I spread my stuff—clipboard with loose-leaf paper, phone, coffee mug, seven-year pen, cloth napkin—out onto the little round patio table. A pleasant breeze riffles. A bird flutes, its call like metal tubes rubbed thoughtfully together. Except for the muted bird chatter and occasional tire thrums, the neighborhood is quiet and calm.
The coffee in my mug wafts steam into the morning air. It is 69 degrees right now, at 8:00 a.m., and the heat is climbing. We’ve gained three degrees since I set out on my walk just before 7:00. In less than an hour, my phone tells me, we’ll notch up another seven degrees. And the heat will keep climbing until the mercury stops, uncertain, just below the 90 degree mark.
Maybe, it will decide to keep on climbing.
The humidity is 90 per cent. This will be another in a string of Hot Muggies…another steaming day.
Mark was doing dishes last night and he called me over.
“Look at the air above the garage,” he said.
And just above the garage’s peak, we could see the air. It shimmered and twisted; it danced in the evening sun. It became a lens that changed the look of everything beyond it.
Five days into summer, the air was doing its heat dance. Just over a week ago, before walking in the morning, I pulled on my jacket and was glad to find thin knit gloves in the pockets.
Then the world spun; the solstice happened, and summer fwumped down, damp and heavy and hard to budge.
“It’s HOT,” I said to Mark, as we gazed out the kitchen window.
“It’s steaming hot,” he agreed.
This morning, looking for a topic or a theme, I shook my prompt jar, pulled out a random yellow slip of paper.
Steaming, it read.
I write my pages; I move inside to eat my oatmeal toast. Mark comes down, fresh from the shower, crisp and lawyerly in blue-striped shirt and khaki pants. We step out onto the back stoop and the air assails us, thick, heavy.
“Yikes,” he says, and he runs a finger under his freshly ironed collar. “Already…”
He drives off to work and I lace my shoes back on and head off to the haircutter’s, where the water steams and the scissors snick, where the clippers whirr. I decline hairspray, which turns, on my thick head of hair, gummy and unbreathable on days like today. At home, I run to the shower, wash away the tiny hairs that sprinkle down the back of my neck—annoyances at any time, but screaming burdens in steaming heat.
Last weekend, in the quiet kitchen of an Airbnb, I pulled up the Internet and got distracted by a story of how Santana came to record the song “Smooth” with Rob Thomas of Matchbox 20. It’s kind of a magical tale: the thought of the song, the seeds of the song, floated tentatively in fragile bubbles passed through many hands. Each set of hands created one concrete piece from the air around the seeds, until finally, the song snapped together; it sprang, fledged and full, into delighted cultural consciousness.
I watch the official music video embedded in the article. It shows the band and the singer in two venues. They make music together inside, in a bar maybe, relaxed and loose-limbed. They play outside, too, on a city street, in the summer sun. People gather and dance and sing along; their clothes soak through and their skin sheens and the music pulses.
“Man, it’s a hot one,” Rob Thomas sings. In the video, city-dwellers, one a beautifully mysterious woman, lean out of upper story windows. Fan blades whirl; the window leaners search for a breath of cool air. The street dancers writhe, and the musicians, immersed, play on.
It’s a perfect summer anthem; it ear-worms. Walking in the morning, even with the good sounds of Leonard Cohen crooning in my ear buds, I hear a pulsing, rhythmic refrain: Let’s don’t forget about it…
Street dancing, I think, and I remember block parties and festivals on summer nights back in the day. Sometimes it was so dense and hot and so tense that fights broke out and our small city police force would charge in and send everyone home.
“Man, it’s a hot one.”
Sometimes it’s steaming.
My mother died one April. That summer, my father, desperately lonely, desperately grieving, came to stay with us in our little house near Chautauqua Lake. I was working half days somewhere; Dad decided he was going to paint my garage.
It was a brutally hot summer.
“Don’t,” I would say as I left, “work outside in this heat.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” my father would agree, waving his cigarette airily. He was whippet-thin; he drank mug after mug of coffee, smoked cigarette after cigarette. When he thought no one was looking, his vision turned inward, seeing things he wouldn’t share.
Every day, after I left, he’d pull out the ladder and the scraper, the paint buckets and the brushes. He’d go to work in the relentless sun.
“I like it,” he told my brother. “It makes me feel useful again.”
Stepping forward to remonstrate with him once again, I pondered that, and I stopped.
After a couple of hours of work, Dad would shower and get in his big old boat of a car (he bought himself his first brand new car that spring) and drive downtown to Grace’s Café. There, the waitresses called him honey and poured coffee without asking, bringing him little plastic lidded cups of cream and the sugar bowl. He drank his coffee and smoked, picking at his meatloaf, sharing jokes and quips with the kind women who worked there. He sank into the air conditioning, before he came home to take a nap.
Later, we would sit in the dining room before I started dinner. I would dump ice cubes on a cookie sheet, point a box fan behind it towards my father, push dewy glasses of water toward him.
