“Don’t know why?” she asked. “There’s no sun up in the sky!”
Ms. Potterson pointed anxiously at the clouds that had been cast over our little town of seven hundred thirty-seven for over a month now, sometimes raining down the dogs and cats and sometimes just menacing over like they were going to pick a fight but didn’t have the gall to go for the first shove. It was getting tiresome, to be sure, but what God did with his sky was not for us to judge, and even then some people started to feeling stressed over the whole thing. All I was asking was why she looked so down, but I should’ve known better.
“Stormy weather,” I muttered.
She turned away and gathered one of those children of hers, the rest bundled up in that car outside like they lived out of the old jalopy. She caught me looking at that sad old sight and then turned her back to me, clearly agitated, and walked out. She paused just before stepping out of the shop and into that rain.
“Since my man and I ain’t together… keeps rainin’ all the time,” then she left.
It was getting on and even though the grayness of those days made it tough to separate morning from day and day from dusk, it was clear dark was coming on. I had to start closing up soon but everyone was always waiting ‘til church was up to get out and rush into the shops before they closed. Being close to the only grocery in town made it wrong to lock up too early, and I wasn’t the depriving type.
Barry Johnson, a plumber who lived on Willow (near the old mill before it got tore down back in eighty-eight), he was watching that whole scene with Ms. Potterson and sort of shrugged, because he knew what I knew, which was that folks were allowed to be bothered these days. It was getting tough to get by here in town and only us old people and the kids too young to leave on their own remained. Seeing that kind of gap in a community, whole generations missing like that, well, it made me sad to think about. It was like when there were wars and we lost so many of the young folks, only this wasn’t no war against an enemy, just the times that we were in.
Barry walked up and dropped a loaf of bread and milk on the counter. “Life is bare, gloom and misery everywhere. Stormy weather…” and he trailed off when he heard the cash register ding open. He reached around in his front pockets, to pull out his cash I gathered, but wasn’t coming up with anything. He looked sort of concentrated like he was trying to will the money into his hand. I was worried he wasn’t going to have any cash and I’d have to have another tab on my hands (which ain’t easy to keep track of with so many as I had, try it sometime), but then his eyes lit up and he reached his right hand down into one those big side pockets that his trousers had on them. It was the type those carpenters need for tools and nails and all, and in old Barry’s case it seems it’s where he kept his change.
He chuckled and said, “Just can’t get my poor self together.” I smiled back as he counted the change in his hand and reached out to hand it to me, twisting his face a bit as he did. He’d been having some wrist trouble and I should’ve known to reach over my own self so he wouldn’t strain it.
“I’m weary all the time,” said Barry, then he furrowed his brows like he was trying to remember something as I pulled out his change. Maybe he’d finally remembered that he had my lawn mower (the Craftsman, mind you, not my old Honda that I’d had to use since he borrowed my good one).
“The time?” he asked.
I was tempted to ask about my lawn mower right then, but those kinds of things are better discussed during the week (and I made a note to myself to ask him that following Monday, believe you me). I pointed to the clock on the far wall and he looked over and nodded, then took his change, the loaf of bread, and milk, and put them all in that sack of his. He saluted to me (a queer sort of greeting and goodbye he’d taken to, which I thought was right respectful if anything), and headed out into the rain. As he walked out I noticed the queue was longer than the number of people still picking out stuff, and I quickly pointed Andy over to the door to flip the sign to CLOSED. He had been stacking empty boxes over by the door and was used to waiting for me to tell him when to close as dusk came on.
I then heard a sniffle, and “… so weary all the time.” It was Mrs. O’Haley, mulling over those words of Barry’s. She knew what they meant, given the time she’s had with those medical bills after her daughter, Lorrie, got the back surgery. Poor kid had fallen off a horse. Didn’t help any that her dad was in prison (who is not Mrs. O’Haley’s husband, another gentleman she was with before moving into town), riding out a sentence he got for selling those damn drugs near Johnny’s by the train tracks. He was no good for her, or anyone, but she’d gone on with him probably just like she’d gone on with that old husband of hers, except this time she got saddled with a kid, good kid mind you, and all the tribulations bound to come up.
We got to talking about it once as I helped her move her groceries into her car. “Since he went away, the blues walked in and met me,” she told me. I guess it was more she got to talking and I just moved the bags into the back of her stationwagon, me not being the talking type and all.
“Since he stays away, old rocking chair will get me. All I do is pray the Lord above will let me walk in the sun once more.” Suppose it was sort of poetic, what she was saying then, though not being one for all that flowery nonsense I never did bother with it. It’s just that with the weather we’d been having lately it seemed more appropriate than any thought I’d conjure up.
