[Story] Place of Safety, By Tony Earley | Harper's Magazine

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[Story]

Place of Safety

Illustration by Leland Foster

[Story]

Place of Safety

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For years, people asked Rochelle: What were you thinking?

Everybody wanted to know. Strangers would cross the street to cut her off on the sidewalk. Hey, they would say. Tell me one thing.

She had put the girls down after lunch and tried to catch a nap herself, but every time she started to doze off, the sirens. You’d think they’d blow the sirens only after somebody had actually seen a tornado, but no. They’d been going off all morning. She didn’t know how the girls slept through it.

They were almost out of milk. They only had enough for one cup and both girls would want some. The IGA was just up the street. You could almost see it from the house. There and back, five minutes flat, ten tops, if somebody in the line had a cartful. The girls were sleeping so peacefully!

She locked the door and shook the handle and stuck her fingers in her ears and ran for the car. It was tornado weather: too hot, too humid, too still, the air singed with ozone. Low, black clouds roiling by, a movie running too fast, but not a breath of air stirring on the ground. Streetlights on at lunchtime. But it was Alabama in April. When was it not tornado weather?

The IGA parking lot was empty. Mr. Chandaluri was holding the door open.

Rochelle pulled her fingers out of her ears and yanked the chain on her brightest smile. Her mama always said, Smile whenever somebody does something nice for you. Then they’ll want to do it again. But the sirens! The wailing chopped through her head and circled away and came back around and chopped through her head again. It was hard to look pleasant.

“Come inside,” he said.

She said, “Why, thank you, Mr. Chandaluri.”

“In,” he said. “Now.”

That’s when she saw the keys hanging from the door. She stopped. Why was Mr. Chandaluri trying to lock her inside the IGA?

She said, “We ran out of milk.”

He said “Look” and pointed across the parking lot. A hive of queasy, green clouds hunkered over downtown. As they watched, a crooked finger of smoke wobbled to the ground and began to scratch among the buildings. A flock of shingles flushed from the roof of the insurance office and spun away into the air. A telephone pole leaned slowly forward, an old man picking up a penny off the floor, the wires pulling tight, before toppling over with a white flash and a boom. The lights in the IGA went off. The streetlights. The sirens.

Mr. Chandaluri grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her into the store. “Run,” he said. “Aisle one. Straight back. The freezer.”

She heard keys jangling, the thunk of the lock, her flip-flops slapping the floor. A glow, a window, a door, a broom-handle slice of light across a tar-black room, the freezer, the cold, Mrs. Chandaluri squatting with a flashlight.

“Anil?” she asked.

“He’s right behind me,” Rochelle said.

And then Mr. Chandaluri was kneeling beside Mrs. Chandaluri. “Oh, Mother,” he said. “It’s coming.”

Mrs. Chandaluri pointed the flashlight at Rochelle. “Mrs. Taggert,” she said. “Where are your babies?”

Tina woke up first. She made sure Tania was still asleep, then tiptoed out of their room and ran down the hallway and climbed into bed with their mother. Rochelle said, “You can stay here as long as your sister doesn’t wake up.” Tina thought Don’t wake up and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, Rochelle was gone.

She wandered down the hallway to the kitchen and around the island into the living room. She circled the coffee table and went back through the kitchen and opened the basement door a crack to see whether the light was on downstairs and pushed it closed again. She peeked inside the bathroom. She looked behind the shower curtain. She went back to Rochelle’s room and checked the closet and under the bed.

When she poked Tania on the shoulder, Tania frowned without opening her eyes and said, “Don’t wake me up.”

Tina said, “Mommy’s not here.”

They searched Rochelle’s bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen. Tania cracked open the basement door and closed it again. In the living room they looked out the picture window. The streetlights were on.

Tania said, “Her car’s gone.”

“Where did she go?” Tina asked.

Dogs all over town were howling along with the sirens.

Tania said, “We should turn on the TV.”

They sat down on the rug and Tania aimed the remote at the television. Dave Dimon looked straight at them and said, “Dana, Alabama. You’re under the gun. If you can see me, if you can hear the sound of my voice, you should already be in your place of safety. If you have a basement, get in it right now.”

Run: kitchen, basement door, down, down the rickety stairs, dark and damp and dirt and Tide. Tania jumped and jumped and finally snagged the light cord. Tina spun around and around beneath the bulb, because what were they supposed to do in the basement?

