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Jane Armstrong

Putting Water Into the Air

Cara watched from the back porch as Das dragged a futon across her drought-parched lawn, past the tangle of desiccated sticks that used to be her garden. Das, as he called himself–his mail came addressed to Walter Gilbert–was Cara’s tenant, renting her guesthouse with his 14-year-old son, Chayda. The back of the main house faced the front of the guesthouse and Cara spent her days reclining on a chaise longue, monitoring her tenants or sifting through the old magazines her husband brought home from his office. At one time, she might have asked Das what he was doing; she might have offered to help, but the months without rain had made her dull and shruggish. Everything in Flagstaff seemed the same to her, without color or interest, like the dark, dried palette in an unused box of watercolors.

But she had to keep an eye on Das. He was late paying the rent, as usual. He could be loading up his stuff to skip out or he could be taking his mattress to a swap meet to sell it for the rent money. For all the time she’d spent observing him, Cara couldn’t read Das. He styled his jet-black hair in a moussed-up bouffant thing and was fond of wearing vests with no shirt underneath and tight, very tight, black jeans. He was perpetually loading and unloading yardsale junk to and from his battered Dodge Dart while Chayda, the palest, skinniest adolescent in the world, sprawled out on the guesthouse steps, smoking.

Das let the futon thud to the ground, snapping a branch from Cara’s withered lilac bush as it fell. Cara couldn’t hear the quick, sharp sound of the break, but she felt it, cold piercing her chest. She brought her hands to her face, touching the drought-embossed skin—serrated lips, strafed forehead, crooked fissures around her eyes—an etched desert surface. Her dehydrated corneas burned and she squeezed her eyes shut when Das started yelling.

"Chay, get your ass out here and help me with this!"

Cara opened her eyes. Chayda wasn’t at his usual place. Das looked over his shoulder, toward the guesthouse, then pulled the futon over to the clothesline, one of the circular kind that whirligigs laundry in the wind. "Get out here, you little son of a bitch!" Das let the futon fold against his legs while he scoped the yard for Chayda.

Cara cringed when Das focused on her. She really didn’t want to get into it with him today.

He shouted to her across the yard. "Ms. Charleson, you see Chayda?"

Cara wanted to say that since it was before two in the afternoon, Chayda was probably still asleep, but she said, "No, I haven’t seen him today."

"Can you give me a hand?"

"I’m kind of busy here," she said. She looked down at the copy of Vanity Fair propped open on her lap. A beautifully emaciated woman wearing an evening gown and rubber boots hung on a tire swing.

"It’s really important." It was always important for Das. He was full of phony gravitas and one-liners from his bogus spirituality: The universe will provide.

Cara set the magazine aside and very slowly pushed herself up from reclining. Maybe the universe would provide the rent money. She felt the dry grass crunch beneath her bare feet as she walked over to the clothesline. "So what do you need?" she asked, a question too large for an answer.

Das bent his knees, making the futon double over at his feet. "I need to get this thing up high."

Cara didn’t understand. She stared at a clump of black hair that had escaped Das’s bouffant and lay limp against his forehead. "Are you trying to air your mattress out?"

"No. Aren’t you aware? There’s another fire up on the peaks. I’ve got to get this thing high, hose it down, really soak it. We’ve got to send some water for the fire fighters."

"What?"

"Everything’s so dry. There’s nothing to make clouds. The sky thirsts for water." Das hoisted the mattress over his head, stumbling backward under its weight.

"Das, put it down."

"The sky needs help. We must assist the sky."

"Yes. Right. I see." Cara had found it best to play along. "But we aren’t supposed to be using extra water. We’re under rationing regulations. If we could use water, my flowers wouldn’t be dead. And I’m really not sure that your wet mattress will stop a fire fifty miles away."

"Don’t you know how clouds work?" Das let the mattress drop, kicked at it with his pointed boot.

"Look, what I know is that my husband owns this property and he’s an attorney and he wouldn’t be happy if we got cited for a rationing violation. I also know that you are not going to hose your mattress in my backyard, on my clothesline. And the other thing I know is that your rent is a month late, so pay or start thinking about other arrangements."

