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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2. Chapter Two

                   Where's the Golden Age?

                   "Where we live,

                   Slipping, like all times, through the sieve,

                   To fall past Descartes, dancing..."      

 

                                         Unorchestrated Songs      

 

     Philip and Jayson's discussion of the merits of Star Trek: The Motion Picture took up the front seat and most of the conversation in the trip from the theater. I was content to sit back and observe.

     At six feet, Philip Stone, the Cherokee Indian, was a couple of inches taller than Jayson and me. I liked the way his eyebrows went up instead of down when he was serious, as while they were discussing the technical advances of the new Enterprise.

     If Jayson were the kite and the key, then Philip was Benjamin Franklin, the man on the ground, the earth-brother. And it seemed to me that the pure energy Jayson attracted and absorbed—the force of Ideas—filtered to his friend...safe, used, experienced—but accurately and forever: Philip Stone possessed a photographic memory.

     He appeared to argue with Jayson more out of convention, as a comic device, than anything else. At the same time, he was certainly a more serious person than his best friend.

     Roxanne Coriander obviously did not care for science fiction. On the way to meet them, Jayson had described her as "a fan of old movies and new ideas." When I pressed him for a physical description, he'd sighed in a way I'd never expected, and said, "Like Ligiea." Ligiea was a character (fictional, like Jayson) created by Edgar Allan Poe, a mysterious, beautiful woman, slender, black haired. In literary terms, she was a femme fatale, whose beauty attracted men, but destroyed them at the same time.

     True, Roxanne had the black hair, but it fell only to her neck, and a tuft of it, moussed, blossomed from her forehead. Her violet eyes (Ligiea's were black, like Jayson's) spent much of the time in the car looking bored, apparently at the conversation in the front seat.  Finally she turned to me.

     "I've never been to New York. The farthest north I've been is Norfolk. I went aboard one of aircraft carriers at the naval base, the Nimitz."

     I felt a little sorry for her. If I had read the look in Jayson's eyes correctly when he said "Ligiea," he shouldn't be ignoring her now—though, to his credit, he had pulled a neat acrobatic twist to end up accidentally sitting next to her in the theater.

     "Did you know," I said, loudly enough to interrupt the conversation in front, "that the Nimitz is the largest moving manmade structure in the world?" I had actually been on the U.S.S. Nimitz; it was one of the last stops we made before landing in the Piedmont.  

     "Really?" She did seem interested.  "I think that's so much more... fascinating than a make-believe spaceship."

     I didn't have to be a trekker to know that she had scored on three counts. Four, really, because hers was not the kind of voice that I would have expected to deliver such a line.

     Roxanne hadn't spoken nearly as loudly as I had, but Jayson stiffened as if she'd stuck him with a pin. He was tuned into her, all right.

     "Where shall we eat?" He didn't turn around, but his teeth were clenched.      

Philip was smiling. "We've passed three fast foods already."

     "They were too crowded."

     I heard a small sound, a sigh, and turned to Roxanne, who was watching Jayson with a strange, pained expression.

     Philip pointed out an all-you-can-eat restaurant. "How about that, jefe?"

     "Well, it's not the Champs Elysées, but it's a clean, well-lighted place. Pull in."

                                                *                  *                   *

     I had opportunity later to see many photographs of Jayson and Roxanne together. Though the setting changed, the theme was consistent. Jayson in some outrageous pose or expression, and Roxanne calm, smiling, tolerant.

     I once saw a portrait Philip had taken of Jayson when Philip was a photographer for the yearbook. It showed Jayson standing alone in Harper's meadow, by the shore, a field of grass and distant trees. Hands in pockets, eyes aimed above and beyond the camera. The round shoulders of the ancient scholar hid the western sun...

     It was the only picture I saw of Jayson all alone, yet it seemed to me to be the most accurate.

                                                *                  *                   *

     We entered the dining room. Jayson and Philip approached the table reverently, then stopped.

     The centerpiece was a huge platter of fried chicken, surrounded by smaller ones of country ham, corn on the cob, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a gravy boat the size of the Nimitz.

     There was squash, which I can't stand, and sausage, and something I had not tasted in ten years: livermush. The biscuits were practically floating away as we watched.

 

     Philip said, "My God. Jayson. It's the promised land."

     Jayson nodded. "Do the Cherokees have a food god we can pray to?"

     "Sort of. Kàná ti and Selu."

     "Oh yes, Kàná ti, the meat provider? He's mine."

     Philip smacked his hands together. "Well! I'll tell you one thing; I am going to eat like eating was meant to be done by... whoever invented eating. Jayson?"

     Jayson pulled out a chair for Roxanne. "Eating was invented by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia seven thousand years ago. It was an accident, of course: they were trying to invent cuneiform." He sat down. "But that's a whole other story."

                                                *                  *                   *

     Once we were seated, Philip and Roxanne turned to me, and started asking me questions about where I was from, and how I ended up in Belltown, and how in the world did I end up next door to Jayson Murdock.

     I gave them the story I'd rehearsed, that afternoon, on Jayson.

