The Smell of Rain
by Michael Albanese
When he peels out of the motel parking lot, he fails to notice how the rusty, dry dust kicking up from threadbare tires, shines in the light of the Utahan moon. He fails to notice a family of deer better off against the hillside. And, he fails to realize why he canâ€™t see clearly. He knows why he canâ€™t think straight, but the eye burning of grit and profuse sweat causes him to pull over on the dark stretch of endless road.
He turns off the engine, takes deep breaths and tries to catch whatever he can of them. With the back of his arm, he wipes his forehead. His brow still drips, the beat of his heart still pounds. He canâ€™t see his palms though he holds them in front of his face. Moments later, a semi appears up the road from where he is going. The headlights provide a bright, fleeting glimpse of bloodied hands. Then he is invisible again, as are the small, adrenalized breaths that follow heavier, desperate ones.
He puts his hands on the steering wheel, grasping it several times. He finds the most secure grip for the drive. He turns the key, the engine sputters. He rolls down the window, turns on the headlights and pulls back onto the road. He has to be careful not to drive too fast or too slow, either a suspicion. He puts his foot on the gas pedal, feigning a short, familiar drive through forgiving landscape. But, he knows. This drive will be long, unfamiliar and unforgiving.
The wind lashes at his face from the open passenger window. It is good, it keeps him awake and feels like playful cheek slaps his wife used to give him. He sits back into his seat. His breath steadies, his grip on the wheel loosens but his heart still pounds beneath a blood-soaked t-shirt hidden by a sweat-drenched jacket.
For a moment, everything is as it should be.
Suddenly, a deer jaunts into the road. He slams on the brakes, unable to prevent a wet paper bag from launching onto the floorboard from the passenger seat. As he grips the wheel, the truck swerves back and forth on the road, but the deer is unfettered. As tires press hard against asphalt, gravity firmly holds the truck on the road until it spins violently to a stop. He realizes he has stopped breathing. He looks up now, facing the direction from where he just came. Turning his head, he sees the deer on the road next to the truck. The man and deer stare at one another, delicate beasts locked in an uncommon gaze. He thinks how quickly the road can change. But mostly he thinks of how beautiful and pure the doe is standing there before him, how some force kept his truck from slamming into it, taking both their lives. And as quickly as it had run into the road, the deer runs off into the kind of darkness reserved only for creatures without will.
Catching his breath, he weeps there in the road, the smell of burned rubber rising all around him. In a streak of moonlight, he notices the brown paper bag on the floorboard. He reaches for it and carefully places it back on the passenger seat. He wipes his hands against his pants and again starts the engine.
As he turns the truck around in the empty road, he decides he needs music and the old radio decides to give him one, scratchy operatic channel. This is not what he would normally listen to, but it is an unexpected gift now, replacing staccato thoughts of chaos with melody and meaning.
Dei, poeti, uomini piccoli
Tutti qui di passaggio come nuvole
Sotto una terra ingrata che promette e limita
Sopra un cielo scuro, pieno di comete
Che incanta l’animo e ci libera
As foreign words transcend old speakers, a peace rush over him. He doesnâ€™t know why. He doesnâ€™t know how the piercing adagio addresses Gods and poets and common people. He canâ€™t translate how they are all here, like clouds just passing by and that below them, the ungrateful earth makes promises it cannot keep. But the dark sky of comets above will provide a spirit that sets us free.
He wants to be set free. With song in is his ears, wind against his face and his truck swallowed between unseen canyons, he is. The terrain is masterful. He had apprenticed these roads in the past for work, lonely years of miles and off exit meals. Right now, he wants to drive so far and so fast that the sun will never catch him. But he knows better. He knows time always runs out of reasons to hide what we do to the undeserving.
He reflects on her soft, pale face, how it never turned away from his, even when she knew the worst of him, the worst of which was just put to rest at the motel. She was graceful in her pain, lovely eyes betrayed ropy scars within. Her strength was his weakness. The way he knew she would look at him when he came home later than expected, when wordless moments of silence spoke to him more clearly.
Now thoughts shift to his childhood, of June nights on a rattletrap porch watching lightning crack open the sky. Of thunder and cicadas and other summer sounds that made him feel as if innocence was as imminent as torrential rain.
The opera continues.
Sotta una terra piena di illusioni inutili
Sopra un cielco greve che incalza
Vuole la rivincita e invta a vivere
He fails to understand these words about an earth filled with useless illusions and how a heavy sky presses us, calling us to a second chance and an invitation to live. So, he turns off the radio and returns to the sound of himself driving. His foot cramps against the petal and all memories fade as quickly as passing landscape.
Eventually he arrives home where the sun has barely risen and the air is still cold. He turns off the truck and steps out of it. He throws the keys in the seat, knowing he will soon need them again. He walks along his driveway, focusing one foot in front of the other. He is tall and strong, his jacket shrouding a capable body.
He walks into the house, where the quiet of morning greets him. He doesnâ€™t close the door behind him completely. He walks to the kitchen table and removes the brown paper bag from his jacket pocket. Gently, he places it on an empty plate otherwise meant for an uneaten dinner.
His wife sleeps soundly in the other room.
Slowly, he walks to the sink and washes his hands. As he rubs them vigorously under a stream of water, he looks outside the window into the backyard, at overgrown grass and empty birdfeeders. He wipes his hands against a towel hanging from the stove. He returns to the kitchen table and removes his jacket, draping it over the jacket where he sits. His shirt is saturated with dried blood.
He sinks into the chair, no wheel to grip now, the long, necessary drive over.
And, he listens.
He listens to rain against open windows. The smell is everything he needs it to be. It completes his journey, from untarnished childhood memories to battered present moments.
He breathes deeply. He knows she will wake soon. He knows she will come into the kitchen to make tea. This is what she does, her consistency, her small commitments that make her beautiful.
Right now, he knows more than he has ever known.
He knows today will be different. Today, when she enters, he will confess. Today, when she stands before him, he will confirm. Today, when she sits down at the table, he will give her back the part of him taken by another. This is the only way now. She deserves to have all of him. She deserves to have all of him back.
He closes his eyes and thinks for a loathsome moment of the one who did not.
The rain is heavier and harder now. And so he waits.
He waits, knowing most of all, that he will have cut the hearts out of them both.
The Smell of Rain