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]


3. Chapter Three

                 Where you beckon, I am sure to go—
                 Like Ulysses, a hearty nomad, 
                 A warm and dusty western, all I know... 

                                       Unorchestrated Songs 

     The next morning, I was still hoping that Jayson would change his mind again, and go to the camp in Rhode Island. Still, we should never have met. 
     Actually, I have a theory about that. Like everyone else, I kid myself. I think that everyone has a purpose in life, and, whatever it is, when you've done it, you die. It's a comfortable theory; no one's life is wasted. 
      I'm kidding myself because it can't possibly be true. Five billion people, each of us here for a different reason...five billion reasons that no one has discovered yet? And none of those reasons—or people—might have anything at all to do with the Happy-Ever-After. 
     Anyway, I don't know what my purpose is, or even if I've already done it. I'm pretty sure I haven't, and since I moved in next door to the only person anywhere near my age in this town, I think it must have something to do with Jayson. 
     Hopefully, my purpose is to get Jayson to go back to camp. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     I was not surprised to find him still asleep. After returning home last night, Jayson had said he would read until he fell asleep. 
     I shook him awake, and X-Men comics spilled to the floor. He sat up. 
     "Good morning, Jayson." 
     He blinked up at me. "Good morning. Get out." 
     "Hey, you've been asleep all day. It's noon." 
     He slipped under the blanket.  Do you see a clock in this room?" 
     I looked around. “That’s about the only thing that isn’t in here.” 
     "That's because it's in the attic. It migrates there every summer, when school closes, and returns in the fall. Summers are timeless." 
     I shrugged. "I came by earlier to see if you were going to church." 
      "Oh, goodness, have I missed church?" 
     I still don't know why, but I said, "We went to a black church once, in Philadelphia—" 
     "Is that where it is?" 
     "—and it was pretty amazing, all the stamping and swaying..." 
     "I know. You'd think they'd just chip in and buy a furnace." 
     "Okay, I give up. What time do you usually get up?" 
     He groaned. "Right about now, I guess." 
     As he dressed, the wall drew me toward it again. This time I saw a black-and-white photograph of an auditorium stage. Jayson was there with a piano, and Philip was on the bench beside him with a guitar. 
     Under the photograph was a certificate: 

                                       South Iredell High School Talent Show '79
                                                                    First Place:
                                      "Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy"
     "Okay, I'm ready," Jayson said. "Come out to the garage, I have something to show you." 
   *                  *                   *
 I stared at him. "A bicycle?" 
     We had arrived at the garage. Jayson's raspberry tenspeed rested against the door. Next to that was a new one. 
     "I don't drive much, except to the beach, in the summer; it's a lot nicer to ride, especially if the weather's like today." 
     I stared at the bike. 
     He went on. "Remember? You said yesterday that you didn't have one. So here it is." He pushed it over to me, and I held it gingerly. The leaf-colored metal glittered in the sunlight. I frowned; green was my favorite color. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     "You haven't told him yet?" 
     I was lying on my bed. My mother sat at my desk. I had gotten away from him by telling him I just had to go tell my mother about this really neat gift. 
     "Don't you think—" 
     "No, I don't!" 
     She looked away, smoothing the front of her blouse. I sighed. 
     "I'm sorry. But it's not fair. I shouldn't have to.  He wasn't supposed to be here."
      My mom never looked at me directly anymore—only when she thought I wasn't looking. I've caught her at it. 
     "He changed his mind," I said.  He changed his mind. I don't get it. He just told them he wouldn't take the job after all. So he's here. Now he gave me a bike. What do I tell him—'you should have saved your money—I'll only need it a couple of months?'" 
     She smoothed her blouse again. Why couldn't I stop that? 
     I said, "I'll tell him—at the right time and place. If I could only be sure how he'd react." I recalled, sharply, how I had reacted, sitting in the examining room.  Denial had made a surprisingly brief appearance. Anger had walked in, only to be instantly subdued—invested, really; there had been so many things to be angry about later on. 
     Like the nurses: "You're so brave, Eric." I had been afraid that whole time. 
     The doorbell rang downstairs. 
     Mom said, "That's probably Jayson. I'll let him in." 
     "Did he ever ask you what my favorite color is?"
     "No. Why?"
     I shrugged.
