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]


4. Chapter Four

               Those were the days:

               Natty Bumppo was a friend of mine—

               A frontier-man, blazing trails

               And westward bound...


                               Unorchestrated Songs


      This chapter covers yesterday and the day before, the two days before I woke up in this hospital room. My point is that I may not be remembering all the events correctly.

                                                *                  *                   *

     "You see that dense patch of foliage?" That means there's a pond or lake near there; that's where we're headed."

     "Okay. Can we rest first?"


     We sat down. I had not had a chance to catch my breath for several days.

     The four days since I had met Jayson had blurred past in a colorful bright wind, culminating Thursday morning with a chance remark to the madman that I liked camping.

     Jayson had immediately dragged me out to a garage full of camping gear, tents, bags, and utensils, then shoved everything, and me, into his car.

     Now we were in Linville Gorge, somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I remember seeing the Rockies, sharp brittle peaks of rock and ice, bursting right out of the earth.

     They were younger than the Appalachians, which were soft and round, here and there.

     I remembered what my father had said about the Rocky Mountains, during our world tour, and I said it now, for the Appalachians, and for me: "Youth must have its fling."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Jayson pointed out that we were not too far from the Caverns, where deserters from the War Between the States used to hide.

     "And this," he said, swinging an arm to encompass Linville Gorge, "is the deepest canyon on this side of the Mississippi River."

     We stood on a manmade ledge; leaning over the waist-high stone wall, we looked down into the Gorge, down to where the green gave way to grey-white rock. We were so far up we could not see any motion in the iron-colored river, the carving-knife for all this, as she wound her way home.

     Jayson said, "They say that what makes us afraid of high ledges like this is not that we'll fall, but that we will succumb to the urge to jump."

     "Jump? On purpose?"

     "Oh, yes. Consider. There is nothing much in falling from here—simple misfortune.  But to jump—that's different. Then you have a thrill, because there's a moment when you're not earth-bound, not"

     I stared at his face. Swear to God, he was considering it.

I asked, "Do you ever think about it?"

"I don't have to."

"What do you mean?"

"I can fly whenever I want to."

I waited. He continued to stare into space. "Well?"

"I just close my eyes, and I'm in the air, gliding over the mountains, or the desert, or the ocean."

Was it important for me to realize that there were no people in the mountains, the desert, or the ocean?

                                                *                  *                   *

     After resting a few minutes, we continued hiking. I was carrying a sleeping bag, two pots, a pan, and two fishing rods, and I was already feeling winded. Jayson carried our tent, his sleeping bag, a shovel, and all the food, and he was chugging along with the energy that only men of fiction seem to possess.

     This turned out to be the way he always walked—leaning slightly forward, chugging along—but faster than real people, and with more confidence than I ever even pretended to have.

     So we hiked through the ancient mountains, singing an ancient song that— no kidding—Jayson had to teach me:


          Green Acres is the place to be:

          Farm livin' is the life for me

          Land spreadin' out so far and wide

          Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.


     Naturally, I had to sing the Eva Gabor/Lisa Douglas part:


          New York is where I'd rather stay

          I get allergic smelling hay

          I just adore a penthouse view

          Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue.


          "The chores!"  "The stores!"

          "Fresh air!"   "Times Square!"

          "You are my wife..."  "Good-bye, city life..."

          Green Acres, we are there!


Okay. so maybe part of Jayson was contrived: some of his settings came from construction paper and scissors with rounded ends, and some of the people had jumped, gratefully, from comic pages and soundstages in Hollywood and Burbank.

My point is, though, that some of them didn't, and here I am.

     We soon came to the shore of an oval lake, about a quarter- mile across at the widest.

     The view, of mountains and high blueness reflected in the smooth lake, was enough to convince me that this was the perfect place to pitch camp. What convinced Jayson was an assembly of old weathered boards tied together as a platform. He drew my attention to it.

     "A raft," I said.

     Jayson looked at me, despairing of my näivete.

     "Raft? Well, sure, but it could also be a great pirate frigate, or the HMS Bounty, or even the Flying Dutchman. In fact, I think I'll call it that." He tugged at it until it stood upright. The wood and the ropes were gray; it did not look lakeworthy, but I could see it in his eyes.

