Friday, January 1, 2010

The Rain Song (1989)

Mainstream Fiction
3,729 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1989. All rights reserved.

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Frog watched the rain through the plate glass window of the diner. It was really coming down. It was the kind of rain where it was best to stay indoors and watch television. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to check if the flashlight had fresh batteries, or even to sit down in the cellar with the radio fixed on the weather reports. He looked down at the row of silent red stools on the other side of the counter. Nobody was coming in here tonight. At least not until this storm blew over. A man would have to be crazy or just plain desperate to venture out on a night like this.

A flash of lightning outside revealed the slippery street corner and the resulting boom of thunder seemed to shake the flashing yellow streetlights. Frog looked at his watch. The red numbers glowed at him dumbly. 2:25 AM.

There was a jingle from the bell over the door and the rumble of the rain on the pavement suddenly became a sharp hiss. Frog looked up and saw a man shutting the door. The man wore no hat and his gray hair stuck to his head in wet, messy clumps. His face held a day’s growth of beard and bore lines deepened to middle age. The man wore a simple gray sport jacket over a white shirt and a gray tie. His shoulders were soaked and his cuffs dripped rainwater onto the waxed floor.

Frog quickly wiped down the counter with a rag. “Well, come on in,” he said. “I almost thought I’d be waiting the storm out alone. You just get caught in the downpour?”

The man ran a hand through his wet hair, pushing it back and off his forehead. His rubber-soled loafers squeaked on the tiles as he padded over to one of the stools and sat down. He fixed his steel gray eyes on Frog and said nothing.

Something in Frog’s guts twitched. He did not like the way the man was looking at him. It was his eyes, the eyes were too pleading. They were begging Frog to say something that the man wanted to hear. Something he needed to hear.

“Is there a problem?” Frog asked as he took a step away from the counter.

The man lowered his head and shook it slowly. He dug into one of the pockets of his baggy black trousers and brought out some change, which he dropped carelessly onto the counter. A quarter, a dime, and two pennies. He looked up and the rainwater on his face momentarily made Frog think he had been crying.

“How much is the coffee?” the man asked in a voice that had been used too much recently.

Frog rubbed the back of his neck and found it slick with sweat. There was another flash of lightning. This guy was giving him the creeps. It was as if he had just stepped out of an old black and white episode of The Twilight Zone. There wasn’t an ounce of color on him. Frog looked to the door, half expecting to see Rod Serling standing there in his black suit.

“Twenty-five cents,” Frog said as he fetched the pot and poured the man a cup of the steaming black.

The man left all his change on the counter and Frog did not pick any of it up. The man coughed, took a sip of coffee, and scratched the stubble on his neck. He placed one hand over his eyes and put his elbows up on the countertop.

Frog looked out at the rain. It was already beginning to let up a little, but still the streets were empty. Normally, even this late, people would be passing by the window; people who lived in the apartments across the street, party-goers moving from one neighborhood bar to another, prostitutes looking for a trick, panhandlers begging for spare change. But now, no one. Not in this rain. Only the man sitting here drinking black coffee.

“My friends call me Frog.” Frog was not sure why he was talking to the man. He tried to be friendly with all his patrons, but when they were obviously cold or gruff, he usually left them alone. He didn’t know why he was trying with this man. Something lonely about the rain, maybe.

The man looked up and managed to pull a weak smile across his pale lips. Lightning flashed again and Frog stared into the man’s gray eyes and waited for the thunder. One second. Two. Three. Each second seemed a little longer than the one before it. The thunder came suddenly, and after it had died away, the man spoke.

“Do you ever dream, Frog?”

“Well sure,” Frog said. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Did you ever have a dream so real that when you finally did wake up, you had forgotten you were dreaming?”

Frog paused. “I don’t usually remember my dreams so well. But I think I know what you mean, uh...Mister...uh...”

The man sighed. “Page,” he said with a mouth like an open wound. “Robert Page. My name is Robert Page.”

Frog thought the man sounded as if he was trying to come to grips with a startling revelation.

The man took another sip of coffee and gave Frog a long, measured look. He nodded his head and cleared his throat. “What’s the date?”

Frog gave the man an odd look. “The twenty-fourth.”

“Of what month?”

“August,” Frog said.

The man nodded again. “Of what year?”

