My Favorite Season

For recent high school graduate Eric Sterling, the summer of 1980 will be his last. He wants to spend that summer alone, but new neighbor Jayson won't let that happen.
Jayson has also just graduated, and is seeking his own final summer adventure before college and "adulthood" change him forever--a change he fears more than he lets on.
For reasons he doesn't fully understand, Eric is reluctant to tell the truth about his leukemia to his brilliant, capricious friend. Will Jayson pity him? Avoid him?
However, Jayson finds out anyway... and their real summer adventure begins...

[Thirty Chapters]

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8. Chapter Eight

                   Sometimes, life is sunset-colored,

                   With more gold, and fire, and sad songs

                   Than any other hour...

 

                                        Unorchestrated Songs

 

     Whoever had designed the house at Scotland West must have loved summer, and beaches. The back porch looked out on a small patch of grass, which stretched to the bluffs overlooking the sea to the front, and Chameleon Bay to the right.

     With all my unpacking, I had missed the sunset, but now we sat on the porch in silence, listening to the ocean tumble in and out. The last golden clouds turned purple, still royal.

 

     Jayson and Philip sat on rocking chairs, creaking slowly to and fro with the ocean. Roxanne sat on the railing, and I was draped on the three short steps down to the lawn.    

     Roxanne said, "Why don't we make ice-cream?"

     Philip slapped his knee. "I haven't done that in a long time."

     Jayson said, "There's a freezer in the cellar."

     Roxanne: "Hand powered, of course."

     Jayson: "Not my hands, but yes."

     I said, "Sounds good to me...that's half the fun."

     Jayson merely shrugged, but I could tell that he enjoyed having the whole group together on something. I did too, a little, but I preferred it just me and Jayson. Selfish, I guess.

     Philip said, "I'll mix my famous ice cream recipe."

     Roxanne stood. "I'll go get the freezer."

     "I'll go with you." Did I say that?

     Jayson stood quickly. "That's okay, Eric, I'll go."

     At first, I thought that he was afraid I'd move in on his girl. But I recognized the 'Let me help you, Mr. Invalid,' look in his eye. A few people, like Jayson, aren't aware they're doing it, but it's annoying anyway.

     "That's okay, Jayson, I'll go," I said.

     He moved back, apologetic. "Sure."

     I felt a twinge of guilt, but I followed Roxanne to the basement.  

                                                *                  *                   *

     The basement was not a cold, grey room. The walls and floor were made of handmade bricks, in various shades of red. The fluorescent lighting revealed standard cellar fare: boxes, tools, plumbing. I walked past a metal detector, a tripod, a movie projection screen, an empty aquarium, old chemistry sets and cannibalized radios and TV's.

     The first thing we came across was a box of romance novels, a dozen or so copies each of eight books, all written by Elizabeth Murdock. The Twilight Romances publishing company specialized, according to Roxanne, in books by black women about black women.

     I asked, "Do you read romance books?"

     "Only the ones Jayson's mother writes. She likes my opinion."

     "Which is..."

     "They're all right, but there's nothing like reality."

     "Ah," I said. "Like you and Jayson."

     Roxanne was never sappy-eyed when Jayson was around, but when she talked about him...

     Her version went like this. If there is any sunlight at all around, it will seek out her eyes, and shimmer and dance there until she thinks of something else; and her nose and her cheeks will turn pink.

     Now she did all this and smiled.

     "When Jayson first asked me out, I must have hesitated. He said, as if this were a deciding factor: 'I do all my own stunts.' You know, it was a deciding factor.

     "And it wasn't such a strange thing to say. I've wondered sometimes how he does certain things..."

     My explanation, of course, was much more elegant: Jayson could do things a real person would not do (like become my best friend, then abandon me, and then come back) simply because he wasn't real to begin with.

     I kept this secret to myself. Like the invisible friend of childhood, Jayson was for me. Everyone else could just humor me: "Sure, Eric. Sure you have a friend who's not afraid of you. And what? He what? He listens to you?  Ha! Ha! Well, okay, Eric. Have it your way."

     Roxanne said, "Jayson's a good friend. He really helped me when my father died. He never used empty phrases of consolation."

     I understood. It had been one such empty phrase that had started me on my crusade: "You're so brave, Eric."  Sudden Panic: did that make my crusade empty?

     Roxanne went on: "That was the first time I came out here, with Jayson and Philip and a few others. I could feel his grief, his empathy. Somehow, he knew without asking. Better than that, he understood. That endeared him to me." The smile broadened. "That, and the time the big dope finally kissed me. Ask him about that—and don't let him off until he tells you the whole story."    

"I never thought I'd hear Jayson called a dope."

     "He was a dope for thinking I would settle for a peck on the cheek."

     Now I was intrigued.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I have to include here, for two reasons, the conversation Philip and Jayson were having while we were looking for the freezer. The first reason is that it explains some of the mistakes we (Philip and I) made later on. The other is that I took certain dramatic liberties with Philip's bland narrative:     

     "This," Philip said, "is nice."

