After the Rain
STORIES that stretch your mind
The Best Metaphysical Fiction of the year from Thresholds Quarterly
After the Rain
by Wayne Wilson
You were listening to a tune called After the Rain by the late, great saxophonist, John Coltrane. And I imagine it must have been a morning just like this that inspired him to write such a beautiful and peaceful composition. The rains are gone, the sun is out, and its time to begin a new day...
He punched the off button on the radio and stepped out of the Ford Explorer. Yawning and stabbing at his puffy eyes, he slammed the car door and stepped right into the traffic, ignoring the belligerent horns as he jaywalked across Ocean Avenue. People were spilling into Santa Monica park from everywhere; smiling and eager to celebrate the glorious day. The bike path was already strewn with bikers, joggers, roller skaters, and couples waling hand in hand.
It was, indeed, a splendid day - rain-washed skies and clean, fresh, ocean air.
The suns rays sifted through his wrinkled sports coat as he leaned tautly against the white railing, oblivious to the drops of sweat leaping one by one off his forehead. Vacantly he stared out over the cliffs at the sprawling beach paralleled by Highway One. Weakly bracing himself against the railing he began to dry heave, but there was nothing left. All he could do was spit bloody saliva, courtesy of the nightly grinding his gums endured.
The warm sun tried its best to embrace him, but he rejected it like a spurned lover. There wasnt enough light in the world to illuminate the bleak and cavernous regions of depression that wracked his body.
A pretty blonde jogged past him, huge breasts bouncing up and down, walkman in place, and sounds of rock music wafting from her headphones. She flashed her award winning smile but picked up speed when he deflected it with a glare.
He studied a homeless man who buried his face in the grass with his belongings tucked securely beside him, sleeping like the living dead. The man snorted as he rolled over.
That wont be me, he thought. Want to bet? laughed an ugly voice inside his head. No! I aint going out like that, letting my life waste away! Why, because you got too much pride? the voice replied.
His head felt tight and prickly like some little demon was mercilessly jabbing him with a needle. He peered down the cliffs as he hugged the railing. When all is said and done, no one would give a damn. Hed just be another black statistic. Clumsily, he straddled his leg over the rail.
Small hands gently grabbed his wrist and pulled.
Hey! He jerked his hands away as if he had grabbed a hot skillet and damn near tumbled over the railing anyway.
His heart slammed painfully against his chest...What the hell?!
A caramel skinned girl with thick black pigtails and somber brown eyes that took over her whole face stared at him. Her outstretched arms reached for his hands--he held them defensively against his chest as if they were in danger of being stolen.
The earnestness in her melancholy eyes was truly captivating. She patiently waited for him to surrender his hands to hers. She wasnt going to back down.
Finally, his arms dropped like a punch-drunk fighter and she clasped his open hand, firmly tugging him away from the fence.
Who was this nosy little girl and where were her parents?
She acted like she knew what he was thinking. Had he been babbling like a crazy man?
Still not saying a single word she held his hand tightly while they walked. He felt like the Frankenstein monster walking hand in hand with the little girl by the lake.
And no one gave them a single glance. Probably because she looked like she could have been his daughter. His eyes were also large and almond shaped and their complexions a similar color.
He surveyed the grounds for other black people, but there were none in the vicinity. She seemed too young to be wandering about on her own--but these days, who knew? Nowadays little kids regularly played video games at the 7-11 stores after midnight.
She wore a very pretty old fashioned print dress that you might get at a thrift shop and shiny black shoes--looking like she was dressed up to go to a country church on Easter Sunday.
With his free hand he wiped his sweaty forehead. They moved along in silence until it made him want to scream...
The word erupted from his mouth. An obligatory greeting. No feelings attached. All he really wanted to do was wrench his hand from her tight little monkey grip and run like a madman.
Sooner or later, he prayed, shed grow bored with her little game and leave him the hell alone with his misery.
He tried again, this time injecting a little life into the greeting. Hello.
She looked up at him and grinned, her big brown eyes dominating her face.
Huh, so you dont like to talk? he asked from a parched throat. Her eyes darted confusedly. She clung to his wet hand. Oh, come on, Im sure you can talk, young lady. Wont you say one word to me? His attempt at being pleasant sounded strained.
She shrugged her shoulders.
Hey, Im sorry, are you deaf? he asked apprehensively. She shook her head, smiling again.
Okay, something wrong with your voice...I mean, are you mute? She playfully cocked her head. You know...can you talk? He yelled, as if that would clarify it. He pointed to his mouth. He knew very little about the physically handicapped.
She shook her head again.
Oh, okay, now Ive got the story. Youre either shy or just not in the mood to talk. I know how you women get." A glint of sun danced off her dark amber eyes.
Abruptly, she plopped down on a park bench never releasing his hand. Reluctantly, he sat with her. What would her parents think about some strange man holding their daughters hand? he wondered. Hed probably be in jail before the sun set. This whole thing was starting to get ridiculous!
