It was a hot Saturday late afternoon. Though the clouds were piled high in the west, no one actually expected the sky to bless us with any rain. That part of the state hadn’t received any real rain in over ten days. Uncle Charles went through the screendoor and outside a few minutes ago. As he left, he shouted, “Get your behind moving,” already whistling. He taught me to whistle, too, and I knew I’d be mimicking him in a few minutes. He had also taught me how to whistle while inhaling, a valuable trait, albeit annoying to anyone who disliked whistling. “Assholes” was the endearing name Uncle Charles had for people who disagreed with him, especially if he was whistling or enjoying a bit of humor.
I was busily shoving as many homemade pickles in my mouth as I could, chewing like a man who just left a hunger strike. My Aunt Margie didn’t think much of her efforts at pickle-making. She couldn’t have been more wrong, though. On more than one occasion, I had devoured an entire jar without any assistance. Unlike most people, I accidentally discovered that I liked the pickles most people found to be less flavorful, especially if they were bitter.
I poured myself a huge glass of Coke from the 2-quart bottle as I struggled to get the pickles all consumed.
I went outside as quickly as possible to conserve as much of the cool air as possible. Grandma didn’t cotton to people dilly-dallying at the door in the summer. She was ecstatic for company to come to visit. She would, however, let anyone who took too long going in or out know that the air conditioning wasn’t free. In the South, it was common to hear shouts of “Get in or out!” or “Close the door!” fifty times a day. For those without air conditioning, the same shout was offered in response to the endless squadrons of mosquitoes circling every living creature.
Grandma didn’t have any foolishness such as chairs on her long front porch. Grandma didn’t understand why someone would sit outside in the heat if air conditioning was available. There was a porch swing on the opposite end of the porch, and it invitingly faced the field adjacent to her old house. You could sit on the edge of the porch, too, or on the creosote-soaked steps made from railroad ties. I sometimes forget how artfully so many men practiced the art of crouching and leaning.
Uncle Charles was leaning against the far end of the porch, near the porch swing. He was drinking a glass of water, a fact that seemed strange to me, given that Grandma kept a well-stocked supply of Coke in the house.
He and my Uncle Harry were arguing about the weather. It was a free hobby, so they tended to participate as if their livelihoods depended on it. Neither were farmers, so it seemed a bit odd to me that the matter managed to lasso so much of their attention.
Uncle Charles took my glass of Coke for a second as I clambered up onto the swing. He handed it back when I was situated. I nodded and said, “Thanks.” He winked at me and then clicked the side of his mouth to let me know it was okay. He lit a cigarette and handed it to me. Just as Uncle Harry was about to protest, Uncle Charles reached back over and took the cigarette from me. “You’re too old to smoke. And you don’t want to sound like your Aunt Helen.” He winked again.
As the yellow jackets flew by, we sweated. In the distance, loud cracks of thunder would occasionally echo, causing the wall of unseen insects to momentarily suspend their buzzing.
I finished my Coke after fifteen minutes. I remained on the swing, watching the wind blow against the bean plants. Both Uncle Charles and Harry sat on the edge of the porch with their backs turned to me. Uncle Charles had lit at least four more cigarettes. Their conversation had turned to baseball at some point, a subject I found to be as interesting as licking a hot stove.
Even though the wind had picked up speed, I hadn’t noticed that the sky had dimmed considerably. As Uncle Charles flicked his cigarette to knock loose the ashes on the tip, a massive lightning bolt struck the ground about fifty yards away, near the small board bridge along Clark Road. The clap of thunder that normally follows after a delay boomed immediately. We could all see where the lightning hit the field. All of us were seeing the afterglow of lightning in our eyes.
“Holy crap!” shouted Uncle Harry as he jumped down off the edge of the porch.
Behind us, someone threw open the front door and shouted, “Get your butts inside. Yes, Nannie, I’ll unplug the television!” The first part of Aunt Helen’s shout was for us. The second was for Grandma, who believed that unplugging everything prevented lightning from hitting. I always looked up at the tall television antennae wired to the side of the house when she mentioned it.
Uncle Harry quickly walked around the edge of the porch, up the railroad-tie steps, and inside the house. He worked outside a lot. Being around lightning didn’t inspire him to be closer to nature.
“Are you coming or what?” shouted Aunt Helen to Uncle Charles.
“Naw, we’ll come inside in a bit.” Uncle Charles jumped off the porch and onto the grass below. “Come on,” he said, turning to me. Even though I was short, fat, and barefoot, I ran and jumped off the porch and onto the ground. Such delights are long behind me. More than most things, the absence of such abandon ails my soul.
Uncle Charles removed his shoes and tossed them onto the planks of the porch. “It’s going to rain,” he said and laughed. He was wearing black socks. As a lover of all things barefoot, socks seemed ridiculous. Black socks made less sense to me than keeping a snake in the underwear drawer.
A few random pops sounded from the galvanized tin roof. They came more quickly. The air temperature dropped several degrees. Then came the deluge. The drops were so heavy that they pounded against us. Uncle Charles walked the few feet over to the edge of the bean field and stood in the perimeter of dirt there. The dirt quickly became soaked and muddy. I followed him. The mud between my toes was a sublime pleasure.
As Uncle Charles stood next to the bean field with me, we both quietly watched as the edge of the rainstorm enveloped us, the adjacent road, then race away. The rain pummeled the metal roof behind us and everything in its path.
Uncle Charles put his hand on my left shoulder and smiled.
I witnessed the possibility of a life filled with small joys in the wrinkles of his face.
We stood there, even as Aunt Helen shouted from the porch for us to get our fool heads inside before the Lord could come to take us.
The rain. Us.
I don’t know for certain that I’m not still standing there.