     "I wonder who built it," I said.

     He shrugged, pulling away weeds. "People like us, I suppose."

     See? The Flying Dutchman was a legendary ghost ship. Fictional.

     Real people—the folk of essays, articles and biographies—would have left the raft on the ground, afraid, as I had been, that there may have been a snake underneath.


               *                       *


     Jayson said, "I have only two thoughts about life, two very general thoughts."

     "Just two?"

     After pitching camp, we had to decide between hiking and fishing. Fishing won: I did not want him to see how quickly I grew tired, and he simply did not want to get tired in the first place.

     The day had aged; we had come to the hour of long shadows.

     He continued:

     "I can't go any further without more information. Anyway, here they are. One: Life is not a coincidence. The fact that we're all here, doing what we do, some of us looking for life on other planets, some of us looking for it here on Earth, some of us killing each other, others digging wells in the desert...the fact that we're all here is not a coincidence, a series of random beneficial events.

     "Two, and this is a corollary to the first: Life is a gift."

     At that moment, his rod twitched. The line snapped taut, then fell slack. He stared at the water, saying only, "Well."  Then he cranked the reel. "If life is not a coincidence, and since we didn't create it ourselves, then it was given to us; I don't know by whom or for what reason—as I say, I need more information, and I intend to get it someday—but life is a gift. And you know how some people treat gifts...they throw them in the closet, intending to write a thank you note for it later, or they use it for a while and get bored with it, then throw it away....Some people never even get around to unwrapping it..."

     He made an exaggerated groan at the effort to rebait his hook, and I thought about the one thing he'd said that got through to me.

     If Jayson were ever to explore that idea any further, it would be much later, and without me.

     And, even though we should never have met, the fact that he would go on and do things without me hurt more than anything else—certainly more than the pain of runaway cells.

                                                *                  *                   *

     We launched the Flying Dutchman at sunset, managing a neat pirate-jig to board her at the same time without scuttling her.

     We floated across the lake, now molten copper. Exposed to the sun all day, the raft was still warm, and was large enough for both of us to lie flat, staring upwards. As the sky curved from orange to indigo, we counted the stars winking on, like a huge city wakening. The crescent moon hung low.

     My God, I thought. I had forgotten the nighttime sky.

     "Here," Jayson said, "is where you want to see the stars."

     He was right. It was a clear, breathless night. It was easy to believe that those glittering lights were burning endlessly with unimaginable fires.

     Yet those lights had been travelling for millions of years...some of the stars that had sent those messages weren't even there anymore. Did that mean we weren't watching real stars?

     He echoed my thoughts. "Some of those stars aren't there anymore—they used up all their energy trying to tell us they were there." He laughed. "There's a lot of that going around."

     He went on. "They say that stars make you feel insignificant. Not me. I feel like part of it all. I mean, without me, it would be a different world, a different universe."

     I said, "Did you ever wonder what life would be like without you?"

     "Of course; all the time. It would be better. At least for my parents."

     "Why do you say that?"

     He did not answer, so I asked, "You never think it would be worse?"

     "No. Did you ever wonder what it would be like to be God?"

     "No, not really. You?"

     "Sure. If I had omnipotence, if I were God, I'd probably make a universe, and fill it with billions of energy sources, and give them planets. I'd visit all the planets, planting a little DNA here, a little chlorophyll there, a dash of ammonia, oxygen, whatever. Then I'd plant secrets all over the place: one plus one equals two, e=mc2, pi, superunification...I'd weave billions of these secrets right into the fabric of the universe, all over the place, for anyone to find."

     "Then what?"

     "Then I'd sit back and watch."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Whoever had created Jayson and me had left us here, alone in the world.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I turned over on my stomach. The raft still smelled like grass, and like long-ago summers even a city kid could remember.

     I listened for a moment, then said, "Is that a loon?"

     "Very good. They're over on the northern shore, I think."

     "They're not as mournful as I remember." It sounded more like a wild laugh.

     "Just listen awhile."

     I did. Soon the lonely kee-a-ree, kee-a-ree floated across the twilit lake. 