“Nineteen seventy-three,” Frog said.

“Yes,” the man said. “Tonight, August twenty-fourth, nineteen seventy-three, I have had just such a realistic dream. I dreamed that I was born on February second, nineteen forty-two at Charity Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to a Mister and Misses Albert Morris, and was given the name Patrick Steven. My mother’s obstetrician was out of town that day and I was delivered by a young, blue-eyed intern, fresh out of medical school, by the name of Powers. In the years to come, my father would often joke that I’d picked up more information about the birthing procedure in nine months than Doctor Powers had in eight years.”

Frog narrowed his eyes at the man. “What do you mean by, ‘in the years to come?’”

“The years that I dreamed,” the man said. “I dreamed thirty-seven years of life as Patrick Morris last night.”

Frog raised his eyebrows. “You remember all thirty-seven years?”

The man nodded. “I think back on it now and I don’t find the half-remembered images and the broken fragments of a dream washed from my mind. Instead, I feel the solid memories of a life I have led. My early childhood is a hazy smear, but isn’t that true of everyone’s recollection? Once I reach the age of about nine, the images fall together into an orderly line of experiences. I feel I could map out every month of every year, so that it would resemble a timeline in one of those history books. Can you do this with your life?”

Frog did not answer the question. But he was thinking about what the man had said. He realized with a bit of shock that his blur went well past the age of nine.

The man drank some more of his coffee. “My earliest concrete memory is the day my parents brought my younger brother Waldo home from the hospital.” The man smiled. “Little Waldo. I was five when he was born in forty-seven. He was named after my only uncle, who along with his brother, my father, owned a book bindery over on Sheridan Place. The family naturally used Big Waldo and Little Waldo to distinguish between the two at get-togethers.” The man sat for a moment and shook his head, smiling the whole time.

Lightning flashed again. Frog was listening to everything the man had to say. He had dreamt he was someone else for thirty-seven years? In one night? The guy was either lying or crazy. Frog didn’t want to believe the man was insane, but he felt he would be disappointed to find out the man was making all this up.

“When I was twelve,” the man continued, “and Waldo seven, I remember I tried to teach him how to ride my new bicycle. It was a Schwinn Flyer that the company had started making in fifty-three. The bike was blood red and had those really thick tires. Santa Claus had given it to me the year before and I loved it.” The man raised his eyebrows. “Well, back then I thought Santa had given it to me, but now I guess I know better.”

Frog smiled, but it was here that he started to rely on the idea that the man was not sane. He was talking much too glibly about this dream, he was much too sure about what had happened in it. Worse, he was convincing himself that the dream had been real. The more he talked about it, the more comfortable his voice became. Frog began to wince every time the man said ‘I.’ There was too much conviction behind it.

“Anyway,” the man said. “I took Waldo to the top of the Villard Street Hill and set him down on the seat of my new Flyer. I started walking with him, holding onto the handlebars with one hand and the back of the seat with the other. Waldo stared down at the front wheel and tried to keep himself balanced. As we began to go faster, I let go of the bike for a second or two at a time, grabbing it again before Waldo could tip over. But he seemed to be doing fine, so I let go of the bike altogether. There I was jogging next to him as he steered my bike down the hill.

“Frog,” the man said, “I wish you could have seen him. He had this big dopey grin on his face and was giggling with excitement. I felt proud watching him have so much fun. I remember thinking how glad I was to have Waldo for a little brother.”

Frog glanced outside at the rain. It looked like the worst might be over, but it was still coming down hard. He looked back at the man. This guy is crazy. He’s crazy and this dream of his is some kind of delusion, or he was sane and this dream has driven him crazy. Frog was not sure why that scared him.

“That’s when I tripped over the long laces of my sneakers. I went down and skinned my knee, but I ignored the pain and got up right away. Waldo was picking up speed quickly as he continued on down the hill.”

“What did you do?” Frog asked.

The man raised his voice. “I ran after him. I kept hoping he would lose his balance and fall over. Sure, he would get hurt, but every moment he kept that bike upright, the worse the crash he was going to have. When I realized I wasn’t going to catch him, I started yelling at him to put on the brakes, you know, to go backward on the pedals. But he didn’t understand me. I was running into the wind, maybe he never heard me. I don’t know.” The man was shaking his head helplessly. “He just kept on going down that hill, screaming for me, ‘Patty! Patty!’ over and over again in that shrill little voice he had.”

