by William Michaelian
It started raining the same day he was supposed to pick up his father over on the ugly east side of Mustard Valley. He stood by the kitchen window for a long minute watching it rain. The water hadnít reached the ground yet under the maple trees along the street, but it had no trouble filtering through the dogwood by the driveway and onto the dirt and weeds below it. The window was still open about an inch at the bottom from the night before, and he could see, feel, taste the new smell of rain settling the dust in the yard and up and down the street. It was a good smell, he always liked that smell more than anything in the world, even more than bacon in the morning and coffee, and it tried its best in the minute he gave it to make his shirt smell like something more real than the on-sale fabric softener his wife used when she washed.
He turned around hungry, lonely. An early fall, a lot of people still out fiddling with their crops, his father among them, and his mother busy pan-frying pork chops for lunch the way she always had, never mind what the doctors said. Grease is bad for the arteries, for the plumbing. God didnít mean for people to eat so much grease. A little, okay, but humans need salads and asparagus and spinach and carrots if theyíre going to live to a ripe old age and not keel over like Oliver Pike, the well digger in dirty striped overalls. According to his doctor, grease killed poor Oliver, grease nailed him to the wall like a stuffed elk, not quite sixty years old. But his mother thought differently. Pork chops, along with gravy made from the drippings, and a mountain of potatoes to soak it all up ó well, how can wholesome food like that be damaging? Frozen dinners, yes. Thatís understandable. Who knows what they do to those meals in the factories when they cook them. As if they werenít made of sawdust in the first place.
Hungry, lonely. A genuine desire to break away. The first rain, thatís what the first rain does, with its strange power to bring memories seeping up out of the ground, and sometimes the feeling lasts longer, a day, a week, a month, right into winter. Memories like the sad smoky air in a tiny bar room out on a country road, or the songs they played there, or the way cold vinyl made a pretty bare-breasted girl shiver in the back seat of a best friendís old gray Plymouth.
His father wasnít a bit like Oliver Pike. Jack was already seventy-nine years old, for one thing. Had a head full of gray hair like a wire brush. No one could tame it. Hair like that could scrub the rust off the nails he had sitting in Hills Brothers coffee cans on his work table out in the barn. Jack had a lot better wife, too. A real good woman. Grease canít kill a man with a good woman by his side, any more than all the greens in the world can save a man stuck with a shrew, as if his life was really worth living in that situation. And if it isnít true about the grease, and about the kind of woman a man is married to, then itís only because people are running scared, scared of their shadows.
The telephone poles on the east side of Mustard Valley, the buzzards circling over the sick-looking corn fields and alfalfa fields and pastures, and the handful of rundown farm houses and barns and dogs and cats and cows are the only things over there. The windmills have all quit working, their gears rusted, their shafts and rudders frozen solid. And now the water below is failing, gone down, down, out of sight, hiding in rivers just out of reach of pumps crying through the night, trying to give a drink to the tired ground.
His wife wasnít up yet. Heíd have to get his own breakfast, maybe just a bowl of cereal to make it quick and so he wouldnít make any noise. Instant coffee. There was water in the tea kettle already, but not quite enough for his regular good-sized mug. He stuck the kettle under the faucet for a few seconds, turned on the flame and put the kettle on to boil. Took a spoon out of the drawer, his mug down from the shelf, opened the instant coffee jar, held it up to his nose, put the jar on the countertop, dug into it with the spoon, dumped coffee into the mug, waited. Just as the kettle was about to whistle, he pulled it away from the burner and turned off the flame. He poured the water into the mug, stirring the coffee as he went.
To leave, and to never come back. Patty could keep the good car, the í89 Mercury, and he could take his pickup.
He tasted his coffee, went back to the window. Rain, still coming down, but a little harder now. His father, probably in the barn fussing over some project or other, puffing on one of his cheap cigars. Tools hanging on nails, hoes and shovels, hammers and saws, useless coils of half-rotten rope, boxes full of spare cultivator parts, sacks of fertilizer, overlapping footprints all over the finely powdered dirt floor. Like a church in that barn, only better. A calendar on the far wall, hanging above the work table, 1965, August, a young woman leaning forward, wearing nothing but a savvy smile. Frozen in time. Probably pushing sixty by now.
Between puffs, mutters through cigar-clenched teeth the sonofabitch donít sit right so Iíll do it again, and bang, there it is, thatís better, thatís a whole helluva lot better. It donít make no sense, but Iíll straighten it out, you waitínsee. Wrestles with it some more just as if it mattered, as if he werenít killing time waiting for his son to show. Rabbit hutch, but no rabbits. Saw a cottontail in the woodpile behind the barn a month or two ago, but thatís it. A million lizards, but you donít put lizards in a rabbit hutch and expect to get too far. Not by a long shot.
He sat down at the kitchen table, studied the back of the cereal box, drank his coffee, black as sludge, ate a bowlful of some kind of gritty oats sitting on top of the refrigerator for too long. He didnít want to drive out to his fatherís place, not today. He didnít want to take him to the equipment dealerís, either, because he knew thatís where theyíd end up, even though the old man wasnít in the market for anything but just socializing, jawing about prices and the weather, joking about women broad across the beam. But thatís Saturday for you. Wearing a brand new John Deere cap or Ford cap or fertilizer cap. Used to be he worked all day Saturday, and Sunday too, when he was young and ambitious and had the energy. Never seemed to matter, though, as far as getting ahead. Just something a man does when heís young and doesnít know any better.
