by Aaron Lawson
Rain had been falling forty days without a moment’s rest.
Sunday morning, the clouds looked smudged onto an overcast canvas of a sky. As the wind stiffened, it bent dead wet grass over double along the western hills of San Buenaventura. The wind carried the raindrops sentimentally, which is to say that at one moment they fell lethargically and the next, with a great passion. Every downtown pedestrian made some passing remark concerning the two unmistakable smells—that of wood stoves and that of the sea. Rain pooled and ran through beach sand into the ocean; the ocean, like a reluctant mother, rose at full tide to carry the streams away to the dark cold watery deep. The fresh water, recalling the lonely ennui of falling from the sky, made somber the tone of the frothy Pacific.
It was pleasant waking up that morning. The alarm clock beeped and snoozed for twenty minutes. I listened to the rain drum sporadically on the roof and tap against the window while my eyes grew accustomed to the dawn. Fresh air and a lingering scent of wet earth wafted through the torn screen. I stayed in bed because the denim quilt I lay under felt very heavy. Lying there rubbing my nose, contemplating the sensation of numb and calloused fingertips, I recalled the day of the week and that I had but one important rendezvous.
Out in the living room, beads of moisture had collected overnight near the ceiling and were running down the walls. The house was full of a flat light filtered through old glass and condensation. I turned a stiff knob on the wall furnace and waited for the hot air that I knew would smell of burnt dust. I held my palms to the grating expectantly.
When my sister Mae awoke I put a kettle to boil for Assam and oatmeal. We sat at a small table whose white paint had worn through in parts so that you could see the older, teal paint below. My socks were so thick that I literally hovered over the tile floor.
And Mae asked me, “How’d you sleep?” and she coughed. And I told her that I’d slept fine. And I said: “I had one of those dreams that seem to last the entire night. In my dream I rode this pink elephant through a forest of pine trees; I thought we’d lost our way, but she (the pink elephant) found a path zigzagging into a dell where we happened upon a lumberjack camp. The men sat by a fire drinking coffee out of yellow tin cups and when they stood up, she reared and snorted something nasty at them.” And Mae asked me, “But, are you sure she was a pink elephant?” And I answered her, saying, “I clearly remember riding a pink elephant through a Ponderosa forest during the fall and the hills were covered with trees and the ground with brown grass and long pine needles. Patches of snow lay here and there but mostly on the north faces and behind the shadows of rocks.” And Mae said to me, “You have the queerest of dreams.”
Mae was my dear sweet sister, blind in one eye. Physically, I admired her square face and prominent jaw; I thought highly of her squat, down-to-earth physique. And I asked her, “Did I wake you up last night when I came in so late?” And she said, “I heard you come in—you were making noise—but I fell right back asleep.” And I apologized to her, saying, “I shut the door before I flushed and I tried to turn the faucet ever so quietly—” but before I could finish she cut in with her strained voice, “But you weren’t home by midnight, were you? You promised to call if you were going to be late.”
I tried to answer her but it came out sounding like an excuse: “I held my finger to the call button of Frank Ryan’s mobile phone, but hesitated at the last minute, not wishing to wake you.” She said to me, “I don’t care if you would’ve woken me up; at least I would’ve known where you were.” And I replied, “I told you we were gonna be at Paddy’s and that’s where we were. That’s where we were the whole night.” And Mae said, “Well I wish you’d’ve phoned me. We’ve gotta look out for each other now. You and me, we’re in this together. Don’t you agree?”
And I did agree, but I stood to my feet instead of answering because the whistling kettle hurt my ears. I lifted it off the heat. As the water sloshed, a few bursts of steam flew out the spout like crows (who never fly alone).
The Assam steeped and I stirred the oatmeal to the consistency that my young sister likes best. I served Mae. She prefers big French cups and bowls colored Provencal blue and yellow. They clanked when I set them down on the white table with the teal paint. Mae held the bowl of oats with her left hand and stirred in the buttermilk with her right. I knew how she took her tea, so I poured in just enough milk; it sank to the bottom of the cup and rose, mixing as it came. When I capped the milk, she blew on her tea and quivered as its steam reached her face.
