Johanna da Rocha Abreu: Flash Floods

Vonnie eases up on the gas pedal and they coast the last couple of feet to the side of the road. A staccato burst of rain erupts on the body of the car as if it wants to dismantle every bit of glass, metal and rubber. Vonnie can just see them sitting in their seats after the storm, each lock, nut, bolt and gear of the “jalop,” as Paul called it, scattered around them. Worthless pieces not even a magpie would take to its nest.

“The flash flood warnings were probably exaggerated,” Paul says, raising his voice to meet the storm’s crescendo.
Vonnie feels no need for it, for his talking. They could just lean back and let the rain wash the slate clean. They would not have to be lost. Vonnie would not have to worry that she would be asked to say something at Tomas’s opening tonight, or that she wouldn’t. Paul would not have to dodge questions about his head injuries. She would not have to remind him that he was the one who insisted they heed the flash flood warnings.
“We could have just gone for 95.”
“Or gone down the River Road on the Pennsylvania side.” 
“I know, Paul.”
“Oh, it’s ‘I know Paul’ now.” He begins clicking his tongue rhythmically.
The sound reminds Vonnie of the regular tick tick tick emitted by the metal detector Paul borrowed from a neighbor. Every day after breakfast, he walks with it along the canal. The path starts just beyond the back garden of the boat house where they live now. The doctor said light exercise was the best thing for body and mind. Paul collects found locks, hinges or spikes from the old rail beds, so furred over with rust you barely recognize them. Only when you soak them for weeks in kerosene does the rust loosen, and they reveal their true form. Paul has set nearly a dozen kerosene buckets out back. Passersby on the canal path stop to look over the fence and take pictures of the shimmering, oily reflections. Vonnie doesn’t mind; their curiosity feels like an affirmation of sorts. It’s the metal detector that unsettles her, the rhythmic ticking so like the monitor beside Paul’s hospital bed after his bike accident.
A last low rumble of thunder comes from the East. The rain subsides, no longer a wall. They can edge forward again.
Vonnie taps her phone to check if the reception bars have popped back up.
“Just get us back to 95. I feel like we’re shooting distance from it,” Paul says.
“Shooting distance?” 
The countryside and river valley are now well behind, and there’s not a hint of the city ahead, just a no-man’s land of suburban houses and two-door garages. From her left, she catches a glimpse of movement. She and Paul turn to look out her window to see two teenagers on a lawn. They walk like foals on long, gangly legs, gingerly high stepping through the wet grass at first, then bursting into sprints. Their blue and red hoodies emblazoned with college emblems hang low over baggy shorts. The lawns, stretching flat and uninterrupted to the street’s edge, tidily contain the boys’ bright clothes and kinetic forms. They begin whipping a football at each other until the taller one spots Vonnie and Paul. He tucks the ball in his armpit and jogs over to the car.
The boy bends slightly. Vonnie lets her window down and breathes in the summer rain air through her mouth.
“You got a flat?”
“No. We’re lost,” and she raises her hands in a mimic of helplessness.
“Oh. Where you going to?”

Paul reaches across Vonnie so that his hand clamps over the edge of the open window, like a human seatbelt.

“I know. We’re not that far. Could you just get us to 95?”
The boy purses his lips slightly and waves an arm down the street.
“Yeah, it’s easy. Follow this to the end, turn left, then at the fork in the road stay right and follow signs to Bucks County Community College. From there you start seeing signs to 95.”
“Thanks, man. Hey, you going there?” Paul points to the Ohio State logo on the boy’s sweatshirt.
“No. It’s just—as soon as you get accepted, they send you all the swag even when you’re still deciding.”
As Vonnie steers the car back into lane, Paul rubs his right hand over his face, forehead to chin. He fingers the dent in his brow.
“They send you all the swag even when you’re still deciding,” he repeats slowly, exhaling a long breath through his nose.
This morning she’d asked him, “You are coming with me tonight, right?” The opening was a chance for her. When the gallery had asked if she would write the essay for the exhibition catalog, of course Vonnie said she would. Her dissertation had been on post-war sculpture, Tomas had put a good word in for her, and she still didn’t have a job.
“Tomas is like one of your oldest friends, Paul.”
