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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1. Chapter One

                    I have always been warmed

                    By the sight of galleons,

                    Hand-rubbed,

                    Fresh from Castille...

 

                                     Unorchestrated Songs

 

 

 

     I was not in the hospital because I was dying—not directly; I was here because I met a fictional character last week. Fictional, because no real person ever treated me the way he did.

     It was not entirely accurate to say that I met Jayson. It was more like a collision—two billiard balls smacking together. Both our directions changed.

                                                *                  *                   *

     How to describe Jayson Murdock. I could say he was summer, since it was almost summer when we met, the traditional season for fun and youth and laughter. But he was more. No, not a tidal wave, because you can see that coming—and not a hurricane for the same reason. I need a word that means an unstoppable force that you don't see until it's upon you. No, not juggernaut—Jayson doesn't trample you—he pulls you along, galloping, breathless, then—

     Well, I'll look it up. If he were here, I could ask him. But if he were here, I wouldn't be in the hospital in the first place.

     Besides, if I did ask him, he'd know I was talking about him. The arrogance of philosophers.

                                                *                  *                   *

     It was late spring, really—it still is; I can tell even from the meager slice of it that rolls by the window of my reward—the warm, quiet coda that I remembered from my youth; when it could take as much as a year to get from sunrise to dusk—or you could blink and miss them both.

     Youth!—I was eighteen. At least I was a week ago. Now I feel like I'm in my forties, but last week, when Jayson and I collided, I was eighteen with no more birthdays, and no real need of any.

                                                *                  *                   *         

     I was alone in the house, and in the town, both too new, too far in any sense from Manhattan, where people were always going somewhere. Here in Belltown, they had more than arrived; they had settled, hiding behind brick ranches and silver maples, looking not for contemplation or reflection, but comfort. It's original design was, after all, as a retirement community—although the architect himself, in his forties, lived next door (all this from Your Real Estate Agent, Agnes Hamilton, whose "nose for news," as she put it, "never caught cold").

 

     We had just moved in the day before, stumbling around the two-storied cottage, dodging crates and movers and those unique creatures, the Southern Neighbors. Smiling, helpful, nosy-but- who-can-blame-'em? At one point there were eleven people unpacking our belongings.

     Now my parents had abandoned me to go shopping. Not in the mood to spend hours in a mall, after an 18-hour drive from New York, I had decided to stay home.

     I stood at the kitchen sink, and looked out at Belltown, and wondered what it was like to be retired, to have lived a whole lifetime, and done what you set out to do.

     The kitchen window faced the side yard, a narrow lane of grass between the house and the hedge; beyond the juniper was Belltown.

     My view was obviously no different than that from any other kitchen on Phoenix Avenue. Glowing locust trees kept the street from two stories of brick and glass and white-paint wood. If there were birds, they whispered; if there was wind, it was cautious, here at journey's end.

     I opened the window. A soft breeze tiptoed through, carrying the smell of fresh-cut grass and the hum of a distant mower. It might really have been summer at that moment. I smiled and half-closed my eyes, painting myself into a hammock in the back yard, with a glass of iced—

     My eyes snapped open. There was a movement at the Murdock house next door. Someone emerged from the shadow of the porch.

     It was the architect's son, Jason.

     No, Jayson, with a "y." Ms. Hamilton had not stopped talking about him, as we toured the empty house. "Oh, yes, an authentic genius, dears...knows everything...simply devours books..."

     I moved back from the window, hoping Jayson had not seen me.

     I was not frightened by the fact that my new neighbor was black—not really; nor was I anxious about the 20 pounds—at  least!—the guy had over me. Blond people just look thinner than everyone else anyway, and I had been losing weight steadily for eight months.

     What really scared me was that he was headed this way.

     Not fear so much as surprise.  Ms. Hamilton had mentioned that Jayson would be a camp counselor in New England somewhere. I had actually counted on that. We had chosen Belltown because there was no one here my age. At least not for this summer. So why was he here?