     Philip reached for the corn, the green beans, potatoes, and biscuits. Roxanne filled a small bowl from the salad bar. Jayson and I ate like human beings; we loaded our plates with a bit of everything, including samples from a late-arriving platter of country-fried steak.

Philip stared at our plates. "Are you guys pregnant, or something?'

"The phrase, mon frere, is 'healthy eaters.' Pass the pepper, please, Eric."

"Uh-oh!" Philip grabbed his napkin and held it across his face, covering his nose. Roxanne did likewise.

I handed Jayson the shaker. "What are they doing?"

"Bad humor. Ignore them." He began to cover his food with the pepper. Literally cover. When he finally set it down, the glass shaker, full when we arrived, was less than half full.

It was my turn to stare. "Do you want some food to go with that?"

"I'm ignoring you, too."

I sneezed.

He didn't even look up. "Oh, please."

Philip and Roxanne lowered their napkins.

Philip said, "You should see him at a Mexican restaurant."  

                                                *                  *                   *

     As we chatted, I saw Jayson take a napkin and pull a pen out of his pocket. He drew lines across it, and a with a few more squiggles, I recognized a music staff. He began to sprinkle the page with notes. Soon the restaurant's logo got in his way, so he tore it off and continued.

     Philip raised his glass. "A toast: to the end of the seventies."

     Roxanne raised hers. "To the end of high school."

     "Amen," said Jayson, "and to the end of disco."

     "To the eighties," I said, not to be left out.

     Philip said, "This looks like it will be a great year."

     "Will be?" I looked across the table at Roxanne, whose expression read, "wait 'til you hear this!"

     Jayson caught the look but ignored it. "We're students. Our year begins in September and ends in June. Summer is sort of a New Year's Eve. And since we're all college-bound, this year is just beginning."

     Roxanne turned to me. "Where are you going, Eric?"

     "I don't know yet."

     Philip said, "Maybe Jayson will give you one of his cast-offs, like Duke, or Yale."

     "Hey, I liked Yale, but Davidson...they're my kind of people."

     "They could sue you for a line like that." Philip refilled his glass. "What do you want to be, Eric?"

"Well..."

     "You could reach for the sky and become a lawyer," he said, patting his chest, "or you could drink coffee for eight years and become a doctor."

     I turned to Jayson. "You want to be a doctor?"

     Jayson stifled a grin and pointed to Roxanne.

     "Oh. Sorry."

     "Forget it. You're a man. You had no choice."

     Philip and Jayson shivered.

     I said, "What do you want to be, Jayson?"

     "A teacher."

     "Teaching what?"

     "Everything."

     Philip nodded. "We also get to vote this year, don't we, Jayson?"

     Jayson sighed. "I know, Philip, I know: It's our duty as American citizens."

     "Anybody can make it sound silly."

     I was reluctant to join a discussion with people I had just met. Roxanne spoke. "Actually, it's more of a right than a duty."

     "It's a duty to democracy," Philip insisted.

     Philip reminded me of a student I knew in New York. His family had immigrated from Italy, and they all wanted to become American citizens; the way he'd spoken about democracy was similar to Philip's—the same conviction, the same devotion to ideals. I envied them both a little.

     "A theoretical democracy," Jayson said. "Not everyone votes. I doubt if any politician wants to know what the real majority of people thinks."

     It seemed to me that Jayson looked bored, as if the debate were hardly an intellectual challenge. I also sensed disappointment.

     Philip groaned. "What if everyone thought like you?"

     "Please, Philip, don't tease me."

     After her comment, Roxanne had kept quiet. Her look told me that this was a regular ritual between the two.

     Jayson went on. "But to answer, a group of people who think exactly alike don't need a system of government, especially—" he smiled "—if they all think like me." His next comment settled the argument in tone if not in content: "The right to vote is also the right not to vote. It's the right of choice we're really talking about."

     "Why aren't you voting?" I asked.

     Jayson reached for his tea. "Do you want the long reason or the short reason?"

     Philip, sitting across from me, caught my eye and brought his hand to his chest, drawing thumb and forefinger together.

     "The short reason," I said.

     "I don't vote because I don't care."

     Philip shrugged. "When does camp start?"

     Jayson laughed. "It started this morning. I changed my mind a few days ago, during exams. I thought I told you." He turned to me. "I was going to be a camp counselor in Rhode Island, but I changed my mind."

     So that's it, I thought.

     Roxanne looked surprised, I noticed; Philip did not. He said, "You probably did; the past two weeks is just one big blur."

     Roxanne said, "That's it? You just changed your mind?"

     "I gave them enough notice. And they have alternate counselors." He looked surprised at her attack, and even to me, who had just met them both, it seemed strange that he'd have to defend himself against her.

     Philip intervened. "So you'll be going to the beach?"

     "Pretty soon. The last tenants moved out on Wednesday. Next week, someone's coming up to clean it out, and get it ready for the summer. You two coming?"

     "If I don't have a job by then, " Roxanne said. "I still need a little spending money. We can't all afford to turn down scholarships."

