FOUR DAYS OF RAIN
By Anita Haas
“I gotta pick up Susi at her grandma’s. Back in an hour. Think you can handle the place on your own that long, Sis?”
Clara cringed. Jorge loved humiliating her, especially when counting on the support of his faithful audience.
“Yeah? You sure you’re sure?” Tomás winked at Jorge and hooted over the blare of the soccer game on TV. Jorge patted his buddy on the shoulder, reached for his jacket and umbrella and headed for the door.
But all of Tomás’s courage evaporated in Jorge’s wake. Avoiding Clara’s eyes, he paid her for his coffee and slipped out, a promising hush of rain filling his place.
Clara, alone in the bar now, gave a little hop of glee, turned off the TV and heavy metal her brother played from pen drives, and hunted through the small collection of LPs behind the bar. Those, along with the old record player, formed part of the legacy left by their parents from when they opened the place decades before, in Usera, a working-class neighborhood in the south of Madrid.
Embraced by solitude, Clara greeted each frayed and faded record cover; Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington … so many friends from a happier time echoing her sad hello.
She chose an album she listened to whenever she was left in peace, one with Helen Merrill and Clifford Brown. She placed the needle on her favorite song, Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”, set to loading coffee cups and beer glasses into the tiny dishwasher, and fantasized about what kind of man she would like to come home to, rather than the brother, sister-in-law and niece she encountered day in and day out.
Sometimes she imagined a northern man, tall and blond, his clear eyes smiling down at her. He would murmur to her in adorably accented Spanish, and smuggle her off to his far-away country, where everyone would respect her. At other times he was swarthy, with eyes that penetrated right through to her soul, but loved her nonetheless.
Clara turned on the dishwasher and abandoned her post behind the bar. The space between the tables served as her own personal dance studio. Imagining herself poised and classy, like Helen Merrill herself, she swayed and twirled as she had done years ago, encouraged by her parents and their friends.
A throat cleared behind her. “What?” She spun around, coppery curls flying, her tiny tense frame prepared to confront more of her brother’s buddies, full of bumbling questions and excuses to flee.
But it was a real customer, and of the type that rarely frequented their establishment; early forties, dark, smartly dressed, with a kind, intelligent gaze.
Embarrassment paralyzed her but the client smiled. “Helen Merrill. Love that song. I also like Chet Baker’s version. Do you know it?”
Clara stared at the recent arrival. She had lived moments like this so many times in her day-dreams. In each version she piloted the conversation with intelligence and wit. However, now that it was finally happening, she was mute.
There were so many things she could have said; “Sure I know Chet Baker’s version, it’s great. I also like the one by Sarah Vaughan, and I love the way Nina Simone sings it! So tragic and tense. But I just can’t take the Frank Sinatra version at all!”
But it might sound pretentious to say those things. And maybe this man was a Sinatra fan. Doubt swelled her tongue and robbed her of the moment forever.
The man hesitated, turned slightly toward the door, and prepared to re-open his umbrella. “You are open, aren’t you?”
“Yes, yes. Open. Yes.” Self-loathing erupted within Clara and she forced a freakish smile. She struggled to untie her stained apron. How she regretted having let herself go. So many years serving the same old crowd had made her careless. And even that crowd was dwindling, so she had to feel grateful for it.
What was this elegant man doing here, anyway? Couldn’t he see this was a dive, reeking of stale beer? At least, ever since her brother had taken over.
“Could I have a gin and tonic, please?”
Gin and tonic. Gin and tonic. When was the last time …? Their usual customers just chugged beer, and from bottles only, because Jorge was too cheap to pay for a new beer tap. And where had he hidden that tattered book of cocktail recipes? The one their mother had used to usher the young Clara through symphonies of flavor before presenting them to her guests with musical reverence.
Cubes of ice fizzed in the glass Clara nudged toward the stranger. He locked her gaze in a wordless thank-you, solemn night-sky hues tinting his hair, eyes and clothes, and moved off to table three in the corner.
Limp, she began cramming napkins mechanically into holders, watching him. A ragged newspaper, discarded days before, trapped his attention now, passively receiving his firm grip and the gentle graze of his fingers over its surface.
Chips! A distant voice called in her brain. The ideal excuse to go to him. She filled a bowl and moved around the bar, the contents trembling.
