THE BLACK TORNADO
Ed Skimmington sat in the alley behind Holt's Gym puffing on a cigarette and staring at shards of broken glass.
His gorilla mask lay beside him on top of a yellow 50 percent-off sign. He was thinking about his father, a man he had never quite forgiven for abandoning his mother when Ed was six years old.
He was on lunch, technically, though Ed rarely ate lunch or much else really, preferring to spend his time with his cigarettes away from public view. Getting in and out of the gorilla costume took about fifteen minutes and just wasn't worth the trouble. Ed was too lazy to pack lunches.
A strange wind came on suddenly and created a small black tornado inside the alleyway. It picked up random bits of newspaper, popsicle sticks, and alleyway grit and glass.
Ed wondered at the manifestation. It had all the qualities of a real tornado -- the funnel shape, the rotating winds -- the only difference was that this tornado was only about six feet tall and didn't threaten to do much damage.
Ed briefly considered going inside the gym and calling someone to witness this thing, but he figured by the time he got back, the wind-burst would be gone and whoever he brought outside would just think he was crazy. There were already too many people who thought Ed was crazy.
Ed watched the tornado do its erratic dance and continued smoking his cigarette. Five minutes later he was damned if the thing wasn't still going. It had changed positions numerous times but had managed to stay within ten meters of him the whole time.
It was certainly odd, in a Ripley's-Believe-It-or-Not-sort of way. From where he sat sucking on yet another Pall Mall, Ed couldn't even feel a slight breeze. The weather was mild -- a sunny October day, mid-60s. Not a cloud in the sky. There seemed no explanation for it. It was weird, but not unbelievable. There were a lot of things Ed didn't and never would understand. Thirty-six years of living had proven that. If he couldn't understand how simple appliances worked, how was he going to explain this? He wasn't.
When Ed had finished off his third cigarette and his lunch break was over, he stood up and flicked the butt into the still spinning tornado.
Greedily, the tornado added this new item to its mix and sent it spinning around in its self-contained universe. Ed picked up the mask and sign and started walking around to the front of the gym. At the mouth of the alley, just before he donned the humid mask, Ed noticed the tornado had moved with him.
"What the shit?"
Ed went a few more steps and watched in amazement as the twister followed.
"Jesus Christ on a cracker."
Ed made a tentative aggressive motion with the 50% off sign and the tornado rolled back. Ed swore it did a little dip and bob and feigned a punch of its own, like a boxer.
Shaking his head, Ed put the ape mask back on and proceeded around to the front of the store. It was probably the lack of oxygen in the mask. He was light-headed from wearing it all day and then smoking too many cigarettes in rapid succession.
When he was resituated between a parking meter and an abused-looking sapling, Ed started waving to traffic and shaking the yellow sign.
People on the street started honking at him -- more so than usual it seemed. A few minutes later, Ed noticed the twister had followed him to the front of the store and was quietly buzzing a short distance from him.
Foot traffic stopped; people gawked and gasped at the ape man and the fantastic little black tornado. Children whooped with delight, thinking maybe the tornado was some Disney character invention they hadn't yet heard of. Others gave the pair wide berth like you would a ladder offering bad luck.
One young man stopped and scratched his goatee. He asked how Ed did it.
"How are you making that thing go?"
"I'm not," Ed said. "Time to get in shape! 50-percent-off on the first three months of membership!"
The young man laughed. "Ah, a magician never reveals his secret, huh?"
"What can I tell you?" Ed said.
The man shook his head and walked off laughing. "Good trick... Good trick...."
The tornado caused similar reactions in other pedestrians. Some pointed, others clapped. Everyone wanted to know how it was done. Ed would only extol the virtues of fitness -- he acted as if the tornado wasn't there at all. It was slightly worrisome though, this thing. Ed wondered if the dancing tornado wasn't a manifestation of the grim reaper or something, letting him know it was all going to be over soon. But if that was the case, why didn't the thing just strike and get it over with? Anyway, it didn't seem malicious, but Ed watched it closely through the eye holes just the same.
It wasn't long before the inevitable happened. Aaron, Ed's manager, came flying out the door of the gym and put his hands on his athletic waist.
"What the hell is that?" he demanded.
Ed shrugged. "It was in the alley when I was on lunch and now it's out here."
Aaron looked up at the sky. He wetted his finger and tried to feel a breeze.
"Come on Ed, what's the gimmick?" he said.
"Hell if I know," Ed said. "Sunspots or something."
Noting the amount of attention the tornado was generating, Aaron's face cracked into a smile but quickly fell into a frown.
"Is it dangerous?" he said. "The last thing we need is a lawsuit..."
"I'm not sure," Ed said. "It seems harmless."
