There is a warm slow breeze connected by a thread,
a breath, a whispered voice;
a faint kiss brushing the cheek and drawing itself up,
a wobbly child’s
careful practicing steps.
Layers of fat cloud, dipping and thick,
sky darkened with temper, pressing down,
the air dense, moist.
dew on her brow.
She is heavy and she is light,
a roar and thunder crying out for mama doldrums,
and the rain is a slanted curtain,
her panicked breath whips creating small funnels that rise to meet the sky
and then fall.
She is a steady crashing rhythm,
a never-ending thrum,
dragging earth and ocean like a hand stirring circles,
swirling fast spirals in her eye, a dead calm.
Sometimes in the early morning, especially during a storm, she would lie motionless and listen to the rain tapping against the window, small stones thrown at the glass, the wind blowing over the roof of her cottage like a wave. The darkness would be there, like a comfort; no light coming in through the window, no light coming in through the thin split between the curtains. The room still, like the stopping of time and she would close her eyes and try to follow the arc of a dream as it coiled and swirled gently away from her. The dream that was the same each time. Her child: an image, a feeling, a thought, of who her child would be now.
The baby died shortly after she was born ten years ago. It happened during a storm. The woman remembers holding her once. The body was so light. As if it wasn’t really there at all. She never named the child; only referred to her quietly, in whispers, as child of storms.
On those stormy mornings and sometimes even when the wind outside was calm and light, she allowed herself time with the memory. And to listen for the sound. What she imagined was the child calling to her. Her voice lifting the waves, echoing across a vast, darkening sky.
In the kitchen, she boils water for coffee. She thinks about her parents. She wonders if they were still alive, if the child was still alive, how life would be. When she was a child it was her father who took her to school. He would bundle her into his jeep. She remembers the road, the ocean, the palms whizzing by; a bleeding water color landscape. Her mother never learned to drive, something about it made her nervous, so instead she walked everywhere. They would walk together to the beach or the store to buy milk or sometimes to the Mall, which was further than both, if the weather wasn’t too hot.
But so many memories from childhood remain foggy. What remain are snatches. Close-ups. Light splashing in through her bedroom window. The walls, a cheerful blaze of orange and red flowers, a canopied bed. Carpet that always smelled new.
And then, after her mother wasn’t there anymore, the light from outside dimmed casting strange ashen shadows across the walls of her room, dancing shadows among the flowers.
Her father would show her the photographs. At the beach. A party. Her mother standing near a boat, posing with a box of tools, but never smiling. She worried about the things her father was unable to say. Whenever he spoke about her mother, it seemed there was always the slightest thread of hope trying to connect with something outside his voice.
She goes to the porch and watches the sky. The sun is a vampire draining the grass and asphalt of color. A light hot breeze blows across her face. The thermometer on the hook hanging by the door reads ninety-two degrees. What little traffic there is crawls by; sounds from boat engines and children laughing and a barking dog.
At three-forty five p.m. her car refuses to start. It’s only a five-minute drive to the bar where she works. It’s too late to walk now. She can’t be late and although it’s so hot, she’ll take her old bicycle. By now, all of her regulars will be waiting. The owner of the bar with his peachy face and mop of gray hair will be waiting. And panicking. Fridays from four to six p.m. means happy hour. She took the job after the baby. It was a place to hide, a task to focus on for the time being. It wasn’t meant to be forever. She picks up the phone.
“Yeah,” the owner of the bar clips.
There is a pause.
“It’s quarter to. You should be here.”
“I’m just leaving. Car wouldn’t start again.”
“You need to replace that thing.”
“I need to replace a lot of things.”
When she leaves the cottage, the sun is scalding its outline into the flat blue sky. By the time she reaches the bar, innocent-looking white clouds float overhead. She chains her bike to a post, walks up the weathered boardwalk and through the open door.
The twins, dressed in their usual uniform, cut-offs, halter-tops, and flip-flops sit at their usual table. Whispering. Their matching blonde heads stiff with salt and sand tilt in her direction. Their sun-soaked skin looks dry and tough as alligator hide.
The owner looks up from behind the bar where he’s squinting down a tumbler, a bottle of Jack in one hand, soda squirt in the other.
“What are you doing?” she asks him.
“Your co-worker is sick again,” he grunts. “You got the floor.”
He cuts lemons into wedges, opens a large bag of peanuts.
She prefers the bar. Prefers barricading herself behind the mahogany and brass but nods and ties an apron around her waist. She picks up an order pad.
