“Oh, God, I wish it would rain. Just a bit, just enough to break this spell.”
“A bit a rain ain’t gonna do no good. Just a bit and all we end up with is fields that expect more. Just hasten their death and then where’ll we be?”
“Well, anything would be better than this, better than nothing. If this keeps up it ain’t just gonna be the fields that are parched and dead, we’ll be the same. Some days I feel like I could just dry up an blow away.”
I had heard this conversation more times than I could remember, especially this year that started so good, or so my pa said, and then turned so sour. I used to love the sunny days, the sky seemed so big, a huge blue blanket that stretched without a mark from horizon to horizon. But now that clear sky had gone from beautiful blue to a harsh white that hurt the eyes.
Back a long time ago, the government was going to build a big long pipe that would have brought water in. But a bunch of people who weren’t even from around here protested, and the project stopped. Daddy said that if they had finished it, then there would have been lots of water all the time, even in times like this. Instead, we drank a lot of coke because it’s cheaper than water. The Petersons looked sad every time they have to charge for water, kinda embarrassed like they are doing something wrong. But we know they ain’t, they have to charge because they got to pay for it to be brought in.
It used to be you just turned on the tap and that was that, but then the mayor said that all water was going to be metered and charged extra for on account that they didn’t have much left. We had a well at home, but it didn’t put anything out. Well, not much of anything at least. The Petersons didn’t even have a well.
Once a month a big truck pulls up and they unload huge, blue plastic bottles into the back room and a whole bunch of cases of the little ones. I saw the driver once and he gave me a little plastic bottle with a picture of a mountain and water pouring off it like it was the ocean up top or something. I thought that mountain must be the coolest most beautiful place on the whole earth.
I drank the whole bottle right then and there cause I was worried that if I took it home, then one of my stupid brothers would take it. He gave me another one and I asked if I could keep the empty. He sorta laughed and said no problem. Then my dad appeared and he gave me that look. That look always told me that I was in trouble for something. When the man had left, my dad held me by the arm and told me the same thing he had told me a hundred times before. We didn’t know that man, didn’t know what he was like, didn’t know his family or nothing about him. That means there is no good reason for me to be talking to him at all.
I just stood there, waiting for him to finish so I could get back to my water. That was last year and we thought it was bad then, but it was worse now. Now everything was dry and the ground crunched underfoot. We sat there in the Petersons cause there was nothing else to do.
There were some others there too, but no one was talking that much anymore. Even us kids didn’t talk much. If you played, you got thirsty and if you got thirsty you wanted a drink. The mayor and some of the other folks from town had gone to the city to see the government and see what they could do, but my dad didn’t have much hope in that.
“If they do come up with a plan, it’ll take ’em years to get it together anyway,” he said. “We’ll all be dead before they sort themselves out.”
Mom had bought me a bottle of water and I sat staring at it, waiting for the chance to drink it. The longer I waited, the better it would be. It was always like that. A few times, I saw my mom eye my bottle and I almost thought she was going to drink it herself. The bottle cost a dollar where’s a coke only cost fifty cents, but Mom said that kids need water more than anything else, and no amount of soda was going to help if a kid didn’t have the water first. It didn’t matter to me, most days I would have drunk anything that was cold and wet.
I knew people was scared, I knew there was a real fear in the air, like everything was going to come crashing down and all we was doing was sitting and waiting for it to happen. I sat at one of the other tables and drew pictures in the dust that covered it. It wasn’t Mrs. Peterson’s fault that there was dust on the table. She was a clean lady; it was just that it got in everywhere.
Fine grains, so small you could hardly see them right, floated in the air, settled on your drinks and, if you were outside long enough, got down inside your clothes and made you itch. The dust was everywhere and it used to keep me awake at night cause it left my bed all itchy. Mom stopped turning down the sheets and then she started just covering the whole bed with one of the big winter blankets. At night, when we were going to bed, she would carefully lift the whole thing off and shake it outside. I would hear her cough as she breathed it in and I knew how that felt.
This was another oven hot day. My daddy called it that when the air burned going in, like you were standing in front of the oven with the door open. On days like these, all you wanted to do was lie down. Find somewhere cool, take of your clothes and just lie down. But after a while, there was no place cool, even the cellar warmed up and you could see the wax on the preserves starting to go all runny. So there we were, fifteen of the two hundred people that lived in this whole area all at the same spot.
Every now and then, some of the men would get up with some silent cue and go and stand outside. They would squint under the blazing sun and talk in low tones. I didn’t know what they were talking about, but I knew it couldn’t be good just judging from the way Mom smiled and twisted her napkin. The day had almost passed and still no changes were in sight. The sky remained painfully clear, the dust built up and the people wore down. That’s when he arrived.
