A sketch; A rough draft; Chapter one, in progress.
Rainmaker Ishmael walked with a limp.
He was born in a warehouse above the L during a fearsome storm. His mamma was a whore but she didn’t start out that way. First, she was a young girl in pig tail braids, golden yellow like corn turning ripe, that ran down her back stopping just below her shoulders. Her granny, for she was raised by her, always made sure to tie a blue ribbon to the ends, cornflower blue, to match her eyes. Her poppy liked to hold her face in his big, calloused hand, just under her chin, and stare hard into them. He made up a little song that he sang to her often. The tune always changed and that didn’t matter much. It was more the way he spoke the words, hopping them off his tongue to make just the right rhythm that made it a song more than the tune did.
“Penny-Lu your eyes are blue,
And my how they sparkle;
Like diamonds in the sun,
Like moon shine on a lake,
Like snow caps on mountains,
Penny-Lu your eyes are blue,
And when they sparkle,
They are a dagger,
What breaks my heart in two.
And then when she was a little older but still a young girl she was abused in a horrible way by her Great Uncle. Every Saturday Granny and Poppy dropped her off at his apartment near the tracks so they could go betting and he would serve his passions, hideous desires and near insatiable, on her. He savaged her soul and dragged it down to Hades with him, his place of transparency, where flames licked up all but the tiniest piece of Penny-Lu’s invisible self, that who she was. But Penny-Lu hung on tight to that tiny piece, protecting it for all it was worth. And in the end she kept it because she was a fighter and worth her salt, but the rest was burned to ashes. And every Sunday when Granny and Poppy picked her up less of her was there than when they left her but they never suspected. When that worthless crap died on account of a pitch fork being rammed through his left eye all the way to the back of his brain from someone who felt irremissibly insulted by him, weren’t no one too upset, least of all Penny-Lu.
After that she was a teenager on the cheerleading team and popular, too. She dated the captain of the football team. He was a nice boy and they made a real handsome couple. She was in love and thought it was forever, but he didn’t. He was from a nice family with money and left for college right after graduation and didn’t bother writing Penny-Lu any after that. She made up every excuse in her mind why he hadn’t written or called. But then, the following spring, she ran into him at the local hardware store and was so relieved at his sight that she went to kiss his lips with passion without mind to who saw them. But he pushed her aside with a curt, “Pardon me, miss,” and acted like he didn’t know her. When a real pretty brunette wearing expensive looking clothes stepped out of the aisle and took his hand he quickly led her away. Later she learned that she was his fiancée and they were to be married on the East Coast, where her family lived, that summer. Granny had always warned her to never let a boy put his hand above her knee ‘cause they wouldn’t marry you if you did. Which made no sense to Penny-Lu considering the voracious appetite he had for her privates and the way he reveled in diddling her all those times when they were supposed to be on an errand for his daddy’s business. Penny-Lu imagined granny fainting away if she ever knew where her football star went on her. But after he left for college and broke her heart by his silence, it seemed to Penny-Lu that granny was right after all. Then it was not just the crushing rejection and loss that she had to deal with because of his scorn, but the shame.
And then poppy passed on, peaceful, in his rocker on the front porch. They’d all said goodnight and gone off to bed but poppy wanted to stay up because, as he put it, the night was particularly entertaining. He grabbed Penny-Lu’s hand just as she’d turned for the door and she in turn rested it on his shoulder as she often did when he spoke. His hand remained on hers, taking comfort in her dainty bones and soft skin, as they both turned their eyes towards the heavens. The harvest moon was low and brilliant all burning copper like a shield just pulled from the fire for the mighty hunter Orion waiting just below the horizon in the northern hemisphere, to charge into the winter sky.
“Look at it tonight. Just look at it. If I was a cowboy I’d lasso that moon and drag it across the plains on my mustang all the way to the Pacific and then I’d throw it into the middle of the danged ocean.” He laughed at his folly. And then with increasing enthusiasm added, “And then I’d build a dingy out of Palm leaves and sail away to Moon Island where I’d be crowned king by moon people and waited on by mermaids. Ha, ha, ha.”
He turned to look at Penny-Lu to see if she was getting as big a kick out of him as he was and then his breath caught in his throat.
“Why, Penny-Lu, you’re as pretty as a vision. I swear! This moonlight has made an angel out of you, an angel. All the constellations of the heavens are reflecting off your hair and it’s like you’ve caught the stars in your orbit and their light is dancing all around you. Why, if I was an aborigine I’d make you my God and fall down and worship you this minute. Ha, ha, ha.”