     I watched closely as Jayson approached the hedge between the two yards, where he paused, looking for a way through. He wore faded jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt with "21 at 33" painted in red, blue and yellow brushstrokes. Some esoteric equation, I guessed.

     A genius, I thought. That's all I need. He'll probably spend the whole summer in the library.

     At first I was sarcastic, but it occurred to me that if he did spend the summer in books, he would pay very little attention to me, which is what I needed.

     Ms. Hamilton had said something else about Jayson—about me, actually. Now, what was it?

     I looked up again. Jayson had found his way through the hedge, and was walking toward the back door, squinting in the afternoon sun.

     I looked around quickly for a place to hide. Finding none, I decided not to answer the knock, then shook myself and opened the door.

     "Hi. I'm Jayson Murdock."

     "Eric Sterling. Hi."  His voice sounds friendly enough, yet there's something strange about it...no drawl...we're the same height, thank God—and a firm handshake, that's supposed to be good...

     Then: Good Lord, his eyes are black!

     The eyes swept from me to the table, and frowned at the cold turkey sandwich and sweating glass. "Yeah... I just had the same kind of lunch."

     I moved to close the door.

     "Don't bother," Jayson said, moving toward the living room. "The people in Belltown have everything they want by now, which makes them disgustingly honest...but then you're from New York—from the East Side, like The Jeffersons."

     By the time I had decided that the Jeffersons must be the people across the street, Jayson had reached the living room. Leaving the door open, I followed my new neighbor, who had stopped at the doorway and was looking around.

     This room had no curtains; the paneling glowed in the sunlight, warming the crates and sheeted furniture. Jayson moved to a large but unmistakable shape.

     "A piano? Yes!" He slipped the sheet away as if undressing it; caressing the instrument with one hand, he pulled out the bench and sat down.

     I asked. "Do you play?"

     "A little."

     I sighed. Of course he does.

     Jayson went on. "I don't have a piano here because I make 'too much noise.'" He tapped the keys. "A little off, of course, with all that travelling. But that's okay... gives it a bluesy tone, see?" He played for awhile, then looked up.

     "What was that?"

     His face fell. "'Border Song'...Elton John". Then his eyes brightened again. Jayson walked even while sitting—his eyes moved quickly, exploring, examining. He smiled constantly, with a slight twist at one side, as if constantly expecting a practical joke to be sprung.

     He continued to play, comfortable with the instrument.  His finger moved fluidly, forcefully, delicately.  My mother loved bouncing out Stephen Foster and even a little Gershwin. If she and Jayson got together, they'd probably play all night.

     "I remember when I first saw a piano," He said. "I was three. It was at my uncle's house. It was an upright, too, old and dusty, and the keys had lost most of their ivory and were just grey wooden blocks. I pushed one down, and a little puff of dust came up, but it also made a sound. I pressed a few more, and more sounds came. It was the most magical thing in the world —making sounds from little wooden blocks." He looked up at me. "Do you play?"

     "No, this is my mother's."

     "Do you play any instrument?"

     I paused. "No."

     Jayson nodded, thoughtful, then said, "It's warm in here."

     I blinked at the sudden shift, then I saw that Jayson was staring at my shirt, still buttoned to the collar. Although that's how I've always worn shirts, I loosened the top button almost apologetically, saying, "The central air isn't working too well."

     He raised an eyebrow. "Let's see what we can do about that." He moved to an air vent near the wall.

     "We? You mean, us?"

     "Well, you can't have all the fun." He held his hand over the vent.

     "But we don't have to. My parents went shopping, and they're going to find a repairman."

     "Who needs him?" Jayson dismissed the repairman with an impatient gesture. "It's the filters...they're clogged. Or weak brushes?" He lowered his head and sniffed. "No. It's the filters. Let's go."