Paul had been going through a stack of local newspapers quietly, folding neat lines around certain articles and tearing them out. Instead of answering her, he’d read from one paper, “Two weeks ago, a woman’s car stalled on the River Road in a flash flood just north of Washington’s Crossing. It’s believed the woman, underestimating the pull of the water, got out and was swept under her car and disappeared into a gulley.”
Vonnie hadn’t said anything.
“Would you wait in the car for help or try and get out?” he’d asked. Paul had never shown interest in those kind of stories before. The stack of newspapers before Paul hung perilously over the edge of the coffee table, while he repeatedly cleared the spit in the back of his throat.
Later when she heard the bang of the screen door, she looked up from her desk and watched him grab the metal detector in one swift motion, a shiver of his old strength running through his arms. He walked through the verge between the garden and the canal path and slowed in the tall grasses, as if plunged knee deep into water, then moved deliberately away from her and the house. Swipe, then step, swipe, then step.
They take another twenty minutes finding the ramp for 95. When they speed onto the highway, the car slices through the remaining puddles with the satisfying sound of paper being ripped clean down the middle. The rush hour traffic out of Philadelphia is still backed up, and for the first time that day, Vonnie has the sense of being on the right side of things. She pulls off the Race Street exit, and the Benjamin Franklin Bridge stretches blue and shiny across the Delaware River. Signs and strings of lights color the facades of the restaurants and galleries of Old City. Paul opens the window to let the Friday night smells of fried food, wet sidewalks, and gas fumes wash into the car.
“Do you think John McEnroe will be there?” he asks.
“Sure. He’s Tomas’s biggest collector.”
“Yeah, that’s just it. Can’t he, like, pick out whatever he wants beforehand.”
“When I saw him at the foundry, it sounded like he was coming down for the opening.”
“Ohh, you and the Mac at the foundry. You didn’t tell me he was there.”
Tomas’s foundry was tucked behind thick rows of blueberry bushes on farmland close enough to the seashore that gulls explored inland, dropping shells in the borders between forest and fields. To create his sculptures, he poured bronze into patches of wet sand and let it snake into ribbons or spread wide into puddles. When it hardened, he lifted the shapes gently, as if lifting a baby from a cradle, and soldered them into amorphous sculptures.
“And did you all go pick blueberries together afterwards?” Paul asks.
“They weren’t ripe yet.”
The car slips into the quiet of Society Hill, past rows of identical townhouses, windows tastefully shuttered or barred. They turn right onto the south side of a small square. The park interior, lost to the fading evening, forms a dramatic backdrop for the two-story gallery. Rectangles of light from the windows pour out onto the towering poplar trees and dapple through to the sidewalk.
As she enters the air-conditioned foyer, the humid air on her skin cools to a sticky film. Vonnie shivers in the clean-edged brightness of the gallery, a world in itself with its own machinations and weather patterns. A marble topped counter with a stack of catalogs and rows of wine bottles and glasses curves around one side of the room.
“Hi, Harvey. I’m sorry we’re late. The storm.” Her eyes rest on a handful of empty champagne flutes, and the buildup of anticipation drains from her, leaving her suddenly tired.
He stands close to her and lowers his voice.
“It’s perfect, Von. All good.”
“Have you introduced Tomas yet? I prepared something about his new work.”
“No, no. No need for you to say anything. Oh, everyone loves the photographs by the way.”
Each time Vonnie visited Tomas’s foundry, she left early in the morning while it was still dark. For the photographs, she had debated color, or black and white, but decided it came down to the light, being in the right place at the right time. She would sit on the terrace with Tomas and his partner Leah to watch the sun rise and wait for the moment the grays and pale yellows of the morning took a step back to let the day’s colors deepen and each object come into its own.
“You brought Paul. Paul, it’s good to see you.” Harvey speaks across the room.
Paul has a glass of wine in his hand and raises it to Harvey with an exaggerated flourish before moving deeper into the gallery. Vonnie watches him approach a few artists he used to share a space with. He always knew more people than she did, although there had been a time when she had held a status among her circle of undergrad students, doctoral candidates, and the artists fresh off the MFA programs. The art historian who got a full ride to write her dissertation and her older sculptor boyfriend.
“So, who’s here? Hey, where’s your lovely ex-wife?” Vonnie asks.
“June? She’s prowling around here somewhere,” Harvey answers, laughing briefly at his joke. 
“Just wonder if she has any news if they’re closer to choosing someone for the curator job.”
“Oh. Right. Yeah. No idea.”