“Oh, thank you.” He turned slightly. She hovered a moment longer. He looked up, expectantly. She summoned her courage, “How … how is the gin and tonic?” realizing immediately that he hadn’t yet touched it. Her eyes followed the laugh lines which framed his features and punctuated his sun-kissed skin.
“Fine. Thank you. Well …” he chuckled, “I’m sure it is. I haven’t tried it yet. You see, I …”
A sudden shriek announced the arrival of her three-year old niece, Susi, along with Jorge, and his wife Yolanda, arguing about a parking ticket, rain streaming from their jackets. Clara glanced at the clock. Jorge had said an hour. Barely twenty minutes had passed!
“Ok, Clara, back to work! Stop chatting up the customers.” Jorge called out in a big voice.
Yolanda smacked him lightly on the shoulder, “Jorge, hahaha, you are so bad! hahaha!” Susi copied her mother’s laugh. Although she didn’t understand the joke, she knew who it was on.
Clara scurried red-faced back behind the bar as her brother approached to greet the new customer. The man raised his glass and took a sip.
“Clara!” Susi pounded her small fist on the bar, “My juide!” Yolanda was unzipping her daughter’s jacket, and Clara waited in vain for her to reproach the girl.
“Here.” There was a loud clack of tin against steel as Clara slammed the can in front of her niece. She braced herself for her brother to ridicule her choice of music, the music their parents had woven into the tapestry of their shared childhood. But this time there was no reaction. “He’s a jerk, but not stupid.” Clara thought. Jorge knew it might be wise to cater to this new customer’s tastes.
Clara ran a cloth over the bar top. Two of Jorge’s friends slunk in, each one cradling a motorcycle helmet under his arm and sporting a soaked black t-shirt shouting out the names of heavy metal bands; Iron Maiden the first, and ACDC, the second. When they noticed the jazz playing, their eyes leapt from Jorge to Clara, and back again. Jorge shrugged “Got a problem, mates?”
“No, no. None.” They stammered.
“Ok, then. What’ll it be? Two beers, right?”
At that moment the stranger’s chair scraped the linoleum and he stood up, placed a bill of ten euros on the table, and left the bar.
After the door closed, Jorge broke out in loud exaggerated hoots. Iron Maiden and ACDC exchanged glances, then joined in.
Jorge spun around to silence Helen Merrill and replace her with some Rosendo he had downloaded onto the computer.
“What old movie did that guy escape from?” said Iron Maiden between swigs.
“From one with a big budget, judging by the amount of dough he left!” laughed ACDC.
Jorge approached the table, took the ten euros and handed it to Yolanda, then returned to the bar to hiss in Clara’s ear, “I just might toss all this jazz shit out one of these days.” She faced him, crushed but not surprised at his sadistic grin. “You don’t like the idea, Sis? Well, you’re screwed, then, aren’t you? I’m the boss now. Mommy and Daddy aren’t here to coddle you anymore. You could always look for a job in another bar, although I doubt anyone would hire you.”
Clara’s head bowed under the hail of snickers from everyone present, including her niece. How she yearned to do just that, escape forever! But where could she go? Who would risk hiring her? Could she do anything else? For thirty-four years these walls had hidden her, first sheltering her womb-like with the warmth of her parents, their music and customers, while she helped out in the kitchen, then at the bar. After school, weekends, holidays. Sometimes they organized jam sessions and begged her mother, a Galician who could easily pass for Portuguese, to sing bossa nova.
Clara could never have imagined that after their parents’ deaths the bar, her haven, would become her hell.
Tuesdays were slow in the best of weather, but when it rained their customers sought refuge in home, take-out pizza and TV. Clara, on the other hand, welcomed the rain, the tranquility in the bar, the bellow of thunder, the tropical swelter and freshness. The stench of stale beer surrendered to the perfume of wet earth, and a soft percussion replaced the staccato of TV and angry electric guitars. People connected under an us-versus-the-weather solidarity.
Yolanda wanted little to do with the business, and Jorge usually left Clara alone whenever none of his buddies were around, preferring to run errands and tend to paper work. She filled the solitude with melodies from her youth, imagining herself outgoing and daring like those jazz singers. She was swaying her hips, holding a spoon for a microphone and singing “You’d be so nice to come home to” along with Helen Merrill, when she heard the now familiar cough.
“Hello.” Monday’s stranger smiled at her as he pushed his way through the door.
“Oh …” Clara whirled around, plundering her brain for all the crackling remarks she had been rehearsing for his unlikely return.
“Uh … so, could I have another one of those gin and tonics?”
