By Richard R. Barron
A gentle August rain fell on us as we drove nowhere for an hour or more, saying nothing. In the distance, lightning danced, decorating the horizon with the shadows of cool grey clouds. Thinking without words in my heart, I listened to the faint complaints of a distant clap of thunder.
Jeff downshifted and poured the throttle to wide open as we rocketed down the empty street. A fence on our right blurred by, and the mountains beyond were kissed by another finger of fire from the restless heavens.
I didn’t wonder at all what Jeff was thinking, if he was thinking. I was concentrating on the road, the sky, the summer rain. It was a beautiful, majestic, mysterious night. I opened the window on my side of his prized Trans-Am and let the drops fall on my hand and face. The rain felt warm and soft, and it smelled of wet grass, weeds, and pavement.
His high beams flooded the road ahead. In the distance, a third of a mile down the tarmac, I caught the telltale white reflections from the headlights of another car, which I could see was parked on the opposite side of the road, facing us. My first thought was that it was a speed trap, and the car was a patrol car. Jeff apparently had the same notion. We both snapped our eyes to the speedometer. 54 miles per hour. It was one of those rare occasions when Jeff wasn’t speeding.
Another second passed and out of the darkness we could see a figure emerge. At first it looked like a mailbox where none had existed on this very familiar stretch of South Boundary Road. In another second we saw it was two people. A second after that we saw them clearly. A man in a blue ball cap and a plaid flannel shirt was vigorously embracing a plump woman in a pink pants suit.
Then, in another tenth of a second, we were gone, and they were gone. I wondered who they were.
* * *
Nine months later, I was driving home from college for the summer in the middle of a blinding thunderstorm just north of Chickasha on Highway 9. A few hundred yards ahead a bold bolt flashed forth from the heaving clouds, filling my father’s car with the light of a thousand suns. I stared at the ghost of the flash in a split-second of anticipation, then felt the explosive roar of the thunder as it shook the ground beneath me, beneath my father’s car, beneath aII my possessions, beneath my reality.
The rain was slowing my progress down the two-lane highway. I checked the clock when my vision and awe cleared. It was 4:45 p.m.
Within another mile, the storm that had so captivated me had dissipated, and the sun fought its way out into the open through patches of lingering grey. I stepped harder on the accelerator, trying to get more speed out of my dad’s lumbering Oldsmobile. But it wasn’t much use. Despite only being away two semesters, I had amassed numerous boxes and bundles containing my valuables. 55 miles per hour would have to do.
It wasn’t like that at all the night Jeff and I drove in the rain. When I drove alone, I felt a kind of pain. It was the pain of loneliness. I never felt that when I drove with Jeff. Maybe it was that he felt so at home in his car. Maybe he was at peace on the road. Being with him in his car lent me that same peace.
I was driving home to spend the summer in Lawton, my hometown. Jeff was already there. Finally, the storm had passed. I pressed on under clearing skies. By the time I reached his apartment, it was as though no rain had fallen there in weeks.
Without really knowing why, I went straight to his place instead of home. It seemed like the place to be, to start the summer. When I arrived I saw his familiar Pontiac Trans Am backed into his space in the parking lot. Next to it stood Lynn and Kathie, two friends of ours. I parked my dad’s car, it still full of everything I had in the world, and got out.
“Hi, Lynn, hi Kathie. Where’s Jeff?”
They paused and looked at each other. Something was wrong. Had they been crying? Their eyes were red. The pause grew longer, more awkward.
“You tell him,” Kathie said.
Lynn looked at me and took a deep breath. “About an hour and a half ago…I can’t.” She looked down, apparently trying to hold back her tears.
Kathie took over. “A little before five today, Jeff committed suicide. He’s dead.”
* * *
June rain fell in the distance. Yellow streaks of lightning arced along the horizon. Chip and I rode the streets of Lawton without Jeff. Silence had consumed us as the cars and businesses rushed past us. The wind from the open sunroof blew in our hair, and on this very warm night, I was a little cold. Chip turned down a side street, then another, then another.
We knew the town so well, from our endless rides with Jeff, that there was no chance of getting lost. We snaked through the neighborhoods in abject silence, putting together the pieces of the last few days.
“When do you think we’ II stop thinking about it?” he asked.
He was right. There was nothing else on my mind.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
We went around another corner, then another. At one intersection we waited, the only car at a traffic light. Across the street from us appeared a young woman, followed a few steps later by what looked like her boyfriend. She was obviously angry. Her arms were folded and she stared at the ground. The boyfriend was trying to explain something to her. The light turned green and we pulled away. We were gone, and they were gone. I wondered who they were.