Tania pointed at the narrow space between the washer and dryer and said, “Let’s hide in there.”

Tina said, “I don’t want to hide in there.” Good spiders and bad spiders lived in the basement and she couldn’t tell them apart. Both kinds definitely lived under the washer and dryer.

Tania said, “But it’s a tornado.”

Tina wasn’t sure what a tornado was, but she thought it had something to do with a train. She said, “I want Mommy.”

Tania sat down and grabbed Tina’s arm and tugged her to the floor.

Tina said, “Stop.

Tania scooted back into the gap and said, “We have to get in.

Tina said “No!” but scooted backward until she bumped up against Tania’s feet. She said, “I’m telling.”

The light went out.

A ghost floated down the street and turned into a lion.

The lion jumped on the roof of the house and roared and clawed at the shingles and shattered the windows. It picked up the house and looked underneath it and sucked in a breath and roared so loudly that Tina felt her hair lifting away from her head. She saw daylight. Mud and leaves and grass. Tania screamed in her ear. She thought Put it back down and covered her head with her arms.

And they asked Rochelle: What did it sound like? Well, not like a train. Not like everybody says.

More like jets flying over the stadium at the end of the national anthem and gravel pouring into a truck bed and a car-wash vacuum cleaner sucking up paper clips and old women moaning in a nursing home and tennis shoes bungling around the dryer.

Then it got so quiet she could hear Mr. Chandaluri’s nose whistling.

He said, “Mother, I think it’s gone by.”

Mrs. Chandaluri said, “Mrs. Taggert?”

Rochelle said, “They were asleep.”

Mrs. Chandaluri said, “Anil, open the door.”

She stood beside her car with her keys in her hand and watched Mr. Chandaluri run down the street and duck under a sagging power line and wade into the canopy of a fallen tree and disappear. Mrs. Chandaluri said, “Run, Mrs. Taggert,” and pulled her sari halfway up her calves and jogged after Mr. Chandaluri.

The house was a trash heap, a burn pile, garbage slung into a ditch by rednecks too lazy to drive to the dumpster. Jagged nests of wood and siding, shredded shingles and clots of pink insulation, magazines and sofa cushions and yellow plastic plates. The Goodwill treadmill, the blue cooler, her good sundress, the shower curtain, the grocery bag stuffed with other grocery bags, a twist of pink bedsheet; everything she owned.

Mr. Chandaluri had managed to climb on top of the pile where the kitchen used to be. He stood with one foot on a piece of the roof and the other on top of the refrigerator. He clasped his hand to his forehead, a sad explorer who had climbed the wrong mountain, then leaned over and closed the freezer door.

Oh, no, no, no.

Mrs. Chandaluri was down on her hands and knees near the front steps, speaking into a foundation vent. “Little girls!” she called. “Little girls! Are you there?”

They stopped crying when they heard Mrs. Chandaluri.

One day in line at the IGA, Tania had picked up a Twix from the candy display and showed it to Tina. Mrs. Chandaluri saw her and said something very fast to Mr. Chandaluri that sounded like words and not like words. Like rain on the car roof. Popcorn popping. Marbles spilling on a tabletop. They were amazed.

Mr. Chandaluri said, “Would you like to have that?”

Rochelle turned around and said, “Tania, put it back.”

Mrs. Chandaluri said something else to Mr. Chandaluri. He looked down at Tina and smiled. “And how about you? Would you like a Twix, too?” he asked.

Rochelle said, “Thank you so much, Mr. Chandaluri, but we can pay for it.”

“Next time,” Mr. Chandaluri said.

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

Rochelle said, “What do you say, girls?”

After they got in the car Tania asked, “What did Mrs. Chandaluri say to Mr. Chandaluri?”

Rochelle said, “You made her very angry. She said, ‘Little girls in the checkout line should keep their hands to themselves.’ ”

Underneath the house, Tania whispered, “It’s Mrs. Chandaluri.”

“Where’s Mommy?” Tina whispered back.

“Little girls, don’t be afraid. Please answer if you are there,” Mrs. Chandaluri said.

It sounded like she was right on top of them.

“Don’t say anything,” Tania said.

Tina said, “I want to get out.”