He took the stogie out of his mouth to take a swig of his Jim Bean. Poppy never took his stogie out of his mouth to talk, just to drink. Penny-Lu thought that Poppy was daft and wonderful at the same time.
She reached for his glass of Jim Bean and took a sip, licking her lips as the burn slid down her throat. Poppy’d let her swipe sips since she was a kid. And then she kissed his cheek and turned into bed. When they woke up the next morning he was still in the rocker, only stiff like a starched shirt, with the stogie still hanging from his lips. His face and neck and arms were covered in a hundred red welts. It seemed the mosquitoes had a feast on his defenseless corps in the night.
He had a fine funeral, buried in a plot next to his brother who died in the Great War and his only son who passed of a savage flu when he was a wee boy. It was a nice plot on the other side of a gently sloping hill with a view of a stream that wasn’t much more then a puddle, except during a hard rain, but that somehow made it all the way to the Vermillion. Someday, granny would be buried right next to him, which struck Penny-Lu as profoundly right somehow. They had been together in life and would be together in rest with the same sun that smiled on their births warming the ground that concealed them. It was a nice thought.
At the wake Penny-Lu had stroked his hair and kissed his forehead and told him she loved him. That was her way of saying goodbye. She didn’t blame him for anything. He didn’t know and if he did he would have saved her. She liked to pretend in her mind that it was her poppy what drove the pointy spike of the pitchfork through her Great Uncle’s eye, even though the police caught the man who did it and he readily confessed because he was so indignant about the perceived attack on his manliness. That and he was stinking drunk. Sometimes at night, mostly in the summer time when a low pressure system hung above their little town creating an oppressive heat and clinging humidity that kept sleep far from her, she’d lie in bed listening to the owls hoot in the wood nearby and imagine what life would be like if her mamma hadn’t died. She imagined that her mamma was beautiful and always smiling. In her dreams her mother liked to do things for her like brush her hair and make hot chocolate after school so they could sit while Penny-Lu would tell her about everything that was on her mind. And in her dreams her mamma would always kiss her cheek and tell her what a special little girl she was. If her mamma had lived that monster never would’ve laid eyes on her that was certain. She imagined how much energy she’d have if she didn’t have to work so darned hard all the time fooling people into thinking she was normal and clean. Because she was just so danged damaged and dirty like smelly trash and she lived in sheer terror of anyone uncovering the truth about her. She imagined what it would feel like not having a secret to keep at all times. She imagined feeling happy, but it was fleeting.
It was after the first frost had left it’s feathery signature on the windows that Penny-Lu left home for good. She awoke to the clattering of granny making breakfast in the kitchen. Black coffee was set out in a mug at her place and two strips of bacon were resting on a plate.
“You left the clothes on the line.” Granny informed her without looking up from her plate. Granny always hung her head over a plate when she ate and only looked up with her eyes, if at all, to hold conversation which was almost never. Poppy was the talker, the grand storyteller. The man hardly shut up. When his eyes opened so did his mouth and since he talked in his sleep not even that could stop him, although, it did slow him down considerable. But granny hardly said two words all day and left you wondering what she was thinking or if she was thinking at all. She said it was a trait she inherited from her father. Apparently, she came from a long line of stingy talkers who hold on to their words like it was collecting interest in a bank. Penny-Lu figured that might be why she never met any of granny’s family. Weren’t much use in a visit if you couldn’t manage a half decent conversation to save your kitten.
Penny-Lu cinched the belt on her robe tighter and ran out back to take down the clothes. The chill air burned her cheeks and legs, freezing her fingers stiff and making it difficult to do her job. It was while removing the frozen under garments, unbending and glistening with powdered ice, that an uncommonly strong impulse to grab the nearest sharp object she could find and slit her wrists surged upon her. She became very still staring at the ground before her. There she saw herself as plain as day sprawled unconscious on the ill tended lawn in her robe and slippers bleeding out amongst the light dusting of snow. But no such sharp object was near at hand and then the urge passed so she continued to take down the laundry. By the time she’d made it back to the kitchen she’d made up her mind to move to the city.
That day at the diner, where she waited tables, the gentlemen with brown eyes and thick, curly black hair came in and requested her table again as he had on a weekly basis for months. This time when he offered to take her to Chicago to make a print model out of her, a big star, for the umpteenth time she gave him directions to her granny’s farm and told him to be parked out front after midnight.
Her granny was sleeping on the couch, curled up like a child in a crocheted throw, when Penny-Lu came home making it all the easier to avoid her. Her tiny body was a willow wisp and it seemed to Penny-Lu that her granny was as ancient as the hills even though granny was barely in her fifties at that time. This is what aging is, Penny-Lu thought as she gazed upon her.
