Won’t be long ’til summertime is through. But I want things to last forever, and summer has an endless quality to it. A single summer day you can feel your entire life. That day we caught all those minnows and kept them in a bucket. We smelled like salt water and sweat. We waded thigh-deep in the creek, and cupped the minnows in our tiny hands. We said they were our pets. We said we would keep them forever. The more we added to the bucket, the more they circled frantically. The water swirled; wisps of light and mouths and eyes. Living and alive.
An old man stumbled down to the pier. He peeked in our bucket and slurred, “you sure got a lot of fishes in there.” We felt proud. Later, we overturned them back into the creek, and they swam away faster than we had ever seen. The water rippled with them and carried them, too. Then we ran home. Our mother held her nose. “Peeeeyoou,” she said.
Summer, it’s your subtleties that I love. I began to write down all of the not-so-obvious things that I love about summer. Everyone remembers the fireworks and sprinklers, the sand in your toes and smell of hot dogs. I asked the girlfriend for input. Something that you love about summer, but something simple and small. Something weird, perhaps offbeat.
She looked around the room thoughtfully. She walked over to her dresser, where she keeps an apothecary store of creams and sprays and oils and lotions. She held up a bottle of Aloe vera gel.
“No one looks forward to slathering themselves in Aloe vera gel,” I said. But apparently my girlfriend does.
“With skin as fair as mine, it’s a fact of nature that I’m going to get burned. And that two seconds of pure relief from sunburn is bliss.”
“Give me something else,” I said.
“Reading the most serious and depressing books and falling asleep on the beach. Books about the sad state of social programs in America.”
Clearly, she experiences a very different–and very depressing–version of summer than I do. Those are her favorites. Here are a few of my picks.
“Wait, what the hell is ambrosia?” the girlfriend asks.
The word, ambrosia, sounds like a flower, or perhaps a scent. But in fact, it is a dessert salad. It’s one of those weird concoctions you find in 1960s Betty Crocker cookbooks. It’s fruit cocktail, whipped cream, marshmallows, maraschino cherries, nuts–and in all its 1960s-weird glory, sour cream. Ambrosia should be a staple at picnics, cookouts, and other outdoor events where flies are drawn to the sugary sweetness. Like macaroni salad or yogurt dip, it’s that perfect summer food–cold, refreshing, and can curdle in the sun and make you sick as hell. Bonus: it often looks like a great big bowl of pink vomit.
2. Beating Children at Carnival Games
“No, write down small children,” the girlfriend says. “You always beat kids whose hands are so little, they can’t even fit them around the handle of the water gun.”
Whatever. It’s a game. It’s life. You have to learn to lose. Better to start early. (And she’s lying. I only beat punk twelve-year-olds.) Here’s the thing. When I was a kid, I lost these things all the time. If I really wanted the carnival prize, I let my dad play the game for me.
One year, the Ninja Turtles were everywhere, and there were bootleg plushes as prizes at the water gun game on the Boardwalk. I needed one. NEEDED. But I had no aim in my Coke-bottle glasses. Sometimes, you need a pinch hitter. Having your dad win for you is almost like winning yourself.
3. The entire worlds of television that you didn’t know existed while you were in school
Summertime was legendary. It was three months of freedom and salvation and playing outside. Well, the whole playing outside thing would last about a week. Soon I’d be laying on the couch watching television and begging my father to turn up the air conditioner. “Go outside like a normal kid,” he would say. But I discovered there were entire worlds of television that I didn’t know existed while I was at school. The Price is Right. Concentration. Press Your Luck. Why didn’t television and air conditioning exist outside?
4. When the bee goes in the other direction
There is nothing but pure relief that washes over you when the bee flies in the other direction.
Aliens, Poltergeist, and bees were my mortal fears.
“They’re as scared of you as you are of them,” my mother would say.
But when they hovered menacingly around me, I knew bees were intrinsically evil creatures that were hellbent to attack. I’d never even been stung by a bee. But I saw all I had to see when my sister got stung. She cried as though she had been stuck with a knife–and she pretty much was. The stinger was as big as a knife. It was. I saw.
Adding to my fear of bees was the 1991 film, My Girl, better known as the movie where Macaulay Culkin dies from a bee attack. Let me take a minute to talk about the traumatic experience of THAT experience.
Here was Macaulay’s follow-up to our childhood classic, Home Alone. At this point, Macaulay Culkin was probably my favorite actor–behind Roger Rabbit and Ronald McDonald. The trailer for the film showed two kids jumping in the water and riding bikes. The movie had the guy from Ghostbusters, a crazy grandmother, and the infamous “do you like see-food” joke. We did that joke to each other all summer. Macaulay even wore Coke-bottle glasses in the movie, like me. I had to see it in the theater.
Then what happens? Macaulay Culkin dies halfway through the movie after getting stung by an entire hive of killer bees. My Girl was not the hilarious follow-up to Home Alone. No, it was a wrenching drama about a childhood best friend dying in a particularly freakish way. Even my mother, who let us watch films like The Terminator without batting an eye, felt the need to talk to us about what we saw as we left the theater.
Bees. Scarier than the robot Apocalypse.
