Before the Heat is Gone
Patty SomloBilly Martin slipped through the Bayside’s front door and tiptoed to the kitchen. A warm-up, Alice Fisher called this. No one to relieve Billy, but Mrs. Fisher made him believe there was. Treated his time as if he’d never left Iraq. Only person here who understood.
Keeping watch, Alice Fisher said that first night about what Billy was doing out there in that crazy weather. His feet were sunken into the mud, going on four days by that point, standing in the wind, rain coming at him sideways, at the edge of Oyster Bay in front of Alice Fisher’s restaurant, the Bayside. More than anything he wanted to cool off. A hundred and twenty on a good day in that damned Iraqi desert. Even here in Washington, he was still burning up.
So he stood out there in a howling storm. In Iraq, he’d forgotten that the wind in these parts could sound like a cat in heat or chalk screeching across a blackboard. The strongest gusts nearly knocked him down. He held his ground, though.
After that bright, blinding Iraqi sun, the black hills and silvery bay soothed him. Angry balled clouds the color of barely charred charcoal pushed across the sky. The only break in the gray was when the wind picked up, tossing waves into shore, the tips whitened.
He wondered if he might be crying but knew better. His hair, what there was of it, had gotten soaked through, dripped streams of rain into his eyes. Billy hadn’t bawled since he was a child.
Four days letting the wet wind beat against him, and he still felt on fire. He couldn’t get over this -- that the desert heat refused to leave him.
Alice Fisher, his old English teacher who’d retired and opened the Bayside, had come out and talked to him. That first conversation, she said, “You’ve been out here for days, Billy. Keeping watch.”
Billy twisted around so fast the old teacher flinched and jumped back. He wanted to assure her that he had it covered. He had her back. But he’d started shaking and couldn’t quit.
That’s when he realized what had happened. As soon as he did, Billy threw back his head and laughed.
“What’s so funny?” Alice asked. “Are you all right?”
Billy laughed a little longer and then turned and looked at Mrs. Fisher, shrouded in a slick, dark hooded windbreaker.
“I’m cold,” Billy said, his upper and lower teeth tapping together.
“Cold,” Billy said again.
“Well, then, why don’t we take you inside and get you a bowl of nice, hot clam chowder?”
The chowder steamed in his face. Alice was saying something he couldn’t make out. It had been this way since he’d gotten home. Billy wasn’t sure how long that had been. The world was going about its business, while Billy stayed hidden away in this little box.
He heard Alice say, “You ought to eat that chowder before all the heat is gone.”
He nodded, and for the first time breathed in the fishy smell and something sweet. If he’d asked, Alice could have told him, "A touch of bay leaf. But mostly marjoram."
“It’s good chowder,” Alice said now. “Folks drive all the way from Seattle for it. Don’t let it go to waste.”
Billy tried to think about what Alice had just said. Seattle. He had once known these places, where one city or town existed in relation to another. He could tell you now about sand villages, all looking alike, not a drop of water anywhere. But here where he’d been born and raised his whole life, this mossy, slippery spit of land connected to a watery state, well, he was no longer sure he could remember it.
He dipped his spoon into the thick stew, waited for the lumpy white liquid to cover the aluminum, then lifted it to his mouth. After savoring the fishy comforting cream, Billy chewed the clams and enjoyed every second of the experience. He dipped the spoon again, waiting to see if the result would be the same and then repeated the lifting to his mouth. A joy seized him in the swallowing. He couldn’t recall having had that feeling in a long time.
“That chowder okay?” Alice asked and he heard her, though her voice sounded some distance away.
He looked up, afraid to take his eyes off that heavenly white liquid. Alice stood a few feet away at a wooden table, dusted white with flour.
“It’s good,” was all he managed to say.
“I’m glad you like it,” Alice said. Like the table, Billy’s old teacher’s hands were white. “The important thing is the consistency. You want it thick, but you have to be careful that the chowder doesn’t end up lumpy.”
He nodded, wondering if it would be impolite to continue shoveling the spoon into the chowder and finishing it off. He hadn’t eaten more than a couple of chocolate bars after he’d taken up his position outside. Food hadn’t meant a thing to him since coming back. He’d as easily have missed a meal than eaten it.
This chowder – in a warm, bright kitchen smelling of yeast – was something else. Billy didn’t know that he was beginning to leave the desert a little bit. All he could think right now was that the chowder tasted like nothing he’d had in his life and he felt comfortable here with Mrs. Fisher, who he now remembered he’d always liked.
“You’re welcome to come in the kitchen any time,” Alice said. “It’s good to take a break. Build yourself up.”
