It's not how hot the summers are here as much as how long they go on. Temperatures started topping 100 degrees in May this year, and for a little while it's bracing. You think you'll fight it out, but by August you are desperate and the sun seems to hang smug and sullen at dead noon all day long. There's a vicious, personal quality to the heat of these late summer days, like summer has it's teeth in your neck and it's going to shake you till you're limp, wring the last bit of juiciness out of you before, if we're lucky, it dies in late October.
On Saturday I went to a house-warming party of sorts at Scarlett's new house. Lorna, the owner of the house, was there, and our friend Amy Jean. The three of us sat on the couch while Scarlett wrestled a rented snake down the drain of the bath-tub, which is clogged, and which Lorna, for reasons obscure, does not which to take up with the landlord. It was valiant effort, and she said she didn't need any help, which everybody knew wasn't true, but everybody for the moment wanted to sit down in the cool of the front room. After an uncomfortable while, Lorna quietly got her things together and fled the house. Amy Jean and I stayed.
Amy Jean and I are alike in small ways that surprise me. We are the same height, and built the same. We both pull our hair over our shoulders and play with the end like nervous children. We both look up the answers to our questions. Amy Jean has a way of never quite meeting your eyes or answering your questions, though what she says is always interesting, and I wonder if I am like that, too.
Amy Jean, like me, is interested in the body. Today she is telling me about the physiology of laughter. She tells me "grotesque laughter" is the term of art for the laughter you laugh when things are too horrible. She says the endorphins from laughter protect the brain from permanent damage by painful events.
In June Amy Jean was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Doctors caught the cancer very early. They destroyed her thyroid with a radiated pill and now she will have to take hormones for the rest of her life, but she is alive and doing well. She laughed the day of the radiation and the day before and the day after. Come to think of it, I have never seen Amy Jean cry.
I have never seen my mother cry either. Cancer treatment was not as advanced in the 80's as it is now. The doctors at NIH put a scalpel up my mother's nose to cut out the lemon-sized tumor deep in her head, coring her brain like an apple. She survived. She would be different forever, in subtle ways, like someone with three quarters of a brain might be, but she lived and that was good.
After the surgery we went to see her in her room in the hospital. She laughed so hard while we were there that the hospital pudding went up into her recently-violated nasal cavities and came out her nose. I sat on her bed and laughed with her while my father wept and my brother was silent.
At first, Amy Jean did not want the radiation. She was going to cure herself with cabbage and kale and Good Thoughts, but she was very sick and everyone said she should act fast. Her long black hair has white hairs in it now. They look like stars in the sky at the North Pole at midnight. Everything about Amy Jean is so lovely and so cool. Her eyes are the color of beach glass, blue green and full of light.
Dog days. Last vicious days of summer. Spare us. I show Amy Jean the rash between my fingers. Tiny shoals of blisters that dry up and peel away just to bloom again on the next layer of skin below. "I thought it was poison ivy," I say. "But poison ivy wouldn't keep coming back like this."
She takes my hand in her cool hand and turns it over in the light. "It's eczema," she says. "I have it, too. Look."
She holds her hand next to mine, and sure enough it is the same. I notice how much alike our hands are. We have the same kind of skin.
Scarlett comes in the room with her hair in her face. She has lost her battle with the rented snake. She is angry at Lorna for leaving. She is angry. She is on the verge of tears. Scarlett cries often and easily, hot little floods of crying. Amy Jean and I let our coolness wash over her now. We tell her to stop with the snake and chalk it up to a valiant effort and call the landlord. Scarlett is afraid to make Lorna angry in case she loses the room in the house. We tell her everything will be OK, because everything always is OK, even when it isn't.
Maybe we're wrong. Maybe we should let her cry. Maybe we should cry with her and scream and smash glass and throw furniture. Maybe one of these teasing gray humid morning we've had all week will turn into a thunderstorm and crack the sky over the city and rain down a torrent that rips up all but the deepest roots while the rest sweeps into the river in a flood of trash, all the way down to the gulf and the ocean.
Maybe we should all be crying. Maybe it's the effort of not crying that is killing us. Maybe the tears are building in our blood until our bodies turn on us and kill us. Things are rough and only getting rougher, and the promise of relief is just enough to keep you here but not enough to cool your face. That's how you feel in Texas at the end of the summer.