10

Convection

Gerry's mother predicts storms better than a meteorologist, her arthritic knee stiffening a few hours before the rain. She has trouble walking, hobbles around the kitchen, knowing that soon she'll have to wipe the counters down, then sweep and scrub the floor. But all she really wants to do, can do, is elevate the foot and ice the joint. But the dog, her late husband's dog lying in front of the oven, needs to be let out, and dinner needs to be settled. Gerry sits at the table, rubbing the top of her nose, staring at her math book – thick twilight advances through the screen windows and over the pages. She has problem after problem to solve tonight and not enough time or energy to finish. Sighing, she traces the graph paper squares on her notebook. No matter how hard she works, she just can't get the homework done, just like every night. If her dad were still here, well, he could figure out the problems, could coerce the numbers into equations.

"Gerry? Can you pick up the Chinese?" Gerry's mother grabs a roll of paper towel and disinfectant from the cabinet.

"You know I have homework. I have to do, like, seventy problems for tomorrow." Gerry lifts her math book to show her mother. "Anyway, we probably have leftovers in the fridge."

"I cleaned them out this morning." Gerry's mother swipes at a grease spot on the stove.

"Can't we just get delivery or something?" Gerry slams shut her textbook.

"You know they always screw up the orders." Her mother leans over the dog to wipe the oven door. "Geraldine, why can't you just help out once in a while? This won't take very long."

"I've got work to do. Can't you see I'm trying to concentrate?" Gerry shakes her notebook.

Her mother leans against the counter, rubbing her knee. "We both have lots to do."

Shoving her books away, Gerry snaps, "So I'm the one who has to do more?" She grabs her flip-flops from underneath the table. "Fine, I'll get you your Chinese."

Her mother throws her sopping paper towel into the trashcan. "Don't bother. I've lost my appetite. I'm not feeling well."

"But I'm getting the Chinese." Gerry searches the just-cleaned counters for her keys and wallet, then grabs a jacket in case of rain. "Shouldn't your knee suddenly be feeling better anyway, now that you have less to do?" She's out the door, leaving her mother with her dad's dog to wait out the storm.

Gerry drives with the windows open and the music loud. Something about wind and sound – it makes her think she's driving slower than she actually is. So she drives fast, accelerates down the hills and around the turns. Her headlights just skim over a Watch For Deer sign. The yellow shines.

She stares into the path of high beams and rests her arm on the window frame, leaning her head against her hand. The woods hide, dark, around her car. The occasional streetlight emits a wavering ring of gold upon the leaves. The grey road shoots before her car, fallen branches from last night's thunderstorm cracking beneath her tires.

Remembering her mother's knee and its claim of rain again tonight, Gerry longs for a thunderstorm, something to cool off this hot day. Gerry's dad taught her about storms when she was little. He'd take her onto the back porch to feel the heat rise – convection. They'd watch the cloud turn from white cumulous to grey nimbus stratus. The drafts of wind, "60,000 feet up, higher than a bird can fly," leveled the cloud into an anvil. The two, Gerry and her father, would sit in their whicker chairs as the kitchen light pool out through the screen windows. They watched the first lightning crack the sky and listened to the first rain hit the wooden roof above their heads. They'd wait, sometimes hours, for the cloud to spread and thin, to drift apart.

Glancing towards the sky, Gerry hopes her mother remembers to close a few windows, or that Gerry is home in time to help.

Gerry passes a few houses, then a few more and then into town. Streetlights buzz at the corners. Sagging on a plastic chair, an old man waits, a beer and umbrella at his feet. The wind picks up and a child runs into his side yard to save the laundry hanging between houses, his mother yelling something at him from the front porch.

At home, Gerry's mother hears the dog scratch against the kitchen door. He wants to bark away the attack of rain, defend against the approaching droplets with his coat. A dog, he doesn't know that with the rain and the wind comes lightning and thunder. If he did, he'd hurry back inside the house, unwilling to brave the storm.

Lightening threatens above a row of trees. And Gerry's mother counts thousands until thunder growls, a trick her husband showed her. The dog whines, pawing the doormat. "Fine. It's your own tail." She opens the screen door, another remnant of Gerry's dad, to have it blown from her hands by the wind and the rushing dog.

