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Five Men in a Drought

Story by Brad Aaron Modlin (Read author interview) December 19, 2016

Art by Jena Seiler


He won’t leave the front steps until the rain returns. He refuses to miss a drop of it. “Come back in the house!” his wife calls through the window the second night. They’ve been peacefully married so long that now neither can sleep without the other, any more than a hermit crab can sleep without its shell. Last month, his boss finally said the words that had been blowing around the break room. She summoned him into her office and called it an early retirement because, he assumed, it made her feel less guilty. His father used to say, “Don’t waste time naming your feelings.” Eating the last piece of pie, his mother used to say, “All good things must come to an end—including the world.” If it rains, he will grab the pillows and his wife out of bed. They’ll sleep in the grass.



The drought gives this man not one minute—not even one second—of fear because he’s a man angular and strong, like his initials: W and Z. He collects rectangular objects such as bricks and refrigerators, which he carries single-handedly to his sorting shed. Across its floor sprawl old dictionaries, his sons’ building blocks, a few high-school lockers, and some two-by-fours. Since the divorce, he’s tried multiple systems for organizing these. He’s proud to shyness of his twin sons, one of whom is shaped a bit like a freckled trapezoid, the other an inverted triangle. On their first day of kindergarten, he pulls them aside and hands them each a slab of concrete he poured into perfect ninety-degree angles. “Be brave today,” he says, “and if you get scared, just reach into your backpacks for these and remember me.”



Last year at the fair, he sculpted a rooster out of butter and won a red ribbon, which seemed to impress many women. He loved them all, their pink smiles, their small wrists. He always slides face-first into crushes as if into home plate, but the women’s interest never lasts long enough. When they disappear, it’s like he’s been telling a hilarious joke, a real crowd-pleaser, but then got knocked over before the punch line. Two decades ago, none of his Boy Scout leaders ever warned him this would happen when he grew up, but they did say Be Prepared, so this year, he planned to sculpt a blue ribbon butter hippopotamus. But the day he bought all the butter, the county canceled the fair—Too much of our county’s precious water. Too much hosing down the animals. Too many Icees.



Sometimes adult men in town snicker behind his back about Something, and he does hear them, even though he just keeps walking. He sees the Something out the corner of his eye, too blurry to really understand. But the two facts he does know are that he desperately wants to be a dad someday after graduation, and that when he imagines making jelly sandwiches, there’s never a mom in the kitchen. On third dates, girls his age lean toward him in his car like they’re waiting for him to dab water onto their lips. And he and whichever girl both pause unmoving until the whole parking lot turns into static, and then he takes her home. He drives out to the wooden bridge, over the river that’s drying up. He takes all the cups and paper clips and nickels out of his car and tosses them, one swearword at a time. When he has a son, he thinks, he’ll take him here. And then they’ll play tetherball in the park. The boy will say, “Dad,” and he will say, “Yes.” He will chase the little boy around their backyard with water balloons and the garden house. By then, the drought finally will have ended.



He likes everything about money, especially the way Benjamin Franklin makes unbroken eye contact with you like a mind reader. Someday, he hopes, he will earn enough to wallpaper his living room in it. The drought may be his gift from the universe. He drives a moving van over to the next state, where he stockloads it with inexpensive bottled water. The longer the rainclouds play hide-and-no-seek, the more he can charge folks back home. His wife—whom he married because she loved him and he hoped he’d someday catch up—calls and tells him he’s not a bad man, he just sometimes wants bad things. “Who doesn’t?” he says, but he remembers her words all the way home. He drops a cat’s eye marble beneath his tongue and sucks on it every second he thinks of wasting a bottle on himself. When he arrives to town, he sets up shop in the courthouse parking lot, which is an anthill of scurrying pedestrians. Without looking at anyone’s eyes, he sells bottles for thirty-five minutes and hopes his wife will call. He knows she married him the way people buy fixer-upper houses. But she’s wasted fourteen years already, so he dials her number to divorce her. It rings, and he shouts, “Water! Eight dollars!” It rings, and, “Eight dollars!” And then he can’t do it anymore. Not to the old man with the lopsided walker on the uneven courthouse pavement. Not to the teenager who wears a ratty top hat and probably ran away from home. He hangs up on his wife—and this is the sincerest way he can say I love you. He climbs the ramp and unloads more crates, asks the top hat teenager for help. Together, they empty the whole van, and their biceps almost fall off. He looks up at the gathering mass that’s offering him unbroken eye contact: so many different thirsty people—the self-conscious banker, and the unmarried father whose son quit visiting, and the marathoner who busted his knee irreparably. He bends to crates and rips off plastic coverings, exposing twenty-four bottles at a time. For three minutes, they will all be happy in the same way.

About the Author

Brad Aaron Modlin is the author of Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, which won the Cowles Poetry Prize — and the author of Surviving in Drought, a small collection of stories that won The Cupboard’s annual contest. His nonfiction has appeared in River Teeth, Florida Review, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM, and others. He is a member of the English faculty at Missouri Southern.

About the Artist

Jena Seiler (b. 1986, New Mexico, US) is an artist and scholar. She received a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico in 2009, and a Master of Fine Arts from Ohio University in 2012. Currently, she is a doctoral candidate in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, US. Seiler is working on her dissertation “Sensing Security Through Art and Ethnography,” in which she examines the connection between security and the senses through a study of contemporary artworks and ethnographic research. Seiler is an active member in Sensory Ethnography Group. As an artist, Seiler has participated in collaborative projects, solo exhibitions, and film screenings.

This story appeared in Issue Fifty-Four of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Fifty-Four

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