On the third day, near midnight, exhausted, Corey Plunkett sat at his parents’ trailer and checked his e-mail. There was a new message.
“My name is charlie thompson,” it read. “My wife and I live in Hixson, TN. We found a pay stub in our front yard that the tornado carried in. . . . Is this you? Await response.”
Alone in the quiet, the tattooed, bearded 25-year-old cried, and then began typing.
In the days since one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history pulverized the South, one peculiarity has distinguished the event: not just the vast scale of destruction but also its randomness, the rearranged landscape it left behind.
As the tornadoes obliterated miles of forests and neighborhoods, they flung a truck onto a rooftop, a wedding veil into tree limbs, a lamp into a refrigerator. A million smaller fragments, the details of lives, were swept into the sky and carried perhaps hundreds of miles in different directions.
The pale-green paper from Corey Plunkett’s factory job was probably sucked into the half-mile-wide funnel that barreled along County Road 515. It somehow floated north, probably over Interstate 59, above blank billboards and cow pastures and rising ridges. It flew along the edges of Lookout Mountain. It must have crossed the Tennessee River, blowing past the modest skyline of downtown Chatanooga and on, fluttering above the thousands of neat brick and wood-sided ramblers tucked into the forested hills of suburban Hixson. Then it drifted down, and another process began.
Soon after the tornadoes, people in Rainsville went to church and began imparting meanings to the indifferent destruction of the wind, which killed at least 33 people around this rural northeastern corner of Alabama. An elderly couple. A man in a wheelchair. A family of four. A man who ran to the Huddle House to warn diners.
At Brown’s Chapel Baptist church, a preacher stood under a broad, broken oak and offered that God had not caused the tornadoes but was there to help people through the aftermath, and they all sang “Near the Cross.”
In the green field, Corey Plunkett and his wife continued to pick through debris, trying to make sense of things, starting with the idea of nothingness.
“First, it was like, I wanted to brush my teeth and I had no toothbrush,” Plunkett said, tossing a piece of siding off a heap. “I wanted to shower. No shower. Wanted to shave. No razor. Nothin’. You never feel so helpless in life as when you don’t have nothin’.”
“Then I got this e-mail and it hit me,” he said. “I was like, ‘My stuff is all over the world.’ Just floating out there.”
Personal things, like tax returns. Like the sparkly halter top his wife wore on their first date. Underwear. His four spiral notebooks of poems and regrets he called his “notebooks of thoughts.” It made him feel slightly uncomfortable imagining who might have them, how they might read words he had meant for his wife, or his daughters, or just himself.
He wondered about Charlie Thompson, who held a piece of their life in his hands. Charlie, as they called him, knew their address. Charlie could surmise that Corey Plunkett worked at a carpet factory. And, of course, that he made $360 gross a week.
This stranger, who knew nothing of them only a few days before, now knew some of their most intimate details.
In turn, the couple from Alabama tried to conjure the man in Tennessee.
“I thought maybe he’s young, because he knows how to use the Internet,” Corey Plunkett said.
“I wondered, ‘Does he have kids?’ ” said his wife, Lindsay, who is 28. “He’s probably in his late 40s. He must be mature.”
Who knew? They were now intertwined. They began exchanging e-mails. Corey sent short ones: Thank you so much for finding me and God bless. Charlie sent long ones. In his third, he offered an explanation for the tornado and a kind of confession.
“It’s just the way things go in this imperfect world,” he wrote. “It’s hard, I know. But it’s only a test. I fail these tests every day.”
Finding another’s life
About 75 miles north of Rainsville in Hixson, Tenn., on the day of the tornadoes, Charlie Thompson had stood on his front porch, the chimes making music in the wind.
The storms had been coming in waves, bending tall oaks and old pines, then giving way to a lull, then whipping up again. During a lull, Thompson called his wife, Melissa, who is 43 and had a stroke last year, and who rolled her wheelchair to the small wooden porch. A thick fog was blowing toward Hixson, pouring over ridges and finally across their neighborhood.
“Then we looked up,” said Thompson, a tall, heavyset man in his 40s with thinning blond hair he pulls into a ponytail. “And there was all this debris. It was all just fluttering down like confetti.”
