That First Summer
Every denizen of the Llano Estacado has at least one moment when she encounters that great West Texas tableland in a way she never forgets. It may be the first time she throws her head back and gawks at those charcoal clouds, turning widdershins directly above her, and she takes more moments than she should to realize that this place—right here, where she is standing—is a bad place to be. Or maybe it isn’t a moment, but a season. There is that June when the high temperature is over 115 degrees for 17 days in a row. Or there is the April that the caterpillars appear and each morning her family grabs buckets and strides out to defend their meager landscaping, plucking by the thousands the fuzzy caterpillars that writhe over the bushes so that they look like medusa heads lined up in front of the double paned windows. Or maybe it is the first time she sees a dust storm, a mere smudge of pale brown way over there on the horizon, and she comments, “Looks like we’ll have a dust storm here soon.” And her neighbor just shakes her head and says, “Oh, honey. If you can see it, it’s already here.” And just then the sand starts pinging her cheeks and neck and bare legs.
The denizen knows that weather on that great mesa is predictably hot and dry for months on end. Until it’s not. But the Llano Estacado doesn’t allow deviations from its pressure cooker hold on the landscape to come quietly or gently. No, it builds for a time, and then explodes. Summer squalls burst into being in minutes, sending tremendous downdrafts across the landscape, picking up tumbleweeds and sand and flinging them out ahead of themselves. And once all that dried, prickly vegetation and all that sand and what is left of the topsoil is flung up into the air, then it might rain. And that rain—that astonishing form of precipitation never featured in the grade school textbooks—may be one of those moments that she never forgets.
For Nell Engelmeyer, that moment begins June 22, 1986, at 1:28pm.
* * *
“What is happening, Mama? What is that brown stuff?” said a little voice from the backseat of Nell’s 1983 Monte Carlo over a rolling rumble of thunder. The little girl blinked as each smack! pelted the vehicle.
Nell peered out between the brown flower shapes, like dead chrysanthemums she thought, that blossomed out of her windshield. The wipers swiped them away, but they were replaced by a dozen more. Hundreds more. The noise grew slowly at first then exploded, just as popcorn popping on the stove top starts sporadically then bursts into a crowd of sounds pushing and shoving and stepping over one another. The entire windshield became a mess of brown sludge that the wipers could only smear around rather than clear away.
Nell—her shoulders tight, hands up high on the steering wheel, and sweat trickling down her back—strained her eyes to make out the clapboard houses on her street through the streaked and splattered windshield. She spied the huge crape myrtle (why would anyone plant a white crape myrtle of all things?) by the narrow driveway to their house and she pulled in and stopped. She mentally cursed their decision to turn their small, one-car garage into a makeshift office/tool shed.
Nell looked in her rear-view mirror. “I think this is supposed to be rain,” she said to the image of her two girls, both pig-tailed, one blonde and one brown, with their little flyaway hairs stuck to their damp temples. She put her hand to the key but hesitated to cut off the engine and the necessary-for-life air conditioning.
“Well,” the littlest girl replied with a smack of her lips. “That’s the ugliest rain I ever see’d.” She raised her eyebrows as she nodded sagely.
“It’s not ‘see’d’. It’s ‘saw’,” responded her nine-year-old sister, the owner of the brown pigtails, who clutched her Betsy-Tacy books to her chest.
“I see’d it right there, Jessie.” Four-year-old Holly pointed at the nearest window. “It’s dis-dusting.” She scrunched her nose.
Nell rubbed at the tight muscles in her forehead. “I hate this place,” she muttered to herself, the heavy mud rain drowning out her words.
And then it stopped.
They sat in silence, ears straining for some indication of what was happening outside.
“Is it over?” Jessica asked in an awed whisper.
