Socol's fiction has been published in three dozen literary journals. His first collection of short stories, "Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn," will be published in 2011 by Ampersand Books, and his plays have been produced at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles and the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Massachusetts.
Before the tornado, the population of Placid numbered 4,000. After the tornado, that number plummeted to 600. For those who lost spouses and children, the future seemed a frightening, unknown purgatory with piped-in grief.
When the twister struck in the late afternoon on the last day of September, Pam Postlethwaite managed to flee to safety with her one-year-old boy Jensen in her arms. Her husband Wayne missed the safety zone by a matter of seconds.
When the tornado hit, attorney Colin Klock found himself in Ponder, one town north of Placid, at a client meeting. The moment he heard the news, he zoomed toward home, only to be pulled over and issued a speeding ticket. Then he faced the unimaginable. His wife Margaret and two-year-old daughter Tara were entombed in the rubble of their decimated rustic style house. The tornado gobbled the entire structure and then spit out what it didn't digest.
Placid's mayor Ray Herring happened to be on vacation in Waikiki when he got wind of the tragedy, and he caught the second flight home. In an emergency town hall meeting held in the shallow part of Lake Wanahoo (the town's Town Hall had been decimated), the mayor explained, "Never has a tornado hit Placid, especially in September. April and May are the popular months for tornadoes. However, as we witnessed, tomatoes can be unpredictable and deadly. Because Padgett was struck in such a devastating way, my office will allocate funds for future tomato outreach and education. In the meantime, most of the businesses in our beloved city have been destroyed. I will read a short list of those that are still standing. Please patronize our friends before driving north to Ponder. Still standing: McDougal's Mattress Emporium, Gigi's Cute Cuts & Curls, the southern half of Swan Lake Children's Ballet, and Sherman's Famous Hot Dog Shack. Sherman has agreed to expand his hours and open at 7 a.m. with a special menu that includes all-beef hot dogs and eggs, and hotcakes with hot dog slices. And that darling Gigi of Gigi's Cute Cuts & Curls has generously offered the use of her salon's shower in five-minute installments except for men between the ages of 18 and 30, who will get ten to fifteen."
The town's newly homeless took refuge in makeshift quarters under a huge, sturdy tent. October tinged the air with an early chill, but the survivors were too numb to feel it. The majority of them spent their time in quasi-catatonic stupors, eating some form of hot dog for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It was Colin Klock's parents who spearheaded the movement that some called controversial and others labeled downright demented. Ada and Buddy Klock were just about to leave for a wilderness vacation in the Smoky Mountains. Their cabin, with its scenic view of Appalachia Lake, had been reserved for months, and their plans for canoeing, kayaking and whitewater rafting were all set. When they heard about the tornado in Placid, they scrapped their plans, choosing to pile into their red pickup truck and drive ninety miles to help their grieving son as well as the other survivors.
Dressed in basic camping clothes (breathable polyester fiber) and exuding warmth and sincerity, Colin's parents were instantly pegged as wise, compassionate people. Still, nobody in Placid was keen on forging new friendships at this particular time. Even Colin couldn't muster much affection; he was shell-shocked by the loss of his wife and child, not to mention his comfortable home.
When the Klocks came upon the fair-skinned, russet-haired Pam Postlethwaite, she was sitting on a small patch of uncut grass, her back straight and head bent as if in prayer. Jensen was asleep in a cotton blanket in her lap. "Hello. Ada Klock here."
Pam looked up, puzzled. "It can't possibly be 8 o'clock," she replied. "No, that's my name," Ada quietly explained. "And this is my hubby Buddy. We lost our daughter-in-law and grandchild in the tornado."
Pam conveyed her condolences. "Mother Nature whisked my husband away in a matter of seconds. If he hadn't stopped to grab Annette, he'd still be alive."
"What kind of a net did he need in a tornado?" Ada said.
"Annette was our year-old kitten," Pam explained. "To tell you the truth, I didn't want that darn cat to begin with. I never trusted anything feline."
"Did Annette survive?" Buddy asked.
"No, she's gone with the wind along with Wayne," Pam said. "But that animal has eight other lives, and my Wayne used up his one and only."
"You have to be grateful for your own life," Ada said, "and for the life of that precious boy in your lap."