“Can’t go on, everything I had is gone, since my man and I ain’t together…” and she kept it up until I was done with her bags and clanged the bottom door of the stationwagon shut. She smiled politely and stepped toward her door, sort of stopped to look back at me, maybe to apologize or explain her rambling, I don’t know, then just waved and left. Mrs. O’Haley, young as she was, would find herself a good man. Even if he wasn’t here in town, and if it took her a lifetime, she would.
Anyhow, Lorrie’s surgery had been done in the city. She was sort of mobile now, using crutches and all, and Mrs. O’Haley had told me that the city doctors had told her she’d be having a tough enough time walking let alone riding horses. Poor kid.
Mrs. O’Haley was buying some carrots, peas, noodles, a few chicken breasts, and some bouillon cubes, and as she stacked them her wet coat was dripping water all over the counter. She looked at me exasperated and said, “stormy weather.” I just shook my hand and brought out the old rag I kept under the counter to wipe the drops off .
“Keeps rainin’ all the time,” I told her. “Keeps rainin’ all the time.”
She smiled again, a pretty sort of smile, in a more mature way, and paid what she owed. I was getting her change out and she brought her hand to my arm, patted it gently, and shook her head. We played this every time, me getting her change, and her refusing, telling me to keep it because I’ve been as kind as I have to her, helping her out when I can. At first I was refusing every way I could, of course, but we’d been here for some time now, and I just played my part so she could play hers.
By and by we got through the remaining customers: Mabel Bernstrom (Doc Bernstrom’s wife); Lefty; little Rita Huxley (girlfriend of the captain of our high school’s football team, the Badgers, and in fact same team Andy was on); George Winston; Ms. Durand (one of the few young teachers still in town); and, surprisingly, Lola Baxter. She lived up the block and never, ever came in herself, always asking for Andy to come by and drop off her groceries. She was in her nineties somewhere so we were glad to do it, but now here she was, our last customer and looking as spry as any old body I’d seen in there today, especially with that weather outside.
I grinned as she brought up what she was buying: Happy Soup for the Heart and Soul. It was something we were ordering out of a small business in Cincinnati and I liked the name of it more than anything, but I’d tried it myself more than once and it was right good, so we kept stocking it. They’d recently started putting some kind of songs or something right on the labels, which I got a kick out of even if I wasn’t into that flowery stuff, and sometimes I’d just sit on the box and read the labels when the new shipments came in every month (not many folks bought the stuff, you see).
Lola Baxter came up with two cans, one of which she held onto so she could read: “I walk around, heavy-hearted and sad. Night comes around and I’m still feelin’ bad.” She chuckled and handed it to me so I could put it in the bag for her. She wasn’t even wearing glasses when she did that.
I picked up the other can and read: “Rain pourin’ down, blindin’ every hope I had,” then just sort of scratched my ear and placed it in the bag with the other. It’s amusing that they put this stuff on soup labels, but they ought to at least make it a bit more cheersome. Those particular cans weren’t doing much for my soul, not much at all. But she just shrugged, Lola Baxter did, and whistled as she handed me her coins and I gave her the change. She seemed more cheery than I’d ever remembered, and walked back out into the rain toward her house up the block, her bag held under the big shawl she’d come in with.
Well by the time I’d finished with the customers, Andy’d finished with the rest of the shop. We’d gotten our routine down so good that I never had to tell him anything, that kid. Once we finished he’d usually ride his bike off after work, probably to visit Jean, his girlfriend of some odd years, but today he asked me if I’d give him a ride home. Sure, I told him, and we got into my old Marauder (still sharp and powerful as the day I’d bought her, better believe). Andy lived over on Woods Drive, on the other side of town, so I rightly guessed, I’m sure, that he wouldn’t want to ride a bike around in this rain. I wondered about it as we wrestled his bike into the trunk of my car, which thankfully fit since I’d just cleaned out all the old tools and things that I’d gathered up in there.
We got going and I don’t like guessing about folks so I asked him about it, him needing a ride.
“This pitterin’ and patterin’ and beatin’ and scatterin’…” he said, and I nodded. Some believe rain is a calmative but too much of it has just the opposite effect to my mind. Drives one wacky in the obscene amounts.
“Drives me mad,” said Andy, almost like he was reading my thoughts. He seemed down, more than the usual kind of down most folks were, so I figured I’d change the subject. I asked him how he and his girlfriend were getting on, and if she was going to make it out to see Andy and the rest of the Badgers play against the Wildcats the following weekend (not here of course, but over in Fitchburg, where it wasn’t raining every day). Andy just looked on out the window and didn’t answer right away, and I was going to ask if he’d heard me, but didn’t get a chance to.
“Love, love, love…” he said, real sarcastic. I asked what the problem was and he got into how Jean had broken up with him. I figured they’d had some row over something, but turns out Jean just wanted a boyfriend who had a car.
