Rain Tomorrow by Charlie Watts
A finalist for the 2019 Short Fiction Prize, Charlie Watts’s “Rain Tomorrow” is a well-executed and well-balanced short story, with strong voice and pacing, and a nice sense of control. With a touch of melancholia and nostalgia, Watts develops a flow that establishes relationships and tension early, with interesting imagery (“When she pulls up at a job site, the ashes float from the back to the front, like she’s driving a snow globe”). The clean, active sentences and harmony of scene and narrative summary help this piece succeed.
Most notably, the dialogue is sharp and authentic, propelling the narrative forward. And these compelling characters, written with depth, feel supremely real. Each has longing; each has motivations (see Watts’s author’s note for more on establishing his character’s motivations, and more). Supporting characters Old Lady Cuddy and Rick’s dad both exude loneliness and quiet longing. Especially poignant is the father/son relationship Watts renders between Rick and his father, each processing a great, shared loss alone, yet together. —CRAFT
“I wish she’d just hawk it up and spit it out. You know? Loogie-style.”
That’s what I say to Dave in front of the Kwik Stop. We’re on our lunch, drinking off-brand iced tea in plastic bottles and as usual I’m trying to figure what’s up with Old Lady Cuddy. She’s our boss and the owner of Cuddy’s Cut & Plow. Small-time grass cutting and yard cleanups.
“She puked on you this morning,” Dave says, digging into his cigarette pack as if there might be one more hidden under the foil. He’s not so interested in figuring out Old Lady Cuddy. I imagine smacking the cigarette pack out of his hand. He’d say what the fuck, dude, and then not do anything.
Every morning, Old Lady Cuddy gives us a list of ten lawns. We’ve got to cut them all, she says, because it could rain tomorrow. Today I’d seen the news and they said no rain for at least a week. I felt like I was taking ownership. Making a contribution. But Old Lady Cuddy thought I was being lippy, I guess, so she ripped me on several unrelated fronts, including how I’d secured the trimmers (a baby, Rick, a baby could do better), the way the safety chains were hooked to the truck (are you trying to kill someone?), and the fact that it was already 7:45 (I don’t hire people to come in whenever they feel like it, Rick, this is a business, not a goddamn teen center). After she was done barking, she slapped the hood of the truck with her palm and walked away. The handprint was still there on the metal like the ghost of an old bumper sticker as we drove out of the yard.
“The way she acts, there’s got to be something she needs to dump. But she can’t get to it. That’s why her veins are like Twizzlers. I swear.”
“I don’t have anything I wanna dump. Seriously—I’ve got good stuff.” Dave puts his lips over his tea and sucks until the sides cave in. He’s twenty-two, four years younger than me. He just signed a lease on his first apartment, which he says is a boss place.
“Not what I’m saying, Dave. Not what I’m saying.”
I tap the back of my head against the brick wall of the store. Dave shrugs and walks back inside. When he comes out, he’s rapping a new pack of cigarettes on the base of his palm.
Old Lady Cuddy smokes in her Buick when she’s trailing around after her crews looking for fuckups. When she pulls up at a job site, the ashes float from the back to the front, like she’s driving a snow globe.
“On the other hand,” I start again, “people don’t like it when everything is balanced. They like to struggle. Right?”
“Not me,” Dave says, lighting a new cigarette. “Not with her. ’Cause here she comes now.” He takes shelter behind the truck, pretending to adjust the ratchet-straps holding all our crap in place. He cranks his head sideways to keep the smoke out of his eye.
“How you coming?” Old Lady Cuddy yells from the Buick. I walk over and bend down so I can see all of her. She’s wearing one of her green muumuu dresses. It’s hitched up over one knee, showing skin that’s white the way bacon fat is white after it cools.
“We did both the Peterson houses, then Geary, then Davis. And Landow. Plus half of Otto’s.”
“Half? What do you mean half?”
“It was time for lunch.”
“Time for—” She presses her lips together and straightens her dress. “Good God, Rick. You better get your asses back over there. I don’t want Otto thinking you all left without finishing.”
She looks at herself in the rearview mirror and adjusts her glasses with both hands.
“And Rick, they are saying rain. I just heard it. So.”
Today, the air in her car smells like a basement when you know there’s a dead mouse somewhere down there but you haven’t found it yet.
