Oct/Nov 2001  •   Fiction

Late Day Storms

by Vanessa Weibler Paris

Art by Bob Dornborg

Art by Bob Dornborg

It is late afternoon when the storms approach. Sam has been watching television for a half-hour by the time the first drop hits the back deck, a tiny splattered stain that could be a drop off the bottom of my wet lemonade glass. But it is only one drop, one that has gone AWOL, escaped from the percolating storm to forewarn us of its squad's impending assault—just a drop, no more.

"Do you think it'll be here soon?" I ask Sam, and he doesn't answer. He has trouble thinking of two things in the same moment, even if they're related. "Do you think it'll be here soon?" I repeat my question, poking him in a long leg.

He pauses, pressing 1-2 into the remote, and finally says, "It shouldn't be too far off now." He tries channel 12, and then 37, and then 52. Sam always works his way up the UHF band like this; he thinks that, like people, the channels get smarter as they grow older. He becomes increasingly frustrated that he can't find any weather alerts, no blue bands with white typed warnings creeping steadily along the bottom of the screen like a silent army marching with flags toward the enemy. I look out the window and there is still no rain. The clouds have darkened and shrunk, like rags dipped in water and squeezed out, but the squeezed-out water is still pooled somewhere between there and here. The summer has been very, very dry; I heard on the radio that last month was the second driest month of the entire century.

Sam likes to watch the 24-hour news channels, and for weeks we've been seeing interviews with stoic farmers. They squint at the camera, talking about how the land has been worked by their family for three generations. Now the soil is useless and ruined, they state. They drip sweat as they speak, and the drops fall down, below our line of vision, to where they hit the dry cracked earth and make no difference whatsoever. Sam turns to the Weather Channel, where he is finally validated: a storm is on its way.

"It's coming!" he tells me, talking fast in the space where they switch between the weatherperson at the desk and the weatherperson in front of the big animated map. He gets all the information while I make myself stay quiet, sucking it in like thirsty earth. Once the reports begin to loop around and repeat themselves, he turns down the volume.

"Finally!" he tells me. "The grass needs this so bad." This is our first year in the new house and until last month, we had a dirt yard. Now Sam is obsessed with the grass, with the garden; he spends hours moving the sprinklers from spot to spot, running the hose along the roots of the plants. Sometimes he rigs a fertilizer carton to the spigot so that the chemicals stir into the water like iced tea mix. He does this after dark for two reasons: plants watered in the sun will become even drier, and there is another sprinkling ban in effect. Sam has heard that people with new lawns can get some sort of permit to sprinkle, but he hasn't gotten the permit. He just does it in the dark, furtive like a criminal, a clandestine water thief straining his ears for the sirens. Sam's father's friend works for the Water Authority and says we'll never, ever run out of water, that it's virtually impossible—after all, it comes straight from the lake. I think this is why Sam, usually so law-abiding, feels no guilt in gorging our garden on the contraband water. Tonight, though, Sam will sleep in peace—if the storm comes. We hear remote thunder—or is it my stomach, or the pipes?—and Sam wants to go out on the front porch to welcome the storm. He runs to the back and brings two green plastic chairs around. They are dusty but we sit in them anyhow, and wait.

"I'm so excited!" he tells me, pulling his legs up to his chest and hugging them, smiling a child's smile.

"How far away is it?" I ask.

"Oh, probably ten twelve miles," he says. Lightning catches our eyes-it is above the house down the street, a zigzagging crack where the sky has been tapped with a fork. Then, a flash surrounds us. I look over at Sam, who is staring at the sky without blinking. I look at him and think what a rarity he is in this world: someone so fundamental, someone who finds such great pleasure in small things. In real things. He clips roses from the bushes in the yard and leaves them, tied with twine, in my bathroom sink. He loves to get a single peppermint patty in the checkout lane at the grocery store and eat it on the drive home. He wants to, someday, hug an elephant.

The thunder thumps and rumbles like rocks tumbling from a burlap sack onto pavement. For a moment I think it's coming from inside the house.

Sam tells me about sitting on the porch with his family as a child, how they always watched the storms creep in while eating those barrel-shaped candies that taste like root beer. He says that his father, who poured concrete for a living, knew everything about the weather. Lightning strikes, and Sam starts counting one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand, and when he reaches eight one thousand, the thunder comes. "So, it's still eight miles away," he tells me, patting me on the wrist. Our chairs are bumped up against each other, and my leg is hooked around his in a way that is awkward and vaguely uncomfortable.

"So it's maybe on the other side of Girard right now?"

