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June 17, 2024

Place Settings 31

By Sand Pilarski

Chapter Thirty-one: A Storm for Tom Melton

While I inhaled the sandwich and tried not to get egg all over my face, we heard a rumble of thunder.

"Did they call for thunderstorms this morning?" Gloria asked.

"The storm is out of the south, so warm air hitting the cold air is going to cause unsettling," Ben said, showing off his brain. "They said there was going to be a chance, but that's it."

"Great sandwich," I said, swallowing the last bite. "I love having Carmen's Mexican food, but that was just ... made me think of how you feel when you're safe at home and nothing can touch you. Even though I never had that at home, so reinstate all the mean things I said to you, because you could have done this for years."

Gloria wagged her head back and forth. "I could have if I had known how to do it, but I didn't have the motivation to look it up online and learn it, until cooking became my job, and I learned how much I loved it."

A flash of lightning lit the windows. A boom followed it, about three seconds later. "Listen," Maria observed, "that's getting closer pretty fast."

All three of us jumped up and headed for the porch. Dad had had a fascination with thunderstorms, and it was as good as a trip to the movies to stand on our patio or front porch and watch a storm come in, letting the thunder rumble through our chests. He'd stand on the porch and lament, every time, that he hadn't put a second story over the garage, just so we could have a better view of the sky.

"What are you all doing?" Maria asked, sounding alarmed.

"The storm! Hearing it, feeling the wind, smelling the rain, watching it happen around us!"

"You all nuts. Go out in that and get fried by lightning."

"We're not going out in it," Ben assured her. "We just want to live in it."

In spite of thinking we were all nuts, she followed us out onto the porch, just in time to see a wind gust snap a big branch off a tree across the street. "See? You all crazy."

"You don't have the same kind of trees," Ben said. "Yours look fine."

"They are oaks. Oaks are strong." She stepped back towards the door, as lightning flashed really brightly. "Crap!" she shouted as a peal of thunder cracked the sky.

"Everybody in!" I said loudly, as the rain came pelting down like crazy, sounding heavy. Little ice balls came skittering across the porch, all the way to our feet. "Hey, that's not just rain, it's hail!"

We piled in the door like a bunch of grade school kids, whooping and laughing. Maria cried, "Come on, let's go to the other porch! Is out of the wind!"

Ben got to the door first, nearly sprinting, and held the door for Maria and Gloria. I followed, seeing the ground turning almost white with more hail than I'd ever seen in my life.

"That's one hell of a chance of thundershowers," Ben said, taking pictures with his phone. "Sorry, Maria, heck of a chance. Look at that stuff piling up by the trees -- I've never seen anything like this. Have you?"

"Saw it snow once, when I was a girl, but it was just for a few minutes. I see hail a few times, but not this much at one time. Weird things always happen when you Meltons get together?"

"No, life was pretty boring until we had to make our way in the world," I told her, honestly. "We were like spooks, just haunting life, and not living it."

She started, then shivered a little. "I understand that. I been like that all my life, since I was little and things were always new and good. But me, too, I was a ghost, always on the other side of happy, hardly ever glad to wake up in the morning. Never thought of myself as a ghost, never saw that until now." She held out a hand, gesturing at the pummeling hail. "Not even two months now, I know I'm alive, not a dead person stumbling around waiting to be buried."

Lightning flashed again, with the peal of thunder right on top of it. All of us stepped back closer to the house, instinct kicking in. "Whoa," I said, "you should unplug your computer and TV. Don't want a power surge wrecking stuff. Did I see you have a new TV, Maria?"

She hustled in the door and unplugged the monster like she was protecting a baby. "Whew, don't want to lose that -- can't go back to that crummy old cave-woman thing."

Gloria pelted up the stairs, presumably to unplug her computer. I'd have worried about mine, but I didn't leave it out on the ranch; I kept it with me any time I left. Too much sensitive information on it since I had been helping farmers with their books. "That's one fine TV," I told Maria. "Do you sit up close to it and look at stuff that has nothing to do with the television show?" More lightning, more cracking thunder, more hail.

She chuckled. "I do. Use the Pause button and see what all is in the kitchen for the cooking shows."

"Maria," my sister called, coming back downstairs, "you missed ten o'clock Mass, too."

"No worries," Maria replied calmly. "I go to noon Mass in Spanish, or the four o'clock at St. Joseph's. Glad I'm not out in this, anyway."

A car horn honked in front of the porch, five times. Gloria ran to the window, peeked out. "It's Steve! He's here early!" She flung open the door, and Steve, his arms covering his head, skidded through the hail, and slid sideways into the kitchen, ice chunks in his hair.

"Your porch is covered in ice," he said, pulling ice out of his collar and hair and dropping it in the sink.

"You like it? We do it just for you, so you can be as cool as you tell us you are." Maria took his jacket, opened the door again, brushed the ice off the back and sleeves, then hung it over a chair.