“What?” she asks.
“Nothing,” I say, shaking myself back to the present. “We’ll get over to Otto’s.”
“You absolutely will. Finish the list, Rick, that’s all I’m asking.”
She shifts forward in her seat and then takes off. I’ve imagined her flattening a little kid with that car. She’d get out and look at the body. But she wouldn’t call the police.
“You really handled her, Chief.”
“Get in the truck, asshole.”
I notice I’m cradling my lunch box like it’s a baby, tight against my chest.
We drive back to Otto’s colonial.
“Why don’t you finish out back,” I say to Dave once I get the rig parked. “I’ll string-trim.” Dave sucks with the trimmer. And Old Lady Cuddy blames me when he does a crap job.
“Whatever,” Dave says, adjusting his massive headphones. “It’s Van Halen day. That boy knows how to jump…!”
“He does,” I say, grateful, at least, that one of his girlfriends got him those spaceman headphones.
Dave takes off behind his mower, already singing. In his cutoffs and new Timberland boots, he looks like the character that gets killed first in a slasher film. I watch him get into position, wondering again how is it that Dave has a girlfriend. Then he flips me the bird and bends down over the mower for the starter cord.
I trim around the front of the house. I’m back to my main preoccupation: why does Old Lady Cuddy have to be so rude? The easy answer is that her husband killed himself. Little Arno had worked his whole life at the battery plant with my dad. When they shut the place down and kicked everyone out, Little Arno drove his Impala off a county bridge and landed nose down in the Susquehanna. The picture in the paper the next day showed Old Lady Cuddy standing on the bridge in a huge yellow rain coat. She’s leaning out over the rail just enough to make you think she’s looking for Little Arno, as if he might pop up out of the water and say something dumb like my dad would have. Jiminy crickets! Awful wet out here!
Little Arno offing himself is why Dad called and said this would be a good time for me to quit things in Harrisburg. He said Old Lady Cuddy was struggling and she could really use some reliable help. Why don’cha you come on home for a bit? Watch a few games with your old man? It’d be good. Probably he didn’t say any of that. But that’s how I decided to hear it since leaving home had been such a bust. The concept for Harrisburg had been to get an office job (e.g., a real salary), make some attempt at finding a girlfriend, and generally give in to the idea that preparing for the future wasn’t the worst thing a person could be doing. The reality was that I’d settled for a crap job working the spray booth at a discount body shop and had made no progress in the relationship department. Basically, I was still waiting to have a life. My roommates helped me load my Toyota. They seemed disappointed I wasn’t leaving the toaster oven.
Otto opens his screen door when I get closer. He’s wearing his boxing robe like he always does. Green satin with yellow trim. I’ve never seen the back to know if there is any lettering on the thing.
“Hello, Mr. Sanborn.”
“Rick. What is that fool doing out there?” he asks, propping the screen door open with one hand and waving a folded magazine with the other. I turn and see that Dave has gotten into it again with his mower, yanking the thing around like an uncooperative dance partner.
“I think he’s listening to his music.”
“I don’t like it, Rick. He’s making marks. I don’t pay for marks.”
“I’ll talk to him, Mr. Sanborn.”
“Finish today, Rick. Rain tomorrow,” he says and shuts the door.
I set down the trimmer and walk out to tell Dave to cut the crap. The thing is, last month, he’d cut off the toe of his boot doing this same shit, trying to spin the mower around on one wheel.
“You’re such a pussy,” Dave says, holding his headphones off his ears. I can hear David Lee Roth yelping over heavy guitar chords.
“Dave. Why is normal such a big deal for you?” Sweat drips off his earlobes.
“Dang, kid. Like you know normal!” He lets his headphones snap back into position and takes off with his mower, lifting his knees high like he’s back in marching band.
My excuse is that my mom left home when I was in seventh grade, so it’s been me and my dad and it’s not like he’s an expert on normal. I’m not sold on this as the only issue, but people get quiet when you tell them your mom walked out halfway through middle school. She said she was going on a road trip but she didn’t say it was forever. I remember my dad throwing an apple at her car when she left. It hit the middle of the trunk and made a big dent but she didn’t stop. Now she lives in Florida with her sister. For a long time, my dad didn’t get it. He’d always be saying, you heard from your mom lately? Like he thought she’d be back any day. I would say, why don’t you call her? But he was too proud. He never did. And now he just sits in the living room, eating mini-pretzels the way he would have in the break room at the plant.
