Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

Angry Clouds

 

I remember when my mama came home from the clinic. Standing on tiptoes, I leaned over the sink and drew aside the kitchen window curtain.  The ‘53 Ford pulled up in the muddy alley, and I watched my dad go to the passenger side to lift her out.

 

My dad didn’t seem surprised to see me open the back door.  He drew her closer as they squeezed past and carried her effortlessly to their bed. The springs creaked.  With each of his steps, her head and arms flopped like a rag doll. 

 

The visit to the doctor seemed to have shucked layers of memory from her.  She lay there in the blackened room with a blanket nailed into the plaster over the window.  Her eyes slitted, not really seeing.  Her lips didn’t quite close all the way, and a finger of drool escaped from the side of her silent mouth.  Despite the cool of the early summer morning, her hair was limp and damp with sweat.  My dad pushed me out of the tomb-like bedroom and gestured for quiet.

 

I stood at the bedroom doorway watching him gently shift my mama’s body from side to side to remove her coat.  Her breasts pressed against her nightgown looking small and defeated.  My dad knelt by the bed and watched her for a while.  He opened a package containing a small tube of ointment and applied a dab to her temples.  Then he whispered while stroking her hair, “Edie, estoy aqui.  You’re home.”  She didn’t stir, and that caused a churning in my stomach.

 

I had supper ready when my dad came out of the bedroom. We ate scrambled eggs with cut-up weenies.  I had placed a jar of canned green chili and a folded cotton cloth with heated tortillas near his plate.  The tortillas had black spots where I had left them on the burner too long.  The silence was stifling.

 

After dinner, I went to my narrow bedroom and played soldiers with used bottle caps that came from the pop machine in the store.  I lined up all the RC Cola caps on the floor in military formation and surrounded them with Pepsi caps on the higher ground of the bed.  The explosions, shots, and screams were loud inside my head as I destroyed whole armies of Germans who tried to harm my mama.

 

After brushing my teeth and washing my face without being told, I went to bed.  Twining my fingers, I prayed, “God, help my mama wake up.”

 

Under the covers in the pitch dark, I imagined a companion to fill the open spaces in my heart, someone who loved only me. There was Janice Bennett, also Linda Trendle, and Caroline Echmund,  blond and blue-eyed angels from my fifth grade.  During a game of tag, Janice had punched me hard in the arm at the picnic at Bancroft Park, leaving a bruise that I cherished for a week.  Linda came up to me after field day in May and said that I was a fast runner.  Once, at lunch, Caroline looked directly into my eyes as she called me a creep.  The depth of her pale blue eyes took my bologna and chocolate milk breath away.

 

The flood came to Manitou Springs on a Saturday. That’s the day Gerald, the newsman, dropped off biweekly bundles of magazines to sell in the grocery store.  Behind the cash register, I was ready to beg for a comic book after my dad cut the bundles free with a wire cutter.  He gave Gerald the usual Coca Cola from the noisy pop cooler.  He wiped off moisture with a tattered rag, tilted the bottle under the metal lip, and opened it with a whoosh.  As he handed the bottle over, the sprinkles began outside and Gerald said, “Those are some angry clouds building up today, Manuel.”

 

My dad and Gerald walked out the entrance and looked up at the sky.  I trailed behind hoping for a peek.  The grey-black clouds moved in slow motion with puffs that would extend and retract like the eyes of giant snails.

 

“Radio says it’s been raining up near Lake George since early morning.  Says we’ll be gettin’ it soon,” said my dad.

 

“Well, I got to go.  Stay dry.  Thanks for the soda.”

 

The store was located on the side of a slight hill with steps leading up to the entrance.  It was built upon a cement slab that made the floors uneven.  A doorway behind the back counter with the cash register led to our attached living room and the rest of the house. 

 

The patter of rain on the roof grew in intensity until it became the applause for a symphony and then a solid wall of sound. I didn’t think I could have heard my dad if he had spoken to me. Fearing that the ceiling might come down on us, I stuck close to him, occasionally grabbing his shirttail.

