Clear Skies

Sooner or later everyone misses the rain. It just happens. You wake up one day alone in a strange town you’ve been living in for the past twenty years and are certain you don’t belong. The problem with the sun is that it makes it difficult to hide from others and yourself. I checked to see if the bag was still under the bed. It was. It wasn’t a dream. I pulled it out and stared at all that cash. It represented the dreams and aspirations of decent people I no longer cared for.

Clear skies. Waiting for darkness was not an option. I threw a few things on top of the money and headed out of town. Once the parking meters were no longer lining the sidewalk I knew I’d be in the clear, at least for a few hours. Rural America came up on me quick. I felt remorse for the smiles I had shared with the good people of the Clarkson Farmers Savings & Loans. It was only a matter of time before they would discover their colleague was a crook.

I parked the car behind the Foster’s house, under a tree they no longer needed. The place had been abandoned since the parents had died and the kids and grandkids were too busy chasing dreams in the big city to care for it. The highway is littered with dead homes that once represented the American Dream, but now were the County Beautification Committee’s burden. I moved the wooden board covering the window to one side and made myself at home.

The heart of a small town is formed by the rumors circulating from mouth to mouth. My indiscretion was going to rank right up there with the time old man Winston shot his wife, or when the Burgess’s son, with the help of some liquor, drove the tractor through the living room killing his uncle. The very stuff local folklore is made of. They said “he was such a nice young man”, “polite and respectful”, “he sang in the Church’s choir” and “helped out selling tickets for the pie raffle to save the public park”. I wonder if they were going to say the same things about me. I knew them all by name and greeted them like old friends as they shuffled in and out of the bank. I even helped the gossip queen, Mrs. Waverly, fill out her deposit slips once her eyesight went. “Such a handsome young man” she would say, “it’s a pity you haven’t married yet”. At fortyseven I didn’t feel particularly young, and my hairline going out of business didn’t help any. I never felt like I belonged, but my sense of duty kept me going to work. Feeling sick to the point of bending over the toilet each morning and letting her have it was part of the routine. Calling it quits seemed like the only sensible thing to do, and then I met Dora.

I had left an elaborate goodbye note on my kitchen table and boxed everything up for the Salvation Army to pick up after they would find my body at the bottom of Snake River Gorge. I got in the car and drove calmly toward my final resting place. Dora did not know it, but she had saved my life by unwillingly staging one of the most pitiful scenes I had ever seen: a young woman struggling to push a wheelchair down a dirt road with an old lady in it. I tried to ignore it but the good samaritan had the best of me. They were in the process of covering the mile between the bus stop and their home after an unsuccessful desperate visit to their local bank. She accepted my help reluctantly but after realizing I posed no threat, they went as far as inviting me in for tea. Bringing my face to make the acquaintance of sharp boulders could wait, so I accepted.

Mrs. Roberts and her daughter Dora lived a miserable existence in a big house with lots of land that no one worked or wanted. No one, except the local bank after they defaulted on their mortgage. After the man of the house had unexpectedly met his fate in a drunken shooting incident involving state troopers and a stolen car, they had to borrow on the house to survive. Like most, it never occurred to them one day the bank would want its money back. Dora didn’t appear to be all that bright, in fact some may say she was “a bit slow”. She was plain but pretty, not in the conventional sense. Her nose was small and slightly hooked, her eyes beady and of a rare ash color, her hair was light and poorly styled after a decade-old magazine cover. I sipped on my tea as I listened to their sob story and thought about her narrow hips. Dora spoke in a frail voice out of politeness rather than need. Neither of us could stand the silence and since I had nothing to say she laid their life bare in front of a total stranger. She was too simple for small talk. Mrs. Roberts didn’t say much, it didn’t look like anyone was home. Dora told me all about her sleepless nights curved over the kitchen table trying to make sense of “the paperwork from the bank”. As it was to be expected, she came up empty. It still covered the table. I knew it well. In my days as a loan officer, I had done my fair share of extortions before transferring back behind the safety of the bulletproof glass. The Roberts had borrowed too much at too high an interest. The government checks didn’t even cover for half the monthly payment, it was only a matter of time before they lost the house. Their local bank was the other branch of the same bank I had faithfully served for most of my life. It felt appropriate to postpone my demise to exact revenge on the institution and give Dora Roberts a fighting chance.

