RED SUN by Mary Lewis

Mary Lewis

Using the full twelve-foot length of the handle, Jake pushed the floater over the last slab of new concrete, then pulled it slowly back towards him. This was his favorite part of the job because after all the heavy work of ground preparation, framing, pouring, leveling, and compacting, he could watch the new surface turn glossy and smooth under his touch. Daryl could have done it, he was as good at it as Jake, but as the business owner he liked to give himself the pleasure. Daryl could start the cleanup while he had these moments to himself.

But with thunder growling nearby, they did need to wind it up. Concrete likes moisture while it is curing, but hard rain or hail would pockmark the surface, so they’d better put a tarp on in case. He’d had to take chances with the rain this strange summer with so many days over ninety. Still, it was better pouring with rain in the forecast than in hot weather when it sets so fast you’ll never get a really smooth surface.

He leaned on his truck and admired their work. With all the increased traffic on the river, the old muddy put-in lot for kayakers needed this upgrade. Daryl brought over the big tarp and they laid it down with two-by-fours weighing down all edges.

Then he lit up, took a long drag, let it out slowly. “Don’t look at me that way, Daryl. I live for this moment.”

“Sure boss. Your lungs.” Daryl was halfway to his car. “We doing Byler’s place tomorrow, right?”

“Yup. Your shoulders good for swinging that sledge?”

With his small front loader Jake would lift the edge of a slab of old concrete that was too big for the bucket while Daryl swung his sledge like John Henry over and over at the right spot to break it into pieces. Jake’s back told him to stay away from that these days, he’d done his time.

“Long as I use my trusty Aleve.” Daryl got in and waved through the open window.

Jake ducked into Kwik Spot for a six-pack and on the way dodged rain that splatted down hard from the dark sky. That sure came up fast. He couldn’t understand this kind of rain, too big to be drops, it was like someone was dishing out water in cups and throwing it down from the clouds. Good timing about that tarp.

By the time he got home, the sun had edged past the swift-moving clouds and made the dripping trees in the front yard sparkle. Sarah in the front yard yelled, “Dad look, a rainbow!”

She’d been the rainbow finder in their family since she was ten. Now at nineteen, she still danced barefoot on the soggy lawn every time she found one.

He pried himself out of his truck, joined her on the wet grass, and squinted at where she was pointing.

“Are you sure?”

An old game.

“C’mon Dad, it even has a double up on the left, see?”

He squeezed his eyes harder, shaded his brow, looked in the wrong direction, and she turned him back.

“Ah that little thing, sure enough.”

“It’s a full bow, what do you want?”

“What’s at the end of it?” He put his arm around her and they stood there while it brightened in one spot, dimmed at the ends.

“Did you have a good day, Dad?”

“Fair, finished the pour on that river site, but then the rain came. Should be OK though, we covered it up.”

She pranced over to the big oak, bounced off it somehow, and raced back to him, like some erratic planet careening around him. He tried to remember the last time he’d hurled himself like that. Maybe never. “You know, Dad, this is a world worth saving.”

She’d just started her second year at community college and couldn’t stop talking about environmental stuff.

“Let’s go see what Ma is cooking.”

“No, Dad, wait a minute. I want to ask you something.”

“If it’s about a boyfriend, I want to meet him first.”

Now she stood with legs apart, arms akimbo. Like she did last time he said that. “Do you think I do nothing but think about boys?”

“Not at all, you’re going to pester me about doing something for the environment, I can see it coming on.” He headed around the house to the back door, which had a mudroom like the one in the farmhouse where he grew up.

Sarah followed him, still bouncing. He could hear it in her footsteps. “You are in the perfect business to make big changes.”

“Wait here.” He went in and stripped off his work clothes, put on a fresh T and pants he’d laid out in the morning. He still felt smug about his idea last month to place them right there, should have figured it out years ago.

It was like he’d stopped a hose for a bit and now the water came out with more pressure. “Dad, you know concrete puts a lot of carbon dioxide into the air, not just from the fuel it takes to make it and move it, but because of the curing.”

He was already in the kitchen, lifting pot lids, hugging Martha from behind at the sink. “How’s my tropical flower?” Something from their honeymoon, so long ago, when she put on a Hawaiian dress in the middle of winter, and they turned the heat up so it would feel like a summer day.