     "What a night." Jayson sighed, staring at the sky. "They're easier to see up here. There's Bootës."

     I moved my hand across the rough boards, over the edge, and into the cool water. "I guess you know all those constellations." Actually, I was planning how best to splash water on him.

     "You're a poet, don't you know them?"

     "Well, no, not all..."

     Jayson shrugged. "They were there long before they had names. That must mean something."

     I nodded, and pulled an index card and pen from a pocket, the splash idea forgotten:

               Ere early eyes could trace

               Religious lines through stars and space

               There was a higher pattern—

     I grimaced. For one thing, no one says "ere" anymore; and from there...

     Jayson went on. "Besides, people who live on them have their own names for them. Their name for our sun is probably something as unpalatable as 'glortch.'"

     I laughed. "'Glortch?' So you believe in life on other planets?'"

     It's not a matter of belief. It's a theory I accept until a better one comes along. If a better one doesn't, I'll make my own. Like the Big Bang Theory, which I've only recently proven."


     "Yep. You're familiar with it? The universe is expanding, the stars are all moving away from each other, and so on?"

     "I guess."

     "Good. Look up at the stars."


     "Well?" Jayson asked.

     "Well, what?"

     "Don't they look a little farther away than they did last night?"

     He laughed. He looked up again. "I'll be there someday."

     "Yeah," I said, "I remember when I wanted to become an astronaut, too."

     "I have never wanted to be an astronaut." He looked up again, and sighed. "Of course, if they're moving farther away, that means that every day, they're harder to get to."

     I nodded. "That's too bad."

     Jayson said slowly. "No, it isn't."  In the last light of the day, his expectant smile returned.

     I asked, "How can you get to the stars without being an astronaut?"

     "Someday I'll be an explorer."

     "What's the difference?"

     "An astronaut, a rocket man, always comes home again. An explorer, a voyager, never comes back."

     I shrugged. Geniuses were allowed to split hairs.

                                                *                  *                   *

     "Well," I said, "that was a pretty good day's catch."

     "Your cooking wasn't bad, either."

     I sat on a log, and watched the campfire. The flames, sunset-colored, shivered as the night winds rushed around us. Jayson sat on the ground, across the fire, with his back to a stump. The stump angled, allowing him to recline a few degrees.

     What was it about cooking outdoors?  Food had hot, smoky flavors—and it filled you faster. My trip around the world, of course, included many restaurants, but this trout and warm beans qualified as exotic.

     And so did the night. Sounds, unhindered by the visible spectrum, came to us: the guitar hummed along with the scrape of twigs and cricket-legs, and the whispering leaves. Every now and then the wind would ambush us from a different direction, so the night was not calm: shadows and branches danced around us.     

     "Ah," Jayson said, in what was, sad to say, his best Lugosi: "The children of the night."

     The crackling and occasional poosh of sparks was comforting—even from far away, I thought, this must look warm. Two rugged outdoorsmen, daring Mother Nature.

     We might be great explorers, discovering a frontier. I remembered old westerns, with two wranglers seated at a campfire, heating coffee and beans, deciding how best to head 'em off at the pass.

     It occurred to me suddenly that we just might be intrepid hunters or frontiersmen. But the impression faded quickly; it was so real for that moment, though, that I found myself wanting to recapture it somehow, but it scuttled away.

     And the loons sang, a sound we could not match.

     "This is perfect," I said.

     "I know," Jayson said. "I've always had this perfect image of camping—the songs, the roasting marshmallows; sleeping under the stars. Now it's happened. Thanks, Eric."

     I sat there in embarrassed silence. Just seconds ago I was hoping he'd still go to Rhode Island.

     "I mean," he went on, "Philip won't go camping, for some reason."

     "Still, he seems like a pretty good friend."

     "He is, but it always embarrasses Philip to talk about that."

     "And not you?"

     Jayson shrugged. "Friendship isn't like money. You shouldn't be embarrassed to talk about it, and you shouldn't be ashamed to admit you need it."

     And here was the best opportunity I ever had to talk to Jayson about my disease. The atmosphere, the solitude, our mood— everything contributed to the perfect moment. Had I siezed it, I would not be in the hospital now. But...

