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MUSED Literary Magazine.


Fred Cheney

Dry. We’d seen dry before, some of us. Billy Latimer had traveled around, following the crops and the fruit. He said he had been to the southwest, and he told about farmers going to war with their neighbors over damming creeks or putting larger diameter pipes into the irrigation canals. One place where he was picking fruit, the owners suddenly started paying by the weight because the bushel that year weighed 20% less than the year before.

But around here, well, dry like this was something real new to our sleepy town in the woods. Dry, in this town, might mean someone would set up a sprinkler to keep a lawn green throughout August. Dry might mean someone with a dug well might have to drive to town to fill five-gallon buckets with water from the spigot outside the town office for a short time. Dry might mean that some family gardens would be a bit slower and less productive than usual. But there was nothing usual about this dry spell.

All of the things that went with a dry spell arrived two months early, and it kept getting worse. Seemed like everybody had arrived at their own personal rationing plans. First thing to go were green lawns, and then bountiful family gardens. Everybody had their own plan. I know we did in our family; we talked about it lots.

The woods, which came right up to town and our backyard, were always like a lush carpet of green, but they were not lush and they were not rich in color this year. The green was muted like it had been dusted with something gray, something like gunpowder. And gunpowder made a good comparison because you could tell the woods were explosive when you were in them. Walking through, you just felt the dry under your feet and in your nostrils. You could feel the threat of fire on your skin. It made you aware and uncomfortable, sort of like a rough wool shirt.

Warnings of the danger were part of every weather report. But just like the voluntary rationing, people came to their own forest protection strategies; they put off burning brush piles, they no longer flicked their cigarettes out their car windows, they took extra care with the grill.

Early August, a front moved in, and the sky darkened. After so many weeks of dry, the humid air felt almost like rain on your skin. Clouds hung low, they seemed to scrape the treetops, and everyone kept waiting for the sky to open up. The weather held like that for four days, and while we got reports of rain from places as close as 30 miles, nothing fell here, on us.

The last morning of it dawned as gray as ashes, but by eleven o’clock the sun was back fiercer than ever before. It beat down on the earth as though determined to dry up any moisture that might have stayed behind, and it kept hot right into the night. About midnight, all of us in town heard the sounds of dry lightning. It rumbled along, never giving up a sharp crash, only loud enough to wake the restless, which included all of us. Poppa got out of bed and went outside, walked around the house to see the direction, the closeness, the strength. When he came back in, Momma was up, coffee made, and sitting at the kitchen table ready to make plans. Poppa looked at me leaning on the doorway. At least he couldn’t tell me to go back bed because I had school the next day.

I went outside and headed downtown. People were shuffling along in the streets, talking low to one another under the glow of streetlights that seemed to be sores on the night. Gradually we all made our way to the fire station where the news of any lightning strike would come in first. A few cars came in from outside of town. The fire chief, who had been sleeping in his office for weeks, pushed the window open wide by the short-wave radio, so we would hear any reports that came in.

Talking in low tones, men pushed gravel back and forth with the toes of their boots with a concentration you usually see when they’re pushing hash browns to the side of their breakfast plate. Conversations were about what was packed and what wasn’t. No matter how impractical, you took what couldn’t be replaced. The wedding dress that had served three generations went, the flat-screen TV stayed. And, what to do about the stock? No good answer there, just open the barn doors and the pens, and hope for the best.

About 4:30 the crowd broke up, the way smoke does when given enough space. Nobody was sleepy; they were just giving in to a situation that wouldn’t move, wouldn’t change. At some deep and hidden level, I think they all would welcome a lightning strike and a fire. I know I felt that way. The wait would be over, and there would be a real enemy to fight.

I walked home, the kitchen light was still on. Through the window, I could see Momma fetching another cup of coffee. She was looking over her shoulder and asking Poppa something as she filled his mug, and he was shaking his head real slow from side to side as he was sitting down at the table.

Poppa sat down real heavy, real tired.