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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12. Chapter Twelve

                  It's time again for pillow-beasts

                  Who eat cottleston pie

                  And journey to the pole

                  With friends, and everyone...

    

                                       Unorchestrated Songs

 

     Jayson thumbed his nose at his image and moved back into the room.

     "After lunch, I'm going down to the public library. Want to come?"

     "Sure."

     He sat on his bed, sorting the magazines into piles. "I'll bet the New York Public Library is really something to see."

 

     I shrugged. "I never went there."

     "Really? Maybe you'll get to later on in the summer."

     "How is that?"

     "I'm planning a pilgrimage to the National Museum of Broadcasting at the end of this month."

     "I don't think I've ever heard of it."

     "It's devoted entirely to the history and artifacts of television and radio broadcasts—old scripts, tapes of shows, books about the industries... I might just rent the place out as an apartment and live there." He restacked the magazines on the nightstand, placing them on top of his package, although there was plenty of room right beside it. "The supplies are here from the market."

     "Good."

     "Is that your pillow?"

     "Yep. I used to have a feather pillow in—"

     "A feather pillow?"

     "Yeah." I paused at his expression. "What's wrong?"

     "Nothing...uh, just don't let Philip see it. He's not just a vegetarian; he's against any exploitation of animals."

     "I never thought of that. Sorry."

     "No problem. So, what's for lunch?"

     "Tomato soup for Philip, and BLT's for everyone else."

     "You're kidding."

     "What now?"

     He grimaced. "A BLT? That's not a sandwich; it's a salad. Did you get any human food?"

     "How about hot dogs?"

     "Better." He sat on his bed. "Did you invite your parents to Scotland West?"

     "No. I...didn't think it would be right. I'm a guest, myself." Only the naive need apply. It hadn't even occurred to me to ask them.

     "I invited them. They declined." He smoothed the bedspread. "They didn't say why, but I suspect it is—well." He shrugged.

     "Go on."

     "It would only embarrass you."

     "Go ahead, Jay."

     He raised his shoulders again. "They obviously felt that your...remaining time, or at least part of it, would be better spent with me than with themselves.  That can't be a very easy thing for any parent to think—not that it's true to begin with."

    "Maybe this is better. It's so hard to talk to them now."

    "I know; but you've got to do hard things once in a while."

    "I've done hard things. Like riding home from the hospital with them after I was diagnosed." Chapter 13 of The Diagnosis. "How about you?"

    "The hardest thing I've ever done?" He frowned, thinking. "I suppose it would be when I walked across the yard to meet my new neighbor."

    "Me? Really?"

    "For all I knew, you were like everyone else."

    "What does that mean?"

    "Never mind. You weren't. Aren't."

                                                *                  *                   *

     As I came downstairs, I heard Roxanne's step behind me, so when I came to the door to the kitchen, I pushed the door open and stood back.

     Roxanne stopped, and stared at me. "Excuse me? I think I can manage." She stood to one side.

     Well, I wasn't about to move, either. Male pride, tradition, stupidity, whatever.

     Who knows how long we would have stood there if Philip hadn't walked up and through the door, turning to me with a "Thank you, my good man." Then I followed him, and Roxanne came last.

     Later, I asked Philip: "What's with her? When Jayson holds the door, she's like Scarlett O'Hara; with me, she's like Carrie Nation."

     Philip grinned. "I've been there. See, with Jayson, it's part of his fantasy of knights and ladies and courtly love. We're male chauvinist pigs."

     "On the other hand," I said, "I don't see her scribbling 'Mrs. Roxanne Murdock' on the phone pad."

     "And you won't. She'd keep her own name, I'm sure."

     I agreed.

     "In fact," Philip went on, "I'd keep an eye out to see that she isn't writing 'Mr. Jayson Coriander' anywhere."

                                                *                  *                   *

     During a lunch of my creation, Jayson asked Philip and Roxanne if they would like to come along to the library. Roxanne planned to work on her sketches. Philip had neglected his seashell collection.

     I thought oddly that the more I got to know Jayson's friends, the more I wanted them around, the less they got involved with us.  They couldn't be afraid of me. Maybe I was just getting between them and Jayson.

     This thought came to me, bitterly: Don't worry, folks, you can have him back in just a couple of months.

                                                *                  *                   *

     On our way to the library, we passed a construction site. Jayson stopped, so I did.

     After watching the work for awhile, Jayson moved closer to a guy laying cement block, and asked, "What is this going to be?"

     He looked up. "A bank."

     Jayson said, "I was just thinking that there weren't enough banks."

     "You and me."

     Jayson squinted into the sun. "You'd never catch me working in this heat."

     "No, man...summer's the best time to be working... you get a lot of work done."

