James Maxwell resides in Philadelphia with his girlfriend and their young son where he works at a consulting firm as an administrative assistant. He graduated with an MA in English from Iona College and has been writing for a little over 15 years. His work has been featured Walking Is Still Honest, Ijagun Poetry Journal, Cease, Cows, Scarlett Leaf Review, The Scene and the Heard, and Indiana Voice Journal.
A DRY SPELL
When the rains stopped we were dry and for weeks afterwards my father complained that a man wasn’t allowed so much as a chance to rinse the pollen from the roof of his car, his 1982 Buick Skyhawk having sprouted a phlegm-yellow layer of fur seemingly overnight. It was during these particular times of anguish when he would spit into the palm of his hand and drag it across the windshield, holding up the jaundiced stretch of skin afterwards, flat and wide fingered, to the line of pines overlooking the driveway like a zealot pronouncing his testament against God and tree—which of the two fueled his wrath more, one could not discern.
The man would drive to work like that too, despite my mother’s fervent harangues and then out on the highway one could see him blinking and squinting through the single half-moon shaped eye afforded to him by his spit swish method until one of us mustered up the decency or the gall to pour a pail of water from hood to hatch. Even then the man had enough brass to bemoan streaks in the glass, his nose pitches in an absolute wrinkle as someone awaiting a bandage to be torn off or whose wine had gone all to vinegar.
This played out over and over and over again, never deviating once in my father’s outrage with the world around him and a near admirable tenacity with which he placed blame upon the very many things that lay outside his control.
I always thought to myself what an absurd grief that must be, and throughout my daily preoccupations I made a solemn oath that I would never risk handing over the reins of my yet ill-conceived adulthood to the indomitable clutch of petty troubles.
I had never experienced the drought before, but had listened briefly as the old ladies squawked about it like a murder of crows as they dabbed at their neck pouches with flailing wisps of gossamer tissue. I passed by their mumblings through the streets radiant with heat that seemed to shimmer upward from the asphalt in dizzying ripples of warmth and recalled how just last summer a boy had sprinted barefoot the length of the avenue on a dare and when he finally sat down in the cooler grasses, you could scrape the skin from his sole with a pointed stick.
Just as I was entering the grocery, Patty the Oleander barkeep was passing by, his collar dark with sweat and thick dark lines wringing the softness out of his eyes. I could tell he must have been on some crucial errand or he would have still been in bed.
“Aye there, Jeffy boy! Haven’t seen your pa about it some time. Ain’t with sickness, is he now?” Patty had always been a pleasant sort: quick with a joke and a hearty whack on the back. In the winter months, he’d come to our house on nights when business was slow and play cards with my father long into the night.
I could hear the lilted tone of Patty wrapping up a punch line and the fluttering quilts of laughter that fizzled up through the floorboards of my bedroom even after everyone else had turned in for the evening. As far as I knew, my mother did not care much for him, but I had always found him a friendly, albeit boisterous face in a sea of strangers.
“Naw, he’s just been busy, that’s all,” but really as the words so automatic and instinctive unfurled from my tongue, I realized I could not pin the man down wriggling to any one legitimate pastime you could attribute to being busy—nothing outside the realm of his unpredictable furies.
“Ah, that’s the crack, is it?” Draught hits everyone I s’pose.” And with that he palmed a rough tussle atop my head and staggered off into the sweltering morning.
These days the sun stoked the skies so long that you scarcely knew what you were about before you were rounded up and herded back home by voices of mothers that could either sound like fingers running along the brass flutes of wind chimes or else the scrape of a scrub brush scouring a filthy pan.
Nobody watered their lawns anymore. The scorched crowns of grass blades advanced across the yards like a straw colored pestilence, choking off even the stubborn dandelion heads, the misunderstood clover, and the fecund torrents of ivy. Thistles dried up and plopped to the ground like a scatter of shattered Christmas bulbs and even the sprouts of wicked crabgrass seemed so long a thing of the past.
The whole of the earth had gone dry, even the asphalt appeared thirsty: the nooks and cracks in the stretch of street now vacant, the arid hollows orphaned and overlooked by the expressionless brick facades as commuter vehicles chugged past.
One could not even seek out the solace of the old watering hole where dozens of students would flock every summer, released finally from the dank chambers of school halls brimming over with idle chatter and the smell of sweat and chalk. Now it had shrunk down to a brackish sink where not even the most intrepid starling would touch down, though every birdbath all across town stood as blank saucers where now and again one might perch and stare down into the imperturbable and desiccated abyss, the stone monuments a somber reminder of the situation at hand.
At the watering hole, the children, young enough to sweat still without the threat of odor, line the banks in crestfallen pairs, seated in disbelief as they gaze out across to the place they had heard whispered about by the other boys, the place you simply had to be. It is akin to waking up Christmas morning to face a gaping plain beneath a bare tree.
I toss an empty bottle of St Ide’s into the water, watching it slowly fill to almost halfway before disappearing with a final belching bubble beneath the surface.
