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SUMMERTIME BLUES


I'm running out of things to do this summer. Shopping for food has lost its thrill for me. I don't like the endless aisles of food, the humming compressors keeping all those packs of meat cool, the produce in bins that lie there in heaps waiting to be picked over. It makes me feel vaguely nauseous to realize how much energy is needed to keep all these shoppers going. I don't want to lug home more bags of supplies, cram them into already stuffed cabinets and wonder what I'll fix for supper. Nothing tastes that good anyway. Hardly anyone is normal when you stand back with your empty cart and observe the overweight men struggling to bend down to get a shrink-wrapped whole chicken into their hands. The women are round, their shapes long since melted into fat from long hours of sitting and boredom. The kids are whiney, pulling at the parents to buy some box of sugarcoated cereal. I want to go home and sit in my chair as the sun slides across the floor and the air grows dimmer.

I don't want to go swimming. I hate public swimming pools. The water stinks from being recycled by the pumps, and the chlorine is sour after days of cooking in the hot sun. I don't want to fight for a shower, or sit on some bench in the locker room where a lot of wet bathing suits have already been there. I think of my chair against the wall, the reading lamp overhead, the last few squares of a crossword puzzle I have not filled in. I see myself sitting there with a glass of ice water, my shoes kicked off and my stocking feet luxuriating on the cold tile floor. I don't dare think that this meager form of leisure may not be enough to get me through the day. Better to concentrate on the moment as it passes, with my fingers tapping on the arm rests, my pen poised to strike when I finally figure out a clue.

There are kids in the street. The air is still, and the sky overhead is dark blue, with a few wisps of clouds drifting by. You hear the scrape of a scooter and someone's shrill laughter. It means that summer is different for each of us; for the kids, it's all about friendship and rivalry, for testing the limits of freedom when a mom is talking on the phone and isn't paying much attention to the street. The older kids are sulky and slow moving; their bodies are overgrown with limbs that hardly function as they're supposed to. They are as bored as I am. They have no power, no means of transportation, no money to spend. So they amble along like unfinished sculptures of adults, talking at the back of their throats, checking the chewed remains of fingernails before biting them again.

Summer is wasted on the young. They stand there gaping at the total emptiness of streets, finding no poetry in anything they see. Even the gardens full of hollyhocks and wilting roses don't inspire them to think about love. They scoff at the notion that anything tender is meaningful. Their hearts are tough little leather pouches full of dread and longing, but nothing has shaken their nihilism or made them gulp down their astonishment at someone who might be staring at them from a window, someone beautiful and fragile. That's just more Hollywood playing violins when all you really hear are car horns honking angrily at some snarl in the traffic.

Maybe I'm just old and bitter. I don't see the fine details anymore. I'm sure some lanky kid with acne is drifting in a state of wonder as I dismiss him as another shipwreck idling in the torpors of midsummer. When the light fades, and the moon hangs down like some undissolved tablet of Alka-Seltzer, I want some powerful urge to well up out of the ground and seize all of us, shake us until we hear the neck bones crack. But I'm sure it won't happen. We must ride out the darkness any way we can, with the help of TV, the monotonous drivel of the radio, the stale music of a tape or an MP3 player. Please, please, give me some tiny morsel of magic to put in my mouth so I can believe again that summer is the season of miracles.

Oh well.

I can recall sitting in my father's car as a kid pretending I was old enough to start the engine and ease into our tedious street. I could see myself getting lost on the edge of the city, turning left and then right without regard to how to get back. I was full of wonder as I sat there with the dash clock making its tiny little noises and the fluids in the car's tubes gurgling now and then. What if I did find myself in some vast industrial wasteland near the river, and got out to wander among the rubble of some ancient neighborhood bulldozed to make way for urban renewal? What if I met an old man who taught me card tricks, and led me home to his shanty by the big chemical tanks, and offered me a cup of bitter tea? What if he said he had been rich once, married into a prominent family and had kids who went to Harvard? What if there were photos on the wall depicting the good times, and all I could do was gawk and scratch my empty head.

Never happened. I didn't have the guts to crank the engine. My father would have thrown down his mop and come running into the garage to see my terrified face. He would reach in and take the key and go back to his Saturday morning chores, wearing his frayed white shirt and paint-spattered pants and canvas shoes. Kids didn't matter to him. Summer was vacation time, when you didn't have to do anything to keep them interested. So I languished in the dullness of our redbrick home with its tiny rooms and old-fashioned kitchen. I was supposed to come up with wild escapades that didn't take me too far from home. And that didn't cost him anything.

Summer may be the last time in one's life when time didn't really happen. The clock stopped in July and August. The dust coated the mantle piece and the closets gave off the smell of a funeral home. Time had no meaning; it was just a fact hanging on the wall. When a friend said he would come by at two, he meant four, and if not four, then after supper, unless he got caught smoking a cigarette. Then he would be grounded to his bedroom for a week. Someone's birthday party was scheduled for three in the afternoon, but when I got there with my present and wearing a stiff new shirt, no one was around. I was informed by a sad-faced mother that the gang had all gone to the city pool and would come home . . . whenever. I hadn't heard about the new plan, so I sat on the sofa in the empty living room and waited. But it was like everything else in mid-July -- you felt the room close in around you, the stairs creak a little, the kitchen come to life briefly as the refrigerator burst into momentary activity.

The only other person to come to the birthday house was a girl I had not seen before. She was new in the neighborhood. We sat there for a long while saying nothing. Then she began to talk about Wisconsin and the farm she lived on. She missed it. She had to sell her horse, and her dog ran away the day they were to come east. She was cut off from all she had known, and was tumbling through the air like an astronaut untethered from his spaceship. Dark space grew into infinity around her. She was alone and was given the desert of her self to explore. She said all this in a soft, clear voice to me. She didn't look at me. She had long fingers that she kept in her lap like delicate sticks. She played the piano, she said. But her dad wasn't going to buy a piano for her. He said she had learned enough. It was time to take on something new. Did I play? No, I said. I tried to learn the saxophone but got bored. She stood up at that point and walked around the room, looking out the window. I saw her against the afternoon glare, her long legs and slender waist were luminous. I hadn't thought of a girl like that before. I assumed all girls were in some vicious clan and would sneer at the sight of me. But she wasn't like that. She was very calm and honest. She kept talking about herself because I couldn't find the words to answer anything she asked me.

When we heard voices on the sidewalk and knew the crowd was coming back, I felt a strange pang in my chest. My chance to speak had passed. Now it would be all boy talk and the girls, the few that would show up, would form a circle in the corner and not look up. But there she was, a fleeting image of something that had not yet become reality, but wanted to. It was an omen, a sign from the depths of nature that things could change at any moment, right there in the pulpy heart of summer's idleness. A girl brought me the message and read it to me, word by word, as if I were illiterate. I could make out the meaning, but slowly, that I was being given a gift. I didn't know what it was. My dreams would tell me later.

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© 2014 by Paul Christensen