5. Filling the cooler with ice
I just love to stock the cooler fully with ice. It makes me feel important. We usually only take two cans of soda and some sandwiches in the cooler–which hardly needs twenty pounds of ice–but I love the satisfying weight of a full cooler. I love to lug it across the beach, the cooler threatening to pull my arm from its socket, as we seek out the perfect place to plunk down for a day in the sun. When I finally set down the cooler in the sand, I feel strong and accomplished, like I have just claimed new land. All of this theater, to carry two cans of Diet Coke.
6. Ambassadors of the beach
The beach is about good vibrations and good will. I like to observe others acting as ambassadors for our country. At the ice cream stand, a father begins chatting up the girl at the window. She has an accent and bangs that are cut straight across her eyes. He asks where she is from.
“Armenia,” she replies. He smiles huge and very sincerely says, “Welcome!” She says nothing, thin-lipped with laser-blue eyes. She spoons sprinkles on his sundae. I wonder how much the girl hates us, spending hours in the heat scooping and spooning sprinkles, telling people where she’s from, over and over and over.
Later, I watch a pirate-tanned Jimmy Buffet kind-of-guy ask a black guy with an accent if he is from “Jamaica, mon?” The guy is just like, “no, we’re from Maryland.” Being an ambassador of the beach sometimes means you welcome people from your own country.
7. Fruity drinks
There are no rules of how to conduct yourself in the summer. You can wear outfits with back fat spilling out. You can show off your farmer’s tan. You can fall asleep to books about the mental health crisis in America on the beach. And you can damn well sip a fruity drink with an umbrella in it, and not feel ashamed. There is no shame in summerland. Only coconuts.
8. The neighbors come outside
We used have these neighbors across the street when I was a kid, and as a family activity, we used to watch them. They were Marlene and Gus–and they looked exactly like their names sounded, as though God were creating perfect characters for his novel. Marlene was huge. As in, she probably had to sew drapes together for clothes; and Gus was scrawny–chicken bones in a grimy baseball cap, and covered in tattoos. We always saw him in the front yard smoking. He flicked the butts in the yard, and Marlene was always yelling at him to pick them up. Later, he’d pick them up one-by-one, and we’d wonder why he didn’t just use an ashtray.
Then there was Chastity. We liked to watch her the best. She was their daughter, and you would ask yourself how she came out of their gene pool. She was the kind of girl who drank her milk, and it did a body good. She had eye lashes that we could see across the street, and natural blonde hair that must have been kissed by the sun. And everyday, she washed her yellow Jeep in a bikini. We knew–or perhaps suspected–that she was also very dumb. “Girls like that are Vanna White-dumb,” my mother would say.
There was also a poodle named Cuddles. But Cuddles was not cuddly. Cuddles was gray and mossy, raggy and palsy, walking with the dainty, unsure steps of a blind dog. It was completely blinded by cataract discs, which made its eyes scary and vacant. Its lower jaw was removed so it couldn’t bite. Cuddles looked partially-mummified.
And best of all, Cuddles had survived a crude backyard invasive-surgery. Instead of taking the dog to the vet, when the neighbors discovered a golf ball-sized tumor on Cuddles’ neck, they had their daughter operate with a pair of scissors. Cuddles wore an ace bandage wrapped around its neck. You see, Chastity wasn’t just Vanna White-dumb; she was also a surgeon.
To quote Corey Feldman in The Burbs, “God, I love this street.”
9. When they set up the cool-off shelters
I love the hot weather and the sense of drama it can create. People walk around shocked by how hot it is, as though it were winter the day before. Even the language of weathermen becomes more dramatic. Instead of talking temperature, they talk heat index. They start warning on the news that you can drop dead from the heat. They frantically warn old people to stay indoors, to stock water, and to regularly check their pulse.
But I love when it gets so hot outside that they start setting up cool-off shelters for the old people. One day, I want to visit one of those shelters, where I imagine I will have my own cot. Nurses will fan me and bring me small Dixie cups of ice-cold water. Cool, cool water.
There are so many. Chlorine. Baseball mitts. Fresh cut grass. The metallic smell of the water in the garden hose. Humidity in the forest. Tomatoes and dirt in the hot sun. Sea salt. French fries. Vinegar. Sunscreen. Sweat. Fireflies. Dusk.
I love the smell of gasoline. We would be on the way to the beach, me sitting in the backseat of the Bronco, my sister in the seat beside me, my mother in the front seat fiddling with the radio station, and my father outside filling up the tank. I liked to breathe in the fumes of gasoline, taking it in gulps. The smell of gasoline smelled like summer. This was the beginning of our trip. I was giddy for our week at the beach. My sister and I were packed into the backseat, a part of the wall of suitcases and extra pillows. Everything still smelled like home, like Arm & Hammer dryer sheets.
Soon, our pails would be gunky from playing in the Ocean City sand. Soon, our feet would be scratchy and sea-weedy. And soon too, our trip would be over, and we would be back at home. Summer would go. Soon, it would be the middle of July, then August. We would feel September coming—the weight of the next grade approaching.
I wanted the smell of gasoline to linger in the car the whole drive down. I wanted it to last forever. But my father finished filled the tank, and soon, we would cross the Bay Bridge. Then I could smell only the salty air of the Chesapeake Bay drifting in the window. We were on our way. Won’t be long ’til.