Somewhere outside, Rochelle began to scream. “Tania! Tania Taggert! Can you hear me?”

Tina closed her eyes and yelled “Mommy!” so loudly her ears popped.

“They are here!” Mrs. Chandaluri shouted. “Mrs. Taggert! Your babies are here! Anil! Get down from there before you break your neck and be useful and go find help. The children are under the house!”

Starting in middle school, they played a game they called You’re the One. Tania might say “You’re the tall one,” and Tina would answer “You’re the short one,” which was true. Easy enough. Tania might say “You’re the brunette one,” and Tina would say “You’re the blond one,” which was also true, although annoying to have to acknowledge, because Tania was vain about her hair.

It never ended well. Tania never knew when to stop, and Tina was too competitive to give up.

If Tania said “You’re the smart one,” Tina knew she was supposed to say “No, you’re the smart one,” but refused to because it wasn’t true, not by a long shot, or “You’re the dumb one,” which, while kind of true, always started a fight. And if Tania said something really dumb, like “You’re the one God wanted to live,” Tina sounded like a loser no matter how she answered.

You’re the One was like tic-tac-toe: unless you went first, the best you could hope for was a tie.

Once they got older, Tina knew for a fact, from friends who had brothers or sisters in Tania’s grade, that Tania regularly bragged about having saved Tina’s life. Poor little four-year-old Tina, who hadn’t known what a tornado was. So, if Tina made honor roll, she owed it to Tania. If she hit two home runs in the playoffs against Guntersville, she owed it to Tania.

Sure, it was Tania who had turned on the television, but it was Dave Dimon who told them to go to the basement. It was Tania who thought to hide between the washer and dryer, but—and this was the most important part, but also the part nobody ever considered—it was Tina who had woken Tania up.

If I don’t wake up, you don’t wake up.

You saved me, but I saved you first.

I’m the one.

After two years of trying, Dave Dimon had finally talked the station into getting Doppler radar. Two other local stations had it. Huntsville had it. Montgomery was getting it. Opelika was dreaming about it. It was time.

That was in January. February was quiet, just wet, just February. Not much shaking in March, either, a couple of middling cold fronts pushing squall lines, moderate straight-line winds, the usual, a few watches but no big deal, not enough shear aloft for anything substantive to get properly organized.

Stuff to look at, in other words, but not much to see. Dave, you still got that grease pencil?

Then came the tenth of April.

That morning, a handful of LP supercells fired up along the dryline in southern Mississippi and moved north-northeast but didn’t amount to much, lot of lightning, lot of noise, big deal, so what, welcome to the Southland in springtime.

Except for the Dana storm.

Around two o’clock, that one grew a hook echo off the southwestern quadrant. Classic tornado signature: a quotation mark, a seahorse, a crawdad tail, textbook debris ball, the whole deal, would you just look at that. Dave, the weather service just warned it, clear the set, everybody, sorry Bill Dance, we’re cutting in, going live in three, two, one . . .

Worth every penny. Doppler saves lives, folks. That’s the bottom line. End of story.

Once, when they were in high school, who knows what they had been fighting about—you used my hairbrush, no I didn’t, Mom! make her get off the phone—Tania slammed her door in Tina’s face. Tina found herself staring at the picture of Dave Dimon her sister kept taped to the door. to my old friend tania on her sweet sixteenth! may you always dwell in a place of safety—god bless—dave.

Place of safety.

God bless.

Dave.

He never sent Tina a picture.

She took off one of her Chuck Taylors and threw it at his face as hard as she could.

Behind the door, Tania yelled, “Mom!”

Rochelle yelled from the kitchen, “Tina Rose Taggert! You better not be throwing shoes!”

From the den, Dr. Koppelman yelled, “Rochelle! Please!”

Tina kicked the door and yelled, “I should have let you sleep!”

Outside, they heard sirens whooping and chainsaws gnawing and trucks beeping and men yelling, “Come on back, come on back. Ho! Ho! Ho!”; they heard footsteps running and keys jangling and leather creaking and radios squawking out their address.

They heard Chief Kenny say, “Larry, get down off of there. You wanna make the whole thing fall in? I don’t want nobody moving nothing till we figure out what we got. I’m serious, stop pulling on that. AC, we got gas or electric?”

