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The day the rain came began like all the others. Hot, dry, dusty, with waves of heat shimmering over the asphalt. The way the ground glinted made the whole town seem like a mirage, its contours unreliable and therefore unreal. I think some part of all of us believed this to be a mythic place. After all, no one ever left, so when we went about our daily errands and caught a neighbor’s eye we were really saying, can you believe it, we’re both still here.
When the first drop fell, fat and juicy and with a satisfying splat on the ground, I was sitting on the porch reading a newspaper. My eyes were scanning the page without comprehending words; it was hard to focus over the sound of my grumbling stomach, loudly demanding lunch. I suspected my fridge contained nothing but an ancient bottle of ketchup and past-expiry milk and was putting off opening the door to confirm, knowing the grocery list taped there would only compound my feeling of failure.
The droplet’s landing was audible even over my gastrointestinal complaints, and this caused me to lower my paper, looking for the source of the unfamiliar sound. I could see a mark on the sidewalk and approached with a mix of trepidation and disbelief, much as you would a meteor crash site. I was bent over, examining the wet Rorschach blot for evidence of my insanity, when the second drop hit me square on the neck. Then a third, on my hairline, and a fourth, on my open palm. By the fifth I’d closed my eyes and tilted my head toward the darkening sky. I wanted every single splash to touch my face, the drops so much a mystery I wondered if they possessed healing powers. As the water ran in rivulets down my cheeks I thought: the rain feels just like tears.
The drought had lasted for years, so long the town’s youngest residents had never seen rain, so long it was no longer a misfortune but merely the characteristic weather pattern of this place. As I walked to the store I saw kids running out of their houses, congregating around rapidly growing puddles. I watched as one child in each huddle tentatively coiled up like a spring and then released, jumping feet first into the pooling water with what must be innate instinct. By the time I reached the store the adults had joined in, and the town’s tree-lined streets echoed with their joyous shouts. The water radiated in all directions – as much splashing up as coming down – and I thought, for the first time in forever, of the simple pleasure of running through a sprinkler on a hot day. How long it had been since I’d walked through water; not since water became a luxury, a miracle.
Inside the store the aisles were empty, and Calvin, the only employee on duty, stood transfixed by the entrance. He must have been inadvertently standing on a sensor because the automatic doors kept opening and shutting uselessly, lacing the refrigerated atmosphere with a fresh, earthy undertone. I threw a few cans of soup into a basket, grabbed a loaf of already-stale bread and headed to the register. After a few minutes of waiting by the counter, I felt the grace period for politeness had elapsed.
“Um, Calvin?” I said, interrupting his doorside vigil.
“Oh! Sorry, sorry, I didn’t see you there, I’m coming.” He gave a last longing look at the rain and hustled back to the register to ring up my items. As he placed them in the bag I remembered there was one more thing I needed.
“Hey, do you have any umbrellas here? I don’t mind the rain, of course, but I just don’t want this bread to be soggy by the time I get back.”
Calvin broke into a smile which grew into a hearty laugh. “Boss, we haven’t had umbrellas in stock for about a decade. I’ll use a couple more plastic bags to wrap the bread.”
When I left the store it was still raining, heavily now, and many of the residents had retreated to the dry refuges of their covered porches or living room windows. As I trudged home, cradling my mummified groceries like a baby, it struck me that we were a town clearly unaccustomed to falling water. The lack of it had become a daily fact we’d organized our lives around.
Most of the residents treated their yards as an extension of their indoors, an extra room that just happened to be outdoors. I passed innumerable sofas, tables, bikes, books, laundry – all arranged in houses’ yards, all forgotten in the sudden deluge, all now sopping wet and in various states of ruin. We’d cut various corners over the years, decided certain things weren’t necessary. I passed more than one car whose wipers had long ago stopped working and were never fixed, the drivers craning their heads out their windows in an attempt to see. Our local newspaper left its papers stacked out in the open on the sidewalk, all reportage now melting into pulpy, soggy messes. I noticed, now, that a few of our neighbors had even built their new houses without gutters, and I watched the water pour off their roofs in unruly sheets. When I arrived back at my own house, I was dismayed to realize that the intricately-worked bench I’d installed in my backyard, and on which I often read, was made of iron. Soon, it would be covered in a creeping tide of rust.
Two weeks later, I went back to the store and found a mob of people inside, crowded around the counter. It was still raining then, so I stopped at the entrance to shake water off of me before approaching. At the center of the throng, I found Calvin, looking flustered and put-upon.
“Look,” he was saying, “I understand you’re all upset but I ordered the items a week ago when you asked me. I’m only telling you what I’ve been told – they were supposed to be here today.”
As the crowd yelled over each other and at Calvin, I nudged the woman next to me, who lived a block away from my house. “Marisol,” I whispered, “what’s this about?”
