Dry Weather Lightning
Everyone in Chicory County wants on my Aunt Zoebeth Bradford’s prayer list. But these days her house is shut up tight, shades closed and doors bolted to everyone but family and the delivery man from Barlow Pharmacy. I’m standing in the kitchen of my great-gran’s house across the street from the Bradfords, watching their wild goose weathervane make dizzy circles above the faded green roof. In a minute, I’m going to fix myself a whiskey sour in the biggest glass I can find. Then I’m going to sit on the steps and drink it and say goodbye to Barlow.
Zoebeth hasn’t always been this way. She was slim and auburn-haired with a giggle that livened up any crowd she was in. But Burt’s car wreck started it all. The doctors didn’t give him one chance in a million of coming out of the emergency room alive after he rolled his pickup on the way home from the Sundown Club in Picherville. Zoebeth wouldn’t accept the doctor’s prognosis of her best friend’s husband, and right there in the waiting room, with the six o’clock news blaring on the television, my aunt got down on her knees and started to pray. At first the hospital staff stepped politely around her and went on about their business. But by seven in the morning, she was drawing stares. It was when Burt recovered and was back at his job at the sale barn in a month that rumors of Zoebeth’s special gift began.
And when her favorite niece ran for and won the Miss Lake O’ the Cherokees, and went on to the Miss Oklahoma pageant, guess the town decided Zoebeth must have a direct pipeline to heaven. Zoebeth never told anyone whether she prayed for Melissa to win or not, but the girl never was the town beauty, and her talent was so bad we couldn’t look at the t.v. screen or at each other when she performed it. I suppose her dress was meant to make her look ethereal, white floaty material with silver sequins, just right for the poem she’d written and recited that evening at the pageant in Tulsa. “The Angel on My Shoulder.” It was so idiotic that we figured divine intervention would have to happen for her to even make the top ten, not to mention winning the state title, which she did. That’s when people started coming up to Zoebeth at the grocery store and handing her slips of paper with names and prayer requests on them. Sometimes they called her on the phone, and the more aggressive or desperate ones would come by her house and try to persuade her to pray for their cause.
Great-grandma Minor passed away this June, and in July, after my family decided that a nineteen-year-old bound for college was responsible enough, I moved into her house to look after things. She’d put out bedding plants in the front flower bed, and one of my responsibilities was to water the marigolds and petunias. I didn’t disturb Gran’s house much, except to put out a few things my mother had in the sixties, things I think embarrass my her now: a purple shag rug, a banana shaped coffee table, slightly warped, and a strobe candle. All that stuff she used when she was in her Cosmic Connection phase, long before she got a job training horses at the Waldroop Stables in Catoosa and went into her clean, uncluttered mind‑set, throwing everything out except a card table, one chair and a folding mattress for each of us.
I’m glad to be next door to Zoebeth. It fits with my plan of trying to get her to tell about her prayer list while I record it, secretly. But I can never get her in a talkative mood at the right time, and this evening will be my last chance before I leave Barlow. Right now, I could be with the other guys down at the Snooker Nook, shooting pool and listening to them brag about heading to college to play football or basketball. They haven’t said what they think about me getting a scholarship at the T.U. Drama Department, but I guess they’re not surprised. One time in the tenth grade, I made the mistake of saying that I liked to write the papers our English teacher assigned us. That branded me a super-nerd until they found out I’d write their essays for five bucks a shot.
But writing plays and making documentary films to please myself is what I do these days, something else they twit me about besides my name. Kathleen (she’s never let me call her Mom), said handles like Mike and Sam weren’t cool in the seventies, so she named me Quasar. “Don’t worry about who your father is,” she’d told me. “You’re a child of the Universe.” When I reminded her of that remark last Christmas when we were all sitting around shooting the breeze, she called me a flat-out liar.
I rummage in the kitchen cabinet for a one of those huge, footed tumblers that Gran used to fill with milk to go with her molasses cookies. This house suits me, somehow, although beinginside it is like swimming under water in a murky lake. Dark rooms, the only light reflecting from the purples and blues of the glass vases and bottles, and occasionally a gleam from a white dress or a pale face in old photographs that line the shelves. The square television set as large as a child’s playhouse sits in a corner, my grandpa’s recliner-rocker squatting in front of it. That chair is a relic from the forties, covered in a deep red fabric, and the thing about it was that you could always shake a few coins out of it if you were in a hurry for a cold bottle of Pepsi and were short on cash. Gran never did mind if I took the tacks loose at the bottom and fished for money as long as I was careful.
