Josephine felt certain her date was going to kiss her. A light drizzle thumped on the convertible’s rag top, and “Little Darlin’” by The Diamonds had just come on the radio. The music sounded tinny from the speaker of Warren’s new ‘57 Chevy, but accompanied by the rain drops it would do just fine for background.
Warren had that sheepish look a boy always gets in his eyes when he’s about to do something both daring and foolish, as if he were preparing for a swan dive into waters of uncertain depth. Clearly he was weighing the consequences of the bold move required to press his lips to hers while trying to keep his Ricky Nelson aloofness intact. Josephine didn’t know any guy who had been able to convincingly pull off that brand of cool detachment when it came time for ‘the move’. She supposed such self-assured indifference was a province reserved for rock and roll singers, t.v. idols, and Elvis, who was, of course, in a class by himself.
Hopefully Warren would not kill the moment by coming right out and asking if he might kiss her. That would mean she would have to play coy, then pull back as any decent girl who had agreed to park at the lake would do on a first date. But if he just reached for her and didn’t hesitate long enough to give her time to think about it - or to seem to think about it - if he just lightly pulled her closer and made his move smoothly and cleanly, well then ...
“ ... Well, my love-a I was wrong-a (LaLa LaLa La Laaaa!) To try to love two ... (A boop-a boop-a boop-a boop-a ... )” “Josie ... ”
Warren spoke her name. The word was all she really required of him, all she needed to hear. Josephine closed her eyes and tilted her head towards her date. She knew the steady beat of the falling rain would take care of the rest, and with any luck Johnny Mathis might croon “Chances Are” from the Chevy’s speakers during the next few minutes to capture this moment and hold it forever.
Kiss me, Warren ... oh, please, kiss me, kiss me, kissmekissme ...
*** “Gran’ma? Gran’ma, you all right?”
The old woman stood alone looking out the window smiling at the downpour. She did not turn toward Jeffrey when he spoke. Having gone into one of her funks again she disappeared to some other place deep inside her head, and whenever she did that her eyes rolled back like a corpse’s. Jeffrey’s mother had quit trying to bring her out when she got that way, allowing the old woman to remain in the distant place she enjoyed so much to visit. His grandmother scared Jeffrey when she got like that. Lately it seemed she got like that more than ever.
“Grandmom’s all right, Jeffey,” his mother reassured him. “She’s just watching the rain like she does. She’ll come back to us when she’s ready.” Walking over to the old woman by the window sill, she placed her hand on her shoulder, and bent to lightly kiss her forehead. The woman seemed unaware of any of this.
Jeffrey came to his mother’s side. He stood there for a moment before he spoke. The rain showed no sign of letting up.
“Gran’ma doesn’t want to come back, does she?”
His mother said nothing, just shook her head as if she too had gone to some other place, her own place. *** For more than an hour Newtown's curio shops held most of Gil's attention, and when he reached for Susan's hand it came as a surprise. Despite their recent engagement it was against Gil's nature to display his affections so openly in public. A June evening's cool breeze along the Newtown promenade had a way of making the passersby disappear when twilight yielded to night, although thunder grumbles from the east threatened to bogus the mood. But the important thing was, if the man felt a sudden burst of romance after a three year courtship, this was good.
Susan felt encouraged enough to venture squeezing Gil's hand right back. He smiled one of his tentative half-smiles. A brief moment that bordered on magic passed between them.
"To what do I owe this sudden burst of affection? My God, here you are practically pawing me in public. If you only knew how long I've dreamed of you fondling me in front of an audience."
Gil stopped walking so abruptly that for a moment Susan was yanked back. "Let's just say that on a night like this I realize what a lucky guy I am, okay? And please wipe that shit-eating grin off your face. You know I don't do 'vulnerable' very well."
Susan yanked Gil's arm. "Oh, I don't know about that. You're talking to someone who’s seen you naked. Can't get much more vulnerable than that."
Gil's arm slid around Susan's waist. "You want to place your bet on that? Watch me. I'm going to kiss you long and hard right here, right now, in front of all these people and God." A light drizzle started. People darted past to seek shelter beneath the storefronts’ awnings. Susan feigned a broad snarl, and the expression caught briefly in a flicker of lightning. Low rumbles of thunder followed.
