"Nimbostratus Means Rain" was published in Fresh Boiled Peanuts in 2004.
Copyright Christopher Stanton.
Nimbostratus Means Rain
The pothole in the parking lot was deep and still and filled with rainwater. A thin film of motor oil floated on top, glinting dark blue and green in the morning light.
There were people coming and going and smoking cigarettes on the sidewalk outside the diner, and they all looked over at L.P. as he pointed his camera at the puddle and snapped a picture.
“Dad!” L.P. said. “Hey, dad!” His name stood for Little Professor, and he was only seven.
“Yessir?” Randy answered. He waited for his son to follow him inside the diner.
“Look at this!” L.P.’s glasses drooped low on his nose as he knelt down near the puddle. Behind him lay a gravel field, then the Interstate and the mountains. “That’s water in its liquid form. Do you know what the other two forms are?”
“You got me, there,” Randy admitted. An old-timer in a black cowboy hat stood near the newspaper dispensers, regarding them with a raised eyebrow.
“Ice and steam,” L.P. said. He dropped a pebble into the water and watched as it sank to the bottom. “Why does oil float?”
“Well--” Randy began. He felt like a fool, standing at the doorway of the diner, letting the cold air in, making up answers to things he should know but couldn’t remember. Today was a monumental day, and the boy was ruining it. “It’s made of tiny little oil crystals that go right to the top,” he finally said. “So it floats. God made it like that.” When his son asked things that Randy didn’t know, which was most of the time, he credited The Man Upstairs.
“Oil crystals?” L.P. asked. The old timer smiled, as if to say, that’s a new one on me, and went back to his cigarette.
“Quit asking questions and come inside,” Randy said.
Sharon locked her car and walked over to them. The lot was full that morning and they had parked near the frontage road, among the gravel and dead weeds. She bent down next to the boy and whispered something in his ear. Then she looked up at Randy, her jaw set, her eyes dark.
He looked away. “Let’s go eat,” Randy said “How would you guys like that?”
Sharon was Randy’s woman. They had been seeing each other, sexually and socially, for the past thirty-three days. She lived in the next town over and picked them up on Sunday mornings in her white Ford Tempo. They always went to the diner for breakfast, three exits down the Interstate. Her husband was the jealous type, but thankfully, he drove a big rig and wasn’t around that often.
L.P. kicked a piece of broken glass across the blacktop and then dashed the rest of the way across the parking lot, his camera bouncing against his chest. It was held around his neck by a felt strap that Sharon had stitched herself.
“Hold on just a minute,” Randy said, as his son ran past him. L.P. seemed to be dead set against them walking into the diner together, like a proper family. Randy’s father had taught him that normal families didn’t straggle into a restaurant one at a time. L.P. didn’t quite get that concept. To him, it made no difference what young lady Randy was with, or what other people thought of the three of them together, as a unit. He was content to take photographs of puddles or lecture perfect strangers about igneous rocks.
Sharon walked across the parking lot toward him now, her cheeks pink from the November chill. She wore a gray ski jacket and faded jeans that hugged her hips nicely. Her limp didn’t seem quite as bad that morning.
Randy hadn’t spoken to the boy’s mother in seven years. Beverly had enjoyed indulging in inappropriate behavior, like dancing for tips at Elks’ Club meetings, so their union hadn’t lasted long. In the years since their unamicable separation, Randy had tried to provide L.P. with strong maternal role models to compensate for Beverly’s absence. Not all of these women had taken to the boy as he would have hoped, so Randy had gotten to know as many as possible, as intimately as he could, in hopes that he would find a perfect fit. He drove a tow truck for the city, so that gave him multiple occasions to meet lovely ladies like Sharon.
“Hey, Baby,” Randy said, and kissed her on the cheek as she moved past him. There was a cardboard turkey taped to the glass door, upside down. “Did I mention you look fantastic?” he added.
Sharon didn’t answer. It usually took her a few hours to wake up in the morning. Randy figured she needed a couple cups of coffee in her. “Looks like they got spinach waffles on special,” he said, as she went inside. She didn’t smile, or laugh. Randy figured she was still sore about what had happened on the ride over.
Randy had decided that morning that he was going to ask Sharon to be his wife. He knew there were some barriers that they had to overcome, like the fact that she was already married. Also, he didn’t have quite enough funds on hand to buy her a ring. Randy figured that his pledge of undying love would be more than enough. Once the unemployment office sent him the four checks he was due, they could go down to the city and get the hardware and make it official.
