Conversation in the Rain (Explored #83). Photo by Dom Crossley.

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The dam trembled more as it came closer to collapsing, and in the rain at the side of the earth berm, Charles St. Clair had set up the detonator, the green wires running from it into the holes he had drilled and where he had put the dynamite, Unigel, made by Dyno Nobel. The young woman kneeled next to him, the rain bright as ice as it ran from her hair down her neck. She kept her eyes on him, her pupils wide now, either because of the lack of light from the clouds or the increasing vibration of the dam. But even so, she put her hands over the toggle of the detonator, stopping St. Clair, her gesture, at once tentative and gentle, but still meant to convey her understanding.

Her face was pale, like the white keys of a piano, and her hair was black as a crow, and the paleness made her eyes seem even darker than usual. She held him in her glance, not shaking her head, not doing anything at all but staring, which St. Clair understood as the exquisitely nonverbal statement of fears, or terrors that were greater than just blowing the dam and themselves into a fine, human-colored mist, or of destroying the dam completely so that the farms downstream for thirty miles would be twenty feet under water. She shrugged. Whatever the understanding was in the darkness of her eyes, it was larger than physical fear.

His hands hesitated inches above the toggle. He trembled, too, certain that she understood what the precise risk was, so much so that she couldn’t put it into words but had to leave it in the glance, in her eyes, the pupils of them so perfectly enlarged. Like crude oil, or tar, or some dark substance that came from a long way beneath the surfaces of things.

St. Clair had faced something like the current risk once before. While the previous time may have been one of those inessential moments between human beings, he was certain that it had been more than that. He had spent years with the memory of it just at the edge of his understanding.

This memory was of a time when he had finished college and had a first job with Con Edison as an engineer in the Water Department. Mostly this was a matter of getting rid of water from places, like subway tunnels, where it wasn’t wanted. He had been in line at a grocery store in New York, one of those places that sold fresh fruit displayed on imitation grass. Next to him stood a woman with dirty blonde hair, a sleeveless yellow dress, and a slight sheen to her skin. St. Clair held some oranges and a box of strawberries, and as he came to the counter he felt as though gravity was pulling on him, the tug of her bare skin, and even though he tried not to, he let himself come a little closer as he put his things down, and as he did, the perfume of her skin left him surprised, almost disoriented. How could anything be so lovely, so piercing, so much a reminder of something he had forgotten until this instant. He knew what it was, too, the scent of mint from where he had grown up in Putney, Vermont. Fresh, just a whiff of promise of some sexual hint that didn’t have a name, just the memory of innocence desperate to be lost.

He hesitated, and as he did, the woman turned toward him. He had on his yellow hard hat, which was brandbatt new. He was obviously a beginner. Her blue gray eyes settled on his, and as she did, she leaned forward, too, just a bit, as though she was reminded of something. Perhaps a memory of diving into blue water, of standing under a waterfall, which, even in the moment she must have dismissed as an experience she had never had but had seen in an advertisement or a movie. But the power of it was more than if it had actually happened. She put her face close to his; she was at once curious and yet surprised at that tug, that gravity, which could have been a memory of a physical thrill or something else, a sense of comfort, the perfect kiss, the brushing touch of lips. Then she blushed.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I didn’t mean to get in your way.”

“Oh, no,” she said. “It’s my fault.”

Then she picked up her brown paper sack, turned away, went out to the foot traffic of Third Avenue, walking as if the bag didn’t have any weight at all.

 * * *

The East Village Villager was an online newspaper that advertised apartments, new restaurants, clothes, “custom-made paraphernalia,” and, at the back, some advertisements for sex.

St. Clair always looked through the sex ads, not as a customer or potential customer, but out of genuine curiosity as to what was happening in the buildings around him. Pretty ordinary, he had guessed, kissing, the usual caress, sort of generic, but after reading the ads, he began to wonder.

Now, though, after the encounter with the blonde woman, he read the ads in the “Close Encounters” section, and after he looked through them, he considered advertising. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he wasn’t sure he was going to be able to write the ad himself, and so he was left with the hope that the woman in the yellow dress would do it. After all, if he put an ad in the paper, she’d think of him in the worst possible way, that is, a creep, a dangerous man in a Con Ed hat.

The ads in the “Close Encounters” section began, “You, red haired in a red dress, on the subway, with one of the heels of your shoe broken. Held it in your hand. Me, in a gray business suit, small glasses, buzz cut. . . . Call 689-7891. No cranks. No pros.” These ads always seemed to St. Clair to be delusional, since the longing was always one-sided. It happened all the time. After all, he had stood next to a woman in a yellow dress and couldn’t stop thinking about her.

