A Summer in the Heat

August 3, 2016

       When it became summertime in Mississippi in 1940, the year I turned 12, the watermelon stand opened up down the road, and the pond water boiled with mud and was overpopulated with fish. The grass dried up and Daddy tried hard to water it everyday with the tiny plastic sprinkler, but to no avail. We ate dinner at night with the radio turned to Larry LeSuer and Elmer Davis talking briskly on European invasions. Mama hung on to every word, while Daddy often left in a fit of anger to go smoke his pipe on the front porch.

       I didn’t know much about the war, nor did I want to. When Daddy would start his rants on those troops and those Germans and the bombs and those toxic wastelands of foxholes and gas and guns and death, I would find myself quickly slipping out the back door and running across the lawn as fast as my feet could carry me. 

       “….Now Lonie, you need to be hearing this!” The screen door would slam in exasperation. 

       It was hot. The barbwire fences were electric with heat and the fields beyond vibrated with pulsating waves. Sometimes when I would finish my run down the back lawn and reach the fences and pause to breathe, I would look hard at the fields trying to imagine men buried in trenches and mud, raising their heads only to shoot. I would try to hear the whizzing of bullets and the deafening ring of explosions, and I would try to smell the blood and burnt skin and carnage, but all I saw was the lonesome and sleepy peace that surrounded Grenada, and I found myself grateful for it. 

       I spent my time in the garden so I could take shelter from the scorch. All of the plants were withered and dead, and Daddy soon stopped trying with the plastic sprinkler all together. I would read Little Women under the pecan tree (it took me all summer to complete- I hobbled inside and cried into Mama’s apron after Beth’s death; it was more real to me than any death in the war) and sometimes fall asleep in the balmy breeze. At dusk, I helped Mama shell beans on the porch, listening to her hum softly while Daddy hammered away at some knick-knack in the barn. The crickets sang and the stars glittered when nighttime would finally fall, and that surefire sleepiness would always hit me right in the eyelids. I slept under the rattling little ceiling fan between cool, white sheets that Mama had just taken off the line earlier that day. 

       It was a solitary summer. I felt like the only girl in the world some days. No one came to call anymore. People were mostly kept to themselves at that time on account of all the death and misery overseas. I found companionship in simpler things than people: the climbable trees in the woods, the way the mud on the bank of the pond squished between my toes, the green jumping grasshoppers buzzing through the garden. I was perfectly oblivious to the rest of the world, and it didn’t bother me a bit. Somedays, Mama and Daddy would call me selfish for not worrying about the war and our country’s inevitable entry into its horrors, but I liked to think of myself as being appreciative of the life I had by distancing myself from the war as much as I could. 

       When the middle of June hit, the heat became unbearable. I started trying to stay in the house because Mama was scared I would have a heat stroke playing outside, but I began to twiddle my thumbs and pester her so much out of boredom that she would usher me out into the sun with a tall glass of water. On one of those particular days, I had just gone on my merry way around the house to the woods, when I caught a glimpse of something out of the ordinary. Across the fence line, I spotted Daddy talking with a tall man in front of the scant little farmhouse that we had built a few summers before. The tall man had his hand on the shoulder of a rugged and barefoot blonde boy that looked about my age. I watched them talk with a peculiar curiosity, for I had not seen anyone but my parents and the mailman all summer. After a few more minutes of talking, Daddy shook the tall man’s hand, and began to walk back up towards the house. The tall man led the boy inside the farmhouse, and the door closed hard. 

       “Mr. Lyles is renting the farmhouse for the rest of the summer until he can find a place across town. His wife died a few months ago, and he’s drank all of his money away. The bank took his house last week. This is all he can afford right now,” Daddy explained to me at supper that evening. 

       Mama shook her head and stabbed at a piece of chicken with her fork. “I don’t know why we’re allowing such a disgrace to live on our property. He has been an alcoholic all his life, well before Julia died. He can’t even support his own child.” She pointed her fork at me. “Lonie, I want you to be nice to Fisher. Take him to the garden and the woods. Give him some of your books to read. Talk with him. He has been through a very hard time.” 

       I felt a lump form in my throat. The thought of having to socialize and spend time with someone felt unnatural. It sounded like a house chore that Mama made me do on Monday mornings when all I wanted to do was go lie under the pecan tree and watch the clouds drift lazily by- a dog, a flower, a butterfly, a mountain….