The diner had low ceilings and a dull white counter where people sat reading the morning paper and eating poached eggs and chicken fried steak. Gail was at the register, helping an elderly couple. She kept her blond-gray hair up in a modified beehive. There were rumors that she used to dance at the Puddy Tat back when Carter was in the White House, but they were so far unconfirmed.
“Foxy,” Randy said, just loud enough for Gail to hear. He smiled a crooked grin as he took off his leather jacket and hung it on the coat rack. Randy had spent twenty minutes getting ready that morning. He had picked out his best flannel shirt and the corduroys without the motor oil stains on the pockets. He had even shaved for the occasion. Sharon hadn’t noticed.
Gail looked over the top of her glasses, right past him. “You come again,” Gail said to the elderly couple, and closed the register drawer.
The Mexican cook with the bristly mustache was behind the counter. His cheeks were pocked with scars. He worked quickly, dumping pancake batter onto the stove and cracking eggs with one hand. He did not look up as Randy went past.
There was a new girl working there: a waitress with clear white skin and blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Randy moved by her and caught a scent of strawberries. He let his shoulder touch hers, and she looked up at him and smiled.
“Excuse me, Miss,” he said, and held her gaze for a moment before turning and sitting down in the booth next to his son. He figured there was no harm in being friendly.
L.P.’s nose was buried in the menu, his hooded sweatshirt pulled low over his forehead. Randy reached over and pulled it off his head. Some of the boy’s hair stood straight up with static electricity.
“Can I get my solar system book from the car?” L.P. asked. He pulled his hood over his forehead again.
“It ain’t polite to cover your head indoors,” Randy told him. “Why didn’t you wait for me like I asked?”
The new girl appeared next to their table, holding a notepad. She scratched at one ankle with the other foot and smiled at Sharon.
“Coffee?” she asked. “Or do you know what you want?”
The waitress looked to Randy like the girls with soft lips and quiet eyes who stood at the podium at Sunday service and read scriptures from the Bible. Not that he went to church, much, anymore. But she was still enormously appealing, in a sacred sort of way.
Randy put a hand on top of L.P.’s head. “This runt here,” Randy said, “he’ll have the usual. That means Cheerios and a glass of apple juice.”
“Ask him what he wants, for once,” Sharon said. She was seated at the window, leaning back against the torn upholstery. Her short blond hair curled around the collar of her ski jacket, disappearing beneath it.
Randy stared at her, dumbfounded. The waitress stopped scribbling on her pad. Behind her, steam rose from the kitchen.
“I don’t think I heard you right,” Randy said. He could barely get the words out.
Sharon stared back at him, unblinking. “Ask your son what he wants to eat,” she said.
Randy looked up at the waitress, who was watching him with interest. “My lady here hasn’t had her coffee yet,” he said. “Maybe we should start with that. Two cups. Black.”
The waitress nodded. “Two cups of coffee,” she said.
“Maybe you didn’t understand me,” Sharon said to Randy. A pickup pulled out of the parking lot behind her, heading toward the Interstate. Its flatbed was loaded with sheetrock.
“I got ears, don’t I?” Randy said. A table full of telephone line workers craned their necks to look at them. So did a skinny college kid, textbooks and papers spread out on the counter in front of him.
Randy turned to the boy. “L.P.?” he asked. “What do you want to eat, son?”
The boy wiped at his nose with the sleeve of his sweatshirt. “I want your House Special Steak and Eggs,” he said. “Apple juice to drink.”
“Steak and eggs,” the waitress repeated, as she wrote down his order.
Randy didn’t quite hear the next questions that the waitress asked L.P., but he thought they had to do with how he would like his steak cooked, and if he wanted biscuits or wheat toast. He was too busy staring at Sharon.
You don’t learn, do you?” he asked her. “I take you to this nice place, and you ain’t a bit grateful for it.”
The waitress took their orders and gave them to the Mexican cook in the kitchen. Then she came back and filled their cups with coffee. A trucker changed the channel on the television to a football game. Snow tumbled from the sky and covered everything on the TV screen. Randy could barely see the players or read the line markers on the field.
“Now you aren’t talking? Is that it?” Randy asked her. He could feel the blood pumping across his forearms, through his chest. “In the car, on the way over here, you sure had a lot to say.”
Sharon took a sip from her cup of coffee, her hands shaking.