"Fuck that."

"You really don’t need to talk to me that way, especially where your son might hear."

"My son? Have you heard his mouth?"

"Just pay the rent, OK?"

Das slicked his hand through his hair, looked at the ground and shook his head. "Yeah, sure, I’ll get it to you tomorrow."

"No. I need it today. I needed it a month ago."

"If you think seven units is what you need, then you got nothing to learn from me."

"OK. Great." Cara locked eyes with Das, gave him a flat stare. "You’re right. Seven hundred dollars is not what I need. What I need is for you to be gone by the end of the week."

Das bent down and grabbed the edge of the futon, dragged it toward his car and yelled again for Chayda.

When Cara walked away from Das she was surprised to feel her legs shaking. She might have been near tears, but it had been so long since she’d cried that she couldn’t quite place the sensation. But she knew she had to rest. She had to sit and think. Her garden was gone, so she slumped into a club chair in the den, fine particles of dust rising from the cushions as she let herself fall. She massaged her fingertips against her temples. A sharp pain kicked behind her dry eyes.

"That creep," she thought. "Who does he think he is?" She remembered the day Das answered the ad for the house to rent. Stephen wasn’t too keen on him; he thought Das seemed unstable. But Cara liked something about him. He reminded her of friends she’d had in college—naďve, slightly sideways artistic types who thought that wishing really could make it so.

But if wishing mattered, she wouldn’t be here. When they’d moved from Florida to Arizona twelve years before, Cara thought she’d die. She was six months pregnant and the altitude at 7000 feet left her weak and gasping. She didn’t know how to breathe air she couldn’t feel. Nor could she find beauty in a rocky land, the gradations of grays and taupes and cindery reds a pale excuse for color. Not even the green sweeps of ponderosa pines appealed to her.

She longed for lushness, for vibrancy, for hibiscus and orchids and birds of paradise and backyard grottoes floored with ferns, walled with vines, scented with jasmine, orange blossom, honeysuckle. And the ocean. She hadn’t felt its pull until she found herself landlocked. The nearest significant body of water was Lake Powell—a canyon filled with dammed water, a stagnant boating pool. The one time she and Stephen had made the three-hour drive there, she couldn’t even bring herself to dip her feet in the fetid water. She took one look and asked him to take her home.

And now, after twelve years of living in a place she knew would never be her home, she had a drought to endure. She reminded herself that the drought was really only an inconvenience for her. It wasn’t as if she and Stephen were farmers whose livelihood was threatened or as if Stephen was a Hot Shot risking his life to contain wildfires on the San Francisco peaks. Stephen Charleson was an Assistant U.S. Attorney who specialized in Native American law and Cara was his wife who stayed at home.

Home. After the baby was stillborn, Cara grouted and caulked and sanded and painted the rundown house they’d bought in the historic district across the street from the city park. She stripped and refinished the hardwood floors; measured, cut, and installed new moldings. She tiled the bathroom floors, resurfaced the clawfoot tubs. And although she knew the gesture was sentimental, she planted a garden. When she thought about the daughter they’d lost, the delphiniums, snapdragons, carnations, daisies and lilacs comforted her. For hours at a time, she’d lie on the hard ground at the border of alyssums, breathe them in, and listen for the low whir of the hummingbirds sipping the pinks and purples. But now her few square yards of color and fragrance had withered into gnarled, blackened rubbish.

The windows in the den opened to the garden, but Cara didn’t want to look at it. She settled back into the chair and pressed her palms against her closed eyes. At least Stephen wasn’t home to hear her arguing with Das. At least she didn’t have to listen to him, too.

Stephen was away; he often was. This time he was in Prescott, representing the government against a man accused of stealing Hopi artifacts, kwatsi—ceremonial kachina masks. Before Stephen left for the trial, he talked endlessly about the case, railing at the craven insensitivity of the defendant, his greedy misappropriation of the living gods of another culture. Cara just wanted Stephen to be quiet.

