There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.
Willa Cather, Song of the Lark
Tony Paulsen has a naked Polaroid of Miss Reid tucked in his cummerbund. Felix Jones wears a condom pinned beneath his boutonniere, and Rick Yarborough has a pint of Jim Beam hidden in his deepest vest pocket. Across the parking lot the girls arrive: Heather Swearingen in a dress backless and chartreuse, Mary Lynn Wakefield without her glasses. From all across Waterloo they come. Hair is done, nails polished. A gargantuan banner stretches across the high school doors: LOST IN THE MOMENT.
The sky, blue just this afternoon, turns to tinfoil, crackling and dark.
The wind picked up as the girls admired their updos in the mirrors of Hair It Is. The leaves rattled, then rushed, then flew. The boys waited while their mothers ironed their slacks. Alison Hannigan got her period and messed up her manicure in one awful swipe. Jeremy Lowell resisted the urge to jerk off in the shower, thinking of third base with Jessica Rutherford at their room at the Super 8, knowing third almost always slid into a home run. The wind tossed the trees, then pushed them, then shoved.
Inside the Waterloo gymnasium: crepe paper and balloons, punch and cookies. Miss Reid is stationed at the serving bowl. She sees Tony Paulsen enter, stag with his cronies. She teaches all three world geography, but only one knows her own. Tony is mesmerized by the peaks of her breasts and flat plain of her stomach. He acts as though he has never seen a woman before, and maybe he hasn’t; he is only seventeen.
Thunder peals in the distance. In the atmosphere, warm air mingles with cool.
Mary Lynn Wakefield is in love with Jeremy Lowell who is dancing with his pom squad girlfriend, buxom Jessica Rutherford. The two are entwined like slugs. Principal Dodd keeps interrupting to part them by the shoulders. Mary Lynn Wakefield left her glasses on her nightstand deliberately, and prom is a beautiful, glowing blur. If Jeremy ever moved his face from Jessica’s, she could believe he was looking at her.
Across the plains the clouds sweep. Thunderheads grow large over the grasses. Lightning forks. The wind rises.
Miss Reid hands out punch, knowing the students will tilt in something stronger. She lives next door to Jim Bartle, proprietor of Bartle’s Spirits, infamous for accepting IDs taped together in basements. He was trimming his rosebushes yesterday when Tony left her house.
Seventeen-year-old Tony Paulsen is the star of the Waterloo cross-country team. Miss Reid is their faculty sponsor and attends all their practices and meets. The other boys are also at prom: speedy Felix, that Yarborough boy, Lowell and his smutty girlfriend, Jessica Rutherford—as though she, Sandy Reid, had any room to speak. She’d pulled out the old Polaroid camera, thinking the film inside was surely expired, and she’d posed, laughing, appalled when the camera spat out its evidence and her image evolved. Tony held it with such reverence, as if he’d found a sacred, priceless talisman. Before he could ask, Miss Reid told him to keep it. She doesn’t know why.
Heather Swearingen, flat enough to go without a bra, loves Jessica Rutherford in a way she cannot name. Heather’s mother would adore a daughter like blonde Jessica, a girl who could fill out this sickly green dress. Jessica’s dress blends seamlessly into Jeremy’s pale blue tuxedo. Heather, kinky-haired and double-jointed, milks cows for 4H and plays the oboe. She is certain Jessica only knows her as weird, if she knows her at all.
The winds slam the gymnasium doors open and shut. Sheets of rain pelt sideways.
Allison Hannigan is still crying in the bathroom when the sirens go off. Principal Dodd gets on the microphone: a tornado warning. The lights go black and the music dies. The doors are sucked open.
Jessica Rutherford exhales at last; Jeremy tastes like a chili-cheese dog, extra onions.
Miss Reid and the other chaperones herd the students down to the basement. Girls shriek and trip on their tulle. Boys sneak feels over satin bodices. Felix Jones taps the condom riding on his lapel and prays, God, don’t fuck this up for me.
A funnel forms.
The basement is unfinished but for one long, reinforced hallway. Cell phones light the dark basement. Pints are passed back and forth. Someone ignites a cigarette, then snubs it out. Alison Hannigan finds a quiet corner to dab at her mascara.
Tony Paulsen, tipsy on whiskey and pensive, recalls the afternoons in Miss Reid’s rented cottage with the windows drawn and locked. He remembers the nubby texture of the chenille coverlet where he lay, naked, as Miss Reid made coffee and tidied the junk mail. He feels inside his cummerbund but the Polaroid is gone.
The sirens wail. Shingles sail into the sky. Power lines whip and snap. A transformer erupts in a waterfall of green sparks. The air is thick with rain and wind.
Jessica Rutherford’s hand sweats inside Jeremy’s. She knocks into Heather, a scratch of rhinestones against her bare arms. The touch crackles for Heather, shooting a shock down her bare spine.
Principal Dodd fields reports through his phone. Fifth Street is gone. Sixth Street, some of Seventh. The school is blocks from the devastation, but no one can predict the path. Felix’s house is obliterated. Miss Reid’s roof peels away, her chenille coverlet flying into the sky like a bird.
The girls begin crying as the news trickles in. The Freezie Mart is obliterated, Pastime Lanes has been razed. Jeremy Lowell no longer thinks of Jessica’s perfect breasts but of his mother and her cross-stitch samplers, her crumb cakes, her hands.
In the dark of the basement, Heather Swearingen resolves to start standing straighter, buy some nicer shoes. Ricky Yarborough drains his pint. Felix Jones forgets his condom when he learns he has no home.
The tornado ravages, swirls and uproots. The naked Polaroid never resurfaces, nor does the chenille coverlet, nor the bowling pins, the waffle cones, the cross-stitch sampler.
When the all-clear finally sounds, the students traipse back upstairs. The gymnasium is ghostly; balloons all huddled in a single spot, crepe paper dripping from the ceiling. No one feels like dancing. No one is crowned king or queen.
In another year, Felix is a father. Heather cuts her hair short and falls in love with a girl named Oona. Jessica and Jeremy break up and Jessica is relieved; she never sleeps with Jeremy, retaining her virginity until her years-hence wedding night. Ricky Yarborough pledges a fraternity and dies in a car accident, his ABV double the legal limit. Mary Lynn Wakefield marries an optometrist. Tony Paulsen runs track in Iowa City, leaping hurdles like a deer. Principal Dodd oversees another prom, and another, their themes variations on the same mantra: A NIGHT TO REMEMBER, ENDLESS TWILIGHT, YOUNG FOREVER. Miss Reid transfers to a school in Galesburg. Sometimes she thinks of her naked self, and Tony, and the photograph, but only when the boys’ track team runs by.
Now they stand, Heather and Jeremy and Mary Lynn, Jessica, Felix, Miss Reid and Tony Paulsen, a mass of uprooted children in their prom night regalia, holding their breath, holding hands, as Principal Dodd reaches forth and pulls the doors open.