They used to come out here, the whole family, before Billy’s dad had run off. Digging for oysters, their rubber boots sinking in the mud. By the time he turned eight, Billy had an entire set of watercolors. Everybody else sloshed around in the shallow water, and Billy’d be staring at the dark hills, the bay curving as it drifted north. Sometimes he’d stand back in the tall sedge grass close to the Bayside and paint the old cannery, its worn wood bleached and peeling.
He’d never taken the painting seriously. This wasn’t the sort of place a boy could do that. People who lived on the Peninsula fished, raised oysters and ran taverns and stores. Salmon grew scarce and some guys started driving long haul trucks. Everybody looked for a way to make money from the tourists who came down summer weekends from Seattle and Portland.
Painting was for folks in Seattle and New York. Billy Martin would never have used the word artist to describe himself. He painted some. A hobby. Mostly, he kept the whole business to himself.
Alice Fisher had learned about the painting, after she stopped by Billy’s house one evening to talk to his mother. His senior year and Mrs. Fisher was worried that Billy was heading straight to a failing grade. She didn’t understand, Billy heard her tell his mother in the living room, while Billy hid in the hallway next to the bathroom and eavesdropped. She didn’t understand, she said again, as if thinking Billy’s mother might not have heard the first time. He was such a quiet polite boy. The type that normally liked reading.
“What’s the problem?” Billy’s mother asked next. “What’s he doing wrong?”
Mrs. Fisher cleared her throat and then said, “Well, he seems to daydream, Mrs. Martin. All through class. When I ask him a question about something we’ve just been discussing, he doesn’t know a thing that’s been said.”
Alice paused and took a sip of coffee.
“And he never does the reading. I’m afraid he hasn’t read a single thing so far this year.”
Billy heard his mother sigh. He was sure his mother sighed more than a couple hundred people combined. Billy couldn’t remember how she’d been when his dad was still around. But ever since he’d gone without a bit of warning, his mother never quit complaining. In between complaining, she sighed.
Billy didn’t tell his mother that the daydreaming made him feel better. He could sail into it and the dull, sad and sometimes angry world got left behind.
“What is it that you’re thinking about Billy?” his mother asked, after Mrs. Fisher had left the house.
Billy gave the sort of answer to which his mother had grown accustomed.
“I don’t know,” he said.
But that wasn’t true. Billy did know. Sometimes he was staring out the window at a tree – a Douglas fir, like whole sections of the Peninsula were covered with. The wind blowing and rain smearing the window glass made the green needles run like paint applied over a wet wash. He’d be imagining himself letting that dry and then applying one dark forest green line through the center.
There were those other thoughts, dreams really, that came on. Of going far away from the Peninsula, maybe even to New York. Or the dream of buying a sports car – winning the lottery to get the money for it, of course – and then driving all around the country to places he’d only seen on TV or heard about like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
It bothered Billy that Mrs. Fisher had noticed him daydreaming. He thought the dreams were his secret, that the place he slipped into was his and his alone.
* * *
The day after Alice Fisher came to Billy’s house, she asked him to stay after class.
“Your mother,” Mrs. Fisher began, “showed me some of your paintings, Billy.”
She paused, as if waiting for Billy to say something, admit the paintings were his. He felt the blood rise to his cheeks and even his forehead.
“The paintings are good,” she said, as if she’d decided that he wasn’t going to admit to anything. “You should keep it up.”
Billy finished the last spoonful of chowder and noticed that Mrs. Fisher had left a log of warm sliced bread in a red plastic basket next to him. The bread was wrapped in a white cloth napkin and when he flipped each corner back, he discovered a saucer of butter sprinkled with green herbs.
The butter turned to liquid the minute it touched the bread and dripped down Billy’s fingers as soon as he raised it to his lips.
“How’s the painting coming?” Alice asked.
Billy licked the butter off his fingers as he chewed, the soft moistness of the bread against his teeth, the butter, garlic and sweet herbs, something so awesome he thought he might explode, like the roadside bombs he sometimes couldn’t shove the sound of from his mind. The boy didn’t remember that before going into the army, food hadn’t meant a thing to him. Sure, he ate, and his mother scolded him for how much food he could shovel down and then she marveled that with second helpings and sometimes even thirds, Billy didn’t gain an ounce. But since the night that Alice Fisher came out to talk to him and invited him inside, eating had become such an intense pleasure, Billy nearly lost himself in the enjoyment of it. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Alice Fisher was such a good cook. He hadn’t known this about his English teacher when he was still in school. In fact, he hadn’t known a single thing about Alice Fisher or, for that matter, cared to.
“Billy, did you hear what I asked,” Alice said.
Billy swallowed the last bit of bread, hoping Alice would offer him some more. For the first time since he’d come home from the war, Billy had forgotten all about keeping watch. And though he’d just finished eating two bowls of steaming chowder, Billy Martin was not the least bit hot.
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