     Ah, yes," Jayson said, and I nodded; then we both said at the same time, "The long days."

     I glanced at Jayson, sharply. He did not appear to have noticed. He turned towards the bay, and we continued on to the library.

                                                     *                  *                   *

     The Fender County Public Library was actually an impressive structure, designed by Jayson's father. The white plaster and tinted glass glittered in the sunlight, framed by the silver-blue of the bay.

     Once in the library, we moved to the main desk. The librarian smiled at Jayson.

     "Hello, Jayson. This summer we're ready for you." She disappeared into a back office.

     I looked at Jayson, who shrugged.

 

     She returned pushing a shopping cart. We laughed.

     Jayson smiled greetings at people as we pushed the cart toward the shelves. It was a good thing, I thought, that he knows them, or this could be embarrassing.

     In the privacy of the shelves, though, his smile turned to a frown, as the buzz of conversations followed us.

     "Listen to that...those people didn't come here for books or a quiet place to read...they came to talk in air-conditioned peace."

     "So?"

     "So libraries are for reading."

     I shrugged. "It is pretty hot out. Where else can they go?"

     "Are there no prisons? Are there no work-farms?"

     We had almost made it to the shelves when a voice stopped us. "Oh, Jayson!"

     He groaned.

     We turned to see a young woman walking towards us, apparent- ly from fashion's cutting edge.

     Everything about this girl was short: her platinum hair, her denim jacket, her matching skirt. The jacket hid behind dozens of colorful buttons, with slogans like "No Nukes," "Save the dolphins," "Free the hostages," "SALT," "Yes, I Mind If You Smoke," "Fetus' Rights," and so on. Her glasses covered at least half of her face, but there was hardly any distortion from this side. Her earrings were shaped like tiny gold humpbacked whales. She carried a clipboard and poised pencil, which she tucked behind her ear, freeing one hand to greet Jayson.

     "Jayson! I thought that was you." She held out her hand, and he shook it gingerly.

     "Hello, Robin."

     She turned toward me expectantly.

     "Robin Sherrill, this is Eric Sterling, my next door neighbor back home."

     She grabbed my hand. "So you're a friend of Jayson's? How perfect! I have some black friends myself."

     I stared. "What?"

     But she had already turned back to Jayson. "You'll be interested in something I discovered last week. You know I teach swimming at the Youth Center?"

     "Yes..."

     "Well, I noticed that the black children were having trouble learning to swim, and I learned that it's because black peoples' bones are heavier than white peoples'."

     I blinked. Jayson did not speak for several seconds. "Did you say bones..."

     "Oh, yes. It seemed strange to me, but it explained so many—"

     He held up a hand. "Ah...where did you read—no. Of course not. Where did you hear this?"

     "Oh, from one of my friends. Of course, they're not as enlightened as I am—"

     "I was about to say."

     "—I mean, it's like I always tell you, Jayson: when I look at you, I don't see a black person, I see a person."

     "And like I always say: when I look at you, I count my blessings."

     She smiled. "You are a dear. Well, I have to go. Nice to meet you, Eric."

     I stared at the space she had occupied. "What?"

                                                *                  *                   *

     Here was the smell of books again. But it was the quiet I found refreshing. This past week had been crammed with sounds—summer sounds, like a waterfall, and crickets, and whippoorwill; and campfire sounds—story and song. And hospital sounds: sirens and doctors and parents. Pretty busy week for a life that was supposed to spend itself out in couple of months.

     So for a few minutes, I walked among the shelves, ignoring titles, sipping silence like lemonade.

                                                *                  *                   *

     After an hour, I went to find Jayson.

     "Do you have any change for the Xerox machine?"

     "No." He tossed another book into the cart. "Why don't you make your copies here?"

     I stared at him. "I am, Jay, as soon as I get change."

     He smiled. "Well, the lady at the desk near the copier has change. Just tell her what you want it for."

     I moved away from him and his smile, and approached the desk.

     "Pardon me. I'd like some change...I want to Xerox these recipes."

     She gave a polite smile. "You can't do that here."

     "Why not?"

     "Because we don't have a Xerox machine."

     I turned to the copier. "But—"

     "We do have a Canon copier. You can make all the Canon copies you want."

     I then noticed that her smile was exactly like Jayson's.

     My jaw tightened. "Thank you. I will."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Two hours later, we were back in the Scotland West library. One end of the huge table was stacked high with books.

     The library was large, almost fifteen by thirty feet, from the era of high ceilings and old mahogany. Being above the living room, it enjoyed a fireplace, with two old easy chairs in front of it. The afternoon sun slanted in, settling into the dark woods and glittering through a lighted glass display case.

     And of course there were shelves.