“The rain,” she whispered back, mouthing the word as if it were filled with untold power. “The things we need for rain. Umbrellas, ponchos, boots, tarps, wiper blades – we asked Calvin to get them a week ago and they’re not here yet. People are starting to go a bit mad.”
As I looked at the crowd I saw that she was right; we were all getting a bit stir-crazy. Resentment had started to creep in, at being forced indoors, at watching ourselves become helpless.
“Okay,” I heard Calvin say, in his most exasperated voice. “I’ll call them again and tell them it’s urgent.”
“I hope we get that stuff in soon,” I said to Marisol, “I really need an umbrella.”
Two days later, I was playing a half-hearted game of solitaire in my living room when the doorbell rang. Marisol stood on the step, looking exactly like the Morton Salt girl in a bright yellow dress, her whole body shielded by an enormous umbrella.
“Hey,” she said, smiling. “Guess what finally got delivered.” I noticed then that she had an extra umbrella tucked under her arm, which she handed to me. “I’ve never seen Calvin look so relieved. Got you one too.”
The umbrella was the same size as hers, large enough to feel like you were passing through the world in a personal bubble of dryness. It was also the same color as her dress, and thus the perfect dose of cheerfulness for a rainy day. I took it out of its plastic reverently, fondling the crisp nylon folds.
“Thanks for saving me the trip to the store,” I told her. “What do I owe you?”
“Nothing, neighbor,” she said, skipping back down my walkway. “Good luck staying dry.”
Weeks passed, and then months, and eventually the novelty of the rain wore off because it never stopped. The first month had been the hardest before Calvin updated his orders to stop the shelves from being regularly ransacked, and before the town tapped into its emergency fund to help residents rainproof their houses, cars, and selves. We had settled into things now, clearing our yards of waterlogged detritus and developing hobbies suited to being indoors. The only person who had not yet adjusted was the elderly carpenter who lived right on the edge of the town; he was building an ark to sail to safety from the flood he believed was coming. While we silently laughed at his efforts, none of us dared call him mad because we were not yet sure whether he was simply prescient.
Marisol, the most agriculturally gifted of all of us, cultivated a plot which became so legendary in the town we took to calling it the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. She placed a trellis at its entrance, overgrown with cascading flowers, and inside she planted swaths of lush ferns to flank her orderly rows of seedlings. Over time the garden yielded an embarrassment of riches – plump tomatoes, crunchy carrots, bulbous eggplants, bushels upon bushels of fragrant herbs. As Marisol was by nature generous, we would regularly find cartons on our porches stacked with gleaming vegetables and topped with an artful bouquet of flowers.
In return for her beautification of my life, I periodically stopped by for an hour or two of work, pulling weeds and filling my fingers with dirt. Mostly, I just enjoyed being in that space, surrounding myself with the fecund bounty and listening to the rain’s soft thuds on the soil. Somewhere in that year, when the ration on water was lifted, I stopped taking military showers and treated myself to an old, clawfoot tub. Every time I returned from Marisol’s garden I went straight to the upstairs bathroom and filled the tub to the brim, not caring if some of the water splashed over to the floor. I would slowly lower myself in, savoring the immersion and imagining myself in an ocean, an expanse of water that was endless and went on forever. I would stay in the bath long after my fingers became pruny and the water levels lowered from evaporation and the bad seal on the drain. I remained until the water swept out entirely and I finally realized I was sitting in an empty marble vessel.
One year later, the rain stopped. It just shut off, like a faulty faucet, and the skies refused to open again. We held our breath for days, not wanting to disturb the balance of things. But eventually we had to breathe and when we did, we felt the same dry, dusty air we’d forgotten stinging our nostrils.
After months of no rain, we became desperate. We all agreed to set aside a portion of our water ration for Marisol’s garden. None of us mentioned that the vegetables had lost their sheen, that the flowers were wilted by the time they arrived to us. We clung stubbornly to the cartons as the last vestiges of our good fortune.
One evening, I was carrying a jug of water to Marisol when I glimpsed a group of people arranged in a circle across the street. I stopped to watch as they exploded out of stillness into a complex choreography. Arms raised to the sky, beseeching, then feet stomping the earth, demanding as if to dislodge something there. By the mailbox, I noticed a sign which read “Rain dance, 5 pm, all welcome” and suddenly understood. I felt no judgment, though; I couldn’t. Was this any more crazy than the abandoned ark by the carpenter’s house? It was just another desire made physical, as much a folly as our attempt to will Marisol’s garden back to abundance. What else can you do when nature fails you?
Returning from Marisol’s, I tripped over umbrella she’d given me, which I kept standing ready by the front door. I wiped off the fresh coat of dust which had settled in its folds and put it back in its place. It remained there for years after Marisol became the first of us to move away, after I sold the tub because I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore. I left it there even though I had no use for it, not for its primary purpose, at least. But mostly, the umbrella stayed there because I couldn’t bear to pack away an object that seemed so hopeful and because, well, you never know.