Maybe she should check the gate, make sure the latch is tight. She hesitates, her knee shaking over the threshold between outside and in. When Gerry was little – sandbox and Barbie doll age – her mother had looked out the window, searching the yard for her tiny daughter. She'd seen the gate swinging, seen Gerry wandering in the street. Gasping, screaming Gerry's name, she had rushed for the door, fumbled with the lock. "Gerry! Get Gerry!" Her husband was bent by the side of the house, cutting a new screen for the kitchen window. Hearing her, he'd rushed into the road, just in time to save the child from an oncoming truck. Gerry's mom still feels frightened. Her old arthritic knee shakes.

The woman sighs and rubs her joint, deciding – the pain mounting with the storm – to return to the safety of her kitchen.

Gerry pulls open the door. A red neon sign hangs above, decked out like Christmas in early June. A tiny Chinese woman, maybe mid-twenties, stands behind the cash register, straightening her black vest and white shirt. "How many? One?" she asks, her voice a monotone.

"I just want take out." The woman nods – her black ponytail bobbing – and pulls out a pad and pen. Gerry orders, hangs her jacket on the coat rack, and waits on the same plastic-cushioned seats that she and her father would sit on years ago, when Chinese take-out was an adventure, not a chore.

By the corner window, a girl and boy eat together. Between them a candle flickers. The flame wavers across the girl's fried rice and the boy's lo mein. It casts shadows along the girl's mouth and over the boy's eyes. The girl and boy scrutinize each other. Accompanying every bite the girl takes, the boy shakes his head. With every crumb the boy spills, the girl frowns.

By the kitchen door, a waiter drops a plateful of water glasses, shattering the dishes and flooding the carpet. From her seat by the take-out counter, Gerry cringes from the sound. She sits in front of the coat rack and rests her head against the pillow of jackets left forgotten from winter. They smell of mothballs and detergent. Making sure that no one's watching, Gerry slides her fingers into a jacket's sleeves, just because she can. Why do people trust their coats, even bags, and umbrellas on a rainy night like tonight promises to be, in such a public place? Gerry could just reach in a pocket, pull out a stick of gum, a watch, a forgotten credit card and leave. No one would notice. No one would care.

The tiny Chinese woman, with a start, notices rain slap the pavement outside the glass font doors. Did she close her car windows? She doesn't want to find a mess when she finishes her shift. It's not really pouring yet, just a few drops, but noticeable. She grabs her car keys from beside the register and hurries out the door. A drop lands on her cheek and a shiver runs up her spine. When it's so hot, just this little cold seems like ice. But she loves that smell, that wet asphalt smell. It reminds her of summer. It reminds her of the shore.

The summer after she graduated from high school, the tiny Chinese woman – though she wasn't really a woman yet and was even smaller – drove to the shore with her friends from school. They wanted to spend one last month together before they went of to college. Back then, she wanted to be a designer. She planned her own clothing line and drew sketches over any blank paper she could find. That summer, at the shore, she spent hours on the beach. She started the morning sketching, then read and built sandcastles and danced in the waves. At night, when it rained (and it rained most nights), she and her girlfriends would sit on the porch of the beach house they were renting, and talk about the summer and what was next. They talked about who they wanted to become.

She enjoyed those nights, with their costal storms. Along with the salty taste, the air harbored that wet asphalt smell. At eighteen, with the summer rushing through her lungs, she didn't think she'd end up years later working at her father's Chinese restaurant.

She rushes to her car. In a series of smacks, her black plastic flip-flops sound against the pavement. After shutting her windows (good thing she came to check), she turns to her father's car. Its leather seats wait exposed to the coming storm.

When she goes to the back of the restaurant, to where her father oversees the waiters, she calls out to him in Chinese. From his spot in front of the stove, he just growls that he never said she could take a break. She doesn't warn him about his car.

Gerry's mother, almost unconsciously, lets the dog back into the kitchen when it starts to rain. Sorting silverware, she doesn't notice him run up the stairs to hide beneath Gerry's bed.

When Gerry was really young and her dad wasn't home to protect her, to show her how storms lived, and even for the summer after her father's death, whenever she heard the thunder, Gerry would take the dog and a blanket and a pillow and hide beneath her bed. She'd pull the blanket around her shoulders and warp her arms around the dog's ribs. Whenever he breathed in, she'd try to breathe in. Whenever he breathed out, she'd try to release a breathe. But she was always breathing too fast, too shallow. She could never match the dog's lungs.

