Silver. The leaves of Oak and Maple trees across Pleasant Street turned over in anticipation of the rain. In the moonlight, before that light was obliterated by storm clouds, the leaves shone polished and ghostly against the midnight sky. From the semi-consciousness of a restless sleep John was vaguely aware of the approaching storm. It came at first as a sudden gust pushing the long branches of the old willow out front against the small white wood-frame house. The wind was scented with rain and cool, breaking a string of broiling days that had taken hold of Northwest Iowa.
There hadn’t been a drop of rain in nearly a month. There had been that sudden all too brief downpour just as church was letting out the week before, but not enough to help crops withering in the fields. But for scattering the usual social congregations on the steps of Saint Mary’s church, it dried almost before hitting the ground. A few folks took a soaking and it precipitated Mabel Conlon to take a spill down the steps of the church. Mabel is a large woman though and, but for a possible bruised bottom, which only Mister Conlon could verify, she could only lay claim to an injured ego.
A few counties over some cows had come up sick. Some said from the weather. The government had sent out inspectors to make tests with the authority to condemn whole herds if need be. That could prove a disaster for a family, losing a herd (Pennies on the Dollar was as good as a loss). In times such as this it was, well, as close to a declaration of war on decent salt of the earth folks as the government could get. It was only a matter of time before it brought good men to the end of their rope, and showed conniving men for their darkest character.
The cost of everything had gone up, while paychecks went down. Banks called in bad debts from folks with no means to pay those debts. Those banks foreclosed and threw good god-fearing people off their land and out of their homes, then closed their own doors for good. Other families didn’t bother to wait for the bank to call in their notes, and overnight packed up and left Iowa forever. Every day brought some new insult, some new weight around the neck of a struggling economy that was, in the end, not international bankers and corporations and industry, but millions of men and women toiling and bleeding and dying for their god-given right to carve out a small plot of this earth.
John sighed heavily and turned towards the window. He’d seen all this coming. This great slump, as it had come to be called, hadn’t happened overnight. Nothing happened overnight, except to fools and those fighting desperately to fend away the constant indignities of being down and out.
John had seen this coming, at least as much as any average working Joe could. Maybe it was the war that had opened his eyes, or darkened them enough to see how fragile and arrogant the veneer of civilization was. He had eschewed the allure and temptation of debt which had seduced so many others. It meant that he and Anna had to go without during the spend-and-boom years of the Twenties, but they had a roof over their heads and a chance to weather this better than most.
Anna was beside him. Her buttocks were warm through the thin cotton fabric of her gown he’d bought her last Christmas for a buck and change from the Sears & Roebuck’s catalog. She was breathing rhythmically, her lips fluttering ever so slightly. For a moment her breathing built, disturbing John’s sudden onslaught of thoughts and worries and memories. He reached back and ran a hand gently across her hip and stilled her somewhat. It was the first decent sleep she’d had since, well, in some time anyway. That thought led him invariably to a place he preferred not to be, but in the dark and quiet of the night it was a place he could hardly avoid.
It was best not to dwell on such things. Better to force them from the mind and get on with living. Of course it was easier for a man than a woman. Men are so much farther from the body. They are ego drenched in misgivings, and who, by force or by necessity, have buried those misgivings deep. They bury them deep enough that it takes a lifetime for them to resurface again. Women, by contrast were worry vainly longing for lost innocence. Theirs was an ill-defined ideal alternately negotiated with or abandoned to men.
There was something more though, something that John struggled to fathom. It was that marital rhythms came more naturally to women. She knew his secrets, while he could barely come to terms with them himself. She knew desires and thoughts he endeavored to keep for himself. It was that which made him desire and despise and long for her and run from her all at once. It was that which kept him unwaveringly at her side while wishing for the farthest horizon.
“Oh,” he sighed, exhausted. It came as a trembling breath that escaped him almost without knowing.
It was a lament. It was a lament over life and all its many burdens, both the physical and those rampaging through his conscience. It fell like a weight upon his chest, protested the very purpose of his existence. His thoughts led inevitably to some end, with the realization that the precious nature of each life was alternately a definition of its ultimate futility. It was a thought that reflected the tragedy of the past several months and of a growing cynicism that engulfed him like a cancer.
Sleep fell away from him now, like metal shavings on a concrete floor. Sleep gave way to primal stirrings and more rational worries over the tarpaper roof he’d put up the summer before. The roof had taken the worst that Iowa winters could muster, holding on by hardly more than a wish and a prayer. But John could sense this storm was something more. He could feel its power as it fell upon little Emmetsburg, and knew it would be a hard night. What he couldn’t know was how this single storm would call into question everything in his life and plunge him towards its end.
Anna felt his worry, even before she was fully awake. She turned to him as the first fat rain drops patted against the front of the house. John closed his eyes, pretending to sleep, the furl of his brow and cadence of his breathing betraying that little effort. He could feel her looking at him. For a moment they were both silent. He reached over and pulled the window shut. Instantly the heat rose in the room.
“Go back to sleep?” he said quietly.