“I think so?” Nell said. The rumbles were already retreating toward the southeast. The wide car door swung open with a groaning creak until the corner wedged itself in their patch of dead grass that was supposed to be a lawn. Nell grabbed her purse and a bag of library books and stepped out onto mud. A layer of mud covered every driveway, house, car, shrub, sidewalk, mailbox, horned toad, and cicada shell. Windows that faced west or north were coated while those facing south and east gleamed as the sun came out again from behind the clouds. The usual dry hot air was now a sweltering steam bath and the air smelled of a mix of the fresh, ozone-y smell of rain and the more pungent, earthy odor of wet dirt. The brown mess on the white hood of her car was already drying, turning a lighter brown where the mud was thinner.
Nell reached down and pulled the handle and the driver’s seat slid forward. She stooped back inside and unlatched the straps of Holly’s car seat. “Inside the house, girls. And watch your step. It may be slick.”
“Is that the way it always rains here, Mama?” asked Holly.
“I sure hope not. Let’s go. Get a move on.” Nell waved them along.
Nell and the girls walked gingerly to their pokey front stoop. The usual was there to greet them at the door: a dried, thorn-covered tumbleweed. This one was only a wee one, about the size of a beach ball. With a finger and a thumb Nell gingerly grasped the tumbleweed by the stem and flung it out into the yard to continue its tumbling. She pulled open the creaky screen door and reached over the heads of her progeny to unlock the door and let them inside. “Wipe your feet,” she said. They wiped and the girls dashed back to their room, books in hand. Nell made her way to the eat-in kitchen at the back of the house. On the way she passed the telephone mounted on the wall at the kitchen entry with its long, twisted cord hanging down and coiled in a heap on the floor, the avocado green stove, the faded Formica countertops with a pattern of what looked like light and dark boomerangs on a pale green background, and the over-under avocado green refrigerator. She heaved the heavy library bag and her purse onto the kitchen table that was shoved up against the wall with four chairs arranged around the three sides—the only way it would fit in the small kitchen—just under a wide window looking out to a sprawling backyard. She was just pulling the library books out of the bag when a movement—a white, flapping flash—in the backyard caught her eye. She glanced out the window and her shoulders drooped.
She stood for half a minute just looking and shaking her head. Then she turned and strode to the telephone. She lifted the receiver and held it between her shoulder and her cheek, the dial tone muffled near her left ear. A pencil dangled from the wall by the phone, attached by a long string and a thumb tack. Next to it on the wall was a mounted pad of paper. She snatched the pencil and made a note: 1:37. She dropped the pencil to swing at the end of its string and punched in a number.
“Hello, Gehring residence.”
“Mud rain, Sharon. Mud. Rain. Over everything.”
“You can’t lead with that, Sis. I’m lost over here.”
“First, it’s a thousand degrees and we haven’t seen rain since we moved here and everything is brown and dead. All except that ugly crape myrtle. Then, today, we finally get a thunderstorm. But—But!—first there’s a dust storm. Like a legit dust storm. As in the-dirt-is-so-thick-in-the-air-I-can’t-see-the-old-refrigerator-propped-open-on-the-side-of-our-neighbor’s-house kind of dust storm. And it rains mud. But the rain stops before it can wash any of the mess away and now the whole world is covered in stinking, dirty mud!”
“I see. Nell?”
“Isn’t all mud dirty?”
Nell ignored the question. “And my sheets! Today is the first time I’ve used that clothesline I was so excited about.”
“And now they’re covered in mud?”
“YES!” Nell stopped, breathing hard.
“Wow. Uh… Bummer.”
“Bummer? Is that really all you have to say?”
“What else do you want me to say, Sis? Sorry you’ve got dirty sheets?”
Nell glanced at the clock on the wall. “Never mind. I’ve gotta go. Bye.” Nell slammed the phone down. She snagged the pencil again and made another note on the pad: 1:39.
Nell turned around to the sound of rummaging behind her. Holly was standing on the seat of a chair at the table. She extracted a picture book from the bag of library books on the table. Her brows scrunched together, and her mouth twisted up to the side as she scrutinized the cover.
“Mama,” she said. “Those are my letters.” She pointed to the cover of the book. Nell joined her at her side and followed the little finger. “H-O-L-L-Y. It says Holly. Is this book for me?”