But now the sun’s going down and the light fading. I’m squeezing juice out of a lemon I found in the fridge. The fifth of Jack Daniels from the closet in the bathroom will serve well. I pour a healthy shot of whiskey into my glass, add ice, water and lemon juice, mentally thanking Great-grandpa Minor, who died thirteen years ago, and who must have known that Gran’s reach didn’t extend to the top shelf.
I sit on the steps, sip my drink and stare at Zoebeth’s front door, thinking about her and Mitch, wondering how they can stand being shut up all day in a house that’s too small even for one person. And does Mitch ever wish for some male relatives? Grandpa Woodrow is Zoebeth’s only brother, but he’s moved to a farm, and I’m not even sure Zoebeth would let him in if he came to visit. We’re surrounded by women: Kathleen, her sister Grace and my Grandmother Noreen. And Zoebeth, of course. For my own sake, selfish, I know, I’d give anything if Mitch was twenty years younger and in his right mind.
Garvin, Kathleen’s brother, and Mitch had been buddies since grade school. I’ve heard that Garvin was the leader in all their mischief, innocent stuff, I guess, till they discovered drugs. Kathleen won’t talk to me about any of this, but I hear bits and pieces from family members. Aunt Grace told me a little. Garvin was her twin, and she said she knew he and Mitch and Kathleen were doing but she couldn’t stop them. Anyway, Garvin drowned in Lake Tenkiller in l970, and Mitch was never the same after that. I hear he would forget Garvin was dead and call up and ask for him. Grace said Grandma would cry, but finally she became patient with him saying he was like a little child. He’s not little, physically. He’s over six feet tall with a mass of dark hair like the Minors, but he has his mother’s pale gray eyes and fair skin. Sometimes he recognizes his family and friends and sometimes he doesn’t.
I go to the kitchen for more ice. When I come back, I’m surprised to see that someone has opened the Bradford’s front door, and through the screen I can see Mitch chain smoking in front of the television as usual. Zobeth comes to the door and looks out. When she sees me, she looks back at Mitch, then eases the door open and pads barefooted across the street to sit down beside me, careful to position her body behind the holly bush. Neighbors are beginning to come out to their porches, and I guess my aunt knows she can draw a crowd in no time. “Hot enough for you?” she asks. If it had been morning, she’d have commented, “Looks like it’s going to be another hot day,” both the usual summer greetings in Barlow, depending on the time of day.
“Yeah.” I try to hide my glass behind a pot of wilted petunias, hoping she won’t smell the whiskey, mentally kicking myself for not having my tape recorder ready. She wraps her long skirt around her knees, and we’re both quiet for a moment. The cicadas are rasping the way they do in dry weather. I’ve been watering the shrubs around Gran’s house but the flowers are about to give up in the heat. The lawn doesn’t need much mowing, since the hot winds have seared it, and it won’t revive till the fall rains set in.
Finally I break the silence. “Maybe I should have mowed your lawn too.” I’m looking at the scraggly grass around her house.
She shrugs her shoulders. “I hear you’re headed for college.”
“Yeah. I got a scholarship.”
“College already. Seems like just yesterday when you used to stop by your gran’s after school. I was thinking today how long she was alone after your great-grandpa died. She was good to Mitchell. Made him fried peach pies every day or so. He cried like a baby when she passed away.”
Zoebeth puts her head down on her knees. She keeps her face turned so she can watch Mitch through the screen door. I don’t want to think about death this particular evening so I try to change the subject. “Uh, been watching any good t.v. lately?”
“Television? Ah, that thing blares but I can’t tell you what programs are on. Mitch watches it day and night, but it’s all the same to him..” She changes the subject back to one I know she wants to pursue. “What’s your mama and your grandma Noreen and your aunt Grace gonna’ do when you leave for college? Don’t you think they’ll be lonesome?”
“Hey, I’m not going to China–just Tulsa, forty-five minutes away.”
“Still, women need a man,” she insists.
The phone rings inside the Bradford’s house. Mitch is still slumped in his chair before the television and doesn’t look up. Zobeth doesn’t react either. Finally, on the third ring, I ask her if she wants me to get it. “No, I’m not answering the phone this week,” she says. “Only if the pharmacist calls. He knows to ring once, hang up and then ring again.”
