The Column of Disquiet – Skeleton Tree

On the morning of July 5th, 2003, a line of incredibly severe thunderstorms passed through Rockford, Illinois—the winds, which were reported to have reached a staggering 104 m.p.h, damaged trees, power lines, and took down a local television station’s broadcast tower, taking them off the air for a number of months.

I was living in Rockford at this time—it was the summer between my second and third year in college, and I was home for the summer, working long days constructing sets for the Rock Valley College theatre department.

I had just turned 20 the day before.

The power was already out by the time the noise of the storm had woken me up. It was near dawn, but the sky, from what I can remember, was an ominous shade of dark gray; the rain fell, and pummeled everything it touched; the winds howled with an otherworldliness, bending, and in some cases, breaking the trees that it caressed.

The lightning flashed through the windows like a strobe light—brightly illuminating everything for just a moment before flickering out again and fading away.

Rockford, IL July 5, 2003

I stumbled around my mother’s apartment, clueless as to where I could find a flashlight. The sound of the thunder, wind, and rain was practically deafening—creating an awful, frenetic cacophony that had jolted me out of bed with a heart that wouldn’t stop racing.

My mother missed it all—she was out of town for the Fourth of July weekend; but in the darkness and occasional bright, violent flashes of light from the storm, I wasn’t alone. The girl I was involved with for a number of years in college had come down to visit me for my birthday—she looked out the window, hoping that one of the trees on my street wouldn’t fall on her car, while I looked around as best I could, in the darkness, for a flashlight.

We spent the next two days without power—the weekend crept along strangely, and slowly. Once the storm passed, the heat and humidity of early July returned, and we’d occasionally get in her car and drive around to other, less residential parts of the city that may have power—the big box stores positioned on the sprawly, east end of town were open, apparently unaffected, and we sought temporary reprieve offered by the air conditioning.

In her car, we found ourselves transfixed by a talk radio station based out of Rockford—possibly a Christian, or spiritual station—it seemed to be the place that was offering any kind of information on the gravity of the storms, and what people in the community were doing in their wake.

* * *

I haven’t really thought about that storm, or the aftermath of seemingly endless days without electricity, since then—but in the last 15 years, I stop short of saying that I am ‘afraid’ of severe storms, but I will say that they have taught me to be apprehensive.

I had been living in Northfield for roughly three months when the now locally infamous hail storm of August 24th, 2006, decimated, like, pretty much everything in town. Hail the size of softballs fell with reckless abandon from the sky—nearly every house in the community received a new roof out of it.

Northfield Hail 2006

I was working at Target at the time; my car was parked in the employee section of the parking lot, and the staff was all huddled in the back, near the fitting rooms. We were instructed to keep away from the main entrance for our own safety, and I can remember hearing the ominous sounds of hail stones bouncing off the building and shattering on the pavement.

At one point, I wandered away from the group—my morbid curiosity over what was happening outside got the best of me. I walked slowly toward the store’s front entrance, and all I could see was white. Another employee yelled at me for being too close to the glass doors during a severe weather emergency.

My car fared better than some others—some windshields were completely smashed, with glass bits sprinkled on the driver’s seat and dashboard. My 2002 Chevy Cavalier—a car I still drive, despite my best efforts—was only dented1 in countless places. One, in particular, on the curve of the trunk, looked like somebody had made a tight fist, and punched it as hard as they could.

Because of this, I’ve spent the 12 years or more hell bent on putting the car in covered areas when able—when we were house hunting in 2009, if the property didn’t have a garage, it was a deal breaker—as well as, overall, trying to be more aware of the impending weather forecasts.

* * *

If you check my Google search history2, you would find there are things I search for pretty regularly, rather than remembering a specific web address, or just bookmarking a page—like the public library’s website so I can search the catalog, information on when to use e.g. or i.e., or ‘signs you are having a nervous breakdown.’3

The difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning is another thing that I have had to search on more than one occasion, because I never remember which one is to be taken more seriously.

I mean, the intent is you take both seriously—but the implications of one are far worse than the other. A Tornado Watch means that the weather conditions are favorable for a tornado to occur, so be mindful; a Tornado Warning means that shit is probably going to happen, so take cover.

I was reminded of this recently—Thursday, September 20th—as I sat on the steps leading down to my basement. My phone was jolting to life every couple of seconds with severe weather statements from my weather app, and the community’s severe weather alert sirens were blaring endlessly in the atmosphere outside, creating a palpable sense of dread that I could do without.

“Tornado Warning,” I said to myself, clutching my phone in one hand, with my computer resting on my lap. “Is that the bad one?”

A quick internet search revealed to me that it is, in fact, the bad one.

It was about then that the power went out.