In the new edition of the East Village Villager several days after the encounter, he flipped from “Everything You Wanted to Do but Were Afraid to Ask,” to “Close Encounters.” “Me, in a yellow sleeveless dress, in the corner store at Third and 28th Street, dirty blonde hair, just paying for my yogurt and bananas, you, in a construction hat, blue jeans, work shirt, leaning over me to put down some fruit. Momentary glance. Call 899-321-4010.”

No name. Just the number.

He added the number to his contacts, and under contact name, he put in, “Yellow Dress.”

They met at a Starbucks where they sat at one of those small, round tables on a post. It was so functional as to look like a tool.

Margaret Gleason, which was her name, was a law student, and had had work to do the night they met, but when she sat down to read case law, Madison v. Charlestown, which dealt with municipal responsibility for a faulty sidewalk, she had considered the man in the yellow hat. Now she kept looking at him.

St. Clair had a one-bedroom apartment in the West Village, on Waverly Place, although he hadn’t really moved in, just a futon on the floor, a small table, two chairs, and clothes and sheets in a suitcase. The clutter was a perfect expression of being unsettled, uncertain. She helped him make the bed with the sheets he had in a box and that had been dried in the air of his parents’ house, in Putney, and the scent of the wind was in the cloth. “Oh,” she said. “My god. Smell that.”

The light from the street covered them like a transparent blanket, and the sheen on her shoulders was as before, only now it glowed more. She thought he was more familiar than ever. They drank white wine from clear plastic cups as they sat on his bed with the scent of the northern woods in the sheets.

“No,” she said. “No. This is not right. Not real. Not anything.”

“Maybe not,” he said. “But people recognize one another. It has nothing to do with looks or anything like that.”

“Do you really believe that?”

“I don’t know,” he said.

“No,” she said. “No. I’ve got classes. I must be tired. This is delusion. No. And, even if it was real, it’s what I should want but don’t. I would just be a slave to it. So, it was nice.”

She put on her yellow dress, didn’t bother to comb her hair, and said, “That was sweet.”

The next evening, in that same light from the street lamp, he sat with his phone and scrolled down to “Yellow Dress,” and with his hand just above the number (as it was later above the toggle on the detonator in the rain), he considered what he was risking by letting this encounter slip away. First, he was aware that an entire life was possible here, and as he sat, hesitating over her number, he felt the infinite complications of it, the two of them together, and while his notions of what they would be like together were vague and just a yearning, they were real.

But it went deeper than that. He knew if he gave into letting her disappear he would be acknowledging that he didn’t trust his intuition, and while a practical idea of life (school, job, house, 401k, and the like) was important, to live without intuition had a deathly quality, like the stink in an expensive mortuary. To avoid intuition was to admit he was afraid, and to live as though you are afraid is something he didn’t want to do, either.

She answered the phone, and the instant he heard her voice he said, “Wait. Wait.”

“No,” she said. “That was sweet, but don’t call again. I won’t either. We don’t want to make any mistakes, do we?”

“No,” he said. “I guess not. But maybe it’s not a mistake.”

“How would we find out?” she said. “If it was a mistake it would be too late. We don’t want that, do we? Let me talk you out of it.”

“I don’t want to live as though I’m afraid,” he said.

“I don’t want to live by making mistakes,” she said.

She had talked him out of it. But in that apartment on Waverly Place, St. Clair didn’t quite let himself admit he had lost some of his belief in fearlessness where men and women were concerned, in romance, in his intuition, in his desire to get over the misery of the age: the ordinary anxieties and difficulties of men and women that get in the way of a chance to become real. Just as he didn’t admit to himself the real risk, which was that he seemed a little smaller than before.

St. Clair married a woman who was a doctor, and while they seemed to get along, the marriage only lasted eighteen months. They began to have trouble for reasons St. Clair couldn’t really explain (an awkward silence, then more silence, then time spent apart, and finally the divorce). No children.

In his thirties St. Clair had worked on dams in Africa, and he had saved a sloppy, Romanian effort in Zimbabwe that was about to collapse and to flood land where two hundred thousand people lived and worked their farms. His specialty, which few people understood, was the way pressure built, and how a dam was oddly fluid, and that it could be allowed to bend a little to avoid breaking. He understood how to read the way a dam began to vibrate before it failed. And a failed dam left a scar that was impossible to avoid, houses washed away, dead animals were left in trees when the water receded, people were gone forever, top soil moved with a keen tragedy toward the ocean.

