Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
It rained last week, a brief, enticing shower that was just enough to wet the parking lot and spatter the window of The Observer's office with diamonds. Other than that, according to our own careful measurements, the rain totals in Central Arkansas have stood at diddly-point-squat for some time now. Instead, we get sun, and sun, and sun, and the occasional domed heap of gray clouds that push in, get everybody's hopes up, and then push on out.
As a public service, The Observer is going ahead and writing this column in the belief that the Universe will soon make a fool of any reporter who is so bold as to say any future event is a sure thing. Here goes our magic incantation: We have it on good authority from unnamed sources close to the Mother Nature administration that it definitely will not rain for the rest of this week, and will surely not come the sort of frog floating downpour that makes people write blues songs about the levee failing.
There. Now, everybody listen for thunder.
The Observer grew up a roofer's boy, so we spent our summers expending the few prayers we had in us praying for rain. If it doesn't rain, roofs don't leak. If roofs don't leak, the phone doesn't ring. If the phone doesn't ring, you don't eat. Such is the simple arithmetic of living the son of a roofer.
The Observer also happened to be the last arguably middle-class child in the world who grew up without air conditioning, a victim of Pa's long-held and possibly-something-to-it belief that sleeping cool and working hot in high places was a recipe for disaster and a one-way trip to hard ground.
In the spring and fall, The Observer's life was a blessing that our own AC-loving son will never know much of: sleeping with the windows open and the screens on, the cool night breezes causing The Boy Observer to pull the covers up tight to our throat by dawn. Though dry summer nights in July and August were a nightmare, even with the fan running hard — we learned early to shower and then not dry off before going to bed, a habit that Spouse had to break us of right quick as a newbie husband — there were always the storms to look forward to: dark clouds veined with lightning, the low roll of thunder, claps of blue fire illuminating the dark yard under the sweet gums. And then, oh Lord, the lovely, cool purr of the rain: the patter of rain in Ma's flowerbeds and off the hood of Pa's truck in the gravel driveway, the drip of the rain from the edge of the roof. Along with it came that delicious feeling that somewhere out there in the world, people were wet and miserable, but not you, my dry and cozy friend. Not you.
The Observer has worked in the rain. Has dug holes in the rain. Has cleaned gutters in the rain. Has even reported in the rain a time or two. Once, we walked five miles in the rain, through a storm shot through with sun that made our brother, walking soaked beside us, solemnly intone that somewhere the Devil was beating his wife. We have changed starters and alternators and water pumps in the rain, huddled under the hood of a busted truck or car and getting cold water down our back and the crack of our behind. Such is the life of a roofer's son who grew up clinging to the hem of middle class. When it rains, things leak, and when things leak, the phone rings, and when the phone rings, you go, hell or high water. This is part of that arithmetic as well.
It has hurt, therefore — even from our dry and cozy desk, even from our air-conditioned and thoroughly middle-class house — to see these past few summers of drought. Our heart breaks a bit on those summer days when the dark clouds sail through and tease, offering only a frustrating spit of rain. This, it appears, is our new normal: to see our grass bake brown by June, with the oaks following suit by August.
Something is happening, friends. We hate it, and we don't know exactly why it's happening, but the boy who fell asleep to summer rain can tell you that it hasn't always been this way. There was once rain in summer here, even in August. These days, though, don't count on the phone ringing very often in July.
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