It was with an intense desire to prove Mark Twain’s old saw wrong that caused Jill to start a radio call-in show about the weather. In her mind the operative idea in the line, “a lot of people complain about the weather, but few people do anything about it,” was the complaining. Her best intentions were to keep the dialogue open, and to get weather enthusiasts spreading the gospel of God’s gift to man. In time, she thought people would move beyond thoughtless comments and cliches and begin to appreciate the uncontrollable force that shaped so much of our daily existence. Instead people lined up for the chance to rally against the night. Those twenty or thirty other listeners in the valley who could receive the 10 watt signal heard dour after dour call not only grouse about the weather and everything associated with it, but made even good weather something to fear.
Sitting in an old office chair missing its coasters, the headphones she wore acting as a hair band, pulling the shortly cropped straight black hair behind her ears, Jill listened to the caller moan about the size of that day’s rain. She leaned forward. Never moving from the dials on the board, her gray-blue eyes rarely blinked while she listened to her caller describe their tenuously weather-related complaints. Thin bangs framed her stare. The caller lamented about the aches that went with a long life of hard work when a front moves in, in joints Jill had just started to notice would one-day give her pain. That night, in October, she wore a sweatshirt for a small mid-western college she had never attended over a t-shirt bought in her native New York. Her pants were baggy cargo pants that had, with a previous owner, seen military bases in Alberta and Newfoundland. The room was dark, except for a desk lamp, the dials, an exit sign, and the blinking lights of the phone.
Jill could not cut her listeners off. Regardless how epic their dirge had become, she had decided early in her radio career that she would not control the flow of the dialog, but only try and set a tone with her responses. This, of course, did not work. In a war of attrition, Jill was fighting generations of grizzled Vermont attitude. These stories had been honed through years of repetition, with each new weather pattern adding another coat to an already thick layer of dark sorrow. Each transgression was carefully spelled out with a slant in favor of the teller. In addition, the provincial nature of the callers, who were mostly born in Ragn and knew everyone’s business going back to the other person’s grandparent’s birth, left references to events that Jill could not know, nor was anyone willing to explain to her. It made her unable to respond in detail to most complaints. Instead, she educated and attacked the tone.
A typical exchange was like the one that occurred just a week before:
“I’ve been watchin’ hurricane Oliver,” Listener-James said, “and I wonder why they would ever name a hurricane Oliver in the first place.”
“Do you know how the hurricane naming system works?” Jill asked. She then explained it, including the more recent alternation of male and female names and the inclusion of more non-Anglo ones. It was all part of her attempt to breed tolerance in what she assumed was an incognizant town.
“I have to agree with the first caller….” came the next voice, after caller number one had provided the valley with a tirade fluctuating between freedom of expression and the lack of respect he seemed to get at work because of his background. “The problem I see is that we’ve had three Olivers in Ragn, if you count Bill’s cousin Oliver.”
“Why wouldn’t you?” Jill asked.
“You see, the problem with them namin’ hurricanes Oliver is that except for Bill’s cousin, the name just doesn’t make sense and it’s unfair. My sister Annie’s kid, Oliver, he’s five and he heard the name and decided to be a hurricane throughout the house.” The caller paused for a bit, thanked Jill for the chance to talk, and hung up.
It left Jill deflated. She was a volunteer, one of twenty, for the station only served their very small village of Ragn, in a cove down where Lake Champlain grows thin. Week after week it was the same stories about cars that broke down at inopportune times, family hunting accidents, and dairy herds that knew or did not know when it was going to rain, each with different names but the same contrary attitudes. They were vague tales, yet each seemed to carry the emotional load of a lifetime of wisdom. That they rung true was what bore down on Jill’s shoulders. They were not fascinating but haunting. Her week between shows was spent thinking about the details of offhand comments; calves drowned by rising marshes, dark cold nights filled with trepidation, and families destroyed by lightening strikes and falling trees. Death seemed to stand ominously in the background of funny stories involving barns burned down, lightening storms, and cold, fracturous ice. Always it came back to the ice, water, and the cold.
