Return of the Easterlies

Amy Suzanne Parker

 

My father is eight, playing outside in Florida, during a hurricane. He has a buzzcut and a plaid shirt and overalls on. He’s squinting out at the world, giving it a grin that’s missing a few teeth, scrunching up his freckled face. He’s in the eye. Everything is still within it. Outside it, the winds whip and howl. The rain slants, and the thunder and lightning take turns. He watches as the hurricane swishes the water from Tampa Bay around the area. He is not afraid. He feels electric.

I hold onto this scene for years, telling a few people about it. When I ask my Dad later about the experience, he says that never happened. He never told me that story. I swear he did. I see it in my head. It’s so clear.

The summer after my mom dies, my dad takes a week-long road trip from Florida to St. Louis to Binghamton, New York and back. First, he visits my brother, Tim, then swings back east to me.

Dad and I sit on the couch in my apartment’s living room. Because my boyfriend, Robert, is away in Tampa for work, it’s just us. The air conditioner is on full blast; even in New York state, it gets hot. Dad pats his hands against his knees, stretching them out, and tugs on the end of his cargo shorts.

He takes a deep breath. “There is something I need to tell you. I told Tim. It’s a secret I kept from Mom.”

Not knowing what to expect, I say, “Okay.” My mind swishes with possibilities, so many I can’t even pin one down. I have a dry mouth, a sandpaper tongue. My dad is not one to keep secrets.

“In 2005, I told your mother that I was going on a business trip.”

I know it couldn’t be true. I know my dad was not unfaithful. There’s too much family history. It’s a reason why my parents’ relationship worked so well—both grew up in a family in which one of the parents cheated. Mom’s parents stayed together. Dad’s parents divorced.

“When really, I went down to Lake Okeechobee to chase a hurricane.”

I sigh and laugh in relief. I’m not surprised. It makes perfect sense knowing my dad.

“I went down to Clewiston, on the edge of the lake,” he explains. “I drove into the storm with my old-fashioned barometer in the car.” I remember the wooden panel with the three golden circles. Their faces had tiny hands and lines. For the longest time, I thought they were clocks.

Clewiston. That word is familiar. It’s the network name of my parents’ wifi connection in Gainesville. When I first visited them, after they moved from Pinellas County in 2013, I was confused as to why it was Clewiston instead of one of our pet’s names: Scruffy, Snowball, Baxter, etc.

Dad stares in the empty space in front of him, his eyes glossed over.

“I had a stakeout on the edge of the eye, near a field of banana trees. I drove a little bit, right into the eye. The sand and rocks blasted the paint off my car!”

I was in college when this happened, so I don’t know how Mom and Tim were able to get past the weathered paint job on my dad’s white Ford Explorer. Mom’s gone, and Tim, who was in high school at the time, doesn’t remember any of this.

Dad’s eyes glow now that he’s animated. He describes the winds. His hands fly, mowing down invisible rows of banana trees. I think of an airplane. The water from Lake Okeechobee surged, flooding the shore. My granddad was a pilot. Even Dad had a pilot’s license before Mom forbid him from renewing it. She was so afraid of flying. I remember his desktop wallpaper with the bare banana trees, back when we lived in Pinellas County. He always pointed it out to me and Tim but never said anything about being there.

I can picture my dad as one of those meteorologists flying into the eye of the storm, like his here, Tampa Bay’s Channel 13 chief meteorologist Roy Leep. In his younger days, he was known for his no-nonsense forecasts, but as he got older, he dressed up his Cairn terrier, Scud, in little outfits and showed her at the end of his segment. I loved Scud, the only reason I paid attention to Leep’s forecasts. She was an excellent model for tiny raincoats.

“If another hurricane comes within driving distance of Gainesville, I might go storm chasing.”

I smile. If he has to go, he might as well go in a storm, doing what he loves.

I complain about the New York heat, and he laughs. “It’s in the nineties back home. It’s the return of the easterlies.” I ask him what he means.

“When Uncle Bill and I were young, we noticed the east winds sweeping over the state in the summertime. We call it the return of the easterlies,” he repeats.

