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Pia Z. Ehrhardt

The Water Laws

Lydia tapes her husband's TV weather forecast so she can watch what's going on between him and the station's new anchor, Stephanie Russell from Iowa City. Her face is small and flawless. Perfect nose and lipstick, and crystal blue eyes that push back at the camera. Maybe nothing's happening there, but Lydia wants another look when the broadcast isn’t live. And if she’s not wrong, she wants the videotape. Lydia hits the record button and watches this handsome thing move around. The meteorologist who must have a perfect wife, some tall children, an Irish Setter who runs full out on the levee.

It's Friday night and Stephanie opens with a story about the weather. New Orleans hasn't had rain in 70 days. Slabs are cracking and houses are shifting. Along the Interstate, fires burn on the neutral ground. People shouldn't water lawns between 9 a.m. and 10 p.m. The sheriff is sending deputies into neighborhoods to enforce the water laws.

Onscreen Stephanie looks over at Brad and smiles. “Well, do I go another day without washing my hair?”

"I'm getting you Evian," Brad says. It's the end of July, and since May, his forecasts have been the same. Empty circle-sun, 20% chance of rain, humidity, and haze. He ends his report with the fishing almanac and turns to Stephanie at the news desk. "Back to you," giving her a little shrug. "Tomorrow, maybe I'll phone it in."

"Then you wouldn't be here with us, would you?" Stephanie says, tapping her script on the desk, straightening her pages.

"No, he'd be here with me," says Lydia to the TV screen.

Maybe these hot weeks have her jumpy and it's nothing that thunderstorms, high winds, some fine, hard shadows at the end of the day couldn't help. There are better seasons in New Orleans than summer. No one complains during spring when it's all soft air and azaleas for days at a time. Brad is busiest fall and winter when the weather circles the city. Winds begin in the southeast and circle around, pushing moisture up from the Gulf. The air has a thickness that makes her want to grab handfuls. Faces glow and hair is plump. People are charmed for a day or so, until the humidity climbs higher and bath towels don't dry. The skies go leaden and it's soggy and everyone's ready to burst, but then Brad gives rain. It pounds. Gutters and underpasses fill with water and cars have to creep through to lessen the wake. It rains for hours. Folks go to bed and listen to water run off the roof and onto the patio, and they know when they wake up the storm is over and the weather has shifted west again. Pointed winds blow steady. Flags stretch flat as stamps, and crosswinds push against cars. The same afternoon of that day the final turn is made and north winds bring cold air, dry, bright, scoured clean. The temperature has dropped twenty degrees, and people put on jackets and marvel at everything. Lydia and Brad go to the grocery. Strangers thank him.

Lydia lowers the air-conditioning in the den to fifty-five degrees and makes herself a sandwich and a Gimlet, watching Stephanie the whole time from the kitchen. Stephanie is wearing a striped blouse and a red jacket. Her nails are short and polished the same red. The last story of the night is about a man who holds the record for the longest hiccuping fit in the world. He began in 1992 and has fathered eight children. Lydia can't see Brad, but she hears him laugh off camera, thinks of him standing in front of his map, watching the pretty girl with the chilly eyes.

Lydia calls him. Eight, nine, ten rings. “What’re you doing?” she says.

“Working.”

"I see that." She takes a long sip. The gin is good. "Stephanie has on a gold necklace with a tiny shell hanging."

"I hear a high ball," he finally says. "Lydia?"

Condensation covers the windows of the house. The air feels artificial, wrong, but at least she can feel it. Lydia shivers a little, puts on a sweater.

When Brad gets home close to midnight Lydia is outside watering the lawn. He stands by the car and watches her. She waves the spray nozzle his way. "Get a drink," she says. "Join me."

The yards in their sub-division are turning brown. All week the neighbors have been asking her if she has any idea when rain will come. As if she knows something Brad doesn't and is keeping some bit of it to herself.

"The grass looks terrible," he says.

"Not so bad in the dark," she says.

He walks into the yard and touches the ground. "Wet," he says. He goes into the house and makes himself a rum and coke, comes back out to sit. "It's freezing in there."

"I made weather for you," she says, spritzing some oleander. "The neighbors are asking me about the rain."

