Rain on my Parade - AN ARTSY JOURNEY #7
Spring had come and gone as I struggled through the painful surprise of living alone. The journey had been as bumpy as ND 49, the road I was on, heading toward Rapid City, South Dakota for the first art fair of the summer season.
The day had dawned hot, and even in the early morning hour, heat waves shimmered above the asphalt. Heavy, humid air whipped around me coming through the cranked-down windows of the Chevette. I leaned forward and my shirt peeled away from the vinyl fabric. My bare legs stuck to the seat. The air conditioning hadn’t worked since that miserable day the Chevette hissed steam for nine rounds and Robert hit me with a knock-out punch, deserting me in North Dakota.
Almost an hour ago, I had rolled over the South Dakota boarder. Now the previous flat barren terrain was yielding to the foothills of the Black Hills. Going uphill, the Chevette lost stamina, dropping quickly from 55 to 50 to 45 mph. I punched the clutch and downshifted the manual four-cylinder into third gear. I saw a puff of smoke blow out the exhaust. The spit in my mouth dried up so fast my mouth felt full of prairie grit.
Slowly the compact chugged up the curvy hill. I gave the steering wheel a gentle love tap. “Come on, baby,” I coaxed out loud. My mind whirled thinking how the trusty Chevette had some miles to travel this summer. Art fairs were planned for two other North Dakota cities, Fargo and Minot, in addition to the local fair in Bismarck. The real kudos was that the professionally photographed slides got me into the Minneapolis Uptown Art Fair scheduled for late summer.
Now, with the little compact brimming full of paintings, I was hoping for some decent income, not an auto repair bill.
As I hit the crest of the hilltop, the Chevette purred and I saw no further signs of smoke. What I did see was a dark and brooding western sky. I felt the wind soar as the Chevette shook from a gust. Rain began to pelt the Chevette, smacking the car like sodden spitballs. I turned the wipers to full-power, but the windshield stayed a slick blur. I eased up on the gas pedal and slowed to a safer speed, yet there was no comfort as the thumping of wipers and eerie pinging on the tin rooftop echoed around me.
The thick curtain of rain continued as I wove through the Black Hills. Finally I plowed into Spearfish. That’s when the sun peeked out and the rain stopped. The roads were still wet as I pumped the squeaky brakes and slowed to a stop. It was the first stoplight I approached since the little jog on SW 12 near the South Dakota boarder. For more than 126 miles I’d been scooting along at 45 mph.
Suddenly, as the Chevette came to a halt, from the back seat, a tidal wave of water whooshed toward my feet. Instantly, my heels were swimming in a pool of water. I eased the Chevette to the shoulder of the road and parked. Where had all the water come from?
Needing to explore, I sloshed out of the Chevette. I bent over and gazed under the driver’s side wheel well.
“You got some car trouble there?” Out of nowhere I heard a gentle, yet deep voice from behind.
Startled, I jumped.
“The engine giving you a problem?” he asked, his mellow voice resonated so low it was like it started in his knees.
“The car runs fine,” I said, letting the stranger know I had a quick getaway.
His head was capped with white hair and then crowned with a straw cowboy hat. The brim shaded his dark eyes, and his face had a wrinkle for every year he’d been around, maybe seventy.
“Then why are you held up on the shoulder of the road?” he asked.
I pointed to the flood of water inside the Chevette, but his eyes landed on the puddle around my water-logged shoes. He raised a brow and then peered wide-eyed at the interior pond.
“That storm was a real downpour, but I’ve never seen the likes of that,” he said.
I nodded and directed him to the front fender.
“My, my. That hole would have sunk the Titanic,” he said. The beginnings of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, but he quickly reeled it in knowing I was worried.
“Darn road salt has turned that metal into a rust bucket,” he said as we stared at the inside rubber floor mat poking out. I was lucky my entire foot hadn’t punched through.
I shifted my feet and my shoes squished. “I was dry while driving,” I said. “Then when I slowed to a stop - -”
“All the water rushed forward,” he said, taking the words right out of my mouth. “Your consistent speed held that damn to the rear until your momentum stopped.”
I lowered my eyes to the lagoon inside the Chevette.