She spent the night in her room. Packing what precious little she owned took minutes. Composing a letter of explanation took hours. She sat at her desk grappling with what to say but words failed her miserably. The fact was that Penny-Lu was incapable of explaining because she didn’t understand it herself. She was in flight mode and only one truth drove her and that at the most visceral level: I’ll die if I stay here. In the end the letter was simple and unsatisfying by every standard.
You are getting on in years and I don’t want to be a burden. I’m going to the city to be a big star. I can make lots of money letting people take my picture. I will write when I get settled. Please understand.
Penny-Lu was sitting on a step on the front porch with a shawl wrapped around her to ward off the chill autumn air when Russell LeFave, true to his word, pulled his Packard Clipper up in front of the farm. It was maroon and missing the bumpers. It seems they were sacrificed for the war effort and never replaced. Even still, Penny-Lu had never ridden in such a fine vehicle. He didn’t bother getting out of the car but was good enough to lean over and push the passenger side door open from the inside for her. After heaving her luggage into the back seat and getting comfortable in her new surroundings, the cream colored leather interior of a car she’d only seen in magazines owned by a man she barely knew, she managed to find her voice, although, she completely forgot her manners.
“You showed up. I guessed you would.”
She was wearing the only store bought dress she owned, a blue and white nylon print that Penny-Lu thought was as sophisticated as Hollywood. She imagined needing it for the swank parties and important people she’d be meeting in the film industry. It was very sleek with a cinched waist and one inch pleats that started just above the knee and ended mid calf. The sleeves stopped just above the elbow with cuffs that flared ever so slightly and the neckline was daring, “new for now” the saleslady said, with a v-shaped, deep plunge. She accessorized with a long, fake pearl necklace that dangled to her hips which she tied in a knot just below her bust, white silk gloves that buttoned at the wrist, black shoes and nylons. Her golden locks were pulled off her face, fastened with a blue bow that matched her dress, and curled in the fashion of the day. And on her lips was siren red lipstick the kind of which granny did not approve. She was a pretty little thing, far prettier than she ever realized.
He was wearing a zoot suit: black baggy pants that came up to his ribs and were secured with thin black suspenders, a cream colored dress jacket that reached down to his mid thigh, a white shirt, black bow tie, and most comically to Penny-Lu, a sliver chain that clipped in front at his waist and reached down to his black, leather shoes before making it’s way to his back where it was secured at the waist again. Penny-Lu couldn’t imagine doing anything but playing skip rope with it and yet it wasn’t quite long enough for even that. But it was positively too ridiculous looking to not have some important purpose, she was pretty certain.
“You’re a picture.” He said as he drove away from the farm that had been her entire world for almost nineteen years. “What’s your name, you said?”
“That’s ok. We’ll have to do something about that. Maybe Lola or something.” He had a jittery way about him as if his mind was racing faster than the car he was driving. Perhaps he read the shock that was washing across Penny-Lu’s face because he quickly changed the subject. “That’s alright. We can think about that later.” He kept looking over at her and grinning a sickening grin, Penny-Lu thought. But then, she tried not to think about it. And then he put his hand on her thigh and gently caressed it, like he’d known her forever. Penny-Lu stiffened, but deep inside she knew how it was going to be.
“You’re so pretty. You look just like Betty Grable. But, you’re even prettier. People say I look just like Billy Eckstine. One girl even asked for my autograph once.”
Well, if Billy Eckstine had bad skin and a gold tooth, I can see how that statement would be true, thought Penny-Lu.
“We can make a lot of money with your looks.” He said. He couldn’t stop ginning that stupid grin and shaking his head like Penny-Lu wasn’t really a girl but a treasure chest full of gold and he was the lucky pirate with the only key.
“Where’re you taking me?” Penny-Lu asked when his Packard turned onto a secluded country road.
“Not so fast now.” He replied.
He parked off the road behind a bank of silver birch, just out of sight in case a car should happen by. But of course, being visited by President Truman himself was more likely than a car driving by on that country road at that time of night. Penny-Lu didn’t fuss. Weren’t no use. And besides she had suspected that her freedom would come with a cost. He took her to the back seat and had his way on her. Penny-Lu’s only regret was that in his eagerness he tore her strand of pearls and ripped her dress.
