Clouds There, But No Water
Illustrated by Lakshmy Mathur
It was a cool day, even for September. Broken clouds swam in the light blue above.
The house sat at the edge of town, just off the main street that bored its way between rows of old Victorian homes with wrap-around porches and on into the heart of downtown. The annual festival continued downtown, the small menagerie of shops and straight lines drenched in plastic tents and tables, folding chairs and long, cylindrical barbeque grills, and of course all the pedestrians marching shoulder-to-shoulder and in all directions at once. The smell of funnel cakes and charcoal smoke rising above the clamor of a thousand distinct voices having hundreds of distinct conversations in the same two-block radius. Cars with loud engines that made laps around the center.
Sharks with mufflers.
But there at the house at the edge of town, nearly two miles from the festivities, the only sounds came from bamboo wind chimes hanging from the eave of the back porch. The chimes knocked in discordant malaise as the wind maneuvered the space between the house and the old pecan trees in the back yard. The building itself was bored through in the middle — one long, wide hallway that connected the front door to the back. Both doors were open, and the cool breeze ambled within.
A woman emerged from somewhere within the house, entering the shaded hallway wearing a bathing suit under a kimono. She brandished glass tumblers in her hands, each filled an inch from the top with ice and bourbon. The ice clinked against the glass as she walked through the hallway, shaded from direct daylight and with the kimono flowing around and behind her. Her flip flops snapped against her heels in rhythm.
She carried the glasses to a pair of men standing by the swimming pool in the back yard between the porch and the trees. Clinking ice. Knocking bamboo chimes. Snapping flip flops. And the two men there, talking quietly.
“Thanks, babe,” one of the men said as the woman handed them their drinks. He wore a white button-up short sleeve shirt, khaki shorts and flip flops.
“Thank you,” the other man told the woman, who then took her leave toward the house. He wore jeans and an old t-shirt.
“Want to sit down?” the one in white asked rhetorically, motioning toward a table and chairs at the corner of the pool area. “We’ve got a lot to catch up on.”
“I’ll say,” the other man replied, easing himself into a chair. He looked around and nodded in approval. “You’ve done well, Shane.”
Shane sipped his drink and smiled as he laid the glass on the table. “Yeah, I guess we’ve done all right. Glad you made it back home for once,” he said.
Shane shook his head. “No, no — I’m not — I didn’t mean it like that.”
“It’s fine. Sorry I missed the wedding and all that.”
“Don’t be. Really. We understand.”
The two of them listened to the cars passing by on the other side of the house for a while. The bamboo chimes knocked behind them.
“So,” Shane finally said, turning to the other man, “the famous Matt Gaskins comes back to the little town.”
Matt scoffed. “Yeah.” He smiled and looked at his lap.
“I’m surprised there isn’t a party.”
Matt looked at him. “Didn’t you see all that mess downtown? That’s for me.”
Shane laughed, “It should be.” He raised his glass and added, “To Matt — a hero comes home.”
Matt bowed his head and raised his glass slightly. The two of them drank and then went quiet again. Bass from the speakers of a passing car vibrated the air. The two men stared at the pool.
“So,” Matt said. “Summer Andrews?” he looked at Shane.
“Yep,” Shane replied, nodding. “Been married almost a year now.”
His friend sighed as he drank and watched the trees over the rim of his glass. “Last time I was home you two had just broken up.”
Shane laughed again. “Yeah,” he said, drawing out the word for effect. “That was probably the fourth or fifth time we split.”
“So, naturally, the best thing to do was get married.”
“I guess,” Shane said after the laughing stopped. He was smiling when he said it, but the way he said it made Matt feel more comfortable with staring at trees than talking about marriage.
“You see anybody else downtown?” Shane asked after a few seconds.
Matt kept his eyes on the trees but shook his head.
“I saw Jen down there yesterday,” Shane said. “She has a kid now, you know.”
Matt nodded. He watched the pool. Clear water rippling, reflecting specks of broken sunlight.
“Yeah,” Matt said.
“Listen,” Shane began to say, but Matt cut him off by waving a hand and squeezing out the words “Oh, well” between his teeth.
Shane watched him for a moment. The short hair and shaved face, the new tattoos covering one arm. “Four years is a long time, Matt.”
“Hmm,” was all Matt managed to say. He watched the trees. Suddenly he could see her there again, younger, smiling. Her brown hair pulled behind her ears, her face shining with hints of sweat in the reddish light of the setting sun. It was Matt’s going away party. Friends and friends of friends gathered at his house on the outskirts. His roommates had arranged it all, and they were careful to invite the one girl everyone knew he had always had the biggest crush on.
She was back for the summer after her first year of college in Athens. And once they saw each other again it felt as though, well, at least for Matt, that an emptiness had been filled. Hugging, laughing. Long bouts of eye contact from across the room. He found her out of the crowd time and again, eventually getting her alone on the tailgate of his truck. They sat and talked and laughed. Their hands touching again, and the surging pulse of electricity that wrapped around his chest each time. He left her to refill their drinks. Then he came back outside in time to see that she was leaving the party.
In Shane’s car.
And then Matt was standing alone and watching the driveway as they drove off, two people alone in the dark; two fading red taillights that soon disappeared.
The bamboo chimes knocked. Shane smacked himself in the arm. “Damn mosquitoes!” he said.
Matt turned to look at him then. “Do what?”
“You getting bit?”
Matt frowned. “Nah.” He checked his arms. “Guess they like you better.”
Shane chuckled under his breath. “It ain’t always a good thing, just remember that.”
Then the silence returned between them. The air was cool but thick. And in the trees the cicadas began to grind away. Above and beyond the trees the clouds seemed to thicken, clogging the spaces of blue between them. The chimes knocked some more and Matt finished off his bourbon.
“Looks like rain,” Shane finally said with a nod to the sky.
Matt looked up and then at Shane. “I guess we never really talked about any of that, did we?”
“No, not really.”
Then Matt looked up again. “Anyway,” he said, “I guess it does look like rain.”
But it didn’t rain. The clouds morphed into one dark mass above the setting sun as the cicadas grinded away and then the frogs chipped in where the knocking chimes left gaps in the air.