     I changed the subject!

     I said, "So...what about Roxanne?"

     Jayson said, overly casual, "what about her?"

     "Oh, nothing...I just wondered why you turn sappy-eyed whenever she's around."

     He sat straighter. "I do not turn sappy-eyed. She's just a girl. Just a friend." He sighed. "You know, my life has never been too complicated. I just do what I feel like doing—I follow my instincts. And it works.

     "But Roxanne complicates things. Because of her, I do things I wouldn't ordinarily do."


     "Like weigh myself every morning, and make muscles in front of the mirror."

     "Yeah. Women." I remembered, briefly, someone who did that to me.

     "And she makes me think things I wouldn't ordinarily think— and none of your business! Stop laughing," he said, or tried to, because he was laughing, "I feel like a lecher sometimes."

     "You don't think she thinks about that stuff?"

     "What?" A look of pure horror crossed his face. I wish I had a picture.

     "Come on, Jayson, she's not a nun."

     "Well, yeah, but..." He looked so uncomfortable that I felt a little guilty.

     "So you don't believe in pre-marital sex?"

     Jayson shrugged. "It's not a matter of belief; it's just not a part of my lifestyle." He was silent for a moment, then added, "Roxanne is of a similar inclination."

     "So you've discussed it?"

     "No!" If his earlier expression couldn't have been outdone, he at least made a good stab at it. “She wrote a paper on it in Ethics class, and I proofread it."


     "What, 'ah'?"

     "Jayson, you poor boob, my grandmother used to say that what people say and what they really do are like the north pole and the south pole."


     "There's a world of difference between them."

     Jayson closed his eyes. "It seems to me that if your grandmother had baked cookies instead of aphorisms, she'd have contributed a little more to the bloodline."

     A little hurt, I said, "I thought it was funny."

     Jayson stirred the fire. "Roxanne is fire, and wind, and rain...and everything they touch. If I could touch her once, without losing myself...although I admit it would be a fair trade..." His mouth smiled but his eyes frowned. He looked at me. "Sappy-eyed, you say?"

     "Like this." I stuck out my tongue, tilted my head, and rolled my eyes.

     We both almost laughed ourselves into the fire. For the rest of the evening, all I had to do was say "sappy-eyed," or make the face, and he'd crack up again.

     God, sometimes life is fun.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I moved closer to the fire.

     Jayson said, "It is getting chilly, isn't it?"

     I nodded.

     "Sorry. Usually I wait until later in the summer, but...well, I was kind of in a hurry to get out of Belltown."


     He raised a brow. "It was getting kind of ridiculous for a while there, wasn't it? I was spending more time with your parents than with mine."

     I laughed, ruefully. "Same here."

     "But the thing is—" He stopped, and stirred the fire again.

     "Go ahead and say it, Jayson."

     He dropped the stick, sat back, and closed his eyes. "I started to feel like I was their son. And—I'm sorry, Eric—I liked it. I really liked it."

     Jayson definitely has more courage than I do. I would never have been the first to admit it. "Don't be sorry. I liked your Mom fussing over me all that time. And your dad has a great sense of humor."

     Jayson stared. "My dad? Bill Murdock?" He laughed. "Okay. So what are we doing out here?"

     "Just plain stupid, I guess."


                                                *                  *                   *

     Okay. So in school, in Social Studies, I learned just how socially segregated and isolated and ignorant I was, and how it was my duty to educate myself by getting to know the blacks and hispanics and create a better understanding and blah blah.

     My life had just turned out that way. Unconsciously.

     On the other hand, there did seem to be a lot of interesting things going on around me. Music, as I recall, and sports and dancing.

     And where was I? On the newspaper staff, and yearbook staff, and writing poems about eternal love, eternal life.

     But, although my dad was the coach, I was never very athletic, so I never met any athletes, and I never joined any clubs, so I never met many blacks or even whites.

     Anyway, I saw Jayson as a way to correct a little of that. 

     I said, "I don't know much about...your people."

     I know, I know; but it didn't sound stupid until I'd actually said it. My God, was I really only one letter away from saying, "You people?"