“It’s called The Story of Holly and Ivy. It’s about a little orphan girl named Ivy and a beautiful doll named Holly.” Jessica walked into the kitchen and joined them, peering over her mother’s arm as she pointed to the picture on the cover. “I know it’s a Christmas story, but I thought you would like it since there is a Holly in it. And a story in a cold place covered in snow would be a nice distraction from this brutal summer we have going on.”
“Oh! I love it, Mama!” Holly dropped the book on the table and threw her arms around her mother’s waist. After a big squeeze she looked up to her mother, her head thrown all the way back and her round, green eyes dancing. “Will you read it to me?”
“Actually, I have to go get those sheets off the line and—”
“I’ll read it to her,” said Jessica, plucking the book off the table. With a whoop of joy Holly jumped off the chair and the two of them thundered off down the hall.
Nell trudged to the backyard and took down her sheets, her beautiful white linen sheets (woven from European flax!)—an indulgent gift from her parents—from the clothesline. They were already dry and mottled brown, like the hide of a dappled palomino. She balled them up and hauled them to the bathroom. After rinsing them in three tubfuls of water, they were finally clean enough to wash. She threw them in the machine, added the detergent, clicked the knob around to “heavy duty wash”, and pushed the start button.
Nell looked up to see her youngest—her pigtails crooked with one down near her ear—with a concerned look on her face.
“What is it, honey?” Nell grabbed the offending pigtail, half in each hand, and yanked it tight.
“There’s a weird looking bug in our room,” Holly said as she winced.
Nell scowled. “Show me.”
Nell followed Holly down their dark, narrow hall with green shag carpet matted down the middle to her girls’ room.
“Here,” Holly said, pointing to the floor next to a wooden dollhouse that was Nell’s as a child. Nell peered around her daughter and—
“Ahhh! That’s a scorpion!” Nell lunged for a bucket of wooden blocks, dumped them all out on the floor, and plopped it upside down on top of the scorpion.
“Wow, Mama. You goed fast! Like She-ra!” said Holly between giggles.
Nell looked to her daughter, breathing hard, with her eyebrows raised and a finger poised in the air. She carefully enunciated her words, “Now don’t touch!” and punctuated them with a firm look.
Nell dashed out the door to the kitchen. She looked at the clock, wrote 2:17 on the notepad, picked up the phone, and dialed.
“Scorpions!” Nell hissed.
“Hello, to you, too. Am I supposed to be impressed?”
“There’s a scorpion in the girls’ room!”
“And did you just leave it there?”
“No, dufus. I used a block bucket.”
“Ok?” Sharon drew out the word in apparent confusion.
“I hate this place!”
“I thought you were excited about this move. You’re near Bob’s family. You’ll be able to get on top of your debt. Remember all those good reasons you told me about?”
“I don’t care! This place is ugly and dead and brown and wants to kill us in 7,000 different ways. And Bob travels so much with this job and… Did I say everything is brown? Well, except for everything inside this house. Green carpet, green fridge…” Nell glanced at the clock. “I gotta go—”
“Wait! Don’t hang up yet. What’s with these abrupt phone calls? Can you not talk to me for more than a minute anymore?”
“Bob and I decided I needed to go on a long-distance budget. The first bill was kind of… high. I’ve got 30 minutes.”
“For the day?”
“For the week.”
After listening to her sister cackle for an all too precious half minute, Nell slammed the phone back into its cradle. She noted 2:20 on the notepad.
She turned and surveyed the kitchen. Then, her eyes scrunched in determination, she strode to the door to the garage/office/tool shed and disappeared inside. She emerged with a shovel in her hand, which she set just outside the back door. Looking over the kitchen again, she spied a copy of Better Homes and Gardens on the end of the counter and snatched it up and strode down the hall to the girls’ room. A minute later she came back down the hall, rolling her feet as she walked like she was taught in marching band, with the upside-down block bucket on top of the magazine held out at arm’s length in front of her, the girls trailing behind. Shivers went up her spine at the sound of scritchy skittering coming from inside the makeshift arachnid trap.