However, as much as he hated to admit it, he like this little girl. He was beginning to feel an affinity towards her he couldnt explain. All right, young lady, I got a game for you. Lets start out with sharing our names.
No answer. She stared contemplatively at the ocean.
Okay, Ill go first. My name is Raymond Gilliam. Now, your turn.
She looked at him again with those enchanting eyes, smiled, and playfully kicked her heels against the park bench.
Youre not playing fair, he said, trying to disguise the irritation creeping inside him. Ordinarily he loved kids. This wasnt like him; but he hadnt been like himself for awhile. Ashamed, he was about two steps from launching himself off the bench and sprinting away...if shed only let go of his hand.
Okay! Since youre going to be stubborn about this, Ill come up with my own name for you. Now let me think...how about Angel? Yes, Angel...perfect. Anyone with eyes as pretty as yours ought to be one. Amused, she rubbed her chin as if pondering her new name; suddenly a big white grin spread across her face causing his dark mood to rise a little higher.
So, Angel, do you live in Santa Monica? Silence.
Where are your parents? Are they somewhere in the park? She shook her head.
Are they at home right now? No.
At work? No.
So, where are they? She shrugged her shoulders.
His throat tightened. Maybe he didnt want to go there.
Are your parents alive, Angel? Sadly, she shook her head. The depression bullied him again.
Uh, Im sorry for asking, Angel. Are you staying with in-laws? You know...family, cousins, uncle, aunt? She shook her head.
Alarmed, he asked, Do you have a home somewhere?
A beatific smile crossed her face as she nodded. His shoulders swelled. Thank goodness. You had me worried there for awhile, girl.
For the first time she released his hand, folding hers and gazing up at the sky.
You dont have to worry, kid, thats it...no more questions. Your life is your own, not mine. But Ill tell you what, I know how you feel about losing a loved one. I lost my mother a couple of years ago...sudden heart attack...caught me completely off guard. Nobody could do a damn thing to save her; not the doctors, not God, and least of all me.
The sun felt scorchingly hot.
He leaned back on the bench, resting his elbows on top and stretching out his legs. He rolled his eyes as his thoughts drifted. Pulling out a handkerchief, he wiped his glistening forehead.
Man, I sure do miss her, he sighed, his voice cracking. We were born on the same day -- Sept. 3. Weird, huh? We used to be real close...when I lost mama, somewhere along the line, I lost me; and then my family - pathetic, isnt it? he mused, rubbing his hands together.
A slight frown creased her forehead as her eyes held his.
Im not working right now, Angel, Im-on-a-leave-of-absence, he articulated harshly, his eyes hardening. I was the number one sales executive for a pharmaceutical business! Sold over the counter drugs, medications, ointments, lotions, whatever you need to doctors, dentists, hospitals, clinics, etc. Physicians loved me so much they didnt buy from anyone else. Thats cause I stayed on top of whats new, took classes, read magazines, all that.
When I started out it was a miracle to get them to even talk to black people. We werent in this industry except maybe drug dealers and drug addicts. But professional salespeople? No way. When they gave me my chance -- I kicked butt! I made more money than all the white boys combined! I was so good I could get a white person to color their skin black and give them stuff to make their lips big, too! he chuckled.
The only thing I wasnt good at was gambling. The smile faded as he pressed his forehead. The tightness was returning. "I won $10,000 at a Vegas blackjack table. You know...of course you don't. Everything changed after that. I changed. I thought I was invincible."
A half smile crossed his face as he shook his head. I funded my habit by asking for advances on my paycheck. Then I borrowed cash from my family, friends, and even my customers. Instead of taking care of my mother in her twilight years, I was bleeding her dry financially. She finally refused to loan me any more money. Said it was killing her to be so hard, but she had spoken with my wife and they agreed it was time for me to get some help.
I was furious. I couldnt believe the two of them had conspired against me. I fell into a deep funk. When mama called a day later to see how I was doing, I chose not to return her call. Figured I call her some other day, after I cooled down. A week later, she died.
He buried his face in his hands as he muttered, Angel, I never got a chance to tell mama how much I loved her, good-bye, what a sorry son I am, nothing. My world toppled like cascading dominoes. After she died I couldnt sell a handkerchief at a funeral.
But I kept gambling. He watched a squirrel chase a pigeon competing for food. My credit cards were frozen, one of our cars was repossessed, we lost our house, I totaled the company car when I drunkenly fell asleep at the wheel, it goes on...my boss ordered me to take a temporary leave of absence with an ultimatum -- I either get help or get fired!
"But Im not going back, you know, its too embarrassing.
He glanced sideways at her; figuring she had to be twiddling her thumbs by now. Instead, he found her eyes nearly boring a hole through him. She was listening, with an intensity he had never seen in the eyes of a child.
Just like I cant go back home, he continued. No one there. My wife and daughter left me...staying with her folks, you know... The words trailed off as he stared blankly ahead. He scratched the stubble on his chin.