When a dam on the Connecticut River had begun to leak St. Clair was called to take a look. At first it was just a silver tongue of water at the top, but it was spring and a warm rain fell on the snowpack of a hard winter,  and he knew by the river master’s voice that the dam could go at any moment. The farm where he had grown up was in the floodplain downstream from the dam, but the house had since been sold. Still, many other farms and a couple of small towns, too, were in the floodplain.

It was too early for mint to grow, but when St. Clair drove from Connecticut, where he now lived, to Vermont, the scent of it came back, and with it came the memory of the woman in the yellow dress, the light on her skin like a transparent sheet. St. Clair admitted to himself now the danger of having lived as though he were personally afraid around other people and that he had, over the years, doubted one of the things that helped make him human, which was the importance of intuition.

As St. Clair stood on the dam, the silver water spilling over the side, he wished that the river master had called him sooner. It was already trembling, and yet, as he stood there, he thought it might hold, or that he could try a couple of things that had worked in Africa. The local paper put his picture on the front page. The headline read, “Warm Rain Melts Snow Pack. River at Flood of ’29 Level.”

He rented a house in Putney, on Airbnb, and moved in with a laptop computer and a bag that he had taken to Africa that held some clean blue jeans, a sweater, some boots, and a T-shirt to sleep in. He drove a new Subaru.

* * *

A young woman, Karen Black, not yet twenty-five, worked in the Putney store. She had dark hair, blue eyes, pale skin, and she did her job with the intensity of someone who is planning or at least hoping for an escape. She wanted to go to Boston, or New York, or any place where she could get away from the long winters, the mood of New England, which she referred to as a Depression Front, and yet she had a mother and a father who lived in a farmhouse outside of town, downriver from the dam. She was interested in engineering, which the girls in her high school class had laughed at her for, and had even called her Ms. Calculus. She had been good at math, and yet hadn’t gone to college, since her parents didn’t have money. She had been afraid of debt.

So, she was interested in St. Clair when she saw his picture on the front page.

He came into the store and picked up the paper with his picture on the front page. He stood at the counter, a man of average height, in good shape, square shoulders, trim waist, his hair not silver but gray, and while she had never had much interest in older men, she knew a couple of things about him, that he was well known as an engineer, for instance, that he had saved the Rift Valley in Africa, and that he was living close by. The water was rising, and the pressure was going up. It could be like 1929 again. Karen walked up to the counter, smiled, and said, “Just the paper?”

“Yes,” he said.

He folded it, turned to go to the door, but the sensation, which he had only felt once before, seemed to come to him from inside the room.

Karen hesitated, too, even when a man with a double six pack of Budweiser tapped the top of it with the keys to his truck.

“Just a minute,” said Karen to St. Clair.

She turned away, took the money for the beer, but when she came back, the door to the street was swinging shut on its pneumatic hinge with a sound like a sigh. The door of St. Clair’s Subaru shut, too. Karen put her hands on the rough counter and looked into the rain that fell in those constant, silver lines. She hadn’t had an experience like this before and for a moment she thought something might be wrong, some neurological difficulty, or some leak in the gas lines below the store. How could she feel vaguely ill? She didn’t believe in having instant feelings for a stranger. They don’t happen, or if they do, it was the weather or a song or some confusion that had nothing to do with the man who had just walked into the store and bought the paper.

If she let herself go she could lose everything, her innocence, her youth, and of course she could make a fool of herself. In this small town she had spent her life trying to avoid this. You could never live it down. Even in the modern age gossip was eternal.

She finished her shift at the store, took a bottle of beer out of the cooler, and got into the van her father had used when the farm actually made a little money. Now the farm was in a financial hole, since Karen’s mother and father could almost, but not quite, pay the taxes on it. They had let their flood insurance lapse. She gave her parents money, but this wasn’t a solution so much as a matter of prolonging the difficulties. Karen parked by the river, which was rising, and from the turnout, over the greenish and frothy water, the dam stood, almost, or so she thought, visibly trembling. Her hands were shaking. She was uneasy. Being needed by her parents had a hidden advantage: keeping her from leaving this place and protecting her from the anxiety of freedom.

The local paper had small boxes on the front page, and she considered putting an advertisement in one of them, but the town was so small and the woman who took ads knew Karen from the time she had been in grammar school. And what would she say?

