Amanda England

Amanda England has poetry appearing or soon to appear in The New Plains Review, The Houston Literary Review, Joyful, Foundling Review, and The Hedge Apple.

 

Waiting for the Rain (December 20, 2010. Issue 23.)

The sun is slinking slowly behind the city; the angry red rays a feverish infection spreading across a dying man's chest. Heat lightning crackles, frustrated and impotent. It carves dull creases in the sky and the booming thunder seems to ripple outward like waves in the humidity. I watch the sunset through the window over the sink while washing the dishes from a supper that was cooling on the table, thinking. My husband is “working late” again. Long past jealousy or humiliation, I simply accept the small gift of his absence. It allows me to spend the twilight hours calmly reading instead of listening to Jack’s rants about the decline of civilization. I finish with the dishes, dry my hands absently, and wander to the living room. Jack’s paper is laid out on the coffee table and I glance at it with a smile. My husband, the neighbors…all the decent folk are scandalized by Jackie Robinson’s success, but I privately think the young man deserves the MVP award after all the oppression he had to deal with; I understand oppression.

I make my way to the front porch, grateful for the protection the gloom provides from prying eyes. The heavy, sticky air caresses my skin, an unwelcome lover. I am restless, and I pace the small expanse of the porch, searching for the hint of a breeze. Around me, the busybodies of suburbia relax. Two houses down, Mrs. James sits silhouetted on her lawn under a giant oak, fanning herself. When I catch her stare, she waves casually. I return it, more of a salute than a wave, and turn back inside before she thinks to use the gesture as an invitation to come over and dig up more fuel to feed the local gossip. They know, as I do, of my husband’s philandering, and delight in a chance to turn eyes away from themselves and their own private failings.

They talk constantly, these women, as though the simple act of wagging tongues could waft away the daily frustrations and sorrows of existence. They talk about their daughters’ dates and their sons’ grades, about whose husband got a promotion and whose neighbor is pregnant—again. When we moved here four years ago, newlyweds, they tried to reach out to me. They brought me baskets of freshly baked bread and homemade jam, and plates of warm cookies. They smiled at my New York accent and my delicate, expensive clothes, impractical for the life of a housewife. They sat in the sitting room and commented on my husband’s book collection, and I learned quickly to smile and turn away instead of claiming them as my own. Their interest waned and I became an outsider.

I close the door behind me and swim through the humidity to the bedroom, extinguishing the lights as I go. Another bolt of lightning flashes, startling me, and I wonder if the rain will fall tonight. I undress and slide to the far end of the bed. Jack likes to think that I am sleeping when he comes home, and a woman’s life is more peaceful when she nurtures her husband’s delusions.

I sigh, remembering the day the house I kept became a cage. Mrs. Smith had invited me over for tea, and I, noting a steep decline in the number of recent invitations, accepted in an attempt to maintain my social status. The women present sipped tea and nibbled cookies, and I tried to keep from spilling my tea or dropping crumbs onto the floor. In my concentration, I lost track of the conversation. The women were discussing their children, as usual.

“Janice, I heard your little Robbie got into a fight last week” Miranda Smith asked, her eyes appraising. The tone of her voice made me look up, suddenly alert.

“Not much of a fight. Robbie was playing with Danny Walker, Jenny’s boy, and accidentally tripped him. Danny jumped up in a rage and hit my poor Robbie, almost broke his nose!” The women gasped and cooed appreciatively, and I frowned.

“The Walkers live across from me, right? “ I said, my eyes betraying my interest.

The women looked at me. I’d been silent until now, and they seemed encouraged at my sudden interest in the conversation.

“Yes, his mother Jenny works down at the bakery in town. His father’s a drunk.” Miranda frowned as she commented, expressing the appropriate mixture of scorn and pity.

“He’s all the time got bruises and scrapes,” another women put in, “I think his father beats him.”

“What?” I started, upsetting my saucer and spilling my tea onto the floor. “Shouldn’t we tell someone, do something, if the boy’s being beaten?”

“You can’t ever know for sure, really,” Janice said, “Look at what he did to my Robbie? Maybe he deserved the beatings.”

I don’t remember the rest of the tea, but I started declining invitations after that. I kept an eye on the house across the street, but I never saw enough to know, really know, what little Danny Walker was going through.

I hear the front door open and close my eyes before Jack comes in. I lay silently as he comes in and stretches out next to me. The heat is stifling, and the sharp cracks of thunder keep me from falling asleep completely. I try to relax, but my mind races and my body protests the uncomfortable conditions. I drift out of consciousness only to jerk back into the present as the heat lightening rages outside. How much longer can we go without rain?

A sudden crash jolts me from my half sleep, a closer, more splintering sound than that of the lightning. I bolt upright, slick off sweat, and peer through the blinds. Danny Walker is scrambling over broken glass to seize the baseball bat he used to bash the windshield of his father's car. My green eyes meet his bruised ones, and he drops the bat in shock. It rolls under the damaged car. The boy, now fifteen, looks terrified: caged and feral. I understand. I smile, a tight, small smile, and hold a finger to my lips.

Another bolt of lightning blinds us, and then the sudden pounding of rain on roofs and cars and pavement drowns out the rumble of thunder. This is not a gentle, cleansing wash; it is a violent purging, as if the heavens are raining judgment down on dirty streets and dirty lives. The boy jumps, scrambles under the maimed car to grab the bat, and races to the back of the house just as his father comes charging out the front door. I release the blinds quickly, a coward, afraid he'll see me and stumble over, drunk and reeling, to beat me just as the rain is beating the pavement. When the lightning strikes again, it reaches the earth with an ear splitting crack. Jack awakes with a start, but I ignore him and look out the window. The huge oak in the James’ yard is burning with pentecostal fury, the rain hissing and spitting but failing to quench the flame as it spreads ravenously across the dry wood and desiccated leaves. With a moaning creak, the thick trunk splits as the fire finishes the work of that first fatal bolt. I watch spellbound as the trunk falls into the James’ house, and Jack leaps from the bed and hurriedly dresses.

“What are you doing, Jane? Don’t just sit there! Do something!”

I remember reading, years ago, about Native Americans burning the prairie to control growth and keep the land healthy. I remember the need to prune back the weak branches to keep the roses healthy. I remember the need to cull the herd, to keep the bad blood from poisoning the rest of the stock. I rise, wrap my housecoat around myself, and follow Jack into the street.

The fire is roaring, now, and the rain that still pours down seems to feed its frenzy instead of sate its thirst. The street is filled with screaming neighbors; Jack and Mr. Walker are lost in the crowd. The adults are properly horrified, but the children are reveling in the fire, dancing around in the chaos like pagans worshiping some dark, bloody god.

The fire is warming, not the scorching heat of daytime but a deeper, passionate burning that stirs my blood and awakens the part of my mind that has been withering. I walk, across shards of childhood innocence, past the burning and the wailing and the chanting and the madness, through the pounding rain into the darkness. Behind me, night is silenced, and it’s not until I pass the last house on the block that I hear the weary tread of feet next to me. Without looking, I hold my hand out for Danny Walker, and we walk away from the sunset behind us into the healing darkness.