The sky does this sometimes in late summer. Late summer in Austin, Texas falls during places with seasons’ early winter. Here in Austin, after months of cursing the unrelenting swelter of our lone galaxy star, in come the clash of the high lows the cold hots the freight train cometbus devil-may-care hail pelting sideways deluge supersonic lightning flash forty degree temperature drop faster than your grandmother can say molasses tour de force locals call “weather”. After all that cursed summer, Texans can’t help but curse the seasonal reprieve, too.
Some Friday in late October, or maybe it was March, I was working my weekly Friday shift with Dave. My sole Friday night date for a year, I loved Dave like an older brother. And as he would every Friday, Dave pulled us two short shots of espresso and we toasted “Na zdravi” to each other and to another night in our Hyde Park center of the universe. The sun had just set. The wind had been blowing and rustling the leaves on the live oaks out by the wooden cable spools where Kirby and Jersey Jay had spent the day, like so many other days, drinking Lone Star tallboys, playing guitars, smoking spliffs, and coming into the coffee shop for table scraps and iced water. The clouds hovered heavy on the horizon, catching color and hurling it westward with kaleidoscopic consequence. Five-dollar Johnny and the Jesus Brothers were leaning out front of the 24-hour Laundromat rolling cigarettes and drinking Arizona Iced Tea out of paper bags cause Johnny was back on the wagon again.
It was the wind that caught everyone’s attention as it knocked the Costco patio furniture into some parked cars and across the Fresh Plus lot. A staggering crash of light prompted the rain. Slanting smarting Mobius strip-like poison arrowed rain. A crumpled grackle fell to the middle of 43rd Ave just before marble-sized hail rattled the roof and covered the street with the closest thing Central Texas ever got to an inch of snow. Another flash followed a seismic power box explosion over Fresh Plus Grocery, killing the lights.
Johnny came in no more than thirty seconds after the rain started, but by the looks of him he had swum across Lake Travis to get to the front door. From what could be seen of Duval, the typically constant car, bus, bike and foot traffic had all but stopped and in their place stood one of the Jesus Brothers with his arms spread to the sky and something looking an awful lot like blood streaming from his forehead. The dead grackle flapped down 43rd like tumbleweed, catching the downed oak just beyond Avenue G.
As quickly as they came, the hail stopped, the lightning passed, the wind gale downgraded to cool breeze, sheer downpour to light drizzle and then to nothing at all. An occasional car passed on Duval, a few honked at Jesus James, but most just apologetically crept around him. Dave and I lit a few tea lights around the cafe, but most everyone had abandoned their tables and moved to the three foot swath of shelter below the awning, watching Jesus James, assessing the half-lit damage, all the while keeping conversation down to an electric hush. Jesus James also stood in watch for a moment, then lowered his arms and walked toward our darkened street as three cars, two soaked cyclists, and a city bus came to a quiet halt to let him cross. He walked down the middle of 43rd, past Mothers’ Cafe, past the Laundromat, past the twenty or so folks looking out at him now in complete silence, with the left side of his face streaming dark pink, his white linen shirt see-through and blood-streaked.
Jesus James didn’t turn when Johnny shouted after him or when Jesus Danny held out a dry sweatshirt for him to wear. He didn’t stop until he reached the downed oak. Unbuttoning his shirt, James reached down into the tangle of branches and freed the dead grackle from the twisted mass. Wrapping the dead thing like a newborn, Jesus James slumped to the curb, cradling the bundle close to his chest and chin. In the silence between passing cars, we could make out Jesus James singing some old lullaby that we’d all heard a hundred times before, but mostly we could just see him sitting there rocking the dead thing with such unquestionable tenderness. No one dared go near. Behind him, the clouds were breaking where they had sat so solidly before. I could see Orion through the opening. It had never seemed so bright.
Kate Hebert lives and works in Lake Tahoe where her dog wakes her up every morning at five thirty, but never makes her coffee. Not once.