Steaming

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.

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Summer Possibles

The door to summer opens, and letters, messages, arrive… Ah, delight: there is company coming.

They survey the guest area–a pull out couch in the living room. The room has three entries; the back two can be shuttered with louvered doors, but the large front arch, the entry by the foyer, is too big for a traditional door.  When people stay overnight, they hang a curtain there from a spring tension rod.  The dog walks underneath it and jumps onto the pulled out bed. People cut through, saying, “Oh, SORRY!” when chastised.

Sometimes the guests sleep there; sometimes they put the guests in the master and sleep there themselves.  The common space shrinks to the family room.  It’s awkward, at best.

She wonders…  They go upstairs and stand in the doorway of her little box room, which is filled with craft items and boxes, photos and gifties, frames and wrapping paper and spools of silky ribbon.  A tiny room.  A room with no door.

Could we, she speculates, hang one of those barn door hardware contraptions? He backs in to the room, looks at the doorway, pulls out a measuring tape.

He searches the internet for the hardware.

“Yarrrgh!” he says, “expensive!”  But then he locates a set for less than a third of what the big box stores charge.  He places the order.

They pack all the crafty stuff into plastic bins and move them to the basement.  The dusty curtains go down the laundry chute.  She pulls out the vacuum and sucks up dust and tiny shreds of paper.  They dismantle a heavy old wooden table and lug it, in pieces, down to join the bins.

She finds a black iron day bed for seventy dollars; he puts it together. It fits snugly into the alcove formed by the dormer window. They search the ads for deals and find a mattress on sale at a discount store.  When they arrive to pick it up, they discover everything’s on sale, and there’s an extra discount with their member card.  They buy a bucket chair, a tiny dresser, a bedside table.

He and the boy go out to the garage and clean.  In the process, they uncover an old wooden door.  They set up a workshop,—sawhorses, electric sander. He sands the door smooth, paints it a soft, shining white.  The hardware arrives and he drags it and the door upstairs, mounts the black brackets, hangs the door.  The door looks perfect.

The new guest room is a tiny, pretty, welcoming gem.

Well, it’s summer, they think.  It feels like anything is possible.

She begins walking again, at night, feeling the stretch in her legs; her IPod cranks out Leonard Cohen and she catches herself marching and singing along. She smiles at passersby–the whippet-thin running woman whose ponytail pounds from shoulder to shoulder, the acrobatic biking boys who stand to charge up a long curved hilly drive. Their payoff is the thrilling return trip, navigating the downhill curves, wind riffling their short, hot-weather hair.  They zoom out onto the sidewalk, grinning, wheel around, pedal up the energy to try it again.

She thinks at first she’s crazy to try, too tired, old, and crazy to pedal up her own energy;  but soon she is walking three miles a night.

On Tuesdays, she brings big bags of fresh, local veggies home from work; they spread them out and scrutinize. Can we eat all this? they wonder. Then they begin to see recipes everywhere they turn.  They chop and blanch and freeze; they  stir together Italian wedding soup with homemade chicken broth, fresh chopped kale, tiny orzo noodles. Instead of of meatballs, they brown Italian sausage, brought back special from western New York. It is tangy and pungent; they crumble it up into the soup, eat big bowls with crusty bread from an Italian baker, and freeze containers to take for lunch.

They grill veggies and saute them; they bake chicken with summer squash and carrots.  They make dips and pesto. New recipes: why not?  They discover new favorites.

They plant basil seeds in egg cartons on the sun porch; the seeds sprout and thrive and then two desperately hot days cook their sad little stems.  She goes out and buys established plants–basil and rosemary.  They put them in the kitchen sink garden outside the kitchen door. Why not, he says, dump that good dirt from the egg cartons into the sink?

Great idea, she agrees, and sprinkles the rich black soil around the herbs.

Within days, he notices little seedlings  sprouting.  Something tells them to let those little plants be, and the seedlings get bigger and stronger.  She spicks a leaf off, rubs it between finger and thumb, sniffs.  Basil!  All the seeds they’d thought were dead come happily back to life in the rich moist dirt, the friendly sun, protected in the ell of the house from wind and storm.

Their spaghetti sauce tastes like the sun, with fresh basil and rosemary, tomatoes picked that morning at the farm down the way. It’s summer, and the time and the possibilities–even healthy plants growing from zapped seeds–seem endless.