She kept the faucet on and didn’t turn around but reached one arm back to land on his bottom. “Nice clean butt, did you do any work today?”

When Sarah came in she retrieved her hand. She was modest that way, don’t let the children see.

“Mom, you missed the rainbow.”

Martha turned off the faucet, dried her hands.

“You’re in that stupid basement all day, why wouldn’t you want to see it?”

In the safety deposit section of the bank. He could never take it, but it didn’t seem to upset her.

Martha brushed them aside to cross the kitchen. “You’re all lucky I have bank hours and come home and make you supper.” She opened a cupboard and gestured like some game show bimbo presenting the grand prize washing machine. “See, plates, glasses. Will someone put them out please?”

Being a boss all day at work, it was kind of nice to have one at home, as long as it was something small like setting the table. He and Sarah went at it, then he sat down.

“Call Kim will you, Sarah.” Martha said from the stove. It wasn’t really a question.

“Do I have to?”

Martha was ready. “Do as you’re told.”

But Sarah didn’t have to because just then Adam streaked in to land on Jake’s lap, while Kim ambled to the doorway. Adam squealed even before Jake began to bounce him and watch the flash of brown eyes streaking up and down. “Little tyke grew since this morning.”

Kim, in a bathrobe, slid into her seat. “He loves his Bapa.”

If it weren’t for the little boy, that girl might not get out of bed. Well, he couldn’t blame her, almost done with cosmetology school and COVID hit. Still, she could contact the salons that were opening up again, see if they needed help.

“Kim worked on reception favors today, how about it honey, want to show Dad?”

“Maybe later, Mom.”

How those women could make such a deal of wedding stuff amazed him. But not Sarah. He turned to watch her.

She stood in the corner of the counter, arms folded. “You could be looking for an apartment instead of tying little ribbons around bags of mints that look like flowers but you bite into them and find out they’re soap.”

He put a napkin to his mouth to stifle a laugh. The two kids were so different. Kim a lot like her mom, Sarah, like herself. Maybe a little like him but much braver about speaking up.

Kim sat Adam in his highchair and tied on his bib. “Some people like weddings.” She gave him his juice cup and then daggered a look at Sarah. “You know I could find another bridesmaid.”

He could try to stop their squabble, but they were grown up now, let them figure it out on their own. Of course it didn’t help that Sarah had to give up her room to Kim and Adam when they left their apartment and moved back home. This little house was doing the best it could, but he’d be happy when they finally moved out, better be by the time of the wedding in a couple of months. At least Gabe had a job, working in construction and saving money living with his parents for now.

Sarah filled the teakettle with a blast from the faucet, then marched to the stove and banged it down on a burner. “It’s incredible you’re having a wedding in the middle of a pandemic. Do you know that’s the best way to spread COVID?”

Martha turned the heat on under the kettle. “Sarah, you know we’re going to be as safe as we can. Outdoors, masks, dancing six feet apart.”

“Oh yeah, that’s going to work. Everybody jerking around like zombies spilling wine all over their wedding finery. How are they not going to run into each other?” Sarah illustrated with a crazy dance that made it look like her limbs were about to fall off.

Jake didn’t hide his laughter this time. He loved the way Sarah zinged into everyone. Of course, he could be the target too.

Martha leaned back against the counter, arms folded. “Stop it Jake, you barely have to lift a finger, let us do this right. She’s got this wonderful guy who loves her and her kid, even though it’s not his. How often do you find a guy like that?”

True enough, he couldn’t do that.

For supper they had tuna surprise, which he actually liked, especially with potato chips on top. Then, for dessert Martha brought out these godawful cupcakes from the bakery that was going to make them for the wedding. They needed to decide on which ones. The yellow ones weren’t bad, but the frosting on the brown ones looked like the concrete he’d poured this afternoon.

It wasn’t till evening that Sarah cornered him about her great environmental ideas. While Kim put Adam to bed and Martha knitted in the living room in front of TV, he sat in an adjacent small room with a little bay window. Sarah pulled up a chair to sit next to him.