Randy grabbed her arm, just below the elbow. She spilled her coffee and cried out.
“Would you listen to me?” he said.
“Can I get my solar system book?” L.P. asked. There was a mud stain on his long underwear top. “It’s in the car. Can I get it, please?”
Sharon pulled her arm away. She picked up the coffee cup and got up from the table. She did not turn around as she walked past the dull white counter toward the ladies room at the rear of the diner. Gail came out from behind the register. She whispered a few words to the new waitress, then followed Sharon through the wooden door, into the restroom.
“Well, shit,” Randy said. He watched the spilled coffee collect around the glass container filled with packets of Sweet-n-Low.
“I need white poster board for my project,” L.P. said. He still had bits of sleep in his eyelashes. “I have pictures of liquid and steam so far. I just need some cirrus clouds and some nimbostratus too,” he said.
“Wait here a second,” Randy said. He got up from the booth and walked through the restaurant, toward the door that led to the restrooms.
“What’s the big hurry?” The waitress with the ponytail was clearing the dishes from a booth near the restrooms. She stacked them in a basin on a metal cart. Randy noticed the way her skirt covered her pale legs, just above the knee.
“No hurry, sweetheart. Everything’s under control,” Randy replied. He stepped closer to her. He liked the way she was smiling at him.
“Is that so?” the waitress said.
“Sure. I’ve got a reputation to uphold in this town,” Randy said. He had heard that line in a Chuck Norris movie on TNT. “I can tell by the look in your eyes that you’re wondering what that might be,” he said.
“I can guess,” she said.
Gail came out of the door that led to the restrooms. She caught the waitress’s eye, and nodded. She held a picture book about the planets under one arm. It belonged to L.P.
“Wait a minute,” Randy said.
Gail glared at him. “You wait a minute,” she said.
Randy moved past the women, through the white wooden door and down the short hallway led to the restrooms. A moth flittered around the dim light bulb overhead. Behind another door, he could hear the clanging of pots, and the sizzle of the stove.
Randy knocked on the door with the GALS sign. The hand-painted letters looked like clouds. “Sharon,” he said. “Sweetheart. Come out and talk to me, okay?”
There was no answer.
Randy knocked on the door again, then opened it. “Babe?”
The bathroom was empty. A thin stream of water trickled from the faucet in the sink. A framed photo of the Grand Canyon hung on the wall, coated by a layer of mildew.
Randy bent down and looked under the stall. Nothing.
Sharon obviously hadn’t learned her lesson, Randy thought. First, embarrassing him in front of the waitress and the rest of the Sunday morning crowd. Now, this.
“How else are you gonna listen to me, babe?” he said to the empty room.
Randy left the bathroom and entered the dim hallway again. He opened the door to the kitchen and smelled burnt coffee and frying bacon.
The cook looked up from the stove as Randy passed the kitchen and ran down a short corridor that led past an empty office. Randy heard people yelling behind him as he moved past the fuse box and metal filing cabinets stacked high with papers.
“Sharon!” he called, feeling the blood pumping through his arms and his face. He saw the back door that led to the parking lot and pushed it open.
Randy ran past the dumpster and around the side of the building, the wind blowing hard, the traffic noise from the Interstate behind it. There were rows of pickup trucks and sedans, some with out of state license plates, all streaked with mud. He reached the front of the parking lot and saw that Sharon’s car was gone, and that L.P. was standing alone in the gravel field beside the diner, staring up at the mountains, his camera in his hands.
“Hey!” Randy called. “Hey, L.P.!” He cut across the parking lot and ran across the gravel to where his son stood. The boy’s dark sweatshirt and muddy jeans made him seem part of the field, like he could sink into the gravel at any moment and no one would even know he was there.
“What’re you doing out here?” Randy said. He bent down next to his son, trying to catch his breath.
“Taking pictures,” L.P. said.
Low rain clouds, edged by darkness, pushed over the tops of the mountains that bordered the Interstate. They swallowed the sparse stands of pine and cedar along the ridge and moved steadily toward the gravel field where Randy and his son stood.
“Nimbostratus,” L.P. said. “That means rain.”
Randy listened as the boy told him how the clouds were formed; he listed the names of each kind and described the masses of warm and cold air that were moving across the earth at that moment. They stood there for a long moment in the wind and the cold as Randy felt the blood fade from his forehead and his breathing settle back to normal. He heard each of his son’s words.
He tried his best to understand them.