One Stupid Cloud
(Originally published in the winter 2002 volume of The Nebraska Review.)
As First Lieutenant Raymond Parker drove to work one bright, blue Friday morning, steering his car along the narrow road that curved around the runway, he noticed a single cloud in the sky. This annoyed him. Earlier that week he had stood before the wing commander and all his colonels, briefing them that the weather would be absolutely perfect for Strategic Command’s change-of-command ceremony and the golf game to follow, and these high ranking officers had nodded their graying heads slowly, regally, like lords with their king, and smiled back at him, pleased that their court jester was finally telling them something they wanted to hear. The computer models had consistently showed that an area of high pressure would sit over the entire central plains on Friday, which meant that the atmosphere should have been too stable to allow any cloud development. It meant that the day should be sunny and beautiful, which is exactly what he told them. Parker’s motivation for showing up for work already began to sink into that familiar swamp of loathing and self-pity that usually coalesced by the end of the day.
Mr. Anderson, wearing a crisp, white and blue-striped oxford shirt, his thinning, silver hair parted to one side, sat hunched over the main counter plotting on a map with his pen when Lieutenant Parker walked in. Mr. Anderson was the only forecaster Parker knew of who still plotted his daily surface analyses by hand. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, revealing the elongated, 40 year-old blob tattooed onto his right forearm. Mr. Anderson had told him it was a dragon that he got while stationed in Japan, that the artist had paid meticulous attention to the scales, the intricate, paisley design of the red and orange flames that rolled out of its mouth, but Parker had to look closely to see the resemblance; it was a blurred and horrendous, permanent bruise.
In the opposite end of the room Second Lieutenant Curtis, the new guy, sat with his eyes fixated on the glowing screens of the forecast console. The gold bars of his shoulder rank shined under the fluorescent lighting like slices of fresh butter. Parker couldn’t remember his first name; it started with an “E” and was something like Eugene or Erwin, a name that must have gotten him into fights as a kid. Curtis preferred his middle name, which Parker couldn’t remember either.
“Did you see that cloud out there, Mr. Anderson?” Parker asked.
Curtis turned around. “What cloud?”
“There ain’t a cloud eight hundred miles from any direction,” Mr. Anderson said, pointing to his map. He then glanced at a satellite image as if he wasn’t sure.
Curtis said, “Except for the southeast. Georgia’s getting slammed pretty good. Tornado watches all over the place.”
Parker said, “Mr. Anderson, could you come outside and tell me what you think?”
Anderson sighed, looked around the room. “I could use a smoke,” he said. He gripped each arm of his chair and pushed himself up. The green apparition on his forearm twitched with the exertion of the muscles below it. The other lieutenant was already out of the room by the time Mr. Anderson stood up.
The cloud had evolved into a white, bulbous column that extended up into the sky. Lieutenant Curtis smiled.
“A textbook air-mass thunderstorm. That’s a cumulus congestus, right?” Curtis asked.
“I don’t remember,” Parker said.
“Right over the parade field too. And not another cloud for several hundred miles. What is the probability of that happening?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s like winning the lottery.”
“More like getting hit by lightning,” Mr. Anderson said.
“Yeah. Getting hit by lightning. That’s good,” Curtis said and began to laugh. His eyes were squeezed shut, and his face was stretched into a tight, open-mouthed grin. Parker didn’t think it was that funny. The butter-bar calmed down and relaxed his face. “Darn it, I didn’t think to bring my camera. I thought today was going to be boring. What time is that ceremony?”
“Ten,” Parker said.
“You didn’t tell them there was a chance of a thunderstorm, did you?”
Parker looked at his watch. It was 7:30.
“I’m glad I’m not in charge,” Curtis said.
Parker said nothing.
“Yep, I’m sure glad.”
“Shut up, Curtis.”
“I only meant I’m glad I’m not you.”
“Aren’t you a lucky son-of-a-bitch?”
“What’s your problem?”
“It’s called dry humor. You take things too seriously.”
The butter-bar stopped looking at the cloud and looked away, down the empty road that ran by the weather station. He usually looked toward the sky whenever he was outside. He was always craning his neck up to study whatever cumulus humilis or cumulus humilis fractus or mediocris or whatever the hell cloud formation he thought it was supposed to be. He was one of those rare, lucky bastards who was exactly where he belonged and doing exactly what he wanted. He loved weather. The worse it was the happier it made him, and the occasional threat of a tornado was damned near orgasmic.