And I asked her, “Did you fall asleep without taking off your eye shadow?”
Mae turned abruptly to look out the kitchen window. And dabbing at the water puddled along the bottom of the sill, she began cleaning her eyes. At some point, I could no longer tell whether she was crying or cleaning the makeup off her face. I looked out the window too, and into the backyard, and considered my favorite red-trunked eucalyptus whose fragrant leaves had fallen and kept the lawn at bay.
And I said to her, “Mae.” I said, “Mae, look, I’m sorry. Would you have preferred it if I hadn’t said anything and let you walk outside with paint all over your beautiful face?” And Mae had been cleaning herself by touch alone and as the window at that time of day had no reflection, great streaks of blue and black were now smudged onto the canvas of her cheeks. I pulled my chair beside hers and wiped her face clean with my sleeve.
And she admitted, “It’s better that you told me so.” And I said to her, “I know plenty of girls who wear eye shadow to bed and I like each one of them.” And Mae laughed, saying to me, “But you don’t like girls.” And her chin dropped, and she complained, “No man’ll ever love me if I keep forgetting to clean off my eye shadow.” And she said it again, “No man’ll ever love me.” And I pretended to consider what she’d said because normally I respected her opinions. Then I asked, “What about other girls your age? Surely every now and then they must forget to wash their faces before bed.” And Mae said, “No, they always remember.” And I asked her, “If you could trade places with any of them, the one with the most perfect face, would you?” And she said, “No.” And I told her that for what it was worth, I loved her, with or without makeup.
We were both drinking our teas at the table next to the kitchen window in the back of our small house. Mae reached out and held her soft woman’s palm over my left eye.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
And I gave the only answer that came to mind. “I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to see the world through your eye.”
Mae and I played Scrabble for a while next to the furnace and took a nap on the carpet. When we woke up, I asked if she wanted to play a game of pool in the garage. She said that she’d only play one game. I tried to teach her how to align the balls vis-à-vis in her mind. The cement floor was friggen’ cold because of the foul weather so I wore my grandfather’s slippers; Mae wore my sheepskin boots. I said, over the sound of rain drumming on the turbine vent, “Well, it’s almost two-thirty. I will leave for my rendezvous now.” And Mae said, “I’ll walk you out.” She took the pool stick in hand and followed me across the damp lawn. I turned up the collar of my coat and opened my umbrella and, with my foot, nudged open the picket gate. We stood there next to a sycamore whose branch I reached up to take hold of. And I said to my sister, “Hey watch out!” as I pulled it down and let go and Mae crowded in close to me under the umbrella while a shower fell all around us, scattering off the mailbox and splashing onto our pants. She scolded me, but only for a passing moment.
She said to me, “Ask Frank Ryan to come home with you when it’s over. I can cook lentil soup while you’re gone and if you want, maybe the three of us can light some candles and incense and talk about it.” And I smiled and kissed her goodbye on the forehead and she waited at the gate until I rounded the first corner. My dear sweet sister.
Two city blocks away from her and I felt the blues coming on hard. The weather was of the perfect sort. I’d been acting gay around Mae all morning, but that wasn’t how I’d felt inside. The night before, I’d sat in a drinking house with Frank Ryan and my other friends to mourn and to pity the passing of one of our own, a young man named Don “Ken” Kanagawa, who’d moved to San Buenaventura from Fairbanks, Alaska. Frank Ryan and I had only recently become intimate with Ken. His handsome face sure bore a heavy burden of melancholy. The Friday morning previous he’d taken a penknife and committed self-murder. Our drinking house had never seen so somber a night, with none too sober and all crying. And like I said before, the weather was of the perfect sort.
I found Frank Ryan waiting under the awning of a public house and folded up my umbrella and took his hand in mine.