These apparitions did not come to her at night, but instead caught her off guard at work, bent over a drafting table. She was a graphic designer. There, she did not think about her life or the day’s problems. It was during drives in the car, long walks with the dog, or sitting in front of the television that Jill thought of issues she could do nothing about. Creating advertisements helped her brain stop. Now the weather wheedled its way in. Jill thought about quitting, and then came in for another week.
New York had given her similar fears. Never had the homicides, muggings, and drug-fueled violence fueled her anxieties. Instead, it was the quiet depression she would notice in the back of a bar, the loneliness of her neighbor carrying groceries up the stairs of their fourth floor walk-up, or electric confusion on the face of someone walking through the park on a cold Saturday. For months a half finished glass of lager beer burned itself into her closed eyes as it sat before a woman her age drinking an afternoon drink at Jill’s favorite bar. She could hear the song playing–Jonathan Richman’s Twilight in Boston–and hearing it now still brought back that feeling of desperation. Smoke from a cigarette, taken in silence, depressed her as the olfactory senses tripped synapses in the recess of her brain. There was no story to tell. Still, the image was there. It sat next to the veins bulging from her neighbor’s calf as she rested between floors. The eyes of that hyped child stopped her. They came fast, and then lingered about for days.
The station itself was little more than a room. Besides her worn chair and lamp, the control board, transformer, and amplifier were nondescript. Unfinished beyond the sheetrock being taped, a few wires led down to the fusebox on the first level and up to the roof where the tiny aerial stood. On windy nights it snapped around, and whistled. Overall, it was less impressive than a modest television aerial seen on most houses closer to Burlington. It took time to produce a show each week. She was not a professional meteorologist, only a semi-successful freelance graphic designer with some time on her hands and a desire to talk to others about the very wonderful natural phenomenon that is the weather. Now she wanted to quit.
She, in fact, started to hate the weather. Jill could only think about was how the weather, any weather, would play on among her listeners in some sad, horribly twisted way. In a small town a lack of rain might endanger crops, while too much could wash the topsoil into the lake. By the end of the week she realized that there was no escape, and came to appreciate the true wisdom of Twain: not only could you do nothing about the weather, but also there was no escaping it.
Living in a small house a short way outside of town, Jill walked the main street to the radio station every Thursday evening for her show. After thinking about the previous week’s theological discussion over the physical impossibility/possibility that the flood Noah lived through would occur in only forty days, Jill reflected that it had been raining in the cove for about ten. Some basements had flooded, and she dreaded the weekly calls that would come in¾the same people over and over and a lot of advice about sump pumps. They had nothing to do at night but listen and call. The only good news Jill had received was an article in the county coupon-riddled weekly Penny Market saying that the local cable operator had had an increase in people demanding the Weather Channel be available on basic service, with a nod towards Jill’s show being a cause.
One last night, Jill told herself. She walked through the rain, tramping up to the second story loft that housed the small studio. It was above the vacant former dry goods store; in what was once a storage room for hardware supplies, rubber boots, and bolts of cloth. It was barely lit, and she was running late. As she entered, Jill could hear the farmer’s son cum reggae d-jay that worked before her playing a rasta version of Stormy Weather. It went on four minutes after her arrival, but Jill was glad for the downtime. The lines were already lit, and the reggae d-jay was telling them over the music that Jill would be on soon and that the rasta Stormy Weather was a special introduction¾a dedication from one professional to another. Jill smiled at the boy, while the boy in turn bobbed his head to the music and smiled back. Finally, Jill got behind the mike and waited for the silence that would be her to fill.
“We are here once again to prove Mark Twain wrong, and not complain about the weather. We’ve had rain for ten days now, and I’d like to hear some positive feedback on that.”