“Damn. I knew something would spoil the moment.”
The whole world strobed and the downpour came, but the couple made no attempt to get out of it. Instead the two stood on the promenade smiling at each other like a pair of idiots.
“The moment isn’t spoiled. In fact, I couldn’t ask for a better one.” Susan could not help smiling at the man’s uncharacteristic transformation.
“All right. Who are you and what have you done with my fiancé?”
He pulled her close and kissed her. He kept right on kissing her as thick dollops of rain pummeled their faces.
Gil had been correct. Susan could not have asked for a better moment.
“…Gran’ma doesn’t want to come back, does she?”
Susan really couldn't blame her mother if she chose not to. Who in their right mind would want to come back…to this? Then again, who was in their right mind these days? Susan doubted she could even consider herself rational any more.
The old woman was softly humming a tune, smiling as she hummed.
“You remember that one, Susie?”
The question came so suddenly that Susan flinched. The other woman continued humming a few bars as if she assumed the daughter had been privy to her thoughts. Susan fast forwarded to the present.
“Mom, I don’t know what you’re--”
The elder suddenly burst into song with a voice remarkably clear if not entirely melodic.
“‘... Chances are ‘cause I wear a silly grin the moment you come into view ... ’ “
Throughout this exchange the daughter watched the rain, hypnotized by its power to conjure stolen kisses along cobblestoned promenades on summer evenings.
Susan’s spell broke first. She turned to her son to see if her mother’s erratic behavior had distracted Jeffrey from his Dark Knight comic book. It hadn’t. Or maybe Jeffrey was pretending it hadn’t.
“That song’s a little before my time, Mom,” she answered, preparing herself for another Chevy-at-the-levee conversation with the old woman. “I grew up with lyrics like ‘Everyone Wang Chung Tonight.’ But you’ve mentioned that tune before. Johnny Mathis, isn’t it? Greatest make-out music to come out of the ‘50’s, am I right?”
Josephine’s smile broadened. “I insisted the band player sing it the night of my wedding. That was the song I’d hoped might come on your father’s car radio the first time he kissed me at Saw Mill Lake. But it didn’t happen that way. Things never happen the way you want, not exactly the way you want to remember them. But, you know, that was all right with me. I knew it the moment your father’s lips touched mine.”
Susan’s mother had selected an interesting choice of words with this version, because the elderly woman had paraphrased a line from that Johnny Mathis oldie. The daughter managed a smile for the woman who probably didn’t realize she had made the subconscious connection. For someone whose memory had flown south, bringing the past into happy union with the present was really what rainy days like today were all about.
But then again ...
That wasn’t quite accurate, Susan noted. Not any more. Maybe pleasant reveries were what rainy days used to be about before nitrogen oxides had worked their way into the two parts hydrogen/one part oxygen mix, before Uncle Sam realized that his amendments to the Clean Air Acts were a day late and a dollar short. A level five storm like this one was a different breed of animal. It was a regular potpourri of volatile organic compounds as Dan O'Brien on cable channel 38 had pointed out to Newtown County just this morning. Standing by the large bay window would make that argument abundantly clear. Susan and her mother had only to wait and watch.
The women did not have to wait long.
Three sparrows appeared, first one then another and another. With wings outstretched like feathered angels they were enjoying a cool shower beneath the rain drops. Each did its cute little bird dance in a small puddle.
Nothing out of the ordinary there. Just your basic garden variety shit-on-General-Lafeyette’s-statue-in-the-park breed of sparrow casually having themselves a little bathe in the spring rain. Or so the three flittering birds might have appeared at first glance to the uninitiated observer.
But that was not what was happening here. Not even close.
The drama unfolding near the front lawn brought a quick halt to the elder woman’s reminiscing and to Jeffrey’s interest in The Dark Knight. Seeing any birds at all had become a rarity even this late into spring.
What had first appeared an exuberant dance for two of the sparrows rapidly transformed into fluttering convulsions. The third already lay motionless on its back in the middle of the puddle, stiff as a clock’s cuckoo gone belly up.