And I asked him, “Do you want to have a sip before we go any farther?” He said, “Yes,” and so I asked the bartender for two rusty nails while Frank Ryan found a table by the window. And when I returned, he told me, “Funerals are such sad affairs.” And he said, “I want my funeral gay and brightly colored.” And I said to him, “Don’t talk about that right now.” He told me, “I think that the more I talk about death, the less likely it is to happen.” And I looked at my drink for a while and I said, “Do you want to live forever?” And he asked me, “It depends. Would you remain by my side?” and I answered, saying, “What if we couldn’t know until afterwards, would you still want to live forever?” And he said, “No,” in a simple way as if he meant it and I poked my little red straw down into the glass and said quietly, “I think I might want to live forever. Yes, yes I think I might.” I sang that last bit as if it were part of a hymn, but couldn’t find the spirits to continue. I said to Frank Ryan, “Do you want this?” and pushed my glass towards him. He said, “Yes.”
Frank Ryan asked me to buy two more drinks but I said we shouldn’t show up both late and drunk to a funeral. And he said, “Stop making sense.” I ordered two drinks at the bar, set them down in front of Frank Ryan and found a waitress and ordered two more. I set them down in front of Frank Ryan. A Billie Holiday album played in the jukebox. We listened and occasionally sang along and watched rain fall in puddles on the tables outside. Frank Ryan drank fourteen glasses of scotch. He had big curly red hair with a streak of silver above his right temple.
I had to walk him arm in arm to the funeral. He couldn’t even keep his umbrella in the air that dumbfuck. I wanted him to stay dry, so I shared mine and we both got a little wet. We came around a corner onto the avenue Santa Clara and walked past an ATM. Immediately a lady on a bicycle pedaled out the doorway of a bank and ran into my knee. And I shouted, “Ouch, I’m gonna have to go see a doctor!” I was jumping up and down on one leg to keep my balance. And Frank Ryan said, “Give your knee to me and I’ll kiss it.” The rain fell in buckets where we stood, but out beyond the next avenue I saw the sky clearing over the gray and blue ocean and the wind whipping the flag shoreward off its pole at the end of the pier.
The woman sat on her bicycle staring at us, not moving a muscle. And Frank Ryan said, “Well, the least you could do is say sorry.” And she immediately remarked, “I am so sorry.” And I said, “I believe you.” And she said it again, “I am so sorry.” I had been rubbing my knee and I asked her, “Why were you riding a bicycle out of a bank in the first place?” She glanced around furtively, keeping an eye out for the cops, and answered, “Because I’ve just robbed that tight little joint.” I didn’t have an account at the bank, but I knew Frank Ryan did, so I asked her, “How much did you get?” And she answered, saying, “Forty and a half million.” I whistled with my lips in the shape of a small ‘o’—very round if you know what I mean. And Frank Ryan said, “Damn.” She said, “And I’m a pacifist, so that makes robbing banks kinda hard. Take for example my method on this occasion—I stuck a bike pump under my shirt and told those suckers it was a hunting rifle. Thank God they believed me, otherwise I don’t know what kind of crazy shit would’ve gone down. It helps that I’ve got these.” She pushed her breasts up with both hands but as she did so her handle bar swung around and the front tire struck her in the knee. That made two of us. And Frank Ryan kicked the tire, bit his lip and said, “Damn. I wish I’d known earlier. All month long I’ve been intending to empty my account.” The woman only rubbed her knee and said, “Now I’m gonna need a doctor too.”
The bank manager watched us from inside the front door while pretending to fix the sign that posted the hours. I waved him out and said, “What up dude? You’ve been punked.” And he said, “Damn. Can I bum a cigarette off any of you?”