The man ran a shaky hand through his wet hair. Frog stood and waited for him to continue. When he did, it was with a voice under tight control.

“Villard was crossed by Custer Avenue at the bottom of the hill, where Villard Street ended. The Murchinson’s lived right at the bottom and Old Man Murchinson was out that day cutting his grass. Waldo sailed across Custer, narrowly missing a moving van, and shot right up Murchinson’s driveway and into the old man’s prize rosebushes. Waldo went crashing through the branches and thorns like some kind of wrecking ball. When I finally got to the bottom of the hill, I ignored my new bike, all twisted and broken, and scratched myself up bad dragging Waldo out of those damned rosebushes. Murchinson came over and started yelling at us, but I just sat there and hugged Waldo tightly. He was bleeding and bruised and crying, but he was still safe, and I started to cry louder than he was.”

Tears welled up in the man’s eyes and his face grew paler. He took a long drink of coffee.

“I never hugged him tighter in his life, but he felt like he was slipping out of my grasp. That winter, Waldo would catch a bad case of pneumonia, and would eventually die after one of his lungs collapsed. But when I remember his last months, I don’t remember the funeral, or the hospital, or his fevers, or my parents’ tears. All I remember is the Villard Street Hill and Old Man Murchinson’s goddamned rosebushes.”

There was an uncomfortable pause. “I’m sorry,” Frog said, realizing after he had said it that he was offering condolences for a relative who had never existed. Did it matter? Real or imagined, pain was pain, and couldn’t the wounds go just as deep?

The story went on. The man resumed his tale slowly, but as he got farther away from the death of his brother, he became more stable and quick of the tongue. Frog sat and listened to the whole story as if engrossed in a good book. At first, he tried to pick holes in it, to show himself that the dream was a delusion of the man’s insanity. But as he listened, the events of the life of Patrick Morris rolled off the man’s tongue like the credits to a documentary. The man was honest and sincere in everything he said, and he spoke with a touch of melancholy that Frog supposed one could only present if one had actually lived the story at hand.

In 1956, Patrick’s parents, Albert and Christine, had their third and last child, a girl named Rose Marie. An adolescent Patrick secretly hated his parents for trying to replace Waldo.

In 1959, in his junior year at James Monroe Senior High School (whose principal, Doctor Smeffles, would beat kids with a yardstick if he caught them loitering in the halls), Patrick double-dated with his best friend Toby Zimmerman in Toby’s father’s 1955 DeSoto. They saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon at the Victory Drive-In, and Patrick lost his virginity to Elizabeth Hutchinson in the back seat while Toby was getting slapped in the snack bar for trying to steal a kiss from Becky Johanson.

In 1962, after joining the Army voluntarily, Patrick’s appendix burst while he was cleaning his rifle and he was taken off the dispatch list of troops going to a small unknown country called Vietnam.

In 1965, Patrick got a supervisor job at his father’s book bindery and met and fell in love with Jane, the daughter of Arnold Ross, the man who ordered the textbooks for the area high schools.

In 1967, Patrick married Jane in a small ceremony at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church and rode in a limousine to Indianapolis to catch a plane that would take them to a honeymoon in Las Vegas, where they would lose each other in the casino at the Desert Inn. Patrick searched for his new bride throughout the hotel and reluctantly gave up around two a.m., worried that she had been kidnapped and forced into some illicit stage show, only to return to his room and find Jane nude and sleeping in the king-sized bed.

In 1972, after years of trying to have a child, Patrick and Jane were crushed to find out from an ugly nurse with a thick Slavic accent that the tests had shown Jane was sterile.

Frog listened to it all and throughout it continued to rain and no one else came into the diner. It was only drizzling when the man neared the end of his tale, and Frog was expecting one of his regular early morning customers to come in at any moment. Frog had completely eliminated the possibility that the man was making this story up, and was now trying to decide if he was crazy or if he had actually had the dream. Frog was leaning towards the latter.

“The last night of the dream,” the man said, “was the Fourth of July, nineteen seventy-nine.”

“Seventy-nine?” Frog asked. Somehow, having this dream extend six years into the future was a bit too eerie.