The sirens blazing down the highway knocked me out of my daze. It didn’t take the law very long to search my apartment and find the receipt for my train ticket. Time was on my side. As they made their way to the station, I changed my clothes and started cutting across the cornfields behind the house and away from the “heat”. I covered four miles just in time to catch the last bus out of Plymouth Fields. By the time I reached the Roberts’ home the sun had already made its way behind the hills. I placed the bag on the porch with a note in it and quietly walked back to the main road to walk the last few miles to Snake River Gorge. The road was deserted and darkness would soon make the rest of my job easier.
‘Mister!’, I turned to find Dora walking toward me holding up the bag.
‘What’s this bag for Mister?’
‘It’s just something I got for you and your mom.’
‘What is it?’
‘It’s a gift.’
‘Won’t you come in the house a moment?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t. I must be going.’
‘Ma isn’t feelin’ so good.’
I was eager to leave my worries at the bottom of Snake River Gorge but there was something in Dora’s voice that could get me to do anything. I followed her inside the house. She set the bag down and asked me to follow her into the upstairs bedroom. She motioned for me to go in as she waited outside. Mrs. Roberts must have died earlier that afternoon. She looked peaceful.

Dora was sitting across from me trembling. She could see on my face what I was about to say. I asked her to make tea and she did. ‘What’s wrong with ma?’ she asked finally.
‘She’s gone to a better place’ I replied. It felt strange saying it. I had never been the religious type but it just came out.
‘To heaven?’ she said after a long silence.
She had accepted her mother’s death with quiet dignity right in front of my eyes. There was a sense of melancholy in her but none of the usual despair associated with the loss of a dear one.
‘Do you have someone you can call?’
‘Perhaps you should call the hospital or the police.’
‘We don’t have a phone.’
‘At some point you are going to have to figure out a way for someone to come and get her.’
‘She’s got nowhere to go.’
‘I mean, you’re going to need to make funeral arrangements.’
‘Pa’s buried next to our giant oak behind the house.’ She pointed passed the kitchen.
‘They let you do that here?’
‘Someone once tried to convince ma to have him moved to Plymouth Field on account he fought in the war but she’d have none of it.’
I nodded. It was getting dark. I stood up. ‘I better get going’. She picked the bag up.
‘What’s the bag for?’
‘It’s for you, it’s a gift.’
‘That’s awful nice of you sir.’ She lowered her head and fell silent. I took the opportunity to make my way out. She spoke again before I could open the front door. ‘I hate doin’ this to you sir but…’
‘What is it?’
‘May I impose on you one more thing’. She spoke without raising her eyes from the floor.
‘Could you help me bury ma?’

A day I began as a fugitive was ending as a grave digger. It had been by far the most eventful day of my life. Moving the old lady wasn’t easy but I was able to enlist the help of a wheelbarrow I dug out of the garage. Dora held the lantern and murmured her prayers. I shoveled dirt and hoped not to come face to face with pa. As I was digging her mother’s grave, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Dora. She must have been in her late twenties but looked almost forty and this was going to pile on a few more years under her eyes. By the time we got done it was past midnight. I kept trying to say my goodbyes but she would have none of it and insisted I’d stay the night. I was too exhausted to argue or die, so I figured I would sleep a few hours and sneak out before sunrise. She showed me to pa’s old room. It was musty but comfortable. We exchanged our goodnights and she went up to her room. I laid there with my eyes open thinking about her future and how having none felt really good. I thought about the money I gave her and if it would make any difference now that she had no one to care for. She may have been better off laying next to her mom and pop under the giant oak. Before I knew it sleep came and I started dreaming about being a child and flying a blue kite on a beach I had never been too. It must have been around three when I heard the bedroom’s door opening. I thought the police had found me but quickly dismissed the idea since the whole affair would have been a lot louder and brighter. I saw Dora’s figure in the darkness tiptoe across the room and stand right next to the bed. I didn’t have the courage to move or let her know I was awake. She slid out of her nightgown letting it drop to the floor. I froze. The moonlight made her pale skin glow. Instinctively I averted my eyes. She moved the blanket and laid down next to me panting. For a long while we just laid there then her hands moved up and down my body. She didn’t know exactly what to do. My body reacted out of instinct and out of my control as I got on top of her. She was trembling. It felt unlike anything I had ever felt. It was over quickly. I had never known a woman before without having to pay for it. Perhaps suicide was not such a good idea after all. We laid there, our bodies barely touching, in silence.Then it occurred to me, she might have opened the bag and overwhelmed by all the hundred dollar bills in it decided the only way to thank me was to debase herself. If that was the case, this may very well have been the most expensive lay anyone ever had. Either way, it was worth it.

(Clear Skies, an original short story written by Matias Masucci, first published in November of 2015.)