“If there is another hurricane that you chase, I want to go with you,” I say. Now that I’m an adult, I’m interested in storms, the aesthetics rather than the data. I want to see the inside of a hurricane, too, know its secrets. Of course, I can’t—the most active part of hurricane season coincides with the fall semester.

“That would be great,” he says and smirks. Mom always said Dad and I have the same thought patterns, like air currents, shifts in wind.

He shakes his leg up and down. Mom hated that.

Tree branches smack the windows. The leaves shiver against the glass, and the clouds stir and clash, and I hear thunder, or rather God’s hungry tummy, as my grandparents probably told me. I sit in the living room on the carpet. My red portable radio makes scratchy sounds. I am trying to drown out the storm with music, probably some upbeat ‘90s pop like Amy Grant or Whitney Houston. It’s impossible, though, due to the crackling and rumbling outside. He mumbles to himself, noting things like wind speed and the sturdiness of the construction of the neighborhood houses. Dad works for the family-owned commercial construction company. Every few minutes or so, Dad walks outside and Mom yells at him to stay indoors, to not drag so much water in. He’s holding his trusty barometer, the three-headed clock as I know it. Our Yorkie is soaked, a large, wet rat; she tries to escape whenever someone opens the door. She zooms back and forth along as Dad paces.

The living room opens up to the family room. Dad walks from the front door to the TV in the family room to switch channels, then goes back outside into the storm through the family room’s French doors, then back to the front door. His little meteorological monologues carry over the smooth jazz stylings that play in the background of the Weather Channel. Mom is in bed—she is on medication for her OCD, an old tricyclic whose main side effects are drowsiness and weight gain. Later, she will say that she slept through our childhoods. Even though she’s not monitoring Dad herself, she has instilled in us that he isn’t to be trusted when it comes to not getting struck by lightning, blown away, or smacked by debris.

I stare out the window into our front yard. Something about the rhythms of the storm comforts me, like how some people fall asleep to the sound of rain. I’ve learned not to be afraid. All the meteorologists on TV stand outside in front of the cameras getting drenched in the sideways rain. Dad updates us on the air pressure, meaningless numbers to me, and in between slides of blue, the Weather Channel shows clouds of red, yellow, and green dots on the radar and Pinellas County in red. On TV, power lines sink and spark.

I wonder what Sand Key, part of Clearwater Beach, looks like now. That’s our favorite spot, where Tim and I ruin each other’s sand sculptures and watch the orange sun blur into the horizon. I imagine brown palm fronds flapping across the beach. One time, Dad, Tim, and I watched three waterspouts swirl off the coast. Their black bodies bent over, like old ladies. Dad recorded it on the family camcorder. Mom didn’t find out until she walked in on us watching the tape.

I remember another time when I stood with them in the parking lot of my dad’s office building. He taught us how to determine the center of a storm: Face the wind, hold your right arm out so it’s perpendicular to your side, and where you point is the center. The low is on your left, the high on your right. I spun around, thinking more of Maria from The Sound of Music than a hurricane.

If it gets bad enough, tornadoes will form, Dad says, and we’ll need to move into the closet in my parents’ master bathroom. He says it’s the safest place in the house. I think about the little fingers touching down from the sky. I think of Dorothy and The Wizard of Oz and wonder why we don’t have a basement. It seems necessary. I ask him why, and he starts going on about construction again, so I stop listening.

Dad is a math nerd. Always has been. Something about calculus makes sense to him. Numbers form his native state. When the winds and rain come, his body sparks alive. Some people claim to feel bad weather approaching in their bones; Dad’s intuitive math interprets atmospheric conditions. He reads the sky. His body responds in the language of adrenaline.

Dad has always taken care of us. While Mom “slept through our childhoods,” Dad cooked, cleaned, and entertained us, taking us to his office while he worked on the weekends. Except when Mom slept, she lived in a storm of numbers. She described the onset of her OCD as a dark cloud descending upon her in the quad of the University of Florida. She was 20, two years into her and my dad’s relationship. If I remember what she told me correctly, she didn’t tell my dad about her OCD until after I was born, but all that time he knew something was wrong.