     As Jayson arranged our books in stacks on the table, I walked around the room. The only wall space not covered by shelves was taken by the fireplace and one lonely window, which looked out on Chameleon Bay, the driveway, and the flagpole. Pressing close to the glass, I could look up and see the bright blue patch fluttering against a deeper blue.

     I moved back to the shelves. All of them were crowded with books, some jammed in at odd angles to fill available space.

     "This room," Jayson said, "holds every book I've ever read. Starting here at the door and going clockwise—see, here are my primers, my Golden Books, my Big-Little Books...I even have all my textbooks...."

     I asked him how many there were.

     "Ummm...eleven thousand and something."

     I grimaced. I read a bit, more than most, but a similar room for me would have a lot of empty spaces.

     Still, I love books, they've always seemed sacred, especially old books. I remembered a store on 40th Street, where the books were ancient, and the smell of that place made me feel like a scholar, pontificating. Or whatever it is scholars do.

    I came across an entire section, floor to ceiling, about Edgar Allan Poe—surely everything he wrote and was written about him.

    "So you're a Poe fan?"

    Jayson joined me at the shelf. "Edgar Allan Poe was the only person whose existence justified an entire century. Not only did he invent the detective story you're so fond of, his literary techniques are still hovering over quills and foolscap, even yours. The man was brilliant, and tortured, and used up all his energy trying to tell us he was here." He turned, slowly for him, and returned to the table.

     "You've read all of these?" I had come to what was apparently the foreign language summer, 1976.

     "There's no room for any that I haven't."

     It occurred to me that these crowded shelves constituted another version of Jayson's room back in Belltown—another montage, another incarnation of a colorful Gypsy life, led entirely in the mind of a fictional man.

     I smiled as I came across Winnie The Pooh. I pulled it down, intending to read it again, even before learning how to write a song.

     I asked, "Which one is your favorite?"

     "You're standing next to it."

     I had come to the display case, a waist-high rectangular glass and aluminum frame, lighted with fluorescent tubes on the sides. Inside, nestled on dark blue velvet, was a hardbound book, held open to the title page by plates of glass: The Phoenix and the Carpet.

 

     "It was a Christmas gift. I was five at the time. It was the first book I'd ever read besides primers. We were living here at the time. It was the year before  Belltown was built. A winter night. The wind was blowing hard outside, and sometimes it would whoosh down the chimney, blowing sparks from the big fire into the room, onto the hearth.

     "I sat in front of the fireplace, curled so that the fire was the only light I needed, and read the whole thing. That was pure magic."

     The book, he explained, was about a group of children who discover an egg rolled in an old carpet. A phoenix hatches from the egg and, with the help of the carpet, which can fly, leads the children to adventures in exotic lands.

     Jayson and I sat in the easy chairs, each with a lamp behind it, and opened our books.

     I was amazed at the way he read. It almost seemed as though he were simply leafing through the books, were it not for the intense look on his face. And those eyes seemed to absorb everything, drinking words and pages, tearing ideas apart and stacking the pieces neatly in his mind, like logs in a fireplace.

     Suddenly Jayson seemed, to me, in place. Here in his library, in a Morris, with a lamp behind him, immersed in a leatherbound volume, he settled perfectly with my overall impression of him: not the manic eccentric, so out of place in Belltown; not even the genius, the Professor; he was just a guy who loved books, and who could be forgiven for occasionally getting caught up in the worlds they created with him.

     And with that, everything else seemed settled. It seemed only right that I should be here, so far from home. I felt very good at that moment.

    "Jayson."

    "Yeah?"

    "What is the Great Adventure?"

    He looked up.

    I went on. "Where is it? What are you going to do?"

    He stared at the fireplace. "I can't tell you that yet, Eric. As to where..." He waved a hand vaguely toward the window. "Out there. Thataway." He returned to his book.

    I went on. "Why did those guys called you 'captain' yesterday at the pier?"

   He paused, slowly rubbing the spine of his book. "That's...actually the same question, Eric." He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them and shrugged. "I've asked them not to."

     I'm a lousy spy, I thought, then remembered the real question I wanted to ask him.

     "Tell me," I said, and waited for him to look up from his page, "about the time you first kissed Roxanne."

     He blinked. He was careful never to let it show if a question of mine surprised him. He closed the book, slipping a ribbon of blue inside—there were about a dozen such bookmarks lying around the room, all made from the same cloth as the flag.

     Jayson leaned his head back against the chair, staring up.

     "Well, it was after we went to the prom. I took her home. We stood on the porch, and I started to give her a kiss—you know, a gentlemanly peck on the cheek."

     "Of course."

     He gave me a look. "Well, I leaned toward her and—well, she must have heard something off to the side...anyway her head turned, and I ...well, I kissed her on the lips."