"Ben, Will, glad to see you!" He shook my hand, gave Ben a gentle slap on the arm -- obviously he saw Ben more often than I did. "How's winter on the ranch, Will?"

"Learning curve time, messing with the backhoe jobs, looking at bee box contracts with Mr. Van Duyken. Pretty good, I'd say, though the weather keeping me inside is kind of ... I like it better to be outside."

"Not in this," he said. "I'm glad I got all my stuff unloaded before this storm came through. Weather Channel has this shitfest coming with crosshairs on Modesto, and the Baker facility up north. Straight line, bam!"

"Bam," Gloria said, tugging at his arm. "Come with me."

While Gloria dragged him to the kitchen to kiss him, Ben and Maria and I went back to the porch to watch the continuing pileup of hail. "Nothing like a bad storm to make a notorious holiday worse," Ben observed.

"At least it didn't come tomorrow, when everybody stupid starts drinking and driving around early."

"Yeah, I think it's going to be bad this year. Economy's coming back a little, and New Year's is going to be a bash holiday, even more than usual."

I could agree with Ben. Salvi and his dad were flush with money from the citrus harvest down south, and their household was in the mood to party after the men had been away for so many weeks.

The rattle of the hail stopped, though rain took its place and poured down. Between flashes of lightning and roars of thunder there was a little more time. "Storm going," Maria said. "I get brooms, we sweep the ice off the porch, so I don't fall down and break my delicate old woman butt."

She brought out three brooms; Gloria handed them to Ben, Steve, and me. "Let them sweep. We need to think of snacks to get us through this stormy day."

"Can you do something with pasta?" I asked before going out the door. "I get plenty of tortillas, rice, and potatoes, but pasta is but a faint and beloved memory."

"You'll be lucky if you get corned beef hash from a can and crackers," my sister sneered.

"This ice is going right into your car if it isn't locked," I told her, and shut the door.

We three men -- ha, imagine that, considering Ben's and my youth -- swept ice off the porch. There was a lot of it, an incredible lot of it, and we shoved it around to kind of scrub the porch of the Valley's regular layering of dust. Ben broke the silence, which was good because we didn't really know what to say to each other. "Why are you moving north?" he asked Steve.

"Eh, Mr. Baker thought it would be a good idea for me to check out the problems his brother is having with inventory issues in the warehouses up there. My specialty is systems analysis, so it makes sense to send me."

"But why now?"

"Ben," I said, "that really isn't any of our business."

"The hell it isn't. This guy has been the light of our sister's life for weeks. Months. Why a move now?"

He sighed. "Mr. Baker thought that Gloria needed some space, time to ... grieve your father's death before she got involved with me as ... more than an occasional date."

"Oh, okay, I get that. I'd have liked -- I would like -- to have time to grieve for my father, too, only I don't know how to do that, actually. I was all ready to think that Baker was an asshole, but if that was what he was thinking, I have to reassess my opinion." He stopped, looked out at the storm. "We haven't grieved, except privately. I mean, I've cried myself to sleep on more nights than I can count because I miss Dad so much, but it's been like, if family is around, we all do the English thing, keep the stiff upper lip and act as though nothing ever happened."

"We took our cues from Mom," I said. "She was a little rattled for about a week, and then -- nothing. She went to work, came home, watched TV, slept, went to the store for groceries ... no mention of Dad at all after the funeral. What should we have done? What do other people do when their father dies? I don't know, no one I knew had any idea. Most of my friends just kind of shied away, stopped calling, stopped talking, like I'd caught some kind of disease."

"Duh, Will, no one wants to talk about a death in a family when we're just teenagers. No one in a core family is supposed to die when we're teens, it's just not done," Ben said with bitterness. "Grandmother or Uncle dies, that's just one of those things, they don't live nearby, and if one of our aunts died, would we even all fly to Colorado for a funeral, and we both know it wouldn't make any difference in our lives. That's just kind of the way things are. But it shouldn't have been that way with our dad."

"He'd have loved this storm," I said.

"No kidding! He'd have gotten out that big blue tarp that covered our bicycles, and all this ice we're sweeping, I bet he'd have collected that and insisted we build some kind of ice statue from it."

"What would you have built?" Steve asked.

"An arch," I said. "An architectural marvel."

Ben thought, and then offered, "A lame replica of the Colossus of Rhodes. I don't know how that would hold up in ice, but I would have tried."

Part of me thinks he said that because he knows I have no idea what the hell the Colossus of Rhodes is, and that I'll fire up my computer to figure out what he's talking about. But another part of me thinks I have little idea how my brother thinks, in spite of us living our lives in the same house. It's like he only became real to me once I wasn't running into him in the hallway.

I miss him. Almost as much as I miss Dad.

Article © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2021-07-05
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
12:34:33 PM
Since everyone is talking about their former ghost existences, it seems natural for the shade of Tom Melton to move among their presences. He seems to be the tie that binds them all together, and it looks as if that shared experience is drawing them even closer now. Husband and lover, father and teacher, Tom is an integral part of this family's and friends' table.
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