Frank Ryan fell over on the ATM and it was beeping and he kept pressing all of its buttons until finally it shutup. I walked over and took him by the elbow and pulled him back to where the others were standing. And Frank Ryan looked the manager square in the eye and said, “Well, well, here she is, that pretty girl. Now why don’t you tell her to give me my money back?” And the manager merely said, “I have enough problems of my own. I don’t need to deal with scum like you.” We were standing in a circle with our hands deep in our pockets. And he looked up into the rain and cursed and said, “Lord, I’d like a cigarette.” And I said, “I’ve got one in my pocket but it’s probably broken.” The manager smoked my broken cigarette and ran his hand back through his hair. And I said, “Let me get a drag off that.” And the woman, sitting sidesaddle on the bar of her bicycle, said to me, “I hope you don’t have to walk far on that knee.” I looked down, saw it was bleeding, and saw that I’d torn a hole in my corduroy pants. Had I fallen down? I couldn’t remember. She said, “You’d better arrest your friend. I think he’s trying to change the oil.” Frank Ryan rolled around underneath the engine of a Toyota Corolla parked in a “loading and unloading only” zone. He said to me, “Crescent wrench,” and held out his hand. The manager asked me, “Do you mind if I ash on your shoulder?” but didn’t wait for me to say yes before he did and then took one last drag and threw the butt and then some on the sidewalk and squished it with his toe and said, “Thanks pal, but next time you might try rollies.” And I said, “Merciful heavens, the funeral! We’ve gotta get there, it’s already started. Come on, Frank Ryan. Let’s run!” And he said, “Let me finish this tune-up, I’ll be up in five.” And I would’ve gone on without him, but as he’d been the one to tell me about the funeral, I decided I should wait.
While I waited for him, I took a closer look at the woman on the bicycle. And I asked her, “What’s your name?” And she laughed, saying to me, “You’re young, so I’m not gonna lie to you.” And I asked her again. And she said, “You’re not the first person to ask me that question.” And I asked her a third time, “What’s your name?” And she said to me, “St. Francis.” And I said, “Why don’t you take my umbrella, your hair’s soaking wet.” Her brown hair that had been so tightly curled when she’d first come out of the bank now hung unfurled. I noticed that her eyes resembled green almonds; black mascara ran down her cheeks with the rain.
The bank manager knocked his fist against the front door, yelling, “I’ll raise hell if you lock me out again!” A young boy with hair combed like a Chip N Dale dancer let him in and the manager snapped his fingers and found a cigarette behind the boy’s ear. He called out to us, “Any of you suckers got a light?” I reached in my pocket to toss him mine but thought better of it. I said to St. Francis, “Do you have one?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said to her, “You kinda owe it to him; you just robbed his bank.”
The manager smoked his new cigarette for a moment and then said, “Um, you’re loitering. Leave now and never come back.” The way he said it reminded me of my first relationship.
Frank Ryan and I strolled down the street arm in arm with St. Francis. She told us that she had to pee so we waited out in front of a vegan restaurant while she used their restroom. A stop light turned green and five cars passed and afterwards the street sat empty in both directions and I whirled my umbrella while whistling a popular tune. Eventually, I asked Frank Ryan, “What could be taking her so long?” And he asked me, “Do you think I should go knock on the door?” And I said, “Yes.”
I waited outside another five minutes before I followed him inside and straightaway noticed the two of them in the darkness of the hallway, necking beneath the blue and white emblem for restrooms available to either gender. The first thought that came to mind set me to wondering whether or not she’d washed her hands. I choked back the overwhelming smell of tandori chicken (in a vegan restaurant of all places) and turned to leave. I stopped at the entrance only because Frank Ryan came running, saying to me, “Glen, your shoe’s untied.” And I said to him, “All along I thought you cared about me and now you’re over there kissing that wench.” And he corrected me, “She’s a saint.” And I said, “That doesn’t make it right.” And he grinned full of mischief, saying to me, “Well, didn’t you see her face? She’s made a mess of herself, smudged all her makeup.” And at that point I turned on him, like a dog on its master, and demanded of him, “What’s wrong with smudged makeup?” And he answered, saying, “A woman like that, you can walk all over her.” And I thought about my sister and what a guy like him might do to her and I said to him, “You filthy perverted dark-hearted bastard,” and whirled him around and dislocated his shoulder. And I kicked him in the butt and said, “You’re a friggen’ sodomite,” which was true.
Out on the street I put a hand in my pocket to count the coins I could feel had been sobbing. The wind started blowing off the old Pacific. I walked away hurriedly and on three separate occasions a pedestrian blew by in front of me. I had to jump so that I didn’t step on their outstretched hands. Clouds raced through the sky; I struggled to keep the umbrella upright.
