Around five o’clock one evening, an emergency notice came on my phone, advising me to seek shelter immediately. Then the tornado sirens began to wail.
My wife Cathy and I gathered up our orange tabby, Stella the Cat, and headed to our basement. The rain came and the hail. Then, everything went still. The wind calmed. The rain stopped. “Here it comes,” I said.
Because I grew up in the Midwest and have been through more than one tornado, I know that often just before the funnel cloud touches down an eerie calm sets in.
So it is with a good short story. Everything that’s been building from the beginning—all the tensions, both on the surface and submerged—come to a head. The characters are on the precipice; the narrative is at its tipping point. Something’s about to happen—the final action—and when it does, it’ll change everything forever.
I’m talking about the penultimate moment in a narrative. It’s the deadly calm before the end. It’s the moment where everything hangs in the balance. It’s the place in the narrative where we need to make ample space for the silence in order to make the final move all the more resonant.
In “Across the Street,” a story from my forthcoming collection, The Mutual UFO Network, a man, Jim, who suffers from schizophrenia, disturbs his neighbors with his odd, sometimes menacing behavior, especially his night-time habit of lying in the middle of the street to watch the stars. “Someone’s going to get hurt,” one of the neighbors says at one point. Sure enough at the end of the story, on a night when Comet ISON is about to appear, a car comes very close to hitting Jim. The action of the narrative is nearly complete, but the significance of that action—what it means to Jim, his parents, and his neighbors—isn’t. It’s the place in the narrative where I want to provide sufficient space before the final action dramatizes what it means. To do that, I have to slow the pace. I have to let the camera lens look outward while also bringing the perspective in close to the characters. Jim’s mother has asked him if he knows where he is: “I’m in my neighborhood,” he said. “I’m in my neighborhood, and these are my neighbors.” Here’s the rest of the story:
As if summoned, as if Jim had created each of them, the neighbors began to speak. They were able to tell Miriam and Tom the story of how, throughout the autumn, it had been Jim’s habit to come out at night to lie down in the street to gaze up at the stars. Working together, each adding to the story, they were able to tell it in a way that didn’t pass judgment on Jim or on Miriam and Tom. Even Artie was subdued. He offered Jim his hand, and Jim took it, and Artie helped him to stand. Tippy and Glory brushed the dust from his back with gentle sweeps of their hands, and Miriam struggled to hold back her tears, so overwhelmed she was by the sight of them treating her son with kindness and concern.
“I didn’t mean to disturb anyone,” Jim said, and his voice was so apologetic, so injured with the thought that he’d caused them alarm, that for a while no one knew quite what to say. Then Bart stepped forward to suggest that everyone come down to their house and sit on the deck. He’d light a fire in the fire pit, he said, and he’d help them all take a look through his telescope, and like that they’d keep watch for the comet—the comet of the century, he reminded them.
“Nothing like it as long as we live,” he said.
One by one, they looked up at the sky. They stood in the middle of the street and looked up, as if waiting for some blessing to find them, these neighbors, glad for now to be where they were, in each other’s company, on Thanksgiving, the way people were meant to be.
In the case of this story, the moment of calm leads, as it did the evening Cathy and I and Stella the Cat sought safety in our basement, to a moment of grace, a moment of community and neighbors looking out for one another. The penultimate moment could have just as easily led to a final moment of destruction, but perhaps that would have been the more predictable path. Perhaps the surprise is in the fact that the danger ends up bringing the neighbors closer together. The point is nothing can resonate without creating a space around the final moves of a story.
The evening of our tornado, we came up from our basement to a house still intact but without power, which meant a non-functioning sump pump without which our basement would take in water. Our neighbor, Dave, helped us keep that from happening by bringing over a gas-powered generator from time to time to pump out the sump. Later, he would lend us a generator and wire it to our furnace so we could have heat. The night the power finally came on, our refrigerator began to chime. “What the heck was that?” Cathy said. Two faint chimes. A matter of seconds. Then the power was on. That moment of calm and uncertainty before the end. I’ll remember it always. The way we were in one world and yet about to enter another. A moment of held breath. A moment of quiet before the story’s final action. A moment of darkness into light.