"Tell them the skies are jammed-up and jelly-tight," he says and sits on the porch swing. "Tell them your husband's doing his best, but things aren't changing anytime soon."

"Yeah," Lydia says. Her thoughts sound small, grumpy. She has more just like that. "Scottie's birthday is next week."

"I remember."

"I was thinking we'd barbecue. Invite some of his friends. His baseball coach. A few of the neighbors. You could drop invitations in mailboxes. Maybe you want some people from the station?"

"Maybe," he says. Brad takes a sip of his drink and pats the place beside him.

*

Stephanie calls for Brad the next morning and Scottie answers and hollers her name. Brad starts in the kitchen, but moves to the back of the house.

"Problem?" Lydia says, when he returns.

“Stephanie needs to know the safe neighborhoods. We just offered her a five-year deal, apparently." He has on a baseball cap and takes it off, squeezes the bill. "Will you show her around?"

Lydia pulls a carton of yogurt from the fridge, tosses the lid in the garbage and chokes down a spoonful. "Busy."

"I'll do Scottie and baseball practice. You can pick him up when you're done."

Lydia looks, but Brad is not giving in so she hits redial and introduces herself, offers to tour Stephanie around New Orleans. Brad watches and listens, a happy look on his face.

Lydia crosses to him and nibbles his lip like Stephanie might.

*

Stephanie lives in a rented shotgun on Annunciation. She's on the steps when Lydia drives up. The women shake hands, and Stephanie asks if she wants to come in but Lydia shakes her head.

"Want a Diet Coke for the road, then? I'm burning up."

"Please," says Lydia. There’s violet plumbago in clay pots on her porch and it’s struggling. Lydia pokes around in the soil.

When Stephanie walks back out, Lydia says "You're taller than I thought." "Short-waisted." She has on a gray tank top, cropped black jeans and tight black boots. Her legs are as long as Scottie is tall.

They look for places Uptown. Lydia drives grand old streets tunneled by oaks. The homes are stately, the gardens lush. Every one has security company sign stuck in the grass. Stephanie is concerned. "I come in around midnight," she says.

"I hear you've brought new life to the set."

"Your husband's my buddy. I love his doodles."

"Doodles?" says Lydia.

"You know, cartoons of our heads. He makes my teeth huge."

"No kidding," Lydia says. She can't imagine Brad drawing cartoons.

Stephanie takes a folded sheet of paper out of her purse to show Lydia. Brad's filled it to the edges with funny faces. "Ink smudges," she says and wraps the work back up carefully.

"That's a keeper," says Lydia. She turns down Louisiana by the St. Thomas Housing Project. Wonders if she should drive through on the chance a stray bullet hits one of them in the brain and decides this.

“Maybe you’d like the Warehouse District,” Lydia says. “Underground parking, security cameras. Single people live there."

Stephanie sips her Coke and agrees. "Not that I have time for a social life," she says.

They work their way through that district, past condominium conversions named for the sugar, cotton, rice that was once stored there. Wrought iron balconies hold flowery window boxes, spill over with bougainvillea. Stephanie looks up at the buildings and writes down realtors and addresses on a small pad. Lydia looks up, too, and pictures herself, too, with her lover at her door. She takes Stephanie home and doesn’t go in for the glass of wine, says she has to pick Scottie up from baseball practice.

*

Coach Wynn is pitching to her son, working with him because this is Scottie's first year of kid pitch and he's afraid to bat because kids are getting beaned. "I throw harder than any of the delinquents you'll face," his coach tells him.

"Yeah, but you throw straight," says Scottie.

Lydia stands at the fence and prays he'll crack one out of the infield.

Scottie swings and misses, pounds home plate with his bat, sets his jaw and then does smack it, loud, and there's jubilation. Lydia hollers, Coach jumps off the ground, and Scottie runs the bases with his arms down, palms out, like a world cup soccer player.

After practice Lydia thanks his coach. "You're good with him," she says and extends her hand. He grabs hers with both of his and his fingers vine around her wrist and stay a moment.

"Great kid."

*

Lydia and Scottie sit on the sofa and watch the news together. He holds a bowl of popcorn in his lap.

Stephanie's thrown her pencil at Brad and hit him in the leg. He's limping around.