     She left the room quickly. She was a little afraid, certainly in awe, of Jayson Murdock. Her guests last night had told us many stories about him, including his construction, from scratch, a complete satellite dish antenna. 
      This impressed Dad, who had learned earlier that we were too far from any real town for cable television. 
     I also remember being introduced to most of the neighbors, and as I moved away, I caught phrases like "Yes, he'll be good for Jayson," and "It's about time."  
                                                *                  *                   *
          Since our houses were identical, my room was in the same location as Jayson's— but there it ended. His walls sang of a journey "there and back again;" mine were mute. I was embarrassed to have him here; the room seemed so sterile after seeing his. And he certainly seemed out of place in a room with plain walls, although he politely said nothing about it. His startled glance said enough. Instead, he sat at my desk and reached for a spiral notebook lying there. 
     "What's this?"  
     My heart skipped. I hadn't meant to leave that there. Oh, sure I had. "My poems." 
     He looked up, interested. "A poet? As in 'call me Israfel?' That makes sense." 
     He shrugged, started to open the book, stopped. "May I?" 
     I hesitated. I wanted to know Jayson's opinion; on the other hand, he had probably read all the best poetry in the world. What would mine sound like in comparison? I shrugged mentally and nodded. 
      "Thanks. I remember one teacher saying that poetry is 'a free-flowing miasma of feelings.'" 
     I winced. 
     "Right. And they wondered why I stared out the window all the time." He glanced at the title. "Unorchestrated Songs.  I'll take this home and read it later. Right now, let's try out that new bike." 
                                                *                  *                   *
     Harper's Meadow was located almost a mile north of Belltown, following the somewhat neglected State Road 1300, and then another half mile west into the forest. It was a grassy clearing, thirty yards across, sloping gently on the western side into a creek, narrow but full. 
     On the eastern side was a pile of hay. The bright straw glowed against the green, the blue. 
     "Not a pile of hay," he said, "A stack of hay, as in 'a needle in a haystack.'" 
     "Ah. What's it for?" 
     "You weren't listening. Somewhere in that haystack is a needle." 
     "And we're supposed to find it." 
     "Finally, 'we'. Yes." 
      "Well, of course there are two ways. We can do it methodically, scientifically, strand by strand..." 
     "Or, just jump in." 
     "I can guess which one we're doing. Do we have to yell 'geronimo?'" 
     He snorted. "Please. Too pedestrian. We're pioneers; we get to yell... 'Saskatchewan.'" He began to circle the haystack. "Yes. Saskatchewan. I like that."  
     "When did you set this up?"  
     "Hey, I might have been up this morning while you were at church. But you didn't hear it from me." 
     So there it was. Jayson had a way of arranging things so that you never saw how he did something. Like the way he had come through the hedge yesterday. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     I found the needle! Without even being stuck by it, either. The next day I mounted the trophy on my wall, next to a picture of two triumphant, haycovered adventurers. Maybe by the end of the summer, I could give Jayson's room a little competition.
      No, I argued. Jayson's walls were a lifetime, layered and mounted and savored. Yes, I fought back; mine would be a life-time, too.
                                                *                  *                   *
     The afternoon grew hot, so we sat under the huge oak tree, facing the meadow. The smell of warm grass and leaves came to us. 
     I suddenly remembered the picture of Jayson and Philip with their arms in casts; this tree was in the background. I mentioned it to him. 
     "Yeah, this is where it happened a few summers ago. Philip and I were climbing this tree, and he fell." 
     "How about you?" 
     "I jumped out the next day." 
     "You jumped? What for?" 
     "To break my arm." 
     "You're kidding." 
     "No. I wanted to know what it was like." 
     I stared at him. "Are you serious?" 
     "Couldn't you just have guessed that it would hurt?" 
      A light breeze joined us under the tree. Jayson tugged at a dandelion, and shook it. "It was more than that." 
     We watched the dandelion-feathers scoot across the meadow, into the sunlight, and back into shadows on the other side. 
     He went on. "It was the whole experience: the fall, the pain, the cast...." He shrugged. "The attention." 
                                                *                  *                   *
     We returned home for lunch. Jayson's parents got a good laugh over the mix-up—and so did mine, according to Jayson later that afternoon. He also told me that my mother was a great cook, which was odd, since she hasn't cooked anything in about six months. I told him that his mother was a great cook, too. Which was true.
"Really? She cooked?"
