“And Then It Rained” is a work of fiction, but it’s based on real events so tragic that I was driven to find solace in the only sure way that I know – through the catharsis of writing. I’m very glad that this story placed first in Fiction in the Write on the Lake Contest. It’s an incredible honour, but like all of my work, I wrote it first and foremost for myself.
And Then It Rained
CW Lovatt – 26/03/2012 – 22/05/2012
Flashes of lightning had begun to glimmer, mute, on the horizon, but went unnoticed as Ben took his foot off the gas, slowing to a crawl. The truck’s headlights shone full upon the mailbox at the end of the lane, the letters stenciled on its side were faded, but still recognizable: ‘The Woodsons.’
This was the place all right, but he had mixed feelings when he switched on his signal and turned into the yard. Marcy, at the head office, had given him the address over the phone, but only after he’d insisted.
“You don’t have to do this.”
But he did have to, that was the thing.
“Just tell me,” he’d said.
Two pinpoints of light were reflected off the low beams, and the yard erupted in a deep-chested baying that could only come from something enormous.
Ben switched off the engine and stepped out. The dog’s barking was even louder now, approaching rapidly.
He murmured, “Hey, boy!”
The barking stopped long enough for the Rottweiler to take stock and consider. Then it was, ‘Nope, don’t know you’, and it began again, but with a short pause after each, sending a message that was subtly different: “Boss! We got company – better come quick!”
Ben tried again. “Nothing to worry about, fella. I’m not here to hurt anyone,” but even as he said it, he wondered how much of that was true.
Just then the porch light came on, illuminating the faded clapboard siding on the front of the old bungalow. A screen door squealed open, and a voice, vaguely female, rasped, “Clancy! Hush now! Where’s your manners?”
The barking stopped, as if a hand had been clamped over the dog’s muzzle. He contented himself with one last suppressed “ruff”, and wandered off without further ado.
A plain, middle-aged woman peered at him uncertainly, so he stepped closer to be more easily seen, making it easier for him to see her in turn. The flesh around her eyes was red and swollen.
“It’s Ben Ginter. I meant to come earlier, but…”
Recognition was instant. Doubtless his name had been mentioned to her several times these past few months. Mrs. Woodson’s tone was neutral when she swung the door fully open and said, “Come inside.”
He entered into a clean but aging kitchen. An ancient refrigerator sagged against one wall, emitting a long-suffering groan. A well-used stove crouched patiently next to it, surrounded by plain wooden cabinets, with a counter of chipped and stained formica. A stainless steel sink completed the triangle: it was a habit that his eye could never quite relinquish after forty years in the trades – and he noted that the sink was too far left, slightly off-center to the window overlooking the driveway.
Mrs. Woodson ushered him into the living room, and asked him to sit. He chose a worn, vinyl-covered easy chair beneath a velvet painting of Elvis, and immediately wished that he hadn’t. This chair must have been Cecil’s.
“Can I get you anything? Coffee?”
“No thanks.” The very thought of her acting the part of the hostess felt obscene.
Her expression became more calculating when she saw his hands fidget with his cap. “No, maybe not coffee. I expect you might want something stronger.”
Ben hesitated. Suddenly he needed a drink more than anything. Mrs. Woodson ended his indecision with, “Might as well. I’m having one.”
He murmured, “Okay…thanks,” painfully aware of how easily he’d surrendered.
She went into the kitchen and returned with two plastic tumblers, and a bottle of Crown Royal, three-quarters full. She unstopped the cap and poured for them both. Then she took a seat on the sofa across from him, picked up a half-finished afghan, and began to crochet.
“Hope you don’t mind. I like to keep busy.”
“No, of course not.”
Now he wished that he hadn’t come. Let the head office and the authorities take care of it. What was she to him anyway? What was Cecil, when it came to that? He was just someone he’d hired in a moment of desperation, because there’d been a schedule to keep, and not enough tradesmen to be found. But even as the thought formed in his mind, he knew that it wouldn’t do. The fact was that he had hired him. He’d invited this woman’s husband into the realm where he, Ben, was responsible. That’s why he was here – why he had to be.
He hadn’t realized how long the silence had stretched until she said, “So, Mr. Ginter, suppose you tell me what happened?”
“Ben,” he replied, more as a reflex. “Call me Ben.”
