Regarding Perishable Immortality (Or Summer: An Essay)

‘Memory, prophecy, and fantasy— The past, the future, and The dreaming moment between— Are all in one country, Living one immortal day. To know that is Wisdom. To use it is the Art.’ – Clive Barker

It was a whopping forty degrees outside today, which is positively unheard-of for this region in February. A discernible amount of our piled snow actually melted a little. Not much, mind you, but still a little.

Looking forward to spring, for some reason, often makes me look back on summer… or summers past, as the case may be.

I had only one mantra during my childhood: Escape! My home life was about as controlled as it could possibly get, and off-kilter, inconsistent parenting was usually the order of the day. (The off-kilter parenting was often served up with a side dish of verbal abuse.) Summertime gave me the opportunity to wander even further afield than usual, and thus I eternally relished the season.

There are some summertime memories, I think, that vary wildly from person to person; others are almost universal to our respective cultures. If you’re an American… remember Slip-n’-Slides?

A Slip-n’-Slide is this long rubber thingie, kind of like a bowling-alley lane for your backyard. You hook it up to a garden hose, and that makes it mist water along its length so that it stays slippery. See, the idea of a Slip-n’-Slide is to run at it as fast as you can, and then belly-flop so you can slide down it. (I told you it was kind of like a bowling alley!)

Slip-n’-Slides came in three colors: Yellow, yellow, and yellow. They were also available in three lengths: Five feet too short, ten feet too short, and fifteen feet too short. So the finale of one’s ride usually ended in the sodden grass, leaving the hapless human bowling-ball looking like ‘My Favorite Martian’. (I remember one time when I was at a backyard party, and a pretty girl from the neighborhood was there. I wanted to impress her, so of course I hit the Slip-n’-Slide as fast as I could. I hit the wooden privacy fence as fast as I could, too, which certainly made me look oh-so-debonair!)

I grew up in a vast urban center, kind of the ‘New York City’ of the South. But running right through my neighborhood was something we called ‘The Ditch’. It was a huge drainage trench, flanked on either side by ten or twenty feet of trees and corralled by fencing. To a kid, it was like having one’s own ‘Hundred-Acre Wood’ smack in the middle of a city.

One could walk for miles through the wooded easement, and cross the water at will since it was usually shallow and full of rocks. The Ditch bordered miles of backyard, too, so we could hide in the shrubs and spy on people. Over the years I witnessed a laundry-list of secretive, private acts: People hanging out their wet clothes, people mowing their lawns, people working in the garden, people washing their dogs…

Yeah. I know. Shameless voyeur, me!

I loved summer evenings the best, I think. In the South, that’s when it cools down and everyone comes outside to hang out (or at least, they did before PlayStation and NetFlix). I loved the dawning of dusk the best; that was the prime time for catching fireflies. You could fill up a Mason jar in short order, and read by its light. All the while, the cicada calls – one of the most bewitching sounds I’ve ever heard – would reverberate in the humid air.

I, like most kids my age, had a bicycle. (It was a BMX, which was the preferred brand in those days.) I loved to take it to the local park, which had a bike trail.

Okay, so maybe ‘trail’ is a bit of a misnomer. It was a suicide track, was what it was; I think Planned Parenthood set it up to get around the law banning fortieth-trimester abortions. See, first you dropped down this twenty-foot hill. Then you hit this ten-foot hill doing about mach-3, at which point you flew about twenty feet before you landed. (If you happened to biff the landing, there was this nice, hard embankment with pricker bushes for you to land in.)

And that was just the beginning of the ‘bike trail’. It got a lot worse from there, trust me. Knee pads? Nah. Elbow pads? What? Helmet? Sheeeee-yut, man… we don’t use those!

I grew up in ‘the Bible Belt’, which was pretty fun because there were churchyards on nearly every block. The churches with paved parking lots were a prime place in which to ride one’s skateboard, and the grassy ones were where you played football.

I was always the running-back when we played football, mainly because I could run like the wind and I was too skinny to be a lineman. Us all being from a neighborhood of humble means, no one had uniforms… so ‘shirts and skins’ it was! Lemme tell ya what, there ain’t nothing like being ‘slimed’ by some sweaty galoot who’s been running around in 100-plus degree heat all day. Builds character.

Summer still comes and goes every year, as predictable as human stupidity and infinitely more pleasant. But the summers of adulthood will never rival the summers of youth; how many adults, after all, does one ever see running around chasing fireflies? And if I ever catch some dude hiding in the shrubs spying on my wife, he’s getting hurt. So I suppose that’s all as it should be; the summers of youth end, as they were meant to, with Youth itself.

Still, when I think about summers – and the indelible stamp they leave upon our respective memories – the immortal words of Stephen King come back to haunt me: He awakens from this dream unable to remember exactly what it was, or much at all beyond the simple fact that he has dreamed about being a child again. He touches his wife’s smooth back as she sleeps her warm sleep and dreams her own dreams; he thinks that it is good to be a child, but it is also good to be grownup and able to consider the mystery of childhood… its beliefs and desires. I will write about all of this one day, he thinks, and knows it’s just a dawn thought, an after-dreaming thought. But it’s nice to think so for awhile in the morning’s clean silence, to think that childhood has its own sweet secrets and confirms mortality, and that mortality defines all courage and love. To think that what has looked forward must also look back, and that each life makes its own imitation of immortality: a wheel.

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