                                                *                  *                   *
     I began to look forward to riding out to Harper's Meadow, and to the wide spot in the creek that became our secret fishing and swimming hole. 
     I would not have believed that Jayson Murdock, whose life- line was accelerated way past average or even normal, could have the patience for fishing. It was Jayson, in fact, who taught it to me. 
      In the long stretches between bites, he and I would talk.     
     It was especially nice when he asked me about my life: old friends, school, interests. I discovered that I liked talking about the things I'd done, and the people I'd met. And I would glance over, and he would actually be listening! Those eyes, forever wide with wonder, were listening, too. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     One thousand yards east of Harper's Meadow, across from and running parallel to Highway 21 South, were railroad tracks, now overgrown. As we came to them, Jayson stopped and jumped off his bike. 
     "This is interesting," he said as I followed. "Whenever we ride over railroad tracks, we wonder where they go. But as soon as we've passed them, we stop wondering. So every now and then I like to come to this spot and sit for awhile, and wonder where the tracks lead."
                                                *                  *                   *
     Jayson and I filled the next few days with activity, motion, color and sound, a whirlwind tour of summer, slowing only long enough to change direction. Long enough, barely, to hang a trinket on the wall. 
      I told myself that it was this frenetic pace, this refusal to stop for breath that kept me from telling Jayson what he should know.  There just never seemed to be the right time and place. 
     Not that we were together all that often. Jayson would come over to my house to play the piano and sing with my parents, while I would go bowling with his. It was a rare occasion when the six of us were together. At first I had thought the Murdocks were being so nice because they were happy for their son to have a neighbor his own age.
     But Jayson said it best, one evening as we passed each other on the way to our adoptive homes. He waved and said, "Hello, Jayson."
     I waved back. "Hello, Eric. Nice tan."
                                                *                  *                   *
     Jayson and I did manage to do things together. The most fun things we did in those days were spontaneous bright sparks. 
     Some were pleasant bows to the season: 
      One evening we just sat on webbed chaises in Jayson's back yard, and let June happen; we watched the sun grow fat and orange, and we heard the distant evergreen forest reach up and pull it down...we smelled the twilight colors surrounding us—crickets, the lonesome whippoorwill, fresh honeysuckle. We counted the bright streaks of fireflies, and the warm, colorful bands of  the western sky. 
     I realized that I had forgotten the South—the long days, the Spanish Moss. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     My family had lived in the South before, in North Carolina, in fact. 
     In looking around Belltown, I noticed that something was missing. Not one house had a front porch.
     I'm only eighteen, but even I remember porches from our old neighborhood. Where else could you sit, on a rocker or a glider, and watch the world go by? You could even invite part of it to come up and sit a spell, get out of the sun, and gossip 'til sundown.
                                                *                  *                   *
     During those long days, I grabbed many shots of us together—with the camera, timed, propped at odd angles on rocks and stumps, chairs and shelves; those tripods alone would have made a fair gamut, showing the outrageous places we found ourselves in. I just hope Roxanne never saw the ones of us swimming. 
      Speaking of which, whenever we started something new, Jayson said that he had called Philip and Roxanne and asked them to join us, but they were always too busy, even in the evenings. If this bothered him, he never said.  
                                                *                  *                   *
     "Hey, Eric, Let's go to the movies and get on people's nerves." 
     Movies. We saw movies every day—matinees.  Jayson laughed louder at the cartoon features than anyone else. It was infectious—I caught it first, then it spread out from us in waves, tittering, rippling across the theater. 
     These were the cartoons that MGM and Warner Brothers made back in the 30's and 40's. For the Depression, I guess. But the audiences were now kids, barely teens. So when the shorts made references to Shicklegruber or food rationing, or 'is this trip really necessary?' we were the only ones laughing. But that was okay. It was with Jayson. 
     We watched matinees because evenings were reserved for prime time. 
     And there I came across a scene to remember: The Professor on his sofa, popping M&M's and singing along to the theme to The Mary Tyler Moore Show—the new decade's Siddharta. 
     He once said: "If there's anything better than eating M&M's and watching television, it's bound to be illegal." 
     His favorite part of The Rocky And Bullwinkle Show was Mr. Peabody: the superintelligent dog and his unbelievably naive boy, Sherman. Not that Jayson saw any such analogies in the material world; he simply loved the outrageous puns at the end. 
