Last updated on October 31st, 2016
Not all coming-of-age stories are quite as tender as Piper Templeton’s novel Rain Clouds and Waterfalls. To say Rain Clouds and Waterfalls is a tender story does not contradict the disturbing undercurrents that inform the ten chapters comprising this novel. On the contrary. The symbiotic relationship among story, character, action, and mood heighten a reader’s desire to finish this book in one sitting.
How does Templeton achieve this effect? First, she devises a story in which The Beatles provide the magical frame through which the narrator Ellen Clemens safeguards the memory of her beloved brother, Jake. Second, Templeton’s principal characters—Ellen, the Beatles, Jake—are intense, inspiring, and, likeable, in that order. Third, as Ellen plays tag with the Beatles and Jake throughout the novel, she experiences life as a passionate inquiry into the meaning of absence, friendship, and love.
It is the spring of 1976. Ellen is eleven years old. As she walks into her house the day after her older brother argued with their father, she knows he is gone. She goes into his room: His favorite clothes are gone, his favorite books by Faulkner and Hemingway are gone, and his spirit is gone. When she goes to her room and flops down on her bed, she sees his collection of Beatles albums on her dresser and the note he has left her. It reads: “Hey, gal, I know you’ll love having these. I had to go. It was time.” Giving the Beatles albums to Ellen is his way of passing on his passion to his little sister, as well as helping her deal with his absence. When her mother enters her room to tell her Jake has left to get a job and find his own place, she is listening to “Nowhere Man” on her record player. Now, on the day of Jake’s departure, Ellen thinks, she and her parents have their own real nowhere land. She wonders where Jake’s is.
The structural organization of Rain Clouds and Waterfalls is both original and instructive. By design, each of the ten chapters is named after a Beatles song, a solo Beatles song, or an event pertinent to the Beatles. In the chapters, Ellen references a song title, thus giving meaning to her own journey and that of Jake’s. In the first chapter summarized above, she listens to “Nowhere Man,” #4 on the 1965 album “Rubber Soul,” and sees a correspondence between the song’s lyrics and the effect of Jake’s departure on her own life. This is not a simple correspondence that Ellen thinks up out of thin air. Underlying this correspondence is something more complex. Ellen writes: “While I usually ate with Jake at the kitchen table as my parents did crossword puzzles and finished their highballs in the living room, tonight I sat alone….” This observation tells the reader to pay attention: My parents are secretive, absent, and incommunicative. They live in their own “nowhere land.”
Ellen doesn’t blame her parents. Given their emotional distance and the indignities she endures between the opening chapter in New Orleans at the age of eleven and the ending chapter in New York City at the age of twenty-five, she could become bitter, callous, or even rebellious. She does not. She shrugs off humiliating and insensitive behavior by her friends and her parents, internalizing their rejections and turning to—yes—the Beatles to find solace. The Beatles also help her deal with her eggshell of a life, stemming from a persistent shyness that doesn’t go away, even as an adult living in an efficiency apartment, working at a small sales company, and writing stories.
Referencing the chapter titles to the Beatles is also a strong point in Rain Clouds and Waterfall because it balances happy experiences with disturbing and distressing ones. The songs also help Ellen understand the latter, giving her insight and, perhaps, a bit of wisdom. Take, for example, Chapter 2 “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”; Chapter 5 “Run For Your Life”; and Chapter 9 “Another Day.” These three chapters form a coming-of-age mini-story within the larger context of the novel, insofar as they disturb Ellen’s sense of herself and foreshadow things to come.
In Chapter 2, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” Ellen is in her first year at Riverdale High School, learning the ropes, trying to be liked, growing closer to her friend Joan, who sings like a professional. Joan tells Ellen she should join the beginning band Mr. Edison is teaching. During this exchange, Keith Hawkins makes his first appearance. A troubled adolescent—talented guitarist, son of wealthy parents, and Ellen’s high school crush—Keith sees her walking home and catches up with her. At this moment, she wishes she were more glamorous and wore eye makeup. As they talk, she notices that Keith has a slight bruise below his left eye and she wants to caress it. His purpose is not to talk with Ellen, but to ask her to play go-between with Valerie, a girl Ellen has been hanging out with—sort of. Crushed, Ellen writes, “Bang. Bang. The thud he didn’t hear was my heart dropping on the floor,” an allusion to the refrain in “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.”