Before she had a chance to speak, he said, “Dear Sarah, I know what you’re going to say. You think I don’t know my own business? Yes it uses a lot of energy, yes it puts out CO2, but it’s a great building material that’s not expensive and it’s what our cities are made of.”

“I know Dad, but I’ve been hearing how we could do it better, especially for driveways and parking lots.”

“Which don’t let the water through so the rain washes off into the rivers and causes flooding.”

“Yes, and those slabs absorb a lot of heat, and we really don’t need that these days.”

He looked out the window where yellow streetlights cast cones of light on the street. “And we don’t need all that light either, and some of it goes right into the sky where the astronauts can see it.”

Sarah stood up and went to the window. “Don’t make fun of me, Dad. For one, I’m the next generation who’s going to have to live with all of this.”

“You’re right, we left a great mess for you all. But darling, it’s not going to be gloom and doom. This climate stuff, way overblown.”

“You said yourself you could barely find a day under ninety to pour this summer.”

“We live in the Midwest in case you’ve forgotten. What’s to say it won’t snow next July?”

Sarah clasped her hands and stretched her arms way over her head. She did that when she was frustrated. “I know you do a great job, Dad, best concrete man in town. That’s why you can be the one to make changes and rake in money at the same time.”

“I suppose you mean porous concrete.”

She looked at him like she used to on Christmas morning. “That would be huge. The water could go straight through it into the ground, not even get to the storm sewers.”

“Except that it’s more expensive and not as strong. Leave out the sand, leave out the smooth surface.”

“But you don’t need that strength for parking lots. And think of how nice it would be to our river.” Sarah in one move sat down, hooked one leg over the arm of her chair, and leaned forward. “So many people want to do something about the environment. You could say, here, do this. And grassed paving, have you seen that driveway on Oak Street?”

Jake put his elbows on his knees. “Sure, network of concrete, with little clover-shaped spaces for soil and grass. Pain in the neck to lay out by the way. And after the pour, you have to go and punch out each of those holes. I can’t see Daryl wanting to do that, and I certainly don’t want to.”

Jake picked up the paper, and Sarah went to the kitchen. But she came back with a couple of beers in hand. “I’m going to save homework till tomorrow,” she said as she handed him one. “Should have started out this way.”

She picked up a mag and they read side by side while they sipped their beers. She knew when to back off and still be friendly. Not everyone does.

Two days later when he left for work a strange whiteness filled the sky that wasn’t clouds but smoke from the fires out west, blown all the way to Iowa. He went to check on the parking lot they’d poured by the river, but when he got out of the truck, it felt like he’d come to the wrong place.

The river was much too wide, like a lake, and roiling along in muddy waves. It took him a moment. How could it have risen like that? They hadn’t had much rain. He jumped out and walked to the edge of this new river. There were other people looking too, at where the river had covered up the trail. Under the bridge nearby, the water lapped to within a few feet of its underside.

Someone pulled up in a car and got out. Daryl. The two of them looked at the place they’d poured two days ago. Daryl said, “You wouldn’t even know it was there.”

Jake threw a stick into the river. “That pour is too new, it’ll be ruined.” He’d never had a job flooded this soon after a pour but knew the water could wash out so much cement from the concrete it wouldn’t hold together.

Daryl shifted from foot to foot. “Good thing the job we’re doing now is up the hill.” Not much could rattle Daryl, which was great but maddening too.

“I can’t understand how this happened.”

Daryl adjusted his cap to shade his eyes. “Didn’t you hear? Rained eight inches last night up in Overbake.”

God, upstream ten miles. Sarah would tell him, lots of parking lots by the river up there with the new Allmart shopping center. Runoff. Of course plenty of that from farmer’s fields and feed lots too.

“I suppose we’ll have to do it all over again.” Daryl sounded like he was reciting a grocery list.

“We’ll look at it when the river goes down.”

What good would one of Sarah’s fancy parking lots have done? Not much. But a whole shopping center? A whole town?

They couldn’t do any work that day because the city closed the bridge to the Hauzher addition where the Byler’s job was, for fear it might give way. So, they spent the day cleaning equipment, organizing tools, and he caught up with bookwork. At the end of the day, he went back to the site of their parking lot pour. Water even higher than this morning.

