March 15th marked the 192nd anniversary of Maine statehood — the perfect day to watch “The Mist” according to The League of Dead Films. For those who haven’t seen it, the film adapts a Stephen King story about an incursion of extra-dimensional beasties into Maine. The major set of the film is a supermarket, where survivors try to make sense of the peril and keep safe. Of course they also split into contentious factions, because that’s what always happens when the beasties come.
For me, the date meant that I’d finally be buying a new pair of boots. Not a very momentous event but a much-needed one. I had passed on several opportunities to perform the errand in a timely manner, and my boots had both split at the seams. The lining still held them together, so I could have worn them for another few weeks. However, the advent of the rainy season made for a soggy and potentially malodorous prospect.
Understand, it wasn’t cheapness that kept me wearing broken boots. The driving force, as in so much of my life, was routine. In high school a friend called me a nervous cat. He meant my general level of paranoia and anxiety, but I also rely on a high degree of predictability in my daily life. Like a nervous cat, when confronted with stimuli outside of the ordinary, my instinct is to retreat for safety.
Sadly, I do not fit underneath the sofa.
Thursday produced my best prospect for boot shopping; Wendi taught drawing that night, so we drove separately. I had both motive and opportunity, and so after work I drove to the east side of town with the intention of re-booting my feet.
A few drops of rain had fallen as I’d walked to the parking lot, and as I inched through downtown traffic tornado sirens went off. The sky grew dark. I kept driving toward the store. I’ve lived in this area for over 20 years. Tornado sirens wail all the time, rarely amounting to more than a stiff breeze and a little rain. Now and then, somewhere south or east of us, someone loses a shed. So there wasn’t much more on my mind than parking as close to the store as possible to minimize dampness.
Having accomplished that, I went into the shoe warehouse and quickly found the men’s shoe ghetto. It truly was a warehouse, with a metal ceiling at least 40 feet high and aisle upon aisle of goods. The stacks made little use of the space, being about four feet tall, but there were many long rows of shoes and boots for woman and children. To the left lurked a couple of rows for men, filled with an amazing variety of shoes that basically looked the same.
A quick check verified that the only boots currently offered were for hiking. There’s nothing wrong with a good pair of hiking boots, and I’ve worn a pair or two in my time, but I can’t handle laces. I’ve tried double knots, treble knots, special knot clasps; there is no power on this Earth that can make my shoes stay tied for more than an hour. It’s an odd super power, but if the need arises for my shoes to come untied to save the world I’ll answer the call. Until then, no laces.
I headed to the back of the warehouse, where the discontinued stock sat in quiet desperation. A scan for the shelves centered around my shoe size narrowed the selection, and I was just about to test some boots for fit when a saleswoman approached.
“Excuse me, sir. You’ll need to go back by the restrooms. There’s a tornado warning.”
I went meekly in the direction she’d indicated, and by the time that I thought to bring the boots with me I was trapped in the relative safety of the potty zone. Preventing me from leaving was the assumed authority of the shift manager, a woman barely over half my age and certainly under half my weight. Shoe-changing benches were brought in, and having been raised on syndicated episodes of “Leave It to Beaver” I held back so the women and children could claim them all. I saw another man standing down the hall, and we acknowledged each other somberly.
The staff sat on the floor near the door to the store proper. I hung out there myself so that I could keep on eye on the storm through the distant windows. It was dark, but not more so than I’d expect during an evening rainstorm.
At this point most of us felt that this was all a bit silly. We joked about getting a free car wash and traded stories of tornado preparedness lessons from grade school. One customer asked the manager at some length about the prospects for release. She was tall, lean, and wore a track suit, so my money was on her if she decided to make a break for it. Instead she sat just outside the safe area in mild protest.
For the moment, boredom and restlessness predominated. Also hunger, as the warning had preempted the dinner break of one saleswoman. Almost everybody pulled out cellphones or iPhones or Blackberries or tricorders of one brand or another, and they looked up the weather and issued reassuring reports that this would blow over quickly.
I didn’t join them, because I’d left everything in my car. My phone was safely tucked into its pocket on my backpack. I was stuck by these bathrooms with no way of telling Wendi what had happened or of playing spider solitaire.
When the downpour came so did relief. Here at last was the storm, which would produce some heavy rain for a few minutes before heading for Detroit. We’d been hanging out in the back for about a half an hour, and the warning would expire in fifteen minutes. The worst was over.
Then the storm revved up. Thunder sounded overhead, and the windows at the front of the warehouse bulged. An employee heard something in the stockroom. She and the manager checked it out but did not share their findings. Hail pounded the roof, filling the store with the sound of a drum corp striking their rims. The employee who’d sent me back here retreated to the women’s restroom. The manager followed her.
Now we could sneak out, but the desire had left us. The woman in the track suit pulled back to the doorway. All of the idle conversations stopped as we listened to the weather lash at our shelter. Reports came in of tornado damage to the northwest of town. One was sighted to the southwest. The warning was extended by another half hour.
I really began to wish for my phone. We live to the west, between the touchdown and the sighting. If I could reach our answering machine, I’d know that our house and pets were probably okay. I knew that Wendi would never knowingly head out into tornado weather — her instinct for survival is much stronger than my own — but I wanted to let her know that I was safe. Everyone around me had already made all their calls.
Something landed on the carpet about six feet from our doorway. A saleswoman cautiously left the safe area to investigate. She picked it up and stared at it, then tossed it into a nearby trash basket.
“Hail,” she explained on her return.
Several of us stared dumbly at the high ceiling. How had a single hailstone entered the store? There was no telltale drip from a hole in the roof.
Plap. There was another one, landing in the same spot.
Over the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of plausible theories about ventilation shafts and bouncing hailstones, but none of these very wise and rational people were in that hallway watching hail sporadically land between the rows of shoes. I was there, and I know that it was an extra-dimensional spider messing with our heads.
Fortunately, the storm passed and the dimensional rift closed before the beasties finished playing and started in on the killing and consuming. The warning ended, and we filtered out of the back hall and dispersed into the warehouse floor. I settled on a pair of half-boots, and the clerk gave me an additional 10% off for surviving the non-incident.
With the perspective granted by the intervening weeks, I’m grateful that nothing happened. It’s not as though I had wanted a tornado to toss us with the shoes like a salad, or be torn into digestible pieces by extra-dimensional horrors; it’s just that as a group we were completely unprepared to deal with a crisis.
There we were — a collection of 20-some people, most of whom were strangers. We represented a reasonable spectrum of ages and a minimum of three religions and four ethnicities. For an hour and a half we shared a confined space during an emergency under the direction of a young store manager with no actual authority over us or demonstrable experience. There were questions, but nobody rebelled. Everyone simply waited, without starting any trouble or creating divisions.
With that cooperative attitude, how could we have hoped to weather an actual emergency?