Rochelle couldn’t stop crying, which made the girls start crying all over again. She was the worst mother in the world, they were almost out of milk, she was only going to the IGA, both of you were sleeping so peacefully!

Chief Kenny said, “Rochelle, hop up a sec, hon. Let me get down there and talk to these girls.”

Tina heard Chief Kenny’s knees pop.

He said, “Miss Tania? You down there?”

Rochelle said, “Girls, you can talk to Chief Kenny. Mommy’s right here.”

Tania said, “Yes, sir.”

“Have you read the lesson for tomorrow yet?”

Mrs. Chief Kenny taught the primary class at Sunday school. Tania had just moved up. She said, “No, sir.”

“I don’t think Mrs. Chief Kenny has, either. AC, turn that thing down. Go up there and tell him if he’s got a question to walk across the yard and ask it. I can see him talking from here. Miss Tania, I’m shining a light. Can you see the light?”

“No, sir. Is it night?”

“No, ma’am, it is not. It’s turned into a real pretty afternoon. Sun came out. Miss Tina? You down there, too?”

Tania said, “She’s afraid.”

“I bet she is. I know I would be. Do you like Twix, Miss Tina? Mrs. Chandaluri says you like Twix.”

Tania said, “We like Twix.”

“Miss Tina, I need to hear you say something. I need to make sure you’re not hurt.”

“She’s not hurt.”

“Miss Tania? Honey? Let Miss Tina talk. Miss Tina? How old are you?”

Tina said, “I want Mommy.”

“Fair enough,” Chief Kenny said.

His knees popped again.

He said, “Rochelle, here. Draw me a floor plan on the back of this. I need to find Worm.”

Tania Taggert, you know what I like to do when the weather gets bad? I like to stand out in the yard and listen to the sirens and see if I can see a tornado.

Not me! I stay inside and turn on the Watch 2 Watch U Weather Center.

And if I hear there’s a tornado warning, I like to get in my car and drive toward the darkest cloud I can find. I like to snarl up traffic and cause accidents and get in the way of all the first responders.

Not me! I go to my place of safety.

What’s that?

A place of safety is a basement or an interior room, like a bathroom or a closet. I try to stay away from windows and put as many walls as possible between me and the storm.

Wow! You must be very smart.

I’m not just smart. I’m Watch 2 Watch U weather wise!

Hey, that ice cream looks pretty good. Can I have some?

Get your own, Dave. Get your own.

Chief Kenny turned a giant worm loose underneath the house. It talked to itself as it crawled toward them: Okay, that’s a nail, and, that’s a nail, and, damn, that’s a lot of nails. Is that loose? Nope. Then put that arm through here and that leg there, and my foot’s stuck. Nope, not stuck. Is that a spider? Not a spider. I don’t know what that was. Could’ve been a spider.

Tina was going to scream as soon as she saw it.

And, something’s wet. I don’t want to know what that is. I know what that is. And, it’s nasty. Will that move? Yep, that moves. Don’t move that. And, found a waffle iron. And, somebody’s—I think it’s a robe. And, whoa. Stove in the staircase. Please don’t fall on me, stove. And, there’s the washing machine. Chief Kenny? I’m almost there.

Chief Kenny said, “Worm, turn that thing off. I’m about six feet away from where you are.”

Tina opened her mouth and drew in a deep breath.

When Dr. Koppelman ducked under the caution tape, nobody stopped him.

He was the radiologist at Dana Memorial. Rochelle was the X-ray receptionist.

Why didn’t somebody stop him?

She didn’t want him to see her house like this, and she didn’t want him to see her like this. Sweatpants and flip-flops and a ratty Alabama T-shirt that had belonged to Tommy Taggert. She was covered in mud and her hair was a mess and she didn’t have makeup on and she wasn’t wearing a bra and her toenails were painted two different colors because the girls couldn’t agree.

And she was the worst mother in the world.

She had left her children alone while they were asleep and a tornado had come and destroyed the house and they were trapped underneath it and now somebody named Worm was trying to find a way to get them out while she watched Chief Kenny talk to him through a hole.

Dr. Koppelman didn’t move to hug her, which was good, because half the town was on the other side of the caution tape, watching, and the other half was in the volunteer fire department on their side of the tape, also watching.

“Rochelle,” he said. “Oh, Rochelle. I am so sorry.”