“Okay, Ben, and you call me Elsie.” Then she sighed, and prompted, “The Mounties have already been by. They told me what they knew, which wasn’t much.” The crocheting stopped, and he found those red-rimmed eyes studying him…almost pleading. “I thought you might fill me in on the details.”
Ben closed his eyes. The awful ‘whump’ came without prompting, the same as it had throughout the day – like a heavy sheet of snow falling from an eave - and there he was again, arguing with his pre-cast foreman, while the crane slowly clanked into place. Over by the structure, Cecil stood on a ladder with an angle grinder in his hand, and a plastic visor attached to his hardhat, waiting for instructions – none of them knowing that he had only moments to live.
“There was a mistake with one of the wall slabs,” he told her.
It played over in his mind:
“We got a problem, Jim. There’s supposed to be a door here.”
Jim had shuffled noncommittally and made a show of studying the blueprints. Finally he suggested, “Maybe we can change the floor plan a little.”
Quietly Elsie said, “I see.”
“The walls are made of pre-cast concrete,” he explained, “welded to the superstructure.”
“I know,” she said, still quietly, but a ghost of a smile creased her mouth, “Cecil never shut up about it. It was always something. Seems he couldn’t wait to get home every night to tell me the latest.” The smile disappeared, to be replaced by a short, pensive frown. She took a sip from her glass and set it back on the armrest. “Go on.”
“Each slab is different. All of the openings – doors and windows, and the like – are formed in before they’re installed.”
“I know that, too, Ben. I told you, Cecil likes…” she caught herself, “liked to talk about what was going on.” Not unkindly, she added, “It was something new for him.”
“Yep,” and the smile returned. “He’d tell me, ‘It’s not like farming, Elsie. Just gotta do what I’m told. No worries, no thinkin’, nothin’ to make my head hurt’.” Her voice faltered, and she took another, healthier sip from her glass. “I expect he should have applied himself more in that department.”
Ben didn’t know how to respond. It was true, of course. It was an all too preventable accident brought on by a series of errors, and crowned by a last, thoughtless act, but he couldn’t tell her that, not in those words. The silence was in danger of becoming awkward, so he took a sip from his own glass, and continued.
“This morning, I was looking at what had been erected the day before, and saw that a section had been put in the wrong place.”
“The openings were wrong?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“So it had to be dismantled?”
“Jim, changing the layout isn’t an option, and you know it.”
“Well, what then?”
He had to raise his voice over the roar of a large diesel engine. A concrete truck turned onto the site, disappearing behind the back of the building. Ben checked his watch - right on time.
“It’ll have to be changed.”
In a low guarded voice Elsie asked, “Did you supervise that personally, Ben?”
Jim rolled his eyes, still attempting to avoid the obvious. “Aw Christ, Ben, that’s bullshit.”
Ben agreed, “We’re already behind schedule as it is.” He took another glance at his watch, and made a decision. “I’d better be at the pour. Those guys are still green.”
“No, Mrs. Woodson…”
“Sorry. No, Elsie, I had to be somewhere else. The air-handling units are due to arrive next week, and the mechanical people needed the floor to be poured so that they could be installed.” Somehow apologetic, he added, “Our crew’s pretty young.”
“I can imagine that it’s a young man’s job.”
“The flat work is,” he agreed.
“Cecil told me that he’d been on a few pours. Said it almost broke him in two.”
Ben allowed himself a guarded smile. “I can relate.”
Then, almost casually, she returned to the subject. “So who supervised the moving of the slab?”
He felt his smile melt away.
“Look, I’m going to have to leave this with you, Jim. So quick as you can, okay?”
Not entirely avoiding the question, yet unable to face her, he said, “It was my responsibility.”
She nodded, silently focusing on her glass. Moments passed. He could hear the compressor in the refrigerator grumble on. Finally she whispered, “It was your responsibility…and my man’s dead. Is that it?”
As much as Ben wanted to answer, as much as he wanted to tell her, ‘Yes, it was my fault,’ the words refused to come.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
Elsie had taken up her crochet hook again, her fingers working without conscious effort. She paused only to dash a tear from her eye, also without being aware of doing so.
“Yes, you should,” he said, as if her apology had offended him, spurring the words from his mouth. “It’s the truth.” Wasn’t that why he was here? Didn’t he want her to confirm what he was feeling – that he was to blame?
Elsie sighed, and the afghan slumped onto her lap. Unblinking, she looked him full in the face. “No Ben, it’s not.”
But Ben couldn’t bring himself to agree.