"Do you like her?" Scottie asks, wrinkling his forehead.

"No, do you?"

Brad is doing a routine about other states that have weather. “There are storms in Texas and gale force winds in New York and San Francisco is 100% fogged in.

When they were first married, Brad would practice his cities and towns in the mirror by pointing to places on Lydia. She would stand there and try to be still. A giggling topography.

"Des Allemands. Windy, windy," he'd say, dropping his hand down by her hip. Then, he'd try a wiping gesture over her neck: "Things are stirring up in Jackson. And in Chalmette --," he'd say, aiming for her navel.

"Missed," she'd say taking his hand and pointing it for him. "And it's chilly in Gentilly -- do you know where Gentilly is, Brad?"

Scottie falls asleep on the sofa and Lydia flips around channels, watches the weather on WGN from Chicago. High winds are blowing off the lake and the current temperature is 67 degrees. The meteorologist is standing on Michigan Avenue. A boulevard of peonies. The New Orleans summer is too muggy for peonies, but Lydia would like to grow them.

Coach Wynn calls Lydia to reschedule next Monday's practice. He's going out of town. He apologizes for calling late; she's last on the list. They drift into conversation about Scottie, his daughter in college, his ex and her shenanigans. Lydia pictures a madcap like Lucille Ball. His name is Warren. He pronounces it "Worn". Lydia tells him what she'll do when Scottie gets older. Landscape architecture, organic lettuces, something dirty. He laughs. She's clever to him because he doesn't know her. Brad clicks in, his office number's flashing on the caller ID and she puts Warren on hold.

"Hey! Who're you talking to?"

"Coach Wynn.

"Oh, well, a bunch of us are going for drinks to celebrate Stephanie's contract, okay?"

"Sure."

She clicks back to Warren and she wants to keep talking, wants to watch the news but not alone, so she asks him to put on the same channel. She mutes her TV and listens through the phone. Mortises are changing behind Stephanie. High stakes testing for fourth graders, murder on St. Claude, trouble for the insurance commissioner.

"Do you like her?" she asks him.

"Kind of plastic," he says. "Killer eyes, though."

The sports guy decides to try the weather so Brad goes to sit with Stephanie. The camera cuts to the sports guy who is making a mess, then back to Brad who's whispering something to Stephanie.

“What do you do for a living?" she says.

"I'm a banker," he says.

She pulls her chair close to the TV and covers Brad with her bare foot, feels the tickle of static that coats the screen.

*

Next day, Lydia picks up Warren in her car and they drive across Lake Pontchartrain to Mandeville. The Causeway is twenty-four miles long, America's longest bridge. Lydia blasts the radio and opens the sunroof of her Toyota Camry. Warren puts his hand on her thigh and taps three fingers to the music.

“Do you play the piano?” she says.

“Cornet.”

"That's like a trumpet?"

"Shorter, with a bigger bell."

Lydia laughs and they eat sunflower seeds and throw wet shells up and out of the car. The drive gives them a 360-degree look at the water. The deepest part is only fourteen feet so most days it’s all chop, but today the surface is even. Brown pelicans fly beside them and follow the line of the bridge.

“Where to, Coach?”

“You choose.”

They ride along the Tchefuncte River where cypress trees stand in water, draped in Spanish moss that’s stiff as tinsel. “Spanish moss is 90% water, so without rain it's hurting. It's part of the pineapple family,” Warren says. "A bromeliad."

She finds a shacky café with a parking lot made of oyster shells and a building that’s long, low and white. Inside, the place is paneled in dark wood, and deep-sea fish are mounted on the walls.

Warren orders beers for them, points at a marlin with a sail fin as big as a windshield. “Don’t you want to know the story behind that one?”

“Maybe the abridged.”

"Marlin are sensitive to vibration. Your propeller and engine create certain noises under the water, which are known as the boat's "harmonics". A boat that has a nick in a propeller or a bend in a shaft will create turbulence, ruining the harmonics. If you're going to have a chance at tagging a marlin, you have to make sure your boat is properly tuned, have any vibration problems addressed."

“Hmm.” Lydia touches his hand on the tabletop plays with the tips of his fingers.

"Marlin get upwards of 500 pounds."

"I love weight," she says.

