By Douglas J. Troxell
* This story originally appeared in the 2010 Edition of the Wilkes Cohort Review
The late July humidity, stale and thick, hung in the air, plopped down on my townhome’s porch next to my wicker chair. Even with the sun nestled below the horizon the thermometer in the garden still read 85 degrees. It was the kind of humidity that made reading a physical activity.
It felt like summer.
My fingers flipped the page of my Updike novel, but I only pretended to read. What I was really doing was trying not to sweat. My wife, Alyssa, sitting in the wicker chair next to mine, seemed to be doing the same. Every twenty seconds or so she’d glance up from her Patricia Cornwell novel, listen for any sound of our four year-old son, Michael, and then continue reading.
“Can’t we go inside to read?” I asked.
The crickets sang and chirped, complaining of the heat.
“We’re staying right here,” Alyssa said. “Your son was a little terror today and I don’t want him waking up.”
Michael, like most four year-olds, possessed super sonic hearing, forcing us to hide outside for the hour after we put him to bed.
Across the street, a townhome, tan and unspectacular, mirrored our townhome, also tan and unspectacular, only no one sat in the wicker chairs on the other house’s porch. All the damn townhomes in the neighborhood looked exactly the same, but they were cheap—the perfect quality for a first home.
A firefly landed on my wrist, its tiny legs tickling my tan skin. The tiny visitor traveled across my hand, crawled onto the spine of the book, and then flew off. Looking up, a swarm of the summer insects hovered over our hydrangea bushes, tiny imitation stars blinking in and out of existence.
The sight reminded me of the hot summer nights growing up near a cornfield in northeastern Pennsylvania. Every night in the summer, my sisters and I would run around the backyard, barefoot, chasing fireflies, the dewy grass caressing the soles of our feet. We’d stick the ones we caught in glass jars, trying to see who could catch the most before our mom called us in for bed.
And right there, caressing that memory, I felt a twinge of a feeling that could only be described as summer. Summer was running through the grass barefoot chasing fireflies. Summer was as distinct a feeling as Christmas Morning or My Birthday. I had almost forgotten that feeling, but I knew I wanted to feel it again more than anything, to feel the same way I felt those summer nights as a child.
I closed my eyes, focused my energy inward, and concentrated on the feeling of summer. I inhaled deep, holding the breathe high in my chest, fireflies darting through the mist of my mind. I touched the outer boundary of the feeling, but Alyssa flipped a page and the fragile feeling dissipated and dissolved into the air like smoke.
“Alyssa,” I said, “do you remember that feeling summer used to have when you were a kid? That feeling you got chasing fireflies and playing flashlight tag and eating ice pops and throwing water balloons?”
“Why can’t I feel that anymore? I mean, I’m a teacher; it’s summer. I don’t have anything I have to do tomorrow or the day after that. Why doesn’t summer have that feeling anymore?”
“Summer is freedom,” Alyssa said without looking up from her book. “Summer is waking up with no responsibilities. You’re 33, you have a mortgage, and a four year-old child. You’ve outgrown summer. And what do you mean you have nothing to do tomorrow? You said you were finally going to fix the dryer.”
She was right—about why I couldn’t feel summer, not about the dryer. I couldn’t recall ever agreeing to fix it. I did have responsibilities, but I didn’t see why any of them should stop me from feeling summer again, even if it was only for a fraction of a second.
“Catching fireflies,” I said. “That’s summer.”
I kicked off my sandals and leapt off the porch, thrusting my hands into the miniature galaxy hovering over the hydrangeas. I chased the fireflies onto the sidewalk and into the street, but tiny pebbles nipped and bit at my feet, slowing me. I grasped clumsily at the tiny dots of light blinking here and then gone, my tongue hanging out the side of my mouth. The insects proved more elusive than I remembered and it didn’t take long before I was out of breath and had nothing to show for my effort but aching feet. I slunk back to the porch, sweat seeping through my shirt, feeling tired but not any closer to feeling summer.
“Just sit down before you hurt yourself,” Alyssa said. “You need to watch Michael tomorrow. You can’t be laid up with a broken ankle.”
“I want an ice pop,” I said. “That’s summer.”
“We’ve got a box in the fridge.”
I glanced over at her, gave her the hard stare until she felt my eyes and looked up from her novel.
“What?! You want me to get it?”
“I can’t get it. That wouldn’t be summer. Growing up, my mother would just appear with an ice pop, like she used her Mom ESP and knew exactly what I wanted. Can’t you help me catch a hint of summer here? Please?”
Alyssa complied, under protest. She was a good wife like that (although I knew this moment would come up tomorrow when it was time to fix the dryer). She tip-toed into the house and returned with a red Popsicle, but the stick and the torpedo shape were all wrong. The treat did nothing to conjure the feeling of summer.
“An ice pop,” Alyssa said.
I explained that what she held was not an ice pop. What she held was a Popsicle. An ice pop was the bright neon colored tube of liquid that you stuck in the freezer until it froze over. Then your mom would cut off the top with a pair of scissors and you’d suck out the tip of the ice pop from the cut-off portion and then enjoy the rest, sucking out the juice at the end.
I took the Popsicle from her anyway and ran my tongue over it, trying to taste summer on it. The cold hit my tongue and my taste buds detected a watered down version of what should have been flavor.
“Are these sugar-free?” I asked.
Alyssa nodded. “They’re Michael’s. You know what he’s like when he has sugar.”
The Popsicle sailed through the air, joined the universe of the fireflies for a few seconds and then fell out of orbit and bounced off the sidewalk.
“Sugar-free popsicles are NOT summer,” I said. “Ice pops are summer.”
“This is getting ridiculous.”
We argued, Alyssa resorting to logic and reason, which I countered by making noises louder than the ones she was making. Our voices slowly rose in volume until they echoed in the empty street. We both forgot about Michael sleeping in the room directly above us with the window open until the front door opened. Michael stepped out onto the porch in his Tigger pajamas with the striped Tigger tail hanging off his backside, his eyes wide open. I told him to go back inside, but he didn’t. He was at the age when Alyssa and I both knew we shouldn’t argue in front of him, but we did anyway.
“Do you see what you did? Now he’s never going to sleep.”
“What I did? I didn’t—”
But then I realized Alyssa and I were alone on the porch. Michael was gone. Alyssa panicked until I spotted our son on the sidewalk chasing fireflies, the discarded cherry Popsicle dangling from his mouth.
“Michael!” Alyssa yelled.
And as I watched Michael zigzagging through the street just out of Alyssa’s reach, grasping at the dots of light with his tiny hands, a Popsicle shoved into his face, a strange feeling came over me. It started in the pit of my stomach, then spread like an expanding star, a warmth that flowed through my veins and warmed me from the inside out until the feeling consumed me. The blandness of my neighborhood and the mortgage and the broken dryer drifted into the background of my mind, replaced by Michael’s laughter. And in his laughter I heard shouts from the outfield, I felt grass caress my bare feet, tasted a cherry ice pop on a hot July day, and saw fireworks explode overhead.
“There it is,” I said.
And I felt it.
I felt summer.