* * *

Two years ago4, the last time there was a seriously severe storm in Northfield and we lost power for an extended amount of time, I learned we needed more than a few candles that were burned down to the wick and the one ‘good’ flashlight we keep under the kitchen sink.

Shortly after this occurred, I purchased a USB powered Coleman lantern that, somehow, manages to hold a charge for a really, really long time.

It seems worth noting that, at this point, I am home alone—as I was two years ago during the storm in July 2016; at that time, my wife was in the neighboring town, at rehearsal for a production of The Little Mermaid. This time, she is in a yoga class, and has left her phone at her office, rendering her completely unaware of the severe weather quickly approaching, and what will transpire next.

After losing power, with only a small amount of light coming in through the windows to illuminate my search, I manage to find the lantern, and I return to my post on the basement steps—not quite wanting to admit that I should really just go all the way into the basement to seek shelter.

I take a dramatic photo of the lantern resting on the steps, and using a moody black and white filter, I make it my Instagram story. I refresh the Rice County Skywarn Facebook page, hoping to find more information other than the obvious—that there’s a Tornado Warning, and that this shit is serious.

It’s when I hear the first loud thud against the house, coming from outside, that I decide I should probably descend the rest of the steps, and actually go into the basement.

It’s when I hear the second, even louder thud against the house, coming from outside, that I wonder if this is how it ends.

* * *

There’s something nauseating and surreal about inspecting the damage done by a storm. If you’ve ever been involved in a car accident, maybe you’ll understand this feeling—and what you tell yourself moments before impact. You can see that the accident is about to happen, you realize that there is really no way out of it, and in giving in to the inevitable, you think to yourself, “Maybe this isn’t going to be that bad.”

Where is my house?

No. It’s always going to be that bad.

The weather alerts on my phone tell me that the Tornado Warning is in effect until 7:30 p.m., but well before that, the community’s severe weather sirens finally stop howling, which leads me to believe that it’s okay to come out of the basement.

The first thing I notice is the overwhelmingly large portion of a tree in our backyard—a silver maple—that is now on our back deck. I can’t even really see much of the deck anymore. All I see is this tree, and how it has crushed a portion of the deck’s railing.

This is fine.

I look out the living room window, and notice that the tree in our front yard is gone completely. There is now a huge hole in our lawn, where the tree used to be, and the tree itself is lying in the street, blocking most of the road.

I am okay with the things that are happening.

A very, very large branch lies across the width of the driveway. It’s landed mere centimeters in front of my 2002 Chevy Cavalier. My wife’s car—a 2015 Ford Fiesta, new, still not paid for—is parked in her office’s lot, where it is miraculously unharmed.

In the darkness of my front yard, the end of my driveway filled with rainwater that can’t drain into the storm sewer fast enough, an entire fucking tree in my street—in that darkness, you realize you take simple things like streetlights for granted. There is a streetlight at the very edge of our property. I never really think too much about it—it’s just always there, casting a small pool of light into the blackness.

Tonight, it isn’t—the power’s still out, and it won’t come back on for another four hours. As I hold my Coleman lantern up, frantically trying to survey just all of the damage in the front yard, I receive a text message from the power company, telling me an outage ‘may be impacting’ my area.

I laugh. Since I stepped outside to begin looking at the wreckage of my street, I can’t stop laughing. Because it’s all you can do. Sure, you could cry, too, I guess—if you are able. But as I look around, all I can do is let out a loud, hearty, “HA!” over, and over again.

* * *

I’m not prepared for what I find in the back of the house. While I’m aware that a branch, or limb, or whatever we want to call it a this point, has fallen onto the back deck—I let out an audible gasp when I round the corner from the front of the house, to the back, and see just how big of a portion of the tree is no longer on the tree and is, instead, taking up a large portion of the backyard, and my house.

Not only has this portion of the tree crushed part of the deck’s railing, it has also made its way onto the roof, where it’s ripped free a substantial part of the gutter, and partially torn its way into the edge of the garage.

Since the severe weather sirens had finally stopped, I’m not the only one who has made their way outside to survey the damage; but while I’m busy taking in the gravity of my own situation, neighbors from all ends of the street come flooding out all wandering through the darkness, all with the same mix of concern and bewilderment on their faces.

“Everybody okay?” a neighbor from a few houses down asks me. I don’t know his name—we don’t really know any of our neighbors well; enough to wave as the drive by the house, sure, but I don’t know anyone’s name.

We’ve lived here for nearly a decade.

“Yeah,” I muster. “Sure. I’m fine. This tree isn’t—that tree isn’t,” I continue, motioning to the tree that is still in the street that seems to be acting like a magnet for the neighbors to congregate around, all of them rubbernecking around, wondering who sustained the most damage.

My neighbor and I both look toward the roof of my house and I point the lantern toward it—I look at the large piece of tree, now resting there, the leaves rustling in the winds that are still blowing.