She said, “Thank you for coming, Dr. Koppelman.” Like this was a party. Just dumb.

“Of course,” he said. “Of course.”

He often said things twice, a tic they sometimes made fun of in X-ray. Where’s Dr. Koppelman gone? Lunch, lunch. When will he be back? One, one.

“I came as soon as I heard about the girls.”

If she had spoken at that moment, she would have burst into tears again, so she bit her lip and nodded. Please don’t be nice to me right now.

“Are they injured?”

She shook her head.

“Good,” he said. “Good.”

She liked Dr. Koppelman well enough as a boss. He could be a little passive-aggressive, but unlike all the other male bosses she’d had, he was never aggressive-aggressive. He might slap a misfiled film down on the counter a little harder than was necessary, but he would never say anything to you about misfiling it. He never made you feel bad in front of anybody else.

He said, “Can I call anyone for you? I know you have family in North Carolina. Have they been notified?”

“I’ll call Mama later. It’s fine.”

“What about your husband? Would you like me to contact your husband?”

Rochelle shook her head again. What to say about Tommy Taggert? He was shacked up with some Cajun whore in Bayou Goula, Louisiana. He had parked Rochelle and the girls in Dana because he had cousins in town, and said they wouldn’t be there long. Then he left before Tina could walk. The cousins wouldn’t talk to her. He made good money working offshore, but what he sent home barely covered day care at Mama Too, the cheap place on the other side of town.

Ex-husband.

She rented the Pore House from the church month-to-month—she wasn’t supposed to know that’s what people in town called it, but she did—and now even it was gone. Her mother had a new husband who didn’t like kids. You made your bed. So here she was.

Tina squealed so loudly that Chief Kenny jerked away from the vent and reached to turn down the volume on his radio, even though it wasn’t on.

The worm had one big blue eye, so bright it blinded Tina to look at it.

It said, “Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Then the eye moved away from her face and lit up her feet, and she saw that the worm was a man wearing a light on a headband, which he took off and dangled toward her, like a mouse he was holding by the tail.

“See?” he said. “See?”

Tania smacked Tina on the top of her head and said, “Stop.”

Tina stopped squealing and said, “Ow.”

Rochelle said, “Tina? What is it, baby? What’s wrong?”

The man said, “She’s okay. I think I just scared her with my light.”

He was wearing a fireman’s coat and heavy gloves; the yellow stripes on the cuffs of the coat flashed when the light hit them. A drop of sweat rolled down his nose and jumped off the end.

He said, “Girls, I am so sorry. I wouldn’t scare you for the world.”

Tania said, “She thought you were a worm.”

“Well,” the man said. “I’ve heard that before.”

“We could hear you talking to yourself.”

Rochelle said, “Tina? Honey? Mr. Worm isn’t a worm. That’s just his name.”

“Ah, Robert,” Worm said. “Robbie. Rob. Worm. Whatever. I like Robert.”

Chief Kenny said, “Worm? Are those girls okay?”

“Yes, sir. They’re looking out at me like a couple of little owls. And they do not appear to be injured.”

Tina said, “Dave Dimon told us to get in the basement.”

“That’s great,” Chief Kenny said. “Somebody needs to tell Dave Dimon that.”

“He might put you on TV,” Worm said.

Chief Kenny said, “So, what’re we looking at?”

“Ah, let’s see, let me get this light back on. I’m in kind of a little lean-to crawl space made by a big hunk of floor deck jammed down against the wall. And, it looks like the whole mess is balanced on a joist laying on top of the washer and dryer. I don’t like the way any of it looks, to be honest.”

“You think we can lift it?”

“Ah, ten-ten. I’d be afraid to try that.”

“You think you can get a jack under that joist?”

“Doubtful. The little girls would have to come out here where I am, and they’re better off where they are.”

“What about the stairway?”

“Ah, that’s where the stove is, and, it don’t look like it wants to be messed with.”

“Can you crawl ’em out?”

“Ten-ten. Nails and glass everywhere.”

Chief Kenny said, “Well, Worm, daggummit.”

“I know it, Chief. I know it.”

“Okay. Crawl back out here and draw me a picture.”

