This Modern Writer: Of This I Am Certain by Brian Oliu

The sirens go off on the first Wednesday of every month at noon.  Do not be alarmed—they are simply a test, to make sure that they work.  You need to know this.  You need to know this so you are not alarmed when you hear them cutting through the humidity.  Do not take shelter.  Do not stay close to the ground.  Continue working.  Enjoy your bowl of soup.  Kiss the girl on the forehead because you wish to—for no reason at all besides love.  Do not do this is out of terror.  Do not do this out of uncertainty.  Do not be alarmed.

x

The bathtub is not the safest place in my house.  My home, a wood-paneled tribute to the 1960s, a lakehouse with no lake, a place where I have tried to find a dead animal’s head to mount on its walls to complete the ambiance, to continue the illusion that I do not live in West Alabama; that I live some place with ski-lifts or paddle boats, and not amongst long leaf pines and cockroaches that mysteriously appear in kitchen cabinets, bellies up, legs folded in on themselves.  The safest place is in the hallway outside of the bathroom, towards the center of the house—the bathroom shares a wall with the outside; the bathtub, new in comparison to the rest of the house, had been fixed to a wall with windows:  the light pours in from two rectangles on top of each other, a piece of modern art, horizon and sea—the shower always glows.

x

I had things to do. My students are late.  My students arrive late, tired-eyed, holding a cup of coffee.  Sorry, they say.  How is the paper going, I ask, and everything is okay.  Their days are okay.  They don’t have any questions.  The assignment was to pick a local issue and come up with a proposal as to how to fix it.  They can’t think of anything wrong.  Can we do global warming, they ask?  It is off-limits.

x

Lionel Messi has just scored to put Barcelona ahead 2-0 in the first leg of the Champions League Semi-Final against Real Madrid.  My great aunts and uncles will speak only in Catalan—they refuse to speak Castellan.  One evening, while staying at their house in Barcelona, after eating sugar-coated jellies and learning my saint’s day, I needed a key but did not know the word:  cle? clave? I walked to the door and pointed at the handle.  I pretended I had a key in my hand and pushed it into the lock, twisting my wrist back and forth.  Clau they said, and placed it in my hand.  Clau, they repeat, again.

x

At the gas station, we buy everything.  Abbas buys a Styrofoam cooler.  Barry buys three bags of chips.  I buy a turkey sandwich cut into triangles, and a sleeve of peanuts.  I never eat peanuts—they get stuck in between my teeth and my gums causing the tissue to swell up like a red grape.  We all buy beer.

x

At Annie and Kevin’s house there is everyone.  Everyone who is not there is on their way.  There isn’t anyone caught under anything.  Everyone’s hair looks wonderful.  There is no glass caught between the strands.  Everyone hasn’t lost their homes.  Everyone hasn’t lost their cars, their arms, their selves.  Everyone is okay.  Everyone is okay, yes?  Everyone is okay, right?

x

The last time the Boston Celtics lost a play-off game, I got too drunk to move.  Our cable comes back on in the morning.  They lose tonight by nine points and I am not watching—I am at the same bar but I stand in a different room.  When I order a drink, I do not look up at the screen, instead staring at the rings left by bottles, peeled labels.

x

The tornado was predictable.  We knew it was coming the day before; we were told to watch out.  The wind was certain in its path—a straight diagonal through town, starting from the southwest.  When I saw the map of the path, I thought there was an error—the line did not deviate; it was perfectly drawn in a thick red line.  I could never draw a line this perfect—my hands would shake.

x

The goal was beautiful:  a give and go with Xavi, who left the ball perfectly still for an instant before Messi gathered it with his foot, keeping the sphere close to his body for the first three touches, until kicking it further in front of him, his small frame catching up the ball faster than the Madrid defenders, before softly driving the ball into the lower-left corner from the right side of the keeper’s box on his seventh touch.  As the ball sliced into the back of the net on the replay, the feed cut to black, a tinny-voice telling me that there is a tornado on the ground on a road that I recognize.  When the game comes back on, the players are frozen—the signal from there to here severed.

