27 August 2017

In the Drowning Clouds

Her voice carried over the cacophony of ducks swarming the end of the marina. There were tears in it, raspy and liquid. At the sound of it, Jackie turned his head slightly to see from whom it came.

"I'm sorry," she had said following it with another sniffle. She was staring up at the youngish man standing in front of her. Jackie couldn't see his face, but could tell the jaw was working. The man had his arms hanging with a slight bent. No fists, exactly, but fingers flexing.

Jackie sipped the iced tea he held cradled in his hands. The woman raised her hands to her head, forming an inverted 'u' with with she swept her hair back to clutch it in a bun. Jackie's heart lurched. Goddamnit she was pretty he thought, never mind the tear tracks silvering her cheeks. Sputtering into his tea, he forced himself to look slightly past her so she would not think he was staring.

But he was. He long ago had mastered the art of observation without flagrancy.

The man said something to her Jackie couldn't catch. The wind was up and the ducks chose that moment to burst out quacking en masse, for all the world sounding like laughter. It took all of his self-control to not leap to the concrete wall and shoo them all off. In Jackie's mind, ducks had never been good at eavesdropping.

He risked another glance. Her mouth has dropped open, her arms following suit as they fell to her sides. Her expression balanced itself on that knife edge between shock and incredulous anger. Something in her eyes told Jackie she was feeling gutpunched with no way to respond. The man kept talking, hands moving a little faster now. They were, Jackie noticed, shaking quite a bit.

She shook her head. He heard something that sounded like "God's plan" and "for a purpose", but a powerboat was making its way up the marina cove. The low chugging of its motors blotted out more. Jackie took another sip of tea. She continued to stare at the man, crestfallen and fading. Her eyes were growing shinier. 

Little crescents of liquid welled up at the bottoms. She shook her head in response to whatever the man was saying. Dark blots spattered her blouse. Jackie instinctively reached to his shirt pocket thinking to grab a tissue, then realized how odd that might appear if she noticed. He kept his hand going and casually brushed back his hair.

The sky was growing heavy. Clouds the color of bright lead rolled in carrying a faint scent of rain and ozone. The water in the cove had a miniature chop on it, wavelets caroming back and forth between the walls. The powerboat had gone silent. Two men were securing it to pilings across the cove, tying up in front of the dockside bar where some intrepid souls appeared to be getting a head start on the weekend. Full tables festooned with bottles and glasses.

Jackie swallowed more tea. Looking over the woman's shoulder, he felt a pang and flutter of zombie memories. His drinking days were over, too bad he couldn't quite forget. The look of anguish on her face had him wishing he could crack the seal in a search for the cure for pain.

She was crying openly now, but quiet. He heard the wet intake of breath as a counterpoint to the laughter of the ducks. Her head swept back and forth. Twisting lips mouthing "no, no, no" as her companion continued to talk. The man reached out and took her by the upper arms. The woman had raised her face to the man. The expression on her face was cryptic. Jackie saw anger, mixed with a bit of fear.

Jackie stood up, setting his cup down on the concrete wall of the planter. The situation gave him a shiver of dread. He hoped they were just arguing, but one could never be sure. All the time he spent down here, among the tourists and the locals strolling blithely eating their ice cream or fiddling with cameras, he had witnessed too many breakups and temper tantrums. People could be so ugly to each other, and Jackie wished he could unwind them all.

The woman slapped the man's hands away from her arms. The man stepped back half a pace, genuinely shocked Jackie could see now as he moved closer to the two. The woman's eyes blazed as she loudly said "Then go. Just go! Maybe you can numb yourself with that bullshit, but I can't. I won't!"

Jackie felt the anger radiating off of her, even at distance. The man took another step back as if the anger was a force field. Jackie saw now that the man had been crying too. Flushed cheeks and red eyes bordered by a drawn and haggard face. He looked tired in the bone, while she stood there, hands on hips with tears drying up on her face and glaring. 

He turned away from her and towards Jackie, looking right through him. The man began walking back up towards the head of the cove. His face suddenly sagged and he stopped walking. Turning back to the woman, not five feet away from Jackie, he nearly shouted at her.

"Don't you see, Magda? Don't you see that you are broken? Why don't you believe me when I say that it is in your brokenness that God often uses you the most!"

Jackie looked from the man to Magda. He made no attempt now to hide the fact that he was watching. Few others appeared to notice, only a few side glances from the tourists and boat crews. The look on Magda's face transformed from hard to furious. She was shaking when she shouted.

"Adam, any God that would let our babies die for being born too early has no right to use me for anything! Why don't you see THAT?"

Passers-by stopped, stunned at what they just heard. Jackie froze, dizzy. He could not believe his ears. Memories rushing out of the dark sump in the bottom of his mind. Nightmare glimpses of the machines failing his own children, tiny, frail, too sick to live. He swallowed bile past the bulge in his throat and forced himself to look to Adam. 

Adam stood, swaying as if he were about to faint. He was panting. He shook his head, realizing he was now the center of attention. His mouth open and closed, a beached fish on the hot bricks of the promenade. An anguished groan burst forth, then he spun on his left heel and hurriedly walked away from the scene. Jackie watched his back recede up the hill and into the crowd milling about at the foot of Main Street. The small knot of onlookers dispersed, perhaps plunging back into their own thoughts of crabs and beer.

Turning around, he saw the woman had collapsed onto a nearby bench. She sat staring straight ahead while cradling her elbows in her hands. The pain was near visible, magnetic, a corona of grief in Jackie's eyes. He walked slowly as a hunter trying not to scare off quarry. At the end of the bench, he stopped.

Magda turned to look at him. Gray eyes clear as crystal and hardened with pain. She blinked slowly. Behind the hardness flickered a low curiosity. Jackie swallowed before speaking.

"I'm...sorry. So sorry. I overheard..."

She looked at him again, tears running slowly down her face. At his words, her eyes softened.

"It's okay, thank you. For being sorry."

There was a heartbeat or two of silence. Magda looked up the street, eyes narrowing. Jackie turned to look, and could see Adam about to turn a corner and go out of sight.

Magda said, low and hoarse, "I just wish he was, too." She leaned her head back, eyes closed, letting a deep sigh rush from her lungs. Her eyes opened. She stared up into the darkening clouds and said "And I wish He was, too."

The emphatic weariness and pain in her voice jolted Jackie. He looked up, following her gaze. The clouds roiled and glowered, rain began to fall in fat drops. He would not swear to it, but for a split second he thought he saw a face vanishing back into the pewter mist of the downpour.

He looked back down. Magda sat there, shivering, blank-eyed. From his back pocket he took out and unfurled the umbrella he had been carrying. "May I join you?"

She nodded. He sat. Drops beat a ragged tattoo on the umbrella as they both searched the sky, looking for that face. Behind them, the ducks cackled and quacked, laughing in spite of the rain.

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"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...