We sit there trying to absorb what coolness we can from the south breeze. The moon is above the Bradford’s roof line by now, and I can hear parents calling their children home. “Kinda lonesome around here,” I say, thinking of when I used to play in the neighborhood on summer evenings. I like Barlow at dusk. People still make gnat smokes by letting a cotton rag smolder in a bucket. I doubt if it runs off the gnats and mosquitoes, but I like the scent better than chemical bug spray. I can see a few people sitting on their porches watching their kids play hide-and-seek and statue and kick-the-can, and I want to somehow chronicle everything but it will take more than a video camera. I would take a medium that hasn’t been invented yet. The smells are part of it, the newly‑cut grass with a scent like sliced cucumbers, the dusty wind dying down to a whisper at dark, the kid’s voices, high and thin, as they search the alleys, the vine-covered sheds and peer into dark culverts hoping to find that one last renegade, that hold-out who will scream like a wild man and leap out of the shadows and send everyone shrieking to their own porches. Once in a while, the deeper tone of an adult’s voice will cut through the evening, calling a child home. Shadows loom at screen doors, then fall elongated across front yards where porch lights pool into circles on lawns that seem to grow smaller and disappear into the darkness near the end of the quiet street.
“You know something, Quase?” Zoebeth was still watching her son.
“This may sound funny to you. Maybe you’ll think I’m having grand thoughts, but I’m beginning to believe I have an inkling of how God must feel.”
I want an ice cube, but I don’t dare fumble in my glass. “How do you mean?” I ask finally.
Zoebeth raises her head and pushes her hair behind her ears. I notice that it’s stringy, not done up in little curls and waves like it used to be. Her dress is loose and wrinkled. When I’d gone inside her kitchen earlier to use her phone, I noticed her sink was piled with dirty dishes and her trash hadn’t been taken out. Kathleen had told me that Zoebth was once the most house proud lady in Barlow, and one who would never appear barefooted and wearing a rumpled dress.
“Well, lonesome, but more than that,” she explains. “Not having anyone to talk to. God is above all that, you know,” she says. “God is beyond need.” She laughs softly. “People want this and that, or think they do, and they come to me to pray for what they want. Then, when they get whatever it was they requested, it never pleases them. Take Gus Farris, for instance. He wanted his aunt’s farm, so I prayed and his aunt left him the farm when she died. Now he has it and the drought’s burned all the crops up. He’s borrowed so much money he’s about to lose the place. Said he wishes he’d never heard the word farm. And Laurel Beauchamp, she thought she wanted Bo Durrel for a husband. Now she’s got him and all his fat relatives besides. They moved in with Bo and Laurel and broke down every stick of her nice new furniture. Oh, I could tell you story after story,” she continues. “And none of them with a happy ending.”
Zobeth slaps at a mosquito, then stares at the dark smear it makes on her hand. I fake a sneeze, mumble something about a tissue before I get up and go into the house to find my pocket-tape recorder.
Zoebeth’s phone keeps ringing now and then, but she acts as if she doesn’t hear it. Mitch keeps his eyes on the television screen. Once he shuffles over to the door and calls to Zoebeth about his other pack of cigarettes. She gets up and goes back across the street and inside to hunt for them. While she is looking for the cigarettes, he comes to the screen door and peers out at me, crooking his finger. I signal for him to wait a moment and go inside and retrieve my pocket sized tape recorder. Switching it on, I stick it into my shirt pocket and go back outside and across the street to Mitch. “What do you want?” I ask. He presses his face against the screen, flattening his swollen features into a grotesque mask. He appears to be studying me, although it was not light enough to tell. Then he speaks.
“You’re Garvin,” he says. Then, “But you’re not Garvin. Why?”
I’m startled. He’s never confused me with my uncle before, although people say we look alike. “Why, what?” I ask.
Mitch turns on the porch light and I can see his face plainly now. His skin is fish belly white and glistens as if it’s wet. He presses his face even harder against the screen, so hard I’m afraid the wire will break loose from the frame. His lips barely move. “Your poor fatherless boy,” he whispers. “Why aren’t you feeding the lake?”
Zoebeth comes back, pushes Mitch away and hands him his cigarettes. Then she reaches into her dress pocket and takes out something. When I see her fumble with it and then hand something to Mitch, I realize it’s a pill bottle and she’s giving him medication. He tosses the pill into his mouth and snaps his head back and swallows it in what seems like a reflex action. Zoebeth comes back outside and starts to walk across the street again, leaving me on her porch. Mitch goes back to his place in front of the television, but as he sits down, he bends his head to look under his arm at me and laughs soundlessly.
When we’re both back on Gran’s steps, Zoebeth takes up where she left off. “It’s sad to be left alone when you’re getting old. “I praise God for Mitch. Your great-gran was alone for years, you know.” I start to protest, but she interrupts me. “Oh, I know you dropped in for pie and milk after school, but she still ate her supper alone every night, watched the news and went to bed, just like the women in your family are going to do when they get old.”