Jessica ran ahead and opened the back door for her mother, then quickly shut it again after her. The girls scrambled up on the kitchen chairs and peered out the window. They ducked and cringed with each whack! whack! whack! that sounded from outside. Each stroke of the shovel was accompanied by an undignified squeal from Nell, but by the end the scorpion was most thoroughly and undoubtedly dead. The back door opened again, and Nell stepped in, closed the door behind her, and leaned against it, breathing hard.
“It’s done, girls,” she said. She wiped the beads of sweat from her upper lip and beamed with pride, a smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. She waited for a reply—praise of their mother’s bravery from the mouths of her babes—as she caught her breath. After a prolonged silence her smile faded, she stood up straight, and turned to her girls.
Holly spoke first. “Can we have a snack?”
Nell looked at her girls, dumbstruck for a few moments, astonished at the lack of feminine camaraderie. She shrugged. “Ok. Fine. Whatever,” she said.
“Yay,” they cried in unison and jumped off the chairs and dashed toward the pantry.
“Wash your hands!”
The girls veered their trajectory toward the sink and pushed and shoved as the water ran for the briefest of scrubbings. They both flicked their wet hands, sending water droplets flying, then wiped them down the front of their sundresses. Nell opened her mouth to speak, but she stopped herself and just shook her head. Jessica was already rummaging in the silverware drawer. Holly was reaching up on the very tips of her tiptoes for the bread on a shelf in the pantry.
“Help, Mama,” Holly said, stretching with all her might, her little fingers grasping at thin air and her little voice straining. “I runned out of toes.” Nell came to her daughter’s rescue, criss-crossing Jessica on her way to the refrigerator, and was just reaching over the little girl’s head when she heard the crash. She spun around.
“Sorry, Mama,” said Jessica. “It slipped.” Her hands, with drops of water speckling the backs, were frozen in front of her as if she was still holding something. A brand-new jar of grape jelly, the big one Nell got from Sam’s Wholesale Club to save money, was shattered on the floor at her feet, a mess of sticky sweetness and razor sharpness.
With a big sigh Nell said, “It’s ok, honey.” Nell straddled the mess and heaved her daughter up and away. She settled the girls at the table with the bread and some honey from the pantry. Ignoring the mess, she made her way to the phone. Before dialing she made a note: 2:32. After punching in the numbers she went down the hall, stretching the cord as far as it would go so the girls wouldn’t be able to hear.
“That must be you, Nell.”
“An entire jelly jar smashed on the floor! That’s $1.89 I can never get back. I told you this place is horrible.”
“What does breaking a jelly jar have to do with where you live?”
“This place hates me!”
“Nell. Listen. I love you and I know this transition has been tough for you. But you know I have a job, right? I need to get some work done and not just take hysterical phone calls from my sister all day.”
“It’s not like you have a real job. You’re just a writer.” Nell paused. “Hello?”
The line was dead.
Nell dragged herself back down the hallway and hung up the phone. She picked up the pencil dangling from its string, but after a big inhale and exhale, dropped it again. She cleaned up the jelly mess and pulled the sheets from the washer and hung them back up on the line. She had the girls clean up after their snack and then declared the rest of the afternoon would be read aloud time. They settled on the brown and orange floral couch in the living room and read The Story of Holly and Ivy again as well as three chapters of Betsy-Tacy and Tib. The girls helped their mother take the warm, fresh sheets from the line and fold them up. Jessica requested a “sticky picnic” for supper, so they had fish sticks, carrot sticks, pretzel sticks, and Kool Aid on the floor of the kitchen. While the girls cleaned up the kitchen after they ate, Nell picked up the phone again, punched in a number, and stole back down the hall.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!”
After a sigh Sharon said, “You always are.”
“I really am,” said Nell, a desperate sort of pleading tone edging her voice.
“I know you are,” Sharon said with a rare gentleness. “I am, too.”
“You’ll still dedicate your first novel to me?”
“‘To my jerk sister Helen Louise—’”
“You wouldn’t. You wouldn’t use my full name.”
“Nah, I guess that would be taking it too far.”
