Grateful for the Distracting Noise by Ross Mudrick

That summer the storms finally hit. Everyone knew they were coming, at least everyone who’d avoided the powerful temptation to self-delusion. But no one expected the ferocity and the volatility, the way the rain and hail would fall so hard and so long that it grooved the blacktop. the twisters that sliced through Brooklyn, wildfires that scorched the Smokies. No one ever thought they’d see lightning strike thrice, didn’t believe that the rising tides could take the land, couldn’t have imagined the settling of New Brighton Beach in the Catskills or Little Long Beach in the Inland Empire. But even if they had, there wasn’t much they could have done.

Will you say to me a little rain's gonna come / When the sky can't offer none to me

Jack struck a match, held it to his Red and inhaled deep, dropped it onto the concrete porch where it smoldered. Mumbling along to the music, he exhaled a puff of smoke, pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes, took a swig from his beer, and squinted at the dark clouds rolling across the lake from Monona. The rain was light, but the looming clouds made clear that that wouldn’t last. With the first crack of lightning he sat straight up, then turned as he realized Clara was standing in the doorway.

“So this is it?” He heard more weariness in her voice than anger, but stiffened in reflex.

He stretched his arm out, pointing to the quickly moving front. “No. No. S’about to get worse. See?”

She sighed, further betraying that weariness. The lines on her face had become even further defined since May, and the few strands of gray had multiplied into a narrow streak. “Not the FUCK-ING storm, Jack. This.” She spread her hands expansively. “You, sitting on the FUCK-ING porch, drinking a FUCK-ING beer. Is this why I left Townes with Sara and Renaldo, so they can play house with our baby?”

“Oh, for the love of Christ, Clara. You were the one who wanted to fuck. I was damn near passed out on the couch, and you dragged me into the bed.”

“Yeah, well, your lack of enthusiasm showed. But why is it always about fucking with you? Why can’t it be about, for example, this morning, when you asked me to get them to take Townes, so that we could have some great healing come to Jesus moment? That’s what this is about, isn’t it?”

“I… don’t know. Maybe it’s about the fact that I traveled halfway across the country and still haven’t spent a moment alone with you.”

He saw her eyes soften for less than an instant. He cracked half a smile, searching for a crevice to wriggle his charm into.

“That’s it. You crawled out of your mom’s basement, barely put on a clean shirt, and picked up the bus ticket that I bought for you while I packed his crying ass up, got us onto a plane and put up with your friends for a weekend. But no, you’re the one who sacrificed to be here.”

“CAN YOU JUST SHUT UP FOR ONE SECOND? Can you just stop complaining for one second?” Jack suddenly boiled: the crevice was closed before he had time to wrap his arms around her, pull her soft tits against his body, and squeeze her in the way that melted her. He’d been too drunk to give her the squeeze last night, but he knew if he could just get one in he could change the whole trajectory of the last four months.

He watched her face change from loathing to fear, and then settle on self-righteous anger.

“Clara, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell. Last night was hard. We wore the masks all weekend, and when they came off, I let myself pretend it was real.”

“Yes, well, it wasn’t. If your big plan was to meet here, look out over the lake like we used to, give me a big dopey hug, and get invited back to come back with us, then you’re an idiot and you must think I’m even dumber.”

“I didn’t have a plan. I’ve never had a plan. You know that as well as anybody. I just…”

“Yeah, I get it. You have not shit going on and you thought that if you made nice the whole weekend I’d invite you back to stay in the spare bedroom and help with Townes. You’d keep your distance at first and then, one night, I’d come home stressed, have one too many glasses of wine; I’d be soft and I’d have seen you looking very fatherly with Townes, and you’d wrap your arms around me, kiss me, and then…”

He saw his opportunity and took it; he pushed himself out of the ratty upholstered chair, flung his body across the porch with open arms and felt something wet and sticky hit his face. He wiped off the warm phlegm with his sleeve, looked up to see the sanctimony-volcano in full eruption.

“This is exactly what I’m talking about. You’re never going to change, but you think you’re going to trick me. One night of sex and some half-assed nostalgia and I’m going to forget about the money and always coming home to an apartment smelling like weed and the time you told my brother that everyone thinks he’s gay and leaving me in Austin, and Karen walking in on you with my vibrator in your ass without a condom on it...”

She slammed the door; he hoped the coming storm had made it louder than she meant.

