This story is by Jacqueline Parker and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Fanning himself for relief, Dwayne felt a bead of sweat descend from the nape of his neck down his back until it paused and died at the waistband of his boxers. Lord, it was hot. Must be a hundred degrees outside and it wasn’t even noon yet. He sighed and whistled out a melodic “shee-it” in tandem with his thought. These summers sure were a bust. It was almost as if God had focused his microscope on his store right as the air conditioner went out, chose today of all days for the sun to bake his soul.
Dwayne figured this was the Lord’s way of teaching him a lesson for not observing some rule: don’t drink on Tuesdays, don’t work on Sundays, no meat on Mondays, don’t curse His name on any day ending in a Y. Sheesh, there was something for every day and Dwayne was dang sure he’d broken all of them at some time or another, especially since his wife Rhoda died. Lately, he had taken up every bad habit he could think of within reason to get himself a few days closer to her and had stopped going to church on top of it. He supposed the Big Guy was ill with him over that, but can’t a man catch a break?
“Dear Lord,” Dwayne muttered to the empty room. “I’d sure appreciate it if you could revive this here A/C. I know I been nothing but an old coot as of late but, truth be told, you ain’t been too friendly to me neither. If you could see fit to bring me a little help, I’ll think about forgiving you for taking away my Rhoda. You done did it on that one, you know.”
He trailed off thinking of Rhoda as he scooted behind the counter. Sometimes in the morning he could still feel her presence beside him but when he opened his eyes she wasn’t there. So, he kept to keeping his eyes closed for as long as possible before getting out of bed. Rhoda was a devout woman and kind to the core. Wasn’t her fault she left, that was the Big Guy’s doing and Dwayne, having come to the Lord under Rhoda’s tutelage, never quite understood why He’d do something like that. Like a stern parent, he wasn’t exactly mad at Him, he was just disappointed.
He was considering that now as he looked out from the window to the field of yellowing grasses, curving under the weight of the hot summer sun. This morning Dwayne had opened the door after the A/C sputtered its death rattle, hoping to get a merciful puff of wind in his direction but every time it did the breeze would jangle the bell hovering over the threshold and send a dull knell across the room. It was driving him crazy and plus, he reasoned, it was almost hotter with the door open, so he shuffled off his stool and shut it.
Dwayne went to the cooler and grabbed a beer. He pressed the frosty glass against his forehead and sighed. Icy drops fell from the bottle onto his shirt. “Sure is hot,” he said to the bottle. He removed the beer from his head and unconsciously went to twist off the cap before thinking the better of it. He was already working on a Sunday, a habit he picked up to keep himself busy after Rhoda left, but he thought drinking on top of that might really do him in. If working on a holy day inflamed the Lord to bust his A/C, he didn’t want to test what a beer would instigate.
Dwayne nudged the other bottles back in line as he returned the beer to its place. As he was doing so, he heard the metallic summon of the bell. “Hey there,” Dwayne said as he cleared his throat. “Lemme know if there’s anything you need.”
He got back to his stool all right and opened up his National Geographic to the article on the Northwest Passage when he felt a chill up his spine, like all his hairs were electrified at the thought of a bone-chilling winter. He wanted to feel his blood freeze into crystalline arteries, to understand the depth of cold the way John Cabot did. He had never felt anything colder than a freezer box.
A man in a black collared shirt walked up to the counter holding a water and a bag of sunflower seeds. His face was partially covered by his hat and the sudden shade that dipped into the store as some clouds drifted over the sun. Dressed all in black head to toe like an undertaker, Dwayne observed, like one of those Addams Family folk.
“Awful hot out there, ain’t it?” Dwayne said in a feeble attempt at making conversation.
“Mm,” the man grunted. “Sure is.”
“Looking to be quite a scorcher today, not sure if you heard it on the news.” Dwayne tapped the radio beside him like a dear friend. “Yep yep, quite the hot one.” He glanced out to the pumps but didn’t see a car in the lot.
“You need some gas at all? Next closest station is about an hour away.”
“I’m walking,” said the man in a muffled voice.
“Well, sir, if you don’t mind me saying so… You’re dressed kinda curious for this weather. Must be sweating buckets in that suit of yours, aren’t ya? I’m getting hot just lookin’ at you!” He wiped his forehead dramatically and grinned. “Not from around here?”
“No, not from around here,” the man said.
“You need a lift anywhere? Where you heading?”
“Going to the church.”
“The church? Why, the service was out hours ago!” Dwayne laughed but regarded the man with concern. “That’s at least a few miles away.”
“I can make it.”
“Well, heck, that’s a long way to walk in this heat. Can’t say in all my years of going to church I’d ever walk quite that far to hear old Reverend Butler spout off.”
“Nothing’s too far to hear the words of the Lord.”
Dwayne shook his head and rested his forearm on the counter. “Hmm, I don’t know about that. Me and the Big Guy,” he said pointing up to the ceiling, “we had a falling out ‘bout a year back and I’m pretty sure he don’t want me no more. May have crossed me off his list but he sure is testing me! This danged air conditioner, I tell you. Hottest day of the year and what happens but this hunk a junk kaputs on me this morning! Nothing but a puff of air and out like a light!”
“Heat has a way of making a man think. Has a way of building resilience. Patience. Cold, too,” he said, gesturing to the magazine Dwayne was reading.
“Think I’d much prefer shivering with the polar bears right about now.”
“Might be,” he said. “But perhaps He’s trying to tell you something.”
“Tell me I need to lose some weight, that’s what!” Dwayne chuckled.
The man nodded and offered a polite smile. “You have a good day now, sir.”
“Call me Dwayne. Hey, and when you get there, you tell Him I got a bone to pick with Him!”
“I’ll do just that.”
The man walked past the empty gas pumps and down the road, a dark figure silhouetted against a sea of golden grasses. Dwayne watched from the counter until the man was out of sight. A deep blue settled over the horizon signaling an impending storm.
He thought on what the man had said, about the heat making a patient man. He wasn’t sold on the idea but decided to try it out nonetheless. Dwayne closed Cabot’s adventures and, with his hands folded in his lap, closed his eyes. For the first few minutes, Dwayne thought about nothing but the sweltering hotbox he called a shop. Sweat trickled into places unmentionable. He inhaled deeply the stagnant air and hissed it out.
“Building resilience,” he said aloud. “Re-silly-ance. Silly.” He laughed to himself and felt ridiculous for sitting here sweating it out like a danged shaman trying to conjure up some holy ghost of patience. And as he thought about that he knew he couldn’t bring back to life a dead A/C or a wife, but maybe he could find a way to live with it.
Lightning struck in the distance, but Dwayne kept his eyes shut. After living here his whole life he didn’t need to see the sky to know when a storm was coming. As the wind picked up it blew open the door and caused one heck of a racket with that bell, and Dwayne felt a little sorry he hadn’t insisted on driving that strange man down the road. He hoped he had made it to the church by now.