       “Do you hear me, Lonie?” 

       “Yes ma’am.” I quickly excused myself as she stood up and cleared the dishes and turned on the radio. I didn’t want to listen to Larry and Elmer. 

       Daddy brought Fisher across the fence the next day to meet me. Fisher had freckles and wore overalls and talked with a heavy Southern drawl. He was bright eyed and alert and immediately extended his hand when Daddy introduced me. “Nice to meet you,” he said with a grin. 

       “You too,” I lied. Daddy left us to go work in the barn. I scowled to myself when Fisher asked what I wanted to go do. “How about we go back there and climb trees?” He pointed to the woods. “There’s bound to be some good ones back there.”

       This idea did not sound terrible to me, so I agreed and we began our walk barefoot through the dry grass. The sun was beaming, and the day was alive with birds and grasshoppers and a playful breeze. We walked along in silence for a moment, which I did not mind, before Fisher began talking. And oh, did he talk. He talked about the farmhouse and the view of the fields from his upstairs window, he explained how to tie a string around a beetle and let it fly around on its leash as your own pet, he told me how to gut a fish and fry it on a skillet with lemon juice and butter, he marveled at his favorite baseball players and comic book characters, and finally he began babbling about the war and the troops and the weapons and the heroism and the evil German villains invading Poland in order to take over the world. I stopped him there.

       “You really believe the Germans are going to take over the world?” I hoisted myself up on a magnolia tree branch and leaned against the trunk of the tree, closing my eyes. “Because I think the war is a bunch of silly talk. It’ll be over by the end of the summer.” 

       He climbed up on the other side of the tree, hugging the trunk and looking over at me. “My father says that the war will be everywhere before we know it. He says the Germans will be everywhere all at once, and the missiles will be everywhere on us and the need for men to go fight will be everywhere. He says that soon we’ll hear BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!’s everywhere. He calls the war an infection.” He sounded out the world syllable by syllable in a matter of fact way. 

       I opened one eye and looked back at him. “That’s crazy.” 

       But in secrecy, the way Fisher talked about the war interested me. He made it sound more romantic than Mama or Daddy or Larry or Elmer did. He described the audacious and valiant soldiers hoisting their guns over their shoulders, loading ammunition in the trenches while remorsefully looking at a tiny picture of their wives and children back home. He explained Nazi Germany and the starched red and black uniforms saluting the rippling flags branded with Swastikas. It reminded me of a ball in Little Women, the man kissing the hand of the lady with a great flourish as the orchestra played in the background. It was all so adventurous and chivalrous that I went to bed that night almost hoping that I would hear the BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!’s in the far distance of the summer air. 

       Fisher and I were inseparable before we knew it. Every morning we would meet at the fence line and decide on our day ahead. We would explore the garden, run laps around the house, and bound into the woods and pretend we were knights or pirates or wild animals. We jumped into the pond when the heat became too intense, and watched the fish scatter beneath our muddy feet. Mama brought us sandwiches to eat and old magazines so we could cut out paper people on the lawn. We laid back in the grass and watched the clouds while talking about anything that came to mind. 

       When the stars would come peeping, we sat on the front porch railing, swinging our legs and whispering well into the night. “Do you think the man in the moon can hear us talking from all the way up there?” He pointed to the silvery ball hanging in the sky. 

       “I don’t think anyone can hear us down here. We live in a castle,” I whispered back. 

       He paused and thought about this and then nodded slowly. “We live in a castle,” he repeated in a hush. We sat in a thoughtful and pondering silence until he told me goodnight and walked through the darkness back across the fence. I watched him go, thinking that I had never known the world to be so simple and blissful.

       But soon things began to stand out to me. I realized that Fisher never mentioned his alcoholic father. When I asked about him, or why I had never been allowed to meet him, he found ways to talk about other things in his amusing way and took my mind off the subject all together. He showed no emotion towards his mother’s death, which I knew must be a way to cope with the pain of being without her. I was not someone who could comfort or repair a broken heart, so I never asked Fisher about his mother’s passing.