My mom had us repeat certain words and phrases, something that really annoyed Dad, who refused to do so most of the time, but he always ended up giving in. A word would stick in her head (“Say ‘photograph’”), and she’d ask us to repeat it so that it was said an even number of times. Dad tried to resist these efforts, sometimes teasing her by saying part of the word: “photo,” but Mom either demanded or begged for him to repeat. Eventually, he said, “graph.” Tim and I always said the words because we didn’t want to incur Mom’s wrath.

As Mom read, as someone spoke, she’d add up the values of different letters: A=1, B=2, Z=26, in words. As a kid, I thought it was cool that she could calculate, like the tax machine Tim and I played with in my dad’s office, calculating nonsense numbers in red on a spool of paper. But as I got older, something in me resisted. I was great at math through middle school, but when I started high school, I was diagnosed with OCD. I blocked numbers from entering my brain, conjuring a deliberate mental fog. I didn’t want to end up like my mother—I already had too much in common with her: the mental illness, short stature, and apple-shaped body with her face. To this day, I cannot calculate numbers in my head. I can’t figure out the weather.

The heat of the water in the Gulf or the Atlantic energizes hurricanes. The warm water turns into water vapor as it condenses. Heat rises, lowering the air pressure. The surface winds (the easterlies, for example) speed up the evaporation process and strengthen the storm. A small amount of wind shear—horizontal winds blowing at different directions, different angles, and different altitudes—keeps the storm together. The eyewall sucks the winds, causes them to knit together, and increases their spin. This is all I understand.

Do the winds really come from the east during the summer? Certain areas of Florida are susceptible to different directions of wind. From the Tampa area, where I’m from, there’s “an increasing trend of east winds,” according to a book on Florida’s weather and climate, and for the whole state, between March 21 and September 22, “the zone of rising air and cloud cover is near the equator and winds from the northeast collide into winds from the southeast.” The return of the easterlies.

My parents met on September 23, 1970 at the University of Florida. Still hurricane season, but the end of the east winds over Florida. However, the African easterly jet winds return toward the equator at their strongest during this month. Tropical waves form, turning into tropical cyclones. Hurricanes brew. Hazel storms form in my mother’s eyes, and Dad sees the spark.

The wind picks up outside, and bare branches shake. It’s fall in Binghamton, and I’m sitting in front of a lamp—one of those light therapy ones that mimics sunshine. Binghamton is ranked no. 10 in the country for the most precipitation. I never had seasonal affective disorder until I moved here. The temperature hovers around freezing, but it’s sunny and in the 70s in Florida. Dad likes to remind me whenever we talk, which is every day.

He always answers the phone: “Hi, Sweetie,” which is how my mother used to greet me, instead of saying my name. It’s our new routine. Tim is “Sweetheart.” My dad goes to UF games and sits next to the same people, an older couple. Mom didn’t go to the games very often, and when she did, it was years ago. The couple takes him out to dinner every once in a while. My mother and he were always loners. Dad’s just now making friends. He’s rebuilding. He has a talent for construction.

The first time I heard the death rattle, it was from my grandpa, an alcoholic who almost died of cirrhosis at 67, who instead died at 94. The next was from Mom. She’d become a shell of herself, mouth frozen open, her skin yellowish. She was unable to move. Her liver did not filter out enough ammonia in her blood stream. Dad played her favorite music while she was dying. I sat with her on the bed and held her cold hand while Dad tried to get the circulation going in her feet. When James Taylor’s “Fire and Rain” came on, we both lost it.

Fire and rain. I wonder if my dad ever forgets where he is in a storm, wondering himself into a kind of airborne bliss, lost in lightning and water. I forget where I am sometimes during storms. The world seems disembodied. I can feel my bones inching upward. When I was a child, I thought that I would float if I looked at the ceiling hard enough. When I look up at the clouds, I feel a chill, like I am leaving my body, ascending. I wonder if that’s why my mom was so afraid of flying. I wonder if that’s why my dad loves storms.

Dad’s new routine includes taking up little hobbies, going on hikes, putting the dog in doggy daycare to explore Paynes Prairie, just outside of Gainesville. He reads some of my old books, including The Catcher in the Rye, which is the dumbest book ever, he says. He’s also getting into treasure hunting. Some guy who was dying of cancer hid a treasure in the Rockies, and he’s given clues as to where it is in his books. Dad’s always liked figuring out puzzles and codes, where the wind will take him. The guy’s in remission, but he keeps his treasure in the same secret place.