At twilight, they head home across the Causeway with Lydia driving. Thousands of purple martins roost under the span of the bridge at dusk so birds are darting around. Their flight is random. The police have set up plastic hurricane fences on the ends and in the middle to keep birds from being killed. Lydia sees a jumbled cloud of martins coming at the car, watches one break loose and she hits it. It thumps the windshield, dull as a tennis ball, and bounces off the side. Warren throws his hands in front of his face.

“Jesus God,” he says. “Slow down.”

"Can't. Cars behind me." Lydia runs the windshield washer and wiper, trying to erase the pink stain on the glass. She can't see and she's crying. Warren puts his hand on her arm. "Steady, now. Let me drive?"

They pull into the crossover. Warren presses her hands between his own. He has dark eyes that hold on to hers longer than necessary. "I have a car birds ignore," he says.

"I hit a deer once," she says. "He was standing in the woods, still, and then he ran at my headlights. His eyes were huge."

"They're dumb that way," Warren says. "I hit a dog when I was in college. I didn't stop because I was in a bad neighborhood. Like people would rob me with this dog suffering in the road. I hate that."

Lydia takes his hands in her own. She kisses him and he doesn't take over. It's her kiss. His eyes are closed and his face is quiet, lovely, tinted gray by the causeway lights. She wants to keep him in her car, in the trunk so she can run out in the middle of the night and see him, but she has to go home.

*

Scottie's birthday party starts at five and the house is ready. It's 4 o'clock, early for a drink, but Lydia makes herself a daiquiri and goes to sit in the driveway. Paper plates, buns, plastic cutlery, condiments lined up, a pickle tray and lots of napkins. She watches the tops of the trees to see if air's moving around up there. It isn't. The sky is white.

Scottie walks up with two snake casings draped over a stick.

"Where'd you find those?" Lydia asks, jumping back.

"In the street. There's one that's been run over about a hundred times. Come see." They go and look at the snake. It's in that curvy s-shape, but flat as a tattoo. "They're coming out of the grass, Mom, looking for water," Scottie says.

"How are you so smart?" she asks.

He says, “Just am.”

Some of the neighbors arrive early. They bring their own cocktails in unbreakable glasses. Scottie's friends start to dribble in, dropped off by parents who are reluctant to stay until Lydia offers them a beer or a glass of wine. Warren walks up the driveway carrying a bottle wrapped in newspaper. He waves it at Lydia. "New Zealand," he says.

There's music playing and people are sitting in lawn chairs. Brad is at the grill, flipping hamburgers and hot dogs. Someone brought deer sausage and he pokes the links with a fork. Scottie and his friends have set up a water carpet and they take turns skimming across it different ways.

Coach Wynn is sitting alone in the garage and Lydia walks over. "How are you?" he says, raising his eyebrows.

"Partly cloudy." She offers him a sip of her daiquiri and he takes the glass from her hand, pleased.

"When you watch Brad on the news, do you see what I see?" she says.

"That a trick question?" He rocks his shoulders a little. "Think you can get me Stephanie Russell’s autograph?"

"Fuck you." Lydia puts her drink down. "Stand up a minute." She puts her finger on his sternum. "If this is Iowa, then where's Kansas?"

"Hell if I know."

"Correct," she says.

Stephanie shows up, surrounded by the some of the station's producers and production assistants. Brad heads over to tell them all hello.

Lydia walks down the driveway. "Here we are again."

Stephanie gives her a hug. "I decided on the old Cotton Mill. Couldn't say no to fourteen foot ceilings."

"Who could?" Lydia looks over her shoulder at the kids and the leaky garden hose and the sloggy lawn. "We're breaking the law, here."

"I won't tell."

Brad takes Stephanie and his co-workers away to the bar he's set up outside. He pours drinks, then signals Stephanie to follow him into the house.

Lydia waits and then goes to find them. He's in the den showing her a book. The door's opened a crack. The room is quiet and Brad's whispering.

Lydia goes back out to the party. She's light-headed and remembers she hasn’t eaten all day. People need to eat. "Someone go first," she says. One of Scottie's friends runs by and she grabs him by the shoulders and pushes him too hard toward the food. The kid falls and picks himself up, looks at her like she's nuts.