"Hmmm.... OK, well keep it to the side so it doesn't impede foot traffic. It's a good trick Ed, but your pay rate's gonna stay the same."
As Aaron went back into the store, several people saw him get flicked off by a gorilla.
Two hours later the tornado was still spinning and dancing and Ed was about to come off his shift. Several times when no one was around, Ed had tried to talk to the tornado, thinking maybe it was a supernatural manifestation, like a ghost or something, but none of his attempts elicited any response. Still, the thing seemed to have a personality. It was quite bizarre.
At three o'clock sharp, Ed stopped waving to people and started walking towards the alley. He was instructed by Aaron on his first day of work never to remove the ape mask in front of the public. He said some bullshit about "ruining the illusion" or something but Ed knew Aaron didn't want the populace to see his haggard, whipped mug -- especially when the gorilla icon was supposed to be about robust fitness.
Ed returned to the alley and the twister followed him. It was like a puppy dog. As it dragged along behind him, the tornado picked up more trash and whirred at an accelerated rate.
Ed opened up the back door to the gym and the twister rushed up and blew the door open wide as it followed him in.
"O.K., that's enough now," Ed scolded. "Go home already."
But the tornado only wiggled.
Several jocks looked up from their machines. Ed quickly walked off the floor and into the locker room to get out of sight. He removed the gorilla costume and put his street clothes back on. The twister was at his side the whole time.
It was also there when Ed went to get his day's pay from Aaron who told him to knock it off already, the joke was old.
"Don't come back here with that nonsense tomorrow," he said. "tornadoes don't sell memberships."
Ed stuffed the cash into the front of his slacks and left quickly before all of Aaron's paperwork was knocked around the office.
Luckily, Ed lived close by and didn't need to take public transportation. He didn't figure that would have worked out too well. En route to his apartment he stopped off at Angelo's for a couple red hots and a handful of greasy fries, a combo that always managed to turn the bottom of the brown bag a translucent color.
Several customers ran in horror, crossing themselves as they went. "Diablo! Diablo!" they said.
"What the fuck is that?" Chet, the fry cook said.
"It's my pet tornado," Ed said. "The parrot didn't work out."
"Shit," Chet said. "Does it clean homes? My old lady doesn't even know what a dust rag looks like..."
"I dunno," Ed said. "It doesn't seem to do much."
After Ed got his order, he decided to take a slightly different route home -- one that avoided busy streets and would enable them to cut some distance through a park where it might take less notice. He only hoped that he didn't come across any dog leavings -- he was already being trailed by a funnel of Styrofoam cups, beer labels, newspapers and a fine grey dust composed of God knows what.
When Ed came to a park bench, he decided to eat dinner there. As he lunged for a Vienna, the tornado cleared its throat.
"That shit's gonna kill you," it said.
Ed jumped. He almost dropped his dog. Mustard dripped onto his pants. "What?"
"Alcohol, cigarettes and hot dogs," the tornado said. "That's not very healthy."
Ed bit defiantly into his hot dog. "What the hell are you?" he said around a mouthful.
"I am from beyond," the tornado said.
"Well you can go back," Ed said. "You're nothing but trouble."
"I wish it were that easy," the tornado said.
"Look, I don't need to hear your problems," Ed said. "I got enough of my own."
"Ed, we need to talk," the tornado said.
"We are talking."
"No, I mean really have a heart-to-heart. This is serious..."
Ed sighed. "Christ. Can this wait until after I get some beers in me?"
"By all means," the tornado said.
"Fine. And if I talk to you will you leave me alone?"
That sounded good enough to Ed. He balled up his food wrappings and stuck them inside the swirling winds. "Let's hit it," he said.
It was four blocks to Lorraine's Liquors, a bar where Ed's reputation preceded him, evenings. Lorraine, the owner, was an angelic aging pin-up beauty. She was working behind the counter when Ed took a seat mid-bar.
Several patrons leapt back at the sight of the black tornado. Ed's assertions that it was harmless went unheard. Even Lorraine was frightened. Only Mickey, the Vietnam vet, seemed unfettered.
"Ed, I can't serve you with that thing in here," Lorraine said.
Ed protested but it was no use. While he was hashing it out with Lorraine, the tornado wheeled over to the juke box and jostled it so that it started playing a song everyone detested -- "Sweet Home Chicago."
"I'm sorry Ed. I'll sell you packaged goods if you like."
Ed settled for a sixer to go but he wasn't happy about it. He liked to avoid his apartment walls as much as possible.
"All right. Give me a six of High Life," he said.
Outside, to the tornado, he said. "You're a pain in the ass."
"I'm sorry," the tornado said.
Once safely back in his apartment, with two beers inside him and an old episode of Fawlty Towers on TV, Ed finally signaled to the tornado he was ready to talk.