     Jayson shrugged. "You know my father is an architect. He built—designed— Belltown. And my mother writes romance novels." He shrugged again. "That's about it. Well, my grandfather—"

     I smiled and shook my head. "That's not what I meant."

     "What, then?"

     I am the only person I know who will step into quicksand and actually hang an anvil around his neck. "Ah...well, I mean, we're going to be neighbors...and I...hope we get along."

     "I wouldn't worry about that."    

     Why did I pull back? Because of the look on his face. I had thought he was kidding about misunderstanding me. But he was serious. With a mixture of surprise and disappointment, I realized that I would have to find those answers somewhere else.

                                                *                  *                   *

     Jayson lamented that out of 400 people, only 266 graduated in his class— "The others...disappeared."

     He shook his head. "There were people that I really wanted to see in that graduation line with me."

     A wave of homesickness washed over me, but I ignored it. It frightened me that I was getting better at that.    

     "Why do you want to be a teacher?"

     He looked up. "What do you mean?"

     "Well, you could be a doctor or lawyer or a scientist..."

     He shook his head. "Teaching is the best profession, and, despite rumors, it's the oldest. Without teachers, you wouldn't have doctors or lawyers or scientists. You also wouldn't have history or art, and cultures would stagnate. Traditions would die out without anyone to pass them on.

     "And besides, I get tired of people telling me that I could be 'more than a teacher.' That's all I ever heard for the past ten years: 'you have so much potential, Jayson.'"

     Well, I know that's not the way it was at my school. According to my father, Black students weren't encouraged to do anything more than sports and shop class.

     Okay, there's nothing wrong with shop, although I can't imagine why anyone would want to know how or why a car works. Just start it up and aim it, I always say.

                                                *                  *                   *

     "Well," Jayson said, "it's time for a campfire song." He reached for the guitar. "This is one we sang at the camp last summer. It was a camp for 10-15 year olds. I met an eleven-year old, Matt Remias, who was a loner. I helped him get involved. We became pretty good friends. Yeah, a bright kid... The lyrics may not make much sense, because the whole group made it up, each of us throwing in a line when our turn came:

               They're comin' round to my town

               I hope that I don't let 'em down;

               I'm the place where the vagrants stay

               They need a place to stay.


               They're closin' down the old roads

               And rollin' home like thunder toads

               I'm the Bible's man of ease


               They need a place for me

               They need a place for me

               You and me.


               If I could write a campfire song

               Then I'd fly around the world

                       just one more time,

               And I'd show them all the rhythm

                       and the rhyme

               If I should write a campfire song

               Then I'd have my brothers

                       sing along with me

               And I'd sail the old Dawn Treader

                       across the sea,

               While that campfire's blazin' away.


     He continued to strum, coaxing warm chords, saying, "it goes on, of course, but the lyrics deal more or less with the girl's camp across the lake, and may or may not be flattering, depending on your point of view..."

     I asked, "Which line is yours?"

     "Well, Matt was right before me, and he came up with the line about the brothers, and I needed something that rhymed, so I threw in the Dawn Treader. I loved those books...the Chronicles of Narnia."

     He blinked, remembering.

     I asked, "did you enjoy it last summer?"

     He nodded.

     I'm not ashamed to admit it. I wanted him to remember how much fun he'd had, and want to go back, and solve my only solvable problem.

     I asked, "What changed your mind about going to camp?"

     I listened very closely to the answer.

     He sighed. "This is my last chance for my Great Adventure: a whiff of danger, a journey to the edge. If you've ever seen a Disney movie, then you know what I mean: solving a mystery...or discovering the secret of an ancient castle. I want to be a shining knight, and save a damsel in distress."

     He paused. I asked, "Why is this year your last chance?"

     "My guidance counselor warned me that college would 'change' me—she was mysterious on that point. I don't mind being changed, I'm looking forward to it; I'd just like to leave a marker to show where the old me had been."

     He offered the guitar and I took it, plucking gently. Even though I could pick out a few tunes, I had never learned to play the guitar. Too bad, because here was a summer instrument, born for times like this.

     He listened a moment. “Mozart, isn’t it?”

     I stared at him. “Is there anything you don’t know? Anything at all?”

