When I was something like eleven years old my parents went out of town and left my sisters and myself with friends of theirs. The friends were an older couple, poetically nondescript in a perfect brown carpet and beige kitchen decor kind of way. Al had some sort of growth that gave him a Rudolph nose, more bulbous and increasingly red each year. He was the kind of guy who made it his schtick, teasing children about what he had done to get this nose, making up wild stories about how it came to be that way, and how we could avoid a similar fate. His wife, Linda, was big on top with stick thin legs and all her clothes were square, including her dresses which featured prehistoric, or perhaps just militant, shoulder pads. As a child, their property and home had the same vibe to me. Even the grass was brown and the most interesting thing around was the orchard, filled with rows of eerily twisted apple trees. There’s a vague memory of Al in a bee keeping suit, and a dark wooden shed where he kept the honeycomb in jars, the only light coming from a crude window screened in chicken wire. Fresh honeycomb had to be the most delightful thing I had ever tasted in my barely a decade of experience.
They were incredibly nice people and even took us on vacation to Branson, spending a day with us on the scorching tar walkways of Silver Dollar City. But, about fifteen years later, what I remember most distinctly is the savory nothingness and the flawless boredom. What I mean by this is hard to put into words. It’s laid out in neatly framed, moving photos in my mind’s eye, in a way that has come to define summer.
I hate Kansas. When we’re on the road and people ask where we’re from I typically say either Kansass or, “I’m not telling,” and I frequently offer the advice that, if you aren’t farming or cooking meth, stay the fuck outta the entire state. But my memories of the couple weeks at Al and Linda’s somewhat resemble a soft spot for the pulp of summer and vast lack of substance. It’s the simplicity, the feeling of almost comfort in the limbo quality of the place. I don’t like to admit it most of the time, but when the air becomes thick enough to drink and pools up on your skin, and cicadas thrum in rhythm with the miserable heat waves, a piece of me feels some connection.
At Al and Linda’s there was a lot of hang time. My sisters, being too poised and mature as new teenagers, mostly stayed in the air conditioned house, curled around books, while I slipped out the sliding glass door to wander the orchard or challenge myself to find something interesting. There was hardly any shade on the property. If you’ve ever met an apple tree you know that’s not really its purpose in life, and if you’ve ever been in the Midwest, you’ll know how useless even real shade can be. I’m always amazed when we go west, how I can be baking in the sun, step under a tree and get too chilly, so that I want to step back into the dry heat. I didn’t even realize until a few years ago that Kansas has a sub tropical climate, having once been beneath the sea. It’s a low spot where all the moisture runs and stews its inhabitants. The grass withers, the trees shudder and sometimes begin changing colors out of either confusion or self defense, and everything seems to pause.
Summer, in Kansas, can be a bit like night, because only those with a specific purpose are still dragging themselves about. Walking outside can be like wandering a vast secret clubhouse, the only other inhabitants in possession of the same closely guarded information as you, so that there’s no need to stop and converse; your shared presence means you both already hold the key.
I remember walking the drainage creeks to see where they led, the chatter of birds and insects a dull waterside roar. Saplings who had the luck of blowing into this unseen territory, rather than the well trimmed properties a few yards up the bank, willing their leaves to wave in a nearly imperceptible breeze. Leeches and frogs alike, lying in wait, hoping not be noticed in the stinking mud. I was always afraid of water snakes. Something about the way they glide so elegantly across the surface of the water coming across as royalty, and a bow, or at the very least a clearing of their path, is warranted. If snakes are the rarely seen kings and queens of this dominion, mosquitoes are the swarming street peasants, guarding over their disgusting broods not out of care and concern, but only to ensure that their vile lineage be carried on. Someone has to help the ticks keep the soulless deer in check.
I braved the muck and critters as though I were discovering parts unknown, willing to bleed and stink a bit in trade for adventure. My imagination never failed me as a kid and these creeks could be anything I wanted them to be. I might be journeying to a mystical temple deep in the jungle, wading the Amazon to test my courage against the legendary anaconda, turning sunfish into piranhas and salamanders into baby crocodiles, or perhaps I was an orphan, turned to theft and survival dependent on crime, the storm drain tunnels my secret refuge. If you never strolled through one of these tunnels as a kid you’ve missed out on a kind of magic. They seem roughly palatial, ten to twenty feet tall with varying amounts of water trickling or pouring over their floors, impenetrably dark at their centers with small passages snaking off into deeper shadows like black holes in the wall. Sometimes animal remains and paintings decorate the hide outs, and my imagination required I suppose the bones were those of a human, sacrificed long ago to some fire in the sky.