I found the address that Frank Ryan had mentioned at the bar the night before, back when we’d been drinking. A church. I climbed the steps of St. Anthony’s and found a seat in the back of the chapel. To my surprise I saw Ken standing onstage, as alive as you or me, standing next to a bride with a bad perm. The thought suddenly struck me that perhaps my entire life had been a dream that I was then only waking from. To convince myself otherwise, I counted the people that I knew nearby—seventeen. I’d been seventeen once. I’d done some pretty stupid things.
Had Frank Ryan told me that Ken was going to get buried or married? For the life of me, I couldn’t remember. I’d felt morose all day because I’d thought a handsome man had died, but in reality he’d only gotten himself betrothed. In his vows, Ken swore one truth that none of us his partners could deny: “Linda,” he said, “you’re the only woman I’ve ever loved.” After he kissed his bride, the portly lady next to me asked if I was family or a friend. I answered nonchalantly, “I’m only a casual acquaintance.” And she said, “He seems like a modern gentleman. He loves that girl, I can hear it in his voice. Makes me hungry just thinking about it. Can’t you just smell the luncheon?” I answered her with a white lie, “Yes, I can.” And she told me, “The mothers have set it up on the patio.” “Yes,” I said. The rain slowed to a drizzle and moments later ceased altogether. In the extraordinary silence that followed, the thought crossed my mind that perhaps I ought to go home. I squinted, trying to discern the truth from lies, trying to see if some inconsistency in the wedding ceremony would give the trick away. But I found no grounds and said to her, “I’d love to stay, but I have a hot supper awaiting me at home.”
I sat quietly for a minute longer, considering my options, before I snuck out the door and with a flash of inspiration, signed the guestbook:
Ken and Linda, I’ve heard rain’s a good wedding omen.
I’ll be the first to say it—there goes the sun.
Your friends, GE and FR.
The streets had gotten dark to the point where I couldn’t see the puddles on the sidewalk until the last minute. Because I wanted to walk briskly, I had to jump and skip a lot. A bus drove by and turned around the corner ahead of me. Without the rain, everything had become much quieter. I watched a cat cross the street and nimbly hop atop a fence. The stray puss gave me a wink, indicating I might follow her if I desired a nocturnal adventure, but I knew had pressing business to attend to.
Back home, I took a running leap over the picket fence. I dried off in the garage and threw my clothes in a pile and went inside and made crazy love to Mae. After we’d finished, we lay in bed listening to the unpredictable drips outside. We’d endured forty days of rain and somewhere in the middle, at least for me, things had gotten turned completely upside down. The silence and the sex were helping me put the pieces back together. My God, I’d made some serious mistakes! Frank Ryan, damn my eyes—he’s my brother, not my lover. And my Mae, my dear longsuffering sentient being, she never once snapped at me or flung my clothes out onto the lawn, telling me to get lost. Which I suppose I deserved because the truth of the matter is, she’s my wife.
I woke up Monday morning and recalled the day of the week. I tiptoed out to the front room and stretched my legs until Mae got out of bed. We walked a few blocks to a neighborhood cafe and I ordered three poached eggs, muffins with marmalade, a pear and a café crème. The lass behind the counter handed me a sharp knife, handle first, to cut the pear. Mae ordered chocolate banana waffles. The morning had dawned beautiful and clean. The trees were still dripping; scattered clouds with distinct edges moved quickly across the sky. I asked Mae what she thought about them. She said they looked like animal crackers. We sat side by side reading the comics, keeping ourselves warm together inside the bakery. My half-blind honey baby wore too much makeup, but she loved me and that made all the difference. Love had kept us together even though I’d made the classic blunder of confusing brother and wife. Steam rose from the asphalt; shadows traversed the faces of the buildings outside. The clarity of the sunlit air, that after forty days of rain I’d thought would never come back, had come back. On that morning even I could tell the difference between what was true and what was lies.