The month before Gerry's father died, they'd had a picnic. Just her and him and his dog. They'd spent a few hours sitting underneath a tree, talking and laughing. She told him about school. He told her about when he went to school. She told him about her friends. He told her about when her mother was young, how beautiful she had been. "She looked like you, maybe a little taller and a little rounder. But you've got the same face." He pinched her nose, then stood-up to play Frisbee with his dog.

When they got back that night, Gerry's mother was close to tears, sure that they'd gotten into an accident or gotten hurt or even gotten killed. "I guess we should have told you about the picnic?" Gerry's father tried to give his wife a hug. She just turned away, locked herself in the bedroom.

Gerry's father fed his dog and tucked Gerry into bed. From beneath her covers, Gerry could hear the guestroom's TV all night long.

As Gerry pulls out of the parking lot, the rain starts to really fall. Droplets dot her dusty windshield. They fall through her open window, pierce her arm. But when she flips on her wipers, she doesn't bother to close the window – she likes this feeling, the wind and rain on her nose and lips, the water falling down her arms and between her shoulder blades. She's reborn, baptized by the rain.

She turns her music as loud as it can go, trying to match the thunder. She bellows along, forgetting the raincoat she left floating back at the restaurant. She's a human siren hurling through the downpour. She doesn't have a storm cloud of memories anymore.

The Chinese restaurant owners close up for the night, happy that the teenage couple has finally left. They bought the cheapest platters and stayed the longest time. The tiny Chinese woman, youngest daughter, cleans the plastic chair covers, the ones her mother picked out for their "make less mess" quality. Her father and fiancé aren't talking again – something about spilled water this time.

She finds a deserted rain jacket on the coat rack. It's really pouring outside, maybe she'll wear it home. She forgot her own jacket this morning. It was so warm earlier, made her forget it might rain. But now, look at those grey clouds and the starting storm. She shakes her head, wiping down the chairs, unable to believe that she actually forgot her raincoat after last night's storm.

On the way back home from the hospital, her boyfriend pulled over onto the side of the highway. "You're only supposed to park here in emergencies," she said to him in Chinese.

"It doesn't matter," he answered, flipping on the radio. The air in the car felt heavy and fogged the windows. The drum of rain on the roof was suffocating.

She reached across him. "At least turn on the blinkers."

He pushed back into the passenger's seat. "Who do you think is driving?" She folded her hands into her lap and looked down at her fingers. Beating the rhythm on the steering wheel, her boyfriend turned-up the music. She laced and unlaced her fingers.

Without looking up, she said, "I don't want to be wrapped around a tree, is all." Her boyfriend rubbed a hand against the fogging window and looked at the passing traffic, pretending not to have heard.

She had a hard time sleeping that night. She stayed on only her side of the bed and found another blanket so they wouldn't have to share. She didn't try talking to him. But he didn't try talking to him, either. In the morning, this morning, she didn't even remember to take a shower. Not that she would have had time, anyway. All she really had time for was a glass of orange juice and a quick tooth brushing. She had to visit her mom at the hospital before work. Mom wasn't awake this morning, still sleeping off the post-surgery drugs. The curtain was drawn around her bed, keeping the light, and her neighbor, from disturbing her. The IV loomed beside her and a leg-stretching machine shadowed the lumps of her new knees. The Chinese woman had sat beside her mother all morning, watching her sleep. Maybe she had brought a jacket, but left it there, at the hospital, on the chair? Couldn't she just take this jacket, the forgotten jacket, for the evening?

Deciding, she reaches out a hand to pull the jacket from the rack – it would keep out the rain after all – but notices dog hair lining the fabric. Rubbing the bridge of her nose, she resigns herself to a wet uniform and goose bump arms, and continues dusting. Anyway, It's wrong to take someone else's things. And why would she want to touch a coat like that? It's a rainy night after all and the dog hair will just start to smell.

The night Gerry's father died in the accident, her mother had chased him away. Gerry's mother never told anyone, but that's what she knew, or at least felt. "I hate not knowing where you are. You're doing this all the time. You leave me at home without even a phone number to call or a time when you'll be home. I even make dinner every night, and half the time I end up eating alone." She threw his car keys at him. "If you can't act like a real husband, and like a responsible father, then you'd better just leave. I can't take it anymore."