     He shrugged. “Not yet.”

     I smiled. "Adventure. We could climb Mount St. Helens."

     He made a face. "As I pointed out, I'd like to survive my adventure. Besides, it doesn't work that way. I should be walking down the street when suddenly I hear a call for help. Duck into a phone booth...that's when you know you're starting an adventure."

     The fire shivered in a sudden breeze, and sparks took the chance to escape.

     "I want that quintessential moment of not knowing what happens next. I live for that. Philip plans every last detail. I'd rather just let things happen."

     I asked, "So you believe in fate?"

     "Not exactly. I believe that everything that has already happened, did so for a reason, but I don't believe that everything that will happen has already been decided. It's more fun to say that anything can happen. Like this rock... I could hold it here, drop it. It's easy to say that it will fall straight down. But I'd rather say that it will fall straight up, or due west, or in a spiral going anywhere. Someday it will. And I'll be there when it does, and I just might follow it."

     "What if it leads to danger?"

     He smiled. "It had better."

     I touched the guitar, bringing tiny notes into the evening. They scattered like dust-devils.

     Jayson stared at the fire. "God, Eric, life is so...boring. It's like bubble gum. When you get a new stick, it tastes great, but after awhile, the flavor is gone. Then you have to get a new stick, or chew the old one forever."

     I picked out a short tune. "What's courage?"

     I loved how Jayson was never surprised at any of my questions. And he always had an answer—something I had suspected when I heard Agnes Hamilton's description of him a few days ago. At the time I was prepared to be annoyed, but now it had suddenly become important.

     "Oh, it's one of those things that you know when you see, but it's hard to define." He picked up a long, crooked branch and teased the fire. "When you know there's danger in what you're about to do, and you do it anyway. That, at least, is the consensus among heroes."

     "Like astronauts? Or explorers?"

     "Sure." He tapped the glowing end of the stick against one of the rocks surrounding the fire. "Or those hostages in Iran. Or people who look for something."

     This was better than I had hoped. "Like a needle in a haystack?"

     He laughed. "No...because we knew it was there. It takes courage to look for something that might not be there." He poked at the fire. "Oh, wait, that's double-edged. You just might find it. It's a lot like answered prayers. Or answered questions."

     I said, "That's interesting. I mean, everybody is looking for something, or someone."

     "Indeed." He stared into the fire, and the colors stared back.

     That was his utility word; depending on his facial expression, it could mean anything from simple agreement to icy sarcasm.

     Now, despite the warm glow, his face had hardened. Whatever he was looking for, he wasn't ready to tell. Which, of course, made me even more determined to find out. But I tried the question I really wanted:

     "What if courage is what you're looking for?"

     This, of course, was IT. The point. If the rest of my life was to have any meaning, any direction, such a quest would be the impetus, and such a question must be settled to my satisfaction.

     I'm not sure when exactly I began to accept Jayson as my authority, my inerrant articles.  We all need one: a mentor. Jayson admitted once that his was an English professor at Davidson College, only a half hour south of Belltown.

     Now he relaxed, and smiled at my question. "That's good. That's almost Aristotelian. I wish I had an answer." He shrugged. "Oh, well, we've got all summer to find it."

     That sounded good to me. That sounded great to me.

     "But what if there is no answer?"

     "Of course there is. Every question has an answer, Eric; every problem has a solution. We'll find it, all right."

     That's what did it. That casual, confident "we."

     Suddenly everything turned around. I did not want Jayson to go to Rhode Island. I didn't want him to go anywhere without me. I wanted him and his Great Adventure, and his campfire songs.

     That meant, of course, that I would have to tell him.

     But not tonight. Tonight we were two wranglers without a care in the world, looking for answers and adventure.

     Not tonight because Jayson's attention was intense but ephemeral. It seemed to me that he could vanish at any moment—especially if life stopped being fun, fictional.

     Tomorrow, when we were back home, would be a much better time to tell him.

                                                *                  *                   *

     I curled up in my sleeping bag, and looked across at Jayson, who sat on his bag, cross-legged, fingertips touching, staring at the fire, looking like a guardian against—well, against the terrors of the night.

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