“On my way. Oh, girls,” he said. He twisted the light to the side, so it didn’t shine in their faces. “I almost forgot. I brought you some presents. Let’s see if I can reach back in this pocket. There. Here’s a little flashlight for you to hold, and, here’s a little flashlight for you to hold.”

“Thank you!”

“And, do you know what’s in that other pocket? Don’t shine that in my eyes, hon.”

Tania said, “What?”

“Why, it’s Twix. Here’s one for you. And here’s one for you. Mrs. Chandaluri told me I better not come back out there unless I gave you those.”

Chief Kenny decided to dig a trench perpendicular to the house and cut a hole through the basement wall with a masonry saw and get the girls out that way. He said, “AC, go find Flea Hardin and tell him to saddle up and get over here with his digger.”

“The CAT?”

“No, the smaller one. The Kubota.”

“We could probably get Stovepipe here sooner. It’s Saturday. He’s probably down at his mama’s house. He’s got that little Komatsu.”

“Yeah, and Stovepipe’s like as not to knock that wall down, too.”

Two years ago, in the First Baptist cemetery, Stovepipe had accidentally smashed in the lid of Mavis Steppe’s casket with the bucket of his backhoe while digging Garland Steppe’s grave. It hadn’t been his fault—he had dug where he was told—but the Steppes had raised hell. Stovepipe had lost a couple of graveyards over it.

AC said, “Chief, you know, that’s probably not fair to ’Pipe.”

Chief Kenny said, “You’re probably right.”

“I mean, that wasn’t his fault.”

Chief Kenny said, “AC, I really don’t care at this point. Go find me a backhoe and somebody who knows how to drive it.”

AC’s given name was Wayne, but the year he made assistant chief, he’d messed up by signing the Christmas party invitations ass. chief. Now nobody called him Wayne. Sons of bitches.

He said, “Well, I’ll get somebody.”

Flea Hardin wasn’t home. The little digger, the Kubota, was out back, but the CAT and the trailer and Flea’s big truck were gone.

Stovepipe’s Sunday truck was parked outside his mother’s house. He opened the door and said, “AC, please don’t tell me you’re here about those little girls.”

AC said, “We need you to dig ’em out.”

Stovepipe said, “Are they alive?”

AC said, “They’re not hurt, but the house collapsed into the basement. Worm says it’s a mess.”

“You gonna dig down and saw through the block wall?”

AC said, “That’s the plan.”

Stovepipe nodded. He said, “All right, let me tell Mama where I’m going.”

When Dr. Koppelman reappeared, he motioned to Rochelle and turned his back to the caution tape and handed her a set of keys. “These are for the lake house,” he said.

She quickly lowered her hand to her side and said, “Dr. Koppelman.”

He said, “You and the girls need a place to stay, and I hardly ever use the place since, well . . . ”

Mimi. Breast cancer. And her husband a radiologist.

“Dr. Koppelman, you’re very kind, but I couldn’t possibly.”

She tried to hand the keys back but he stuck his hands in his pockets. She had never seen him in jeans before. He looked more normal than she would’ve thought.

He said, “No. No. I insist. Just until you find a place. You know which house it is, right?”

It was the house where once a year Dr. Koppelman held the Awkward Cookout. Everybody wore bathing suits under their clothes, but nobody ever swam. The office manager and all the techs side-eyed Rochelle, afraid that she was going to strip down to her bathing suit, while the husbands watched her more openly, hoping that she would. Dr. Koppelman scurried around, asking whether anyone wanted another beer, which everybody did but nobody was about to take. They gnawed on the hamburgers he had grilled well beyond done-done, and tried to avoid looking at his legs, which, though hairless and supernaturally white, had surprisingly large calf muscles.

She said, “Are you sure?”

Sometimes people asked Rochelle questions that only pretended to be questions. They said things like, “Well, that tornado turned out to be quite a blessing, didn’t it?”

What are you supposed to say to that?

If she said, “It’s never a good thing to have your house destroyed by a tornado while your children are inside,” they would say, “But you wound up with two houses and a doctor, though, didn’t you?”

To be honest, she had always wanted to live in Dr. Koppelman’s lake house. It was the kind of place you love so much in a dream that you wake up wondering whether it’s real and how you can get there.