She rubbed her eyelids, opened them. She turned to look at the top shelf on the bookcase. Through blurred vision, she saw her small collection of kachina dolls. Stephen had given them to her. He knew the carved wooden figures were the only things Cara loved about the West. She admired their design—simple shapes forming complex patterns, geometric fields of bright turquoise, sunflower yellow, and coral red. Their faces, the rectangular black eyes, were strangely expressive.

Cara stared at the cow Waagasi, the owl Mongwu, and Hooli, the Crazy Rattle, their colors dulled by dust. She breathed deeply and exhaled toward the kachinas, quivering their feathers. Underneath her breath, she thought she heard whispering. The air was still, but the white feathers on the Crazy Rattle twitched. She heard the words in the hum of the silent room: white woman who whines white woman who whines . From what little Cara had learned of the Hopi religion, she knew the Hooli was a clown. She laughed, a dry little sound that barely left her throat.

Cara covered her face with her rough hands and wondered how she’d gotten to this place. Her head was throbbing, heavy with the weight of the three billion contingencies that conspired to bring her to this moment. Here she was, an uptight upper-middle-class bitch landlady, married to an absentee husband, childless, barren, living in a town she hated, spending her days moping and moaning because an incomprehensible meteorological phenomenon killed her carnations, and hallucinating about the gods of the indigenous culture.

But could her life have been any different? What if she’d gone to the University of Florida instead of Florida State and never met Stephen? Or what if she had gone to Florida State anyway but not taken that Literature of American Minorities class where she met Stephen? Or what if she’d kept that Housewares job at Burdines in the Palm Beach Mall and never gone to college? Or what if she hadn’t used the same laundromat as Stephen and what if he hadn’t helped her fold her sheets that time? Or maybe Stephen could’ve taken the bar in Florida? Or maybe she could’ve worn a blue dress instead of a red skirt that day Stephen folded the sheets. Or maybe she could've said no, you’re really not my type. Or maybe Stephen wouldn’t have been so perfect when the baby died, taking a leave of absence to be with Cara, bringing home books on coping with the loss of a child, holding her hand as they sat through bereavement group meetings at the hospice. Or maybe their child would’ve lived if she could just have breathed thin air. And maybe she could learn to see a rock for what it’s worth or maybe not blame the weather.

Cara uncovered her eyes and looked out the window. Chayda was limping barefoot across the lawn toward her back door, carrying a black plastic garbage bag. Cara opened the door just as Chayda reached the porch.

"What are you doing, Chayda? Dumping your trash on my porch?"

Chayda set the bag down. It rustled when it settled. Chayda held his right leg bent, the foot off the ground, and tried to balance on his left. "No, Miss Charleson. My dad sent me over to say he’s sorry. He wanted to give you this for downpayment on the rent." He kicked his right foot out, pointed it toward the garbage bag.

"Sit for a minute." Cara offered a wicker rocker, but Chayda lowered himself down to the edge of the porch. "What happened to your foot?"

"I got a blister on my big toe," he said. "Can I borrow a band-aid?"

"Sure. Just a second."

Cara went into the house, brought back cotton balls, hydrogen peroxide, and a box of band-aids. She sat next to Chayda. "OK. Give me your foot."

Chayda crossed his bone-thin right leg over his left and placed his dirty foot in Cara’s lap.

"Well, this is just a suggestion, but wearing shoes might help." A flap of skin hung loose from Chayda’s big toe, the skin beneath raw and purpled. Cara soaked a cotton ball with peroxide, squeezed it over the wound till the liquid foamed.

"Fuck. That stings." Chayda bent over, his stringy blond hair falling into his face, and blew on his toe.

"It does not. Don’t be a baby. A foulmouthed baby," Cara said. "And it’s important to keep this clean. I just read an article in Newsweek about a killer strain of Strep-A that’s going around. It can actually eat your skin off."

"Cool."

"No, really. Be careful. OK?" Cara wrapped a band-aid around the toe.

"Yeah, whatever," Chayda said, flexing his foot. "You aren’t wearing shoes."

"But I’m not leaving the house."

Chayda picked at the band-aid. "I see you from my bedroom. Why are you always reading all the time?"