The rattle of my father’s weekend snoring is now nothing more than absent lullaby and the household that could often sleep soundly well past noon most Saturdays and Sundays now seems to positively wail—the familiar sound now replaced by thunderous hammering echoing throughout the walls from somewhere outside the house and thumping footfalls upon the roof, almost as if someone was struggling to somehow batter their way back inside.
With the coming of the dry spell, suddenly everything required replacing almost overnight. My father preached the necessity of upkeep like a sermon, hounding my brother and I with a litany of prices, figures, and impossibly disparate logistics should we seek asylum from his repetitious frenzy in order to busy ourselves with far less taxing matters. My mother simply lamented over her worry that one day the walls would cave in, knowing full well my father was not particularly gifted in the role of handyman.
His thoughts seemed some cyclical sort of fixation, as if his mind had broken free of one orbit only to float off and immediately into another and the entirety of his time, energy, and endeavors served only to feed into the nebulous center around which it undeviatingly revolved. It was as if he had done something one way his entire life without question and now he did it in another so that the very nature of the pattern itself remain unchanged and had been merely reassigned so that he might yield to the needs of others.
While the rest of us knew a draught was only a dry spell, my father remained entirely unconvinced and struggled with the notion of permanence that jostled around in the back of his skull. Waking to yet another rainless morning time and time again had convinced him he had discovered irrefutable evidence of what he had known to be true all along.
On Wednesday, a large grey raincloud passed shadow over the dusty flowerbeds, pausing momentarily before drifting lazily on, unbroken. A cool breeze followed off the tail end that whispered through the dead grasses, ruffled the rugs of pollen, and shot through the open windows of homes, clattering shade slats, displacing low stacks of newspaper and igniting a false hope that moisture was soon to be pattering down, impinging upon the parched earth in one uninterrupted soaking sheet.
I awoke to my socks stiff with dried sweat and they produced an audible scraping sound when I stirred them beneath the linens. It is one habit I’ll admit I’ve retained since childhood. For whatever reason, I would not be able to fall asleep without a pair of socks on my feet, and each night my father would slip silently into my room and gingerly pluck them free from my toes so that discovering my feet bare each morning, I would believe that some foul, ungodly creature was stripping the socks overnight in order to ingest them.
It certainly sounds absurd, but since then, I imagined my socks were the single line of defense against waking up to find my toes taken, the socks creating a sort of barrier between it and I, ensuring I never went to sleep barefooted. It was a ritual to which I tenaciously clung, exerting some sort of control over an anxiety that plagued me at my most private moments. I dared not confess it to anyone, preferring my fear of the nameless nocturnal foe to the bouts of ridicule I would surely endure should anyone discover these secret transactions, the necessity of which now seemed so undeniably improbable that to ponder them even a little while cause incredible distress, akin to a flood of nausea.
At the breakfast table, my father gnawed his morning toast in silence, appearing as if he relished it just as much as if he was instead chewing a slab of cardboard. He finished it off, butterless and without so much as a word, leaving the three of us, his glass of milk untouched before him, the sides coated in a crocodile skin of condensation. It was a motion that suggested frustration on his part, but over what we could scarcely guess.
My mother arose with the emptied dishes and headed to the sink, and, placing them securely in the basin, mounted the bottoms of her palms on the counter, her elbows locked and shoulders arched high like a cat’s back For a moment her body seemed a rigid branch poised to snap underfoot. However he form soon relaxed, her spine as pliable as a feather as she leaned forward and began to scrub the dirty plates, speaking to herself slowly and steadily as someone attempting to convince themselves they, in fact, situation within a dream.
“Not to worry now,” she said. “It won’t be much longer now.”
Outside my father’s voice trailed off like a distant riot as he pulled from the driveway and out into the otherwise quiet street, a fading field of echoes in his wake.
“My old man says yours is a sack of horse-plop, Jeffery.” Kreuther badgered more with his eyes than his words, the two fidgety orbs giraffing out of an un-tucked blue button up two sizes too big for him as we stood at the presently defunct watering hole. His eyes had a way of volleying back and forth over your person in a way that made most anyone feel rather unclean, though to Kreuther’s credit, it was not for want of being invasive, but instead because neither one could remain focused for any single object long enough to stop from jittering. It lent him a restless, rabid look—a trait further emphasized by his slight build and gaunt cheekbones. He was of the sort one would have a difficult time turning one’s back on for fear he would sneak up from behind you and sink his teeth into the skin of your arm.
At present, a noticeably pink ring of raw flesh lassoed about his lips: a consequence of running his tongue around the perimeter of his mouth every chance he could. He was like some sad, emaciated clown or a young girl applying makeup for the first time in her parents’ bedroom.
“Come off it, Kreuther. If so’s my old man then so is yours if not worse.” It was the fairer route to take with a boy like Kreuther as I knew if I gave voice to what I really wished to communicate, he would actually feel the sting of rejection and attempt to probe his invective even deeper, rankling an intolerable nerve for which then there would be no remedy.
