“It’s gonna rain today. I can feel it in my bones, and bones as old as mine never lie,” Aunt Agatha said as she rocked the splintered porch swing back and forth, staring straight ahead with her milky, unblinking gaze.
I swung my legs back and forth and said nothing. The sky was a faded blue, flat and smooth like someone wrapped the earth in drywall. We hadn’t had rain in weeks. The tiny square of grass that I guess you could call our front yard was dry and brittle. A couple days ago I’d pressed my palm against part of it, and the yellowed blades had crumbled into dust. Mama would’ve been appalled. Every weekend she used to wrap her hair in a bright red bandana, tie her T-shirt above her bellybutton, and trim the lawn until the grass was a neat two inches high. Some days she’d even measure it with the little pink ruler I kept in my pencil box.
When she’d come back inside hours later, damp and coated in grass clippings, Dad would say something like, “Dammit, Francine. No one cares about the lawn. I don’t understand why you waste your time.” Then he’d turn his attention back to the golf channel flickering across our tiny box TV and take a sip of his beer, shaking his head slowly.
But I didn’t mind so much. I’d bring Mama a glass of water and stand close enough that I could breathe in her smell of sweat and grass. She’d pat my head with one of her manicured nails—she’d gone to beauty school for a year, so she knew how to paint and trim them herself. She did mine once, buffed out the jagged edges and painted them periwinkle to match my favorite sneakers, but Daddy didn’t like that. Said the kids at school would make fun of me. He and Mama fought about it, and they used a word I didn’t understand—I couldn’t remember what it was, but the beginning of it sounded like home.
Now I glanced at my thumbnail curled around my kneecap, at the pink nub worn down and scabbed from where I’d accidentally bitten through skin. Aunt Agatha hummed softly to herself the Johnny Appleseed tune she sang at Sunday school before snack time. She said that God always made it rain whenever she sang this song—it hadn’t failed her since she learned it as a little girl. I always believed her, but I wasn’t so sure now. She’d been singing it before dinner every night for the past eight days, but the clouds stayed away. Maybe God was just a little slow. I sure wished he’d hurry though.
Inside the house, I heard Dad cough. The monotonous voices of golf commentators droned from the TV screen, occasionally interrupted by a chorus of claps from the spectators as a golfer putted the ball into the hole. Sometimes I tried to watch with him. I liked the first shot, seeing the ball arc high, high, higher into the air before falling like a shooting star back to the earth and bouncing against the ground, but I quickly grew bored. There were never any hole-in-ones. I missed watching Mama’s soap operas with the dramatic music and characters with glossy hair and fancy suits and dresses. I didn’t really get what was happening, but sometimes the shows would make Mama laugh or cry, so I would laugh or cry with her.
I don’t think I ever saw Daddy laugh or cry. I guess he used to though. One time Mama sat me in her lap and flipped through photo albums from when they first got married. I remembered this one picture from their wedding. Mama looked like one of her soap opera stars with her hair piled on top of her head and a white lacy dress hugging her body. Her eyes and mouth were widened in surprise, and a glob of icing stuck out from her nose. Daddy stood beside her, holding a slice of cake in his hand. I almost didn’t recognize him. His head was tilted back, and his mouth hung open in laughter. His eyes were crinkled shut, and soft dimples creased his face, nothing at all like the sharp lines that always lingered between his eyebrows now.
Still, there used to be times when he’d smile at least. The drought had made him mean. I’ll never forget the day he taught me to ride my bike. We snuck through the fence of my school playground, just the two of us, and rolled his battered Schwinn Stingray across the cracked pavement, the green frame glinting in the summer sun. Daddy plopped me on the seat and placed my hands on the handlebars. As I started pedaling, he held my waist until we were halfway through the parking lot, and then he let go. I glided across the pavement, wobbling a bit, but sure enough, I was riding. I remember looking back at him and seeing him standing there, one hand wiping sweat from his forehead and the other mounted on his hip. His lips twitched up into a smile and stayed there even after I crashed over a pothole moments later. Daddy helped me up and picked the rocks out of my knees before tousling my hair. “You did alright, kid.”
I leaned over the edge of the porch swing and glanced through the screen door at Dad before turning back to Aunt Agatha. “Why doesn’t Dad go to work anymore?”
Aunt Agatha kept staring ahead, tapping her gnarled fingers against her stockinged knees. “Your daddy works at a water treatment plant. Can’t treat water if there ain’t any water to treat.”
“Can’t he work somewhere else?”
