The Tendency of Rain
Driving his older brother Max to a surgery appointment wasn’t Gil’s idea of the great homecoming, but here he was, the second day into his stay in New Mexico, doing just that. Visiting home meant being uncomfortable, sleeping on strange beds and being cramped, eating food you’d forgotten, saying things you didn’t mean. He’d hoped to minimize all of that by planning a short stay. It was Friday, and he aimed to be on a plane out of the state by Sunday morning.
The clinic in Albuquerque occupied a small, white-stucco building near the university hospital. In the parking lot they listened to radio news while Gil finished the muffin and coffee he’d picked up before leaving Max’s house thirty minutes earlier. Max drank from a water bottle and eyed Gil’s food, which, according to pre-surgery rules, he couldn’t eat. Watching people walking in and out of the clinic’s front doors, Gil guessed at what ailed them. No one could guess what Max was going in for because rather than being sick, he was healthy, perhaps too healthy when it came to his reproductive track record—six children in eleven years.
Nearly everything Max wore today had once been Gil’s—the J Crew polo shirt and khakis, the black leather monk-strap shoes. He wore contacts instead of glasses. Was this Max’s attempt at a joke? To mimic Gil’s appearance? If so, it was funny, but Gil would say nothing about it. Not today. Max’s usual appearance revealed a deprived tidiness: a tucked in and tattered shirt, high-water pants, glasses from the budget rack at Eye Masters, and hand-me-down shoes, usually from Gil’s closet. He sent clothes to Max, usually at the same time he sent the check for Max’s kids’ school tuition twice a year. Max had always been hard on clothes, quickly wearing out everything he used. This was in contrast to Gil, who kept a closet full of shirts, pants and shoes that appeared to have been hardly used.
“You don’t have to go through with this,” Gil said.
Max smirked. “Well, there’s the reversal procedure, if it comes to that.”
Max would always find ways to get around the system. Since childhood, his stubbornness had often caused him to kick against the world, its boundaries. Without talking about it, he and Gil both understood that the vasectomy—a procedure Gil was paying for—might not work the first time; that’s what the medical pamphlets said. A test taken weeks after the operation would decide if it was a success. Depending on what happened today, Gil wasn’t sure Max would return to the clinic.
“Really, listen to me. You really don’t have to do this. The money’s not a problem. I don’t care about the money. I just want it to be your decision. I mean, it’s your nuts on the line here.”
“In India they used to give out radios to the men who agreed to get these operations done. It seems like such a door prize.”
Must have been Siemens radios, Gil thought. Semen radio.
“I don’t think they’ll give you a radio in there,” Gil said. They both laughed.
“I want you to stay in the car while I’m in there,” Max said. “Or go for a walk.”
It seemed such a small request. Gil felt thankful that Max had asked for something, anything.
He nodded, and said, “I can do that.”
One summer day nearly fifteen years ago, when Gil and Max were in their teens, their father had played hookie from his office job and took them fishing at the Pecos River. It represented a welcome break from the monotony of sitting around the house in Santa Fe, watching TV or looking for things to light on fire. That afternoon Max had grown impatient casting from the shore and disappeared through the trees upriver. Gil had wondered if Max was going out there to masturbate. Though masturbating into the river seemed a strange idea, his brother had hit the age when the activity took up a lot of his energy. Gil considered the journey of that imagined semen flowing past him, following the current all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, millions of sperm carried along. An hour later, as the sun cast long shadows on the rushing water, Gil found that Max had waded through the swift current to a small island. It struck Gil as an amazing and bold maneuver, and it suggested Max’s growing bull-headedness. As he watched, Max pulled trout after trout from a pool on the far side, a murky, magical space he couldn’t see. Gil occasionally recalled this memory as though it were a dream. Had it really happened?
