The Paper Says Rain
A man walks out of a bar. It is raining buckets. He needs to cross the boulevard to get to the parking lot before he's completely soaked. Even at 2:00AM traffic is heavy. There is a button on the signal pole. He pushes it. He doubts that it matters. He's aware of the cosmic implications. The button provides mankind with the illusion that an individual has some control over his destiny. In reality the light will change when it wants to, or not.
A woman holding a soggy newspaper over her head trots several paces behind him. She is looking for the Number 17 bus stop across the boulevard. She is coming from the same bar and was in a back booth with two men, one of whom had his hand glued to her inner thigh most of the evening. It's pouring harder. She asks if he's pressed the button. She doesn't wait for an answer before pummeling it several times herself. There is a blinding flash directly across the street then a ground-shaking blast of thunder. They panic and back away from the curb towards any shelter they can find. Their bar is shut tight, but there is a hardware store two doors down with its windows lit up advertising 24 hours service.
They go in. The man wonders why a store in this area would be open all night. Who needs hardware at this hour? The clerk behind the counter looks perturbed. An all night talk station plays over the store's speaker system. A caller is complaining about Medicare burial benefits. Her husband died six weeks ago. She hasn't gotten any government money to put him in the ground yet so she has to pay storage. The clerk puts down a magazine with a gaudy pornographic cover. What do they want?
The man and the woman are drenched. Water pours off them creating ever-widening puddles near an aisle dedicated to household and canning supplies. If they're not going to buy anything, they'll have to leave; this isn't a motel. If this is a stick up, there is no cash on hand and look at the mess they're making.
"A wrench," the man says.
"What kind?" the irritated clerk says, getting up from his stool, careful to hide the magazine under the counter. "We've got all kinds."
"Racket," the man says.
The clerk scoffs at the gaff. "Ratchet wrenches are in aisle six, halfway down on the right."
The man heads toward aisle six. He's never been very handy with tools. Still, if he hadn't been drinking and so tired, he wouldn't have made that stupid mistake. The woman follows him. He picks up a packaged set of wrenches. You can't buy one of anything anymore. It's $65.95; too high a price just to keep up the façade. The clerk comes down the aisle.
"That's the best set you'll ever find, Norwegian steel, drop forged."
The man has no idea what "drop forged" means and since when were the Norwegians noted for anything but dried herring and sardines? He puts the wrench set down. The rain has intensified, and hail is pinging against the window. They leave the store. The clerk, a mop in hand, yells "asshole" and something else which the wind drowns out.
The woman and he huddle in the store's shallow entranceway. Another bolt of lightning strikes close by. The storm is not moving; it has parked over them. Suddenly the transformer on the utility pole explodes. Blue and orange sparks fly. The entire neighborhood goes dark. The only light comes from a few cars that create tidal waves as they creep by. He decides to run for the other side of the boulevard and feel his way down the block to the parking lot and his car. But he can't leave the woman adrift so he grabs her by the wrist. She stumbles several times and loses a shoe which she holds in one hand while he drags her like a dog that doesn't want to be walked. He pushes the panic button on his key ring, and his car begins to beep and the headlights flash. This is their beacon. Finally they are inside. A live wire comes down on a parked car out in the street. It sizzles before the rain douses it.
They are safe here until the storm passes. He turns the engine on and blasts the heater. The street is not safe, sparks and debris are everywhere. They begin to shiver. There are some old blankets and sweatshirts in the back seat. He suggests they change. He promises not to look. In a few minutes they have discreetly disrobed, put on sweatshirts and wrapped themselves in old blankets. They are still shivering, but the car is fully warmed up now and he has plenty of gas. The hailstones become bigger, golf ball-sized, and he fears for the windshield. He turns the radio on but it's only static. The stations must have been knocked off the air.
To pass the time he asks her where she is from. She says she was born in Alaska but moved here to Massachusetts several years ago. She doesn't seem to know the state bird or flower from either place when he quizzes her so she is probably lying. He decides to lie if she asks about him, but she never does.
Gradually the torrent abates to a mere downpour. He looks at his watch. It is 2:45 AM. It's still not safe to drive so they'll wait it out a little longer. He turns to tell her the time, but she's dropped off into a deep, boozy sleep. She is a mess. Every beauty and makeup trick she uses to hide her age and look attractive has been peeled away by the storm. He can't see himself that clearly in the rear mirror, but he doubts he looks any better. He closes his eyes to rest; the rain comes down at a steady pace. Oddly, it is comforting.
When he wakes up it is after six. The rain is now a steady drizzle. It is just getting light. The street is flooded ankle deep, but a city DPW truck with a blinking yellow light drives by very slowly. There are eight inches of water in the parking lot. If someone would unclog the catch basin, it might help matters. The woman wakes up. He tells her he's going to put his pants on and go fix the drain. She needs to pee. The car is an island surrounded by water. He suggests she step out and go. He'll use the driver's side. He climbs out and begins to relieve himself. He hears her say something, but the car and wind blocks the message. He zips up and sloshes out to the street and finds to the storm drain. He removes a running shoe and a pile of old newspapers. The water surges down so he has helped a little. He slogs back to the car. She is standing with the passenger door still open. She can't go. She's afraid there might be something in the water, snakes, rats or electricity when she squats down. Besides, there is an apartment house beyond the fence; people could look out. And she might have to do more than just pee. Perhaps there is a store she could use.