We had no air conditioning then, neither central nor window units. We considered it an over-the-top luxury.
“It’s summer,” we’d say to kids or each other. “Go sit in the shade.”
And we steamed and sweated, and my father grieved.
I browse through a lovely little second-hand bookstore on my trip this weekend, and I find a copy of The Thornbirds. After Colleen McCullough died, one of my favorite bloggers, John Lauck, wrote an essay remembering her. (https://jlauckhouston1.wordpress.com/2019/05/15/colleen-mccullough-an-appreciation-2/)
I read John’s post and realized I had forgotten many details, characters, and plot lines from The Thornbirds. It is a summer book in my memory; it is one of those books I brought home during the summer break, when I worked at the ice cream factory. Relationships steamed in that book; so did the Australian weather.
It was one of those books my father picked up while I was working, read the opening, became intrigued.
We read The Thornbirds in tandem; the book had two place markers. I remember reading it on hot summer nights, in my bedroom at my parents’ house, sitting near the window on the pristine linoleum (which, on hot, humid nights, ripped bare skin like Velcro), imagining Australian heat.
Several summers later, as a young teacher in the company of other teachers, I watched the film version on video at a colleague’s house. She was one of the first people I knew to own a VCR; we sat and watched the whole miniseries on her flower-bedecked patio. She brought a fan outside to riffle up the scarce and heavy evening breezes. We drank iced tea and winced at the pain we knew stalked Meggie.
Our school was a Catholic school, and this tale was considered unseemly and altogether too steamy by many of the administration. But we had all read and enjoyed it; we watched the film version avidly.
I bring the book home with me after my weekend trip, and I add it, along with Summerland and One Summer, to my hot weather must-reads.
When I was a child the heat drove me outdoors, to the shade of big trees, to walks in the Little Woods not far behind the house, to—on very memorable days—a sandy Lake Erie beach, or to any spot where a tiny breeze niggled and twisted. Summer was leisure after chores were done, and it was books to read on sun-dancing days—days when heat attached to bare limbs like sticky webs, and the only thing that drove it completely and temporarily away was a long soak in the lake or in the big claw-footed tub.
In those days, the heat sent me outward, dancing along the edges of the hotness, which spread like a seeping stain, spread faster than my feet could dance away from it. Now, the heat turns me around, sends me inside. Now I am old, and I cannot sleep past 6 a.m., no matter how I try, and I walk when the morning hasn’t yet been glazed, and I sit outside to drink my coffee until the sun chases the breeze away.
By the time I carry my clutter of stuff into the house, the central air has kicked on, and I spend two hours at my desk. Then James accompanies me to the recycling center and to the little dollar store, where we can buy toilet paper rolls individually wrapped in paper, not in plastic. The car blasts artificially cold air; I park as far away as possible from store front and recycling trailer, getting some extra steps in.
James walks with me, gamely, remarking politely and tentatively, though, that it IS pretty hot… He is glad to get home to the central air, to do his vacuuming and disappear into the basement to get some typing done.
I put spaghetti sauce on to simmer all afternoon; Jim will stir it every half hour while I am gone to meet a former student who has become a current friend, and who is struggling with some major changes life has tumbled into her path. We meet at a restored canal village 40 miles from home; I park as far as I can from the coffee shop and walk the brick paths, appreciating the shade trees.
We have a wonderful, catching-up kind of talk, and I return home to find the sauce well-tended. I take the pizza dough from the fridge where, even in that coldness, it has doubled in size, and I roll out two thin crusts onto pans oiled and dusted with cornmeal. I fill the pasta pot with water, blurp in olive oil and sprinkle in salt and put it on to boil.
The oven heats, and Jim comes up to help dress the pizza crusts with swirls of hot red sauce, handfuls of snowy grated mozzarella, a full component of sliced pepperoni.
The water begins to bubble; the oven dings: proper temperature has been reached, and we can slide the pizzas into the intense heat.
Even with the AC, the kitchen grows warm. Steam rises from the pasta pot. I crack fettucine noodles in half, stir them into the simmering water.
James takes his pie slices down into the cool of the basement to eat; Mark and I settle in at the dining room table. The air conditioning chugs and heaves, but it does its job, and we devour steaming servings of pasta in the coolness it generates.
“The heat,” says Mark, “just takes it out of you,” and he sits in his reading chair after the dishes have been settled, opens a book, and shortly begins to snore. But he wakes after twenty minutes, shakes the cobwebs off and heads outside, glad he has installed a temperature-instigated fan in the little garage he has turned into his workshop. He has projects to complete.
And today, hot as it seems, will be the coolest day this week, the least marked pearl on a sultry string.
Summer is here, and its air is thick and moist. And we dance out to greet it, barefooted and bare-legged, moving more languidly than we moved on crisp, clear, spring days. Our limbs are liquid and relaxed, and the season’s possibilities seem endless. Time is fluid and sinuous; and the dropping of the sun promises cool relief.
And then the morning comes. The sun rises. And soon, the day steams.