Mom’s pretty happy, I guess. Last year she sent me a postcard showing the pool at their condo building. She said they do aqua aerobics every day. And that it only rains in the middle of the night. Whenever she writes, she draws a little sideways heart at the bottom and signs it Your Mom, as if there was a chance someone else’s mom might be sending me postcards.
I wave to Otto as we drive out. He sits in the bay window, watching the truck with his mouth open. I feel like he wants to yell something at us but he can’t pick the right words.
We head for the Beakman place on Lily Pond Drive. There are no lilies and no ponds out there, but whatever. Dave lights his next cigarette and starts telling me about how he has some acid he wants to do tonight because we don’t have to work tomorrow. No Cut & Plow on Sundays.
“You’re still going to feel like shit on Monday,” I tell him.
“Dude. It’s totally worth it. Last time I saw right through my own skin.”
“What does that mean?”
“I could see my heart squeezing blood and shit. My real heart.”
“Your real heart?”
“Right!? It’s awesome.”
We pull into the Beakmans’ and get to work. Dave cuts. I trim and weed in the front beds. Then I blow off the walks and write the bill. He packs the truck. Cuddy pays us in cash for anything over forty hours because it’s less for her in taxes. You go home with something solid in your wallet but then your paycheck is a joke. Dave doesn’t know that Cuddy pays me five bucks more an hour because I’m the one with a valid driver’s license. Once I saw my dad putting actual paper money in an envelope to my mom. All I said was that sending a check would be safer. He squirreled up his face like he does when he can’t decide if he’s mad or sad, told me it was none of my damn business, and then walked the envelope to the mail box on the corner of our street. After he dropped it in, he stood there with his hands in his pockets, staring at the box as if it might give him an immediate reply.
By the time we finish at the Fultons’ and then the Smiths’, it’s 6:20 but the sun is still in burn mode. We gun it over to the Dibbles’, the last house on the list. A cyclone of clippings follows us as we go.
“She’s gonna bust your balls for that,” Dave says, watching in the side mirror and fishing the top of his sock out of his boot.
“Well, she can buy us a damn tarp.”
Cuddy loves yelling at us in front of the customers. Sometimes I see them watching from the windows—especially if she’s gone to the trouble of getting out of her car to flap around the yard and make a real show of pointing out our mistakes. My dad says she doesn’t know any better. He says she and Little Arno never had kids, as if that would have changed anything. Not everyone should have kids, is my opinion. I try to imagine Cuddy taking care of a little kid, arranging it in a crib or cleaning applesauce off its chin with the edge of a spoon, but the image breaks down. Instead, I see her in the Buick, her hands at ten and two and a little sweat on her scalp.
I ring the bell at the Dibbles’ because some customers freak out when you come that late in the day. This is one of six identical brick houses on the street.
A kid answers the door. He has a piece of gum half in and half out of his mouth.
“Hey. We’re here to cut the grass,” I say. “You think it’s okay? I know it’s late.”
“Are your parents here?”
“Okay. Well, we’re going to cut the grass.”
He shrugs, snaps his gum back into his mouth and gives the door a slam.
I trim around the beds. There’s a certain way to handle a weedwacker. It’s all about the RPMs and the angle of attack. Cuddy herself showed me how on my first day. She held the trimmer in a surprisingly easy, familiar way. And like it was made of paper, only they’re actually kind of heavy. She fired it up with one yank on the cord and then laid into a stand of weeds next to the garage. The clippings blew back against her bare ankles and the hem of her muumuu, but she didn’t hesitate. And goddamn it, she yelled, glaring at me while juicing the trimmer to full throttle, this is the only way to do it. You get that? You understand? I knew from the start that you weren’t supposed to answer any of her questions.
Mrs. Dibble comes home just as Dave is dumping the last barrel of grass into the truck. I’m blowing the front walk. She taps her horn and shoots up the driveway in her red Nissan.
“Hey Rick,” she calls, getting her tennis bag from the back of the car. She’s wearing a super-short tennis skirt that’s connected to white ruffled underwear. I think you’re supposed to look.
“Hello Mrs. Dibble,” I say, shutting down the blower. It coughs once and pounds against my spine.