The man nodded. “Seventy-nine. We were having a family picnic at my sister’s house and just about everyone was there. Mom and Dad, Uncle Waldo and Aunt Catherine, Rosie and my cousin Barbara, their husbands Dan and George, and their troop of kids. I remember standing in the patio doors with a half-eaten burger in my left hand, watching the kids ride around on the driveway with their bikes. My nephew, Billy, had a little red one with training wheels, and Barbara’s kids, who were a little older, had those new black dirt bikes. They would coast down the blacktop to the street and then pedal back up to the garage, only to ride back down again. They put their whole bodies into the upward trip, straining their muscles with the tirelessness of youth, just to soar down the hill again with the wind in their happy faces.”

The man had long since finished his coffee and Frog chose now to ask him if he wanted another cup. The man said no and pursed his lips to mutter something to himself.

“Mom and Dad left early,” the man slowly continued, “along with Uncle Waldo and Aunt Catherine, but the rest of us stayed until nightfall when we all went down to Frontier Park to watch the fireworks. The kids were insane with excitement and it was all we could do to keep them corralled together. Once the show started, however, they quieted down quickly enough. They sat silently and watched the fireworks in childish awe, and they craned their necks until I thought their little heads would fall off. Jane caught me staring at them and asked me for one of the few times in her life if I was sorry we could never have any of our own. It had always been a delicate subject for her; I think she felt responsible for her sterility.”

The man shook his head and swallowed head.

“I remember I turned and saw my wife like I had never seen her before. She was standing barefoot in the grass, wearing the same blue dress I had seen dozens of times before, but she looked different under the lights of the fireworks. The glowing colors in the sky danced around in her hair and flickered in her eyes. It made her look...ethereal in a way. As if she was not wholly there.”

The man was staring off into space and Frog purposely coughed to show the man that he was still there, that his audience was still listening. The man looked sharply at Frog and went on.

“She asked me her question again and I slowly shook my head no. She stepped forward and hugged me, leaning her head against my chest. I looked up into the sky and watched the fireworks. The grand finale had begun, and the night sky spilled over with brilliant flashes. It grew brighter and brighter until my eyes became blinded to it, and my ears began to ache with the booming.

“I remember Jane asking me if I was thinking about Waldo.

“There was a final flash that blackened my vision and when my sight returned, I found myself staring at the crack in the plaster above my bed over on Twenty-fifth Street. Patrick Morris was gone and I slowly began to remember who I really was. I remembered my name was Robert Page.”

The bell over the door jingled and Frog looked up to see one of his regulars come stumbling in.

“Frog!” the newcomer shouted. “You lousy amphibian! One hell of a storm, eh?”

“Morning, Irv,” Frog said. “Drunk again?”

“I ain’t this clumsy sober!” Irv shouted. “And I’m giving you one hour to fix me up.”

“Can’t be done,” Frog said as he got another cup and the pot. He poured Irv one and then held the pot over the man’s cup. “You sure you don’t want another?”

The man was collecting himself and apparently was getting ready to leave. He looked over at Irv, who had taken the stool next to his, and then back at Frog.

“No,” he said. “I think I should be going.”

The man got up and started for the door. Something wasn’t sitting well in Frog’s stomach. Don’t leave. Come back and have another cup of coffee and I’ll tell you some of my stories. Things aren’t that bad. It was just a dream and a week from now you will have forgotten all about it. So come on back and let’s talk some more.

The man’s hand was on the doorknob.

“Why don’t you come back tomorrow?” Frog said suddenly. “The place is usually a lot friendlier.”

The man turned and gave Frog a small smile. “Maybe I will,” he said and walked out onto the street. The door swung shut behind him.

“Who was that?” Irv asked.

“His name was Robert Page,” Frog said.

“Never heard of him,” Irv said resolutely and coughed into his coffee.

Frog scooped up the change the man had left on the counter and thought about all the man had said. He won’t forget. Dream or not, that kind of pain doesn’t go away. It’s like a bad habit that you keep feeding long after you know it’s bad. It’s ugly and it hurts you, but you know you wouldn’t be you without it. Frog knew. He had been rained on, too.

It wasn’t until he was about to drop the man’s quarter into the register that Frog noticed instead of the traditional eagle on the back of the coin, it bore a revolutionary with a drum.

Frog turned around and saw it had stopped raining.

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