Waiting for the Rain in Oklahoma
glenn mcdonald

"Well, Herschel said he'd be around in about half an hour, which with Herschel more likely means tomorrow or the next day." The old man rocks cheerfully back and forth as he explains this to Dave and I, sitting on his porch, drinking lemonade.

"You see, Herschel is what we commonly refer to around here as 'the large sort'."

"'Large sort?'" Dave leans forward, holding his glass in both hands, elbows propped on his knees. "Meaning that he is a large person?"

"Well yes, but it runs a little bit deeper than that. It isn't just how big he is. You'll see what I mean. That is, when Herschel eventually gets here."

"You're sure that he will get here, though?" I am sitting back against the porch railing with my legs crossed, balancing my lemonade on the instep of my right hightop.

"I can't recall a time when Herschel didn't ever show up, but once or twice when Herschel got just a little out of his way in a direction where the size of him made something of a labor out of the otherwise simple task of turning around and backing up, some folks who hadn't much of any faith in Herschel, or in the likelihood of a gang or two of his relatives to haul him out of wherever it was he'd gotten himself stuck and point him in the direction of wherever it was he was originally proceeding, jumped prematurely to the conclusion that Herschel had not ever shown up, when in fact some time afterwards he did. It's less a matter of Herschel being reliable as it is a matter of being willing to stay put until he gets near enough to you for you to give a shout or two in his direction. Being such as he is, a man of great girth, small changes of direction which for other people are hardly worth remarking upon, for him require a bit in the way of foresight and planning."

"There aren't any other mechanics in town?" Dave has asked this once already.

"Not that work on Sunday, for one, and not such as have tow trucks, which you seem to be in need of."

"Yeah." Dave and I look behind us at the car resting just off the road in front of the house.

Inside the house, the phone rings.

"Excuse me for a moment, won't you?" The old man takes his cane off the back of his rocker and moves slowly into the house. The phone rings twice more and then stops.

I look over at Dave. He looks at me and he laughs. I look away.

"Come on."

"I'm sorry. It's just not funny. I can't believe I'm such an idiot."

"Don't worry about it. We'll get it fixed and get out of here. It can't have been that bad. We only drove on it that way for a couple of seconds."

"I guess. There should be some kind of safeguard against that. It's such a simple mistake. There should be some way to make it so that the transmission can't go into reverse unless the car is stopped or already moving backwards. It's ridiculous."

"Most people don't have a problem with it."

"Thanks, remind me what an idiot I am."

We are silent for a minute. I turn around to watch the road.

"Have you noticed that every single car that goes by is a Ford pickup?"

"I was wondering about that."

"You know, I'm beginning to remember why I haven't spent much time in Oklahoma before."

"Better get used to it. We may be here indefinitely."

"Don't say that."

"Why not? I'm sure they'd be glad to have us. We'd probably double the composite education level of the whole town."

"Shh."

"What?"

"If they find out we're intellectual types they'll probably take our clothes away and make us run naked through the woods while they hunt us down with shotguns."

"You've been reading too many books. Besides, there aren't any woods."

"I should have flown."

"Will you please relax?"

"They could kill us and no one would ever know."

"Right. No one. Here in the middle of the Australian Outback, hundreds of miles from the nearest human soul."

"Almost."

"Good lemonade for the middle of nowhere, huh?"

"Shut up. You know what I mean."

He waits for a moment before replying.

"Yeah."

It's hot. I have finished all my lemonade. There is a little ice in the glass still, and it is gradually melting.

The old man comes back outside. The screen door slams behind him as he moves slowly across the porch to the rocker.

"No sign of Herschel yet, I gather?"

We look at each other. For a moment we both are silent, and then we both answer. "No."

"Hmm." The old man rocks. His rocker does not creak. Each time I look over at him I am surprised that he is still rocking.

"So, you two are on your way up east, are you?"

"Yes." Dave answers. "Hopefully."

"Oh, don't you worry. You'll get there. Herschel should be around any time now. Not immediately, I don't expect, as I don't see much in the way of dustclouds in either direction. But soon, I would guess. I'd say that it still may be a bit early for him, but that he may be on his way."

"May be?"

"Quite possibly. Would either of you like some more lemonade?"

"No thanks." We answer simultaneously again.

"I imagine you're not entirely new to this heat, being from Dallas. Up east, though, I don't imagine they get so much of it. Does it get this hot up east?"