But the shuttered look in his eyes says otherwise. 
“Get a drink. Find Tomas . . . mingle!” and he waves his fingers dramatically.
Just inside the arch to the first-floor gallery John McEnroe holds court. He steps over and kisses her on both cheeks and places a hand on her upper arm. 
He turns back to the small group. “So, this pocketful of change,” and he takes coins out of his pocket and shakes them in his hand, “in Indonesia is a month’s worth of food and then it just hits you . . .”
At the center of the gallery stands Tomas’s largest piece. Tendrils of bronze reach up to a peak, like fingers gathering to create a church steeple. White pedestals with smaller sculptures are dotted around the gallery. Harvey works the room, his voice and loud laughter at her back. Vonnie lets the gathering din in the gallery hold her for a moment, the sound of a party coming to a crescendo. She walks from piece to piece, red dots next to many of them, sold probably well before the opening. Even in this ascetic cube of the gallery, each sculpture transports perfectly the heat and fluidity of the bronze, Tomas’s steady hand over the dips and rises of the sand beds, the gentle landscape.
She sees some familiar faces and lets the conversations and questions flow around her. They ask about life in the country, the boat house. Is there room to work? Someone remembers Vonnie having mentioned that her sister had bought a place in Philadelphia just at the same time as Vonnie moved away. Isn’t life funny that way? 
Students straggle in. Beer bottles appear, and people go out to the front stoop to smoke. Word gets around that Harvey has been telling everyone how he finally got the building permit to convert the roof into a sculpture garden and that he’s already put out a few pieces. The crowd is tipsy enough to decide it is a good idea to go up on the roof.  Vonnie finds herself pulled along into a group snaking around the stairs to the second floor, but she stops at the large glass doors of Harvey’s office. Paul stands just inside the office, his hands deep in the pockets of his pants.
He waits for the others to continue up to the roof and then steps out, “Did you see what Harvey’s got?”
“Five Chamberlain’s. Small ones. Totally new work.”
Vonnie walks to the doors and leans over the threshold.
“Just go in, Vonnie. Why are you so polite?”
“Relax, Paul.”
“Yeah, I’m just saying.” He stretches each word out. “I think we’ve been around long enough . . . it’s not like we haven’t known Harvey for ages.”
Paul points to the table between two sofas and over to two pedestals on either side of the balcony doors. The small sculptures have all the hallmarks of a Chamberlain. Metal twists, like busted car fenders and shrapnel, brushed with a patina of garish spray paint, but not the usual twenty feet height.
Paulo lets out a sarcastic pfft and takes a wine glass from a desk and spits in it. 
“They are like mini-Chamberlains. Tchotchkes. Literally, coffee table pieces. That’s probably going to be Harvey’s big fucking fall show after the summer break. Everyone gets their little piece of a big Chamberlain.”
Vonnie rubs her bare arms.
“Hate flashes,” his voice thick.
Last winter had been bad for them. The row house they rented was sold to someone who wanted to renovate and flip it. Vonnie had only one of semester of teaching left and a pile of rejection letters. The New York gallery courting Paul suddenly announced the market wasn’t right to take on new artists.
Paul had said they should just leave, stop waiting for something to come to them. In the spring they could bike together through the West, see the land where the stone he sculpted came from. They would come back refreshed, having pressed the reset button. Vonnie resisted. She had colleagues who had applied for dozens and even hundreds of jobs before they finally got an offer. Tomas had told him you just had to stay on course. “Just do the work, Paul, that’s all that matters.” But when their rental contract was up in April, Paul left. A friend knew of a converted boat house on the Delaware canal for little rent in exchange for help with the renovations. She wasn’t sure where they would stand upon his return; but at the site where Paul’s bike collided with a pick-up truck, it was Vonnie’s address and number the medics found in Paul’s wallet under “who to contact in the event of emergency.” 
“I just get these hate flashes, sometimes,” Paul repeats.
Up on the roof, the moist heat makes Vonnie breathless. The clouds hang low. There are no stars in the sky. The night doesn’t feel quite spent yet. Temporary floodlights have been set up, casting people’s face in ghoulish grays and yellows. She walks over to the low wall around the roof’s perimeter. She would like to spit over the edge. Instead, she turns and looks over the expanse of rooftop. Forms emerge from the dark—the few sculptures Harvey mentioned. She sees it, remembers it clearly. One of Paul’s, a stack of marble slabs and water-cured wood, stands a couple of feet from the sandstone wall. In the shadowy light, it’s both motionless and wavy, solid and metamorphic.