Cara glanced at the remains of her garden. "I don’t know. Maybe because I want to be somewhere else."

"Who doesn’t." Chayda pulled his foot away, stood to go. "I’m going over to the park. I tell girls over there I live here. Your house is a babe fascinator."

"Great. That’s just the look I was going for." Cara laughed. "Chayda. What kind of name is that anyway? I’ve been meaning to ask."

"It means something stupid like "life." Ask my dad. He made it up."

Cara could see Das standing just inside the screen door of the guesthouse.

Chayda hopped toward the guesthouse.

"What’s in the bag?" Cara said.

"Dad said he got it for washing windows someplace downtown."

Cara pulled the black plastic bag to her and loosened the yellow twist tie. Inside were rolls of upholstery fabric remnants, bound by satin ribbons. She scrunched the bag down until she could see everything inside—brocades, chenilles, damasks, corduroys, sateens, velours, muslins, chintzes, of all textures and colors. She picked out a pastel floral chintz splashed with overblown roses and freesias, untied the red satin bow and unfolded the yardage across her lap, smoothed her hand along its shiny surface. She looked up to see Chayda step-hopping down the driveway, making his way slowly to the park.

"Hey, Chayda. Why don’t you try a rain dance?"

Chayda turned to look at her, said an exaggerated "ha ha," jumped up and down on his left foot, and whooped like a Hooli. He looked to the sky, held his hands up, palms out, and said, "Zero percent chance."

Cara touched the colors on her lap. "Chayda, would you come back here? I think I need you."

"What for?"

"Just come back here and I won’t make you move out."

Chayda ran back up the drive, both feet hitting the ground.

Cara gathered up the piece of chintz and draped it around her shoulders. She slid off the porch and went to the side of the house, unspooled the long garden hose from its pushcart rack, opened the water tap full out, and adjusted the spray nozzle to JET. Wearing the chintz like a cape of flowers, she dragged the hose over to her dead garden and flung the fabric down, splaying it across the parched hedge roses. She aimed the nozzle at the cloth and squeezed her fingers around the handle. The water blasted the fabric, soaking it down till it clung to the shape of the rose bushes.

Cara called to Chayda over the sound of the water pulsing against the chintz. "Take all that other cloth over to the park. Unfold it and put it on the tables and in the trees and on the benches. I’ll see if the hose stretches that far."

"I don’t think so."

Cara aimed the jet at Chayda and pounded him with water. He ran around the yard screaming until Das came outside.

Cara loosened her grip on the nozzle, letting the water trickle off. "Sorry, Das," she said. "Chayda wants to be a cloud."

Chayda shook the water from his corduroy shorts, sagging down past his hip bones. "Dad, she is sick."

Das scooped up the bundles of fabric from the porch and moved toward the park. "Nurturance wears many masks," he said. "Come on, Chay. Don’t be a shit."

Cara said, "I’ll be over in a minute." She pulled the hose down the driveway, to where the futon leaned against the Dart. She hosed the futon until it collapsed against the car with the weight of the water. Water flowed down the driveway and into the street. Cara followed the stream, cooling her feet in the puddles.

From where Cara stood at the end of her driveway, she could see Das and Chayda in the park, draping the wasted trees with fuchsia damask, daylily muslin, violet paisley, coreopsis velvet. She tugged the hose. It was still slack. It would reach the park and she could spray everything and the cloth would hold all the water until the air called it up.

Cara reset the nozzle to SHOWER and aimed it straight up into the air. She put her head back, breathed deeply, and waited for the water to fall back down and mist her face. Contingencies can be made, she thought, not just tolerated, and tomorrow she’d wake to a new set of circumstances. Police would be called. She’d be cited for violating city ordinances, disturbing the peace. Stephen would be notified. He’d be angry and remind her that he is an officer of the court.

But somewhere, Cara was sure, she’d make a cloud. And soon, there would be rain.


Jane Armstrong’s work has appeared in Newsweek, The North American Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, New Orleans Review, Blip Magazine Archive, and elsewhere. She is an infrequent commentator for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, and teaches at Northern Arizona University.

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