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Christine Crutchfield

Pray for Rain

 

She came with the drought.  Summer fires from hick towns pushed smoke at us, burning tire smell.  Hazy air or the idea of haze came from that smell, from her with her ballerina doll feet.  Her compact white body, childís big belly, and stray hairs like mile markers to the best parts.

Itís the second summer of the drought and Iím thinking of those fires, which arenít happening or at least not the same.  Everyoneís forgotten but me and those who lost their farms or homes or lungs.  Iím not in drought, Iím filling myself with liquid.  After a sip of beer I take a sip of the tea she left, for cleansing, to force us together again inside me.  So much liquid I just stay in the bathroom, woodpecker hammering outside my window.

My brain is beating in the mirror.  Alcohol and caffeine dehydrate, and of course Iím in a drought.  My family preacher talked about this, sin taking you farther from Jesus so you see that you want but not what you want.  You take and you want and you take.  Me, Iíll take whatís gone.

Of course Iím thinking of Jesus.  Hadnít given Him a second thought until that little atheist showed up on my doorstep.

She didnít show up on my doorstep, really, but on the barstool next to me asking for half a beer if I could manage, parting the corner of a coaster into layers like book pages.  She was stuck here because a road trip with her boyfriend went sour.  Iíve never been here, she said.  I have a lot to learn about this place.

There was the hint of accent on her, thoughtless vowels that sounded like rushing through the cold.  New England.  And, though she was quiet, I remember thinking I saw harshness in her and her lack of thank yous.  She didnít say much else, nodding, almost smiling, until 3am when she said she needed a place to stay.  Even if I had known stay was exactly what she meant, looking at her gritty and sleepy and drunk, I would have said yes, of course, yes. Iíll take care of you, small white thing.

A million questions banged at my skull, but there are some things you just trust.

Alcohol builds fast, and thereís a collection of too much oranging piss in the toilet I wonít flush.  She taught me not to.  When I forget the seat, everything smells and feels rusty.  She would be proud to see the rules I still follow.  No flushing or watering and no AC for other reasons.  Also, she could care less.

 She didnít want to be taken care of, found ways to pay her way.  I would come home from work to new colorsóred, orange, yellow fruits she placed on my tongue until winter.  Breads and bottles of wine that didnít come from Ingles, that sheíd gotten on her long walks to God knows where.  Friends told me theyíd seen my little mystery walking, on the highway even, though I think that was just gossip, legend.  I didnít ask where dinner came from or how she paid for it, just tore chunks and took sips, instinct closing my eyes each time.

Taste.  She had taste and mix tapes from the lover on the road.  But she loved the music for technique and not the push behind the voice, not for what she couldnít analyze.  She hated religion and God and believers, too.  And I didnít have much organized Jesus left in me, but I canít deny what I learned from my familyís religion, which would kick this bottle out of my hand.

I wanted to tell her these things.  That back home we played tambourines, women in long flowered dresses jumping with arms to the ceiling and men sweating through their suits speaking languages you couldnít write down.  And the Spirit was there.  You couldnít prove it, but I played the tambourine so hard I sprained my wrist once and I saw my Aunt Rhonda fall to the carpet and shake so hard they put a blanket over her.  She sat up and spoke French, real French, which sheíd never learned.

I may have given Him up a long time ago, didnít make it to high school with a tongue of fire on my head, but I canít deny it was there.  White bird sent to us.

I didnít tell her these things.  Silence was sacred to her.

The tea and beer are bitter and you notice dirt in tiles more when you spend your time here.  I read about a woman in Kansas who spent two years in the bathroom and her ass skin fused with the toilet, but Iím not there yet and Iím not crazy yet either.  Itís only been two days of drinking in the bathroom and only in daylight.  Iíll have to go back to work soon.  Iíd be the only one to know if I flushed the toilet.

She didnít need anything from me but walks.  She craved walks, especially that summer.  We breathed burnt air and her doll feet trespassed onto green lawns to turn off sprinklers.  Tiny harsh woman yelling, You donít water on Tuesdays, to people with hoses.  Weíre in a drought, sheíd say and kick mailboxes in the green lawns that were wet again in the morning.

No one waters now.  We all figured out it was bad for real this time.  No clay, only red dust.  The lakes are shrunken, stumps of once-drowned trees poking out, dry land where water was with cracks looking like a road map.  Let it mellow, people say now, but I learned these things from her a year ago.  Sheíd reach to turn off our shower while I was just getting started.

I was a novelty to her because sheíd moved down here and Iíd moved up.  I was part of her education, but it wasnít that simple.  Not when she consented to curl on my mattress on the floor with shoe dust collected in the sheets, and itís not for every man a harsh woman locks her face into his neck and cries without saying why or needing him to ask. 