During one of our conversations, Dad says he wants to get a metal detector. I think of the commercial for Duracell where an old guy piles on the bling while searching the beach for more with his metal detector, wanting his battery to have more life. I tell Dad that’s the ultimate old man thing to do. He decides against it.

According to my granddad, my dad’s father, if you tell a dream before breakfast, it will come true. However, it’s the middle of the afternoon, and over the phone, Dad tells me the dream he had last night: He, Nonny (my mom’s mother), and Aunt Carol (Mom’s sister) are waiting for my grandpa to return from a camping trip. They wait and wait. Then Mom walks in. She’s young, 20 or so, Dad says. “She’s beautiful,” and I think of the photos of Mom I went through the month after she died, the ones in which she has blonde hair—so different—she never had blonde hair in my lifetime. Those photos are in black and white, and something about her glows. Maybe’s it the hair; maybe it’s the camera. She gives Dad a giant hug, one that he feels while he’s sleeping.

“It was so good, Amy. It’s like she was here.”

As she got into her mid-sixties, she had trouble with her balance and lost the ability to walk without falling. Near the end, Dad pushed her in a wheelchair through Kanapaha Gardens, letting the Florida sun shine on her as she looked at all the flowers: salvia, sunflowers, roses—pink ones were her favorite.

Mom died on Good Friday, in April 2019. She was 67. Of course, I made a terrible resurrection joke that no one laughed at. The day was stormy, and the power was out. When Tim, Dad, and I drove to the crematory to fill out paperwork, the traffic lights were out. Police directed traffic. Branches blocked the road in some places. When we got back to the house, we sat in silence, rolling back and forth on rocking chairs, taking turns staring at each other and out the window. The day after the storm, the three of us visited Kanapaha Gardens. Tree limbs blocked the pathway through the gardens, and flowers had been obliterated. There were some survivors, but not very many roses.

I took pictures of the flowers on my phone, feeling a manic need to capture each one. I knew that when I returned to Binghamton, I’d start to forget about them. I took 181 photos in all. The flowers, the trees, and the thunderstorms all remind me of home. I try to memorize the feeling of being in the sun. I know I will forget. When I board my flight back to New York state, I’m not ready to leave.

Back in Binghamton, I try to summon my mother’s voice. I’ve deleted all of her voicemails. When she was mad, she would say, “Call me. Thanks, ‘bye,” and I knew I was in trouble. Her voice, a honey thunder.

I’m trying to remember a scene between my parents, a specific one that encapsulates their relationship, but I keep hitting a wall. When I read Lewis Hyde’s A Primer for Forgetting, I come across this passage:

One way might be to say that the forgetting that belongs to state-transition amnesia, as I’ve called it, is suffered not by the newly dead but by the newly bereaved who struggle to hold the dead in mind, only to find their memories eroded as they cross into that new state of being known as mourning. Slowly the tide of tears thins the substance of the past.

My memory of my mother is fading. The more I try, the more I get dead silence. I squint. Something about my mom and an eyewall.

In 1997, Roy Leep retired from Channel 13. Now he forecasts the weather for his retirement village. His home is full of weather equipment. His wife, Jane, doesn’t mind: “I like to think I’m part of the weather team.” Other storm chasers have confessed that they didn’t marry or have a family; as chaser Josh Morgerman puts it: “I just didn’t want to be encumbered.” I tell Dad he should set up a weather station at the house. He brings up the wall around the neighborhood subdivision, how he’d need to build a tower. “Maybe someday,” he says. In October 2019, a hurricane hits Florida, but Dad stays put. He doesn’t drive into the storm; for him to chase the storm, it has to come to him.

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Amy Suzanne Parker is a PhD student in Binghamton University’s English-Creative Writing program. She earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Eastern Oregon University. Her work has appeared in Hobart, Entropy, Witch Craft Magazine, Burrow Press Review, The Mighty, and elsewhere. Originally from the Tampa Bay Area, she loves a good storm.