                                                *                  *                   *

     "This is a surprise," Jayson said. "I didn't know we were going to have new neighbors."

     We had moved to the basement—well, Jayson had moved and I had followed—and opened the filter housing. His diagnosis had been correct. As we cleaned the filters with an old whisk broom lying nearby, we talked.

     "Well," I explained, "we saw the house only two weeks ago, and decided to move here."

     That was not the complete truth. We were looking for a place where the people would leave us alone, and believe it or not, Belltown seemed like a better place for that than the East Side.

     But I was improvising. He was not even supposed to be in Belltown—and I was not supposed to be in cold grey rooms, like basements and labs, and O.R.'s.

     "Oh." He shrugged. "For the past month I've been studying for exams and getting ready for graduation—I graduated last night. I wasn't at home much, except to sleep, what with clubs and projects. Lord knows how much TV I missed. Luckily the reruns started weeks—there, that's as clean as that will get."

     I set the frame to one side and removed the other. "I don't watch much television."

     "Really?" Jayson frowned thoughtfully. "I've heard of that. Anyway, high school's over for me. You, too, I guess?"

     "Yeah."

     "Good. We can bike out to the meadow—"

     "I don't have a bike." I was trying to be politely impolite, and give him the impression that I would not be interested in anything this summer—essentially the truth—but it didn't work; I didn't dislike him, even though he had already intruded farther into my life than he was supposed to.

     Jayson waved my objection away as he had the repairman. "We'll do something about that. Belltown, as you must have noticed, is a retirement community—but if you ask me, these people retired long before they got here. Anyway, it's not the kind of place to raise your kids, as the song says. In the summers, you're grateful for Harper's Meadow. How does this one look?"

     As we replaced the filters, I remembered the other thing Ms. Hamilton had said about him: "Oh, yes, it's too bad that he'll be away this summer. You're just what he needs."

     I frowned. Jayson's every move was confident. What could he possibly need me for?

     As we ascended to the kitchen, Jayson said, "I'll send someone over to tune that piano on Monday—I know someone. And get ready for visitors. By now Agnes has reported to everyone. AT&T only slows her down. Oh, there's your car. And it's time for The Flintstones. I'll see you later."

     I watched Jayson leave with the same carefree gait, and as my parents reached the front door, I could not resist the feeling that I had just been visited by the Cat in the Hat.

                                                *                  *                   *

     It was 7:00 that evening when I left my back porch and crossed the yard. The sun was low, but the sky was still bright. I recognized the clouds from this afternoon—apparently the wind had not made its way this far east, or west, or north, or south.

     As I approached the hedge, I recalled my family's world trip: one of the traditional Things To Do When You Know You're Dying. I had not bothered to be impressed, or even to take pictures—how much time, after all, would I have to reminisce?— though I put up with my parents' cameras...and all the time, the horror of the disease hovered over me, a black, heavy cloak:

               When Death comes walking home

               Across the moors

               His lowered scythe, a rusty red

               He leans against the door...

     A poem I'd written on New Year's Day; and, like everything else from that time, it seemed distant, meaningless.

     I stopped at the hedge. Certain I remembered the spot Jayson had passed through, I searched for an opening in the dense growth; finding none, I shrugged and walked around.

     I thought it was a strange place, as Jayson said, to have a family. But the theory behind Belltown was a clean, quiet suburban community where retired people could come to live, and share hobbies and interests. It was the perfect place for an architect and a writer to live.  But Jayson? And me?

     Ms. Hamilton had not been the blazer-and-clipboard type of Realtor. She had fluttered through the house, rattling Navajo jewelry and flinging syllables that made even italics inadequate, all the while impressing us with how tasteful, yet affordable these houses were. When we had first driven down Phoenix Avenue, I saw that several of the houses had swimming pools. I'd expected rubber-stamped cottages, with a small patch of grass. Some of them, including the Murdocks', had big colorful gardens—and from the look in my mother's eye, there would soon be another.