   And nobody on Earth can resist the glamour and excitement of a time machine. 
     I admit I preferred the afternoon shows. They reminded me of when I was growing up—when the good guys and the bad guys, and who would win, were etched into the screen from repeated showings. 
     The only movies we never watched were war movies. Roxanne, the old-cinema fan, never could convince Jayson to go, according to him. He did not like war movies—and there were plenty, because war and Hollywood had had their golden ages at about the same time. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     Jayson and I discovered, to our dismay, that nobody had Prince Albert in a can anymore. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     And he taught me all the things I should have learned long ago: how to tell the temperature from listening to crickets, how to catch lightning bugs, and June bugs, the latter earning the honor of having a length of thread tied to one leg, a living kite...and meteor showers at dusk. 
     Jayson Murdock was a madman. All the things that by now should be hazy memories were brand-new.      
                                                *                  *                   *
     On Wednesday, he wanted to show me his prize-winning Science Fair project, now on permanent display at his high school. This was one of the things our neighbors had raved about at Mom's party Saturday night, so I eagerly agreed. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     Standing in the lobby of South Iredell High School reminded me that I had cut short my own academic career. We had left every-thing behind after hearing that life-changing news, as if New York City had had something to do with my leukemia. 
     There was one long wall, filled with framed copies of the constitution, the declaration of independence, and other historical documents. After seeing Jayson's walls, the sight of a carefully arranged display seemed silly. 
     Breaking the panorama in half was a seven-foot tall display case, three feet wide and two deep. Inside was Jayson's award- winning project: a holographic, rotating model of a DNA molecule. 
      I stared at the display. The huge double helix rotated slowly, it's hypnotic motion seeming to draw me into it. I moved to the side of the case, spellbound, watching the colorful, lumpy spirals chase each other in the surrounding darkness. 
     He pressed a button: the model froze, and a link, suddenly magnified, leaped toward us. It shimmered in midair; words formed beneath it—a paragraph explaining the nucleotide, which utterly lost me. It lasted for several seconds, then vanished. The lumpy, graceful image began to turn again. 
     He pressed another button and the model shrank to a hands- breadth in height, still turning. Beside it appeared a paragraph describing the 1953 proposal by Watson and Crick for the double- helix configuration. Other shapes, which proved to be Jayson's own designs, appeared, suggesting probable and improbable shapes as well. Then the large model returned. 
     He admitted that the special effects had not impressed the judges so much as the fact that this was a model of his own DNA.    
    "Still, it was appropriate to use a hologram. In a hologram, even a small part of the film contains the entire image. That's the way it is with DNA; each cell of a person contains the genetic image of the entire person..." 
     He pressed another button, and another word formed near the bottom of the display: REPLICATION. Smaller bumpy shapes appeared, floating around the helix, which slowly tore in half, like a zipper unlocking. Soon there were two twisted, turning shapes. The smaller molecules bumped up against them; some of them stuck, others bounced off. This continued for about a minute, until there were two large DNA molecules turning. 
     He went on, but I barely heard. I watched the image turn inexorably, and was struck by  the sudden impression that long after I was gone, this display would continue its slow, inevitable rotation.  I turned to Jayson, who had finished his lecture and was now watching his creation with unmistakable pride. His eyes glittered, the image reflected microscopically against the black irises. The colors danced on his face, slapping, caressing, then moving on. 
     "Amazing," I said. 
     He said, "I think everyone, even a layman, is allowed one masterpiece." 
     I realized that we were whispering. We were, after all, in a museum, with a single, astonishing masterpiece. 
                                                *                  *                   *
     And it was here that I began to compare myself to Jayson, which was dangerous. 
     We were the same height, as I've said: our eyes—his obsidian, mine more grey than blue—were on a level; everything else was different. His hair, cut short, matched his eyes, while mine matched freshly-shucked corn. 
     With little effort, I could convince myself that I used to be built like Jayson, but my chest was never that broad. I had had a flatter stomach, even before acute lymphocytic made it a standard feature. And my hands had never been piano hands: large and powerful, yet capable of delicate, precise movements. 
     On the other hand, I was a poet: I supposedly saw, and felt, and heard things a little differently than anyone else. And although Jayson and I should never have met, we did have that license in common. 
     Still, it was dangerous to compare myself to him, because our lifelines were headed in opposite directions. 
     How else could we have collided? 

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