I look at Dave. He smiles a little. "Not in Maine."

The old man looks over at me.

"Well, it gets pretty hot in Connecticut sometimes. I haven't been there in the summer, though. It does get quite humid, since we're near the coast."

"Of course, I don't imagine you college students pay much attention to the weather. I expect the libraries and such are air-conditioned, or heated, depending. Otherwise all the books would get moldy, wouldn't they?"

"I guess."

"Around here we have to react a bit more. Fires when it gets cold, and fans when it's warm. With all that automatic heating and cooling, I don't suppose you ever really notice the weather."

"Well, we notice it. I mean, we do have to go outside."

"I notice it a lot." Dave sits forward. "Lots of snow."

"Well, yes, but that's not exactly what I mean. Everyone has to notice the weather when they go outside, but when you're inside you mostly don't give it any thought, I expect."

"Well, some."

"What with philosophy, and science, and politics and history, I imagine, weather wouldn't mean much to you. Why would you talk about the weather when there are all those lectures and books calling your attention, right?"

I laugh. "Right."

"What I mean is that it isn't a very important thing. You only think about it when you have to."

"Yeah. There really isn't a lot of spare time to spend just sitting around talking about whether it's going to rain."

"That's too bad."

"Well, it's only the weather."

"Now, that's just what I mean. To you it's only the weather. I'm curious. Would you say that it'll rain tomorrow?"

I look up at the sky. There are no clouds. It has not rained in Oklahoma in two months. "I doubt it."

The old man looks at me. He rocks back and forth, waiting for something.

"Is that all? You doubt it?"

"Um, yes. I don't think it will rain. It seems pretty obvious."

"What if it did rain?"

I shrug.

"It doesn't matter to you. It just seems obvious. I don't think you really gave it much thought. Tomorrow maybe it won't rain, maybe it will, you're thinking. You'll be back on the road, and maybe you'll be in Missouri, or Ohio, and maybe it will rain there, and maybe it won't. It doesn't really matter to you, now, does it?"

"No, not really, I guess."

"Okay. So what does matter to you? What's something you might talk about? Some question of philosophy or such?"

I look at Dave. He's the philosophy major.

"Well, 'Does God exist?' is quite popular."

"Yes." The old man smiles. "The answer is 'yes.' That's easy. There's nothing there to discuss. Now, what would one of your professors say to that?"

"He'd probably ask you why you were so sure."

The old man shrugs and smiles wider. "You see, it's just the same. Philosophy seems just as obvious to me as weather seems to you. If you go down to the store tomorrow, unless somebody has gotten careless again and driven a pickup straight through the produce stand, as happens every so often, I guarantee you that there will be people sitting around, talking about the weather. If you ask them whether God exists, they will probably look at you a little odd, and then ask you whether you think it will rain tomorrow. Wouldn't you have anything to say?"

"My opinions on the weather around here hardly matter."

"Now you see, to me it matters. To all of us around here. We don't have many books, I guess, or many lectures. People around here don't really bother with philosophy and religion and history and whatever. I would imagine that you'll only find a few places in this world where people are concerned with that sort of thing. But just about everywhere there are people concerned with the weather."

"But no one really thinks it will rain here tomorrow, though, do they? I don't see where there is much of an argument. Aren't there weather reports? Isn't there a forecast in the newspaper?"

"Of course there is. There are all sorts of forecasts and such, and I expect that most of them would agree with you that it isn't going to rain tomorrow, but I can guarantee that if you went down to the store right now there would be a sizable crowd arguing on the side of there being rain tomorrow after all. And there wouldn't be any amount of forecasts or books or lectures on the subject that could move them otherwise."

"But tomorrow, if it doesn't rain, won't they see that the forecasts were right?"

"If it doesn't rain tomorrow, it doesn't rain. Just because forecasts say it won't doesn't make it not rain. Forecasts are just people somewhere making their own opinions as to whether or not it's going to rain. They might have a whole truck load of fancy machines that they point this way and that to make their guess, but chances are that they're much like you. They've got air-conditioners and heaters and such, and the weather doesn't really get to them. What they say is, generally, of some interest to us, but no more than for what it is. The weather around here isn't so much of a science like all the experiments you do in school. It's much more personal."

"Personal?"

"Very personal. What a man thinks of the weather is the best way to tell what kind of a personality he is. For instance, when Herschel shows up, I'd be willing to bet that he'll give some serious consideration to the possibility that tomorrow it will go ahead and rain. I don't know as he will conclude one way or the other in the end, seeing as he most often doesn't, but I do think he'll be inclined to speculate on a certain possibility of rainfall."