Aunt Agatha laughed drily. “It ain’t that easy, kid. Jobs are hard to find, and everybody’s struggling. Grass and money are two green things we’re running low on in Licking County these days.” She went back to humming her Johnny Appleseed song.
Across the road, a skinny dog trotted out from the neighbor’s open yard, its tongue lolling out of its mouth. I’d seen it around before, a mangy thing with matted curly fur that hung down over its eyes. It plodded toward us, panting heavily in the dry air. I always had a soft spot for animals. When she worked at the local dry-cleaner’s, Mama and I would use quarters she scavenged from jacket pockets to set out food for the stray cats. We never told Daddy though because he was allergic and would kick them if he found them hiding under his car.
I clicked my fingers and whistled softly. The dog came over to me, wagging his stumpy tail. Aunt Agatha didn’t seem to notice. I pet his head, and he licked me with a tongue rough and dry as sand. “Stay, boy. I’ll be right back.”
I went around to the side door that led into the kitchen and grabbed the jug of water out of the fridge. Every other morning, a county truck came around and gave each house a gallon of water. It refilled ours yesterday, so the jug was almost empty. I poured what was left into a chipped bowl and snuck back outside, careful not to bother Daddy.
When I got back to the porch, Aunt Agatha was scratching the mutt’s ears, still staring straight ahead. I set the bowl down in front of the dog, and he lapped the water greedily, probably the first drink he’d had in days. I wondered if Mama had any water. Maybe that’s where she was, far away where the grass was still green enough to cut, filling the bed of her truck with enough gallons to fill the sky with clouds and save us from the drought. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could feel the promise in her lips as she kissed my cheek and said, “I’ll be back soon, okay? Wait for me.”
I opened my eyes and stared at the empty space in the driveway, imagining the sputter of her engine in the distance. Then I heard the screen door open and smelled the heavy stench of body odor. “What the fuck is this?” Dad thundered, his eyes bloodshot. “You gave the last of our water to this mutt? What is wrong with you?”
I scrambled up from the porch swing and backed away. “I… He looked so thirsty and we already had dinner, so I…”
Dad lurched forward, swinging his leg and kicking the dog in the ribs. “Scram!” The dog yelped and scampered back, knocking the bowl of water over and spraying it all over Aunt Agatha’s stockings. It darted down the street and disappeared down an alleyway. I trembled in fear, feeling hot tears at the corners of my eyes.
Dad whirled around to glare at me. “I should beat your ass for this. You know better. And you.” He pointed at Aunt Agatha. “How could you let him waste water like that? All of us are thirsty every goddamn day. You know that just as much as I do. I brought you here to watch him. It’s not that fucking hard. The boy’s a pansy.”
Aunt Agatha didn’t respond. She turned her rheumy eyes down to her stockings, staring at the water-splattered fabric.
“Great, and now you won’t talk to me. As if I didn’t get enough of that from Francine.” Dad threw his arms in the air and paced for a moment, pausing to stare out at the street with with his fists clenched around the splintered porch railing. He walked over to me, leaning in my face so I could smell the stale beer on his breath from the case he’d been rationing since the beginning of the drought. “Boy, if I catch you touching that water jug without my permission again, you’ll start going hungry too.”
I nodded, swallowing the lump in my throat. If I started crying, he’d only get angrier. I saw it happen once with Mama, a few nights before she left. I woke up in the middle of the night to pee and heard them arguing in the bedroom. I heard her sobbing like when her favorite character from her soap operas died, and Daddy started screaming, telling her she was only doing it for sympathy, which made her sob harder. I forgot about peeing and ran back into bed, burrowing under the covers and burying my face into my favorite stuffed animal.
Daddy shut his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, his mouth quivering. He didn’t look at me before heading back into the house. I heard the recliner creak under his weight as he returned to the TV world of green grass, men in polos, and British commentators—a world where thirst, Mama, strays, and I didn’t exist.
I slowly climbed back onto the porch swing, squeezing my thighs to my chest and digging my chin into my knees. Aunt Agatha started humming again, still the Johnny Appleseed tune but at a faster pace, as if she was trying to hurry the rain along with it.
After a moment, I raised my head and asked, “Do you know any songs that bring mamas back?”
Aunt Agatha stopped humming. “No,” she said. “No, I don’t.”
Something in my chest deflated. I rested my chin on my knees again, saying nothing. Then I heard a soft sort of hiccuping sound behind me. When I looked through the glass porch door, I saw Daddy with his face in his hands, his body hunched and shaking slightly. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought he was crying.