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THE ABSENCE AT THE HEART OF SUMMER


The last day of July and it is cool at this hour, a little before three p.m. here in southern France. A breeze is blowing, and the sky is so blue it is almost the color of the deep sea. I can't complain. I am a veteran of the last heat wave, a blistering Sahara-fueled "heat plume," with giant arches of super-heated desert fury bearing down on us, leaving gardens limp, trees bleeding sap onto the parked cars, and women moving along like mourners at a funeral. The kids take some pleasure in the few standing puddles from a garden hose, and are willing to believe that summer is not all pain.

There were plenty of consolations while we suffered. The long gray jags of shadows made you aware that the daylight is only so long, that it is as mortal as the thirsty wasps hanging over the pavement looking for moisture. A cat had been lingering at our doorstep hoping someone might put out a bit of kibble and a dish of water. My grandkids are only too grateful to accommodate, in exchange for a few hugs and a scratch behind its ears. The cat, small-boned, and a bit shy, is willing to tolerate the price of food and drink, and to roll around in the dust of the street for their amusement.

The day is uneventful, without a seam in the hours to show you a possible plot or meaning to the time we waste. So glad. I can remember such days at my grandmother's house in the French Quarter when I was a child; my family was visiting from Philadelphia for a week or so. I would while away my time on the green-painted front stoop, poking a finger into a tiny bag of Kool-Aid, letting the tart blue powder melt on my tongue before swallowing. It was deeply satisfying, a way of falling down a well of pure idleness while the sun beat against the house. You could talk or just sit there, you could listen to my cousin yammering on about the family history, or tune her out and drift. And I drifted a lot. The house was moored on the corner of this idle street, with a car passing by slowly, a head or two staring out into the blinding sunlight. My identity was as loose as a sheet on the laundry line, lifting off of me now and then as the breeze explored the mere flesh of my existence with a ghost's fingers.

Here I am now, sitting by a door, gazing out into the same daylight bright as an acetylene torch. What have I learned since then? Hardly anything. I might have gathered that the world is as fragmented as a broken window. Nothing stays the same, even when appearances tell you that the trees have passed two hundred winters and look permanent. I feel time slipping through my fingers like glittering sand grains, the work of so many fine teeth nibbling away at human knowledge. I know that love is that vaporous apparition I thought was as solid as a monument. Girls were butterflies flitting through one's imagination, each one more beautiful than the last. Each tore my heart open and left me dizzy with hope. I know that all those iron girders of my certainty have rusted through and are mere shards of metal jutting up out of the crumbling chaos. I wander through the remains of what I once cherished and come away exhausted from all that astounding emptiness that is the world. But you can't tell anyone what you know, or feel. They have to find out for themselves that this tangible reality made for the eyes and the tongue and the hands is lighter than a rainbow, and disperses itself like a puff ball.

I am glad I live in such an unstable universe. It makes my own moods seem very much a part of this flimsy theater. If I fall asleep reading a book, I am like the night crawling over the river stones, covering the sharp edges of the visible with a soft blanket, a comforting caress of oblivion. I've seen old men lying in nursing home beds with their mouths hanging open, their bodies shriveled like empty seedpods. They no longer know if their mouths are dry or even knew language once. They are part of what bobs along the shores of awareness, so much driftwood turned pale and anonymous. Their eyes like jewels in their heads, still faintly glimmering in the twilight of their rooms. Time has denuded them like so many summer trees now tumbling into autumn. I saw my father lying in such a limbo of old age, and watched as my brother massaged his feet as if he were preparing him for a long journey.

The air rolls through the stillness and cools my neck. The village is quiet, as if it never existed. The stones are heaped up into houses and bear the faint traces of human witness in them. I can see the erased outlines of ancient windows and doorways, an arch or two. One generation took in horses to shoe and groom, another dwells in the same space with central heat and an electric fan, a stove with a canister of gas attached with a red hose. The Rosetta Stone is inscribed in the stones that make up the sides of our street; old houses lean a little to the left or right, and sag under tile roofs. They look like a crowd of pensioners waiting for a bus that will never come. Time is such an ironic measure of meaning; the clock ticking its mechanical ruminations in the somber living room counts like an idiot, repeating the same crazy numbers over and over.

This is how summer feels when you are no longer young. The plot is gone. The stage that was lit so intensely with drama and expectation is now bathed in a soft light from a window left open. You wonder what it means as you sit there, alone among a sea of empty seats, your legs crossed, the invisible program left unopened on your lap. Someone coughs in the green room; a ladder is being dragged out to the flies where a man climbs up in overalls to adjust a cell on a hanging lamp. He goes away and you gaze around you, in the middle of this paradise of afternoon, a man in reasonably good health with his hands idle, his feet planted in the dark beneath him. If someone were to come down the aisle and begin stepping sideways toward me to sit beside me, I doubt I would have anything to say. I would be happy for the company, but at a loss to comment on our situation. My program has vanished and I have nothing to offer by way of being sociable. Perhaps just sitting here sharing the air we breathe would be enough.

Outside, the towering light of the day is beginning to dissolve. I can feel it. The permanence is groaning on its rivets; the animals are roaming the edges of the city, grazing on the vacant lots, looking up as a taxi passes by without a customer. I wish someone would invite me to dinner. I would be glad to bring a bottle of wine with me, a black wine from the Haut Medoc, a bouquet of flowers from the Saturday market, still dripping wet from the bucket they were pulled from. I might have news, but I'm not at all certain what it would be. The table would be set with bright flat ware and lovely, gray napkins rolled into silver rings. I might smell the soup as it was being ladeled into a tureen, a green soup tangy with basil and flakes of parsley. A pot roast is simmering in the oven, and there is hushed talk in the kitchen about how best to carve it. A cake is on the counter with puckered icing and a few strawberries pressed into the snowy surface. Think of all the syllables we will utter, the long sentences, the tense pauses that will ensue when a topic has exhausted itself. Think of the music of our forks on the dinner plates, the scrape of dessert spoons as the little streaks of melted sugar are harvested. I feel the dinner party drifting away from me. I am tired of imagining it. I have so little to say to the person beside me in this empty theater, except to observe how delicate the scent of perfume is. I am famished for experience, as if I never lived in the real world.

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