He explains the possibility of anything being open at this hour is remote even if the weather were decent. If she wants, they can walk to the fence at the back of the lot, he'll boost her over, and she can try the apartment house. Perhaps a kind soul will be sympathetic to her plight.
"What about the hardware store; it's supposed to be open twenty-four hours?"
The street is a swift flowing river. He has a Honda Civic with a low undercarriage. There is no telling how deep any potholes are. So, for safety's sake, they'll have to walk.
It's obvious the power in the entire city is out. As they approach the hardware store, the noise of a generator breaks the eerie silence. There are a few lights on inside. One aisle is dimly lit. He knocks on the glass. There is no immediate answer. He looks at her hoping she's come up with another solution to her problem.
"I'll really need a bathroom!" There is both pain and humiliation in her voice.
He raps again using a coin. He is about to give up when she motions to him that someone is coming. It is the same clerk. He is wearing what looks like a miner's head lamp, has a flashlight tucked under one arm and is carrying a shotgun at port arms. The clerk picks up a cardboard sign which had been taped to the inside of the door but evidently fallen down. "Looter will be shoot."
He wants to tell the lady that, the clerk's poor grammar notwithstanding, a second confrontation with this gun-toting man is not a good idea. But she steps in front of him.
"I desperately need to use a bathroom. We slept in a car all night." She shouts through the glass.
If there is anything the clerk doesn't need it is more power. He smiles. It's been a boring night. He wants to watch them squirm.
"Power's out. No lights in the john. It's for employees only."
"Just for five minutes. You've got city water pressure. Five minutes."
"What's it worth to you?"
The woman looks away from the clerk. She is close to tears. "I don't have any money."
He checks his wallet. All he has is a twenty. Without even asking, she grabs it from him and holds it up to the window. The clerk smiles. "You'll need a flashlight too. I'm running a special this morning. Twenty for the toilet and twenty for flashlight rental."
The woman turns and asks if he has a credit card. He nods. "Will you take plastic?" she yells at the clerk who is clearly enjoying the moment.
"No power or phone service to run a card—cash only."
Tears begin. She leans into him in desperation. It is the closest they have been all night. He breaks away from her.
"Listen, we've only got twenty bucks. I'll give you that and my watch as security. It's a Swiss Army model worth over two hundred. Tomorrow I'll come back with the other twenty."
He takes off the watch and dangles it in front of the window. The clerk nods, puts down the flashlight and unlocks the door. "Only she comes in; you stay here."
The woman squeezes through the slight opening. The clerk bolts the door and gives him a wink. The woman and her escort disappear down a darkened automotive products aisle.
He has no watch so he doesn't know how long it's been. It seems more than ten minutes. The sky turns to a lesser black, but it begins raining heavily nonetheless. He looks at the street hoping for any sign that it is passable. The water level is no worse, but it's no better either. He decides he will risk driving. If he floods out then so be it. Nothing will be gained by going back to the car and sitting for the entire morning and possibly beyond. He wants to get home.
His thought is interrupted by muffled sounds from inside. The woman, head down, is standing in front of the door like a prisoner waiting for the guard to open her cell door. The clerk, still armed, looms behind her. He is over six feet and drapes his free arm over her shoulder. "Your woman has a nice ass; best I've seen tonight. Could stand a bit of a pussy trim though, kind of hairy down there, but maybe that's the way you like it."
The clerk unbolts the door. The minute there is a slight opening the man goes on the attack and rams his shoulder against it. The clerk, as if anticipating this move, effectively blocks him by throwing all his weight against the door, knocking the woman back into the store and into a rack of Burpee seeds. The man pounds his fists on the glass in frustration while screaming obscenities at the clerk. The clerk backs up a few steps, chambers a round and gives him the finger. The man outside begins kicking the glass. After the third kick, a slight crack develops. The clerk warns him to stop. He kicks at it again just as the clerk, shotgun at hip level, fires one barrel. The bottom panel of the glass door explodes into shrapnel. The man outside, his palms pressed against the upper part of the door like a mime pretending to climb a wall, is frozen in time. A second blast knocks him backward into the middle of the sidewalk where he flops face first to the ground. Someone screams. He lifts his chin up out of the water. The curb and gutter are five feet from him. A Styrofoam takeout container trailed by several French fries rushes by. He reaches for it as one would a life preserver. The water around him is turning pink. Someone is tugging at his feet trying to pull him back to the store. He is turned over. The rain washes and cools his face. It is pleasant. It's like when he was a little boy floating on an air mattress in the neighbor's pool. The woman kneels next to him, lifts his head and cradles it in her lap. She is sobbing. She keeps repeating, "You've killed him" over and over to the clerk. That's how the man knows he's dead.
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