Wendy comes to take the guest room for its maiden flight; she deems it a cozy place to sleep and read.  They take her, all three of them, on a lazy ride down the river on the paddlewheeler Lorena.  Fanned on the upper deck by river breezes, they hungrily dig into a light and lovely lettuce salad, and they fork up prime rib that cuts like butter as they chug smoothly north for an hour. They lazily eat chocolate peanut butter pie and drink hot black coffee as the Lorena turns to head home.  Children run along the riverbanks, yelling and following them. Big tough tattooed men lean out of party barges to pump their arms in the ageless signal children send to semi drivers: HONK!  PLease HONK!

The captain, a quiet, white-haired gentleman in a nautical cap, grins and obliges, pulling the long loud honking foghorn over and over.  Women, waving the hands that don’t hold clinking drinks, lounge in canvas chairs carried to the water’s edge. A storm threatens, but, of course, does not materialize. It is summer, and threats subside.

Some days she walks early and late. She loves to walk by a neighbor’s gaudy flowering shrub. Its blossoms are bigger than dessert plates, pleated and pretty with clear true colors, full and grinning in the early morning sun.

At night, the flowers curl in on themselves, as if exhausted by their boisterous, flamboyant display.  They look, he says, like hand-rolled cigars.

They walk through the Gardens around the corner; they marvel at the lily pads with their waxy blooms, exuberant in the pond where the waterfall plashes.

Some Sunday nights, a loosely woven orchestra plays in the bandshell; the group struggles gamely with complicated compositions but comes out strong with John Phillip Sousa. They clap and stamp along with the crowd, a range-y crowd with children zipping in dizzyingly circles, elders whose worn and spotted hands beat time on the metal arms of their folding lawn chairs, a cluster of black clad young people, whose cool is betrayed by feet that can’t help tapping. They people-watch and imagine unconventional matches–the crisp-cut young man, the languid and pretty young Goth.  Why not?  They’d be good for each other, maybe, they agree, and it’s summer, after all–a time for taking chances. It’s a time when it’s possible the chances will bear fruit.

But there is the chance too of the evening phone call: Are you sitting down? says the well-loved voice on the other end,–or, Call me as soon as you get this, urges the message.  These events, too, sneak into summer possibles–the ones that throw them heavily onto the bench, trying hard not to believe the messenger.

But he wasn’t SICK, he says.  He was planning a visit in two weeks.

No, she argues, he was too young.

They sit outside as the sky darkens; the birds get raucous, then grow quiet. All kinds of things, they accept sadly, are possible.

They remember by planting trees that stretch skyward and strengthen; flowers burgeon and tales of life and seasons play out in front of them.  It is a time, for them, of growth and joy, but they know,–they have the sorrowful evidence–that the pedal always turns.

They get ready for a visit from their beautiful young granddaughter, standing on the brink of so many possibilities. Her gentle hands will welcome sassy Max, the neighborhood cat, settle the antsy dog into summer slumbers.  They will go to the Zoo; they will tour the Wilds.  They’ll have wonderful meals and long walks and conversations of re-discovery.

Summer rolls up its hill, hovers for a moment at the peak, and begins to descend.  There is more glamor and flash ahead, but mothers are beginning to dream of children back in school.  The ads come out–tablets for a quarter, folders for a dime.  The first leaves on the spring-flowering tree by the kitchen window turn vividly red and flutter.

On Saturday nights, they fall asleep to the strident voice and the insistent bass of the band that plays at the bar down by the river;  the chorus of young voices rise and eddy.  It is summer yet, summer with its promise and its insistent push–you dare not rest; you must keep moving. The journey is often joyful and sometimes culls forth a wrenching loss.

They will sit outside and light a fire, sipping drinks and talking softly; they will welcome visitors to that pretty little room. They have, now, years enough on the planet to know not to fight time and flail against fate; summer will wane, and autumn will blazen. They will cosset their joys and remember their losses, and even in the midst of hard-earned wisdom, feel that little leap, that firm little flicker.

It is summer; they know what they know. Yet somehow, anyway, in the cool quiet of the night, in the friendly flicker of the fire, they still believe it’s true: anything could be possible.