     Agnes had stressed—tactfully for her—that Belltown was populated with more mature, childless couples. I had to hand it to her: she made it sound like she was concerned about us fitting in, rather than wanting to know why the hell we wanted to live there. Even Mom, who had essentially tuned out on life after I was diagnosed, recognized that. 

     Despite Jayson's appraisal of the neighborhood, I was surprised to see the Murdock's front door open. I touched the storm door gingerly, then pressed the doorbell, and smiled, recognizing the theme from The Jetsons.

     Mrs. Murdock appeared, adjusting her hat. I had met her this afternoon when she'd come over to help my mother get things ready; now she was preparing for a more formal visit.

     Ms. Hamilton had described Elizabeth Murdock's novels as "modern romances—" and her cheeks had burned brightly at the very thought "—all in good taste, of course."

     Jayson's mother, like my own, was perhaps a head shorter than me, although she was almost as thin. Her eyes were brown, but still sparked like her son's, behind wire-frames.

     "Oh, hello, Eric; come on in. Don't bother about the bell when the door's open; just come on in." She stepped back as I entered. "Jayson is in his room."

     "His room" amazed me. Every inch of wall space was covered with posters, photographs, drawings, plaques, and framed certificates. It was impossible to take in the entire room at once, yet I felt compelled to, as though I might miss something important if my first examination were not complete. In one corner, a stack of TV Guides ran nearly to the ceiling.

     I moved closer to the wall. There were even posters on top of posters, overlapping, a bizarre montage of Elton John, spaceships, Edgar Allan Poe, Albert Einstein, maps, university logos, and movie posters.

     Jayson sat on his bed, leaning against the headboard. The bed, like the floor, was covered with books and comic magazines. He looked up as I entered, then jumped off the bed to turn down the stereo.

     I glanced down at the newspaper he had been reading, and noticed that several ads had been circled.

     "Jobhunting?"

     Jayson turned, half-smiling. "Work? In the summer? We have just met, haven't we?" He returned to the bed. "I'm attempting to make my life more interesting by introducing random elements." He picked up the paper. "These are public auctions. I like to go every so often to find treasure chests."

     "How often does that happen?"

     "Not real treasure chests, of course. A locked box or unclaimed trunk with unknown contents."

     "Ever find anything?"

     "Sure. Look at this." he picked up an object from his dresser. It was a model ship abut the size of his hand, made of metal. The dozen or so sails rattled as he moved.

     I guessed, "A schooner?"

     He shook his head. "A Clipper."

     I had only heard of one clipper, so I threw it in: "Like the Cutty Sark?"

     "Yes, they were built within a few years of each other and the Morning Star was almost as fast." He touched the sails. "Look at that. Hand-forged. They don't do that much anymore."

     I asked. "Is that gold?"

     "Brass. I found it in a box along with some turn-of-the- century maps and naval charts, which are on the wall—" he looked around "—somewhere. Anyway, It's not very valuable, although I would like to know how it ended up in a warehouse in Asheville, 400 miles from the nearest ocean."

     I felt a little disappointed. "So you never found anything valuable?"

     "Not really. I call them treasure chests because I never know what I'll find. I like to look for things that essentially have never been opened: boxes, suitcases, doors—"

     "Doors?

     "Oh, yeah; I found one of those just this afternoon." He replaced the model. "How about a movie?"   

     "Sure," I said, "What's playing?" I sifted through the record collection. All Elton. "Oh. 21 at 33."

     As "Rocket Man" faded, Jayson said, "have you seen the Star Trek movie?"

     "No, that sounds good. Though I'm not a trekkie."

     "Trekker."

     I glanced sharply at the stereo as "Rocket Man" began again, then at Jayson, who smiled.

     "It's the only song on the tape. Fifteen times." He turned off the machine. "We're meeting Philip and Roxanne at the theater."

     Oh, great, I thought. More people who'll have to know.

 

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