“Yes … of course.” She fled towards the bar, cooled her hands on the ice bucket and raised them to her cheeks.
As she poured the gin, she tried to think of some brilliant and funny thing to say. Seems like we have the same taste in music hahaha. Or Did you know I invoked you? That’s because I’m a witch …
No, she wouldn’t be able to pull either of those off. She just wasn’t the type. If only she were more talkative, like Yolanda, like the Andalusian women she knew, who teased and flirted with bubbling spontaneity. If only she didn’t care so much what people thought of her.
She stirred the liquid, taking in his casual elegance. A desperate curiosity seized her; his motivations, his fears, a hundred questions blazed inside. But Clara knew she couldn’t hurl herself into profound conversation without the preparatory banter. Her brain raced to construct a coherent sentence.
The bar is usually full at this hour! It’s the rain, you know…
Feeling confident, she took a deep breath, turned to hand the stranger his drink and opened her mouth to present him with her sentence, when the door banged open and in hobbled her elderly neighbor, Benita. “What weather we are having! Oh!” she said, looking left and right, then directly at Clara, “Nobody here?”
Benita was one of those people who invaded a place with her presence. All conversations stepped aside to make room for her.
“Yes, Benita. I’m here.” Clara sighed as she placed the stranger’s drink on the bar, recognizing his spicy cologne from the day before. She bit her lip, not wanting to sound bitchy in front of him.
“Well, I meant Jorge or Yoli. And where is Susi? Okay, I’ll tell you then …”
The man took the glass and headed over to table three. Clara felt an ache deep in her belly and a rush of energy urged her to jump over the bar and go to him. This may be my only chance!!! But she froze, Benita’s presence trapping her in place.
“I’ll have a coffee. Do you remember that smelly tenant in 4D? Well, imagine, the other day …” and Benita proceeded to jackhammer Clara with gripes and gossip about the neighbor. Clara nodded respectfully, but could only hear Helen Merrill, now singing “Falling in Love with Love”, and she could only see the mysterious customer, the same grimy newspaper lying open on the table in front of him. Rivulets of water formed random trails through the steam on the window behind him, creating a luminous rectangular background for his silhouette.
Just before Benita concluded her story, Jorge pushed open the door, followed by some of his pals.
“Beers for everybody, Clara!” he tapped his keys on the bar, and headed directly over to greet the stranger.
“Oh,” Benita lit up and turned to the worthier audience. These men were all friends of her son, “Now that you’re here …”
Rejected but relieved, Clara began uncapping beer bottles. Jorge was making an uncharacteristic effort to ingratiate himself to the stranger who, smiling politely, left his drink half full, took his umbrella and abandoned the bar … not, however, without placing a bill of ten euros on the table.
Yolanda was helping Clara clean on Wednesday evening. Clara preferred to work on her own, but she knew she was supposed to show gratitude. Yoli stopped cleaning after half an hour and was busy whatsapping other mothers from Susi’s daycare.
“Do you mind if I play some of my dad’s old records?”
“Huh? No, I don’t care.” Yoli was much easier to get along with when Jorge wasn’t around.
Clara was floating off the last notes of Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain”, and scrubbing a particularly stubborn spot of grease on the window, when she felt her favorite Helen Merrill record beckon.
Was Jorge just being mean when he threatened to toss their dad’s records? She knew he was capable of it. As she flipped through the dusty album covers, she had the eerie suspicion the collection was shrinking. Her favorite Nina Simone record was gone, as was the Chet Baker album her father had so proudly brought back from a trip to Paris.
The persistent drizzle protected her from the elements, and “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” engaged her in a slow dance as Clara dried the glasses she was taking out of the dishwasher. Would he come today? Twice the magic had happened. Could it happen a third time?
Yoli’s excited phone conversation with one of the mothers was competing with the record when the door swished open. Today he was wearing a long black raincoat from a 1940s thriller, and was struggling to close a large umbrella.
Clara had prepared for this moment. She sported a clean, new apron, mascara framed her green eyes and corrector covered the sad circles under them, but the flock of corny lines she had rehearsed in bed the night before took flight, abandoning her in her prison of shyness.
“Wow! What crazy weather out there!”
“Yes … uh … gin and tonic?”
“Ooh, not today, thanks. It’s a bit too cold for that. Seems like winter is starting again. What about an Irish coffee? Is that possible?”