Curtis looked down at the ground for a few seconds before looking at Parker. He held out his hand and pursed his lips as if about to speak, then, shaking his head, dropped his hand and went back inside.
Curtis had been assigned there for only a couple of weeks and already Lieutenant Parker couldn’t stand him. He was the poster child for Air Force weather. He hadn’t even moved into his new apartment yet and already he had joined the Officer’s Club, the Company Grade Officer’s Council, the Omaha chapter of the American Meteorological Society, and the squadron intramural football team. He did all his temperature conversions between Celsius and Fahrenheit in his head because he thought it was easier than looking them up on a chart. He had all the summer severe weather instability indices memorized, and he could derive the quasi-geostrophic potential vorticity equation using his pen and a leftover Burger King napkin. Parker knew this because the butter-bar had either told him or demonstrated it within the first week he arrived. “You’re sucking up to the wrong person,” Parker had finally told him. Parker had made sure to smile when he said this, and Curtis, uncertain as to whether this comment was meant as a joke, returned the smile with his own awkward, uncertain grin.
Mr. Anderson studied the cloud as if he didn’t notice or didn’t care what had transpired between the two. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a cigarette. “I thought today was going to be easy,” he said. He stuck the cigarette into his mouth and cupped the end with his hands to light it.
Parker said, “I thought you like this sort of weather.”
“This only makes people crabby. Give me blue skies any day.”
“But you’re good at it.”
“I got three more years before I can say, ‘to hell with it all.’ And then I’m gonna go fishing and visit all my grandchildren.”
“I have two more and I don’t think I can stand another day. I want to quit right now.”
“You can’t quit. We need you to deal with the management, keep the colonels off our backs until the new flight commander gets here. Besides, they’d arrest you for going AWOL.”
“If I get hit by a car I could get medically discharged.”
“Jesus, don’t talk like that. There’s easier ways to get kicked out.”
“I could date an enlisted woman. I’ve been thinking about asking Senior Airman Neilson out. She’s pretty hot.”
“Don’t touch her. She has three kids and her husband’s in Korea.”
“Just kidding,” Parker said. He thrust his hands deep in his pockets and looked at the ground. He wasn’t used to Mr. Anderson talking to him that way, like a protective father.
Mr. Anderson said, “If you hate it here that much, tell ‘em you’re a faggot.”
Parker froze. “What?” he said.
“That would get you kicked out in a real hurry.”
“I’m not that desperate.”
“Rather get hit by a car? Few years ago one of our airmen got kicked out. Some pictures got around and he was in them with some other guy, both butt naked. Maybe the other guy got angry and passed ‘em around, I don’t know. Few weeks later the airman was gone. I don’t even think you actually have to do anything, just say you are. Better than getting arrested for desertion. They won’t arrest you for being a faggot, just kick you out.”
“I don’t suck dick.”
“Don’t have to, just say it. Can’t think of a better way to get kicked out.” Mr. Anderson wasn’t joking. He was staring at the cloud and puffing away at his cigarette without the slightest hint of amusement, as if they’d been talking about something as innocuous as a Huskers football game.
That was one alternative Parker had not even remotely considered. The thought of being with a man was as inconceivable to him as giving his weather briefings with his pants down. He loved women—he enjoyed looking at them, talking with them, and especially some extracurricular one-on-one. If it wasn’t for the fraternization policy, he probably would have scored with several of the enlisted women who work next door in Base Ops. He was astonished that Mr. Anderson would even suggest something so ludicrous. The last thing he wanted was for everyone to think he was queer—the humiliation would be unbearable.
Parker said, “I’d rather smoke marijuana.”
“Might be another year until you get the pee test, and if that’s the case, you might as well wait out the rest of your commitment.”
“There’s no way I’d tell anybody I’m homo.”
“It was just a suggestion.”
Parker went back inside. He wanted to think about something else, anything that would make him forget his embarrassing conversation with Mr. Anderson. He settled on trying to figure out where his forecast went wrong, but in the short time Curtis was left alone in the office, he had pushed the only two computers with Internet access next to the forecast console and was looking at all four monitors at the same time, comparing satellite imagery with the upper level pressure charts. Parker didn’t feel like speaking to him to kick him off, so he decided to wait.