 

Of course, my mama slept, or was it sleep? I couldn’t say. I only knew that she wasn’t with us.

 

Looking down from our steps with my dad, I saw the beginnings of a river on the street. It looked solid and muscular like you could walk over it, thick and churning.

 

My dad got two apples. We ate and watched. 

 

Then, we went about our jobs. No customers entered while I stocked the candy case with Smarties, wax lips, and candy cigarettes.  My dad distributed magazines and comics on a metal rack, Superman and the Green Lantern in action on the covers, Archie with beautiful Veronica and Betty, Argosy for men, and Good Housekeeping for women. I would read them all, some on the sneaks.

 

My dad was getting a belly that he hid behind a white apron. Like him, I wore rolled up jeans with white socks and leather shoes, but he wore a button-down over his t-shirt. He hardly every smiled, but when he did, his cheeks stood out like apples on his brown, smooth face. Sometimes, I tried to lean against the counter like him, resting on elbows and forearms, reading the newspaper, but I wasn’t tall enough to look relaxed.

 

We went back to the front door. It rained so hard, the splash met the downpour and made a wall.

 

The level of the water rose up the two cement steps to the storefront. In addition to tree branches and garbage, we saw an upside down kitchen table with shiny tin edging, a blue-black speckled turkey pan, colorful clothing still attached to a clothesline with clothespins, car tires, and a horse saddle bobbing up and down under an invisible rider. 

 

Just before we closed the door, a brown dog swam by.  It paddled fast with its head held high.  A leash extended straight out from its neck.  The leather hand loop was beyond my reach, and that poor mutt stared at me as he was carried out of sight. I couldn’t get him out of my mind for the rest of the storm.  He reminded me of me.  Swimming as fast as he could.  I was going and going with the flow.

 

“Wake up your mom and take her to the Garcias’.” he said.  The Garcias lived across the alley and further up the hill.

 

“I wanna help you.” I did want to help my dad. I was afraid of being close to my mama. What if she wouldn’t wake up? What if she clung to me like a drunk? What if she stank?

 

“Do as I say!” His words came from deep in his chest caused a shudder that crept up my spine to the base of my head.

 

I stood my shaky ground.

 

My dad’s mouth and brow were pinched tight. Then he told me to get some rags from the cabinet by the wringer washing machine.  We stuffed them into cracks along the door opening, and then he dragged a hundred pound sack of pinto beans and another of potatoes to the door.  The potatoes peeked out through the weave of the burlap.  We stood back and waited like we were expecting an intruder.  The light dangling from a ceiling fixture went out.  The chug of the pop machine came to a halt.

 

All the while, the clatter of the deluge was deafening. Cupping my ears, I stood in the center of the small room and watched the door. Over and over, I traced in my mind running out the back door and up the hill to safety. I imagined the front door breaking from its hinges and a wall of dirty water rushing in. I wondered what it was like to drown, what that last liquid breath would feel like.

 

After fifteen vigilant minutes, I glanced to my right and saw water slinking toward my foot.  I yelled, “Daddy!”  It had come down the corner wall and scooched under the candy counter.

 

There was nothing we could do but sop up the water with cloths and wring them into two tin buckets.  In my mind, I sang, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza, dear Liza.” I didn’t dare sing it out loud.  With our attention drawn away, the deluge decided to sneak under the door.  The cloth of the bean sack darkened as it saturated with water.

 

I forgot about time and felt close to my daddy because I knew he needed me.  With only the light from the storefront windows I saw his silhouette a lot.  It was so dark I couldn’t tell if he was looking toward me or away. I hoped he was looking at me.  Thinking about me.

 

Then the pool advanced.  My dad used a dustpan to scoop and empty water into the buckets.  I got used to the high-pitched screeches of that pan scraping along the cement floor in a steady rhythm.  Wook.  Wook.  Wook.  My job was to carry each bucket to the kitchen at the back of the house and empty it in the sink. We couldn’t keep up.

