My grandpa's grocery store was the first thing you saw when the road north curved to the right at the south end of Preston, Idaho. Grandma and Grandpa had a big, sloping backyard, making for unpredictable croquet but perfect for launching Fourth of July fireworks toward the garden. My friend Morgan MacIntyre lived on a small farm on the west side of town, full of strong smells that bit your nose. Morgan's dad, wouldn't you know, had a couple of gentle Morgan horses that we liked to ride. Those bumpy rambles were a thrill for a town boy; I never noticed my thighs aching until we got off.
If the world wasn't perfect in Preston, I didn't know about it. But my great uncles knew: Sam, who lost three fingers to a pig; Fred, who came back from the Great War an alcoholic; Lorenzo, whose wife never let him forget that he'd turned down a chance to work with Walt Disney; Leo, whose farm, he always joked, was downhill from hellhell being the town dump filled with heaps of rotting rinds, dead appliances, gulls quarreling over the putrid corpses of cats and sheep, and something liquid and dark that leaked out from the bottoms of the heaps.
What patriarchs in Scripture didn't have stumbling blocks? God was meant to give them hope, and the uncles spent a lot of time in His presence. Leo was Grandpa's best friend and spiritual peer, though he never kept his family on their knees at bedtime as long as Grandpa did. No one could rise from family prayers until Grandpa had cataloged, in triplicate, every blessing and every need. I was jealous of experience, impatient for things to happen; life was too short for me to be wearing out my knees listening to Grandpa pray. Often I didn't stay awake long enough to hear "Amen," let alone repeat it, and had to be carried off to bed. For all I knew, it could have been by ministering angels.
In 1958, spring ended and summer began without rain. What's bad for the farmers is bad for the bank, and what's bad for the bank is bad for everybody. You didn't need acreage to hope for rain. But it didn't come. Into July, as the crops grew pale and bent and brittle, the rain kept avoiding us, going to Utah or Wyoming, places where it was welcomed for sure. But nobody in those places could have had a sense that year of Uncle Leo's corn struggling, his hay choking under a papery sky. The lazy cows at pasture had to raise their heads and brighten their eyes, deepen their field of vision, searching for some green or yellow, anything not colorless and dead. The gray mare grazed less absentmindedly than usual and quickened her walk between tufts of grass. The Bear River's muddy margins widened, dried and cracked and looked like strewn shards of pottery.
The gypsies who usually camped in the bottoms for a couple of weeks in the summer knew to stay away this year and wait for better times. Uncle Leo always brought them produce from his garden, but this summer he had nothing to spare. When the breeze went wrong, the baking odors of hell, the corpses and garbage in the dump, covered the farm and made a little depression in Leo's heart. But he could afford to joke a little. He had money saved, and he worked weekdays on the county road crew and would not go broke if the farm failed this one year.
Not everybody's boat was so neatly dry-docked. Impulse buys were down at Grandpa's grocery store, and seasonal items barely moved. No smoke anywhere from backyard barbecues. The town, it almost seemed, was mourning for its future. The farmers stood in the fields; the patriarchs looked at the sky. If the rain came, the harvest could still be salvaged, barely; they could subsist and hope for 1959 to improve their fortunes.
Everyone was always hoping for something. Lorenzo hoped his harridan wife would find in herself some kindness for him. Sam hoped to be resurrected with his right hand whole. Fred hoped that heaven (or hell if it had to be hell) was something like the Big Rock Candy Mountain, with a whiskey lake. Leo hoped his son-in-law, who drank beer and cussed, would have an awakening.
Uncle Will Shumway, being perfect, was entitled to any hope he hoped for, but, being perfect, he hoped for nothing for himself. He was content to live in his old house, drive his old green Packard to the store and to church on Sunday. Uncle Will hoped for rain for Sam and Fred and Lorenzo and Leo and Grandpa. He hoped for rain for the whole county, and the whole county finally decided as one that there was a last thing it could do, the only thing in its power it could ever have done, to bring rain, and that was to fast and pray.
So in this latter part of July, the churches planned a special fast for the nearest Sunday, ending with a prayer service at every church at 5 o'clock. The weather hadn't changed for the last three months, but there's nothing like a community of hopeor of desperationto bring the agnostic hearts of the atheists, and the believing hearts of the agnostics, out into public. Nobody stayed home. The believers came to the service having cleaned the dust and dead leaves out of the rain barrels, and having brought the cows into the sheds, and having wished the chickens the best of luck, because what else can you do with chickens? If the unbelievers followed suit, it was because, you never know, maybe we were due for...what? A blessing? Rain, at least.
I remember the service. Farmers and their sons and wives and daughters, washed up and back in their Sunday best after chores; tradespeople and businessmen, pillars and foundations of the community, all came in under a cloudless sky and sat as families and listened to the organ prelude. We sang "True to the Faith" and "Lord, Accept Our True Devotion." Then the speaking began at the pulpit, talk of sacrifice and blessings, addresses to God as to a friend we loved and had urgent business with. The church bishop was a farmer himself, with a farmer's brown, weathered face and a white forehead that looked lit up. The congregation remained silent for several moments after the end of the prayer, and we only slowly raised our heads. The light in the high windows had softened.
When we left the building the sky had already lowered and grown dark. A few big drops were falling as Grandpa turned the car into the driveway, and at the last slam of the screen door, the clouds let loose with more rain than you'd think they could have held.
The rain lasted a week and more, for so long that Uncle Leo joked we would need another prayer service to turn it off again. The Bear River flooded his lower pasture, but not disastrously, so the atheists had something to ponder, and the faithful too. This was love in the same proportions as biblical wrath. It was more love than they could hold or comprehend. Grandpa's prayer that first night was long, as always, and gratefulbut the language, I finally understood, was beautiful, and I stayed awake in the middle of family and angels and listened to it all the way through to the Amen.
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