It drifted down without prejudice across green, just-mowed lawns and their yard, a sprawl of tall, unkept grass, weedy with yellow dandelions, a long gravel driveway leading to their small brown cottage.
On the second day, a bright and cool day, Thompson walked the property, picking pieces of pink insulation and roof shingles from wet grass.
“It looked like a trailer had been blown to pieces,” he said.
A bit eagerly, he began looking for clues, perhaps something with an address on it to see how far it had all traveled. He spotted the pale-green paper, face up in a flowerless flower bed covered with leaves.
First he thought: “My God, this has come all the way from Alabama.”
Then, slightly sickening: “Gosh, I wonder if this person is okay.”
Then, picking it up, something more uncomfortable. “I wonder if I’m holding a dead man’s property,” he recalled thinking.
He walked back inside with the slightly torn pay stub, a piece of trash which in that moment had become something close to sacred. He got on the Internet, found Corey Plunkett’s e-mail address and sent the first message. Then he put the pay stub on a shelf on his desk, next to his antidepressants. He waited.
The desk is in a small, wood-paneled living room with paintings of World War II planes framed on the wall, a crucifix, a love poem Melissa gave her husband. There is a green leather couch with a blanket tossed over the rips, and on this fifth day after the tornadoes, Thompson’s daughter, who is 13 and has Down syndrome, was sitting there smiling and quiet.
When a guest comes, Thompson, who mistrusts the government and half-joked about the tornadoes being generated by a secret military project in Alaska, offers his desk chair. He used to work in a photo studio, but since his wife’s stroke, he stays home. They live on two disability checks totaling about $1,800 a month.
The night Corey Plunkett’s reply arrived, something like elation washed over the little cottage. Charlie and Melissa, an ebullient person who has become more social since her stroke, said that the paper was a sign of what they ought to do. After all, Melissa said, the money from her old job, a portion of her retirement, had just arrived in the mail that very week.
“Just in time!” she said, as if planning a party. “So instead of getting what we wanted” — another couch, a new bed, a car equipped for a wheelchair, perhaps physical therapy for her, since she has no health insurance — “we could help this guy. I mean, he has two little girls.”
“I grew up Catholic,” Charlie said. “And I still think God works through us. And tests us — some of us a little more.”
He said he had no choice but to find out about Corey Plunkett. He couldn’t explain it much better than that. He looked down, to the side, shook his head.
“I get pissed off,” he said. “Frustrated. My hair’s started falling out. But it can always be worse.”
His wife rolled her wheelchair into the bedroom and arranged three cardboard boxes, one of them with an envelope at the bottom. They had filled them. Around noon, Charlie Thompson loaded them into his van and mailed them to Rainsville.
Gifts from Tennessee
On the sixth day, Corey Plunkett was sitting with his dad, who also works at the carpet factory, and his mom, a retired 911 operator, in their trailer.
Corey and his dad, a quiet person who keeps his hands in his jeans pockets, had gone fishing the day before, although it was too windy.
“My wife’s dad gave me a fishing pole,” Plunkett was saying. “He didn’t go out and buy a pole. He gave me his own.”
“That tells it,” his dad was saying, and the truck pulled up.
In the early afternoon, the delivery man hauled three boxes onto the back porch, 70 pounds total, and stood there a moment with Corey and his dad.
“Well,” the delivery man said. “Y’all have a good day.”
In the living room, Plunkett used a hunting knife to open the boxes.
He pulled out Heather Thompson’s dolls, and Melissa Thompson’s blouse and Charlie Thompson’s shirts. He pulled out new toys for his daughters. He pulled out razors, and a brand-new Crimson Tide cap, which the Thompsons knew Corey would like because they had found photographs of him on the Internet wearing one.
“I needed a hat,” Corey said to himself, not realizing.
He emptied the boxes until the only thing left was the plain white envelope, “Corey” written on it in cursive. He opened it.
There was no note inside. No pay stub. Instead, there were $20 bills, which he fanned out and counted, $160 in all. He was quiet.
“Oh, Corey,” his dad said.
Corey Plunkett stared at all the belongings of strangers that were now his own.