“Well,” my neighbor begins. “The government will tell you that this storm didn’t happen.”

I laugh—nervously. Because that’s all you can do.

It starts to rain—not a hard rain, but not soft, either. A steady rain. I don’t even flinch, or think about going inside again, or getting an umbrella to carry around while I futilely survey the rest of the damage.

The rain falls.

The water beads on the lenses of my glasses.

In the air, I realize that, in between the stillness of the night, all I can hear are the sirens of emergency vehicles—ambulances, police, the fire department. The speed with which the sirens howl and oscillate is unnerving.

The water soaks the black word gloves on my hands. The drops continue to fall from the sky, landing on my t-shirt.

My boots—cheap Timberland knock-offs—fill with water as I wade through the now shin deep reservoir that has collected at the end of the driveway, cascading into the street and into my front yard.

I begin to wonder how I’m going to get the branch out of the driveway so that my wife can put her car in the garage for the night.

This is fine. 

I am okay with the things that are happening here

The rain falls.

* * *

I’m standing in the middle of the driveway, wondering how I am going to get this branch out of the way, when my phone begins to buzz in my back pocket.

My wife, Wendy, has emerged from her yoga class, and is calling to make sure that I am still alive—and to tell me that she is still alive, and will be attempting to come home soon. I warn her about the tree in the driveway, the tree in the street, and all of the people wandering around in the darkness.

The usually two minute drive from downtown Northfield to our house takes her much, much longer, simply because of just how many trees are blocking roads provides the time needed to roll the branch out the driveway, and into the front yard, with the assistance of my neighbor, the one who joked about the government saying this storm never really happened, as well as our next door neighbor—I never remember her name5, and I should, for as many times as I’ve received her mail erroneously in my mailbox. I think it may be Cassandra, maybe? Something like that—she’s the kind of woman I presume is not to be trifled with; she and her husband have lived next door to us for, like, at least five years, and in the summer months, with the windows open, I can hear their heated exchanges about finances.

In the winter, when she shovels the driveway, a long, lit cigarette dangles effortlessly from her lips.

The three of us work to awkwardly pull and roll the branch across the driveway, into the yard. The rain continues to fall, and even with the cooler air brought in by the storm, the damp conditions have brought out the mosquitoes. They swarm around my head and arms.

My wife eventually makes it home; her car slowly idles down the street—the headlights piercing through the darkness, illuminating all of the people standing around in the street, and in front yards, commiserating about the storm.

She parks in the garage and I take her around to the back of the house to show her the extent of the damage—it’s then that I stop thinking about myself for just a second, and I worry about the wild animals that frequent our backyard: the rabbit with the large, fuzzy dewlap—I hope she’s okay, and found a place to seek shelter; the raccoon and possum who occasionally come by to eat seed and bread heels from our bird feeder—where do they go during the day? And where are they now? The squirrels and birds that made their home, or at least spent a lot of their time, in the tree—the tree that is now lying on the ground, and on the back deck, and on the roof—where will they go?

Wendy finds candles leftover from the centerpieces at our wedding reception, and we use those to provide a small amount of

light throughout the house. We sit on the couch, eating hummus, crackers, and a cucumber, almost in total darkness—not really sure where to begin, or what to do next.

I call our insurance rep, and leave a message—I try to keep things good natured by saying, “I’m sure you’ve received a lot of calls tonight.”

In the morning, on Friday, we’re supposed to drive to Illinois to visit my mother—but as we, again, look at all the devastation surrounding us, we wonder if we can even leave town.

I say that we can either cancel the trip, stay here for three days, and be sad while we stare at all the downed limbs around us; or, we can leave town, try not to worry about it, and be sad somewhere else.

We leave at 10 a.m. Friday morning. I can’t even get out of the driveway because there are still so many people wandering around on the street, gawking, and cars driving slowly, the passengers inside all stare slack jawed at what has occurred.

* * *

On Monday, an insurance adjuster arrives to assess our situation. He wanders around our property, and the roof of the house, for roughly 45 minutes. The pick up truck he drives is gigantic—he says his wife is inside, processing claims on a laptop, but I can’t see in through the tinted windows.

He tells us we’ll need to repaint the siding on the backside of the house—the siding is, quite literally, the least of my concerns right now. The tree crushing the back deck and covering a third of the backyard is my concern.

The hole he finds in the roof is my concern.

He says he’ll try to get us a new roof—and that the insurance company will take care of us; He assures us the reason he works for them is that they take care of their customers.

The check for claim arrives four days later. We will not be taken care of—not in the way we had originally, maybe naïvely, anticipated.

We try to regulate our outrage and frustration—are we upset because we are middle class white people who demand to have our needs met? Are we one asymmetrical haircut and a t-shirt that reads ‘Wine Mom’ away from being the person who always needs to talk to the manager?