 

The water level inched higher and reached the metal cages with the Wonder bread, Hostess dinner rolls, and potato chips.  The plastic-wrapped packets floated inches off the floor.  To my surprise, as the water reached the lowest shelves, the metal cans with Green Giant green beans and Del Monte corn floated too.  All the foods bobbed like apples in the tub at the church Halloween party.

 

I hated the storm that brought on this water. I hated whatever made my mama hide behind her ocean of sleep. I hated the stubbornness of my dad.

 

My shoes and socks were heavy, and a watermark rose up my pants-leg. The water was heavy to lift to the sink, and I spilled a lot along the way.  The inside of my fingers became raw from the metal handle.

 

Cockroaches scuttled across the surface of the water.  My dad picked up each one in his fingers, crushed them, and rubbed the remains on his pants.  He put his mouth to my ear and said, “Don’t tell your mom.”  I nodded my head yes.  My mama hated cockroaches and yelled at my dad each time she saw one.  A lone mouse paddled out from a corner, its fur slicked back, and it looked confused by this onslaught.  I watched as it swam into a dry crevice behind the meat cooler.   My dad was busy scooping.  I wondered if he would have stomped it if he saw it.

 

The low rumble of the rain turned down a notch, and I could almost hear the patter of individual raindrops.

 

Before the bloated creek began to retreat, we heard two knocks.  My dad rushed to look out through the pane in the door.  I looked through the window, my height, at the side of the door.  There was no one there.

 

That’s when my dad saw me shaking with cold. Abandoning his futile efforts, he lifted me onto the counter and wrapped me in his jacket that always hung on a nail on the back door. He hopped up on the counter next to me.

 

Watching him out of the edge of my eye, I followed the turn of his head. Cans with soggy labels, Hormel canned tamales, Kuners spinach, and Van Camp baked beans, jostled for attention. All the candy in the bottom drawer of the display case was ruined, Mr. Goodbars, Butterfingers, and Almond Joys. Big bags of corn masa, sugar, and flour were under water. Packaged sheets of corn husks for making tamales spoiled.

 

I snuck a full glance at his face as he looked straight ahead. Surprised to see a tear on his smooth-shaved face, I wanted to give him a hug, but that wasn’t something we did.

 

“What’s the matter, daddy?” My voice was croaky, and I wasn’t sure that he heard me, because he didn’t say anything.

 

Minutes later, he replied, “I can’t replace any of this.”

 

“Replace what?” I asked.

 

“My inventory,” he began, “All the food and the soaked cooler and pop machine. The meat’ll go bad.”

 

“Can’t we buy some more?” I knew I shouldn’t have asked because I felt him get tense, like he was mad at me.

 

Weak sunrays broke through the clouds, but it continued to sprinkle. The light twinkled and winked off the shallow pool that covered the littered floor. I watched a bottom shelf along the wall. I was convinced the water was going down, and my dad did the unthinkable by getting me a bottle of grape Nehi.

 

My dad and I noticed my mama at the same time, standing behind us. I jumped and spilled my pop. She looked misty and confused in the same frumpy nightgown. I was embarrassed for her, but glad to see her at the same time.

 

My dad stood, gathered her in his arms, and said, “I couldn’t keep it out. It’s all ruined.”

 

Her face remained blank as I stood.

 

“Hi, mama,” I said. I tried to embrace her, but my dad had her all wrapped up in his arms.

 

She blinked hard at me as my dad led her back to their bedroom. I heard the low rumble of his voice, but couldn’t make out the words. I don’t think she had much to say.

 

 

Even though she ignored me, I wasn’t too offended because I was used to her not always being a regular mom, besides, my dad had given me a pop.

 

An hour later, in dry jeans, I helped my dad carry the ruined beans through the house to the back yard that was on higher ground. The floor of the store was littered with wet groceries.