Parker would have quit within weeks of arriving at the weather station if it wasn’t for his four-year commitment. The only reason he chose the weather field was because he was flunking his engineering classes and needed to switch to another major to keep his ROTC scholarship; the meteorology classes were easier, and it was also the only option that would accept most of his credits and allow him to graduate within five years. He began having second thoughts as soon as he arrived two years ago. It was his first day on the counter, and everything quickly went to hell with severe mid-afternoon thunderstorms popping up all over the states of Nebraska and Iowa. A pilot had called to find out where they were—he wanted to fly around them and land before they reached the base. Parker looked at the radar and tried to describe their locations, but there were too many yellow, green, blue, and red pixels all over the screen, and hail indicator triangles blinking everywhere—it looked like a goddamn Christmas tree. The pilot turned out to be Colonel Blackhurst, the group commander, and he made it back all right, without Parker’s help. Colonel Blackhurst ordered Parker’s flight commander to give him extra training and make sure it didn’t happen again.
Lieutenant Parker was convinced that Colonel Blackhurst could have gotten killed, and that one of his mistakes would kill someone some day; maybe he would tell a pilot a storm would be over in an hour, and instead it would linger, and the pilot would run out of fuel and crash, unable to reach an alternate runway in time. Today’s weather was nothing more than a nuisance, like a thorn in his ass, another opportunity to look like an idiot, but what about next week? Next month? He still had to get through the rest of the summer severe weather season. He managed to miss last summer’s weather by volunteering for a four-month TDY to Saudi, but that wasn’t an option this time. He wanted to quit, but he didn’t want to go AWOL and get arrested, and he certainly did not want to declare himself gay just to get kicked out. He wanted to leave before someone got killed.
When Parker stepped outside a half hour later, the cloud had developed an anvil-shaped thunderhead. It was dark gray and ugly and obvious to Parker that it wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. He went inside to look over Curtis’ shoulder at the satellite image. It showed up as a circular, white spot centered on the Nebraska-Iowa border, the only cloud in the entire central plains, and it happened to be right over the parade field. He didn’t want to believe it. This situation might have been very funny had he not been the one in charge.
“I’m going to go ahead and issue the lightning watch,” Mr. Anderson said. As soon as he typed out the statement and pressed the “return” key, the multi-line telephones lit up and began ringing.
Curtis said, “Lieutenant Parker, the observer called, it just started raining.”
Mr. Anderson said, “Parker, I don’t have time for this one, can you get this? I’m on a phone patch with a pilot on the other line.”
Parker picked up the phone. “Lieutenant Parker.”
A woman said, “Hello. My daughter is having an outdoor wedding in August. Can you tell me what the weather’s going to be like?”
Marvelous timing, he thought. “Ma’am, we’re a little busy right now. We can’t do a forecast beyond two weeks anyway, so if you call back in a couple of weeks we can give you better information.”
“That’s what the other man said, but a good guess is all I need. It’s just a quick question, it won’t take long. Actually the wedding isn’t until next year, August 12th. I just want to see what the weather might be like. We’d like to have it outside, but not if it’s going to rain.”
“Right. Stand by.” Parker pressed a button and put her on hold. “This lady wants next year’s weather, can you believe it?” Parker said. Mr. Anderson was talking to an aircrew that had just walked in and Lieutenant Curtis was busy with another phone call.
Parker picked up another ringing phone. A public affairs officer called and kindly let him know that it was raining outside. They didn’t make any inclement weather plans, he said, and needed to know when it would stop. Parker crossed his fingers and said it would stop by ten. He then pressed a button to answer another line. Takeoff weather for next Monday? Sixty-eight degrees, winds northeast at five knots, pressure altitude 1096. Lieutenant Parker put down the phone and thought for a moment before returning to the woman on hold.
He said, “Expect partly cloudy skies in the morning, mostly cloudy in the afternoon with a chance of thunderstorms after three o’clock. The high should reach 89.”
“This is for next year, August 12th?”
“That’s right ma’am.”
“Well, thank you very much.”
“No problem. But just in case, I’d make indoor plans too.”
The next one Parker picked up had a major on the line. The major said he was from STRATCOM, emphasizing the name STRATCOM, as if this association increased his self importance. Strategic Command had its headquarters on the base, just down the road from the weather station. On the front lawn of the headquarters building was a missile that pointed at the sky, symbolizing America’s dominance over the ex-Soviet Union and the rest of the world like a big, fat, erect, metal penis that stuck out of the ground. The major asked what was going on. Parker told him a cumulonimbus cloud had developed right over the parade field, and mentioned how funny it was that it was the only cloud in the entire surrounding six states. The major said he didn’t find it funny and asked when it was going to end.
