Thursday morning, May 25, finds me and Mario attacking a large clay embankment with pickaxes. Our crew is building an exercise facility for the Duke Faculty Club. It is 10 a.m., but the air is moist and motionless. Our shirts are drenched.
"Is it lunchtime yet?" I grumble between swings of my instrument. Mario, who smiles frequently, doesn't smile.
Then Troy turns from the radio. "Y'all hear that? There's a tornado warning for Orange and Alamance counties."
Things happen quickly. The wind picks up, and all around us the trees are bucking violently. We gather up the tools.
Lying on several pallets are bags of brick insulation that must be kept dry. We rush through the wind to carry the bags into the building. It's a scene from a Vietnam film: carpenters hunched over with the bags on our shoulders, hustling through the strafing rain, under treetops whipsawed by an unseen helicopter.
Shortly, however, the winds grow calm again, and we go back to digging footers. Other workers passing through mention things they've heard or seen: tornadoes in Alamance, trees down in Hillsborough.
I live in Hillsborough, in a one-room cabin just a few steps away from my landlord's house. Our homes, fairy-tale delicate, lie Hobbitlike under a canopy of venerable oaks and maples. I call my landlord, Mark.
Turns out that a maple has fallen, taking a few shingles off the cabin. Less fortunately, a red oak directly next to Mark's porch has toppled over, its roots lifting the porch up into his front door.
That night, on my way home, I begin seeing the detritus of the day's squall. After I cross I-85, I see leaves, limbs and branches everywhere.
I turn into the driveway, park and follow the beam of my flashlight to the cabin, where I see that the top of the fallen oak is resting on my front steps. I have to climb the tree to get into my home.
I open a beer, sit on my tiny porch and light a cigarette. I like my solitude, and I enjoy the sensation of living in a treehouse. I can see the peak of Mark's house. It looks as if it's poking through clouds, or as if it's been dropped from the sky and gotten caught in the trees.
I look up and see a big, gaping hole that hadn't been in our tent of trees before the storm. I sit for a long time, gazing through my new window at that proud sky.