And way upstream on the far bank something odd. It looked like someone had climbed a tree that overhung the river. That made no sense until he saw an empty kayak hung up in a tangle of tree trunks fifty yards downstream.

He called 911 and then raced over the bridge on foot since they weren’t allowed vehicles on that one either. It wasn’t just a matter of walking to the bank though, as the water had risen well over it all the way to the road. So, he went back to the bridge for the height that gave him a better view, but he could do nothing but squeeze the railing and will that poor sucker to keep hanging on. By the time the water rescue team arrived his knuckles were white and his head ached.

Two trucks with half a dozen guys in red and black gear and helmets arrived. They drove way upstream of the person needing help and launched a motorized raft anchored by long cables to their trucks, and with another cable to a point downstream where one of them could direct the boat toward the bank or away from it. Two guys in the raft. To save one person.

Over the next half hour, the raft bucked the raging waters like a ship on the stormy Atlantic, moving closer, then bashed away, then closer again until the cables held it in position right under the tree, but it jerked so much, how were they going to get the person down?

They did though, somehow, because when they began to pull the raft to shore, three people were in it. He let out a breath that he must have been holding. From his distance, he couldn’t see clearly, but maybe it was a woman the rescuers helped onto the shore. She flung herself to the ground, and it looked like she kissed it. And then he knew. That’s something Sarah would do. He ran the 500 yards like he was doing the 100-yard dash in high school.

She was sitting up now, with a blanket around her shoulders. He sat with her, cradled her in his arms. There was nothing he had to know right now. Let her come back.

Gabe, Kim’s guy, came over with cups of coffee. Really, he didn’t know he did this. Turned out he was one of the guys in the raft. “Hi Sis, didn’t know the middle of the river was one of your hangouts.”

Sarah took the cup with shaky hands. Her mouth couldn’t make words yet, but she smiled and socked him with her blue fist.

When she was able, they took her by truck to the ER where Jake watched them taking vitals.

“I’m so sorry, Dad.” She stood up from the bed, but the nurse made her lie down again.

Martha came bursting in. “Sarah, you OK? Oh my god, what on earth were you doing?”

Jake held her and put a finger in front of his lips. “We’ll figure it out later.”

It took a day or two before Sarah bounced back to her normal self. She and a couple of her friends had gone kayaking that morning before the waters rose and got caught in the flash flood. Why hadn’t they checked the weather? He could ask the same of himself for timing the concrete pour. The other two managed to make shore OK, but her kayak ran into a snag and capsized. Her friends lost their phones, and by the time they found help, the rescue operation was already underway.

Since she didn’t have a firstborn to give to the guys on the rescue team, she wanted to send them big baskets of fruit and cheese like they have at Christmas. Martha wanted to adopt them. Luckily, one was already joining the family soon. A son, Jake thought for the first time, that’d be something.

On the third day, Sarah sipped coffee in the sunshine by the window where she and Jake had talked before all this happened. When she took up the concrete reform idea again, he was so happy he told her, sure. He’d try anything to help prevent a flood like that again.

“But Dad, there’s so much more we need to do and we can too. Like with the fires out west. It’s all about climate change.”

Sitting next to her in the sun, he could think of nothing but how good it was to have her there, prodding him again.

“Sure honey, we’ll tackle that next.”

He said it in jest, and she knew it. But when he went out for a walk at sunset, he saw the red sun. He wanted to watch it set, but in the thin white of the sky, it disappeared before he had a chance to watch it vanish over the hills. Because of fires thousands of miles away.

Mary Lewis has an MFA in creative writing from Augsburg University, an MS in Ecology from the University of Minnesota, and she taught in the Biology Department of Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. She has published stories and essays in journals including Antigonish Review, Blue Lake Review, Book of Matches, Litbreak Magazine, North American Review, Persimmon Tree, RiverSedge, r.kv.r.y. quarterly, Sleet Magazine, The Spadina Literary Review, Superstition Review, Toasted Cheese, Wordrunner, and The Woven Tale Press. Forthcoming: Allium, Evening Street Review, Feels Blind Literary. FInd links to some other stories at her website.

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