She continued to stare at him, her brow knit in a frown. Her face had long since lost what little beauty it had ever possessed, but her concern made much of the plainness disappear. The refrigerator heaved a sigh and took a break, the void filled by the intermittent drip of a leaking faucet. Finally she picked up her crocheting again, and said, “Suppose you continue.”
There wasn’t much more to tell. As he’d turned to follow the concrete truck, he could hear Cecil asking something over the roar of the crane’s engine, and Jim’s disgusted reply, “Yeah, he says we gotta move the fucking thing!” followed by his shouting something to the crane operator, and the skirl of Cecil’s grinder, but all were scarcely noted. By then his mind was already preoccupied with laying the floor. If it hadn’t been, if he had stayed to see the job through, he might have been able to prevent what was about to happen. Even so, he was vaguely troubled as he reached the end of the structure and rounded the corner. After forty years, the sites and sounds of construction had become engrained. It might look like chaos, even to a trained eye, but there was an order to it all; everything was always done in a sequence…always. Something, some sound - some thing was out of place. If only he’d had a few seconds longer to figure out what it was.
Ben looked at her, steady as he could, and got it out in a single breath, “Cecil cut the welds before the crane could take on any of the weight.”
Jim’s face, white and bewildered, inches from his own, shouting, “I tried to tell him, Ben. Jesus Christ! I was yelling for him to stop, but the grinder…you know…the damned fool couldn’t hear me!”
Elsie groaned, “Oh my God!”
Ben’s hat was crumpled in his fists. “Yeah.”
The sound hadn’t been loud, but horribly out of place. That’s what had made him stop and come sprinting back; it was that and the fact that the penny had finally dropped as to what had been troubling him. It was the grinder. Cecil was cutting the slab free of the superstructure far too soon!
He rounded the corner at a run, his mind registering everything as he came: the slab lying flat on the ground, the crane’s hook still high in the air, and Jim with his back to it all, doubled over, the splatter of vomit on his boots. He could feel the hairs rising on the back of his neck, his own voice sounding foreign – sounding scared as hell – when he heard himself demand, “For Christ’s sake, where’s Cecil?” Jim couldn’t answer, but he didn’t need to: Ben already knew.
The dripping faucet gave way once more to the discontent of the refrigerator, like an old and reluctant actor taking centre-stage in a long forgotten play.
Elsie took up the bottle, re-filling her glass. She tipped it interrogatively toward Ben, but he shook his head. She didn’t press him. Instead, she took a sip and asked, “So, that’s it?”
“Yeah, that’s it.” Inadequate as it was, there was little more he could tell her.
Elsie nodded, reflecting. “It was his own fault.”
“I tried to tell him, Ben!”
Miserable, Ben shook his head. “I’m responsible. If only….”
She waved her hand, impatiently. “Cecil kept goin’ on about how you were always pushing safety.” The smile briefly returned. “He said that you were an old woman about that - never letting up.” Then the lightness was gone from her voice, replaced by something cold. “But at the end of it all, a man has to be responsible for himself!”
Ben thought about all the safety meetings, all the lectures, the site inspections and reports – a sea of paperwork that, in the end, had been enough to protect the company and even himself, but had failed completely when it came to saving Cecil.
He continued to fist his hands into his cap, and uttered what, to him, was the highest praise. “He was a good worker.”
But instead of the gratitude that he’d hoped for, Elsie cast a baleful eye. “Maybe he was for you, but he dragged his ass plenty around here.” Her gesture encompassed the entire property. “It damn near drove me crazy,” she relented slightly, “although at bottom he was a good man. Sometimes good’s all you get,” and then, in a heartbeat, she relapsed into anger. “ I never married him for his brains!” She turned to Ben, sensing his discomfort. “I expect you think that’s hard of me, don’t you – speaking ill of the dead?”
Ben stared at the floor and, of course, said nothing.
Elsie nodded, accepting his silence as an answer. “Well, I don’t give a damn what you, or anyone else thinks. Such as he was, Cecil was all mine, and I can say anything about him I please. Right now, as far as I’m concerned, that sonuvabitch is deep in the doghouse with me, and is likely to stay that way for some time to come!” There was a fierce glare in her eyes, but she couldn’t keep her voice from hitching over the last words. Still she persevered, “It was that stupid bastard that’s gone and done this to me, Ben, not you.” She spat, laughing bitterly into her glass, “Goin’ and gettin’ himself killed like that. No one’s fault but his own!”
