The rain seemed to go on for days. It was relentless. It was as if someone up there was mourning a loss right along with the townsfolk. The days were grey and hope was scarce. He could hear the wind whipping and whistling through trees. He took the last drag of his cigarette before grinding it into a mound of butts and ashes in a dingy white ceramic ashtray. Beside it, sat a small vase with silk flowers. The girls liked roses.
He coughed and scribbled a few lines on a yellow steno pad. Beneath the list of grocery items, he etched the words “get money for groceries.” He’d applied for work. He didn’t have many skills that didn’t involve using his hands. He made things. That was his badge of honor. The bookcase in his living room was “so sturdy it could stop a runaway mare,” he would tell people who visited his shotgun home.
He scratched his head in a place where hair used to be. “Motherfuckers,” he mumbled as he reached for a half folded sheet of paper. He read the words at the top of the letter aloud, as if repeating them would change their meaning. “Eviction notice,” it read. He placed the letter on the table and decided to have another cigarette. The box was empty.
He heard a crash in the kitchen. “Shit,” he muttered. The younger of his two daughters sat on the counter with a chair on the ground beneath her. It was the chair which she likely used to climb onto the counter. Her feet dangled and a glass sat next to her as she poured from a jug of water. She poured until water reached the rim of the glass. It overflowed onto the checkered linoleum floor.
“Now, why’d you do that?” he asked, raising his voice in frustration. “There’s water damned near everywhere.” He startled her.
“I’m sorry. I’m thirsty,” replied in a meek voice. She spoke with a lisp, barely above a whisper.
“Ok, baby girl. Sorry I yelled. You’re supposed to ask me or your sister for help.”
“She’s not talking to me. And you were playing with your papers.”
He shook his head, and hoisted his daughter into his arms. They headed down the hallway. The floor creaked as he walked. He banged on the closed door. His older daughter opened the door with a pink blanket wrapped around her waist. A bell hanging on the doorknob on the other side jingled.
“Who dares to disturb the great princess?” she asked in a tiny voice. Her hair was in fuzzy pigtails and her yellow glasses, slightly too big for her small face, sat at the edge of her nose.
“Didn’t I tell you to watch your sister?” he asked.
“So, why aren’t you watching your sister?”
“She committed an act of treason!” She raised a plunger in the air with a ribbon tied around it. “She is not allowed in the kingdom!”
“Give me that,” he said, taking the plunger from his daughter. “That’s got germs on it. And you have to watch your sister. Daddy is trying to focus.”
“Fine,” she replied. She stood on her toes to appear taller. The top of her head still only managed to reach the doorknob. “But she is to be punished!”
“That’s fine. As long as you don’t hit her. Play nice.” He rubbed the top of her frizzy head before letting her sister escape from his arms. His baby girl rushed into the room. She climbed onto a wooden toy chest and licked out her tongue. He started to make his way down the hall as he heard the older daughter scream at the younger, “You’ll be sent straight to the gallows.”
“Those damned books she’s been reading. I swear,” he said to himself. He stopped to gaze at a framed photo on the wood paneled wall. It was a family photo. He recalled the day at the county fair when they had their picture made. The girls had been dolled up, but by the time the photo was taken, their hair was mussed and candy apple red fingerprints were on the front of their dresses. His wife looked beautiful. She was more beautiful on that day than any day he’d remembered. He looked back toward his daughters’ bedroom and took a long deep breath.
The light flickered in the refrigerator when he opened the door. He had gone back to the kitchen to try and scrape up some dinner for the girls. There was an expired carton of milk inside, a pot of beans, a pitcher of tea, and an open box of Arm & Hammer baking soda in the back. He slammed the refrigerator door closed and walked to the pantry. Inside was a box of instant grits and various canned goods. He slowly closed the pantry door. He laid his head against the door. Then he banged his head against the door repeatedly. He noticed the spilled water on the counter and floor, and put down newspaper to soak it up. “Water every damned where,” he mumbled.
He stormed back into the family room and sat in front of his papers. There was a heap of them – newspaper clippings, unopened envelopes containing unpaid bills, and want ads. Want ads listing jobs for which he was unqualified. Want ads that made him feel unwanted. He sat on the lumpy sofa and stared at the window. Blinds kept out most of the daylight except at the bottom where they were crooked. He’d pulled the string too hard in one direction, but he didn’t fix them. They’d stayed crooked for days. He looked at a painting of the Last Supper on the wall and then to a digital clock resting on a dusty television set. Tears began to stream down his face. He rested his face in his calloused hands and began to weep loudly. His weeping seemed to go on for hours. He was drowning in it. He looked back to the clock. Two minutes had passed. He’d been optimistic, but empty stomachs and bounced checks had extinguished that. He sunk into the sofa. Weeks had gone by, and no job had been found. He stood up. He walked down the hall again.
“Who goes there?” his older daughter called out to him.
“It’s a king from a far off land,” he responded as he pushed open the door. His older daughter sat in a small folding chair while the other stood on the toy box with a scarf tied around her neck made to resemble a noose.
“You came just in time to see the traitor pay for her crimes!”
“I didn’t do it!” The youngest girl shook her head.