After leaving Max at the clinic, Gil drove to Winrock Mall and wandered the stores; none of them held his interest. He tried on pants he didn’t need, ate food he had no appetite for, and watched passersby. In a pet store, he observed a kitten learning to climb the walls of its cage and tiny red crabs at rest, or possibly dead, stacked three high in an aquarium. Distracted, his thoughts returned to the logistics of Max’s oversized family, the way they moved through the world.
How did Max feed and care for his six children, much less manage getting them from place to place? The idea of it was overwhelming, something of fairy tales involving an old lady who lived in a shoe and herds of kids running wild. By the time Gil married and moved to San Francisco, where he still lived, Max already had three. With the news of each of Max’s children after that, Gil and his wife remained amazed at the spectacle. They couldn’t keep track of the names of the last two kids, a situation made worse by Gil’s infrequent visits. Seeing Max’s family grow was like watching a lottery pot get bigger and bigger—would it ever stop? Though Max and his wife looked straight-laced, the number of children they produced implied both an uncontrolled horniness and a reckless game plan, ruined sheets, broken beds, unchecked passions. If anyone were to question him on it, Max could always retreat to the church-embraced ideas of old that taught that God loves big families, that in fact more is merrier.
Very early one morning five months ago, Gil’s mother had called Gil with the news of Max’s wife’s pregnancy. The baby was due in eight weeks. Groggy after a night of fitful sleep, Gil had worked to understand what the addition to Max’s family might mean but he couldn’t make sense of it. Did Max understand the concept of restraint? That Max hadn’t announced the news to Gil directly meant either Max was ashamed of it or he thought it didn’t merit a long-distance call. “We should get that guy a vasectomy for Christmas,” Gil said.
He had laughed at the time, but weeks later the idea changed from being comic to being a realistic option. By the time the sixth baby arrived, Gil had already proposed the operation to Max.
Gil had made the financial arrangements with the doctor’s office directly. He knew better than to wire the money to his brother’s bank account; it would disappear if he did that. The first time he’d sent money to Max to help him out with bills years ago, he’d heard from Max’s oldest daughter that the family had gone out and bought a pure-bred boxer. It had infuriated Gil, especially after Max had acted so desperate for cash.
Max had wandered through several jobs after getting out of high school: construction, convenience store, cable-TV installation, landscaping. Surprisingly, he’d had his current job at the local library for nearly two years, a notable achievement, and was now enrolled in classes at the University of New Mexico. With Max’s growing stability Gil had started offering to help him financially more often. This included paying the tuition at the small, private Christian school Max’s children attended. Gil wasn’t wealthy by any means, but he didn’t have any children. He’d invested steadily over the last several years, which, with luck, had made him a sizable chunk of money. It felt good to contribute to his nieces’ and nephews’ education. Despite shifts in upper management and a series of layoffs, Gil continued to get promoted within the international telecommunications company where he worked as a sales manager.
Gil had been told it would be a brief operation, but after returning from the mall he sat in the parking lot and watched one hour pass, then another. Perhaps everything went wrong, a routine procedure complicated by nature’s tendency to thwart medicine. Gil was awakening from a daze when Max appeared. He studied his brother’s face, its dark contours and complex expressions, and for a moment he wondered if anything had changed at all.
* * *
Later that night, when Gil left his hotel room and arrived at Max’s house for dinner, the four oldest of Max’s kids greeted Gil with a mess of hugs. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been met with such enthusiasm by anyone. He wasn’t sure how he’d earned the attention. Some day they would know what had happened to their dad earlier that day. Would they thank Gil or resent him for that?
He asked all four of them (Alice, Donna, Tom, and Dan) to give him a tour of the house. He handed Alice the three-liter bottle of diet soda he brought; she scrunched up her face at him.
“Mom doesn’t let us drink that stuff,” she said.
Not being able to conjure a good response, he pulled the bottle from her hands and left it in a planter.
“There we go,” he said. The kids giggled.