Some people in neighboring communities were without power for a full 24 hours—in some cases, even longer than that. Entire buildings and livelihoods were destroyed in an instant.

Just weeks prior to this, the East Coast faced another hurricane.

People in Puerto Rico are still living without electricity.

We are just inconvenienced.

This is fine.

I am okay with the things that are happening.

* * *

Skeleton Tree

Late on Thursday, after the storm has come and gone, but before the power comes back on, a skid loader coasts down our street and begins the task of pushing the tree that was once in our front yard out of the road. We stand in front of our bedroom window and watch as best we can as the small piece of equipment jerks itself forward and backward, awkwardly and carelessly pushing the tree.

The sound of the metal bucket dragging and tearing up the pavement on the street isn’t great—but that’s not what gets to

Wendy; no, it’s when the tree is pushed that you hear a horrific sound of branches and limbs, snapping and breaking. Maybe everything is heightened because of what we’ve just been through in the last couple of hours, but the sound is exaggerated and upsetting—akin to how graphic a bone breaking in a movie sounds.

We hear this noise over and over, mixed with the metal bucket scraping the road and the engine of the skid loader rumbling as it drives forward and then suddenly backs up.

It’s after we hear the initial wave of branches breaking that Wendy loses it and starts sobbing. She looks away from the window and rests her forehead on my shoulder, heaving, as I continue to stare out into the darkness—the tree, illuminated from the lamps attached to the skid loader, looks skeletal.

She continues to cry and I put my arm around her; I wince, and brace myself, each time we hear the awful snapping and breaking.

It’s not like this tree even really meant anything special to us—it’s not like we planted it ourselves, or watched it grow over the nine years we have been in the house. It came with the house; it provided shade to our bedroom against the morning sun, and we both occasionally hit our heads on the lower branches when trying to cut the grass underneath.

It hasn’t even been out of the ground all that long—only a few hours have passed since the storm came through, and the tree isn’t dead yet—but it is slowly dying—faster now, I guess, since some hapless City of Northfield employee is ramming it over and over again with a construction vehicle.

It isn’t dead yet, but it will die and maybe that’s why she’s so upset and why the sounds coming from outside our bedroom window are so sickening to hear—because of a recent and unspeakable loss we have already endured and, as best we can, are trying still to live through; because of losses from the past that you never really quite process, despite what you tell yourself.

It’s about the tree, but it’s not about the tree.

In the end, within this moment, in the darkness that has engulfed us, surrounded by the awful noises—the tree becomes something more than itself.

Sunday morning, skeleton tree—Oh, nothing is for free
In the window, a candle…Well, maybe you can see
Fallen leaves thrown across the sky—A jittery TV, glowing white like fire
Nothing is for free
I called out, I called out—right across the sea
But the echo comes back empty—and nothing is for free

-Nick Cave6

 

 

1– This is not exactly true, but it would be too difficult to explain in the essay proper—as it turns out, a hail stone hit the car with just the right force to make a small crack within the glass of the windshield itself. The crack is not on the exterior; nor is it on the interior. It is within the glass, and it grows every time I open and close the door, so I end up having the windshield replaced.

2– I would really discourage you from doing this.

3– In all of my searches about my mental health, it turns out the term ‘nervous breakdown’ is a little antiquated, and not really used anymore.

4– In my second piece for The Next Ten Words, I revisited the aftermath of the 2016 storm—specifically the problems I had with my neighbor, who I referred to as a ‘garbage person.’ Some well to do community member commented on the piece in question, and told me my choice of words was ‘disturbing and mean.’ For those wondering, nothing of ours damaged our neighbor’s property this time around; he did lose two trees, and was maybe on the receiving end of some damage from things in the yard of the neighbor next to him—a neighbor I call ‘conceal and carry guy.’ Despite my opinion of our 85 year old, alcoholic neighbor not having changed in the last two years, he, to his credit, did not say anything to us at all as we attempted to clean up our own damage.

5– Her name is Cassie—or Cassandra—which I knew, or thought I knew, because of how many times her mail has wound up in our mail box.

6– Rarely do I give a ‘suggested soundtrack’ for anything I’ve written for this site—sometimes I don’t even listen to music when I write these, mostly because I need a lot of focus, but I would ask that you, when you have a private moment, please listen to the song “Skeleton Tree” by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds.

 

 

Kevin Krein has been operating the award winning music blog Anhedonic Headphones, since 2013, and he contributed the back page column to the Southern Minn Scene magazine for roughly three years. He occasionally contributes to Bearded Gentlemen Music, and his writing has appeared in River Valley Woman and The Wagazine. Please follow him on ‘the socials’: @KevEFly (Twitter), or @kev_e_fly (Instagram.)

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