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Paul Christensen: A Velvet Gloom Before It Rains

The sky is overcast this mid-day. It reminds me of the times when my father came into my bedroom and tossed the covers off, saying “You’ll be late.” Then I would drag the sheet back over me and stare at the gauzy world through its wrinkles and vagueness. How lovely, I would think, to be idle and in suspense of the next moment. Then a voice would boom from below and warn me, “I mean it.” I never found out what that really meant, since he was loath to discipline any of his three boys. He’d leave for work after the first honk of the carpool driver’s horn, and I could lie there like some tropical lizard as long as I wanted. But I got up and faced the day and hurried downstairs to eat my soggy Cheerios and gulp down my lukewarm coffee. And make it out to the front step just in time for the school bus.

Of course the rain poured down all day, out of the purple wounds in the sky, like a waterfall of consciousness that no one could translate. We stared out from the windows at how moody the world had become in a few short hours. It was like having to endure the bad moods of my mother when she was unhappy about something. She would rattle the pots in the kitchen and clear her throat and go on with her cooking, but she wasn’t laughing or telling me stories. She just happened to see her life in a way she hadn’t before, and she didn’t like it. So she moped. And I moped in the living room and felt I couldn’t console her. And then the rain began to pepper the roof and to fall in long silvery streams from the eaves. And people were rushing to their cars and some were holding a newspaper over their heads as they darted up and down the sidewalk. I wish I had a supply of umbrellas but all I could do is study the frenzy and feel the shivers of those who just strolled along with their shirts clinging to their arms and back.

Someone died in the row house up the street. Someone who had stared out into the gloom and fidgeted with the counterpane that had been carefully arranged around her. The house was brick and soaked a dark red after hours of rain. The cement step was littered with soggy newspapers no one had thought to take in. The news had stopped for the old woman, who had lived half her life without any teeth. She crocheted doilies and rocked in a chair in the front of the TV, and where her slippers landed on the carpet, their were worn patches. They were like those calluses that grow on Muslim men’s foreheads after tapping their heads onto their prayer rugs. The rain draped a silk shroud over the mosque dome as they prayed. Their sandals were soaked on the front steps, and their grasp of the world had loosened enough that they came home full of doubts. The rain washes away everything.

At our school, when rain had fallen much of the day, the earth below the mowed grass would tug free of the roots and begin to darken into gullies that pooled in the ditch along the highway. The school buses were waiting for us at three and we piled in with our book bags glistening. The smell of damp wool coats made me think of the kitchen of the old woman who had died. An undertaker had removed her to a funeral home and her son, a balding man of forty or so, was going through her papers, looking for an insurance policy. He was not from Philadelphia; he had come all the way from Chicago to be with her, but arrived too late. His raincoat hung on the clothes tree in the foyer and his shoes were left at the vestibule to dry. He was mumbling to himself as I stood behind him. He hadn’t heard me come in. I brought some flowers from the park, and was offering them as a memorial. He took them from me and put them into a water glass and thanked me. He had nothing to say. So I left and went to sit on the edge of the sofa to observe the world as if it were an aquarium full of strange aquatic life.

The rain isolates you the way not even silence can. With the rain, you are no longer important. Your self has gone as limp as a shirt hanging on the clothesline, with the rain weighing it down with indifference. You find nothing of interest to distract you. The sound of water perforates the ego until it is a shell, and then a wilted flower. You find your thoughts dull, and nothing completes a sentence in your head. You stand up and the color of your skin turns into mist. The natural world has pushed you out to the fringes of attention, where the toads stare out of bulbous eyes at nothing. The familiar has become alien and hostile. The voices you hear are those of trees whispering their gratitude to the sky. It is like having a birthday and no one remembered. You pass the hours in anticipation of a surprise, a knock on the door, some present left on your pillow. But nothing happens. The earth moves with its shadow overhead, the cumbersome bulges of muffled thoughts and memories.

When the creases of the sky suddenly ignite into an acetylene torch of sunlight, you suck in your breath. The silence returns, the sky peels its filthy clothes from its body and lies there in the glow of a fiery volcano of light. You suddenly retrieve your eyesight from the blindness that tripped your feet. You are looking at a world crusted with diamonds and molten gold. The insects come out from under their green helmets and return to work, picking at the muddy crust over their nests. The birds find their vowels again and begin to sing in rusty voices. A butterfly emerges from an edge of memory and floats among the invisible words of an ode, touching each syllable with its multicolored wings. You are home again, in a paradise of effervescent rainbows. The breath of those hiding in the dense woods spreads a subtle perfume on the tendrils of a breeze. Life returns, and your sodden ego dries its feathers and preens once more.

Back at my house, my mother is singing to herself in the kitchen, sewing the hole in my dress pants where I flung myself over a railing and got my knee caught. The solution to the problem of existence lay in plying one’s needle little by little over the rent, and watching the scar form its durable scab. The heart has no easy repair kit for the pain of disappointment. If only the heart were as easy to mend, but there are no needles to penetrate the murky depths of longing, no thread to bind the lost freedom of childhood as she sits there, humming vaguely to herself. The sun falls across her lap and she moves the pants a little to get at the last frayed threads, which close up like a half-finished sentence. What lies behind the broken things in this world are the timid voices of lost imagination. She hears me coming in and puts away her sewing kit. She wonders what I might need at this moment, but instead, I ask her to walk with me to the store. I had saved up fifty cents and I squeezed my hand around the coins as we walked. She doesn’t ask me what I want, but she has her purse dangling from her arm.

When we get there, I ask the man for two sticks of black licorice, and hand her one. I am smiling up at her as she takes it. She always loved licorice as a kid and would sit out on the wooden stoop of her family house and feel the black mystery of this fruit trickle down her throat. The taste of India thrilled her with its exotic alienation. Now she tasted it again, as we made our way to a park bench, where pigeons had gathered waiting for the old man with his bag of bread crumbs. We sat there together, elbows touching, the sun like a pair of scissors, cutting into the shadows of the leaves and letting tumble down on us the blazing tongues of the sun. How good it was, how perfect was the end of day when the rain stopped and the sky was like a feast after the gods had left the half-eaten platters behind.


Paul Christensen is a poet and writer who divides his time between Vermont and the south of France.

Copyright 2021 Paul Christensen.

2 comments on “Paul Christensen: A Velvet Gloom Before It Rains

  1. Barbara Huntington
    September 26, 2021

    I miss my mom and wish I could go back and buy her a licorice stick. We both loved real licorice (not that red stuff). A trip to the fair was not complete without a long black chewy rope.

    Liked by 1 person

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