I take another piss and wish we were in a flood.  The levees break and goodbye house, mama, old world quick.  Baptism by force.  But droughts sneak up slow so you donít see what youíre doing is hurting you, until your flowers are twigs and your bathroom smells like piss and the bottom of the bottle is warm and the dregs of the tea are cold.  I thought sheíd stay through the drought, which could have meant forever. 

Our sounds were outside sounds, the leaving and returning of birds, dead leaves under boots and dead grass under toes.  Her yelling only showed up outside.  Inside was for silence, which I took to mean real.  Looks and nods when we needed something and no need to ask for preferences.  Just words when I was uncomfortable or too thick to get it.  Silence like fences but not cages.  Silence like security, which I took to mean good.  Sometimes I felt the need to ask her about her past, especially after work or with friends who asked about my little hidden woman, but I didnít.

She talked on walks.  Usually about the earth.  The fires wonít stop until we get rain, she said.  Hurricane season might stop them. 

Letís pray for storms with names, I said. 

Letís hope.

Same thing. 

Praying has God attached, she said.

Aunt Rhonda said faith is something you know when you canít prove it.  Itís better than hope, she said.  Hope is just crossing your fingers.

There are no fires on the news this summer, only crime and drought.  Weíre moving closer to sustainable they say, but Iím sure weíll ruin it again in time.  A breeze kicks into the window and I breathe the honeysuckle that reminds me of growing up.  Guess I grew up crazy.  Guess I should have known I canít last much longer than winter with a woman.

Why does she never come out with us? friends asked.  Who is she really?  What do you really know about her?

And I showed her doubt.  Why are you here? I asked.

Why are you, she said.  Iím a good fuck.

But no, that scratches the surface.  If she decided to walk on my brain with her tiny feet, if she asked to sew her body to mine, I would have agreed.

But I started thinking a woman is something youíre supposed to know, not just something you trust. 

Iíd rub her scaly hands while she slept, flaking on the palms as if she knew manual labor.  Where did you come from? I said to her closed eyes every night until one night she answered, It doesnít make a difference.

I wasnít asking what region or city.  She knew that.  I couldnít deny the want between us, never feeling full.  I guess this is when I thought to save her, shot down clay pigeon.  Save myself more.   

Those services were the last thing to make me feel complete.  It wasnít in the sermon, though that worked for most.  It wasnít in the scripture but I remember an understanding, like walking by a puddle and first seeing puddle and then whatís above you.  What affected me more was the laying of hands at the end.  I told her that.   People would come to you full of love and press their hands to your head and you could feel a warmth in the clamminess, a tingle in your forehead a few minutes after.  Completeness I started losing growing up. 

So you think you were touched by God, she said.

But that wasnít it.  It was just the power of all that belief.

I donít understand why weíre talking about this, she said.

Well, what about how you were raised? I said.

What about it.

If there still are fires, maybe we can keep them going.  Maybe we could let them burn all the way up and just start over.  Fires are like floods that way.

I wrecked our silences.

Whatís faith, she said.  Do you have faith Iíll be here tomorrow. 

No, I said. 

Good, she said.

Things were going sour and things couldnít go sour.  I could fix things with words.  There were only so many ways I learned to fix things.  I thought about the church our preacher built in Clayton back when there were just a couple rusty bars and a Dairy Queen there.  Our family brought money every Sunday and I even paid with my allowance one time, though Iíd stopped believing at that point.  It just felt right.  Iíd never seen the church but I knew where it was.  You got to it through the woods.  I thought about this walk with her, an upward walk, that church built on a mountain so you can worship closer to the Lord.  Though I suppose leaving it you feel like youíre descending farther.

The governor asked us to pray for rain.

When silences stopped feeling right, I took her on a trip to the mountains, and we stopped at Lake Lanier to walk around.  We found the swollen base of an ancient house, paled wood and busted out windows. 

This house is reclaiming its town, she said and held my hand, happy to see the damage.  She took pictures.

She had me walk to the other side of the lake so she could take a picture of me.  A souvenir, I thought, and I walked with my back to her thinking she could be walking the opposite direction and I would turn around to dried lake only.  I didnít let myself turn around, kept walking with my back burning.  When I got to the other side, I saw the flash across the lake.

Letís drive up to Clayton and take a hike through the woods, I said.  Itíll be cool and green.  And different, I added.  Different from what youíve seen around here.

We hiked, me spending too much time watching the rocks on the ground to see the leaves on the trees.  She didnít hold my hand.  She stopped for birds and dead trees but took no pictures.

