The sky lit up in a flash. “One one-thousand, two one-thousand, three – ”
BOOM, crack! “Whoa! That was a close one!”Every second you count after the lightning strikes indicates some unit of measurement for how far away it is.
Tonight the smell of wet caliche had been hinting at a storm for hours. As I drove through the west Texas desert I tried to remember exactly what distance each second is supposed to represent. One mile? Ten miles? I looked in my mirrors again to check the tarp covering my truck bed filled with everything I own.
We counted slowly, with precision, eager to see a record broken. We were packed like sardines between the sheets, tucked tightly under the roof of the mighty Mighty Mo – me, my little sister, and my dad – all intoxicated by the same caliche scent characteristic of the longed-for Arizona rainstorm. Lightning moved like a wiggling tree branch at the speed of a wink from ground to sky. The danger of its closeness captivated all of us.
I drove on and on, regretting not getting new wiper blades before leaving. Remembering the smell.
Caliche has its own completely unique smell. There’s nothing you can compare it to. The closest I could come to trying would be to say that you could sprinkle a little sugar over everything right before the rain….then imagine the faint, sweet taste of the sugar in your mind and pretend that it’s actually a smell, mixing with the familiar rain scent, making it sweeter. Just a little sugar on your corn flake cereal… a faint afterthought of a hint of sugar in your tea.
Rain in the desert is a wonder of creation. The usual grey-brown green of the desert plants turns almost turquoise under the dark sky. The clouds brood ominously and announce their presence unexpectedly – there is no in between or partly-cloudy, maybe-it-will-rain-today state of precipitation in the desert. During the 2 yrs my family lived in Phoenix I think it rained more than the rest of my time there, from when I was 13 after my dad died, till I left after high school. The sky poured down on us for a brief time. I drank it desperately after that, like a true desert dweller.
Or maybe I’m just letting my imagination exaggerate the distance with the remembrance of the storm.
I remember when I was in sixth grade and I volunteered to help run my elementary school’s snack bar. I got to leave class an hour early to help organize our abundant overstock of every conceivable good loaded with plenty of fats and simple sugars and wrapped in that timeless metallic plastic, colorful brand name package – Snickers, Baby Ruth, Butterfingers, Sour Patch Straws…an oasis that would rack up parents’ dental premiums as fast as the dollar bills and quarters flowed from our hands in exchange. We were open just once a week, at the end of the day on Fridays.
It was during this time that I felt one of the two most terrible pains of my life.
A fat boy came to the snack bar one day. He must not have been a repeat customer because I can’t recall having this experience and feeling this feeling more than once. There was nothing in the experience that the outside observer would have been able to identify as unique or even interesting. It was just a fat boy buying candy, just like everybody else.
He had brown hair, colorful eyes with long, black eyelashes, which were covered with round, mid-to-late nineties eyeglasses. He looked about my age or a year or two younger, maybe a fifth grader or even a fourth grader. He was bigger than most kids. Not taller, just fatter.
I said to myself in my head, “It figures that he wants to buy some candy.”
I don’t even remember if the boy was buying much or any more candy than every other kid that was greedily swarming the snack bar, reaching for their chocolate sugar rush with desperate little hands. The instant the thought hit my brain was the same instant I felt the pain. I wanted to take it back, like a silent insult I had lodged at him with my mind.
It didn’t matter that I hadn’t said a word to the kid outside of what was necessary for the transaction. Though it was just a thought, I saw something in this boy’s eyes. Something that was probably already there, that may have always been there from the time he became a conscious being, or at least a self-conscious being.
He knew he was fat. He knew he looked fat. He knew that buying candy made him look even fatter. And for a moment as our eyes briefly locked, my brain became a short-wave radio and he heard my words of judgment with satellite clarity. And there was no possible way of taking them back – no back button, no cancellations, no scaling back up the cliff.
I don’t feel that pain as often as I should. Not as often as the different, more subtle kind of discomfort and pain comes to me – the kind I feel when I eat candy and I think, “Does everybody here think I’m fat?”
I know because it smells like October. It smells like burning, smoking cinnamon spice and everything nice.
I know because my jeans are still cold from my hour-and-a-half long walk along the water. (Along the ocean? Who calls it that?). I know because the sun retires at 6pm giving the twinklings of incandescent light reign over the night. I know because there are strange, orange blob-like flaming veg-heads winking at me with buck-toothed grins from the steps of the front porch. I know because I feel magic moving through the air, blasting through time across shiny tile floors of my long-stretched elementary school hallway. It glides like a phantom past painted faces and colored wigs of hair and princess tiaras glittering with the ugly reflective tape my dad stuck to my back to keep me from being run over in the dark while greedily collecting miniature helpings of pure, confectionery joy.
I know because despite these times of dying – withering and fading, bleeding with fiery colors and falling like feathers and finally crackling underfoot, I am still breathing this crisp, cold air and it feels so damn good to be alive.
No matter what.