"Why?"

"That's just the way Herschel is. When a man moves as slow as he does, and his whereabouts are the subject of such frequent debate as Herschel's are, that man is likely to develop a very peculiar angle of looking at things. And after you get to know him well enough, you can begin to tell some of the time what he is going to think about things.

"Not always. One day last week I ran into Herschel, who had gotten himself mired smack in the middle of the one tiny swamp within fifty miles of here for reasons which did not seem to be entirely clear, even to him. We got talking about the weather, and Herschel looked me straight in the eye and said that he thought the next day was going to be a little warmer than the present one, but that otherwise things seemed like they would stay much the same. Now, I had just come from the barber's where the prevalent view was one of a small but noticeable cooling effect starting up some time during the night, and when Herschel told me he thought it might get a little warmer, I was interested. I had figured Herschel to go with the general opinion that day, but I hadn't been sure. I was wrong. Today though, I don't expect I'm wrong. If Herschel didn't show up today and say that he though it might rain tomorrow, I would be very surprised."

"But you're sure that he will get here?" Dave is getting impatient, I think.

The old man smiles. "What do you think?"

I look at Dave. He looks at his watch.

"We've been waiting for almost three hours. Maybe we should call him again."

The old man laughs. "There's no need to call Herschel twice. Herschel may be slow, and he may be large, and he may not even be too smart, but he isn't likely to forget about coming."

He pauses. "Why don't you think he's here yet?"

I look at him. "No idea."

"No idea? That's all?"

I look away. I take a deep breath. "Okay, I don't think he's here yet, because he stopped off somewhere to get a drink or a sandwich or something, and someone else drove in and parked their pickup too close to the driver's side of his tow truck for him to get in. So he went back inside to find out whose truck it was, and if they could move it, and he got talking about the weather and how he thought it would rain tomorrow. When the other guy finally moved the truck out of Herschel's way, they noticed some piece of metal hanging off the bottom of Herschels truck, so they had to crawl under the truck to have a look, and Herschel got stuck and now he's waiting for someone to go get a couple of his cousins to jack the truck up so that he can get out. How's that?"

The old man smiles at me. "That's better. A very interesting theory about why Herschel is not here. A very interesting theory indeed. If I didn't know different, I'd say that you and Herschel had been acquainted for some time. There's only one possible flaw in your theory, as I see it."

"What's that?"

He rocks back and forth two or three times, smiling, and then he points out behind me. Dave and I turn around to look. There is dust rising, down the road, and I can just discern the outline of a truck, larger than the omnipresent Fords. Dave and I both jump down off the porch to watch it come closer. It is the right shape. It is the right size. Finally it gets close enough to see the winch on the back. It is still too far away to see the driver, or the lettering on the side, but the old man behind us on the porch is laughing.

I put my hand up to shade my eyes as I watch the truck approach. It is only a hundred yards or so away from us when I feel a drop of water hit my hand. I look up. There are no clouds. The sky is still the same unbroken blue. A drop hits me just below my left eye. I don't move. Another drop hits my right cheek, and runs back towards my ear.

Dave is staring straight ahead of him at his outstretched hand. Under his breath he is counting the drops that hit it. I open my mouth. Drops hit my forehead and my arm, and then one hits my lower lip. Slowly, I reach my tongue out and taste it. It tastes wrong. I reach out and shake Dave's shoulder.

"Taste one."

He raises his hand to his mouth and licks at the drops. He keeps staring, running his tongue around in his mouth. He frowns.

Behind us, the old man has stopped laughing. I lick at another drop. Suddenly, I place the taste. Lemon. I whirl around. The old man stares straight at me for a moment in mock astonishment, and then he dips his fingers into my lemonade glass, and flicks another spray of drops into the air.

"Well, what do you say? Do you think it might rain tomorrow?" The old man smiles, and puts the glass back down on the railing.

I turn away from him and walk across the lawn to the car to wait for Herschel. After a moment, Dave follows me. The cloud of dust behind the truck comes closer, still growing. The ground is dry. It has not rained in Oklahoma for two months. It won't rain in Oklahoma tomorrow, either. If things go well, though, tomorrow we will be in Missouri. In Missouri maybe it will rain.


4 February 1987

Copyright 1987, glenn mcdonald


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