“Probably within the hour.”
He hadn’t looked at the charts, but it was one stupid cloud. “Yes, sir, probably,” he said. There was nothing behind it, and there was nothing he could think of that could have triggered it. It couldn’t last more than an hour.
“So what you’re telling me is that you don’t really know what’s going on.” Parker knew where this was going and didn’t want to go there.
“I guess I don’t,” Parker said.
“All week you said it was going to be a perfect morning.”
“But it’s raining outside.”
“That’s right, it is.”
“And you’re not sure when it’s going to end.”
Parker tried to think of proper, polite words he knew he was supposed to use, but they were all being submerged under more descriptive words that bubbled into his head.
Summer used to be his favorite time of the year. It used to mean lazy, pleasant days playing basketball with the kids in his neighborhood, or splashing in the pool during hot afternoons when he had no responsibilities, no worries, and his thoughts of the future were limited to grand visions of flying fighter jets and blowing things up. Now summer meant instability. It meant that those white, fluffy clouds that drifted so innocently enough in the sky may grow and expand like cancer, blacken into thunderheads and threaten the airfield with lightning and hail, agitating squadron commanders, pilots, maintenance personnel working on the flight line, parents at the base pool, who would then flood the weather station with their concerned or panicked calls, keeping him at work hours after he should have gone home. It seemed to him that he had been drifting forward through life, changing direction with every shift in the breeze like a used paper bag, having only a vague notion of where he wanted to go. It was as if he had tumbled into a thicket, his uniform hopelessly entangled in its thorns and crooked, finger-like branches. What he needed was a good chainsaw.
“You don’t seem to know much of anything, do you?” the major said.
“Fuck you,” said Parker. He froze, held his breath. “Sir,” he added. He felt the blood drain out of his face and swell into his throat. I didn’t mean that, he wanted to say, but it was too late.
There was a long pause, and for a hopeful moment Parker thought that maybe he got away with it, that the major didn’t hear him. “What did you say?” the major finally asked.
Parker dropped the receiver onto the telephone cradle. It was one, stupid mistake. It slipped, the words. They had coalesced at the tip of his tongue, then slipped between his lips like candy, the first consonant warm and thick and sweet as fudge.
Curtis was staring at him. “Did he hear you?”
“Did you mean to say that?”
“Absolutely, Curtis. I went in the Air Force just so I can get kicked right back out.”
“What are you going to do?”
“The squadron commander’s going to find out.”
“What’s going to happen to you?”
“I’m going to bend over and get fucked, Curtis. What do you think?”
Curtis stared at him. He said, “I think you’re going to need—” and stopped. He turned away, mumbling something about Vaseline.
“What?” Parker said.
Curtis ignored him.
It turned out that it wasn’t the only cloud. Within the next half hour, others developed behind it, and they all drifted along a perfect line right over the parade ground.
Curtis answered a phone, then turned to Parker.
“Lieutenant Parker, can you take care of this one? He wants to talk to Mr. Anderson but he’s busy and this guy won’t listen to me.”
“What now? Another wedding?” He took the phone. “This is Lieutenant Parker.”
“I need to talk to Chief Anderson,” the man said. His voice was distant, scratchy, like he was using a cell phone, and Parker could hear what sounded like small pebbles clicking against a window.
Parker looked for Mr. Anderson and saw he was showing the radar to a small group of concerned officers wearing their service dress uniform, probably from the ceremony.
Parker said, “He’s not a chief any more. He retired a long time ago. And he’s busy right now, sir. Can I take a message and have him call you back?”
The man said, “I need to speak to him.”
“Can you hold for about five minutes?”
“Can you tell me where the tornado is?”
“I’m here in Macon, Georgia. The sirens are going off and I’m trying to look outside, but I can’t see a damn thing with all this rain and hail banging on my bedroom window. The electricity’s out, so I can’t even watch the weather guy on TV.”
“You’re not serious.”
“I need to talk to Anderson.”
Parker imagined the man standing before an imploding window—bricks, fence posts, shards of glass and wood impaling a sagging, middle-aged body, and then the entire bedroom ripping apart and getting sucked up into the sky. This idiot is going to get killed. “Sir, you need to get away from that window, you need to get in your basement now.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Then get to a downstairs bathroom without windows.”