“What is it?” she asked, touching his bare shoulder.
He didn’t wish to worry her and frowned over thoughts refusing to form themselves into proper sentences.
“It’s nothing. Get some sleep.”
With a blinding flash of lightening, thunder, like a rumbling kettledrum, shook the world. John’s heart skipped a beat. Anna pulled closer, her warm breath at his neck an arm across his bare chest. Her gasp was lost to the racket of a sudden spectacular downpour.
“Worried for the roof?” she asked. She ran a hand across his body, teasing lightly the hairs of his stomach. He smelled warm and familiar, scented of sweat and wood pulp from the previous day’s work. For Anna, this place and this moment were a preferable destination to any fantasy of heaven.
“Some,” he said.
He was worried for the roof, worried for the truck, for Anna and the prospect of not going back to work any time soon. He worried over the banks and all those who had lost hope along with their homes, and he worried for a world whose governments always saw the simple way out of their population’s discontent and disillusionment through nationalistic fervor and war. He could feel it all out there somewhere, rising as a certain tension in the world. And tensions had either to be relieved or they broke altogether. And John feared the world seemed to be coming to one hell of a break.
He turned his head and found her hazel eyes in the dark. He said the only thing he could have said to her. The only thing his ego would permit. “Be fine.”
She pulled him closer still until he suddenly felt trapped in her embrace. John’s heart thudded madly, as though about to burst from his chest. He was already sliding sideways out of bed, pulling gingerly away from her.
“Be back,” he said.
In just shorts John pushed his feet into a pair of old brown slippers. Anna didn’t protest. She watched as he left the room and crossed the small dining room to the kitchen door.
He pushed open the back screen and a gust of wind tore it from his hands. The sound of it banging against the house was lost to the roaring waves of rain. Water already stood deep in the yard, with waves whipped and sheared by the wind, the cool mineral taste of the rain tempering and deepening John’s thoughts and fears.
Anna sat up, her feet still covered beneath her late mother’s heavy quilt. She swept back a lock of long Irish-red hair and studied him as if he was a strange animal, at once wild and beautiful in its power. He was like those pictures of great male lions from the National Geographic. The fight had long ago gone out of them though they still projected awesome strength.
John’s shoulders were broad and strong. His wavy brown hair brushed with the pewter evidence of hard years and great disappointment. He was no longer the bright-eyed boy she waved goodbye to as he went off to join Pershing in Europe. He was every bit the man who returned to her darker for that year at war.
He was silhouetted in the door against the silvery blue downpour, like some dejected mythical hero. One arm was upraised, a hardened and calloused hand pressed to the aging white-washed wood frame. But the lightening, that immense and constant lightening, threw his shadow in snapshot moments across the tiny kitchen’s pale linoleum floor, making him appear all the more tragic and lonesome. There came the flat tap-tap-tapping of water falling upon the tiles behind him. Anna watched with a measure of sympathy and understanding as her big man sighed heavily at the sound and looked skyward.
Anna loved him. She loved him more than he could ever realize. She loved that enduring energy, the stalwart refusal to quit, to quit her and to quit this life where lesser men might have given up. She loved that quality which compelled him to remain in the fight when all conscious faculties might have convinced him of its futility. It was love that drew Anna from bed.
She paused in the dining room, the thin gown mapping the contours of her figure beneath. The room was small, with hardly enough room for the old oak table and four heavy chairs, let alone the Franklin sewing machine, where Anna hired out her services to help make ends meet.
The lace-white curtains over the window were pulled tight. Beside the window a new trickle of water ran along the wall past an oval framed photograph of her parents, taken just after landing in America hardly five decades before. The couple looked ancient, and part of a very different world than they would leave for their only daughter.
Anna went to John, wrapping her arms around his body and pressing her cheek against the cool flesh of his bare back. She breathed him in, suddenly and completely aroused by his scent. She moaned softly and listened to the steady thudding of his heart.
“Bad storm,” he said quietly. A flash of lightening brought a sharp and quick boom from somewhere across town. It was of a much different character than the thunder. He flinched slightly and looked to the sound.
“Been worse,” she softly kissed his back.
He was a man of so very few words, but each was supported by deeply resonating thoughts. The words he chose so sparingly truly meant something.
“Gets so fighting even the little ones is too much anymore.”
She was quiet a long moment, and was suddenly fearful that he might slip away from her. “John Perkins, don’t you quit on me.”
He mulled over the words and held a hand out to the rain. The big wet drops tapped against his palm, dissolving and running between his fingers. It was cool and perfect.
There was something about the rain. It had a power, as though the true character of the storm resided in the collaboration of each of those myriad drops. Something about it coaxed deeper thoughts. He thought about the waste of the European War and wondered why men of good conscience failed to rally as those myriad drops for peace as eagerly as they rushed to battle.
The rain let up just a little, but the damage had been done. It had already turned the long garden troughs into little canals. He was figuring a way to fix the roof despite himself, and would keep at that roof as long as he still had the breath and strength to do so. John managed a smile and touched her arm.
“Too dumb to quit.”