“Mmmmmm. Irish coffee. My faaaavorite.” A sexy female voice cooed from the end of the bar. Clara’s mouth fell open, then clapped shut. Her sister-in-law was making eyes at him.
“Here, I’ll get it for you. Clara, you go and clean up the kitchen.” This was absolutely out of order; they had not used the kitchen for more than storage since her mother’s death. But the look Yolanda gave her made it clear Clara would have to obey or argue. She chose the less embarrassing option.
Sorting old Tupperware containers, Clara eavesdropped through the little service window behind the bar as her sister-in-law made all the typical small talk she longed to master herself. Yoli and the stranger chuckled over the weather, found they shared a preference for black chocolate, and even discovered they both had a distant relative in Teruel. Clara was appalled when Yoli tittered, “Oh, I am so shy! It’s embarrassing for me to talk to strangers!” His sparse, low responses tingled through Clara.
After ten minutes of chatter, a pack of Jorge’s friends filed in. Yoli turned abruptly away from the stranger, changed the music, and began socializing with them. Clara’s legs broke into a sprint and propelled her toward the kitchen door, just in time to see the man leave. A bill of ten euros lay on table three.
“Don’t you have any errands to run today?” Clara asked Jorge, a bit tensely, the next evening.
“No, I don’t, actually. Why?” Jorge smirked at her. “Any reason you don’t want me around?”
“No … I just like to play dad’s records sometimes and I know you don’t like them.” She felt proud of herself for the smart, quick answer.
“Oh yeah? Play dad’s records so that new guy, the fancy dresser, will come in?”
Clara had to admit it. Her brother was evil, but no idiot. She felt her cheeks burn and lowered her head over the sink.
Quite a bit taller than his sister, Jorge was reaching up, placing glasses on the top shelf. He turned to observe her and picked up a knife from the counter. He ran his fingers up and down the blade’s edge then tested the point with his thumb. “You know, he comes in every day at seven after work. Whether you play that sappy song or not.” He fisted the instrument and grimacing, stabbed the air with each word. “Every day after work he comes here and has a drink before going home for dinner with his wife and kids.”
He sneered at her. “How stupid can you get?”
He tossed the knife into the sink and strode off to the kitchen.
Alone and shaking, Clara looked up at the old wall clock. It was ten to seven. How had she never noticed that he always came at the same time? Shoulders slumped, she realized how naive she had been. That little girl fantasy, at her age! She had ached to believe there was some magical force that drew him to the bar, and that she could invoke it by playing their song. Despite all the obstacles and intrusions aborting their conversations, she needed to think that deep down there was a reason.
She squinted at her dark reflection in the mirror behind the bar. A wife and kids. Comes here every day at the same time. Sappy song or not. Straight from the office. Dinner at home. How stupid can you get?
The record lay waiting on top of the player. She slipped the disk out of its cover, grasped it firmly with both hands and hissed, “I never want to hear you again!” One, two, she willed herself, and snap! cracked it in two. She tossed the pieces into the garbage. There! She turned around and defied the clock. It was five to seven.
Clara stood up, straighter than ever. When the door opened promptly at seven, her heart did not race. It was only some of her brother’s pals. It didn’t matter, she’d serve them. When she saw her reflection, her face had changed. She looked older, colder. She washed and scrubbed with raging efficiency, one eye on the time. But he didn’t come.
Jorge’s friends left shortly after eight.
“Well, looks like your boyfriend ain’t comin’ today.” Her brother grinned. “Hey, you didn’t really believe what I said before, did you?”
She looked up.
He laughed at the change in her expression, and headed toward the kitchen. “It was just a joke, okay? I don’t know anything about the guy. No idea if he’s married, has kids, where he works, nothing! How would I?”
Clara turned slowly toward the garbage can and knelt in front of it. Vision blurred, she picked up the pieces of broken disk, and held them together.
Outside, cars sloshed by, and screeching children splashed through puddles.
From the kitchen came the sound of moving boxes. A moment later, Jorge called to her through the service window, his voice slightly softer than usual.
“Psst! Sis, here.”
Clara looked up slowly. He was reaching a record album down to her. It was her favorite Nina Simone album with a version of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to”, the one that had gone missing a while back.
“Try this one.”
About the Author:
I am a differently-abled Canadian writer and teacher based in Madrid, Spain. I have published books on film, two novelettes, a short story anthology, and articles, poems and fiction in both English and Spanish. I spend my free time enjoying tapas and flamenco with my writer husband and two cats.