At the twin’s table. “The usual?”
“Uh-huh,” says one, her blue-green eyes shining like sun dappling off the sea, crossed leg bouncing like a reflex.
“Well. I’d like somethin’ different. Somethin’ fruity with a straw,” the other says, like a little girl asking for candy.
“I’ll get you a Shirley Temple,” the waitress says and turns away.
“Hey,” the girl snaps. “Jus’ make sure it has al-cahol in it.”
She works her way around the room. She looks at the dark wooden tables by the large front window, the wood-paneled walls, the photos of sunsets and boats. The poster announcing a steel-drum band to play on a Friday night. The notice has been up for months, no one bothered to take it down. She thinks that no one here bothers to do much of anything. There is nothing here. Just the endless horizon, water stretching out before her like a glass desert. And people like the twins who like the place, never change. Lives spent on the beach, oiled and laid out like trout on a grill.
A nervous looking woman with pale glossy skin and blazing red lipstick, and a heavy-set man in a skull and cross-bones t-shirt rush into the bar and sit at a table by the window.
The woman leans in to look out, her breath fogging the glass, “Those clouds are awful low. Aren’t they awful low?”
“Yup. That sure happened fast,” he answers before giving his order, “a gin and tonic and a scotch and soda”.
The waitress glances out the window to the sky and the dark lump of cloud. She thinks of the baby and how the sky had looked the same back then. The storm had come suddenly. And afterwards, the white walls of the hospital, the baby wrapped in a soft white blanket then gone. There is nothing else to see out there so she turns away.
At the bar, she sets napkins on her tray. The owner adds glasses and bottles, bowls of peanuts then, wiping his hands on his shirt, reaches up to switch on the television set perched high on a wooden slab.
“I don’t like the look of that sky,” he says.
The waitress carries the tray around the room; a night-nurse administering pain-killers – depositing glasses, bottles, checking progress, picking up empties. The television, which the owner was supposed to replace last year, crackles and spits like an open fire. A picture finally appears, a talk show host smiling broadly, holding a book.
The bar packs quickly. Some people she recognizes. Some she doesn’t. A couple of under-agers stroll in; the owner gives them the revolving-door treatment.
She is wiping down a table, listening to the white noise of the bar when The Shark’s silhouette fills the open door, his smell drifting in ahead of him: beaten leather, sandalwood, and the slight tang of citrus. Everything in the room seems to shrink as he strides in.
She watches him, head up, rumpled and dusty from the road. He takes a stool at the bar. He places his black helmet on the stool next to him, gently, as if it is a child. It occurs to her or she imagines that this is the only gentle thing he does. The only care he takes with anything.
She doesn’t know him other than taking his drink orders. He’s much older than she is, probably around the same age that her mother would have been now. He has had trouble with the cops, and once she had to call them because he was blind drunk, threatening another customer. She believes he’s never forgotten that and each time she sees him now, a small place inside her opens. He glances over. There is something in his dead eyes, she thinks. Something that flashes behind them.
Outside the wind is picking up. The sky is the color of ash and people are hurrying up the beach to their cars; umbrellas, blankets, children in tow. The waitress places the drinks on the table in front of the twins; two beers, two Mai Tais.
“Nine-fifty,” she says, scanning the room.
The nervous woman is still glaring out the window, like she is waiting for something to happen.
“Anything else?” the waitress asks. One twin smiles, the corners of her eyes creasing. She takes a long, wet gulp of beer leaving a coat of pink grease on the glass.
“Come on,” she says to the other, ignoring the waitress. “The Sharks here.”
People pour in. People pour out. Happy Hour comes and goes. Outside, a spotlight shines on the wooden slats of the deck overlooking the beach. Through one of the open windows the waitress hears the heavy slap of waves against the shore, the fizzle of rocks as the water recedes. There is nothing happening out on the road apart from some trash tumbling down it like traffic, the Stop sign on the corner trembling in the wind.
The twins squint and coo at The Shark. They giggle and smile and teeth, white as piano keys, glow against their tight brown skin.
“Hey Shark,” one of them drawls. “How come you never ask me out?”
“If you went with me, you might regret it,” he says and brings the beer bottle to his lips.
The twins look at each other, eyebrows arched. The other one says, “Naw, we won’t, honest.”
“Oh, you too?” he asks grinning.
The waitress passes them on her way to take another order. The twins shift around on their stools, crossing and uncrossing legs. She thinks of brown remoras following and hanging onto The Shark as if he’s crucial to their survival. She knows he is watching her. She can almost feel him breathing at her back.