Rather than being drafty and cold, the house, even with the unfinished bedroom sealed off behind a closed door, retained warmth. Max had replaced the carpet with wood floors and beneath that a radiant-heat system. Beds crowded three of the bedrooms, cubbyholes overflowed with clothes, and closets brimmed with shirts and shoes, giving the place the feel of a daycare center. Upon reaching her parents’ bedroom, Alice, the oldest, said, “Dad’s doing homework. Better be quiet.” They opened the door. Gil entered while the children remained at the doorway.
He found Max huddled over a chipped wooden desk. A sole light burned over the papers and library books piled up on the desk. The room, though packed with clothes, looked tidy. Gil stepped close enough to grab Max’s shoulder if he cared to. A drafting project revealed what looked to be veins cutting through an elaborate body network. Upon closer inspection, Gil saw the drawing represented a drainage system running along streets of a town, either real or imagined.
When Max turned to look at him, Gil back from the desk, apologizing. Maybe Max was used to being approached while he worked. He carefully removed blaze-orange earplugs from his ears.
“What’s going on?” Max said.
“Nothing,” Gil said. Behind him, the children laughed in the doorway.
“Go on now,” Max said to his children. “We’ll be right down.” The kids rushed down the hallway then downstairs, their feet pounding the steps.
“Do you want to see this?” Max said.
“No, I don’t want to bother you. I’ll leave you alone.”
Max nodded. But as he rolled up the drawing, Gil reconsidered.
“No, show it to me,” he said.
Max unrolled the paper on the table and smoothed it over with one hand. He explained how the population around his town had grown so quickly that communities had been built with little regard for flood-control issues. The picture illustrated suggested changes to the drainage system.
“This is just a class exercise,” Max said. “It probably won’t go anywhere, but it’s worth looking at.”
Someone called for them to come downstairs for dinner. Max rolled up the drawing.
“How are the kids doing in school?”
“Fine,” Max said, then paused.
“We’ve been homeschooling them this semester.”
“It just didn’t seem right.”
“I told you I would pay for their tuition, and I have been. Or at least I thought I was.”
“We’re going to put them back into school in the spring.”
“The check I sent you—where did that go?”
“We got a partial refund from the school. We had bills to pay.”
“Goddammit, Max. If you need to borrow money, you ask me. We’ll figure it out. But don’t yank the kids out of school like this. Don’t fucking do it.”
Even boiling with anger, Gil expected to be reproached by Max for cussing in this house, but now he wouldn’t flinch, not when it came to the kids. Gil could support a dozen of Max’s kids if he had to. There was no good reason for Max to be such a shithead with his kids’ education, not when Gil was paying the bill.
“Let’s go eat,” Max said finally. “I’m starving.”
“Goddammit,” Gil said, more to himself than to Max.
Max switched off the lamp. Gil reluctantly followed him, trying to cool down as they stepped through the dark, cluttered room toward the light of the hallway and the family waiting for them.
Alice announced she’d cooked a “Dutch baby,” a casserole with a flaky crust rising over the top. They served everything in mismatched dishes, Max’s family’s and some very old, chipped plates from their parents, dishware that had somehow survived the boys’ use. While Max said grace, everyone joined hands. Gil couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes; instead he took in the abundance of food before them on the large dinner table set for nine. One could bathe in the smell of the boiled corn, fresh-baked bread, cheese-filled casserole, and sweet potatoes lathered in butter. More is merrier—when there’s enough to eat.
Halfway through the meal Gil’s stomach began to ache. He was sure the food didn’t cause the problem. Nothing bad could result from eating a meal that good. After telling everyone that he would be all right, he was led by one of the children to the couch. He lay on his stomach and occasionally looked up at the dinner scene that seemed to get louder and louder each minute. He drifted in and out of sleep as the family finished eating. They cleaned up, ate dessert, then played charades. At times, he couldn’t tell if what he saw and heard was real or a dream, everyone’s voices hovering around him. He imagined that they had brought their festivities to the couch, as though he were the subject of their laughter and joking. This didn’t bother him. In fact he felt a satisfaction in it; maybe he deserved it. He thought he heard someone sing, Uncle Gil had his fill! Had his fill of babies!
