Cold Rain on the Hard Ground
John Patterson carried himself with a simple presence, and a rustic dignity. He lived on six acres of crabgrass and clover in the Appalachian foothills, a plot nourished by long days of sunlight and a cool mountain spring at the edge of the property. Swarms of bustling honeybees would float among the native wildflowers, landing atop the late-blooming Golden Ragwort and the spindly clouds of Queen Anne’s Lace. Their thin stems would struggle underneath the clumsy landings, and the flowers would sway like the arm of a bow as you pull the string to length. It was, John thought, no different than when the squirrels or blue jays landed on the finch feeder and sent it swaying. No different, he thought, than all his own heaping ambitions he’d attempted to land with in Appalachia some four decades earlier.
He was a carpenter by trade, and a perfectionist by nature. All across the porch lay the fruits of his labor, from shaker-style benches to meticulously crafted cane-bottom rockers. Nestled among his creations sat the man himself, poised on a chair that he didn’t make, sitting next to a Basset Hound whose face had turned grey with age. The afternoon sunlight reached in beneath the overhang, heading up his legs below the knees and raising the temperature of his black leather boots to a near-boil. John Patterson, however, didn’t mind. John Patterson, who had endured forty Virginia summers without air conditioning, scarcely noticed the heat at all.
“It’s goin’ta rain today,” John said, addressing the dog as it slept, “goin’ta rain today.”
The dog didn’t acknowledge the mumbling directly, but shuffled its head around until its ears lay like unfolded shirts across the warm decking boards.
“We need a good rain, boy.” John continued his unbidden ranting, the words falling on deaf ears, “and I need to plant them tomatoes before it comes.”
With an effort that began with the whitening of wrists and ended with the cracking of his back, John was out of the chair and standing upright. His suspenders hung loosely from his old, sagging body as he adjusted the straps according to his pronounced tan lines. He reached back, grabbing a brown bowler hat from the top of the chair, and placing it lightly over his greasy black hair so that it didn’t trap too much heat. His feet, weighted by the boots and seventy years, thumped loudly against the steps as he walked down. Shortly after, the dog stretched to its feet, yawned, and sauntered down the stairs to join him.
John Patterson walked towards a small, dilapidated barn built overtop one of the springs on the property. A walnut from a nearby tree struck the tin roof as he shuffled inside, disturbing a small wasp nest, if for only a few seconds. He ignored the insects, grabbing a shovel and a digging bar from the inside wall. The crisp spring cooled the air in the barn to an extent, filling the structure with a slight but noticeable humidity. The breeze would always blow through the wide-open doors, and, along with the spring, made the barn feel eight to ten degrees cooler than the outside. It was, he thought, possibly the most temperate barn in all of Appalachia.
The dog didn’t bother following him into the barn. Instead, it had already wandered over to the garden, laying in a puddle of its own weariness as the man walked over with the proper implements. He leaned his tools against the deer fence and undid the bread ties that held it tight, allowing the section of barrier to collapse to the ground. There was a clear section, between the zucchini and the potatoes, where he had tilled the round and readied it for planting. He wandered to the bare spot, thrusting the shovel into the dirt to standby as he worked with the digging bar to loosen the soil.
No matter how many times it rained, the soil was always hard once you broke the dermis. No matter how many layers of compost or fertilizer he fed to the land, it seemed to only be devoured by the rocks, somehow nourishing them to larger sizes and providing them with small offspring. His arms arched, and his hands felt the dull pain of arthritis with each plunge of the shovel. Still, however, John Patterson continued, undaunted by his withered body and diminished strength.
Heavy clouds began to accumulate above as he finished the twelfth and final hole for the tomatoes. He leaned the shovel against the deer fence, but took the digging bar, which he no longer had a use for, back to the barn. The dog didn’t leave the perimeter of the garden even as John Patterson ventured from the barn to the house, nor did he leave when John Patterson made three trips carrying the tomato plants to the garden.
He began to place the tomato plants into their holes, four Beefsteaks, four Heirlooms, and four Roma, just as the raining began. At first, the rain only made things more miserable, dissolving into steam the moment it fell upon the scalding ground so that the entire hillside became laden with a dense, suffocating fog. The dog had, in its good sense, retired to the porch once the soft hymn of a mountain drizzle had grown into a crescendo of thunder, lightning, and a torrent that fell so heavily upon the surrounding forest and tin roofs that the thunder scarcely rose above its noise. John Patterson, however, continued to plant his tomatoes even as the holes he’d dug filled with a murky water.
The storm continued to intensify, raining in drops the size of honeybees until, at last, as the cool water had soaked thoroughly through the hot shell of his skin, John Patterson was content with the tomatoes. He carried the shovel back to the barn before returning to the porch. There, he placed his hat back on the top of the chair, but never sat down. The dog, puzzled, if not irritated by John Patterson’s refusal to relax, stretched once again with a yawn. The porch was the loudest place on the entire property to be in a storm, with the tin roof separated by nothing more than a few angle braces that did little to dampen the cacophony.
“You ever seen a rain like this, boy?” He asked the dog, but it paid him no mind.
He stared out at the water, watching as it continued to strengthen each time he thought it had reached its apex. The noise of the rain had triumphed over the brief rumble and sharp cracks of lightning, hitting against the tin as loud as walnuts. In spite of the horrible noise, and his soaked clothes, he admired the rain. He admired how with every roaring instant it drew closer to its end, yet it approached its inevitable conclusion without trepidation. He wished to live his life that way, at least to be surrounded by that same tenacious vitality.
Rebuking the shelter of the porch, he took his first timid step down the stairs, feeling the water strike him. He took another step, his hand clasped to the old railing and his boots glued to every step. Once in the grass, however, he took off the boots, sliding out his feet whose raw skin rejected the cool air for an instant before acclimating. John Patterson, at the age of 72, stood out in the pouring rain, and wondered if he, like the late-blooming flowers, could be reborn by it. The dog, indifferent to his owner’s madness and content with his own state of affairs, rolled onto his side, and went back to sleep.
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