was making sure I got those brakes fixed before lunch, so that I could be home during the thunderstorms to help keep Huck calm.
While the mechanic worked on the Scion, I started reading Blackout by Connie Willis, a novel about time-traveling historians sent back to key moments to witness major events, from the Black Death to Dunkirk to the second World Trade Center attack. On the TV, forecasters warned again that we would face some nasty weather in Huntsville. Rain fell for a while. I noticed a drip-drip-drip from the ceiling onto the carpet beside a table loaded with magazines. The manager told me the roof had a leak. They’d been planning to fix the roof, but hadn’t gotten to it yet. He fetched a bucket to catch the drops.
I’ve lived in some crappy places over the years.
I once shared a duplex in a rundown neighborhood near Busch Gardens in Tampa with a couple of old alcoholics, one of whom wheezed through the night while the other maximized his collection of Victoria’s Secret catalogues. After that, I lived in a block of apartments off Fowler Avenue that was a haven to drug dealers and thugs.
But I’ve never been next door to a murder before. Never lived near someone who died violently on the premises. Never as it happened.
That changed Thursday evening.
The Springs at Huntsville is a nice gated apartment complex in a not-so-nice part of town, but the first two weeks here so far had been largely uneventful. Got up every morning, went to work, came home, watched a little TV, went to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Early last week, I posted an ad on Craigslist to sell the table, chairs, and bench that I’d brought with me from Cary (only to find that the bar island in the kitchen left no space for them). I heard from a buyer within minutes and agreed to let them pick up the furniture on Thursday after work. Chris, a young husband with a kid, wanted to upgrade their dinette table to something more substantial. He called from the front gate at about 5:45. I buzzed him in. It occurred to me that he didn’t know how to find my apartment within the complex, so I walked downstairs and stepped outside, trying to call him precisely as he tried calling me. Our phones collided like this repeatedly until I finally stopped and let him call me. By this time, I was standing on the curb by the street, between Building 700 where I live and Building 600. It was already dark.
I answered the phone. We laughed about the constant collisions and the fact that we’d done so well working out the logistics up to this point. I told him to keep driving around to the back of the complex. I told him I saw a truck coming. He said, “That’s me.”
He backed into a parking space. We spent the next few minutes hauling the furniture from the apartment to his truck. It took about five trips. When we finished, Chris paid me. I wished him well and walked back into my apartment.
Chris had just been ready to drive away when a neighbor from Building 600 rushed over and pleaded with him to help – a woman had been shot. Chris followed around the corner to the row of apartments that face out toward the wooded hill beyond a fence. He told me later that he knew there wasn’t anything he could do for her. Her purse was on the ground. Her keys dangled from the lock. It appeared that someone had shot her while she was trying to enter the apartment, but they didn’t bother to steal anything.
She died while they waited for the ambulance, he said.
We talked today about what happened, reconstructing the evening in our conversation, trying to work out whether we knew more than we thought. What signs did we miss? Did I see anyone suspicious while I waited for Chris to drive his truck around to the back of the complex? Someone running from the scene? It’s chilling to think that I could just as easily have been a target as I stood by the curb. It’s even more chilling to imagine that Joan Markley, a 49-year-old mother of two sons and a daughter, was dying just yards away.
I didn’t hear a gun shot. I didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
I wish I could be more help. I hope they find whoever did this, soon. And please let it be something other than just random senseless violence. It pains me to say it, but I really want there to be a motive. I don’t want to dwell on the fact that bad guys with guns might be creeping over the back fence on a regular basis, just looking for someone to kill.
What I’m Reading
Blackout by Connie Willis
What I’m Playing
Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War II
You Don't Know Jack
World of Warcraft
Left 4 Dead 2
What I’m Writing
No Son of Hekayt - Book I: Artifacts
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Coming soon: 31 Days of OtherSpace - 1 work of fiction a day during March 2011.