Rain Smells Red
The tin-pan click click of raindrops on the rusted metal roof beat in time with Mama’s eyelashes. She always blinked furiously when she was thrusting denial in front of her like a shield before Pappy’s barrage of insults and anger. No, of course he hadn’t been drinking, she would say to her sister who would blabber it all around town through the Ladies’ Guild meetings and chance grocery store aisle encounters. Though Auntie’s voice was soft, like her chest held the sound captive, there were no ears that her words couldn’t reach. No one’s skeletons were safe in the closet. It was better to burn them and scatter the ashes from a cropduster at least three counties away. Auntie especially liked the skeletons who dressed up like priests, their sins so full of heathen fire that the cassocks were like to crisp and singe and brush brush ash before the altar. Not even holy skeletons were safe.
Holy skeletons. That’s funny. Hole-y. Helen ducked back behind the sheet shielding the children’s room from the front part of the house. The tremor of the well-worn fabric’s motion whispered against her best school blue jeans. They were hole-y too. She sniggered and clapped her hand over her mouth. Her brother Burle looked up from his arithmetic book and scowled. She shrugged and relented. If Pappy heard them laughing…
Adding to the click click of raindrops was a tinny reel that smelled cold and felt fruity — wait, that wasn’t right. A sound can’t smell or feel. What did stupid Ms. Ketchington say with her lipstick-smeared teeth and over-pronounced British accent she inflected to remind everyone that she had spent a summer there once, roundabout the end of the Cold War? What was the Cold War again? Helen pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes. She was learning all this in Gifted. Danger. Oh well. So what if the ice cream truck music smelled cold and felt fruity – it also sounded much like what Helen imagined the first day in Heaven to be like: an engaging dance of righteousness that lured you in with great promise only to leave you with a plastic taste in your mouth and the type of disappointment that makes you feel ashamed so that you can’t even look at the people next to you, just step away into a life of faded joy and slight resentment.
The click click jingle of coins fell onto a soft surface and Helen opened her eyes. She watched her little brother count the pennies carefully as they fell out of an old sock he kept in his hideaway shoebox. All pennies and just one nickel. He carefully thumbed sets of ten into shiny caterpillar lines. She saw quickly that he wouldn’t have enough. This intersection stop for the ice cream truck was especially lucrative because the neighborhood on the south side was a shambled, tire-strewn, grass-bare trailer park with the occasional stand-alone two-bedroom house with a tin roof, just like Helen’s. Full of kids who dreamt of chill treats in their evaporative cooling or ancient AC unit homes on a humid rainy day. On the north side was the private Catholic elementary school. Those kids always had extra pocket change for a bomb-pop or drumstick. Or even the really fancy ones in the cups that looked like colorful shotgun pellets. The cheapest piece of frozen sugar water that the straggly-haired, pink tie wearing ice cream man sold was $0.75. Seventy-five frickin’ cents.
Helen thought about going through her pockets one more time, but she knew that she had no change. She had spent the last few dollars Mama had slipped her on milk and eggs. There were just some purchases that Pappy couldn’t hold against them, as long as he didn’t know the money came from Mama. After all, her pay from secretarial work at the dealership was allotted for Pappy’s migraine medicine, though he hadn’t taken a pill in years. He preferred the medicine that poured out of bottles in brown paper bags.
Burle quietly drew back his hand when he had finished counting. Helen sighed as he swept all the coins into a pile and counted again. He must have counted wrong. He couldn’t be 12 cents shy.
The ice cream truck music was still playing that stupid music that sounded like an out-of-tune accordion being thrown into a dumpster — why did it have to come every week? Even when it was raining? Ringing with it were the laughs of young children. Helen no longer heard them as joyous. She heard the discord. She heard the sad, broken notes of the kids like her brother: ones who wanted to pay so badly, so badly, but couldn’t find the extra 12 cents. Even though they couldn’t order a sweet, they would go with their friends who had saved money they had stolen or found or earned — but not from chores, no, only rich kids earned allowances for chores. The penniless would boast and posture, cracking jokes about keeping straight with their diets or saving up for an Avengers action figure, but all the while they yearned to be licking those lines of red, green, orange, and blue. Then was the cocky, whiny presence of the wealthy private-schoolers. They would flash around their pretty little coin purses from the trip last Christmas to Thailand or flip open their billfolds that were etched with their initials. They would make mock signs-of-the-cross before getting sticky-fingered full on frozen deliciousness. Helen hated to watch the pompous parade and the equally insulting hoity-toity condescension of the ice cream man.