I didn’t hear or see a truck or nothing. No train whistle, no dust cloud from anything, not even a horse. He wasn’t from the mill cause there was no one new in town that we wouldn’t have known about. But he certainly was different.
He was a tall, rangy looking, colored man; taller than my daddy but very skinny, like he hadn’t had a good meal in years. He stepped through the door and the dust poured off him like he had been walking far out in the badlands for days. He realized the dirt was caking off him, and with a bit of a nod, he stepped back outside and beat himself a few times with his big, bashed up, old cowboy hat.
He whacked at himself like he was beating an old rug and we watched the clouds of dust roll off him and hang in the air. He pinned his hat between his knees and, bending over, rubbed his hands vigorously over his short, curly hair. The dust swirled all about him and I remember thinking in the back of my head that if he continued, he was just going to rub himself away.
I saw the looks people were giving each other: quick, worried glances about who this might be and what he wanted. Mothers pulled their kids in a little closer and I saw Mr. Peterson straighten himself up behind the counter as if he was expecting some trouble. A glance and a nod was passed between the men there, and I remember hiding my smile as this quickly formed posse counted their number, ready for whatever trouble this black man was bringing.
I was no city slicker. I admit I don’t really know too many people, or the ways of the world, as my daddy says. But I do know that there ain’t too many bad guys that’ll stop outside to brush the dust from their clothes. I guess that was maybe just something I thought about, instead of all them wiser people.
Outside, the man was finished knocking the worst dust off him and I thought he might as well not have bothered, even though it was a nice thing to do. The dust stuck to you no matter what you did.
He started to cough, a long painful wracking cough that shook him clear through. Each bark out of his chest seemed to make him shake like he was going to break and he stood there, bent over, his hands on his knees and coughed another bucket of dust out of his body. When he stepped back in again, I understood a little of why everyone was so feared of him, he sorta scared me too now that I had the chance to really see him.
He looked like death.
The old cowboy hat hung down low, keeping most of his face in shadows. His boots were old, cracked and dirty, like they had walked a million miles. The dust was settled all over him, giving his dark skin a powdered finish. It was that powdered finish that scared me. It looked more like dust from the grave than just road dust, and where he had wiped it from around his eyes and nose and mouth, it left these dark sockets in grey. It was like looking at some skull. He smiled and I wanted to scream. In a voice that was hoarse and dust choked, he spoke.
“Morning all,” he wheezed out. “Can I bother you for a glass of water? It’s terribly parched out there and I just can’t seem to go on, as thirsty as I am.”
“Well, that’s not a problem,” said Mr. Peterson. “Bottle of water’s a dollar.”
There was a tension in the room as if everyone expected violence to break out at the thought of charging a thirsty man a dollar for some water. I don’t know what they expected, maybe for him to draw some old six shooter and start blasting the place like you saw them gangsters on television do, but instead he just looked down. He sorta patted his pockets, but you could tell from where we was that they were empty. He looked kinda embarrassed, kinda put out that he would have to say this. He looked up like some kid who had been caught doing something wrong and he said, “I don’t have a penny to my name, sir.”
“Then I can’t help you. This is a business, dontcha know.”
“Well yes sir, I can see that. It’s just that I’m awfully dry.”
Mr. Peterson was not a hard man. In fact, he was an especially generous one and I could see him fighting with himself over this. I also knew that everyone was scared and everyone was worried where every dime was going to and coming from.
“I’m sorry, son, it’s just, I gotta buy it…”
I couldn’t take any more. Don’t know what it was, maybe it was my gramma always saying stuff about ‘The least of my brethren’, but I knew I had to do something. I grabbed my bottle off the table and got up. A quick twist of my hip, and I missed my mom’s grasping hand by a fraction. I had taken the few steps towards him when I heard my dad say my name in that low, ominous growl that he reserved for times when he was awfully angry. Normally it was times when he was sure I was gonna go and almost kill myself doing some fool thing.
“Here, mister,” I said as I handed him my bottle. I looked at it longingly, part of me wanted to snatch it back and drink it, the other part knew that I would live another day without it but he might not. He smiled at me and cracked the top. I could almost smell the water, the coolness of it, the taste of it. Without a word, he up ended the entire thing into his mouth and I watched his Adam’s apple bob up and down as the water disappeared into him.
“That was your water, and that was a dollar girl,” My father growled. “What the hell were you thinking?” I knew I was in for it when we got home and my dad was about to say something else when the black man spoke again.
“It ain’t something to be angry about, sir, its something to be proud of. She helped me when I needed it most and I will remember that. She done a good thing.” I watched as a tear rolled down his face and it struck the dusty floor with a sound like thunder. “Come and have a drink, girl,” he said.
And then the rain began.
He walked out into the downpour and I never saw him again. None of us did, but not a day went by that we didn’t wonder to ourselves who it was that brought the rain. One thing though, we’re all a little kinder now, especially to strangers.