Karen was condemned to wait. Maybe it would pass. Her hands shook more when she thought of him. The river rose. It began to rain harder.

The paper was a daily, and so he came back the next day. Their fingers touched when she took the money, cash, not a credit card. Who used a credit card for a newspaper? Well, some people did, but she thought they were a little odd. Soon, money or at least cash was going to disappear altogether. But what she needed was either, call it cash or call it money. It made no difference at all. She was desperate, and how do you separate the desperate from the genuinely intrigued, or actual attraction? Was that possible between a woman of her age and the man who came in with that trim, fit air, that grayish hair, and that smile he seemed to have been perfecting for years.

The paper said that St. Clair thought he might fix the dam by dynamiting it at the top, just enough to let more water escape, but not so much as to break the berm. If he did it right, the pressure would be relieved and the dam would hold until it stopped raining and the snow stopped melting. Or this would work if the dynamite didn’t blow the entire thing into the next state. Still, St. Clair had called for dynamiters, who would arrive in their truck with a sign on the back that said, “Stay back five hundred feet. If you can read this you are too close.”

She waited by the counter. He opened the door and walked by the neat rows of bread she had put out in their festive wrappers (the usual commercial ones) or the organic items (which were dull and looked like a kind of bakery hair shirt). The town must have fifteen hundred people, and buildings with white clapboards, green roofs, and shutters, stood against the clutter of trees against that blue sky when it was clear and against clouds the color of gray deck paint when it rained.

Still, for St. Clair, the young woman seemed to control the room. Her dark hair, pale skin, lips the color of ripening strawberries, eyes that had a mysterious glance that left him wanting to put an ad in the paper that said, “You, behind the counter . . .”

Instead, when she touched his hand and said, “So you think dynamite is the answer,” he was reminded of that grocery store on Third Avenue. He still thought about the woman in the yellow dress, and he wasn’t sure that this relentless memory was a refusal to give up or just a delusion that came from having turned forty. Karen looked into his eyes. She didn’t smile.

He said to himself, Really, you are too old for this, and if you want to make a fool of yourself do this: flirt with her or make any sign that you are aware of her existence. Isn’t that what a man over forty is supposed to do with a young woman? Treat her as though she doesn’t exist or that she is a sort of robot? Is that the way he handled the sense of infinite possibility?

“There’s hope,” he said.

Their fingers touched.

“You think so?” said Karen. She looked. He was sure she blushed. While looking down, she said, “Do you like beer?”

He looked down at the newspaper on the counter. His picture was on the front page of the paper again, next to a headline that said, “Dynamite?” Next to it was another story that said, “Car Crash on Route 64. Two Teens Dead.”

“Would you like to have a beer with me?” she said.

He recalled the way the dam trembled. It wouldn’t be long if he didn’t do something. No one, not the Corp of Engineers, really understood how harmonics worked with the movement of water.

He swallowed.

“I’d like to have a beer,” he said.

“While you are waiting for the dynamiters,” she said.

* * *

Her father came into the store when she was closing, and the water dripped from his hat onto the counter as he said, “Karen. Karen. I’ve got something to say. It’s time for your mother and me to face up to things.”

“Such as?” said Karen. She put a rubber band around the money she had counted.

“It’s the dam,” said her father. “That got me to thinking. We have been borrowing against the house and land and we are almost underwater.”

He laughed now.

“We owe about what it’s worth,” he said. “So your mother and I are going to move into a place in Vernon.”

“For old people?” Karen said.

“I don’t feel it,” said her father. “But, yeah.”

This, as far as Karen was concerned, didn’t make things easier, just clarified them. She had never felt so un-needed and alone. Was what she felt genuine or just delusion, and more important, was it a matter of being afraid of not being needed? Her sacrifices, as she had thought of them, had been protection.

* * *

St. Clair went home and sat with the paper that her fingers had touched and began to give himself a hard time about thinking the things he knew he shouldn’t think. But what was the harm if it was going to come to nothing?

The rain came down like gray beads in a curtain in a doorway, and as he stood at the base of the dam, he thought the vibration came from farther away. Or at least from a deeper place. It wasn’t quite like an earthquake, or as distinct as that. It was more like having been on an amusement park ride that had scared him. He stood at the bottom of the dam, his head back, the rain the color of the side of a battleship beyond the top of the dam.