Brad and Stephanie come out the house and people are walking over to meet her, timidly, to ask her a question about how she got started, where she grew up, to tell her she’s prettier in person. Lydia looks around the yard for Warren. He’s got the football. The boys are going out for long passes and Scottie’s waving his arms like crazy so he’ll throw it to him.

Stephanie's digging in her purse and she pulls out a video tape and waves it at the crowd. "Wanna see our blooper reel?"

Brad brings people in the den. Sofa and chairs are full, neighbors and parents squeezed together, so the last ones in grab places on the floor, sit cross-legged. Lydia leans in the doorway, would rather be outside with Warren and the kids.

The tape is a success. People laugh at every flub: the giggling fits and the blown lines and rude words, the behind-the-scenes stuff when the show goes to commercials, how Brad’s face gets patted with powder.

“Pretty boy,” says one of the dads.

Brad's standing behind Stephanie.

“Your tie's jumping," she says, backing her shoulders into him. He steadies her, keeps his hands on her for a moment.

His hands are off her shoulders now but all Lydia can see is Stephanie straddling his hips. She moves through the crowd, maneuvers around the floor-sitters. "I have a tape," she says. She kneels and pushes in the tape. It's too late to stop what she's doing. She's jumped out of the plane and she's free-falling, a speck up there, flat on her stomach, spinning clockwise.

"What're you doing, Lydia," Brad says.

Lydia shuttles through reruns of CHIPS for Scottie, an Animal Planet on one-bite-you're-dead spiders, and the news. There's a moment she's looking for, where Stephanie makes snoring sounds while Brad's doing the weather and he's stopped, thrown his head back to laugh. Lydia finds it, rewinds it and plays it again, freeze-frames his mouth as he tilts his head. His teeth are even and his eyes are caught not quite open, not quite closed, like in his orgasms. Lydia taps Brad's face on the screen and turns to the group.

"What do you think?" she says. People laugh nervously, looking for the mistake. “Come on. What do you see there, with his head like that? His eyes like that. What does that remind you of?" There's confusion by the neighbors, lots of squirming.

"Jesus, Lydia," Brad says. He's stepping over people.

“This, too.” Lydia is on a roll, humiliated and certain. She finds another moment where Stephanie winks at Brad, rewinds it, slows it so that Stephanie's lid looks heavy and she's struggling to bat her eye.

"Cut it out, will you?" Brad says, getting to the front of the room. He hits the power button.

People are leaving the den to find their kids in the yard. Scottie's in a panic and pleads for his friends to stay. "I haven't opened presents." He runs into the middle of the street and yells, does goofy jumping jacks in an attempt to wave down pals. Warren steps in and stops him, puts his hand on Scottie's shoulder, guides him back to the yard. Lydia sees this from the window.

Brad's pacing. "What's wrong with you?" he says, stopping in front of her, standing in her face.

"I'm not making this stuff up," Lydia says.

"This isn't proof," he says.

"Who said anything about proof?"

Brad walks around her, picks the car keys off the desk and leaves without another word.

Warren stays to help Lydia clean up after the party. He crushes cans under foot and puts them in the recycling bin. Lydia picks up paper plates, pushes plastic cups into small towers. Scottie's snakeskins are on the patio table and she holds them across the palm of her hand so they won't crack. He's been in his room crying and has fallen asleep. She goes into the house and pins the casings to the wall over his desk so he will see them from his bed when he wakes. In the low light, they look like lenticular clouds, the kind that only form over mountain ranges.

She and Warren drag Hefty bags out to the street. The night smells fine, rich with the smell of midnight jasmine and sweet olive. Lydia sits in a folding chair and listens to the owl that lives in their oak as it heaves itself from one branch to another. He's been there since they bought the house. Warren pulls up a chair and sits in front of her, leans in to kiss her.

"I'm an ass," she says.

"I missed the show," he says. "Reviewers say it sucked."

"Thank you for that."

He kneels, unbuttons her all over, starting at the top, pulls her sweater apart, traces small bones with his lips. "Look at me," he says, and she does. "Are you okay with this?"

"With more," she says.