The weather bulletin blares out above the intermittent static on the television screen. Everyone stops what they’re doing and turn their heads towards the flickering picture. The announcer, a tall man in a raincoat, shouts over the wind, something about an unexpected storm: extreme heat, cool air in the upper atmosphere.
The owner races around from behind the bar. He looks at the television screen, the announcer holds onto the railing while waves crash behind him.
“Cripes. I knew something wasn’t right.” He looks around at the customers.
“Folks,” he says slightly breathless, “leave now if you live close enough to get home safe”.
A window, open too wide, rattles and whines loudly and the waitress rushes to it. As she eases it closed, the wind pushes in, napkins and coasters flutter to the wooden floor. For a split-second she hears what sounds like sobbing or crying, but thinks it must be her imagination. It must be the storm settling in. Gathering itself up.
While people scatter, The Shark and the twins stay put. The Shark’s hand is on one twin’s thigh. He is swaying. She laughs as if he is doing it for her amusement. Her twin fiddles with her straw and taps a broken fingernail on the bar’s rutted surface. The waitress quickly stacks glasses underneath the counter then goes to clear tables.
The nervous woman and man are arguing. They live too far away and he is asking her why they had to come. Some other people rush out.
“I’m going to fill the tub and start taping windows,” the owner says on the way to his house at the back of the bar.
“See what you can grab out of the storage shed; bottled water, whatever food you can find. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
The waitress steps quickly across the wooden deck. She looks at the storage shed with its worn tin roof and wonders why he hasn’t repaired it. The transformer at the side of the shed buzzes loudly. The buzz feels as if it’s coming from inside her chest. Waves crash against the sea-wall.
Inside, she grabs small plastic bottles of water and towels and shoves them into a box she finds on the long narrow counter. A bag of pretzels. A jar of olives goes into the box next to the towels. She needs to get out of here. The rain falling on the tin roof overhead is deafening.
She grabs the box and is about to turn when she senses something behind her.
“Well, aren’t you your mama’s little girl?”
The Shark stands just inside the doorway.
“You look just like her.”
She doesn’t respond and moves towards the door holding the box in front of her like a shield. The light from outside strikes the side of his face making him look much older. His shadow covers her.
She is about to push past him when he grabs her upper arm and yanks her close. She drops the box, the jar smashes, olives scattering like bullets across the floor. With his other hand, he lifts a section of her hair.
“Same hair as your mother.”
She can smell the beer on his breath.
Outside the wailing wind beats steadily against the walls of the shed. She stares ahead to the deck where small balls of ice bounce high into the air and fall. He moves his hand from her hair to the back of her neck, gripping it tightly.
“I’ve got to get back in there,” she says sternly and tries to pull away from him. His hand on her skin is hot, heavy. What has opened inside her before, each time she has seen him, feels like a canyon.
“So,” he says, not letting go, squeezing her neck. “What should we do?”
She glares at him, thinking of what to do. He smiles, not broadly but she can see his teeth, the dull-white, the edges slightly discolored.
“Hey, come on,” he says shaking her arm. “I forgive you.”
With her free hand she gouges into his arm with her nails.
The slap comes from nowhere and forces her deeper into the shed.
Outside, the spotlight pulses then dies. There is a whistling sound, like air being forced through a small space. The inside of the shed seems to spin and vibrate as if a giant hand rapidly stirs the air.
She remembers her mother gone. One day she woke and her mother was gone.
He shoves her down onto a pile of newspaper and stands over her.
“She never said much either,” he says and begins to lower himself on top of her.
Ice rains down as the beaten roof tears away like paper. Distracted, he shifts his eyes away from her upwards and seeing her chance, she rolls away, pushes herself up. There is a crackling sound coming from outside; it makes her hair stand on end and then an explosion. The air in the shed smells scorched. It takes less than a second for the thin line of jagged light to strike him from above. He crumbles into a heap on the cold cement floor.
She stands holding on tightly to the frame of the shed’s doorway, hot and shivering, the wind blowing the hair around her face, like a caress. She turns her head towards the bar to the warm glow from the candles inside. Behind her, the sound of panicked breathing makes her stomach clench, makes her look back into the shed.
The sound seems to be all around and inside her, but her own breathing is slow now, steady. She looks back down at his body but he hasn’t moved.
‘Child Of Storms’, first published in ‘So Long Polyester’ Labello Press, (c) Deborah McMenamy 2013
Revised version (c) 2022
All Rights Reserved