"Can we please turn off the TV?" the tornado said. Manuel was getting beat about the head by John Cleese.
"As you like," Ed said. "Let's get this over with."
Now having Ed's complete attention, the tornado started. "You're probably wondering why I'm here..."
"Well, this isn't easy to explain, but, well, I guess I'm sort of a ghost."
"A ghost tornado?" Ed chuckled. "That's rich."
"What's more," the tornado continued. "I'm your father."
At that Ed choked on his beer.
"That's right Ed -- I'm your dad."
"If you are, you're an asshole."
"I may be that too. That's why I'm here... To ask for your forgiveness..."
Ed looked out the window for a moment. His head was full of blood.
"Get the fuck out of here," he said bitterly.
"No Ed, please wait. Listen... When I left your mother, we weren't getting along... I was ruining myself with booze -- I wasn't in a good place. There was financial difficulty..."
"And your answer to the problem was to leave? That's some solution..."
"I -- it didn't happen exactly like that. She -- your mother told me to get out. She probably didn't tell you that. She wanted me gone. She never wanted to hear from me again. Not even alimony. She wanted me to disappear."
"That's not what she told me," Ed said.
"I know that, Ed, but it's the truth. She wanted to hate me for the rest of her life and she wanted you to hate me too. I made mistakes Ed, I'm not saying I didn't. But I left because she asked me to and that's the truth..."
"We didn't know if you were alive or dead," Ed said.
"Well, I'm dead now. A few months ago I got into a traffic altercation in Albuquerque -- some guy brained me with a golf club."
"Ed, I'm here to set the record straight. Things aren't like what you thought. I wanted to be with you. I wanted to help raise you. To come back, but she wouldn't hear of it... She did eventually start to take money though. I cleaned up. I got myself straightened out at a rehab place in Oregon. I started a new family..."
"Hold it," Ed said. He didn't want to hear about step- brothers and sisters. He didn't want to know anything about them. This was too much information as it was.
"Ed, look, I'm sorry for the way things turned out. I wished you could have had a better upbringing... All I ever wanted was for you to be happy..."
"And Mom? What did she want?" Ed said. "She wanted me to be miserable?"
"It was rough on her. She was living with a person impossible to live with. There was a lot of bile. It wasn't her fault..."
"So that's it? I forgive you and then you go away? Back to wherever?"
"That's right. I won't be a restless spirit anymore, a poltergeist if you like."
"That's great for you. What do I get out of this?" Ed said, thinking about how circumstances had reduced him to hawking gym club memberships in a gorilla outfit.
"You'll close the door on a terrible past. A new door will open, you'll see..."
"All right Dad, you're forgiven. I forgive you."
"Ed, it doesn't seem like you mean that..."
Ed shrugged. "Take it or leave it -- you got what you came for. Now get lost."
"Ed, I -- "
Ed's father moved slowly toward the kitchen, paused a moment and finally fled through the transom window.
When Ed was sure he was gone, he rolled up the transom, locked the door, and returned to the couch and drank off another beer. After some time he picked up the phone and called his mother in Palm Springs.
"Eddie!" she said. "How are you? It's about time you check in with your poor old mother..."
"Sorry Mom... You know how it is... Always busy trying to make a buck where I can."
"Speaking of bucks... I won at bingo last night! A thousand dollars!"
"Wow, that's great Ma... What are you gonna do with the money?"
"Oh, I thought I'd buy this fancy schmantzy gas grill for the back patio..."
"Cool. Hey Ma, um, you haven't uh, seen Dad recently have you?"
"Your father? I haven't talked to him a very long time. For all I know, he's dead..."
"Yeah." Ed sighed. He suddenly wished he hadn't called.
"You haven't heard from him..."
"No, I was just wondering... So, how's the weather?" he said.
"It dipped down to 70 yesterday and everyone put their coats on. That's a chilly day down here..." she laughed.
"Heh heh. Ya, that's rough all right... Say Ma, this is gonna sound weird but I've been thinking about Dad a little and I was just wondering if you like, still hated him and everything. I mean, if you ever saw him again, would you forgive him?"
Ed's mother paused.
"Ed, it's been a very long time since we last spoke. You get old enough and the anger fades. It wasn't all his fault, really. You keep hate inside you and you end up with cancer or something worse..."
"What's worse than cancer?"
"Letting go when maybe you should have held on."
Ed looked up at the closed window in the kitchen.
"Hey Mom, I don't mean to cut this off short but my landlord is here. He needs to check out a bad pipe in the bathroom..."
"OK. I'll let you go then. Give me a call back tomorrow. I'll be home after my computer class at 4..."
"All right Mom. Will do..."
"I love you son."
"I love you too."
Ed hung up the phone. He was suddenly very tired. He went into the kitchen and cranked open the transom window. He'd sleep better.