The Clouds – West Side

I’d been broken up with my Four Corners girlfriend for six months or thereabouts. She’d been my second New Mexico girlfriend. That break-up dovetailed nicely into another depressed winter for my failed mission out west.

Every time I go west of the Mississippi, not only do the call letters of TV and radio stations change from W to K, but I change from a Wimp into a Killer lover and adventurer.  I meet a woman.  I make plans to move out and be with her.  Then I drive back home and cross the bridge from St. Louis, Missouri,  back into East St. Louis, Illinois, and I chicken out.  Well, not this time.  No way, man.  I am never going to cross that Mississippi again.  It’s a damn jinx.  It must be.  Whenever I cross the River I become temporarily insane.  The space-time continuum must be exerting pressure on my brain to take a risk.  But then, when I cross back east of it, the pressure is released and my personality changes to what I was before.  My life gets so settled in in cities, so riskless.

But today, in Chicago, or Oak Park, to be more exact, there’ve been tornado watches and thunderstorm warnings.  And I’m willing to take a risk.  I’m sitting out on the eighth floor fire escape of my office building like some damn fool, watching the storms roll in, reading my work reports out there as if I’ve slathered lightning block all over my arms and forehead to protect me from getting bit.

It’s about quarter to eight and two colleagues and I are leaving work together.  They invite me to dinner.  And I am hungry.  And isn’t that why I stayed in Chicago?  For the friends?  Who the hell do I know in New Mexico anyway?  To go out to dinner with potential friends is riskier than coming home and writing this, right?  Or working out in some aseptic gymnasium where the people are bulging with anti-aging anti-oxidant amino acids and bristling with nanotechnology that keeps various strategic body parts from sagging, I’m sure.

Well, I make up some excuse and leave my friends to their dinner.  These are the Dog Days in the Midwest, named for the Dog Star.  Hot. Humid.  Late afternoon storms are common.  The air is liquid, breezy but heavy with combustibility.  And the clouds?  I haven’t seen thunderheads like this all year.  They only blow up gigantic like this a few times each summer.

I hop in my Blazer and escape the claustrophobia of Oak Park, which native son, Ernest Hemingway, called the place of broad lawns and narrow minds.  Frank Lloyd Wright, who whipped up many a mansion here, disagreed.   I sneak peeks at the coming storm from my rear view mirror as I wait at a red light to merge eastbound down the Eisenhower expressway toward the Loop.  The anvil cloud tops out at the troposphere.  The last of the sun cooks the granitic-seeming mass in neon hues.  Roiling rocket exhaust; purplish, plumed thunderheads like shrouds usher in the main storm cell that rolls in south of the city over the corn.

Finally, the traffic  light changes and I’m forced out of my hunched gawk over the steering wheel so that I must merge onto the Ike.  I pump some Jethro Tull into the CD mouth-thingy and ride with the windows down at 75.  As I escape east, thunder clouds like polished brass arc over the horizon. I want to pull over and watch the storm play out.  As I descend into the expressway canyon, a submerged spectacle, a pageant rolling by in a meteorological parade, sneaks by just below the horizon of trees and two flats that flit by in my side mirror.

With the sun about to down, I only have a small crevice of moments.  So I pull off at Paulina, and drive by the United Center, where Michael Jordan broke history and remolded it, then shattered it and reshaped it again, so many times.  The vistas are West Side wide.  Prairies of parking lots.  I park, lock it up, and just stroll into one of the lots, surrounded by public housing on a couple sides soon to be moved out by the gentry.

I stand in oven-like heat, strong winds blowing up my dress slacks, tickling the hair on my shins.

I watch as the whole sky in all directions, becomes a puzzle of crazy colors, all torn up into unfitting pieces and tossed around by the microbursts.  Pornographic purple gilded with gaudy gold in the northwest, and even farther northwest, more swelling cumuli crimson outlined in gold.  They rest on pedestals like desert monoliths.  These clouds wafted broken and tame after they’d let out all their storm.  Spent and harmless, they floated my way in the lower altitudes.  They’d never rain again.

The main cell seemed to stand motionless in the south like the kind I used to watch hit the rims of the Grand Canyon.  The expressway and Rush-Presbyterian-St. Lukes – a hospital city within the city – stood in the foreground.  I looked east toward downtown Chicago.  Above the skyscraper escarpment, deep blue tornado clouds spit by fast.  And above them, electric white thunderheads toned like negatives.  Behind these, a background of pink clouds hung like wallpaper.  It seemed like the atmosphere of Venus, which rose somewhere behind the storm in the southwest.  And the streets lapsed into an unnatural quiet.  I realized in that wet, whipping breeze, that this was why I’d turned down my friends for dinner.  I had to see this.

A woman crossed the parking lot with her young son, and she sent off a gentle smile.  As she neared me, she stopped and turned to see what I stared at.  Her little boy held her hand, their hair blowing in the breeze.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” she finally said in a wet voice.

“It is.”

“You’ve got to look for moments like these.”

“That’s true.  You do,” I said.

I turned my head toward her. We smiled.  Then she went her way east, crossing the lot, holding her boy’s hand like the string of a balloon skittering along the ground.

I stepped back into my Blazer, and merged back onto the Ike.  I sped northwest now, as the Ike became the Kennedy and made a wide arc around the Loop.  Sheets of black and blue blood let loose from those thunderheads from the reverse universe, the one in negative that hung over the high-rises.  And I put  the music back on.  And I drove home.

© 2015 by Michael C. Just