Ben rose to his feet, more abruptly than intended, but the room was suddenly closing in, and there wasn’t nearly enough air to breathe.
“I guess that’s all I can tell you. I’m sorry, I wish there was more.”
Elsie set the afghan aside and rose to her feet as well, escorting him to the door. Her eyes were dry when she said, “I’m glad you came, Ben. Thank you for that.”
He hesitated at the threshold, “If there’s anything you need…”
She waved the words away. “No, I’ll be okay. I got the kids, and plenty of good neighbours. I’ll be fine.” Behind her, the faucet continued to drip, and the refrigerator maintained its long-aggrieved road toward expiring.
He turned and left, feeling many things. None of them what he had come hoping to find.
Outside, Ben got in his truck, turning on the ignition. The headlights shone full on Clancy, lying at the front of the house, with his head on his paws, waiting patiently for Cecil to come home.
Half a mile down the gravel Ben pulled over to the shoulder, lighting a cigarette with not-quite-steady hands. Closer now, strobes of lightning mingled with the menacing rumble of thunder, revealing a heavy, overcast sky. The day wasn’t through with him yet.
Most of it had been spent with the police, and then a Health and Safety officer, who had arrived shortly after the ambulance had left. In between, there had been time for a brief stopover at the mechanical room. It was a cold hard fact that concrete didn’t care about death. All it knew was that, once a pour started, it had to finish, and would require all the usual pampering from beginning to end.
Rennie, the flatwork foreman, was young. He knew his way around concrete more than he did around men. When Ben stuck his head through the door opening, he saw him at one end of the screed, attempting to coach one of the new kids struggling ineffectually at the other end. Meanwhile, others were variously raking too much, not enough, or not at all. Ben pulled on his rubber boots and waded in, barking orders, trying unsuccessfully to keep the anger out of his voice. He dismissed the boy on the screed, taking the position himself. Five minutes later, both the truck and his anger were gone, and there was time for a few words.
Leaning casually on a long-handled spade, Rennie said, “Hear there’s been trouble.” After Ben told him, he slowly shook his head, then whispered like a prayer, “Sweet Jesus.”
“Yeah,” Ben agreed, and then came to the point. “You’re going to have to manage. My day’s looking to be pretty full.”
Rennie accepted the news without complaint. “I got this.”
“Finish the pour, keep anyone you can trust with a trowel, and send the rest home.” Health and Safety were bound to shut them down while they conducted their investigation, but no one would want to stay anyway. Hell, he didn’t want to stay. He wanted to get as far away as he could, and never think of this place, or Cecil, or that sound ever again, but he knew that wasn’t going to happen. The Inspector would have plenty of questions, and it was his job to supply the answers.
Rennie snorted, somewhere between amusement and contempt. “I’m a long way from trusting any of these momma’s boys on tools. No worries, boss, there’s only a couple hundred square feet. I can do it with my eyes closed.” Almost as an afterthought, he looked up at the underside of the roof decking, shrugged, and appended, “Provided it don’t rain.”
Projects seldom ran entirely in perfect synchronicity. The decking had already been laid, but the roofers were late, held up on another project. Meanwhile the units would arrive on schedule, and desperately needed a home. It had been a gamble to put the floor in with the deck exposed to the elements, but at the time the sky had not been unduly overcast, so the risk had been deemed acceptable. The trouble was, if the gamble was lost, Rennie would urgently need a hand, and with his crew already sent home, that meant Ben, spending a long cold night, fighting to deflect the rainwater until the concrete could set unmolested.
Ben flicked the butt of his cigarette out the window before putting the truck in gear, trying to convince himself that the lightning wasn’t drawing any closer. Forty years in the trades, but never a day like this one. A man had died on his watch, and regardless of what Elsie Woodson or anyone else said, he was nowhere close to coming to grips with that. Maybe one day he would be able to, but not tonight. Tonight, he was sure, sleep would be just about as possible as bringing back the past.
His home was on the far side of the city, with the job site along the way. Still a mile from the turnoff, he tried to ignore the first drops splattering against his windshield, but soon it was no longer possible as more and more followed, forcing him to switch on the wipers. Tired in body, and sick in spirit, he turned the truck into the enclosure, and parked next to Rennie’s pickup, just outside the mechanical room, where a single, insufficient bulb glimmered through a window.
Seconds later it began to pour.