Ahead of the Rain
by Andrew D. Grossman
Town by town, she kept moving, always bound for the south, always, it seemed, one step ahead of the rainstorm. The country here was empty, no people to be seen. There were few roads, if these dusty, meandering trails through the brush could even properly be called roads. No matter, they were useless for navigation. She knew to keep the sun on her left in the mornings, and on her right later in the day. She did not travel at night.
When she could, she slept in a barn or, less frequently, on a couch or a bed begged from the local population.
-Please, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?
Some people looked at her with kindness, empathy even. A few responded with contempt.
-Get off my property. Now! Don’t make me call the law!
Most, though, simply nodded with grave understanding. This silent majority accommodated her as best they could, but without warmth. They didn’t like her. They didn’t want her there. But they understood her reasons, and made space for the night.
She was tired, more tired than usual. The past night she spent under a tree. The only man-made structure in sight, a decrepit silo, she figured more likely to collapse in her sleep than to provide any sort of worthwhile shelter. The night had been cold; she slept poorly.
It was her fifteenth day on the road. The air was blowing, west to east, the air thick with moisture. There were clouds rimming the sky near her to the north, passing her by on their eastward journey. She hoped to stay ahead of them. She was not outfitted for the rain.
The sun was making its downward arc in earnest; there were only a few hours of daylight left. She could see smoke rising over the horizon, a town like as not, and she walked faster, hoped to get to shelter before stopping for the night.
Within an hour, she saw a large unpainted barn, and a small house nearby. Civilization, or its nearest approximation in this stretch of the plains. She walked up towards the door, pausing to run her fingers through her hair, to clear some of the dirt off her face. First impressions were everything.
The door opened before she even knocked, catching her off guard. A large man, white, middle-aged, in overalls, looked at her with surprise.
-Can I help you?
-Please, sir, I’m heading south. May I sleep here tonight?
He frowned and considered it a moment, then pointed to the barn.
-The back corner stays pretty warm. If it starts raining, move under the loft near the hay. I’ll fetch you some blankets.
He walked back into the house without inviting her to follow. She stood there, relieved and frightened. He returned in moments.
-Here’s some blankets. They’re old, I was gonna donate them to the church anyway. You can keep them if you want.
She nodded her thanks.
-I ‘spect you’ll be wanting some dinner, too. My wife’ll fetch you some after we eat, won’t be too long now. There’s a water pump out back. Do your business in the outhouse, not in the barn. And don’t steal nothin’.
He walked past her, still frowning. She wanted to ask him about the area, but kept silent. She took the blankets and made for the barn. The door opened easy and wide. It was smaller than it looked from the outside, home to some forgotten farm vehicle that hadn’t been used in the past decade, judging from the rust. There were no animals she could see, just dirt and hay and various farming implements.
The back corner was already cleared. She wasn’t the first overnight guest to be accommodated here. Straw had been neatly placed in the shape of a small human. A trace of body odor lingered. She dropped her blankets and her satchel. A few photographs, a letter from her mom, some official-looking papers whose significance she didn’t understand, but that she judged too important to discard. A single change of clothes. All her belongings in the world. She sighed.
She tucked the satchel under the blankets and left the barn, walked around back, found the water pump. She pulled the lever a dozen or so times until a trickle of water came out. She cupped her hands, splashed and scrubbed at her face, watched the dirt and the grime turn the runoff brown. She picked at her fingernails, trying to clear the stubborn black filth under them. The road had dirtied her entire body, but the nails were the only part that really bothered her. Made her feel less feminine. Less real.
After five minutes or so she stopped. There was still plenty of cleaning to do, but she didn’t want to overtax the pump. The sun was setting, the day was spent. She went back into the barn and laid down. An hour passed. Dinner never came. Her stomach was angry and loud, but she wasn’t starving. She could find some food tomorrow, in the town. She fell asleep.
She woke to find the straw next to her damp. Had the rains come at last? No, it was only the morning dew, condensation dripping on her from the boards above. It was already light; day was wasting. She bundled her things together, looked over the ratty blankets. They weren’t much, but they weren’t heavy, and you never did know when such things would become needful. She wrapped them up and took them along, left the straw sleeping place for its next occupant.
As she was closing up the barn, the house door opened and she caught the eye of a middle-aged woman, who set down a broom and walked over to her.
-Hello. Does Jim know you’re here?
-Yes ma’am. He told me I could sleep in the back corner of your barn. Sorry to startle you.
The woman sighed.
-He didn’t mention it to me, or I’da brought you supper. You hungry now?
She thought a moment. The sun was already up, and she needed to get some miles covered. But she needed food, too, and better to take it early and sure than later and uncertain.
-I’d appreciate it.
She followed the woman into the home. It was small, cluttered. There were just two seats in the kitchen, and a small card table between them. The woman cracked some eggs.
-Jim’s in town, probably won’t be back for a few hours. I reckon you got to get back to the road?
-Yes ma’am. What town are we near?
-You’re in Lincoln.
Damn, she thought. I drifted west. I wonder how many days this has cost me.
-I need to get south, tryin’ to stay ahead of the rain.
-You’re the third this week. Ain’t just our house, either: they say there’s a brown river flowin’ south. Not meaning any offense.
The woman dished up four scrambled eggs and put them in front of her.
-Just stay clear of Wichita. They’re givin’ folks trouble there. They won’t kill ya, but they’ll delay ya.
-I only got three weeks.
The woman nodded gravely.
-We don’t know what’s gonna happen then. They always talk that stuff to get support. I don’t figure they’ll actually do any of it. He ain’t said much since the election…
The eggs were dry, but some salt made them passable. Besides, she was hungry. She scarfed them down while the woman watched her with sad eyes.
-I’m just sayin’, a politician’s word ain’t worth much. Why, they’d promise everyone a tractor if they thought it’d get them votes. Doesn’t mean they’re gonna do it. And they prob’ly won’t do nothing about y’all.
-I ain’t stayin’ to find out.
There was a moment of uncomfortable silence.
-You, uh, need anything? It’s a long way down there.
-Thank you, ma’am, but I think I’m all set up. Thank you for the breakfast.
-We’re Christians here. We help how we can.
She nodded and went on her way, measuring out a south by southeast direction with the sun. Behind her, just barely, thick gray clouds pushed from west to east. An occasional distant rumble reminded her of the storm that now surely raged on the path she had been on just hours before.
She couldn’t hear the rain, though. Maybe it was one of those dry storms so particular to the plains, all roar and no soak, as her mom used to say. Silly to be scared of a storm like that.
Of course, by the time she found out the difference it’d be too late to stay dry.
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Andrew D. Grossman
Andrew D. Grossman is a writer and attorney living in New York City. His work has previously appeared in Down in the Dirt and In Parentheses.