 

We went to the tool shed and got out the gas stove. We carried it through the house, and my dad connected it. The smell of raw gas thickened the air.  My dad told me to open the store door. The water was off the steps and receding.

 

Once the gas cleared from the air, my dad lit the stove, and we had a toasty store in the middle of June. 

 

On a trip to the shed to return my dad’s tools, I saw my mama in her robe cleaning beans in the kitchen sink. She must have gone out back to get them from the wet sack because her bare feet were muddy, but she didn’t seem to mind the mess she made on the linoleum. She looked over her shoulder and smiled at me.

 

“Mama.” I ran to her and clutched her tight from behind.

 

Her body felt more like bones than flesh, and a tremor radiated out of her. Lifting her forearms, she captured my hands, but didn’t turn to return the hug. I lingered, watching her put beans in the pressure cooker. With dreamy movements, she went into the pantry and got out the tins of flour and Clabber Girl baking powder. Mixing ingredients with her bare hands, she concentrated and made faces as she worked.

 

I wanted her to stop and pay attention to me, to tell me everything was going to be okay, to at least pinch my cheek, but I guess she was doing about as much as she could at the moment.

 

My dad came into the kitchen for a drink of water. He hadn’t changed into dry clothes. He asked, “What are you doing, Edie?”

 

“Making burritos.” Her words were slurry, but distinct.

 

“Why?” He looked worried.

 

She moved hair from her face with the back of her hand and left a white smudge. “There are going to be a lot of people not as lucky as us tonight. They’re going to be hungry.”

 

By late afternoon, the water had gone down so much, people walked in the street, whole families clutching each other tightly, everyone soppy. Sand and grit rose against the curbs. Debris wrapped around poles and street lamps. All grasses and plants pointed in the direction of the water’s flow.

 

I ran back and forth from the store to our kitchen, making sure that my mama was still there.

 

Customers came in to buy food. I stood behind the register, ready to make change, but my dad gave it away: the canned goods, the cheeses, and the chips. I wanted to say, “No. Wait. We need the money,” but my dad seemed kind of happy. Three times, he walked back to my mama, leaving me in charge.

 

My mama and daddy carried two trays of burritos and put them on the stove. My mama told my dad to cut up a log of bologna from the meat cooler. We made sandwiches with some of the dry Wonder bread. I removed the red plastic edge of each round slice of meat.

 

I tried to stay close by my mama, but she wouldn’t stand still, moving around preparing food, tracking mud all over. At least my daddy had put his heavy coat over her shoulders.

 

The flood didn’t care if you were rich or poor. Linda Trendle, my favorite girl from school, walked by with her family. Mr. Trendle worked in the Manitou Bank. He wore a suit, and Mrs. Trendle sported a housecoat over a dress. Linda, my Linda, was dressed in pedal pushers with an orange blouse that showed her stomach. 

 

Her father barely acknowledged us. Linda’s eyes lingered on mine as they walked away, but she didn’t wave. The wet crease of her butt looked nice, like a work of art.

 

I gathered three limp burritos from the tray with my bare hands, their contents burning my palms, and ran out the front door of the store. The Trendles had just turned the corner, and I sloshed in deep mud. By the time I reached the end of the street, they were out of sight.

 

Back in the store, without another word, my mama retreated from the store. I heard the creak of the bedsprings in her bedroom.

 

I wanted to cry for my mama. Cry for me. Cry for that brown dog that probably didn’t make it, but in my dad’s face, I saw concentration, and that’s what I tried to do, think about things that had to be saved.

 

Because of the steepness of the valley, the water like a thief, took what it wanted and moved on.

 

My mama? My mama went back to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

Rudy Melena is a retired elementary-school principal who now writes full-time. A member of the 2013-2015 Lighthouse “Book Project” in Denver, he has recently completed a novel. His short story "We Couldn't Keep Up" was published by speechbubblezine.com. Another short story, “Lesson from Shallow Water,” can be accessed here: http://www.elandar.com/award/story_melena.html