Pour Down

A meditation on precipitation.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!

You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout

Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks!

You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,

Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,

Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,

Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once

That make ingrateful man!

—William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act III, Scene II, lines 1-9.

When it rains, my joints ache. When it rains, the sidewalks smell like worms. When it rains, the chrome and concrete gleam and nobody knows how to drive on the beltway. When it rains, the Mall empties out and white marble turns gray. And after, the drains are glutted, run high, and smell like hot garbage.

Growing up in farm country, spending college in farm country, rain used to be different. Rain fed fields. Rain widened streams. Rain passed through treetops, pittered on leaves, pattered on limbs, and became a percussion orchestra for anyone standing underneath. Rain kept me inside, but it made good reading time and slid down windows in esoteric patterns.

When there was no rain, people noticed. Crops wilted and soil went from black to that cakey brown that you can just look at and feel gritting in your teeth. Drought reports were issued and everyone, farmer or not, paid attention.

“We’re in a drought” meant you didn’t wash your car. It meant you didn’t water your lawn. It meant your yard went brown with the corn. It meant you read the newspaper for updates and for rain levels. It meant you watched the weather report and you watched the sky.

You paid attention to rain.

There was one summer when every week saw a storm front move through. One thunderstorm after another pushed across the Bay and hit the other side with a roar and a rush and a hundred inches of rain. When they came through during the day, they turned the sky purple-black, ripped the leaves off the trees, inverted umbrellas, and created creeks in the cobblestones. When they came through at night, they woke up whole towns, and lightning flashed like synapses, like the sky was dreaming.

It reminded me that there can be drama in the rain.

Most of the time it flicks and trickles out of the sky like piss. Or it falls heavy, but straight and windless, like from a rusty watering can. Every summer should see a storm a week blow through.

Thunderstorms are the same in the city. The buildings don’t cage them; the concrete doesn’t mute them. Traffic jams don’t slow them down a bit. They still rage. They still tear the leaves off the trees — those trees that you can find. They still invert umbrellas and create streams in streets.

In the city, they send newspapers flying in parabolic arcs ten stories into the air. They vibrate high-rise windows and shake office buildings. They churn the Tidal Basin and send cherry blossoms blowing in pink-white clouds across the Potomac.

Article © 2007 by Steve Spotswood