“Jill, if you ask me I think its a damn shame that this flood has to come at this point in the season….”
“Well, the main problem with this rain is that it’s a cold rain, and my wood pile hasn’t dried out enough yet to stoke the furnace and warm up. I mean, I take a hot bath, but I can’t live in the tub….”
“Have you seen those lesbians walkin’ around town in the rain? They don’t wear bras. With the rain, I can see right through their two layers of clothin’ when they take that dog out for a walk. It’s a disgrace….”
“Listen, I thought we would talk about something positive today. If not about this beautiful rain, then about a beautiful weather day from your past. Certainly someone in Ragn has something good to say to me.”
“But this rain is about to wash away my flower beds. I know the season is over, and the fall will close everythin’ else anyway, but I don’t see anythin’ positive….”
“What is your name again, sir?”
“Well, Listener-Frank, did you know that the word Ragn is actually Old English for rain?”
“It was named after a hamlet in Scotland,” Listener-Frank demanded.
“That’s where this town got its name, but that town, the Scottish town, got its name from the word rain,” Jill fought back. “The Middle English word is Ragn, with a g instead of an i. So we live in a town where rain is our legacy. It runs deep. You are participating in self-defilement as you curse the darkness.”
“It’s just too much….”
So it went on. Jill listed to caller after caller complain about the rain, taxes, how the rain would effect taxes, and lesbians in town not wearing bras and how that was indecent, especially in this weather. This last point irritated her, because it was an indirect attack on her. Although she always wore a bra, Jill knew that everyone in Ragn knew that she was half of the couple that had moved to town. Complaints about the weather were one thing, but cowardly attacks seemed to be on another level. When first moving here they had expected to be shunned or possibly harassed, but things had been subtler. It was disappointing, more than anything else was, to be reminded that she did not fit in. It was more real, more personal, that receiving straightforward hate.
Jill took a break. Putting on Sun, Sun, Sun, she took a walk around the booth. She was now the only one there. The station had been designed so no engineer would be needed. A remnant from the 10-watt under-powered pirate radio days, it was not registered with the Federal Communications Commission and served a community interest that had been needed since the closing of the dry goods store. In fact, the few radio shows they did have were pressed into service even more since the store’s closing. Now, with a simple turntable, CD player and microphone, they were the electronic porch of the dry goods store. Jill watched the arm and needle spiral slowly towards the center of the LP.
“Do we have anyone with anything positive to say, or do I have to fill the last two hours of the show with my personal reflections on the rain?”
The lights continued to glow.
“I swear, if any one of these lines has something bad to say about the weather, I will read rain poetry for the remainder of the evening.”
One light flashed. Jill pushed it.
“Yes, I’m a first time listener and first time caller. I’m also the other lesbian who walks around town without a bra on. Actually, I wear a bra some of the time. In fact, I just moved up here from the city last month.” She stopped.
“Hello?” Jill said after a pause.
“I just wanted to say that I moved here for the rain. And the sun, and the snow. I moved here for the weather on the water, and the feel of it on me. I guess I did not even realize that I was offending anyone for not wearing a bra, but…. I am just amazed that you even have a show on just what is the most amazing part of this town. Sitting here, in my kitchen, for the first time, over a warm cup of tea and hearing the rain and this show… I feel at home. It’s the first time since I got here that I’ve felt that. I just wanted you to know that.”
There was a silence.
“And your name, listener?”
Jill waited for her to finish, knowing she was done, but not wanting to comment and ruin the moment. Looking at the three-line switchboard, she saw that at least two people were eager to comment. There was a window in the back of the studio, albeit small. It was dark, but Jill could still hear the rain, and see the refraction of its drops on the pain. She did not respond, nor let others do it for her. The microphone for the station was something salvaged from the high school, unattached to anything and easy to move. She put it against the window, where drops of water were hitting hard against the pane. Throughout the rest of the show, and the evening, Jill let the silence and the rain last.