I couldnít appreciate them.  I was thinking of my grandparents.  They wanted so badly for me to receive the gift of speech.  I remember lying on their living room carpet with oil on my head waiting for the Spirit to tell me what to say.  I breathed in hard and closed my eyes and felt all the other eyes over me so hopeful.  I started talking baby talk, making sounds like I was supposed to, until I was somewhere else, somewhere far back in my brain, out the top of my hair watching my grandmother pressing her knuckles to her mouth and my grandfather raising his hands.  I babytalked until I was crying and everyone congratulated me for accepting the Spirit.  Except my father who stayed in the recliner, Pentecostal by tradition more than belief.

I almost walked past her because she saw it before I did.  Stopped and faced me. 

Whatís that? I said. 

You know, she said. 

A church, huh? 

Obviously.

I started walking on but she stayed, her eyes and mouth squeezed smaller.  Letís explore, I said.  Donít you want to see a service?

She shook her head, looked at the trees.

Talk about education, I offered and walked back to her, took her hand.  She pulled back, and I tugged a little harder until she consented, a leashed dog.  We walked up the pebbled drive, the warble of women singing, menís quiet monotone underneath.  The church was sturdy unstained wood with sturdy unstained people inside turning to face the windows.

She let go of my hand.  Walked backwards.

Whatís wrong? I said but she kept moving back.  Itís okay, I said.  Iíll just go in and look for a while, and you can stay right here if you want.

She crossed her arms but stopped backing up, and I kept my eyes on her until I got inside, not sure what to do next.

It was tamer in there than what I remembered, but they had no hymnals, knew the songs by heart.  I had missed the sermon and everyone looked, some smiling and beckoning me to the front.  I waved, stayed in the back next to a few women raising their arms with eyes closed.  One whispered in tongues, her face smooth and peaceful from feeling so sure about the world around her and the world after her.

I looked back to the window, found my wounded dove peeking in with arms still crossed.  I smiled at her, tried to laugh.  Look what a joke this is, I wanted to say.  She looked away.

An usher hooked his arm around me.  Welcome, he said and led me toward the front to the Altar Call, to the end.

Itís okay, I said to the usher.  Iím not a new believer.  But he kept his hand on my back.

I hated this part as a teenager, all the touching, but I guess Iíd come to miss it.  The singing was louder, the people flowing toward me, children spinning with each other in the corner.  The usherís thick hand patted my back, and I felt like a boy again sweating through my Sunday shirt. 

I looked to her again, shifting weight on her little feet.

A lady put her warm pink palms to my forehead.  Welcome, brother, she said.  The Lord thanks you for accepting Him into your heart.

I felt the ants in my stomach and the bubble in my throat of the past, squeezed the womanís wrists.

I turned to the window to smile, but saw only swaying trees, only a group of parishioners moving toward the altar, the preacher coming toward me with linen suit and ecstatic closed eyes.

I ducked by them, moved my head and stood on my toes until I found her, about to disappear down the hill.  Wait, I yelled.  She didnít hear me or didnít care to and kept walking.

The preacher placed his hand on my back, but I pushed away from him.  Thank you, I said.  I have to go.  I fought the congregationís forward flow, an ungrateful salmon.  Thank you.  Iím sorry.  Bless you.  And I ran after her down the hill.

I breathed hard when I got to her but she didnít turn around.  Youíre crazy, she said.

Ask me, ask me what they did, I thought.  Ask me what it felt like.  But I said, It was a joke.  It was supposed to be funny.  Iím sorry. 

At Waffle House on our way home, she said, People are still ignorant enough to believe this.  Itís pathetic.  She poked a three-pointed path down her omelet with her fork.

Aunt Rhonda used to complain about the transplant Claytonians, never a real part of the town, ruining the mountains just to see them.  Thatís all visitors do, anyway, she said.  Visit.

When I look out the window, our life is everywhere.

You, clothesline, arenít you backwoods customary and so progressive.  All those sunny stiff clothes that Iíll never take down.

And you, vinegar spray bottle, donít you clean up responsibly and leave that sour smell everywhere.  Better smell than piss.

And you, white bird, didnít you leave too early.  You still have a lot to learn.

Iím not crazy and Iím not stupid.  If I was stupid, I wouldnít be drinking in the bathroom.  Iíd be calling the police to find her.

Faith is something you know when you canít prove it.  Sure, itís not even a full week and she could be on one of those walks.  But itís only hope sheíll be back.  Itís faith sheís gone to her cold wet New England with more education in her path.

The woodpecker is working hard for his meal and I canít be baptized without rain and I canít be redeemed with alcohol in my blood.

Sheís gone, and I flush the toilet.

Iím stretching on the bathmat with my arms as far as theyíll reach, shaking the way I did as a boy.


Christine Crutchfield is a native of Atlanta and an MFA candidate in the UMass Amherst Program for Poets and Writers, where she serves as an editorial assistant for Massachusetts Review. Publications appear in Susquehanna Review, Duck & Herring Co. Pocket Field Guide, Chattahoochee Review and Seeing Other People.

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