       Then, I began to notice Fisher showing up with blue and purple bruises on his arms and legs or eyes. When I questioned him, he skirted around the subject, only asking that I don't tell Mama or Daddy. In later years, looking back, I would wonder why I didn’t tell Mama and Daddy or why I didn’t demand answers from Fisher. Why was I always so ignorant? Why did I care so much about my time with Fisher, yet not worry when I noticed his injuries? I suppose his word was so trustworthy, I never pressed him further when he avoided the questions. We continued our days normally, and his energetic and fun-loving attitude never changed, though the bruises became more numerous and more alarming as the weeks went by. 

       One day towards the end of July, Fisher didn’t meet me at the fence. I waited, watching the door of the farmhouse across the field, kicking at the grass impatiently. Finally, I decided to go get him. As I walked, I thought about how I was going to scold him for being late and remind him that we have an important battle to fight against the wizards in the woods. Then I heard the yelling ringing out from the house across the field. Drunken, bellowing, cursing screams pierced my ears and startled me to a halt. Fisher’s voice attempted to cut in, but was taken over by streams of cuss words. I had never heard anything so terrible. The last sentence I heard was, “It’s your fault she’s dead!” 

       And then, BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!. And then time froze. 

       Sometimes, I have noticed, there are moments when you can see the world literally breathing around you. The wind inhales and exhales and moves the dust and the grass and the wildflowers and the things of the world along. The earth rotates and the clocks tick and the insects scuttle and the heart beats. Sometimes, if you are still enough, you can see all of it moving together in one continuous motion, all of it frozen in a cluster, working in a strange sort of harmony that can only be understood at moments like what I had just observed. It all happened so fast, I thought I must still be at the fence waiting on Fisher, simply trapped in a dark, dark daydream resounding with the echoes of gunshots. But then my vision caught sight of a wild-looking face in the window of the farmhouse, watching me with an animalistic and drunken stare, and time began moving and my legs began working and my throat began screaming all in one movement. And that’s all I remember. 

       Mr. Lyles was found by the sheriff later that day passed out on the floor of the farmhouse in a puddle of liquor, his own vomit, and Fisher’s blood. He was taken to jail, and I never saw his face again. I find that to be cruelly ironic, for his face floated in my mind’s eye in every moment of every day for years, screaming in my head and watching me through windows. Fisher’s voice followed me too, but only the voice of desperate pleading that I heard in the last moments of his life. I never heard Fisher’s laugh or his ringing happiness or his sweet drawl again for a very long time. It was lost somewhere in my broken heart. 

       All I did for months afterward was listen to the war on the radio. The talk of immense death comforted me in a way that Mama’s tearful hugs and Daddy’s intelligent life talks could not. The idea of millions of soldiers facing their own Mr. Lyles gave me some sort of stiffened resolve that I could not understand nor want to understand. I often thought of the first day I had met Fisher and the things he told me his father had said- “He says that soon we’ll hear BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!’s everywhere. He calls the war an infection.” And Mr. Lyles was right. I heard those BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!’s everywhere, and the war inside my heart spread like an infection I had never known.

       I found from Fisher’s death that there is no place that is safe from the war of the world. The comfort of the magnolia and pecan trees, the security of the pond and the fish, the sanctuary of the garden and the woods, the blanket of childhood and innocence, they’re not sheltered from the infection that Fisher explained to me on that hot day in June while perched beside me on the tree branch. I learned to swallow my naive pride and understand that I could not outrun the world. 

 

       The war ended when I was 17. I watched its final summer slip by with a certain stillness and resolution and calm that I had not been able to feel since Fisher’s death. As the world erupted into celebration, I found myself finally learning to celebrate the summer I had spent with Fisher by my side, teaching me the ways of the world and how to discover happiness in the temporary things that slip right under your nose. I finally began to hear his voice and see his bare feet running through the grass and his playful grin as he splashed in the pond and his golden curls falling over his eyes as he laid back beside me, looking at the clouds drifting above our childhood paradise. I fell asleep that night under the rattling ceiling fan between cool, white sheets, and planned myself a trip down to the woods the next day to see if the battle between the wizards could finally be resolved as well. 

 

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121 North State Street

Jackson, MS 39201

769.572.7770

P. O. Box 1183

Jackson, MS 39215

© 2018 by PORTICO

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