“It’s down the hallway.”
“Then get everyone in there now.”
“I’m alone. I have a cell phone, so I can bring it in with me.”
Parker pressed his hand against the receiver and looked at the second lieutenant. “This guy’s calling from Georgia.”
“Curtis, get on the Internet and bring up the National Weather Service warnings for Georgia.”
“Why should I do anything for you?”
“God damnit, Curtis, just do it!”
Curtis quickly moved to the computer and began typing.
Parker said, “Sir? Are you in the bathroom yet?”
“Yes, I’m in here now.”
“Good. Where in Georgia did you say you are?”
Parker looked at the computer screen while Lieutenant Curtis looked dully at the screen with him. “What’s going on in Macon?” Parker asked.
“They’re reporting golf ball sized hail, and a sheriff spotted a funnel cloud just north of downtown.”
Parker brought up a radar image from the other computer and saw the red pixels of a hook echo north of the town.
“Hello, sir? The tornado’s about ten to fifteen miles to your north. Stay where you are. It could back-build along the southwest.”
“Thank you very much. I’ll stay right here.”
“If you don’t mind me asking, why did you call us?”
“Why did I call you?”
“Yeah, instead of your local weather office.”
“I didn’t know their phone number. Besides, you’re a weather station, aren’t you?”
“Is Anderson there? I’d like to talk to him. I used to stop by to ask him about the weather when I was stationed there.”
Parker looked around. “No. If you leave me a number I can have him call you back.”
“That’s all right, I’ll try again later. Thank you, Lieutenant.”
Parker put the phone down, praying that the tornado doesn’t jump on top of the man’s home and level it. He’ll watch the news to see if everyone made it all right.
Curtis asked, “What’s going on?”
Parker didn’t feel like talking about the tornado, especially with Curtis. He asked, “What happened with our clouds? Where the hell are they coming from?”
Curtis said, “Minor short-wave trough at the 850 millibar level, just enough of a trigger. The models never caught it.”
“Took you long enough to figure that out.”
“I can’t wait until we get our new flight commander because you’re an asshole.”
Parker looked at him. Curtis was glaring back, his fists resting on either side of the keyboard as if clenching a fork and steak knife. Parker wanted to fire something back, but he couldn’t think of anything to say that would throw off the butter-bar’s newly acquired self-confidence. Instead, he did the first thing that came to mind; he walked up to him, spun his chair around, slapped his hands on his shoulders, and gave him a kiss—a big fat kiss right on the mouth.
Curtis was visibly horrified, his eyes popping out of his face, his skin losing color. Parker surprised even himself; he didn’t realize he had it in him. Parker pushed him away and pointed at him. He said, “You won’t have to see my ugly ass anymore because I’m getting out. You’re in charge.”
Parker stormed out of the office and went outside to watch the rain.
Ten minutes before the ceremony was to begin, the rain finally stopped. Parker walked to the edge of the road, its surface glazed with water and sunlight. The sky was breaking through the clouds, though a few stubborn droplets spattered his face and arms. When he looked up, the sun forced him to shadow his eyes with his hand. The droplets, backlit by sunlight, shimmered and floated toward him like confetti. He went back inside. Lieutenant Curtis glanced at him but didn’t say a word.
The Weather Channel reported uprooted trees, damage to power lines and some houses, a few injuries, but no deaths, which pleased Lieutenant Parker.
An hour went by without a ringing telephone. When Lieutenant Parker answered that one, he found the squadron commander at the other end of the line. He said he wanted him in his office now.
On his way to the parking lot Parker found Mr. Anderson smoking a cigarette.
“Some guy called for you earlier. I forgot to get his name. He called from Georgia and was in the middle of a tornado warning.”
Mr. Anderson said, “I don’t know anyone from Georgia. What did he want?”
“He said he used to stop by to talk to you when he was stationed here. He just wanted to talk.”
“I can’t remember somebody if he don’t give me a name. I don’t know anyone in Georgia.”
The air was warm and blue. Seeing the sun cheered Parker as he walked to his car. “I’m a homosexual,” he said to himself, testing the sound of the words. “Sir, I’m gay. I enjoy the company of men.” Parker put his car into gear and headed toward the commander’s office. The day was beautiful and not a cloud in the sky. He hadn’t felt this happy in a long time.