Now, her little brother looked up at her with pleading eyes that quickly lowered with sad resignation.
“It’s okay, Burle. I will get you some ice cream.”
Helen motioned for her brother to stay, then slipped around the curtain where her mother was still furiously batting her eyes, but now she was batting away tears. Last night’s discussion with her husband showed black and blue on her face. Pappy didn’t notice Helen (like usual) as she crept into her parents’ bedroom. S he fished around in the sock drawer until she found the key to the safe. She shoved aside her Mama’s thin dresses in the closet. The gun safe was tall and skinny. Inside were only her Pappy’s hunting rifle, a shotgun, and a chipped glass jar of coins. “Saving for Disneyland” Pappy said when he was in the odd chipper mood. What a load of crock, Helen thought as she twisted the lock open. She listened a moment, but Pappy was too absorbed in throwing his boots around the house and her Mama was yip yip whimpering. Burle was waiting. Her knuckles brushed the carefully polished wooden stock of the shotgun as she slipped her hand in the coin jar. She knew he always kept it loaded — what if an intruder broke in? Would he really have time to load? — and she looked at its dull shine a moment, wondering what shotgun shot really looked like when it peppered a wall. Or a rabbit, she supposed. Helen carefully took out just 12 cents from the jar. Pappy would notice even that small difference, but hopefully she would be able to replace it before he counted it next.
With the safe locked and dresses shifted back, Helen replaced the key and retrieved Burle. She held his hand as they walked out the door.
The line of jump jumping kids had reduced to two tight circles, one made of taunting 10-year-olds under brightly colored umbrellas, some of whom had an ice cream in each of their hands. The other circle was not as flippant with their joy. Every lick or bite was significant. It was splash splash raining, but the type of rain that stuck to you like a winter coat and so made the cool treat of ice cream the natural inclination.
Burle took the 12 cents from Helen and raced to the ice cream truck, waving his hand in the air. His group of friends cheered, in their wet and ragged clothes, as he stretched on tiptoes and boldly ordered a purple-flavored Ironman push-pop. Purple-flavored? T hat wasn’t right. A color couldn’t have flavor. Unless it was orange. Then that made sense. Helen was distracted from her thought as Burle sank, crestfallen, back to his heels. Sniff sniff, sigh. She moved up to him quickly.
“I told your little brother there, girl. Don’t have no more ice cream for 75 cents. Cheapest is a whole dollar. I guess y’all’ll need to rummage through some more couch cushions. Y’all have a proper couch, right?”
Helen tangled her fingers in her braided rope belt and gripped tightly. The words choked in her throat as she heard the jeers of the private-schoolers. The second group was throwing back jabs and all-in-all defending Burle, but she was his sister. It was her job to defend him.
“I will get the extra 25 cents, sir,” why the hell did she need to call him sir? “Please wait for me to come back.” Then she squeezed Burle’s shoulder. “I will get you some ice cream, Burle.”
Helen walked briskly back to the house, raindrops pelting her face, still gripping her belt, her fingernails digging into her palms. She marched past her father, who ignored her (like usual) and entered the bedroom. She tore the sock drawer clear out of the dresser and dropped it to the floor. She grabbed the key and flung open the door to the gun safe. She dug for a quarter and pulled it out, its shine leering at her. She moved to close the gun safe door, then stopped. That shotgun was leering at her too.
The crowd of kids parted as she exited her house and walked back toward the ice cream man. The stupid chirp chirp of the ice cream truck tune was still wailing but no kids laughed with it . Helen dropped the quarter in her little brother’s hand as he gaped at her. She motioned him to get the push-pop. He paid the ice cream man, who didn’t say anything condescending this time. Burle backed up from the truck as the man tipped his hat at Helen.
In the desperate silence with only the tap tap of the last raindrops, Helen stepped closer to the truck, cocked the shotgun, leveled it, and fired a barrel into the ice cream man’s chest. The kick of the gun threw her back as blood splattered across the windows and the top of the ice cream freezers. It painted the puddled asphalt just below the window as diamond slivers of shattered glass glittered the ground. The rain smelled red and felt shiny. That wasn’t right…
Helen looked at the ice cream man as he slumped forward, smearing scarlet across the gleaming order window. Blood fell, drip drip. She struggled back to her feet, cocked the shotgun and leveled it again, firing the second round into the speaker box.
Fucking ice cream truck song, she thought. Wow, I don’t know that I have ever used the F-word. It sounds hollow, like the holes in the ice cream man. She giggled. Holes. He is a hole-y man. Just like Jesus Christ.