As the skies opened up and the thick, fat drops began to slap the pavement, Jack turned and slumped back into the chair, creating a short shhhhhffff of air as the cushion surrendered to his weight. He reached down and picked the pack, slightly damp from the moist air, off the floor, pulled out a cigarette and placed it between his lips; he lit one, two, three, four, five matches it one caught, and that first burst of smoke into his mouth pushed all the things he wanted to say to Clara off his tongue. He picked his half-full beer up off the particle board side table, exhaled, slugged from the can, and closed his eyes. The fat drops had become a deluge, and he was grateful for the distracting noise.

☂☂

Sara cupped her hand to cover the receiver, blocking out the Elizabeth Mitchell tracks Renaldo had eagerly downloaded when Clara had asked them to babysit, the phhhbbbt's of Renaldo blowing raspberries on Townes’ belly, and the ensuing squeals.

“Yes, mom, the wedding was lovely. I mean that the flowers were kind of, you know, prommy. The band was really prommy. But, hell, people were dancing to it, so I guess that either means they were enjoying it, or we’re just so deep into flyover country that they’re too nice not to. But Joey and Rose seemed happy and that’s all that matters, right? ...yeah, white dress, frills, that whole thing. He was wearing something gray. Bow tie. Yeah, I know: bow tie.”

Renaldo laughed, half-shouted: “Sara, you’re missing all the fun. Townes is teaching me how to tap dance.”

It was all she could to do to look into the other room where Renaldo was flat on his back, dandling the baby’s feet against his own face, kissing his toes. Her friends, her mom and aunts, would have felt the intensest joy at the sight of his face so effortlessly joyful and craving fatherhood with his entire being. And Renaldo thought: How can as smart and intuitive a woman as Sara fail so completely to connect to a child? Especially one so sweet and good-natured as Townes?



Renaldo gestured her over; he had sprawled Townes out on his back, and Sara covered him like a human pavilion. Her full breasts strained against her Gram Parsons tanktop, and the baby absently brushed his hand against them. Renaldo placed his hands in Townes’ armpits and stood up with him. The child squirmed, kicked, and then caught Renaldo’s gaze and a grin swept across his face, the squeals of unadulterated joy returned; his tiny fingers buried themselves in Renaldo’s ringlets; the two became one again: cooing, dancing.

Before Renaldo even opened his mouth, Sara was out the door and in the elevator. He picked up his coat, replaced Townes in his crib, and hustled to catch her, finding her pacing with a cigarette, under the awning front of the hotel, already damp from the spray: “Amor, talk to me,” he said. “I need to understand what is happening. Why is it that he makes you so unhappy?”

“Why does he make me unhappy? It’s you. Mr. Sweetness and Light.”

Renaldo’s face went blank; his tone became almost mechanical: “As we have discussed on many occasions, I will not argue with you when you are transferring. Townes and I are going to Mickie's. When you are ready to talk about this, there will be, I believe, a milkshake waiting for you. In the meantime, perhaps some of the breathing excercises I showed you will bring you clarity as to why you cannot appreciate the beauty of Townes’ qi."

Renaldo retrieved Townes and tucked him into his coat; they took off down the street in a half-jog, Renaldo pushing his neck out to try to form a shield over baby’s head.

Back into the room, she rolled herself onto the bed, turned on the TV, and was asleep within seconds. The rumble of her phone vibrating on the sidetable woke her two hours later. She checked the screen, saw a picture text of a soupy, melted milkshake, Dylan and Lily deep in conversation behind it.

☂☂

Lily looked up from tightening her laces to see Dylan step off the elevator, confronted first by his calves, which had been covered by his jeans on Friday; the suit, last night. She figured he’d have lost a step, being on the river all summer without their morning runs, but if he had, it didn’t show. He'd always been well-defined; not so much but tight in his skin. Still, he looked even leaner and hungrier now; the rich brown that comes with summers spent outdoors making him appear to have been carved out of earth.

She looked up, realizing she’d been staring. “Uh, those Vivos new?” “You can check me out, Lily, it’s fine. It’s been a long summer and I know that, even though we’re not sure where we are right now, neither one of us is dead.” “Smart cookie. You sure a run’s what we need? You can’t think of a better way to burn it off?” His eyes ran from the skintight shorts tightly hugging her powerful thighs, to her stomach, to the sports bra that cupped her small but perky breasts, to her tight pigtails. He breathed deeply three times and chose his words precisely: “Don’t think for a second that it hasn’t been running through my head since I saw you at baggage claim on Friday. But the decisions we have to make are too serious to be clouded by carnal urges.” “You’re right. Are you ready?” “Let’s do it.”

They made their way out through the sliding doors then broke into a jog, wordlessly heading down Doty towards the loop around the lake. Each struggled to find the other’s pace, jerkily slowing, quickening, passing, searching for the contiguity that had been lost by Dylan’s four months on the Yampa. Their focus on breathing and pacing kept them from noticing the anvils gathering across the lake.