     He and Jayson were sitting on the back porch. A lone yellow lamp lit the porch and small patch of the yard.  Beyond, a hundred yards away in the darkness, the surf sounded.

     Jayson loved that sound, at once a roar and a whisper. Even after all his summers, it never settled into the background. It was always there, a cool, pleasant cushion.  He would wake up in the middle of the night to see the moonlit curtains wave lazily through the open window—and he would hear that wonderful lullaby. And sometimes this would happen at home, in Belltown, three hundred miles away...

     "Roxanne is very pretty, isn't she?"

     Philip nodded. "Especially her eyes."

     "I know. They're like...faded blue jeans."

     Philip looked at him. "Faded blue jeans?"

     "Yeah. You know—stone-washed denim."

     Philip grimaced. "That's not very romantic, Jayson, I hope you never told her that."

     Jayson looked surprised. "I haven't told her anything."

     "Oh? What do you say when you're with her?"

     "Well, not much...I don't know what to say...although, we did have an interesting discussion on semantics just this morning..."

     They were both silent for a while, then:

     "You know, Jayson, something you said back at the graduation party, about going to school for eight years... right then, it suddenly sounded like a really long time. Eight years."

     Jayson stretched, and settled more deeply into the chair. "Well, think of how much fun we had in school, and we were only on campus for seven hours a day. At college, we'll be there twenty-four hours a day—twenty-five during exams. And friends, Philip. You're going to be friends with people you don't even know yet. And the things you'll do and see and feel—they'll be new! Philip, you'll realize that there is more in heaven and earth than we can ever dream of."

     "Maybe that's it. Doesn't it scare you a little, to know that there's so much out there?"

     "Let me put it this way: when they come to take me away, I'll be so loaded down with souvenirs, they're going to have to make at least a dozen trips."

     Philip smiled. "But, like you said at graduation, now it's our turn to make a difference."

     "That's right, and we will. That's the least we'll do." He smiled. "When—if—I die, it's going to mean more than that I just stopped breathing. It will mean I stopped teaching, and playing music, and...and caring."

     Philip did not respond.

     Jayson turned to him. "What, exactly, are you worried about?"

     Philip sighed. "Changes are coming too fast. I don't mean future shock—I can adapt. I mean the changes themselves don't mean anything."

     "Explain."

     "Like clothes. If we change from style A to style B, then to style C, then why change to B in the first place?"

     "Well, I guess we have to bring the meaning in with the changes."

     But Jayson wasn't sure himself. The response had come from his desire to always have a quick answer—no, a one-liner, a dash of attic salt.

     "Besides, you picked a poor example. If you want your changes to mean something, change something important."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Roxanne and I found a stack of boxes with familiar names on them: "Trixie Belden, Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, The Three Investigators, Brains Benton..."

     "Well," Roxanne said, "if I ever wondered where the idea for the Great Adventure was born, now I know."

     "Ah, has he told you about that?"

     "Oh, yes, although it was Philip who told me the whole story." She turned to the boxes. "They're all marked, 'Summer, 1975'. Are you ready for the Great Adventure when it happens?"

     "Please!" I groaned, "I'm still winding down from having first met Jayson."

     Roxanne nodded. "I remember my first few days with him—no time to think. Which was just what I wanted." She picked up a small boxed set of paperbacks. "What has he told you about his adventure? Where is it?"

"I don't know. He just said he wants one."

A grimace flickered across her face, then vanished. "Oh. Did he say when?"

"Sometime this summer, I think."

"I know that. I meant—" she stopped, and the impatient frown she'd started faded quickly. She smiled. "I think that might be the freezer over there."

     She moved to another corner of the cellar. I remained, having noticed a stack of loose-leaf binders behind the boxes.

     I flipped through the top one. It was full of essays written by my brilliant host. The titles alone were leaving me in the dust, so I settled on the first one with a readable title. And what a title: Life: The Technical Reference.

     A quick scan showed that it was two hundred and eleven pages of formulas: statistical, chemical and of course musical. Dated Summer, 1975, it was written in Jayson's precise, microscopic print.

     I noticed some that were clearly about the author: page 12 derived the probability of brown-eyed parents having a child with black eyes; not too far away was the distribution of intelligence in the world's population. If I were reading his figures right, there were only about three hundred people in the world as bright or brighter than Jayson Murdock.

     At that point, I stopped reading. But I held on to the book.

                                                *                  *                   *

     By the time we had found the rock salt and freezer, Jayson had collected the ice and Philip was sitting on the porch, his "strawberry goop with fresh strawberries" simmering on the stove. He had brought out his guitar and was strumming.

     Jayson set up the freezer, but, true to his word, did not turn the crank. I took the first turn, and said to him, "Thanks for volunteering."

     "Hey, I put in the ice and salt, right? No one else knows my precise formula for maximum cooling."

     "You just dumped them in!"

     Jayson sniffed. "It was a sophisticated experiment in statistical modeling; I don't expect you to understand."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Philip was better at the guitar than Jayson, even with Jayson's campfire song. We all made up new lyrics, easily and best forgotten.

     The house was our shield; the evening breeze returned to the sea, taking our song with it.

 

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