Beat-up hardwood floors with cow paths worn into the varnish; sun-bleached, poplar-paneled walls, and that mildewy, old-book smell you want a lake house to have; lumpy, mismatched furniture in bad plaids and out-of-date colors that would look tacky anywhere else. Dr. Koppelman and Mimi had bought it furnished when the original owners died and they hadn’t changed a thing.

There wasn’t a right angle in the place. If you spilled milk in the kitchen it would run underneath the refrigerator before you could wipe it up. If you didn’t jiggle the handle, the downstairs toilet would run all night. The paint was peeling and the roof was rusted and the screens were rusted and moss was growing on one side of the chimney and the windows rattled when the wind blew.

It was perfect.

And somehow she had the key.

When she and the girls finally made it to the lake house late that night, four carloads of hospital housekeeping staff were just leaving—including fat old Harvey Garwood, the head housekeeper himself, a man whom neither Rochelle nor anyone else at Dana General had ever seen do a lick of work.

One last small miracle to end the day.

The house was spotless. Gleaming toilets. Dusted ceiling fans. Vacuumed cushions. Dishwasher running. Brand-new shelf paper. Beds made and towels laid out. Hospital corners.

The cabinets were filled with little-girl food. Pop-Tarts and Skippy and Chef Boyardee. On the counter, in a sealed envelope with Rochelle’s name typed on the front, was a Walmart gift certificate for $1,000. No note. Two gallons of milk in the fridge.

She never gave the key back.

Dr. Koppelman came often to the lake that summer and watched night fall from the roof of the boathouse. Lightning bugs. Bats. Fish jumping. Eventually, she began climbing the ladder to join him. Later she couldn’t recall whose idea that had been. One evening, during an otherwise unremarkable sunset, he turned to her and said, “If we were to begin a romantic relationship, I’d have to let you go.”

He said it so matter-of-factly—Rochelle, please file this, Rochelle, tell Dr. Militana I’ll call him back—that only later did she realize what a deeply strange thing it had been to say.

She replied, equally matter-of-factly, “What would I do without a job?”

He said, “I suppose we would need to get married.”

Rochelle, call the Lucky Dragon for me. Happy Family. Steamed rice.

Right away, Dr. Koppelman.

She said, “But I’m a Baptist.”

He said, “I’m not observant.”

Worm came back with bicycle helmets.

Tania said, “Are we going to get bicycles?”

“I don’t know about today,” Worm said. “But I bet sometime, sure. Everybody gets a bicycle sometime. Let me work on this strap. There. That looks good. Tania, see if that fits.”

Worm had a son Tina’s age, Robert Jr., whom he called RJ but kids at school would insist on calling Baby Worm. The first day of kindergarten, Baby Worm had given Tina a Twix he had carried to school in his pants pocket. It was squishy inside the wrapper, and too gross to eat, but for some reason she kept it in her underwear drawer and cried when Rochelle threw it away the summer she started third grade.

Tania said, “I don’t know why we have to wear these helmets when we don’t even have bicycles.”

Worm said, “They’re for in case the big bad wolf comes back.”

Tina said, “It was a lion.”

Eventually, Tina married RJ, whom she called Babe, although in his sock feet he only came up to her nose. Of course, by then she was six feet tall, and played softball for Florida State. Babe eventually took a PhD in agronomy and got a job as a research scientist with a seed company in Scotland County. They lived outside Laurinburg.

Worm said, “A lion?”

Tania said, “She says it was a lion that blew the house down.”

Worm said, “Huh.”

Tania said, “She says she saw it. I had my eyes closed.”

Worm said, “I guess it might’ve been a lion.”

Tania said, “Did you see it?”

“No, I was at home watching Bill Dance. It’s a fishing show.”

“Why were you watching a fishing show?”

“I don’t know. I guess because it was on.”

“Why do people call you Worm?”

“Because I’m good at crawling under things.”

“Why do you talk to yourself?”

“Because I don’t like crawling under things.”

Chief Kenny said, “Girls, here in a little bit we’re gonna fire up a big machine called a backhoe and dig a hole and get y’all out, so I need y’all to keep those helmets on, okay?”

Worm said, “And I’m gonna stay right here.”

By the time Stovepipe got saddled up and over to the Pore House, the firemen and the maintenance guys had sawed the fallen trees into pieces and dragged them out of the street. Alabama Power had dropped the sagging power lines. Nothing in that part of town was hot, and anyhow, they were going to have to set new poles, might as well stay out of the way.