By the time they crossed John Nolen Drive and reached the trail around the lake, they had settled into an uneasy rhythm, with Lily a half-step ahead of Dylan and clearly slightly off of her regular pace. The muscles may have not have been visibly worse for wear, but his lungs bore the signs of missing the daily runs, as well as late nights around the campfire.

“So, good summer?” “I wouldn’t say good, but restful. Read a few good books, spent some time on the beach, saw my folks. Went up to see Frankie and Lee.” “Oh?”

She slowed for a half second, reached out and tugged playfully at the waterfall of curls that ran down to his shoulders, longer than she’d ever seen them: “They let you work with the public looking like this?” “You kidding me? OAR's loves it. They know it’s what the customers want. The kids call me mountain man, the dads all try to tell me college drinking stories. The moms just want to get into my boat. Relax, hon, I remember the rules.”

On remarking Dylan's labored breaths, Lily struggled to dissemble thoughts of just how much faster she'd be running were it not for the intervening summer. “You remember the rules because you had to put them into practice? That mean the stories about Frankie and Lee are true?”

He was pushing the words out in spurts now, timing them to his breath, desperate not to let her hear him winded a half mile in.

“Yes,” she said, “the rumors of their monogamy are greatly exaggerated. But does it count if they’re both cheating on each other in the same room at the same time?” He stopped suddenly, nearly tripping over his own feet, “Is that a serious question?” he said. Lily turned, jogging in place: “Is that what you’re worried about? That I let them run a train on me? No. Dear! You see, they had a party one night I was up there. It was getting a little raunchy for my tastes so I went down to the beach and when I came back the whole thing had become clothing optional so I went back out to the beach and fell asleep to the crashing of the waves. And I believe I’m the only one who didn't get laid that night.”

She slapped her thigh twice, the rich smacking sound: a dog whistle to his body, connecting to the deepest wells of fat and turning them into the energy needed to keep up with her. “So if not, them..?” “Do you really want to have this conversation? I'll bet I come off looking a whole lot cleaner than you.”

He looked up from his feet. Her smile had changed; but precisely how, he couldn’t say. Was she excited to know that the idea of her screwing someone else genuinely bothered him? Or was she, in fact, dreaming of every single man who'd sullied her pristine little peach over the summer? He’d spent years bringing her out of her sexual shell.

His tone was suddenly flat. “No, I don’t want to talk about it. The rules are the rules. Let’s talk about us.” “So then talk.” “I thought of you a lot.” “I’d be worried if you hadn’t, but you might have called more often. Oh, but I know you were thinking about me.” “I was thinking about the fact that I really need to be with you.” “So, what’s your plan?” “I just said I want to be with you.” “Yes, Dylan, of course you do. I want to be with you as well. That was never the question. I mean, what’s the plan?”

“OAR's runs a few winter trips. Chile; Fiji. And with all the extra rain they’re expanding the seasons. It’s not all worked out yet, but it's beginning to sound like they’ll fly me around; run a few trips, train new guides. Decent money for never having to sit at a desk.” “So when you say you want to be with me, you mean, whenever you’re not on the road.”

She'd unearthed those words she’d wanted to say to him for years, then collapsed onto the grass median between the trail and the highway; her whole body heaving; the noises she was making, barely animal. “I can’t do a nine-to-five,” he said.

“Oh, I'm so fucking sick of that excuse. *SNNNNNNRRRRRK* I’m not asking you to be an accountant, Dylan. *HANNNKKKKKKK* I’m asking you to live in this world *SNNNRRRKKK* for one second.”

She tucked her legs underneath her, breathed in, slowly, deeply, then even more slowly out; her face, still bright red. “I would go anywhere to be with you. But you’ve got to tell me where. And you’ve got to tell me how. And until you do, I’ll be home.”

She took off around the lake at a pace she knew he couldn’t match, wiggling her ass just a little for show.


(...to the tune of “Afternoon Delight”) 

He stands five eleven and about two bills, he comes from the Pennsylvania hills, Ross Mudrick, he's a man with a story to share
He headed west to Wisconsin for to make his name, broke a couple of hearts and some window panes, Ross Mudrick, his mother always taught him to care
Finished up his schooling headed west once more, for a California campaign finance tour, Ross Mudrick, he's got some serious facial hair



Then he headed back east to the great big city, his fear began to consume him, he was full of self-pity, Ross Mudrick, he's artful in his use of swears
Now he's half-growed up, he's working past 30, learned to love it all, the good bad and dirty, Ross Mudrick, hopes this song wasn't too long to bare