"Stand," he says, and he unzips her pants, pulls them down and cold zipper scrapes her leg. She is happy under the night sky. Everyone's present. The owl's watching, hooting for its mate to come back on the branch. The cicadas and crickets are all business. The tallest pines are moving a little, or maybe it's her imagination. She touches Warren's head to keep her balance and wants this moment and the next one, too, enough miles of these to get to Houston or Chicago or anywhere.

*

The next night, Scottie wants to watch his dad on the 6 o'clock news but he doesn't want Lydia beside him so she stands in the doorway.

The build-up of afternoon heat is causing isolated thunderstorms. Brad looks lost and sways in front of the big map, makes loose circles with his hand over areas where things might happen. Lydia wonders if he's been drinking. He's drawn a little sailboat in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. There's a stick boy on deck and a woman with big teeth and bubbles for hair. Scottie turns around to see if his mom notices.

It's a school night, but Lydia takes Scottie to Putt-Putt. He likes the arcade more than the miniature golf, and runs around from game to game, winning strings of tickets long enough to wear around his neck. Lydia sits at a table, eats cold pizza. She thinks about Warren. His bare feet are in her lap and they are clean, pale, the skin so smooth. She forgets about Scottie, which gives him time to win five thousand tickets.

*

Lydia awakens at four a.m. and needs a glass water. She walks into the den, is startled to hear breathing. Brad's asleep on the sofa, still dressed. Lydia smells his face and neck. His skin's rank, like he's sweated and then air-dried. Perfume and vodka and sex.

Brad stirs in his sleep, fumbles to sit up. "Lydia?" He rubs his eyes.

She pushes her hair back with her hands because they're shaking. "Why are you here?"

"Stop." He lies back down on his side and doesn't look at her. "You've always been halfway out the door. Hate to overshadow your suffering, but that's what I think."

Lydia wants to fold in half. "Don't twist it. Are you fucking Stephanie?"

"It's on the tape you made, isn't it? You have scientific proof." Brad stands up, puts Lydia's tape in the VCR. Fast forwards to a close up of Stephanie and points to her scarf. "There's a hickey underneath. The same shape as my mouth." Fast forwards to himself standing in front of the map. "I have a hard on. See, sideways?" Brad's points to his pants. "Just from sharing the set with her."

Lydia says. "I don't want this. Why'd you marry me?"

"So you wouldn't break my heart."

*

At five in the morning Brad's gone and Lydia's standing in the driveway watching for the sun. She goes into Scottie's room to cover him with a blanket. He's on top of the sheets. Freckles dot his cheeks and continue into his hair. He showered last night before bed and she bends over to smell his clean hair. His hand is on his chest, nails still dirty. She lies down beside him, stares at the Derek Jeter poster on his ceiling. She would like to sleep for a minute. She would like to pin a poster of Coach Wynn on her ceiling.

He stirs. "You woke me up," he says.

“I can do that.”

“Did you stay here all night?”

“Maybe.” She looks at him. His eyes are closed. “What do you say we go find some weather, you and me?”

“School,” he says.

"I'll write you a note."

She throws clothes into the trunk of the Camry, tugs Scottie’s arm and they get in wearing pajamas. She drives out of their neighborhood, accelerates down narrow streets, past shotgun cottages, the middle school, and Zuppardo's Supermarket, shoots up the Interstate ramp heading west where she believes there’s always rain. They drive toward Hammond. Wind pushes against the car, stands of pine trees are rocking, but the windshield's dry. Scottie plays his Game Boy, volume up. The inside of the car sounds like a spaceship. Around Denham Springs, the highway’s shiny. She’s right. Rain’s come and gone, but cars driving toward them have their lights and wipers on and they’re exquisitely wet. Lightning is veining on the right. Lydia hits the controls and opens all the windows. Cooler air blasts through. She looks at her son, squeezes the place above his knee. “Cut it out,” he says, swiping at her hand without looking away from his game.

Out the windshield it’s past dawn but the light has gone as far as it can go. The sky's getting darker so the day ahead looks more finished than new, strange, a fresh kind of thing, a day turned on its head.


Pia Zaninelli Ehrhardt lives in Mandeville, Louisiana with her husband and son. She just the other day quit her job of twenty years in advertising, and is now looking for work, something little and part-time, in a place that smells good.

 

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