At the IGA, the parking lot was full. Cars lined up nose to tail on both sides of the street all the way down to the roadblock. Every flashing light in town swarmed the barricades.

AC said, “ ’Pipe, can you fit through there?” AC couldn’t back a trailer in a straight line to save his life.

Stovepipe said, “As long as nobody opens their car door I’ll be all right.” He could back a trailer about as easily as he could pull one. At the end of the street, two deputies moved aside the barricades and waved him through. He cut her deep, backed into the yard, stopped the truck, chocked the trailer, and shook hands with Chief Kenny.

Chief Kenny said, “You hear what we got?”

Stovepipe nodded. “How much hole you need?”

“About seven feet.”

“All right. I can do that.”

Chief Kenny said, “Rochelle, hop up here, hon. We need to get started. This is Stovepipe. Stovepipe, this is Rochelle. She’s the mother of the little girls. Stovepipe’s going to dig the hole for us.” He pointed at the Komatsu hunched on the trailer.

Rochelle was the prettiest girl Stovepipe had ever seen, maybe the prettiest girl there ever was. Her hand was tiny and cold. Until that moment, he had never given his calluses much thought, but now realized how terrible his hand must feel to somebody like her. Maybe Mama had some lotion he could use. He wondered whether Mama would like her. Mama didn’t like anybody. He let go of her hand and said, “Ma’am.”

She said, “Thank you so much for coming.”

“I was glad to.”

AC said, “Stovepipe’s the best gravedigger in Dana.”

Chief Kenny said, “God almighty, AC.”

AC said, “Well, he is.”

Rochelle closed her eyes, drew in a deep breath, opened them, and gifted Stovepipe with a small, wavering smile. He realized then that he loved her, that he would probably always love her. He would never tell anybody that he loved her, though, especially not her.

He said, “I dig other things too. Drain fields. Septic tanks.”

And then suddenly Rochelle was crying. She said, “Mr. Stovepipe, please don’t bury my children.”

If someone had rolled a hand grenade down through the yard, he would’ve thrown himself on top of it. He took off his cap and said, “Ma’am, if you were to drop a hair bow in the yard, I could pick it up in the bucket of that backhoe and drop it in your hand without messing up the grass. This is good dirt and it’ll come up easy. I won’t touch the house and I won’t make the ground shake and I won’t scare those little girls any more than they already are. I promise you that when I get on that tractor I’ll dig you the most peaceful hole you ever saw.”

He marveled at the words falling out of his mouth. It was like listening to somebody else talk, like getting interested in a TV show Mama was watching. He was curious what was going to happen next. He waited.

Eventually AC said, “Shoot, ’Pipe, I don’t even know what a peaceful hole is.”

Rochelle wiped her eyes and set free another heartbreaking smile. She said, “That sounds good, Mr. Stovepipe. Thank you.”

“No, ma’am. Thank you.”

That seemed to be all there was. He put his cap back on.

Chief Kenny said, “Mount up, Stovepipe, that’s just the kind of hole we need. Worm, y’all ready?”

Worm said, “Girls, they’re gonna start digging now. You ready?”

Tania said, “Yes, sir.”

“How about you, Tina?”

Tina clicked on her flashlight.

Worm said, “Chief, we’re good to go.”

Chief Kenny said, “Miss Tania? Miss Tina? This tractor’s gonna be a little loud, okay?”

Tania said, “Okay.”

She drowned the summer after she graduated from high school. Teenage boys and personal watercraft. Doctor’s daughter killed in boating accident. AC snagged the body when they dragged the lake. Dave Dimon gave the eulogy. The Chandaluris closed the store for the day.

Tina balanced her flashlight on her knees and stuck her fingers in her ears.

Rochelle called, “Girls, I have to get out of the way now, but I’m not leaving you, okay?”

This time, when she turned away from the house, Dr. Koppelman opened his arms.

Tania said, “Okay.”

Chief Kenny said, “Worm, I’m gonna turn my radio back on. Let me know if anything starts to move.”

“Fire and rescue?”

“Ah, go to Channel Six.”

“Ten-four.”

Stovepipe said, “We good?”

If you saw him crying on the backhoe the day he dug Tania’s grave, he did not give a damn.

Chief Kenny said, “Fire it up.”