Afterwards, when they got started on their way again, he offered her a Chesterfield and they sat in silence, smoking for a long time. Penny-Lu realized that, as she glanced at him furtively, that rubbery grin of his was a permanent fixture. It stretched across his face from ear to ear like two red bananas pushing his round, apple cheeks into glossy eyes. My God, Penny-Lu thought with a queasy realization, his eyes are as red as the devil’s. She had a mind to wipe his face with that grin and then shove it down his throat through his teeth. It would be the last time she was in her right mind. But then, she did what she knew how to do. She adapted to his nauseousness until it felt like normal. Soon he started humming, “A fellow needs a girl”. Penny-Lu recognized it immediately. It was a real popular song and she had a pleasant voice, so she sang along.
“I guess you’re the girl I’ve been needing.” He said as he rubbed her thigh.
Penny-Lu accepted it as so and that’s when she became his woman.
She never did make it as a model. It weren’t her fault but Russell didn’t see it that way. He took to beating her about the face and on the back when he couldn’t sell her pictures. He would rough her up awful, swelling her eyes closed for days and causing her to go into a fever. Penny-Lu felt real bad about not being able to sell any pictures. She figured she deserved it. He had a habit of booze and pills and influenced her into acquiring the same habit. Sometimes he made a lot of money pushing drugs. But most of the time he stayed broke. When he couldn’t make rent he borrowed her out to the landlord for restitution. At first it was on a monthly basis, and then the landlord got greedy, even though he was married, and demanded it once a week. Finally, Russell worked out an agreement with the landlord. He got her twice a week and they got to stay in the apartment as long as they wanted with no hassles. Russell was thrilled with the agreement and it suited Penny-Lu just as well. What started out as a way to make rent soon blossomed into a booming business. If sex was good for rent, it was even better to purchase drugs to sell and use. And if it was good for that, it was good for a quick buck on the side, too. Soon, Russell had a steady stream of johnnies lining up for her.
As for Penny-Lu she became an exceeding reprobate in record time. Boozed up and half naked day and night, she made it easy for Russell to pimp her out. She was an addict. And worse, she was unrepentant in her lifestyle.
Fact was, she was a dead woman in every way but body temperature. Really, she died with poppy, the only man who ever truly cared for her heart. And before that, she died when her no-good football star used and then dumped her. And really, she died a little every week in her uncle’s apartment near the tracks when she was most innocent and unprepared. And further still, she died way back when, when she was still a baby in diapers and her mamma never came back to her no matter how hard she cried.
She died in pieces and all at once.
She couldn’t stand to live with herself and didn’t have an ounce of energy to try anymore. Life as a whore was who she was and at least she never had to go to the trouble of hiding it anymore. All she wanted was to swallow her handful of pills with a mouthful of whiskey and lie in bed to make her living. And that’s when she became a whore. And that’s what she was the night Rainmaker was born.
It was a day that didn’t move, certainly not the air, nor drapes in front of open windows, nor dogs in the streets, nor clouds in the sky. Even people, adults and children alike, were still, conserving energy. For over two weeks a stifling heat had strangled the life out the city. Humanity responded by hunkering down and doing all it could with ice blocks and fans to beat that double headed monster, soaring temperatures and high humidity. It was late August and Penny-Lu was great with child. The clouds teased for days with the promise of a thunderstorm to break the neck of the heat spell but hadn’t come through as yet. One of her regulars had just left and she swaggered out of her bedroom for a glass of water. She was parched something awful. The way her tongue felt, all swollen like a bag of cotton, would stick with her always. She was at the sink drinking a glass of water when her bag of water broke and gushed to the floor between her legs. At first she thought she dropped her glass, ‘cause she was doped and all swirley headed. But when she took a good look at her glass still in her hand, she realized that her time was upon her.
Russell, who was sitting at the table dividing up pills and counting his pimp money, cussed a long line.
“Now look what you’ve gone and done. No good hussy. Pick that up.” He threw a towel at her and she responded by dutifully dropping to her knees and wiping.
Just then, the sky went from day to midnight. A hurricane over the gulf was pushing tropical winds over the lower Great Lakes and a cold front was pushing back from Canada just as hard. The resulting collision turned the heavens into a battlefield. Thunderheads flexed their muscles and shut out the sun like an uninvited guest. A forceful wind, with autumn in it’s teeth, swept through the window, swooshing paper off the counters and ushering in a sense of foreboding. This here is a witch-y baby what’s brought the storm with him, thought Penny-Lu. Russell thought it too ‘cause he was riddled by paranoia and a slave to voodoo and superstition, but didn’t dare speak it.
“I ain’t taking care of that bastard.” He howled. “You get rid of it, here? You get rid of it or you ain’t comin’ back here with me!” Then he grabbed her by the hair and threw her out of the apartment. He couldn’t get rid of that black magic fast enough.
Out in the hallway, a lone bulb dangling from a wire cast her shadow, long and dark, down the hall and against pockmarked plaster walls.