“I know. Sorry. I rang the bell—”
Beyond Mrs. D., I can see Dave by the truck making obscene hand gestures. I’m aware that I’m breathing exclusively through my nose. It’s not clear if Mrs. Dibble is thirty or fifty. She pushes a loose strand of hair away from her face, crossing her eyes as if she’s dealing with a troublesome child.
“Everything looks great, Rick.” She smiles and puts her hand lightly on my forearm. At that exact moment, the dog starts barking inside the house.
I had forgotten about their dog. A shepherd named Dijon. Earlier that summer, he’d backed Cuddy up against the truck, nipping at her muumuu after she’d been screaming at us. Mrs. Dibble stood at the gate to the backyard, watching the whole show. Then she snapped her fingers and Dijon shut his trap, spun around, and bolted into the backyard. Cuddy steadied herself and started to say something, but Mrs. Dibble lowered her head a click and that was that. My fingers went numb. Then Mrs. Dibble turned and walked back through the gate without shutting it.
“I guess Dijon wants his dinner” Mrs. Dibble says, dragging her hand off my arm and moving toward the front steps. “Next week, then? Assuming we don’t get a rain storm,”
“Yeah!” I say. “I’ll put the bill in the box?”
“Yes. You take care now. Alright?”
She blinks in slow motion, hitches her tennis bag further up on her shoulder, and then goes into the house. The last thing I see is the zigzag tread on the bottom of her sneaker.
In the truck, after he finishes his usual meltdown about the hotness of Mrs. D., Dave remembers he’s going to drop acid tonight.
“Seriously, man, you have to try it. We can go up on the roof at my new apartment.”
“The roof?” I have an immediate image of Dave walking off the edge, spreading his arms and smiling into the fall.
“It’s awesome. You can see the searchlights at the penitentiary.”
We had done a horrible, hot job out there earlier in June, scalping a thirty-foot strip of grass and low brush all around the free side of the perimeter fence. It’s minimum security. Mostly just tax cheats, they say, but there’s still razor wire at the top of the fence so it feels serious. All Cuddy’s crews were there, working in a line and kicking up a nasty cloud of dust and gravel and general weedy, trashy bits that kept getting in my eyes because, of course, we don’t wear goggles. Cuddy walked about twenty feet behind us. She wore black rubber boots and swung an iron grass-whip at anything that had managed to survive. It wasn’t clear if she was keeping us safe or waiting to beat us if we slowed down, but she had a real anxious look on her face the whole time. When we were packing the trucks, a man in a suit came out to the lot and handed Cuddy a thick envelope and Dave said shoot, I know what that’s all about.
“Sorry Dave,” I say, “I’m passing. It would be a wasted trip.”
“Your loss,” Dave says. He’s taken off his boots so he can clack them together out the window.
“It’s just not my thing.”
“What is your thing, Rick Ross?”
Good on you, Dave, for having two points in one day. All I can say, for sure, as we make the turn into Cut & Plow, is that I sure do wish I had a crisp, clean answer to that fucking question.
“Typical. Everyone else is gone. We’re the only crew that ever finishes their list,” Dave says, squeezing his leg up against his chest so he can get his boot back on.
I arc the truck around to back up and drop the trailer.
“Dude. Seriously. Can you handle this? I gotta bounce.”
“You remember it’s payday? She’s not going to give me your check or your cash. You’ll have to wait until Monday.”
“That’s cool. I don’t want to be trippin’ when there’s money in my pocket. You know?”
Dave drops out of the truck with one boot on and one boot off, and I finish securing our equipment and walk across the lot to Cuddy’s house, which stands in the middle of a square of grass that itself is surrounded by blacktop. Against the house, on all four sides, is a double row of yellow marigolds growing out of red mulch. You have to look twice to see whether or not they’re plastic.
To get our checks, we have to go up onto the screen porch. She sits behind a big metal desk that makes her look small. She writes out your check while you stand there and then adds the overtime cash from a pile in her lap. She won’t look you in the eye, but after you say thanks or whatever, she throws out something random from the week, like, you remembered to add booster to the trimmers, right, because otherwise my carburetors are screwed and, even if you have done whatever it was, you still leave with the feeling that maybe you hadn’t.
“Hello?” I say, pulling open the screen door and stepping onto the porch.