The building is quieter now, the doors to Harvey’s office closed. Vonnie stands in the middle of the second-floor gallery and turns slowly on one heel in a circle to see her photographs at the foundry alongside Tomas’s drawings of earlier works. A gallery assistant she’s never seen before struggles with a tray of empty glasses, and Vonnie rushes over to help. As they descend the stairs, she asks Vonnie, “Are you an artist too?”
Paul stands in the foyer talking with Tomas, his windbreaker already on.
“Where’s Leah?” Vonnie asks, looking around for Tomas’s partner.
“She hates these things too. She say’s hi. But Harvey’s gathering everyone for dinner at La Bottis. You should come.”
Harvey is close behind, “Nonono. Just collectors and curators, Tomas. You’ll earn your dinner tonight.”
John McEnroe has switched to telling stories of late whiskey nights at the foundry, while the English art historian Vonnie is sure has also applied for the Art Institute job is handing out clove cigarettes. He’s going to the dinner. They move away from Paul and Vonnie, gathering umbrellas and raincoats.
 “That guy’s an asshole,” Paul says.
“He’s not an asshole. He did apply for that job though.”
“I heard someone say he got it.”
“Really? I heard they’re still deciding.”
Vonnie runs her fingers along the pile of the exhibition catalogs on top of the counter, beautifully bound with a rough red fabric. The gallery is selling them for seventy-five dollars apiece. 
Harvey yells over to her, “Vonnie, be sure to take your two complimentary copies!” and turns back to the group gathering at the door.
Vonnie grabs two and tucks them under her arm. She grabs four more and slips them in her leather tote, shifting her hip slightly to settle the weight.
Paul stands by her quietly, and she enjoys his watchfulness over her, feels a quickening in her chest. 
“They give you all the swag, even while they’re still deciding . . .”
Paul smiles, “Works for me.”
They reenter the summer night. The lightning flickers more frequently but still silently.
As Vonnie buckles her seatbelt, Paul sits straight in his seat and reaches over to rest his palm on her leg.
“I’m sorry, Von. Harvey could have made some introductions for you. There were a lot of people. A writer from the Times was there too.”
“Hey, one woman asked if my photographs were for sale. Said I was a ‘writer and an artist.’” 
“Don’t knock it,” and then he holds still for a moment, “Tomas was good. It was good to talk to him, the few moments I got with him.”
The thunder begins soon after they hit 95 heading North, followed by fat drops and then sheets of water.
When they still lived in Philadelphia, they had made this drive many times, visiting the quarries along the Delaware River. She and Paul examined the stone, the rise and fall of their striations and colors. Sometimes whole blocks of limestone came in and Vonnie would finger the surfaces looking for fossil tracings of animals and plants trapped billions of years ago by forces of nature.
When Paul had taken off for the bike trip on his own, everyone had had an opinion on what Vonnie should do, or spoke to her like she just needed time to see things clearly. Her mother said she should come home to Connecticut; she could help Vonnie get a real estate license. Her sister had told her to stay in Philadelphia; she had a guest room now in her new apartment until Vonnie knew what she wanted to do. Yet, those drives out to the river valley and countryside in the early days of their relationship had given the boat house a feeling of a reprieve.
“Did you put tarps over the buckets of kerosene?”
“No, what are you worried about?”
“Nothing, just thinking of the beating the garden’s taking. I wonder if the canal will overflow.” 
Just across the bridge and the Delaware River Vonnie takes the first exit. A road warning sign blinks at the end of the exit ramp: “SLOW TRAFFIC.” Vonnie ignores it and accelerates onto the River Road. Branches like apparitions appear in her headlights. She maneuvers around them and puts her high beams on. They pass through a crossing where the light simply blinks yellow. The sound of driving through the puddles deepens. They can no longer see the double yellow lines in the middle of the road. Vonnie imagines the canal rising around them, covering them in silt, capturing this moment in time, beyond all control, and she feels the tension in her shoulders soften.
“Floor it, it will be fine,” Paul says.
And Vonnie does, the loud rush on either side filling her ears. The car slows briefly but picks up speed as the waters shallow out again. Tomorrow, at first light, they will take the canal path and see how far the waters rose, what the storms revealed. 

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