He was the only child of middle-aged parents, a miner-turned-truck-driver named Neil and Neil’s wife Angela, a half Cherokee lady of rare beauty whom Joel loved with all his heart.
He grew up silent, a silent child, pale and skinny but healthy. He brought coal from the shed to the stoker. He took out clinkers. He had certain gifts. He was quick with numbers and he could draw. His father had taught him to read when he was only four, and from approximately first grade onward, he developed the habit of counting almost everything he did. Later he began calculating things, it didn’t matter what, license plate numbers, prices in store windows, numerals on clocks, and then adding and subtracting and multiplying these numbers, dividing and subtracting, re-adding and so on, endlessly, all in his head, all day long. It brought him comfort.
The three of them lived together, on the outskirts of a mining town, in a large house-shaped trailer, fifty meters beyond the backyard of which an undulation of aspen trees fell away across the slopes. He seemed wise beyond his years and bore his father’s barehanded beatings with a stoicism unimaginable in one so young. Like his father, he possessed an uncanny sense of direction, and also time, but more than anything else, his mind was of a naturally speculative cast.
The month that Joel turned seven, it rained for three weeks straight. It rained and rained, morning, noon, and night, and finally it rained so much that after a while Joel thought it would never stop. He stood in his bedroom, in front of the window, watching for hours the low sky flash and weep. The woods beyond lay dripping and lugubrious. It was during this period that he came home from school one afternoon and found his aunt and uncle waiting for him near his bus stop, at the end of a leafy lane.
The two of them stood next to their mud-encrusted pickup, under a blue awning, waiting outside despite the cold weather, the rain sizzling in the streets around them. They watched him come up. His aunt Nikki was his mother’s younger sister, and she and her husband Peter lived in a town ninety miles north and rarely visited. So when Joel saw them both standing there waiting for him that day, he knew something was wrong.
There came a short break every afternoon when the spongy sky would momentarily dry—an hour or so at three o’clock, the clouds lackadaisically spitting—and then the rain would begin all over again, gathering easily at first, with a sound like the whisper of wind in the grass, and then increasing until soon everything was cats and dogs. It was this that he came home through.
He wore his red fireman boots and his golden raincoat. He walked with his head down. His uncle, a kind, phlegmatic man with the hangdog mien of a mortician, stood by the truck, his meaty forearms crossed over his chest, his Army Surplus boots planted widely apart and a butcher’s apron still on under his jacket. The apron was stained with brownish blood.
His aunt had her head turned, and she appeared convulsive, as if shivering. Joel could see beyond them the windows of the house-shaped trailer ablaze with lights, creamy in the burgeoning dusk, and he could see also an orange-and-white ambulance parked out front. The air was purple, the color of thunderstorms. Small bubbles were popping in the puddles he walked through, and box elder leaves lay enameled across the asphalt, tiny frameworks of leaves pitched like ribcages in the grass. An odor of iron hung in the air, mixed with the mealy odor of leaves. Feathers of mist blew off the cliffs above, and these details he would remember all his life.
His uncle didn’t say a word to him as he proceeded up, only adjusted his orbital eyeglasses and gripped Joel by the shoulder, as if trying to break a chip off. Joel turned to his aunt, who looked back at him with tear-shattered eyes. She blinked slowly, to gather herself, then told him that he would be spending the night with them, that they would all have dinner together and later a movie, if he wanted, and after that he would sleep at their house, in the guest room, and would not have to go to school the next day.
And so later that evening, in a diner eighty-five miles north, while his aunt held onto his dead fingers and his uncle smoked Marlboros without surcease, Joel sat in a crimson leather booth staring out at the watery lot beyond. The table beneath his arms reeked of bleach. Rain had completely stippled the glass, flatworms of water now sliding across the windowpane. A pink replica of the drugstore sign across the street lay slurred over the pavement. The gutters below were sluicing with liquid gold. Joel ate a piping-hot grilled cheese sandwich and potato chips; he drank milk. He watched his uncle crush with the back of his fork a lunar volcano of mashed potatoes and then flood the potatoes with molten gravy. After dinner, they all went to a movie Joel would not remember, throughout the entirety of which his aunt sat weeping in her chair. Thunder trundled down the sky above like rubber wheels across an attic floor.
Next morning outdoors, his uncle told Joel that his mother Angela had died in the night, a series of strokes, he said, these are what had killed her. Joel did not know what a stroke was, but what he pictured were large clots of blood chugging down her windpipe, and glottal sounds, her air totally cut off.
He thought: my pretty mother is dead.
He was driven back home that same day and spent the rest of the afternoon alone in his bedroom, staring out the window. The rain was still coming down. His window screen was an incomplete crossword puzzle. He stared vacantly into the gusting sheets, yellow hummingbirds rocketing through. Shortly before dark, the rain slackened and finally the sky began to clear. The clouds whirled away like cannon smoke. The temperature dropped. Joel walked out into the cold. Soon he began to run. And Joel was running, running. He ran north along the river road, toward a sky collapsed over distant lands, where gas burn-offs from an oil refinery cast cherry and apricot tints upon the low-hanging cloud base. Around him, the world went icy and green. The gutters were still sloshing with liquefied ore. Bottlenecked geese splattered up from a nearby river and then ascended high over his head, thin skeins he watched flap madly against the wind, shifting and fading with muted honks.
Like that my life has changed, he thought, she is no longer. My mother is no longer. He couldn’t wrap his mind around it — and perhaps that is why now, all these years later, approaching early middle-age, he finds himself so strangely touched by the rain, touched and saddened.