“I’ll walk to the landlord’s apartment,” she thought, “his woman will know how to birth me.”
But then, a sharp contraction wracked her body and laid her low. In the next second she found herself gasping for air on the wood floor. What followed was an otherworldly pain. Strong hands clawed at her insides with fire, squeezing the life out of her, and she could only retreat to a small place inside her head and think to herself: breathe. She fought panic. This was the kind of pain that could make your whole world go black forever and she didn’t want to go to there. The contraction left and she mustered what strength wasn’t sapped from her and snaked to a spot under the stair well. There she labored. She pulled a dirty tablecloth, that she found inexplicably draped over the stair rail, down and clutched it near her face in a desperate attempt at finding comfort. Outside, hail furiously battered the building.
Across the street Detective O’Dowd sat in a new issue Squdrol sipping coffee from his thermos. His partner wasn’t with him. This assignment was a favor for his father, the police chief of Chicago. His stepbrother, “That Woman”, as he referred to him because he was the most comfort seeking, preening creature he’d ever met, was stepping in it and his father asked him to clean up. They could take no chances with the family’s reputation and his stepbrother’s anticipated run for state office. It was while tailing his unctuous stepbrother that he uncovered the scurrilous activity in the warehouse, and the whoring was the least of it. For months had been meticulously tracking the activity inside, covering every angle so that when the time came he could throw the book at them. Well, the time was now. The only problem was That Woman who hadn’t a molecule of reason floating around in his vacuous skull. He was inside, getting his jolly on with that whore whose unusual beauty was beaming a red light from the L to Milwaukee. His job was to see to it that the bust didn’t happen until That Woman had left. Having to baby-sit this dribbling idiot put Detective O’Dowd in a fowl mood. He was just hoping that the storm, imminent and threatening, would hold off till after the bust was over. No such luck. As soon as his brother left the building and drove away the sky turned black as beans and angry clouds growled, throwing their spears of lightning into the city.
“Aye, Crimmeney.” O’Dowd muttered under his breath. Having to wipe up after That Woman was bad enough and it didn’t help that the day was vomiting out every last vestige of summer it had been gorging on for weeks. He radioed the district unit for back up and made a run for the building. The sky, for malicious fun, waited until the exact moment that he stepped out from the cozy squadrol to unleash a furry of walnut sized hail upon his head. With his back to the wall and pistol drawn he silently ascended the stairs to the floor where Penny-Lu labored and Russell, in his rat whole, still counted his money.
Penny-Lu saw the cop from the stair well but she was cloaked by darkness and shadow and couldn’t have made a sound even if she wanted to. She was in the grip of a bully pain and could not muster the energy to utter, or move, or lick her lips, or cry even. She could only be still and count out the intense agony. And with all the cacophony of the storm and nearby train, Officer O’Dowd walked right past her without taking notice. But she watched that cop raid her apartment. And then she watched when the back up came. She watched and heard it all as she labored out that baby.
“This here baby brang the storm and trouble with it.” She thought and was so convinced.
It didn’t take long before Russell was lead away in cuffs, an officer ushering him right past her down the stairs. And still she labored, undetected. The cops went through the apartment for hours, looking for and labeling evidence before hauling it away in envelopes and boxes.
Finally, the time came for Penny-Lu to push and mercifully, that baby broke through in a hurry. Penny-Lu was squatting and barely caught the filmy bundle before wrapping him loosely in the tablecloth that was on the ground. She stared at him as her after birth fell out.
He was gray and all covered in white cheese and he looked at her with intimidating intelligence. His blue eyes locked on her without shame. He was silent and not afraid. He just looked and kicked his legs, and as he looked he turned pink all of a sudden. First he turned pink in his lips, and then everywhere. Penny-Lu was out of her gourd what with the trauma of childbirth and intense craving for her next fix. And she was sore afraid of him. She didn’t dare touch someone who had so much black magic that he could call in hail and lightening like he owned the dark clouds.
“You rainmaker, boy.” She hissed. “You brought the storm and keep it. Where you keep it, huh? Where you keep the storm, boy?” An overwhelming desire to strangle him dead came over her. She went for his squat neck to strangle the life out of him but collapsed instead.
There was a storm, a mighty and fierce uprising in the winds and they brought with them a boy. He was unwanted by his mother and unknown by his father. He was born from adversity and to adversity. His was a lowly beginning, humble and forsaken. And in that he shared in the suffering of Jesus. Angels did not herald this event, but God watched over it none-the-less. And that’s the story of how Rainmaker got born.
But, that’s not telling you why he walked with a limp.
by C. C. Kurzeja
2005, All Rights Reserved