The Paris Review

On Warnings

Still from Belly (1998)

It is hard to say when I stopped noticing the sirens. They’re still there, piercing the otherwise normal Wednesday-afternoon noise. But I haven’t noticed them for at least fifteen years. In the central Ohio area, a test of the state’s tornado-siren system takes place every Wednesday at noon. I would describe the sound for you, but even now I can barely remember it. I recall it beginning as a low whistle that bends into a loud howl, but the sound feels distant to me now. It’s indistinguishable from all the other ways this city rumbles its way toward productivity.

When I was a kid in elementary school, I assumed the siren tests happened everywhere. Twice a month, at noon, when the howling began to announce itself, all of us kids spilled into the hallway, and sat on our knees facing the wall. We’d lock one of our hands into the other, put them behind our heads, and curl ourselves downward. It was practice for the actual tornado, which we were told might come at any moment. It might come while we were in our classrooms learning whatever it is elementary school kids learned in the nineties (yet another thing I don’t recall). I never knew this was something exclusive to my school, or schools in my area. I imagined an entire chain of balled-up bodies, trembling against walls in school hallways across the country.

Once I hit my

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