“Get down from there before you hurt yourself!” He ran his hands across his face. The little girl jumped down. He crouched in front of the two girls and removed the scarf from his baby girl’s neck. He turned his attention to the older girl. “What were her crimes, sunflower?”
“She committed treason! I told you!”
“How did she do that?” he asked.
“She stole from the princess!” She held out a small box of animal crackers. “I found them in her toy box. She must be punished!”
“Is that true, baby girl?”
“Yes, daddy,” she replied. She lowered her head.
“We don’t steal.”
“I was hungry,” she said as she took a step back. He turned to look at his older girl.
“Sunflower,” he paused. He felt a lump forming in his throat. “Sometimes, people get desperate. Your sister shouldn’t have stolen from you, but she’s sorry. You’re the princess. Maybe next time you should share your crackers. Isn’t it your job to take care of your subjects?”
“No arguments. She’s your sister. You have to share.” He patted her on the shoulder and turned to smile at his baby girl. “Next time, ask your sister for crackers. Now I want you two to put on your pretty dresses. We’re going on a trip.”
“Where?” the girls asked in unison.
“It’s a surprise. Get ready.” The girls giggled and rushed to change their clothes. He walked into the hall to a closet, and grabbed a clean blue shirt. He slipped it on and stared at the family photo again. “I’m sorry,” he said under his breath.
He sat on the sofa, staring at the clock. He started speaking aloud to himself.
“What kinda man can’t provide? What kinda man…” Paralyzed by thoughts of helplessness, he sat and watched as the minutes passed. He barely blinked as the glowing red numbers changed every sixty seconds in the now dark room. The sun had begun to set.
The girls ran into the family room wearing sundresses. The older wore a ribbon of yarn in her hair. Entranced, he didn’t notice.
“Daddy! We’re ready,” the older said to him. The younger squirmed and adjusted the bow on her dress.
“Let’s go,” he said to them. He reached into his pocket to feel for a wrinkled five dollar bill. The three of them ran to the car to avoid being drenched. He opened the backseat door for the girls and then ran to the other side of the car to slide in.
“Where are we going?” the younger girl asked.
“We’re going to see Mommy,” he replied. The older girl shot him a quizzical look, but said nothing. He looked at her in the rear view mirror.
“Mommy! We have to get flowers!” The younger girl shouted with glee.
“No flowers today. Daddy doesn’t have much money.” He drove along the gravel roads for miles until he reached a general store. “You girls sit tight, okay?” They nodded. He ran into the store and grabbed two bags of chips and bottle of orange soda. “Can I get two hot dogs?” he asked the man at the counter.
“How are your girls?” the man asked.
“I suppose they’re alright. They’re out in the car. I didn’t bring them in on account of the rain.”
“Things are gonna turn around for us. Since the factories closed, I know it’s been tough for us all,” he said as he walked to the grill. “Especially with you raising them girls on your own. Shame about your wife. We’re gonna look back and laugh at these days. You’ll see.” The clerk returned with the two hot dogs and a bag for the other items. “Keep your money. This time it’s on me. Anything for yourself?”
“No, sir,” he replied. “I’ll be just fine. Thank you.” He looked at the counter and reconsidered. “Could I get some of those pink roses?” The clerk nodded and handed him a bouquet from the bucket near the counter. The two exchanged no other words before he turned and walked out to the car. He handed the girls the bags from the store. “Here you go. Eat up. We’ve got a long ride ahead.” The girls’ eyes widened when they saw the flowers. The younger held them close to her chest.
As he drove down the wooded country road, he occasionally checked on the girls in the rear view mirror. They had fallen asleep. He would not wake them when he reached their destination. His headlights beamed through the sheets of rain as he squinted to see.
He made a turn and slowed the car to a stop. The tires grinded against the gravel until he reached the grassy patch. He stared at the sky over the river. The rain had finally subsided. The starry sky was swarthy and damp looking. He sat still for a while. He turned on the radio and switched it to his favorite religious station. The signal was poor, but he could faintly hear the hymn through the static. He turned up the volume and started to sing along in a raspy tenor voice.
“There’s another meeting place somewhere in heaven. By the side of the river of life,” he sang. “Where the charming roses bloom forever, and where separations come no more.” His voice trembled as he started to quietly sob. “If we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore.” His voice trailed off as the music continued. He checked the mirror again. The girls lay fast asleep in the back, the younger with her head in her sister’s lap.
He grabbed the wheel tightly and closed his eyes. He opened them again and switched the car’s gear into drive. With a deep breath, he pressed firmly on the gas. The car shook as he sped down the uneven grounds of the river bank. He gasped and braced himself as the car careened off the edge, taking flight for a moment before it crashed onto the surface of the dark waters. He tried to steady himself as the car rocked back and forth, sinking. He started to panic, but did not remove his seatbelt. He calmed himself and began to softly sing the hymn again. The car filled with water far more quickly than he anticipated. He heard his older daughter’s voice.
“Daddy! What’s happening? There’s water everywhere!”
“Calm down, sunflower,” he said quietly without turning around or looking into the mirror. The girl woke her sister and they both began to scream. Their screams turned to gurgles as the river began to engulf the car. He closed his eyes and muttered to himself, “Oh, Marian.” Then they sunk. Weeks went by before they were found.
ROSE WATER by George Arnett ©2014