Waiting out the season of Death, I am mute. Suspended in August. Watching the calendar as moons rise and set, the agonizing slowness of time since June. Summer, season of a million murders in the shadows of green leaves and web-thick corners and crevices. Airborne stings lurking in every garden. Night-time fangs creeping soundlessly among my bed sheets.
And I remember the stench of poverty.
Being poor is hard enough. Being poor in the summertime when all its odors are magnified is hellish. There is a nauseating sweetness to the reeking summer of poverty. It pinches the face and churns the stomach. An endless funeral visitation where too too many flowers make the air thick and yet, a decomposing corpse assails the senses.
I endured summer, but I did not endure it well. On the last day of school each June, my peers fled the brick building, shouting with joy, to waiting school buses and home. I walked with dragging feet away from books that carried me to new and fabulous places. I walked away from a teacher who understood, from order and regiment, from friends whose faces I had come to love. At my back, a world I could comprehend and grasp where things were made clear to me, no matter how hard I rebelled. Before me, nearly three months of drifting, anchorless chaos from which I would emerge, the following September, disheveled, angry and ashamed. I have heard that other poor children feel their position most keenly around the holidays, but, for me, being destitute hit the hardest in the summertime.
Most of our neighbors had air-conditioning which made their homes wonderful escapes from a July afternoon. To go with them, to sit in their kitchens or on their couches and feel the cold air settling on my sweaty skin felt every bit as delicious as a glass of ice water going down one gulp at a time. At home, only the heat waited and, when I got there, it pressed against me hard enough to make my flesh itch and strangle the breath from my chest.
My friends went on vacation. There were aunts and uncles and farms and Yellowstone National Park and Disney Land and the beach. Such grand things were beyond our means, although Mama took us camping in the mountains a few times. One September, on the first day of school, we were to write what we did on our summer vacations. I wrote all about the camping trip with Mama and my sisters and brother. The boy beside me wrote about the World’s Fair. When he saw my paper, the corners of his mouth twisted into a nasty smile and he said, "I think she means a real vacation. Like where you actually went somewhere and did something." The following year, I remember very clearly writing one solitary sentence on a page entitled, "What I Did On My Summer Vacation." Beneath those words, in pencil, I scrawled, "Not a fucking thing, like always." I got into a lot of trouble for that. It was worth it.
The heat of summer seeps into every corner of a dirty house. It warms and animates every overflowing trash can, every sticky toilet, every kitchen sink where food-encrusted dishes lean against each other precariously, offering bits of gluey egg or cement-dry cereal to swarms of black, huge-eyed flies. And they drone and light and flit and drone and light again and rub their feelers together and they suck and vomit and suck and vomit. Flies do not care about an audience. They have no shame. At our house, they darted freely in and out of the tattered door where the screen, ripped at the corner and hanging open obscenely like the torn and stained trousers of a slovenly old man, invited them to come, stay, eat and torment.
Cockroaches are more devious. They prefer to move about secretly across countertops, the kitchen floor and in the bathroom sink. I had nearly come to ignore roaches until the August night I awoke to find my hair crawling with them. How odd that I thought I could, somehow, outrun dozens of roaches clinging to my hair. What a sight I must have been, screaming and racing madly down the hallway and out the front door, my hands like two frenzied claws tearing at my brown hair, ripping out chunks of it, and of scalp. I slept in the car that night and for several nights after that. I could not have been more than fourteen years old.
There is a terrible aimlessness to summertime. A sense of eternal listlessness. A forced acceptance of having no direction. Every day feels like welfare and unemployment. Every night feels of sheets drenched with perspiration, kicked about by restless legs fighting, even in sleep, against the despair and hopelessness which lies between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox.
At the end of August, I got to see my girlfriends model all their new clothes and show off their new shoes and purses. I smiled and cooed and beamed with excitement for them. And on the first day of school, I wore my brother’s jeans from the year before and a pair of new sneakers. After a month or so, people managed to forget that I was poor. I could make them laugh or tell them stories and then it didn’t matter that the shirt I wore had clearly belonged to my father before me.
When August died and September was born, Mama used to stand at the back door every morning and make a great show of sniffing the air. She would flare her nostrils wide and close her eyes and make the most intense expression. Every day, she did this, until one morning, she would shout, "Camille! Hurry! It’s coming! I can smell it!" And I would run to her and stand beside her on the back step and sniff the air all the way into my lungs. If I was very still, I could smell it; so far away, but getting closer. Cool, scented by golden leaves and woodsmoke and distant October rain. Mama would whisper, "Can you smell it, Camille? Can you smell fall coming?" My favorite morning of every year was the first morning Mama and I could smell fall coming.
It is said that time heals all wounds but I have learned this is not so. Some wounds never heal and are easily reopened to ooze yellow sickness. I am grown now. My home is cooled against the heat which flattens itself against the walls outside. Personal neurosis dogs me constantly to keep every floor vacuumed, mopped, swept, every tub, shower and toilet scrubbed, the trash cans emptied, the kitchen sink smooth and sparkling. I tolerate no "bugs" in my house and dirty laundry is dealt an aggressive hand. I can go places if I want to and buy something pretty if it catches my eye.
Yet, I still wait for September; for the first morning when, standing on the porch, I can close my eyes, tip back my head, and smell it coming to me. Relief. Release. The fall. Then I call to my children and we stand together and smile and breathe and revel together in the sensation of a dying summer and the birthing of autumn.
A few more weeks now. A month, maybe, and it will be nearly here. I am waiting, waiting. Each dawn, I stand outside and test the air. It is too early yet, I know. But I am eager and hungry because, until it comes, I remain a prisoner of my past and of my memories. Until it comes, I remain suspended in August.
© Camille Moffat 1999
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