“But I can’t live with Kathleen or Grace or my grandparents for the rest of my life. Anyway, Kathleen doesn’t want me to live with her. And wouldn’t it be abnormal for a grown man to live at home forever?”
I stop. We both look at Mitch, who is now hugging his knees and rocking back and forth I try to change the subject, saying something stupid about the dry weather.
She interrupts me. “Look,” she points far to the south. Over the lake, lightning is forking and splitting into frenzied patterns above the line of dark hills. “That’s dry weather lightning. Just like it did the summer of ‘54. Don’t get your hopes up. It does that during a drought. Promises rain but won’t deliver a drop.”
We both sit watching the sky, hoping the line of clouds will inch towards Barlow. Zoebeth drones on. “It makes a lot of sense now, Christ being tempted by Satan. He could have crowned himself king–Jesus, I mean. The Devil made that clear enough.”
I admit I get squirmy when people start Bible talk, although I was baptized at the Westside Methodist, same as Zoebeth. I wonder exactly what she means, but before I can ask, she is off on another tangent, speaking more slowly, as if forcing the words out. “People look at me in a certain way, as if trying to gauge me. When I walk up to a group they quit talking and get uneasy. Even my best friend Vivian does it. Mitch and me quit going out to eat. People write notes on their napkins and send them over to my table. Pleas for prayer. They offer money, beg, cry, even threaten. I don’t go out anymore. Not even to church.” She rubs her eyes with her fists like a little girl. I hope she doesn’t cry. “I never asked for any of this, Quaze. I always said, since I was a girl, that I’d be a secretary when I grew up. Then I met Roy when I was eighteen and all my plans went out the window. Never had any regrets though. Even after what happened.”
I know what she’s talking about. The whole town knows. About four months after Zoebeth discovered her powers, Roy Bradford started seeing another woman, Janet Tucker, who worked down at the lumber yard keeping books. Roy didn’t flaunt Janet in Zoebeth’s face, but he wasn’t very discreet either. Then in about three months the two of them, Janet and Ray, left town, and Zoebeth never heard from her husband again, except through a lawyer who forwards her a check from Roy each month.
Zoebeth throws her head back and surveys the night sky for a long time, finally ending up fixing her gaze back on the clouds that don’t seem to be moving any closer. “One thing I’ve wondered about. Why me? I look at those healing preachers on television and they have real showmanship. Me, I couldn’t say a piece before the class without losing my voice from fright. Never wanted to be important. Just wanted to be a good wife and mother. And a good church member, of course.” She swats at another mosquito that’s whining around our heads. “They’re always worse in hot weather, seems like. If it would just rain.”
I have a crazy notion to ask her if rain is on her prayer list but catch myself. Mitch comes to the door. “Mama, I want to go to bed now.” Zoebeth goes back across the street and into the house. About that time, their phone rings once, then three times. The pharmacist’s signal. In about five minutes, the Barlow Pharmacy truck rolls up and parks in front of the Bradford house. The delivery man gets out and goes to the door. He’s carrying a small white sack. Zoebeth opens the door, looks inside the bag, nods, and gives the man some money.
Then she comes back into view and hands Mitch what looks like a glass of milk. She reaches into the sack, fumbles with something and finally extends her palm. Mitchell takes what she offers, chases it with a gulp of milk, then turns to wait for his mother to switch off the television and lead him to his bedroom at the corner of the house. The light comes on and I can see their shadows against the window shades as Zoebeth appears to be buttoning Milt into his pajamas. Then the light goes out, leaving the house in complete darkness.
I go back inside to find the bottle of Jack Daniels, fortify my drink, and switch off my tape recorder. Back on the steps, I listen to the weathervane turn in the wind and watch an occasional flash of lighting reflect in the two dark windows of Zoebeth’s house. I think about how you can look at a thing over the years and never see it, and long after everyone in Barlow has put out their lights and gone to bed, I sit there and wrestle with a question.
Is Mitch’s mother the most righteous woman on earth, or is she the most selfish?
The lightning flashes again, and I imagine I can see my reflection, a hunched figure sitting on a front stoop of a house about to be vacated. I raise my glass and make a drunken toast to my aunt, to Mitchell, who will never leave his mother’s side, and to myself and the bags I’ve already packed.
“Beyond all need,” I say, as I drink the last inch of tepid water left by the melting ice. “God and Zoebeth, beyond all need.”