"I find it very difficult to open my eyes in the morning," she sadly said.
"Of course you do," Ada said. "But you have to, for the little one."
By the end of the conversation, Ada and Buddy were no longer strangers to the young widow.
The following morning, the Klocks escorted their son to Pam's cramped quarters. "Do you know Colin?" Ada asked.
"We've seen each other," Pam said. Just then, Jensen began crying, and Pam instantly went into "Rock-a-bye Baby" mode.
"May I hold him?" Ada asked. "Some toddlers love my wavy white hair."
Pam hesitated a moment before handing Jensen to Ada, but within twenty seconds the baby stopped crying. "Amazing," Pam said.
"Will you trust us?" Buddy asked.
"Trust you about what?" Colin asked.
"We're going to ask you to do something," Buddy said, "and we want your cooperation."
"What do you want us to do?" Colin asked.
"Get married. To each other."
Colin and Pam froze in shock, their expressions devoid of emotion. "Pam and this precious baby need a husband and a father," Ada explained.
"And Colin, there's nothing you need more than a new family to care for," Buddy said.
The message hovered in the air with no fanfare, no bells ringing or balloons rising. The concept had nothing to do with grand passion or everlasting love. Two separate individuals shattered by circumstances would merge lives in order to survive with the most possible ease. It was that simple.
"You're not capable of thinking rationally right now," Buddy said, "so we decided to think for you."
"Is it all right with you, Pam?" Ada asked.
"Whatever you say," she replied as if agreeing to purchase a new frying pan. "You're not a cat person, are you?" she asked Colin.
"No," he said.
After the official ceremony took place, Ada and Buddy arranged similar unions for other survivors who seemed suited to each other. Some of Placid's more conservative citizens were outraged. Distraught dentist Willy Frimmer spoke up. "On behalf of my wife's memory, I'm deeply insulted," he proclaimed.
"We're sorry for your loss," Buddy said, "but we're sorry you feel this way."
"To be honest, I think you're all cuckoo, which makes you damn cuckoo Klocks."
"Look at the state you're in," Ada said, "tired, disheveled, weak, eyes red, spirit dead. Probably constipated from all those hot dogs. Do you think your late wife would want you to spend your life this way? Wouldn't she prefer to see you move forward productively, surrounded by a supportive new family?"
As the days passed, the skeptics who initially rallied against the idea came around; their daily human needs began to eclipse long-held ideals about love and marriage. Perfection was no longer the goal. The goal was simply making it through the day.
When Mayor Herring heard about the Klocks and the surge of weddings taking place in Placid, he held a town hall meeting on the empty lot where the emergency supply store once stood. "This has been the most trying time of my term," he said, unaware that he was wearing two different shoes. "For those whose homes were ripped apart or blown away, it's probably been trying for you too. Eleanore Midgen called her insurance company and was put on hold for three days," he said. "It wasn't until yours truly paid a visit to her Pontiac that she realized her cellphone battery had gone dead."
The mayor sneezed four times in a row, then wiped his nose with the sleeve of his sky blue shirt. "In case you haven't heard, Sherman ran out of mustard at the Hot Dog Shack. Should have some more tomorrow. And there will be no more showers at Gigi's Supreme Cuts and Swirls. Now, onto the purpose of this meeting. I'd like to stop the Klocks. Right now! Ada and Bud, go jump in Lake Appalachia like you were planning to. I understand the need to bond in times of crisis, but let's not act too fast, folks. As some of you might know, I married my fifth wife Rochelle for one reason only: She was blessed in the breast department. Best breasts in the west. Plus, she promised to start a program to educate inner-city youth. Unfortunately, her definition of the word educate clashed with mine. An empty calorie, that's what she was." The mayor took a deep, mordant breath. "I urge you to think carefully before tying the knot because the knot may wind up tied very tightly around your throat. Remember this, gentlemen: the average woman's thighs are one inch larger in circumference than the average man's.
"Do not let anyone force you into marriage."
By this time, dozens of weddings had already taken place in Placid, and new families had formed, strengthening everyone's desire to forge ahead and rebuild. Deep in their hearts (where it mattered), the Klocks felt their mission was complete. They climbed into their clattering old pickup truck and headed home, smiles sewn on their mature, satisfied faces.
Mayor Herring was not re-elected to a second term.
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