Id like to believe Im a nice guy, Angel. I have never intentionally tried to hurt or harm anyone in my entire life. But last night, I went off the deep end...like some kind of crazy man...slamming stuff around the apartment, throwing things. I just cant bare to ever see that look in my wife and daughters eyes again -- the fear. They were afraid of me, kid...as if I were an armed intruder.
He sat on the edge of the bench nervously squeezing his hands between his knees as he rocked back and forth. It hurt to know I was no longer their protector. I was an enemy...a traitor. To see that look in their eyes cut deep, real deep.
He vigorously rubbed his knees. In his mind he was still in the house.
I wasnt seeing straight, rambling incoherently. Calling my wife names, provoking her, trying to make her hurt as badly as me. When Carla finally slapped me I barely remember what happened next except for lunging at her. If my daughter, Jeannie, hadnt screamed hysterically, well, I just dont know...
"That scream was like an exorcism...a demon spilled out of me and all I remember was sitting there trembling and shaking uncontrollably with my fists balled up. My wife and daughter were huddled in the corner of the couch clinging to each other and crying as they cowered in fear of the big bad monster.
As they left my wife asked me to get help. I told her she had a problem. Can you believe that? A man who sleeps countless nights on the bathroom floor telling her she has a problem!" He laughed derisively and weakly pounded his chest, I could lick it -- me, Tarzan.
He laughed again with no smile on his face.
Shes a good woman, Angel, God knows she deserves much better than me. So, now theyre gone...and here I am. If it hadnt been for you, well, I might not be sitting here...and I should have just shooed you away, girl...but I couldnt. He dabbed at his swollen eyes.
Im sorry, Angel...Look, go and enjoy the rest of the sunshine. Play with some of the kids. A cute little girl like you has so much more to look forward to than listening to some pitiful old fool. He dropped his eyes, afraid, now, to look at her, fearful that he might have scared his new friend away, embarrassed that he shared his innermost thoughts with a mere child. When he gathered enough courage to peer into her eyes he was stunned. There was no fear, only understanding, and much more...far more.
Oddly, as he gazed deeply into those two pools of brown light a wondrous sensation coursed through his body...a feeling of absolution...that in some way this small child forgave him; that after all he had said, she wasnt afraid of the monster. He felt awash in her warm glow. This quiet little girl seemed more worldly-wise than anyone he had ever met.
Strange...the deeper he delved into her eyes the better he felt. She laid her head on his shoulder and he relaxed, even allowing himself to put an arm around her and hold her close. A feeling of comfort raced through his body purging him of the cancerous depression that took refuge inside him. He didnt know this child, but he knew love...love without anything in the asking, without condemnation -- simply love, and it was a precious thing.
For the first time in days he closed his eyes and a deep and wondrous sleep swept over him. Angel, he thought, I believe in you...
The spray of the cool ocean air startled him as he rapidly blinked his eyes. It was so dark. Disoriented, it took a moment for him to realize he was still at the beach park, lying on the bench.
Angel had disappeared and he was all alone. Well, what did he expect? She did live somewhere. The cold pungent salty sea air was stimulating. It was 9:00 PM. That meant he slept on a public bench for almost 8 hours! Even the brother on the grass, the living dead, had moved to another spot.
At least his body no longer felt like it had been pummeled by fifty irate Klansman. He felt good. He walked over to the railing and looked down. Everything was fine. The crashing waves sounded pleasant and the crisp air felt great despite making him shiver. He jogged to his car and drove home.
That night he lay on the couch. He had already played back his messages. Three were from Carla begging him to call at her mothers and tell her if he was okay. She said she still loved him and they needed to talk...really talk. His daughter also left a message, telling him how much she missed him and hoped he felt better.
He wanted to call, to talk to both of them, but he didn't yet know what to say.
Clicking on the desk lamp he pulled out the family album from the night stand. Nostalgically he thumbed through it enjoying all the pictures. It was hard to suppress a smile as he stared at his daughters darling baby pictures. Jeannie really was a pretty baby. Then there were the embarrassing stick thin photographs of him in high school. He flipped the pages and came upon pictures of Carla and him, when they met in college. Most showed them laughing and acting rowdy.
Lost in thought, he absently closed the book. One of the photos slipped out, floating to the carpet, landing face down. Picking it up he turned it over and his mouth crumbled open as the family album took on a life of its own collapsing on the floor.
He couldnt stop gaping at the sepia print of his mother as a little girl. She was about seven or eight years old, wearing a bright flower dress, with thick long pigtails and shiny black shoes. Her adorable smile was nothing compared to those big brown eyes. The words finally tumbled out of his mouth, Mama...
Joy permeated his entire body as his eyes began to tear. He kissed the picture and whispered, Oh, thank you, mama... Now he knew exactly what to tell his wife.
©1999 Vol. 17 No. 5
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