He followed my gaze. “I can drill a hole in your floor board to let out that monsoon,” he said. “I’ve got a power drill in the truck.”
By now several other cars had slowed, each lowering a window to ask if we needed help. The old man waved them off. “Just looky-loos,” he said to me. “I’ll get my tools.”
He hustled to his truck with pep in his step. Pretty spry for a man pushing seventy. Lickety-split he returned with a hefty tool box and a hunk of tin under his arm. “My son and I own a heating and cooling business,” he said. “Just your lucky day.”
I opened my mouth, and then snapped it closed. He called this lucky? I was hung up on the side of the road, another hole soon to be drilled in the rust-bucket of a car, minutes ticking by too quickly to make it in time to set-up for the art fair which meant I would lose the entire day of earning much needed cash. I didn’t feel lucky.
I gave him a blank stare still too overwhelmed for words.
He let out a rumbling laugh, and the corners of his eyes wrinkled up like bird tracks.
Worming himself under the Chevette, I soon heard the whirl of a power drill. In seconds a small stream of water drained onto the ground. He wriggled his way out, rose, exchanged the drill for a huge, paper-punch gadget, and then crawled inside the driver’s side, wedging himself under the steering wheel.
“Hand me that sheet of tin,” he said, his voice muffled in the cramped space.
I passed him the scrape of metal and he placed it over the bowling-ball size hole.
The paper-punch gadget turned out to be a rivet gun, shooting out button-like snaps that anchored the metal patch.
“How can I ever thank you?” I asked. “What do I owe you?”
He held up his hand in a stop-sign signal, “Ah, enough with the hooey,” he said. “Glad I could help. I have a daughter ‘bout your age. I’d hope if she needed a helping hand that someone would offer up a bit of kindness.” He tipped his hat my way and sauntered off to his truck.
Looking up at the bright blue sky, I said a silent blessing, and not just for the Tin Man. My mind reflected on the kindred spirits I’d encountered in the Dakotas: Mr. Stahl, Mark the Mechanic, Marge Witt. Folks like these eased the anger that flooded me from Robert’s sudden abandonment. In the beginning if I hadn’t had that anger, I think I would have drowned in sorrow.
Despite those overwhelming Robert feelings, I parked those thoughts, focused on reality, and checked my watch. There was still time to get to Rapid City for the art fair. I took a step and my feet squished. My socks were like soggy sponges having sucked up the water swimming inside my rain-soaked athletic shoes. I had dressed for the hefty work of unloading the heavy display rack and framed paintings. I really needed these sturdy athletic shoes.
I leaned against the Chevette. I barely had time for the art fair set-up, certainly no time to scout for new shoes. Self-doubt began to bubble up inside me. Did I make the right decision leaving nursing, risking it all for the arts?
I’m not one to sit idle so I wrestled with the wet laces, and then pried off the sodden shoes. The drenched socks peeled away like slippery banana skins, showing my wrinkled and pruny feet. My bare feet smacked the black asphalt warmed by the hot morning sun.
Then I thought of the Easy-Bake oven – the non-air conditioned Chevette. The car would toast the socks and shoes dry. I placed them in a sunny spot in the hatchback, slid into the compact, turned over the engine, and drove barefoot the rest of the way to Rapid City.
By 10:00 a.m., the set up was finished and the breeze-free scorcher hoovered in full force. I hid under the canopy of beech and poplar trees, but the sun still roasted me to a crisp. I had one more day of this heat to endure before the fair ended, but that was better than the deluge of rain on the trip.
The judging panel came by, along with a steady flow of customers.
I left Rapid City with a Best of Show award, and an invitation from the prestige Dahl Art Center to display future work. I felt giddy. I tingled all over. I tried to wipe away the ridiculous grin that spread across my face and act professional. I thought of that first robin of spring. My wish was coming true. I had my first contact for future work and income outside of Bismarck. It was a small step toward my goal to be able to move to Michigan and earn a living in the arts. The sack-of-sorrow I’d been carrying around for so long since Robert left, well, that felt a bit lighter, too.
And as the Chevette chugged north on hilly ND 49, I only saw one puff of smoke.