x

When Kayla Fanaei was found murdered in the back of her car on the University of Alabama-Birmingham campus, I received a phone call.  No, that is not here.  Yes, I am fine.  When Amy Bishop went on a shooting spree at the University of Alabama-Huntsville campus, I received a phone call.  No, that is not here.  Yes, I am fine.  When an EF-4 tornado blew past the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa, everyone called but you.

x

I have burned the rice.  Everyone is coming over, and I have burned the rice.  Everyone is working:  sunburned and exhausted, smelling of smoke and sap, their throats dry from answering phones, and I have spent the day in bed talking with my mother, and I have burned the rice.

x

I am watching the box score from the Celtics game refresh itself every 30 seconds.  I am at home, but the television remains off.  My grandfather came to the United States and fell in love with basketball:  the angles, the arcs, the passing lanes.  Wow, look at that he would say.

x

Instead of watching soccer, instead of watching basketball, instead of a lot of things, we watch professional wrestling.  We watch it because it is easy to predict:  we know the moves that are going to happen before they happen.  We expect false falls, the escape from being finished.  Rey Mysterio, a luchalibre wrestler has a move called the “619”—an overly complex ritual in which it is necessary for Mysterio’s opponent to be draped over the second rope facing outward before Mysterio jumps through the second and top rope while holding on to the ropes, and uses the momentum to swing back around into the ring, kicking his opponent in the face.  The situation never arises in any other match—the helplessness of a muscle-bound superstar falling halfway out of the ring and getting caught on the ropes is rare and frankly unbelievable—and so there is inevitably an absurd sequence that allows Mysterio’s opponent to be in this predicament.  The audience notices it immediately:  this matter of circumstance that surely of which Mysterio will capitalize.  We are promised something is coming.

X

Finals have been canceled:  the students are asked to go home, to leave Tuscaloosa as soon as they can.  For seniors, there is no denouement—no “this will be the last time we”, none of that.  My younger students are happy I am safe, but unhappy about their grades.  They want to meet with me to discuss things.  My first thought is not discuss what, but discuss where?

x

Like a bomb went off.  Like a tidal wave.  Like a third-world country.  Like the whole town has been hit by a bus.  Like that one movie.

x

The siren test for Wednesday has been canceled:  they claim that the sirens were damaged in the storm, but we know that we cannot hear that whirling yelp just yet—the same way we cannot hear thunder, the clattering of wind chimes.

x

I have thrown up every day since the storm hit:  my stomach filled with glass.  To tell you this would be inconsiderate.  To ask for help would be absurd.  Dinner is at six.

x

Austin comes over to watch the second leg of the Barcelona-Madrid match.  We are watching wrestling instead.  If Real Madrid wins 3-0, we lose.  If Real Madrid wins 3-1, we lose.  If Real Madrid wins 6-0, we lose.  If this, we lose.

x

Yes, that is here.  No, I am not fine.

x

Rajon Rondo, the point-guard for the Celtics has dislocated his elbow—his arm bent backwards at an unnatural angle.  Everyone is convinced it is broken and he is not coming back.  I see a still image:  his arm like a child’s drawing.  Minutes after being shuffled off the court, he returns, left arm dead at his side to lead the Celtics to victory.  I read about it later that evening:  the injury report reads “expected to return”.  This is not a metaphor for anything.

x

Osama bin Laden has been killed. There are still people missing in Alberta.  If you need to see a body, come to Tuscaloosa.

x

As a child, wrestling shocked me:  each twist was an actual twist that I never saw coming.  The super kick through the window, the clothesline after the arm raise, the leg drop on the wrong guy.  Now, the outcomes are predictable:  this guy needs to win the title because the Monday night show can’t have two champions, this match is just a set up for a later match, the real one.  If we are wrong in our predictions, we are pleased.

x

Chris and I are playing a soccer video game.  He asks me what buttons do what.  I can’t tell him—I have to do it myself and then show him.  All of our games end in draws, yet we choose to keep playing to determine a winner.  We prefer “golden goal”, meaning the first person to score wins and the game is over.  We do not use the term “sudden death”.  During our game, Adam, my roommate from college calls—I let it go to voicemail.  After Chris leaves, I call Adam.  He tells me that Tim is dead.  There were warnings, certainly:  the time our sophomore year he had a stroke on the way to the Inner Harbor, the multiple brain surgeries.  Adam tells me that Tim was in Manhattan and got hit by a bus.  He says don’t read the article—don’t watch the news clip.