“Love…” he said, again. “This misery’s just too much for me.” I patted him on the shoulder as we crossed the bridge onto Woods Drive and up to the curb. He thanked me and apologized for being so dreary but I told him to think nothing of it, and not to worry over Jean. He’d find himself a nice, pretty girl in no time at all, football star and good guy as he was. He smiled lopsidedly and then got out, telling me to stay in and keep dry. I surely would miss him when he left to college in a couple years, and probably for good. No reason for a bright kid like that to stick around here.
For the ride home I figured I’d take the scenic route, since I was out on this side of town and all, and I drove up from Woods Drive to Middlefield, which cut through the old cranberry fields and then looped around along the ridge that overlooked the town. From there I could see it all, from the one end of town to the other, all the lights just starting to come on as the last brightness of the day faded down to dark, feeling even darker due to those clouds blocking out any chance of moonshine getting down to us. I hadn’t driven by the way in a while. I remembered how Marie and I used to stop along here for picnics, back in the old days, when we were young and more put together than I was feeling, especially after she passed. It also reminded me of why I stayed, the purpose of it. Some people had diamonds and photographs and such, and I did, too, but I had more than that to help me remember. I had every house and every tree, the whole town, reminding me of those days when we were happiest and the most trouble was getting ice cream off our hands after spending too long kissing out in the sun.
Eventually the road came back down and houses appeared again, until I was in the thick of the old part of town. Houses here were more rundown, though still respectable by any right. I was about to turn onto Randall to head back toward Main when I heard a loud explosion, least it seemed as such, and I was sure the engine had started acting up again, except immediately after I started to feel the road grinding up under my rear end and realized that I had blown a tire. I stopped to look out and sure enough, the rear driver’s side whitewall was out for the count, flat as a pancake. I got out then and went to the trunk to fetch the spare. Of course my rain-addled brain had forgot that the old spare tire was one of the things I’d taken out yesterday, looking to replace it in case a thing such as this happened.
I ran back into the car and sat down then thought for a bit about what I’d do, figuring I’d have to knock on someone’s house here to get to a phone, and that’s when she appeared. Mrs. O’Haley, in the same dress she’d been wearing earlier and an umbrella, was at my window, knocking lightly. I rolled down the window to listen to her explain that she’d heard a loud noise and came out to check, and that the big lavender house on the corner was hers.
“Can’t go on,” I said. “Everything I had is gone.” I pointed out to the empty trunk and she nodded and pulled at my sleeve for me to get on out of the rain. I locked up and followed her onto the porch where we shook off what we could, then she invited me into the hall so that I could use her phone.
“Stormy weather!” I growled, because I’d had just about enough of all this. I didn’t mean to scare her or nothing but I was just plain angry now, angry that Andy’d been broken up with and soup labels had melancholy sayings and Barry was hurting for a proper set of jobs (which you’d think the rain would help with and not make more difficult), that Ms. Potterson and Mrs. O’Haley were alone, and that my Marauder, beautiful car I tell you, was out there getting worn down by all that damn rain. She opened the screen door to the living room and let me in, with me apologizing all the way for being so damn ornery and stepping all over her nice rug that way I was. She told me to forget it and showed me where the phone was.
As I dialed the number she asked if I’d had dinner, and I told her no, though it wouldn’t take me long to cook up some of yesterday’s fried chicken (which I’d bought from Johnny’s because the barbecue and fried chicken were top of the best despite it being a shady place). I think Mrs. O’Haley was going to say something else when Mack at the gas station picked up. I told him I needed a tow from Randall to my place because of that flat, and he said sure, though he’d just sat down to dinner with his two kids. I wasn’t going to go rushing him out here so I told him not to worry, and to come and look for me in front of Mrs. O’Haley’s when he was ready.
I’d just put the phone down when Mrs. O’Haley asked me to stay for dinner. I was feeling right improper just then, imposing on a single lady and all, not to mention making a mess of her nice rug, but Mrs. O’Haley, she wouldn’t have it, and took my hand in hers when she insisted I stop being ridiculous. It was soft, her hand, but sort of foreign, like a warm blanket after it’d been warmed up by someone else. I told her I didn’t feel right, this kind of impropriety, but again she told me not to be ridiculous and that they had more food than they could finish.
“Since my man and I ain’t together,” she said. I sort of pursed my lips and took her hand, which she used to lead and set me at the table in her kitchen. Lorrie came in and smiled, saying she was glad to see me, and apologizing to her mom for not being able to help set the table. Mrs. O’Haley just shushed her and went on about finishing dinner as we sat quietly at the table.
Lorrie and me sat and didn’t speak much for a bit, just listening (least I was) to the pot in the kitchen bubble up, and Mrs. O’Haley clicking her shoes on the tiles as she walked between chopping vegetables and stirring the pot. The sound of the rain outside was getting louder, loudest I’d heard it I think.
“Keeps rainin’ all the time…” said Lorrie, and I nodded.
“Keeps rainin’ all the time.”