     "A gentlemanly peck on the lips, then?"

     "Ah...no. you see, I'd kind of lost my balance and had to lean against her for...for awhile."

     "Ah." I grinned. "Then what?"

     "Then what?" He looked at me. "She told you to ask me, didn't she?"

     I nodded.

     He sighed in resignation. "Then...I fainted."

     "You what?"

     "Fainted. Passed out—"

     But now I was laughing. "Fainted! And lost your balance—oh, boy! I slipped to the floor.

     Jayson raised his voice. "Well, I did! It had rained recently, and the wood on her porch had warped, and..." he gave up, sighing. "You're all I need, Eric."

     He always said that sarcastically, but I always accepted it as exposition—mainly because the reverse was true as well.

                                                *                  *                   *

      Jayson reached to the bowl, then stopped as he saw that it was empty. He paused, then blinked rapidly. "What happened to the M&M's?"

      I looked around innocently. "What M&M's?"

      "You ate them? All? This was half full!"

      "I'm sorry, Jay—"

      "Sorry! I can't believe you ate all—that's like taking...a man's wife. No, I could forgive that. But you ate the last handful, even. Philip wouldn't even do that!"

      "So okay." I stood." I'll go out right now and buy some more."

      He waved me back down. "No. No good. See, those were already here, they were room temperature, my mouth was all set for them...oh well." He sighed. "I mean, Roxanne wouldn't even—"

      I stood up again. "That's it, I'm buying—"

      "No! I wanted those in the bowl. If I can't have those...no."

      I glared. "Do you want them back?"

      He paused. "No; you've probably started digesting them. Never mind." He sighed. "I'm not important."

      I closed my eyes. "I'm going. If you can last fifteen minutes, I can go and buy more."

      He continued to read. "If you really want to. Don't do it for me."

      "Don't worry, I'm doing it for me. I want to be able to sleep tonight."

      I moved to the door.

      "Wait."

      I turned. Jayson picked up the telephone and dialed. "Stuart? Jayson. Code M. Thanks." He hung up. "Eight minutes, tops." He pointed to my chair. "Your book's getting cold."

      I sat down. "One of these days, Alice...One of these days..."

     Philip walked in and moved to the window. He flipped the catch. "What are you guys doing in this gloomy room all day? We're at the beach, not summer school. At least let some of that breeze in here.

     Jayson looked at me over his book. "Philip often feels that it his personal duty to remind me of the obvious, like what season we're in, or what planet I'm on."

     "That last one's a full-timer. And it's spring." He stood aside as Jayson and I joined him at the window. The breeze was pretty nice.

     Philip said, "I think this is one of my favorite times of the year."

     Jayson said, "I know it's my favorite."

     "Oh, yes..."

     We turned. Roxanne was standing in the doorway. She continued to speak as she moved toward the huge table. "Your favorite place, your favorite friends, your favorite girl, your favorite season. You've got it all, haven't you?"

     We stared at her, surprised. She sat, unconcerned, and waited for Jayson to sit across from her.

     "Hi."

     Roxanne stared at him a moment. "I never thought that I would be able to give you advice, but here it is. When you find something that means something to you, then hold on to it. Hold on tight." She opened her mouth to say more, but just shrugged and stood up. "I'm going for a walk."

     She stood up and walked out. Philip and I glanced at each other.

     Jayson said, "Well. I never thought she'd give her blessing. She never seemed to care much for it. But she's right."

     Philip frowned. "About what?"

     Jayson snorted. "The Great Adventure. What else is there?"

     "What—?"

     Jay went on. "And yet, how did she know I was changing my mind?"

                                                *                  *                   *

    Philip said, "Opening that window was a bad idea." He moved back to the window and closed it, locking it with more force than necessary. "I feel like walking, too."

    Jayson and I were alone. I did not know how to discuss what had just happened, so I didn't.

    "So," I said, "What's with all the books on photography?"

     In the public library, Jayson had led me to the section on photography and had suggested several for me. I ended up with a technical reference, a book on darkroom techniques, and two on photography as a hobby. I had thought that only one book was all I needed.

     "You know what a camera does," Jayson said, "but do you know how or why?"

     "No...is that important?"

     I looked at his expression. A stupid question.

     "Of course. It's not enough to know that a camera takes pictures. See, it's one thing to know what, say, a fence, is, and it's another—"

     There was a knock at the door. He turned. Wondering what a fence had to do with anything, I turned, too.

     Roxanne peered around the door. "Jayson, a car is pulling up."

     He looked puzzled for a moment, then a look of realization crossed his face, followed by one of brief anxiety.

     He whispered, "My grandfather."

 

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