“I love you, Sharon Lynn.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Love you, too. Go back to protecting my nieces from serpents and scorpions. And jelly jars.”
Nell smiled as she made her way back to the kitchen. Before she hung up the phone she stopped and looked at her girls busily tidying up their simple meal. She tapped the switchhook a couple of times to get a dial tone. She consulted a list of phone numbers taped to the wall above the notepad and then punched in a number.
A female voice said in stilted tones, “The time and temperature are provided for you by First State Bank. The time is 6:53pm. The temperature is 97.” Nell replaced the receiver.
Jessica turned the dial, and the dishwasher started its familiar groaning and swishing.
“Alright girls, it’s cooled off outside.” Nell hesitated a second, noting the combination of truth and absurdity that just came out of her mouth. She reached for the telephone, but then hesitated. Her hand dropped and she turned back to her girls. “Let’s spend a few minutes out of doors before bathtime.”
Though Nell had been in and out of the house several times that day, this time, when she was outside without a particular mission, she noticed that the evidence of the mud storm was virtually gone. The mud had dried back to a fine dust and been blown away by the usual dry, steady, westerly wind. But, despite the crunchy Bermuda grass and her brown, dried irises, and the endless hissing chatter of the cicadas, the evening was almost pleasant. The girls chased each other up and down the sidewalk and around the crape myrtle, giggling and squealing. Nell sat down on the front stoop and breathed.
“Mama!” Holly was skipping around the crape myrtle. She stopped and called her mother again. “Mama! Look! It’s like snow! Like Holly and Ivy!” She spun in a circle, twirling her sundress with her arms flung out wide.
The branches of the crape myrtle swayed in the breeze, the heavy white inflorescences bobbing and dipping and waving, like the tentacles of a great sea anemone. The crinkled, white, paper-thin petals, detached by the breeze, floated and bobbed and swirled about the girls until they settled in little drifts by the trunk of the tree, along the curb, in the bed of dead irises.
Jessica held out her hands in front of her and petals settled on her palms briefly before a gust took them away. Holly laughed and pointed at her sister, “They’re in your hair!” She then scooped up a little pile and scrunched it together, trying to get the petals to stick into a ball.
“It’s not real snow, silly!” Jessica yelled and laughed so hard she bent over and clutched her belly.
Nell giggled as she watched her daughters play.
The phone rang. Nell hopped up and scurried to the kitchen to answer. “Engelmeyer residence.”
“Man, is it nice to hear your voice.”
“Bob! How are you? How is the trip going? Where are you?” Nell walked back outside as the questions tumbled out of her, stretching the phone cord to its limit and letting the screen door close gently on it. She plopped back down on the stoop with the phone to her ear.
“Good, good. Hot as blazes. I’m in Lubbock tonight. Hey, I only have a couple of minutes before I meet some clients for supper, but I wanted to tell you about today. You have a minute?”
“So, I met with clients out west of Amarillo this morning. I drove up and down the escarpment on the edge of the Llano. It was all dirt roads and scrubby mesquite out there. And on my way back I got a flat. Mesquite thorn, three inches long if it was an inch. And this old rancher drove up out of nowhere and stopped to help. Just imagine: cowboy hat, giant belt buckle, ostrich boots, hands and the back of his neck like leather. And we got to chatting as we worked, and it turns out he owns tens of thousands of acres out there. Tens of thousands. And by the time the spare was on we shook hands on a deal. The biggest sale I’ve made. It felt good, Nell. I think… I think this is going to work out.”
“Mama, look!” Holly called. The girls squealed as they gathered up fistfuls of petals and threw them at each other.
“Sounds like the girls are having fun,” he said. He measured his next words and his voice inflected at the end. “How has your day been?” A pause opened up between them.
A gust of wind blew all four pigtails—two blonde and two brown—out sideways. Jessica snatched up more petals and dribbled them on her sister’s head. Both girls smile-laughed and their eyes shone in the evening light. A warm breeze caressed Nell’s cheeks and they lifted, drawing up the corners of her mouth.
“You know. It was a good day.”