He nods. "But moving fast!" Ten minutes later the storm hasn't arrived and Sam is still counting. The thunder is now booming on four one thousand, and I'm not sure what to think of my father-in-law's alleged weather expertise.

"It must have slowed down, or maybe taken a detour," is Sam's theory. He won't stop counting between lightning and thunder; he wants to keep strict tabs on the patterns and the timing. I think what a wonderful labor coach he'll be someday.

"How about if we check the TV again?" My leg is almost asleep now. He considers this, looks up at the sky as though to confirm that nothing terrible will happen in his absence.

"Well, okay." This time, the blue band is there on the bottom. It tells us blandly of a tornado warning. For a few moments, Sam and I debate over which is a watch and which is a warning. By the time we figure it out, the woman on the television is advising us to get into the basement or, if we have no basement, into a small room like a bathroom. The electricity flickers, then is gone. It's not even 6 o'clock, but the sky is so dark outside that it's hard to see. Sam gets a flashlight from the bedroom upstairs while I wait, staring at the blue dot dissolving into the middle of the television screen.

"C'mon!" he says, and we head downstairs. The safest place to be, Sam informs me, is in the little room on the side of the basement. It's not really even a room, but a doorless enclosed area that is about three feet by eight feet and sided with shelves. The shelves are loaded with boxes that we moved in and never unpacked, full of things we'd never miss if we just threw them into the trash. Sam turns on a small battery-powered radio he's brought down, and scans through the channels until he finds a weather report. A tornado has been seen, but it's miles west of where we live; still, who knows how quickly and furtively a tornado might approach? Sam holds my hand, twisting the tuner dial with the other, but none of the other stations have any more information. I look in a few of the boxes and find my grandmother's old hand eggbeater, Sam's acrylic sweaters from high school, a stuffed Kermit the Frog that may have been mine. Rain pounds on the basement windows, and I wonder if a tornado would break them inward onto us. I find an old high school scrapbook and make Sam look at every picture. I quiz him on people that he's met recently, people who looked much different ten years ago, and he hardly gets any right. About an hour goes by, and then the storm quiets. All we can find on the radio is music, and clever deejays are playing songs like "Here Comes The Rain Again" and "Singin' In The Rain."

Sam holds my hand and leads me slowly upstairs, tiptoeing and whispering, as though the tornado might be hidden behind a door or in a closet. I look at the clock on the kitchen wall, one powered by batteries.

"We're supposed to be at my parents in half an hour," I tell him, "and I need to shower!" The electricity still isn't on, but I can let my hair air-dry.

"I've got to check the garden." Sam puts on his dried-muddy sneakers and heads outside, and I follow him. The air is hung heavy with humidity, and the rain has slowed to a trickle. In the garden, my pepper plants are twisted and flung. The clump of sunflowers I'd been coddling into giant blooms and rationing into flower vases has collapsed, faces crushed to the ground. The corn, some of which had been taller than Sam, is now broken and piled, a leafy heap dotted with stringy wet tassels.

"The corn!" he says, and I think he might cry. He gets a rake and a hoe from the garage, along with a bag of soil, and starts trying to prop up a stalk that isn't entirely broken. It stands, trembles for a moment, and then collapses again, like a ballerina going en pointe for the first time. He tries to stand up another, holding it between rake prongs and hoeing soil thickly around its base. This one stands longer, and then falls. He tries to resurrect my sunflowers but their bright wide faces keep toppling over, crying seeds and yellow dust. He accidentally steps on a flower, and, realizing it, just stands there staring down at the yellow splatter beneath his foot. The hoe and rake hang from his hands; limp, like a scarecrow's stuffed arms.

"I think I'd better go shower," I say, unable to look at him or at the garden. Upstairs, I drown myself in the hot sharp water that is not rain, the water that we aren't allowed to put on the garden and no longer need. Through the torrent, I hear the rumble of thunder outside. I imagine Sam in the garden, now the tallest thing there, sweating and hoeing and not noticing the storm's return. For a crazy moment I consider running outside naked, to hold onto his hand. If the lightning should seek him out, either I will ground him or I will be struck, too: I am not sure which. Instead, I turn off the shower and lean, sticky with soap, against the wall. I force myself to breathe quietly. The lightning cracks and I count one one thousand two one thousand three one thousand until I think I hear the rumble of thunder.

And then, I convince myself that the next sound I hear will be the metallic clank of the rake hitting the hoe. I cling hard to the slippery tile, and I make myself believe that I will hear it very, very soon.