Did you see the post I wrote about how a random title and cover came to me before I’d ever written word one of the book?
Well, I didn’t intend to, but I might have written the first chapter just now. Here it is.
“A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.”
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
The first day is hard. It’s mid-summer and it’s hot, the air breezeless and heavy, the kind of day that makes shirts cling to backs and feet swim in shoes. Lucinda stands in the sandy front yard, surveying the dilapidated little duplex before her, hands on her hips as she blows out a puff of air.
Cicadas drone in the background. Besides the whine of the insects, the only other sound comes from her cousin Hank, as he grunts and pants out instructions to his friend.
“Grab it there — no, on the top,” Hank says. “Lean it towards me and I’ll hold it while you get down.”
Lucinda bends over, picks up the plastic crate she’d set down at her feet a moment before. She twists, looking behind her towards Hank and Wheeler.
“Y’all need a hand with that?” she asks, not able to keep her anxiety about the safety of her grandmother’s old dresser out of her voice.
“We’re fine,” a distracted Hank answers without turning to look at her.
Wheeler hops down from the open tailgate, making the truck bed bounce a little as the dresser balances precariously on its edge, a tanned, sweaty Hank holding most of the weight with a grimace.
Wheeler lifts his dingy old baseball cap from his head long enough to run a thick hand through his matted brown curls, then puts it back on, adjusting the bill down to block out the sun.
“We’ve got it,” he drawls to Lucinda, grinning, and she is reminded that she doesn’t like the way he looks at her. She never has. “You just open the door for us.”
She nods once and climbs up the porch steps with the plastic crate still in her arms, pulling open the screen door while she fishes the keys from her jeans pocket. The corner of the screen is torn, she notes as she fiddles for the right key. She’ll have to talk to the landlord about getting it fixed.
She props the door open and weights, the men arguing and cursing as they heft the old dresser up the three creaking porch steps and through the front door.
The second day is easier. It’s just her, no Hank, no Wheeler, with only cicadas and classic rock she’s playing softly in the background to drown out the silence. She prefers being alone, which is something that surprises her. But the solitude means her thoughts have space to float, form, dissolve, like clouds in an empty sky.
She spends the day unpacking, and at its end, she makes herself a simple meal of rice and beans, because she hasn’t gone grocery shopping yet and because she unpacked the box with the can opener late in the afternoon.
The third day is a harder. It starts with her waking from a vivid nightmare, gasping and sweating, and as it progresses, she jumps at every shadow, flinches at every creak the old duplex emits. It ends with a fear of sleep, a thought that insomnia and late-night novel reading might be preferable to what awaits her in her dreams.
On the fourth day, Hank comes by, because he’s as kind and considerate and big-hearted as he was when they were all kids.
“How ya making out?” he asks after accepting the lemonade she offers him — because she finally went grocery shopping — and they settle into two rickety old rocking chairs on the front porch.
Lucinda nods thoughtfully. “Alright, I guess. Might be better if this heat would break.”
He nods back. “S’posed to storm on Wednesday,” he says, scanning the horizon with bright green eyes as if he might already be able to spot the gathering clouds. He sips his lemonade.
Lucinda wants to ask, “And what day is today?” but that would be embarrassing. She’ll check her phone when she goes back inside, because she really should know what day of the week it is.
“Aggie talked to her friend, the one I told you ’bout,” Hank says, sounding pleased with himself.
“The one who owns the hair salon?”
“Yeah. Her name’s Georgie. She’s kind of an institution in this town.” The corner of his mouth lifts into a smile, and Lucinda thinks it makes him look boyish and charming. “Georgie seems to think it could actually be really good timing. One of her hairstylists is expecting soon, getting close to that point where she’s not going to be able to work for a while. She told Aggie you should drop by.”
“Thank you, Hank. You’ve been too good to me — you, and Aggie, too.”
He shrugs and leans back in the rocker, extending his legs out and crossing them at the ankle. “That’s what family’s for, Lu. If I’d known sooner what you were going through with that bastard, I would’ve — ”
“Let’s not talk about it,” Lucinda says before he can go any further. She’s hoping to sleep tonight and doesn’t want to tempt the nightmares into bed with her. “What’s done is done, and I’m here now.”
Hank glances sideways, studies her for a long second like he might say something else, but then he thinks better of it and drinks the rest of his lemonade before slapping his hands on his knees and pushing himself up.
“Welp, I’ll letcha get back to it,” he says. “Aggie wants you to come over for dinner as soon as you get settled in.” He hands Lucinda back her empty glass. “Truth be told, I think she’s hoping for a free haircut.”
Lucinda tries to smile, but aborts the attempt halfway through. She’s not quite ready to smile. Not yet. Maybe soon, though. Maybe by the time she goes to her cousin’s house for dinner.
But even though she can’t manage the smile, she says as warmly as she can, “I’ll bring my scissors.”
Hank reaches down, thick fingers headed for Lucinda’s shoulder, and she flinches away automatically. His hand hangs in the air for a moment before dropping to his side.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and Lucinda feels shame for the remorse in his voice. “I shouldn’t have — I guess I keep forgetting that — ”
“It’s fine,” Lucinda says. “You didn’t do anything wrong. Honestly. You and Aggie have been nothing but generous to me. And Wheeler, too. Please tell him I said thank you.”
He stands there another moment, almost leaning over her, as if he’s not sure what to say or do. Finally he shrugs and says, “Glad we could help. And you’ve got my number, right? And Aggie’s? You just call if you need anything. Anything at all.”
She nods but can’t look at him anymore. She hates being pitied. “I will. And I’ll go see Georgie tomorrow.”
But she doesn’t venture into town the next day. She stays at home, unpacking, cleaning, weeding the little patch of dried mulch that she wants to turn into a garden.
The day after that must be Wednesday, because it storms. She smells the rain before she hears the first pattering drops hitting the bare, dusty earth, and she goes out onto the porch to watch the thunderstorm roll in. She sits in the rocking chair and pulls both bare feet up, wrapping her arms around her knees as the sky slowly darkens.
She leans her head back, watches the silver-grey drops pelt the pine trees at the edge of the yard, her old red Pontiac, the dried patch of mulch that might one day be a garden.
And from the center of her chest, a memory surfaces — another rainstorm, long ago; a woman’s hand, gently brushing drenched hair from Lucinda’s forehead, and there’s warmth in the woman’s eyes when she smiles and says, “When you stand in the rain, no one can tell if it’s tears or just water running down your cheeks.”
The memory fades as quickly as it came, but the twisting pain in Lucinda’s heart remains. And for the first time since she arrives, she cries.
She cries hard, and she doesn’t try to stop the tears.