When he left, his tires screeching in the driveway, she held his dog, kneeled in the kitchen, and cried. It was raining that night, too.

When's Gerry going to get home?

Gerry chews a piece of wet hair as she pulls open the front door. She slips off her flip-flops. Her mother smells the Chinese chicken all the way from the kitchen. "Hope they remembered our fortune cookies," she says to her daughter as Gerry thuds the take-out bag onto the kitchen counter. Gerry doesn't really want Chinese. No one really wants Chinese. Maybe they'll just put the food in the fridge for later, or feed it to the dog. Hopefully her mother can at least handle that.

"Where's the dog?" Gerry asks her mother, peering around the kitchen. "Did you give him dinner yet?"

Her mother searches in the living room while Gerry looks upstairs. "Is he out back?" her mother asks.

Gerry hurries down the stairs. "How am I supposed to know?"

Her mother opens the door and yells for the dog. "Gerry, go check the gate," she tells her daughter. "I know I should have made sure it was shut."

When Gerry runs back into the house, soaking wet now, her mother already has the flashlights out. "We've got to go look for the stupid dog," she says, handing Gerry the light.

A few houses down, Gerry's mother can't walk anymore. Her knee's too sore and her flashlight's dead. "Just go around the block," she tells Gerry. "I'll check the backyard again."

The tiny Chinese woman dials her fiancé's number into a cell phone as she steers, one-handed, past a stop sign. Her headlights unmask, on the side of the road, shifting in the opaque downpour, a person – a girl, yes, a girl – running and calling out. Maybe when the Chinese woman was a little younger, a teenager or even just a few years ago, she would have stopped, would have had the time, would have not minded the rain. But now she just keeps on driving, presses "send" on her phone, continues to the hospital. It's probably just a kid playing a game, anyway.

When Gerry was only ten years old, her dad taught her to drive. With only one lap around the backyard – the dog racing after the tractor – she knew driving. She knew the tension inside her hands, the power beneath her feet, and the excitement behind her eyes.

She only wishes, running through the rain, her hair clinging to her cheeks, that he'd waited six more years – she hadn't needed to learn that young. He should have known better. If his hands hadn't turned so sharp, if his feet hadn't pressed so hard, if his eyes had looked more carefully through the rain. Sprinting through the downpour, her wet shirt clinging to her chest, she calls and calls.

If it hadn't been raining at all maybe? Gerry searches. She stumbles, slipping on the asphalt pool. She tries not to notice the mud on her toes, the clumps of dirt clinging to her hands. If her mother had just checked the gate. If she hadn't gone to the restaurant. Gerry rubs her torn knees, her slimy fingers sliding along the skin, unable to patch the tear. Searching in the dark for her flashlight, she pants. Her soaking hair clings to her cheeks.

If they'd just had leftovers. She heads home, defeated. A passing car's lights glimmer in the wet night. If her mother didn't have arthritis. Her breath rasping, Gerry shivers, confronting drop after drop of rain. If Gerry didn't have math homework. If the kitchen were clean. Gerry curls her fingers tighter and tighter around the slipping flashlight. If her father's goddamn dog weren't lying in front of the oven to begin with.

Peering through the rain, Gerry can see the porch lights blinking. Her mother must have turned them on. They were dark when Gerry left. Gerry smacks her flashlight against her thigh, as the battery dies. But soon, she's standing in the foyer, with a puddle forming around her feet. "Mom!" she calls. "Mom! I can't find him!"

"Geraldine," her mom answers from the kitchen. "I'm sorry. I should've known. It's just been one of those days." Still soaking wet, Gerry hurries to find her mother waiting at the table. Shaking her head, Gerry's mother motions to the sleeping dog on her lap. "I just should've known that he'd be under the bed." She rubs her knee and then scratches the dog behind his ears. "I know that he doesn't like storms. I just get carried away sometimes."

"God, Mom." Gerry pulls out a chair at the other end of the table. "I can't believe it. God, I'm soaking wet."

"Then you'd better change out of those clothes," her mother says, pushing the dog off her lap so that she can stand, "because I'm done with cleaning for the day."

Gerry sighs and stands and turns to leave. And as she walks through the kitchen, the dog hobbles to the oven and lies back down.