Later, she asks her mother if she can buy a trombone or trumpet so she can play in a beginners’ band. Her mother can’t figure out why she would want to do that. Ellen knows her mother won’t understand her reasons: Because music amazes her and nurtures her soul and the Beatles are musicians? Because it would give her “something to do besides go to school, come home, go to school, come home.” Her mother says no. Again, Ellen refers to “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”: “Bang, bang. I looked back down at the paper, not seeing or reading a thing.” Ellen describes, for the second time, her mother as unaware and insensitive—looking in her purse for her cigarettes, refreshing her drink. Later, her mother tells Ellen she’ll be glad she doesn’t have to hang around school to learn the trumpet. What use is that?
In Chapter 5, “Run For Your Life,” Ellen is a rising junior in high school, it’s summertime, and, being the Dakota Lane neighborhood sitter, she gets a call from a newcomer, a Kimberly St. Romain, who wants her to babysit her three-year-old Benji while she does housework for Mrs. Hawkins, Keith’s mother. Kim hopes to earn money to start a business selling baked goods. On her first day, Kim tells Ellen not to answer the phone, a curious thing to tell a sitter. From the looks of it, Ellen thinks Kim has it made: a nice home, a hard-working husband, and an adorable little boy. She and Kim strike up a friendship—not a difficult thing to do when the mother is not much older than the sitter. Kim confides to Ellen that she got pregnant when she was fifteen, her parents kicked her out of the house, and Kyle married her; Benji’s biological father had a basketball scholarship to Auburn and his parents didn’t want to upset their plans for him. Kim invites Ellen to make pasta with her, and Ellen accepts only if they will listen to “Rubber Soul” together.
Everything goes swimmingly until one day the phone rings, Ellen doesn’t answer it, and Kyle shows up unexpectedly from his welding job because he thinks something is wrong. No one answered the phone. He finds Ellen with Benji, gets hysterical, and tells Ellen “a husband should know where his wife is after all.” What follows is a disturbing scene that no high school junior should witness, but Ellen being empathetic Ellen, handles it with a levelheadedness she forgets to use in the future. When Kim arrives and sees Kyle, she asks Ellen to return at 6 p.m. Leaving “Rubber Soul” as a ruse, Ellen returns, only to peek into the living room to see Kyle playing “Run For Your Life” over and over, staring at Kim “as John sang cold, stark warnings about catching his ‘little girl’ with another man.” Then Ellen witnesses it: Kyle backhanding Kim “across the side of her head.” Ellen writes: “Lennon’s foreboding vocals continued in the background. I had never really ‘heard’ those lyrics before.” Ellen retrieves “Rubber Soul,” walks into the yard, and through the kitchen window sees Kyle embracing Kim, Benji at their side. She catches a glimpse of Kim whose eye looks “like she had gotten in a ring with Muhammad Ali.” When Ellen arrives home, she reaches for the cover of “Rubber Soul,” with all four Beatles kind of stretched out, thinking that Kim must feel this way, “like a piece of clay that had to mold and bend to fit her husband’s wishes.”
In the opening scene of Chapter 9, “Another Day,” Ellen writes that Paul McCartney must have seen her future in the mid-eighties because, around the age of twenty or twenty-one, she is working in a sales office acting out the words to “Another Day”:
Every Day She Takes A Morning Bath To Wet Her Hair,
Wraps A Towel ’round Her
As She’s Heading For The Bedroom Chair,
It’s Just Another Day.
Slipping Into Stockings,
Stepping Into Shoes,
Dipping In The Pocket Of Her Raincoat.
It’s Just Another Day.
At The Office Where The Papers Grow She Takes A Break,
Drinks Another Coffee
And She Finds It Hard To Stay Awake,
It’s Just Another Day. Du Du Du Du Du
It’s Just Another Day. Du Du Du Du Du
It’s Just Another Day.
So Sad, So Sad,
The situational irony in Chapter 9 is almost too much for a reader to bear, as Ellen, by the end of it, may have wished she had stuck with the mundane routine of “Another Day.” She doesn’t know precisely why she let her guard down, why she let Gary, the vice-president of the little sales company, sexually abuse her, but thinks, in hindsight, it was the boredom and loneliness, the neediness of that part of her that wants the affection and closeness lacking in her life. What becomes apparent as the chapter unfolds, however, is that the subterfuge Gary uses to seduce her has more power than any rationalization she contrives. The seduction begins on a sensitive topic: Jake. Gary asks her if she has any siblings, and Ellen chokes up, telling him she hasn’t seen or heard from her brother in years. Not missing a beat, Gary says he has a P.I. friend who can search for him. With the possibility that Jake might be found at last, Ellen allows Gary to run his fingers through her hair, kiss her neck, and otherwise fondle her as she sits on his lap. When she refuses his entreaties, he threatens to pull the plug on the P.I. search. He admonishes her. Why should I do this for you? We could find any girl from a vo-tech school to be our secretary.’” After behaving like a trained puppy, Ellen finally asks Gary what the P.I. has found out about Jake, at which point Gary tells her the P.I. contacted a couple of friends “who saw him two years ago.” Then, it happens—a knock on Gary’s door that saves Ellen. She had missed the clues during these pre-Anita Hill days and sends out her resume and an application to the University of New Orleans. So sad, so sad.