Gil woke later to find himself in the dark, still on the couch, the dinner party long finished. Someone had covered him with a thick quilt, surely the handiwork one of his nieces. The idea of it unexpectedly saddened him. How had he warranted this, to be the object of their hospitality? Even in attempting to do the right thing, he’d failed. Several of Max’s children slept nearby, covered in blankets on the floor and on the armchairs, their sleep breathing an enduring chorus, the whisper of dreams assembled and reshaped. Such a sound must be reassuring to all parents, Gil thought. He took in the knickknacks of the living room, the dozens of photos lining the walls, the children in their restful state, this home built one addition at a time.
If it’s true that one can never step into the same river twice, then it’s also true that one can never step out of the same river twice. Settling back into the warmth of the quilt, Gil recalled the story of the fishing trip in Pecos. The only thing that had stopped Max from fishing that afternoon was the threat of lightning and rain, long after Max had surpassed his catch limit. Gil had conjured images of the river rising suddenly, fingers of lightning striking Max, trees falling. People died like that all the time. Max wouldn’t stop on his own. Gil would have to go out and retrieve his brother; there was no way around it. He rolled up his jeans and trekked halfway across the rushing, icy river filled with slippery, hidden rocks before Max began the trip back to shore. They met midstream, Gil’s legs numb, waist to toe. As Max handed over the heavy line of glimmering fish, Gil became unbalanced, fell to one knee, as if genuflecting, and temporarily lost the line. When Gil and Max emerged from the river, they discovered several of the fish had slipped off in the mishap. Gil’s knee began to swell, revealing a stone-sized bruise where he’d hit a rock. They ate the trout every day for a week, the same number of days Gil hobbled around the house on crutches.
Earlier that day, Max had come out of the clinic looking profoundly troubled.
“Let’s get the hell out of here,” Max said when he got to the car. They took the highway south.
Max’s obvious pain soothed Gil’s fear that Max wouldn’t go through with the procedure. Yet it also unsettled him that his brother did have it done.
Max couldn’t sit up straight in the passenger seat. He hunched like a man who’d been kneed in the groin a hundred times. Gil couldn’t guess what his brother was going through, yet he felt the need to talk, to distract both of them from what had just happened.
“My god you’re really in pain, aren’t you?” Gil said, against his own will.
“No shit. You have no fucking idea what it’s like,” Max said.
Gil braced himself, expecting the worst. Eighteen-wheelers rumbled past, rocking the car. Rain clouds crowded the sky across the valley; soon everything in sight would be soaked. His brother could do anything at this point: take a swing at him, pass out, die.
“I’ve got twenty shots left,” Max said.
“After the operation you’ve got twenty ejaculations before you’re in the clear, sperm-wise.”
Max covered his face with his hands and massaged his temples, as though soothing a headache.
“It was funny how they said it—you’ve got to wait two months or twenty ejaculations, whichever comes first.”
How would this two-month window look to Max? Like an opportunity, or a short leash?
Now Gil only wanted for something to break between them, a relief in any form.
“Sounds like a car warranty,” he said.
Max replied, “Or like bullets in a cartridge. Like a loaded gun.”
Ten minutes later, as they came down the final stretch of the dirt road to Max’s driveway, the rain that the clouds had promised from so far away drenched every living thing in the arid landscape. Rain washed over the car bouncing along the now-soft path, leaving the windshield and windows as swathes of blur. They parked in a puddle of mushy gravel. Gil had many things he wanted to tell his brother, but none of it would do any good. He pulled the keys from the ignition. Two miles away the sky probably held clear and sunny. But here, in this car, from this seat, Gil could see almost nothing clearly—not the yard filling with water, nor the house of children awaiting their arrival.
Max patted Gil on the shoulder, as though Gil were the one needing comfort. And as Gil glanced toward the towering house, a single raindrop fell from the windshield seal and raced down his forearm, like a tear or a blessing.
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