This had been one of those bad rain storms, a genuine level five like the forecaster on cable had said. These sparrows, knowing nothing of meteorological warnings or acidification, were paying for their ignorance.
The two remaining birds twitched on the ground, then momentarily became airborne and crashed into one another as if one had waged a cockfight on the other. A tail feather flew off the smaller sparrow. Mottled by the rain the feather fell rather than floated to the ground. The birds collided again mindlessly, then plummeted to the sidewalk like stones while the downpour continued to pelt them.
The sparrows were not really fighting. They could no longer see where they were going because the rain had blinded them, melted their tiny irises right inside their sockets. Black holes remained where eyes had been. In another moment this gully washer would sear the delicate flesh beneath their feathers as if the birds were bathing in battery acid. The small creatures’ dance of agony would continue for several minutes until each was cold dead.
Susan drew the blinds before Jeffrey might see more. She wished she could also silence the rain pellets slapping against the window.
It might have been worse. At least this morning’s cloudburst had not burned through the roof like the storm during the last level five. Of course there was still the extremely unpleasant task of cleanup ahead. Birds had originally been a major problem because there were so many of them. Some had died on the roof and fell down the water spouts. But now not many were left, and their remains usually amounted to little more than a handful of bones.
Larger animals presented a greater problem because of new public health laws requiring them burned within twelve hours after a rainfall. That could prove an uncomfortable business with a child in the house. When this morning’s rain stopped there might be a stray dog or cat, maybe a squirrel or a rat that had crept to Susan’s lawn to die. Such animals normally avoided the rain and were caught unaware.
That wasn’t so unusual. Many people in the beginning had also been caught off guard thinking an umbrella and a good slicker would keep the rain from their backs. Susan’s young husband and her father had been among those people, caught unprotected in a sudden thunder burst when following a camping weekend, surprise surprise, the sky turned suddenly dark. Death was not as magnanimous with the two men as it had been with the sparrows. Rain death took its own sweet time with people, common knowledge now but unthinkable only a few months earlier. The older ones always went more quickly. Four days it had taken her father to die, more than a week for
“I realize how lucky I am,” he had told her, and then “You know I don’t do vulnerable very well.”
But he was wrong. He did do vulnerable well. He did it extremely well.
And she had joked with him about the rain. She had said “ I knew something would spoil the moment.” Then he assured her that the moment had not been spoiled, could not be spoiled.
And then he had kissed her right there in the rain ...
Susan didn’t realize that she was smiling. She did very little smiling lately, certainly not much that had come unforced and on its own.
Jeffrey looked up from his comic book. He might have been watching his mother for some time, waiting for her to say something, anything.
“Were you away like gran’ma?” the boy asked.
She managed to turn her smile into something that fell just short of a grin. It made no sense to rage against the way things were like some demented King Lear trying his damnedest to outshout the storm. What was done was done, and you don’t bitch because you can’t stop the rain. To select to do that was to select madness. And, after all, the rain called forth memories. Bittersweet memories, yes, but still they were wonderful.
Susan took the long walk across the living room and crouched to hug her son. “Yeah, my little pal. I was away, but now I’m back.” She told him this with her cheek pressed to the child’s because she preferred Jeffrey not see her while she lied.
Neither she nor the boy noticed the old woman as she opened the door and walked outside, arms outstretched, into the downpour.
“Josie ... ”
“I love the way my name sounds when you say it, Warren. Do you know that?”
“Josie Josie Josie Josie!” Warren repeated. “Kiss me?”
“Maybe I will,” the girl teased. “Maybe ... ”
She added a well-rehearsed giggle.
“Not here, though ... not here,” she told him, then pushed open the Chevy’s door. She ran outside, twirling and jumping in the downpour like a little kid.
“What are you do--?”
“Out here, Warren! Here's where I want you to kiss me! Will you come out and kiss me in the rain? Will you?”
She ran laughing from the car towards the lake waiting for Warren’s footsteps to follow, knowing they would.
Turning to him, she opened her arms so that he might run into them.
As Warren climbed from his Chevy Josephine could have sworn she heard Johnny Mathis playing on the radio . .