The dynamiter’s truck arrived. It looked as though it was going to sell microwaved burritos and discount Cokes, but it still had a sign at the back that said, “Stay back five hundred feet. If you can read this you are too close.” The little cabin on the back of the truck was quilted, and while it looked like a food truck, St. Clair knew that inside that quilting there was protective material that was used in vests in Iraq. He imagined the hole this truck would make if it went off. A perfect inverted cone, he thought, like the ones that sold imitation snow at fairs, although the cone here, in the ground would be fifty feet deep.

A dynamiter with a cap that read Unigel got out of the truck and said, “Hey, Chuck. How’s it going?”

St. Clair turned to the dam. The dynamiter stood there, too, and after a while when the vibration became more obvious, the dynamiter said, “You know, I think I am going to park on higher ground.”

“Fine,” said St. Clair.

“Do you want me to set the charge?” said the dynamiter.


“It’s your funeral,” said the dynamiter.

The scent of skin, of a memory of the perfume of Karen’s hair lingered around St. Clair and when he turned, the girl from the store stood next to him.

“Why does the ground shake like that?”

“It’s like a wheel getting ready to come off a car,” he said. “It shakes a little and that makes the wheel fit the axel even less so that it shakes more, and that makes the wheel shake more . . .”

“Sort of like something unstoppable,” she said. “A closed loop.”

She kept her eyes on him.

“I brought that beer,” she said.

“I think we better have it at the top of the dam,” he said.

In the rain, the beer tasted bitter, but they drank it as they sat in their yellow rain coats and faced the lake behind the dam. It looked like a million boys with BB guns were shooting at the surface creating a million spouts of water where the rain hit it.

“So,” said Karen.

He glanced over at her.

“If what you say is true,” she said. “The sooner you do something the better.”

“It’s a matter of nerve,” he said. “What if I’m wrong?”

“There’s one way to find out,” she said.

He leaned closer to her.

In the afternoon, the dynamiter helped bring the boxes of dynamite, two of them, to the side of the dam where Karen and St. Clair sat.

“I think I’ll just step back if you don’t mind,” said the dynamiter.

“Sure,” said St. Clair. “That sounds like a good idea . . .”

“And you, too,” said the dynamiter to Karen. “I think you might step back, too. This isn’t Zambia. Oh, yeah, I heard about that. One lucky stunt.”

“Stunt? Stunt?” said St. Clair.

“Yeah. Like you got lucky,” said the dynamiter.

“You think you got lucky?” said Karen. “Are we talking about luck?”

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“I see. Now I see why you are worried about being wrong. Of course, there’s that.” She pointed downstream where the clutter of houses looked like broken teeth along the river. “But then it’s hard to make a decision. Isn’t it?” She swallowed. “I don’t even really know you.”

Karen held an umbrella as he opened his laptop and ran the calculator, and he had to make some guesses about the difference between dirt that was wet and dirt that was saturated. How much heavier would dirt that was almost saturated be, and what figure should he use for foot pounds of force to move just part of it. She kept her eyes on him.

They moved the boxes to the side of the dam, and he got his augur, run by a chain saw engine, and started making the holes. It looked like some enormous mole had been at work on top of the dam, and even here he was unsure, because if the weight was greater, he didn’t want to go too deep.

“Let me do that,” she said.

He had started to push the dynamite in, each tube of it like a highway flare. He shoved it into the opening with a broom handle that had a plumber’s pink plunger on the bottom, but her hand touched his as she took it and began gently putting the dynamite in herself.

“To the end?” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Then what?”

He used a pen to make a hole in a stick of dynamite and then he put a blasting cap onto the wire for the detonator. Or he made two holes in the dynamite. One of the holes went all the way through the stick, and the other went in about halfway. He pushed the blasting cap all the way through the first hole and then into the other one, so it wouldn’t fall out.

He pushed that into the hole where the other sticks were, and as he did, the rain made a silver curtain. The vibration increased.

The wire was green and it looked like a spring vine as he paid it out to the plunger at the edge of the woods where he had left it. Then he opened the two screws, put the wire in, and tightened them.

“So,” she said.

She kept her eyes on his.

“What’s going to happen to us?”

He stood in the rain. The woman in the yellow dress had just walked away, and he had let her. But then what could he have done? It was, after all, her decision, and if she wanted nothing to do with him, that was her business. It just left him this way, standing in the rain, wet, looking at the valley where people had lived for generations.

Karen put her hand on the plunger.

“You just turn this?” she said.

She leaned into him. He couldn’t tell if she was trembling or if it was the dam that was making the earth move like that.

“Yes,” he said.

She kept her eyes on his and said, “Boom.”