My eyes aren’t adjusting from the sun. There’s a weird sound. I take a step closer.
Cuddy is facedown on the desk, her cheek pressed into the keys of the adding machine. The paper spools out onto the floor, printing the same number over and over.
Her cat, a melon-sized calico called Baby, shoots out from under the desk, crashes into the wall and then takes off into the house. I put my fingers on Mrs. Cuddy’s neck to feel for a pulse. It’s not clear if I’m feeling her pulse or mine. But her skin is warm and I can see sweat on the top of her skull where her hair thins out. The calculator stops printing.
I pick up the phone, which smells like chickpeas, and dial 911. The operator tells me to stay on the line and not to move her and that the rescue will be there any minute. Every five seconds the phone beeps. The operator says that’s to remind me they’re still there and they won’t hang up until the paramedics arrive.
“Are you doing okay?”
I get down on my knees next to Mrs. Cuddy. I’m looking at the back of her head. Her cash has spilled off her lap onto the floor. Her arm hangs down in front of me so I decide I should hold her hand.
“How are you doing out there?” the operator says again. “The rescue is close. Can you hear the siren?”
All I can hear is buzzing from the electric clock over the door to the house. It’s a hyper-realistic cat face. You can’t see the numbers very well.
“Hello? Still there?”
“Yeah. Sorry. I think the ambulance is here.”
“That’s good. I want you to stay on the phone until they are in the room.”
It’s not the ambulance. It’s the fire department SUV. I watch it come across the grass, making two tracks. I don’t pay for marks.
A firefighter in knee-high rubber boots hustles onto the porch, talking into his shoulder radio. He drops an equipment bag next to Mrs. Cuddy. The operator says it’s okay for me to hang up.
“What do we have here?” the man says as he kneels down and puts his hand on Mrs. Cuddy’s forehead. I am still holding her hand.
“This is Florence Cuddy?”
“Ah—” I had never heard anyone use her first name.
“She lives here?”
“Did you see what happened?”
“No. She was like this when I came up.”
“Like, two minutes ago. I think. I don’t know.”
“Okay. We got this.”
Two EMTs come onto the porch rolling a stretcher. The firefighter smiles at them but they frown. They work quickly.
“Use the floor.”
“Down on three.”
They zap Mrs. Cuddy back into the present. Her legs flop, like she’s shaking them out after a run. Then her eyes come open and I know she’s been somewhere else.
“Mrs. Cuddy! Mrs. Cuddy!”
I’m not sure why I am yelling. One EMT puts her hand on my shoulder and talks to Mrs. Cuddy.
“Ma’am? Hello? How are you feeling, Florence? Are you with us?”
Mrs. Cuddy’s head drifts slowly from one side to the other. Then she smiles.
“Oh my,” she says.
“That’s right, Florence,” the EMT says, “Oh my is right. We’re going to take you to the hospital now. Okay Florence? Get the doctors to check you out?”
Mrs. Cuddy purses her lips and closes her eyes, pushing air out through her nose. I get the feeling she doesn’t want to go.
They get her up on the stretcher and wheel her out to the ambulance. I follow. At the back of the vehicle, her arm comes up, as if she wants to ask a question.
“Yes dear?” the EMT says, bending closer.
Mrs. Cuddy is straining.
“What is it, hun?”
She waves her arm again, smacking the EMT in the cheek.
“Whoa-now, Florence, it’s okay. We got you.”
I take a step closer.
“Mrs. Cuddy. Hey. It’s Rick,” I say.
The EMT swaps places with me so I am inches from Mrs. Cuddy’s face. She looks different. No edges. Not the face you’d see inside the Buick. Her mouth is open. All her teeth in the back are gold.
“It’s okay, Mrs. Cuddy,” I say. Her arm wavers in the air and I take her hand again. She has a ferocious grip.
“Is there someone you want me to call, Mrs. Cuddy?” She gives my hand another crushing squeeze.
“Don’t worry, Mrs. Cuddy. We’ll figure it out. I’ll call the other guys.”
“Time to go, Florence,” the EMT says, stepping back in and separating us. “Let’s get you over to the hospital.”
The emergency vehicles take off one by one, leaving scalloped tire marks on the blacktop. There are turkeys standing by the mound of grass clippings, pecking in their uncertain way and looking at me like I’m supposed to give instructions. Like I’m supposed to know what to do or how to feel.