x

My mother tells me I could have been killed.  She wants to know why I don’t have a basement.  I could tell her that the soil here is too malleable—it’s why they build on cement blocks, it’s why the trees lean, it’s why the town is sliding into the river.  I tell her I will do better next time.

x

I turn on the Celtics game for less than a minute:  enough to see Paul Pierce miss a game-winning shot.  The buzzer sounds, and the game is heading into overtime.  I turn off the television and throw the remote across the room.

x

The final match of the night is a cage match.  Colin, Elizabeth, Barry and I know how it ends:  John Cena wins the championship and makes an announcement that “Osama bin Laden has been compromised”.  We watch to see how it is won:  if the match was worked well, or if Cena bulldozed his competition, as he is wont to do.  The winner of the match must either pin his opponent or be the first to escape the cage.  The wrestlers pummel each other, attempt to knock each other out with specialty maneuvers, and try to climb up the sides of the cage to escape.  Yet there is another way out:  the cage has a door.

x

Elizabeth and Robin come over with food from Farren and Jessica.  Elizabeth put some yellow flowers in a coffee cup.  We watch “Hoosiers”, a movie I have memorized.  Strap’s father drives the bus because God told him to.  The fields of Hickory look like the corner of 15th and the road to the hospital:  burnt out buildings and scraggly trees stripped of everything.  I can’t eat a thing.  But Jimmy says he’ll make it, and he does.

x

I saw the image of the tornado before my power went out.  As the cloud got closer, I started to back away from the television:  first bringing my laptop to the kitchen, and then finally into the hallway, where I shut all of the doors.  I knew nothing of tornadoes, just that they sounded like trains.  I sat in the dark for longer than I meant to, not knowing what was next, not knowing if it was finally okay to resurface.

Brian Oliu lives in Tuscaloosa and teaches at the University of Alabama. You can find him online here.

  • wow.

    brian, this is amazing.

    thank you.

  • this is my new favorite Oliu work. How on earth is that name pronounced I wonder. I see now how a very short form writer can trick themselves into composing a long, engrossing work. exes. anyway, I hope your stuff and your person are okay. ha. ha.

  • Thank you, Katie. You are too kind. Hope all is well.

  • And thank you, Molly! The best way to pronounce it is to say ‘Only you’ and then get rid of the N.

  • Elizabeth

    This is great, Brian. It really expressed a lot of the same feelings I felt in the days after. Thank you.

  • Madison

    beautiful, I feel like I’ve been waiting for this piece

  • David

    Thanks for this. A tornado just hit near our neighborhood in Minneapolis…nothing in the scope of what happened down in Tuscaloosa, but still things are kind of a mess since it mostly hit he homes of the people least able to do much about it. I’ve been processing it for a few days now and this piece really hits hard in the right kind of ways. It also got me re-fueled on my Cena hate (Did you see that “I Quit” Match? That’s some bullshit right there) but no need to go there now, I suppose.

  • Thanks all.

    David: that match was the worst. Cena always forgets that he’s been absolutely destroyed for the past thirty minutes and then is perfectly fine. Gross.

  • Very well done, señor. “Like that one movie.” Yes. Thank you.

  • Brian, this is friggin amazing.

  • Kathie Muir

    I am crying, because you are safe, because of the people who are not, and because of your ability to capture it all with your wonderful words. Writing is so powerful. I am so very proud. Aunt Kath

  • Donna Parolie

    I shudder every time I think of what could have happened to you. We are all so grateful that you are safe. Your words were beautiful, painful, and powerful.
    Love ya,
    Mrs. P

  • This is so stunningly beautiful my breath caught in my chest. The layering, the pacing, the fear I could otherwise not feel. Thank you.

  • thank you for all your efforts that you have put in this. Very interesting info. “The longer I live the more beautiful life becomes.” by Frank Lloyd Wright.