3:2: “Storm Comes A’Calling”, by Jeremiah Tolbert

3:2: “Storm Comes A’Calling”, by Jeremiah Tolbert

Storm’s coming. Sky’s like a sack of rotten cotton overhead, and the air’s hot,
wet. Tastes like copper. My jaw aches where Too Slim Jake broke it in ’48.
Disagreement over a girl, of course. Always hurts with a storm coming, always
brings back memories heavy as thunderheads. Too Slim’s been dead twenty years
— shot robbing a liquor store in Chicago. Too many gone that lowdown way.
I ease on out of my chair on the porch, looking for it. The axe leans against
doorframe. Handle’s worn smooth by hard hands. Blade’s sharp though. Daddy
always said, never let a storm breaking axe get dull. Come to think, this axe was
his. Changed the handle, of course. Broke the old one God knows how long ago.
It’s so heavy in my hands, I can barely lift it. Wind’s blowing through the bottle
tree out yonder like a dying woman’s moan. Fool spirits want to play, but I ain’t
having it. No time. I half-drag the axe down the porch steps, ka-thunk, ka-thunk,
ka-thunk. Then I shuffle through the dry, red dust around back.
White linens flapping in the wind, shirtsleeves grasping for hold. Lightning flashes
off past the river, one, two, three, four… thunder rolls over me like a wave of panic.
Storm’s got a lot of anger in it, an old Mississippi monster burdened down with
God’s own tears.
I heft the axe. Lighter now, and warm in my palms. My old bones creak, I lift it
over my head. I stare at the groove in the ground, beaten into the land. Many a storm
been broke here. Too many, maybe. Lightning strikes again, then thunder before I
even count to one. Only afterimages left, just like family.
Mattie’s gone. Louis living in Detroit with his daughter. Brothers, dead. Sisters,
dead. I got a cousin somewhere, on the river. Storm’s the only company I got anymore.
Maybe I won’t break this one, I’m thinking. I could use a guest. Then it’s too late.
He’s walking out of the fields, crows flocking overhead like a swarm of night. Rain
drops splattering in the dust. Storm Man reaches out with his arms and lightning
dances between his fingers.
“Suppose you’ll be wanting some coffee,” I say when he’s there, breathing static
on my face and looking at me with old-bone-colored eyes.
“That’d be just fine,” he growls, shaking raindrops from his long overcoat like a
wet dog. Times were, he took that form. “How’s your sister?”
“Dead.”
“She had some legs on her. Shame.”
“That it is,” I say, and shuffle back towards the house. “Come on then.”
Storm Man drifts behind me, bobbing up and down like a twig in the river while
he surveys the place. Been a long time since he’s been allowed here. All around,
rain’s coming down heavy; wind builds up and slants it sideways, tiny rat teeth biting
hard.
I set the axe down beside my chair, go into the kitchen and put the pot on, and
pour some of that instant garbage into the paper filter. I step back out. Storm Man
sits in Mattie’s old chair. I don’t have the guts to tell him off, but he sees the look
in my eyes and flashes teeth in a grin. Thunder rolls around like balls on a billiard
table.
“What you been up to all these years?” I ask. I know where he’s been, but I got
to be polite to him. I get that Weather Channel. Too Slim’s grandson hooked me up
the cable.
“Oh…bounced around the Caribbean for a long while. Got chased off by some
Haitians one day. Drifted out to sea and seen the Canary Islands. You ever been to
the Canary Islands?”
“Can’t say that I have.”
“Not missing much.” A blast of light burns my eyes, and the porch shakes beneath
my callused feet. The old apple tree behind the shed smokes up like a chimney.
Unripe apples fall down everywhere, sounding like hail. Storm Man laughs.
“What you?” He nods my way. I half expect another bolt to come crashing down,
but it don’t yet.
“I got myself married. We had children. Spend a lot of time going to funerals,
these days.”
Storm Man is staring out at the river valley. Funnel clouds spin in the sky. “I
hardly recognize this land.”
“Ain’t that the way it goes,” I say. Only sound is rain and thunder. Sky’s getting
dark.
I get the coffee, bring him a mug with a chipped handle and pink flowers on the
side. Storm Man cups it in his big black hands and breathes in. Fog rolls in off the
river.
“You still play?” he asks.
“Now and then,” I say. “Hey, if you’re gonna flood this valley…”
“Never you mind that. Where’s your old geetar?” I reach behind the door and pull
out the weathered black leather case. The stickers are faded. I can see a place name
here and there. Memphis. Detroit. London.
I take out Lou Ann and offer her to him. He shakes his head. He’s reaching down
inside that flapping coat and pulling out a silver and red harmonica. I remember this
from before, the old days.

Early early one morning, water was comin’ in my door
Early one morning, water was comin’ in my door
It was the old high river, tellin’ us to get ready and go

It was dark and it was rainin’, you could hear that howlin’ wind
It was dark and it was rainin’, baby you could hear that howlin’ wind
If I get away this time, I will never come here again

Ain’t heard Big Bill Broozy in years, but the storm’s got a memory a thousand
miles long. I can hear waves on the river all the way from here. Storm Man’s brother
slapping his knees to the rhythm. I pick along, best I can.

Hey my baby was cryin’, I didn’t have a thing to eat
Hey hey hey, I didn’t have a thing to eat
Hey the water had come in, wash everything I had down the street

Soon the river’s lapping at my porch steps. The power goes out with a bang. The
only light is in Storm Man’s eyes, in the flash of his grin.
I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around
Hey that looks like people, I’ve gotta stay right here and drown
Hey I was hollerin’ for mercy, and it weren’t no boats around

Maybe I’ll do just that, like the song says. My old house is shaking and rolling.
The old foundation just can’t hold against his song. We float down the river.
Ain’t been on the river in a decade, at least. I’ve forgotten him, but he hasn’t
forgotten me. Water up to my knees, Storm Man’s laughing and blowing. I keep
playing ’til the song is done.

Hey my house started shakin’, started floatin’ on down the stream
Hey my house started shakin’, went on floatin’ on down the stream
It was dark as midnight, people began to holler and scream

“Old man, if you could take my place, would you?” he asks. The music is still in
the air over thunder and rain and river water.
“And what? Rage up and down the valley? Destroy homes, blow hard and wet?”
I shake my head. “Why would I want that?”
“You know why.”
“Maybe.”
“You ain’t got long.”
“I know.”
A flathead big as me swims by, whiskers tickling my toes.
Down to Hell everlasting, or the river, the sea, and the great Mississippi River
skies. Not much of a choice he gives me, but Storm Man doesn’t play by rules.
“Who’ll be there to stop us then?”
Storm Man grins.
“That it? No more storm breakers. Get me on your side, and there’s nothing to
stop us blowing.”
He nods. “Either way, your time’s over.” The water is up to my neck. I can see
the great Gulf open up before me through the rain and fog.
“It’s been nice having you,” I say, “but I think I’m going to pass.”
He shrugs. Rain stops for a moment. “Maybe next time then.”
“Maybe.”
The axe is there when I need it.
Summer now. The grass is green, field’s growing tall, and the flies buzz everywhere.
I’m waiting, watching the horizon for the rotten-cotton clouds. Fall won’t be long
— never is at my age. Rain will come then, and maybe him. I don’t know what it’ll
be next time.
But I’m still here, for now. I’m still here.

Jeremiah Tolbert currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming with his
wife and assorted pets. He works as a technology manager for a
Wyoming’s third largest credit union and enjoys smashing old
hard drives with large hammers to protect member data.
“Storm Comes A’Callin” was inspired by a  phtograph by Bill
Steber, award winning photographer.



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