The above three chapters form a coming-of-age mini-story and are among the most disturbing chapters in Rain Clouds and Waterfalls, alluding as they do to three dark songs by the Beatles. But there is also Chapter 4, “Not Such a Bad Boy,” which juxtaposes Paul McCartney’s arrest in Tokyo with the physical abuse Keith suffers, something Ellen has noticed as a slight bruise below his left eye or a “swollen gash just below his mouth.” But she accepts his excuse—he got into a fight. In this chapter, Ellen references the incident in January 1980 of Paul McCartney’s 10-day jail sentence in Tokyo for drug possession, but the reference also applies to Keith, who is also not such a bad boy, as Ellen discovers. After inviting her into his expansive home, Keith finds a key in his father’s mammoth mahogany desk, on which Ellen sees heavy paperweights, “silver works of art carved into miniature gavels and scales of justice.” He unlocks a cabinet and pulls “out of an envelope a plastic-covered original photograph of the Beatles from the early days—Cavern days—pre-Ringo time.” Ellen holds it “ like it was a new-born infant.” Later, as they sit on the sofa, they talk about the petition Ellen bravely passed around school collecting signatures to send to the Prime Minister of Japan to release Paul, and getting teary-eyed thinking of Paul leading the other prisoners in a chorus of “Yesterday” in the jail cell. Then, Keith takes her hand and says to her, “‘People find ways. I know people hold things inside—so deep inside it’s like they’re suffocated—and they just can’t talk about it—not to anyone…They’re almost afraid to breathe normal, because they know if they let down their guard one day, the world they created for themselves might explode.’” Jake flashes in her brain and Ellen thinks Keith has seen into her soul. Then “the kiss came, a kiss that unlocked a passion for this guy that used to stifle” her. Soon, Keith’s father arrives home early—the elegant man with the Mercedes—and the abuse begins. On her way to the door after retrieving her jacket from the sofa, Ellen hears the smack, smack, and “a whoosh, like a baseball flying past.” Keith slinks by her on his way to his room, holding his face. On her way out the door, Ellen sees it: “the paper weight gavel on the floor.”
There is much to learn from Templeton’s juxtaposition of attributes belonging to the characters described above, such as, tender and callous, vulnerable and tough, sensitive and hard-hearted. This juxtaposition attests to Templeton’s skill in navigating the perilous boundary between melodrama and pathos. If anything, Ellen—intense, sensitive, shy—cannot abide the indifference, cruelty, and violence she encounters as she makes her way from teenager to adult. In her small circle of Jake, Joan, and Keith, the world’s meanness finds its dissolution in the magical music of the Beatles.
Of course, Rain Clouds and Waterfalls would not be the book it is if it were not for Ellen’s passion for the Beatles, who, in fact, balance out the disturbing chapters in her life. In Chapter 10—the last chapter, “Here Today”—Joan invites Ellen to stay in her apartment in New York City to attend one of Joan’s performances three days before the tenth anniversary of Lennon’s death. Ellen accepts the invitation, not only to attend her friend’s performance, but also to memorialize Lennon at the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park on December 8th. Joan says cryptically to Ellen, “New York is full of surprises,” and indeed, as a denouement, Chapter 10 is both a surprise and an “of course.” How could the book end differently?
Suffice it to say, without disclosing the tenderhearted coda, Ellen realizes in the city of her dreams that she has been sleepwalking through life, that the need for protective layers goes back to Jake’s departure. If only she “could resolve that pull on my heart, maybe I could let go and plow through these invisible barriers that separated me from plunging into life’s natural order of things,” she thinks. Jake is definitely on her mind, here in New York City. Even while Ellen waits for a friend to walk to Strawberry Fields Memorial together, she listens to “Here Today” on her Walkman—“the haunting tribute song to John”—and thinks about what she would say to Jake “if he would suddenly show up and be here today.” In Rain Clouds and Waterfalls, Jake never goes away. His absence is the rain cloud that hides the sun, the love she has missed every minute of the day since he went away.
NOTE: Rain Clouds and Waterfalls is a self-published book by Piper Templeton. It deserves a wider audience. I hope a publisher finds this book as good a read as I have, signs Piper to a contract, and gives Rain Clouds and Waterfalls an appealing layout and a final line editing.