I had come to hurl rocks into the hole from which now a fetid odor arose, having become a marshy ditch for garbage and animal droppings that now skimmed the surface with nowhere to drain.
We stood now on sand where once the water rose clear above our heads. You could see from the exposed slopes of the banks where the surrounding trees had worked their roots down into the water. Now they just hung there unhinged like pairs of gnarled knotty fingers—something foreboding and horribly arthritic.
A stone broke a barrier of plastic bags and what looked to be the frayed remainder of a dead cat, sinking down into the murk. Even with the rest of the watering hole dry, this remained the deepest part: how far down it went, nobody knew—not even our own fathers who once used to swim here as young boys, bare bottomed and free, like little silver-scaled fish jettisoned out into a summer’s evening and covered head to toe in the cleansing waters.
Immersed is the word my father used to describe his time before we were born.
“He says your old man owes him money.” Kreuther tossed a stone, his eyes skittish as if he scanned the broken surface nervously for his fortunes to be told. “Lots of it. Told me himself. Pockets tighter than a nun’s twat.” I didn’t begrudge Kreuther that comment for now he merely resorted to his old tricks—his feeble attempts to get a rise out of people which in the past have earned him a sock in the stomach and a torn shirt collar from some of the older boys. He never knew to quit while he was still ahead, that one should not cash in all his chips time and time again and ought to instead hold something back for himself.
Through observation and a fair bit of trial and error, I concluded he could be a tolerable fellow under the right conditions. He actually required very little maintenance and realized early on that girls and sneaking off to smoke cigarettes o the pier after dark were not in his near future and so he troubled me very little on the subjects. It was not so trifling to bear the brunt of his hollow insults from time to time, and to allow this now and again was akin to watering a thirsty houseplant.
“He said something else too. He said your old man’s just dried out and that’s all he’ll ever be is dried out like a pickle left out in the sun that no one wants.”
“You take that back, Kreuther.”
Kreuther folded the whole of his upper lip into his mouth so that he resembled some decrepit old coot who had lost his teeth, sucking so hard you’d think his face was attempting to swallow itself. When his lip again emerged, the skin shone reddened and raw, a film of moisture reflecting the light like a sheet of plastic wrap in the sun.
“No, Jeffery,” he hissed, dragging the crook of his elbow across his newly moistened spout. “I will not.”
The following week the draught broke with a storm that squatted firmly over us for the better part of three days, bringing with it a furious deluge that flooded the dry, dead soil and relieved us of the omnipresent pollen and every car that passed by our house looked freshly emerged from a soaking blissful bath like slick honking ducks.
My father had collapsed a few days prior and I prayed the incident at the watering hole was not the reason behind what my mother had calmly described to my brother and as sever exhaustion. There was even a part of me that believed he had discovered the true reason behind my nightly ritual of the socks.
The weekends roared out in the absence of my father’s usual hue and cry as voices flooded my head with thoughts of guilt and private treachery. For several days my father was restricted to unpermissive bed rest and was under no circumstance to be disturbed.
I had overheard my mother speaking to one of the charitable clergymen who sometimes visited my father from time to time. He had come bearing a basket of bruised fruit.
“Some men take the in betweens harder than others. Now more than ever it’s crucial to keep the faith—for his sake of nothing else.”
I confronted my mother and asked if the man had performed last rites and she replied no, not last, and that she never imagined I would grow into such a curiously solemn boy.
The rains kept most everyone inside but that much had not changed for me after they had pulled me off Kreuther, his nose already squashed like a strawberry someone shoved in his face. Some of the boys at school patted me on the back encouragingly and said “Good show, Jeffery” and “He had it coming” and some of them even wanted to strike up a bond with me, but the whole situation had my stomach so uneasy and I always believed it improper and even damnable to reap benefit from the misfortunes of others. And so those who had paid me little attention before now treated my reluctance with silent dismay so that I experienced an unspoken caution around my peers, almost like grasping your doorknob in the middle of the night and discovering it hot to the touch.
It was not many mornings later I began to find the familiar sight of mustard glasses in the skin, the ice slowly dissipating into the thin pool of liquid the color of weak tea lining the bottom. It was the surest sign my father had returned from the land of the dead, and just as if a mechanism had been greased and then wound, the household jounced alive into hushed industry, returning to task as the giant in the next room thundered in repose.
The watering hole in turn was declared an environment hazard by the county, cited as a breeding ground for mosquitoes and other vermin. The trash did not help either and rumors surfaced that a pipe expelling raw sewage had been discovered on one of the far banks, a leftover from the heyday of the old paint factory.
At times when I awake and feel the chill in the sole of my foot, I imagine that my father had returned to me over the course of the evening and stealthily plucked free my cloistered feet. But when I look down there they are same as before--the pale wrinkled bladders, wriggling as if waving back to me: the pallid leviathan of all sins hunched in the moonlight.
I am never alone.