The Best American Magazine Writing 2012: "Joplin," by Luke Dittrich

Luke Dittrich, Joplin

“The windows spider. The windows explode.

Lacey’s boys start screaming.

It is a terrible sound.”—from “Joplin!,” by Luke Dittrich

Continuing our week-long focus on The Best American Magazine Writing: 2012, we are featuring Luke Dittrich’s extraordinary Joplin!, which recounts the horrific tornado which hit the Missouri town and killed 160.

Dittrich’s piece focuses on the stories of two dozen strangers, who found shelter in the walk-in cooler of a gas station. He recounts elements of their lives and how they ended up finding refuge in the cooler. The article won the National Magazine Award for featuring writing and was cited for its “brilliant and restrained evocation of desperation and bravery”.

In an discussion with the Nieman Storyboard, Dittrich gives a fascinating account of how he wrote the story, including discussing how he decided to focus on the cooler:

I was drawn to the cooler because it’s so tightly focused – it’s a very tight space with a bunch of people crammed inside, in the dark. I liked the idea of simplifying it as much as possible. The thing that made it easier was the fact that there weren’t two dozen disconnected individuals in there; there were maybe six or seven smaller units. My biggest fear was that (readers) were gonna lose track of who’s who. Approaching it as family units or as friend units, or as people who were helping each other, helped me try to keep it as comprehensible as possible.

In a followup to the article, Dittrich returned to Joplin and created this video with the people who were in the cooler:

Here’s an excerpt from the article (Ruben, who is mentioned in these pieces works at the gas station and let people into the walk-in cooler):

Donna Barnes

She believes in the Pentecost.

She believes that a bowl of Multi Grain Cheerios with low-fat milk is a good breakfast, and there’s no reason not to have it every single day.

She believes that seven weeks after the Resurrection the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, and she believes that it happened just the way the Bible describes it in chapter 2 of the Book of Acts: And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the house where they were sitting.

She believes that a sliced banana is optional.

She believes that ever since the day of the Pentecost, people like her, who have been baptized into the Pentecostal Church, have the Holy Spirit inside them, literally.

She believes that the work she does, cleaning houses, is good for her degenerative spinal arthritis, because it keeps her moving, which keeps her vertebral column limber and lubricated.

She believes that sometimes, when the spirit overflows, people can speak in a language they themselves do not understand, the same language that angels speak.

She believes that the one-dollar boxes of Little Debbie cakes she buys most Sundays at this Fastrip are the best deal in town.

She believes that the Joplin Full Gospel Church, which departed the physical world approximately two minutes ago, is as much her home as her thirty-year-old Solitaire trailer.

She believes that the roar that fills the Fastrip as soon as the windows explode is one of the worst sounds she’s heard in all of her sixty years.

She believes that the sound of the screams of the two little boys next to her is even worse.

She believes that Ruben, though she can’t hear his shouts very well above the screaming and the roaring, is commanding them all to pass through a silver doorway by the potato-chip rack.

She believes that God has already chosen the time and place of your death before you are born.

Donna Barnes enters the cooler on her hands and knees.

Chris and Lacey and Nathan and Jarrett

Lacey Little was almost hit by a tornado once. She was in kindergarten, she thinks. The sirens went off and they all hid under their desks. She remembers seeing the sunlight outside turning murky and green. She remembers hearing the wind, and she remembers hearing the ambulances afterward. Her mom ran a daycare out of their home back then, and Lacey remembers worrying about the kids her mom was caring for, and hoping they were all right.

That’s the closest she’s come. But she’s been through tons of other warnings, tons of what people who don’t live around here would call close calls. Sometimes she talks to people who don’t live around here, and they ask her why she or anyone would raise a family on this wide plain, this alley that stretches through Kansas and Oklahoma and Missouri, this land where the monsters roam. She just asks them why anyone would live on the coast, with its hurricanes. Or in the north, with its blizzards.

There’s always something.

She’s a mobile phlebotomist. She works for a company called Boyce & Bynum Pathology Laboratories. She does most of her work in nursing homes. She goes and she takes blood and she leaves, and sometimes they make vampire jokes. She split up with Nathan and Jarrett’s dad a few years ago, but he’s still involved. He’s a musician. He tours. Her boyfriend, Chris Carmer, is a solid guy with a steady job. He gets up at 4:00 A.M., works at Able Manufacturing, manages a crew of twenty industrial painters. This morning both Chris and her ex attended Nathan’s baptism. Nathan’s seven. His uncle, Lacey’s brother, did the honors, just like he did for Jarrett a few years ago. Jarrett’s eleven. Afterward Lacey and Chris and Jarrett and Nathan went to McDonald’s for a celebratory lunch, and then they went and fooled around at the batting cages, and then they went to Petland to pick up some stuff for Chomper, their bullmastiff.

It was while they were driving back from Petland that they started hearing the warnings on the radio. They turned on Twentieth, thinking they’d ride it out in the Home Depot. Something made them decide against it. Just a feeling they had. They kept driving. By the time they got to the Fastrip, it felt like driving farther would be suicide.

Chris kind of settled into the role of Ruben’s deputy as soon as they got inside. That’s just like Chris. When Ruben went up to the front, to let in Rick Ward and his family, Chris was following right behind, using a flashlight app on his cell phone to help light the way.

He’s a good man.

But while Chris is on the outside of the huddle, helping Ruben manage the crowd, Lacey has the kids to herself. They’re both crying. They started crying even before they reached the Fastrip. They heard what the people were saying on the radio. There’s nothing scarier to a kid than a scared grown-up. Nathan, freshly baptized Nathan, is the younger of the two, and so most of Lacey’s attention is on him. As the back wall begins to breathe in and out and the roaring gets louder and you sort of know in your bones that it’s coming, Nathan starts sobbing that he doesn’t want to die, and you can’t imagine what it feels like as a mother to hear your seven-year-old saying that. She’s doing her best to hold herself together while she holds him, and she’s grateful to the woman next to her, who’s squeezing Jarrett’s hand and telling him that everything is going to be okay, that it’s just like tornado drills at school, that they just have to stay down low and cover their heads. The woman has a fancy camera with a long lens. Lacey wonders if she’s a storm chaser.

The windows spider. The windows explode.

Lacey’s boys start screaming.

It is a terrible sound.

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