Mustard Valley isnít yellow like it used to be, all the mustard plowed under. A little by the highway, by the tracks, stragglers, hangers-on to give the butterflies something to talk about. Grasshoppers, crossing the road, smashing against your windshield and grill, juice running down until the air blowing stops it all cold. Not like it used to be. Ten, fifteen little towns, ten, fifteen idle postmasters, ten, fifteen cemeteries. Fillmore, Drakesford, Mercer, Dry Creek, St. Johns, Gifford. All pretty much a big mistake, but with all that mustard around, a fine place to raise the kids.
No other woman would have him, he knew, but this wasnít about women. It was about something else inside him that had been going on now for quite a long time. Patty was a good woman, a lot like his mother. Sure, a little more on the modern side, working out of the house for years, starting even before the kids finished up with school. Krissy and Mike. But not modern in the sense of putting herself ahead of the kids. It was only that they needed the money because he wasnít earning enough yet. How come when you need the money the most itís not there, and later on you have plenty? And Patty was a helluva good cook. He had more than his share of meat and potatoes, maybe not fried like his motherís, but tasty enough and satisfying enough to land him in his chair asleep every night in front of the TV for two hours. And pretty, too. Had always kept her figure, her smile. She deserved a lot better, was what it amounted to. A woman who doesnít complain, doesnít ask for things she knows they canít afford, who isnít afraid to stand up for her husband when heís down, or give him a talking to when heís feeling sorry for himself and no good to anybody. So who was he fooling? A life on the road, when he couldnít even run a washing machine? And going where, exactly? That part was easy. Out of Mustard Valley. Never seen a sorrier place. Before itís all said and done, would like to see something different, thatís all, see people walking up and down the streets of New York, maybe, ride up in the elevator to the top of one of those skyscrapers. See something different. Be different. Be someone else for a change, someone with no name, no past, no responsibility, no father to take out on Saturdays, no mother hanging wash on the line afraid to push the buttons on her anniversary clothes dryer.
His father and mother were going to live a long time yet. They had already lived a long time, but they were going to live longer still. Thatís just the way it was. Doesnít seem that long ago his fatherís father died. But there was still quite a bit of mustard left, come to think of it, mustard in full bloom all around the cemetery. Zeke outlived his wife by thirty years was the strange part. He couldnít think of any other times when the husband died after the wife. Women were just stronger. A lot smarter, too, more settled, just clicking along, taking care of things that needed taking care of. But how old is old? Eighty? Ninety? Or fifty-seven, like him?
He had about a thousand dollars, squirreled away bit by bit over the last couple-three years. Thatís all he would take. Patty would have the rest, everything in the bank account, the house, the car. It wasnít much, but it was enough. Sheíd be okay. A thousand dollars would give him some breathing room, keep him out of trouble until he found work. He could do most anything, like paint houses for people or mow their lawns, work in a feed store or at a parts counter. He could run a parts counter if he had to, if he stayed in one place long enough, but staying was the last thing on his mind. He had stayed too long already as it is, and all he had managed was to wind up fifty-seven, thick around the middle, losing his hair. Confused, too, there was no hiding from the fact, just as confused as he was when he was a stupid bony kid growing up in Mustard Valley, waiting his turn to get things figured out, only when they were they didnít stay that way for more than a day or two for some reason. In the night, crickets chirping, frogs talking to each other all around the foundation in his motherís flower beds. His father snoring down the hall. Listening for some kind of answer, to the dog on the porch chewing on an old bone, scratching himself behind his ear, licking his private parts because there was nothing better to do. The same loneliness then, if the truth were told, as he was feeling this morning. The same damn ache he couldnít point to.
If he left today, would it matter? If he left while Patty was still in bed asleep? Tiptoed around, took a few things, some underwear, socks, his razor? Wrote a note and left it on the kitchen table, I love you Patty, Iíll be gone awhile, just need to look around, please donít be hurt?
He got up, ran water in his cup and in his bowl and left them in the sink. Went to the window, looked out, saw that the rain had stopped.
Eight oíclock. His father would be waiting, his mother thinking about lunch before long, banging her cast-iron pans around, opening and closing her refrigerator door, wiping the table, the top of the toaster, the counter between the stove and sink. Half an hour to get there, forty-five minutes if he drove it slow enough. The highway out past Fairchildís place, where he hid in the ditch one night drinking beer with Al Baker, twelve bottles apiece, looking up at the stars, laughing.
Not today. He couldnít leave her today. He couldnít leave her, and he couldnít stay, and he couldnít go to his fatherís.
Pushed the window up all the way. Outside, things were already wet enough that the perfect rain smell was gone.
That fast, just like that.
Why is it, he asked himself, that some things never last long enough, while others just drag on forever?
William Michaelianís newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelianís other books and links to this siteís other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.