I go back up on the screen porch. The firefighter left Mrs. Cuddy’s cash on the floor under the desk. I rake it together and find an envelope. One of the drawers has a lock button, so I open it up. Equipment catalogs, mailing supplies, spools of trimmer string. And a plaque from the battery factory. For Arno Cuddy. Best Attendance. 1987. I put the envelope under the plaque, close the drawer and push the lock button.
The door to the house from the porch is open. I feel anxious about going in, but Baby runs by and changes the mood so I step in. It’s hard to see what’s there, as the shades are all pulled. I wait. Then my eyes adjust and I see that the only thing in the room is a large table. I take another step. On the table, arranged with all the care of a sand painting, is a huge collection of miniature, carved animal babies. Tiny squirrels and rabbits. Bear cubs. Sparrow hatchlings. Mini-mice. Ducklings. They’re arranged in pairs and trios, some set to rest in nests of green Easter basket grass. Others are up and standing. Engaged with each other. Another step closer and it’s clear that all the figures are made of soap. Dove. Dial. Original plain Ivory. Blue Cuticura. It smells like a hospital gift shop. I see an absolutely perfect line of baby sea turtles, all marching toward the edge of the table. I have an urge to help them along.
Baby howls from the next room. She’s in the kitchen, pacing back and forth over her bowl. I fill it with kibble from a bag on the counter. Baby smacks my face with her tail.
Before I leave and lock the door, I stop again at the animal table, where I now see a single row of carving tools, the handles of which are stenciled with her name, Florence, in black paint. I decide to take what I think is a baby porcupine. It’s made from Irish Spring, so the quills along its back are both green and white. I look at the way it sits in my hand and I want to tell Mrs. Cuddy we finished all the lawns. All ten. And we put away the mowers and the trimmers. We dumped the truck and swept out the bed. We locked up. Everything is done. I realize I’m angry that there’s no one here to receive my report.
When I get home, my dad is sitting in the kitchen eating a bowl of spaghetti with a wooden spoon.
“I think Mrs. Cuddy had a heart attack today.”
“Florence? Really?” It’s strange to hear him say her name.
“She was passed out on her desk when I went up for my check. I called 911.”
“Wow,” my dad says. He reaches out for his beer. After a long drink he pauses, then seems to change his mind and takes a second pull. “You never know, do you?”
My dad swallows another load of spaghetti. I get myself a beer and sit down at the table with him.
“Did you know she was into carving things?” I ask.
“No. Never mind,” I say.
We go into the living room, my dad and me, and he turns on the baseball game. I’m not going to tell him anything more about Mrs. Cuddy and her baby animals. Because it’s not going to translate. I’m not going to know what to say about holding her hand while her heart was stopped or the way seeing how carefully all those creatures were arranged made me feel relaxed. And he’s not going to hear that and then say something revealing and honest about why he never tried to get my mom to come back. We’re just going to watch the game and he’s going to be happy with that, his shoes off and his feet up on the coffee table.
I get up and put the carved porcupine baby on the windowsill behind my dad. I put it facing in, looking over him at the TV screen.
In the fifth inning, when both teams have a half-dozen hits but neither has managed to plate an actual run, I realize it’s going to be okay to drop it about Florence. Maybe she doesn’t want to hawk stuff up and spit it out. Maybe she doesn’t need to. Maybe, today, her heart didn’t seize up out of crushing loneliness but instead, it took a pause as a way of reminding everyone who’s really in charge. Maybe my dad will never talk to my mother again and that will be fine for both of them. Maybe not running himself into the Susquehanna like Little Arno was the best gift he could offer. Maybe there’s nothing more important than being here right now, watching my dad circle his toes in their bright white tube socks like he’s conducting a band only he can hear.
“I’m going to bed, Dad.”
“Supposed to rain tomorrow,” he says. He looks up at me over his shoulder.
“Yup. That’s what they say.”
CHARLIE WATTS earned an MFA from Brown University studying with writers including Meredith Steinbach, Robert Coover, and Michael Ondaatje. Charlie has published stories in journals including Carve, Narrative, Storm Cellar, and Sequestrum. He and his wife, a chaplain, live in rural New Hampshire after other lives in Boston and Providence.