And all along, the cicadas, thrumming, voices soaring, their stridulation defining the pace and secrecy of the summer.
At Al and Linda’s there was that incredible stillness; life free of time. I don’t remember waking up there. I don’t remember going to sleep or eating dinner, just one long stretch of afternoon and eternal sunlight. Timelessness. I finally put my finger on it. Summer on a plain of dry, golden grass is like living inside a sensory deprivation tank- you float, you cease to exist in the conventional sense and life takes on the quality of ink on a page, as though you are a static character in the midst of being written, alive and in motion only when a reader lifts your book and allows you to travel as they turn the pages. And the quintessential insect song only adds to the suspended quality of events, droning constantly on, varying only in the number of voices, fading in and out but never completely quieting.
I’ve always preferred ambient light to artificial and enjoy the way it changes throughout the day. I also enjoy the various feelings of places based on the quality and source of their light and the visual flavours experienced as I move from one place to another, traveling through worlds six feet apart but vastly different. I loved to play outside in the summer until I was too hot to stand it, and then retreat inside the cool dark house, walking slowly into the blackness of the hallway, focusing on the light slipping in from the kitchen trying to reach through the shadows of the foul smelling corridor that housed the opening to my father’s lair. It was always either dark or artificially lit in there.
I would take off my shoes, set them neatly in the row along the wall and walk quietly into the blue living room.
It was in this space the “afternoon sadness” was born, the opposite of golden timelessness. I have this distinct yet fragmented memory of sitting on a stool in the middle of the room, uncharacteristically silent, looking out the window at the movement and sunlight beyond the glass. I must have been between the ages of five and seven. The curtains were blue and there was a room sized blue and white braided rug we, for some reason, called “The Family Rug.” There was almost the sense of being inside a fish tank. I watched the neighbor’s small dog running back and forth in the yard, but didn’t hear it bark. I watched their enormous elm tree wave its fingers over their roof as though casting a spell, but I didn’t hear its whisper. I watched the top of the small coniferous shrub right outside bend under the weight of a bird, but as the feathered creature opened its beak and threw its head back, I heard only the stillness of the house. The feeling that the day was winding down disappointed me in a mortal way, as though the sun’s descent through the sky signaled the end of all things. The Lord giveth, they had taught me, and he taketh away. He must be the one, then, flicking the burning ball of light farther from me, farther towards my father’s waking, towards my nightly battle with terror of things I wished would just show their faces already and get the fear over with.
The isolation was nearly tangible, the color of the light and the decor as though I was frozen inside a block of ice. I could feel my father sleeping at the other end of the house. Even with his eyes closed and his breathing slowed, all subjects were at the king’s disposal, servants of the silence of the house, that he might sleep through the day, undisturbed, and work through the night to avoid the life that played out before him against his will. It was as though, as a small child, I could feel the inevitability of time slipping, slipping, slipping, (if I may) and how meaninglessly so.
My mother would come in from her yard work smelling of sweat and her secret cup of diet Coke, forbidden by her husband because fat women shouldn’t drink soda. She would turn on the radio and, as though they knew what I was struggling with, the christian radio station would taunt me with what I still think of as “end of the day” music, and I would stay in my spot until my mother sent me away or asked me to help with something, or my sisters entered the room to mock me with their beautiful singing voices and pointed helpfulness. “Your daydreams are over,” they may as well have whispered. “It’s time to Help. Are you even doing anything?”
The day would wind down soon. It would be harder to see out the window. False, yellow tones would fill the house, and any sound would be as phony as the light, piping from the throats of a flock of sheep in the presence of the wolf, trying to placate him as his yellow eyes flickered across their meat. When allowed their freedom, there was nothing they wanted to do anyway. Our mother would enforce bedtime and I would lie awake in my windowless bedroom, imagining the sun, fresh, as though never seen, lilting over the garden and gracing the strawberries come morning. I would quietly dress, tease the squeaky back door open as quietly as possible, and slip out into the still cool day, convinced I might catch a glimpse of a fairy sprinkling small droplets over the butterfly garden and grape arbor. Our yard would suggest the inhabitants of the small house may have souls, but in the quiet afternoon, in the wind-down of sleepy light, I knew otherwise, even then. I just desperately wished-no, then I still prayed-that it weren’t true.