     Jayson grimaced briefly, or came as close to a grimace as his smile would allow. "But it's New York we want to hear about."

     So throughout the meal, I was the center of attention again: Yes, I had been to Greenwich village—no, never at night; yes, I had seen the UN building, and Forty-second Street, and Broadway, and yes, I had taken a carriage ride through Central Park (Roxanne thought that was so romantic, and to Philip and Jayson's despair, I agreed with her); and yes, I had ridden the subways.

     And yes, Belltown was a big change from Manhattan Island.

                                                *                  *                   *

     We had taken Philip's car, the black 1972 Lincoln Mark IV that he'd rescued from the graveyard, to the restaurant. He drove us back to the theater and Jayson's flame-colored Mustang.

     I stood to one side as the three friends said good-bye in the parking lot.

     Philip and Jayson went into a fake sobbing-and-hugging routine, complete with handkerchiefs and "I promise I'll write every day."

     When it was over, he turned to me. "Eric, it was nice meeting you, although the pleasure was all yours I'm sure." Then he held his hand out, palm facing me, and said, soberly: "When they next cross." He turned and returned to his car.

     Roxanne embraced Jayson, and whispered something in his ear that obviously embarrassed the heck out of him. He looked as though he wanted to say something to her, but he simply stepped back. Roxanne, apparently expecting this, turned to me.

     "It was good meeting you, Eric." Her eyes flicked over to Jayson, then back to me. "You're in for an adventure. My advice is to hang on. So long." She joined Philip in his car.

     I had grabbed the napkin Jayson had scribbled on as we got up to leave, thinking he had forgotten it, but wanted to keep it. I handed it to him as we got into his car. He glanced at it, disinterested, then put it in a pocket of his windbreaker.

     As Philip's car moved into the street and uptown, I watched Jayson. His shoulders slumped, and he stared after the car for more than a minute.

     I felt like a stranger. I wasn't a part of this group. I missed my own friends in New York—then remembered why I had moved to Belltown.

     I turned to him. “What did Philip mean when he said, ‘when they next cross?’”

     “Oh, that.” He raised his hand, palm out, the way Philip had, and pointed to pointed to one of the lines on his palm. “Lifelines. When our lifelines next cross.”

     I followed him quietly to his car.

     If Jayson was going to be here this summer, I would have to tell him I was dying. But not in a parking lot.

     I was grateful that Jayson did not feel much like talking on the way home, either.

                                                *                  *                   *

     The housewarming was still going on when we returned, so we walked around to the back door and entered the kitchen. I poured glasses of grape juice, and we sat down.

     Jayson's mood had revived. After a few sips of juice, he said, "I guess we'd better go—what's the phrase?—make an appearance."

     I checked my watch; it was 9:30. "I don't know, Jayson; it's kind of late for me. It's been a busy day."

     "With rapid hours. You're right. I'll just make a quick tour and be right back. I guess my parents are long gone..." The rest of his statement was lost as he went through the door into the living room.

     I had only taken one more sip when the door opened again, only this time it was Mary Murdock who entered. She stood in the doorway and said, "Hello, Eric."

     "How are you, Mrs. Murdock?"

     "Fine." She turned back to the door, pushed it open, and motioned to someone. A few seconds later, she stood to one side, and her husband entered. William Murdock was taller than his wife and his son; his eyes smiled through horn rims as he and his wife joined me at the table.

     Once seated, the two exchanged nervous glances, at themselves and at me. Finally Jayson's mother asked, "Did you and Jayson have a good time?"

     "Oh, yes."

     Mr. Murdock said, "You went to see a movie, is that right?"

     "Yes, the new Star Trek movie."

     Murdock blinked. "They made a movie? Interesting."

     His wife said, "Did you meet Jayson's friends?"

     I nodded. "Yes, Philip and Roxanne."

     They both nodded. "Yes." Mrs. Murdock smiled. "Roxanne is a lovely girl. And of course, Philip's been around for...well..."

     Murdock said, "What sort of things are you interested in, Eric?"

     This one wasn't going to be easy; I had left everything in New York. "Well, I like a lot of things..."

     "I hear you like to write. You know, Mary writes."

     She added quickly, "Though not the kind of stories you like to read, I'm sure."

     "I mainly write poems."

     "Really? How wonderful! Maybe you could show us some of them sometime."

     "Sure. I'd like that."

     They both leaned forward. Murdock said, "How about tomorrow? Come over for lunch."

     Mary Murdock nodded. "Oh, yes, would you?"

     I've heard my share of polite-parent-of-friend talk before. This wasn't it. "Sure. I can do that."

     They both smiled. Jayson's mother said, "Good. Oh, your glass is empty. Would you like more juice?" Before I could answer, she had grabbed my glass and moved to the refrigerator. Returning with a filled glass, she said, "And I bet you're hungry, there's still a lot of food out there."

     "Well, yeah, I guess I am a little hungry... I tried to stand, but she waved me back down.

     "Sit down. I'll get it for you."

     "That's all right, you don't need to—"

     "It's no trouble." She smiled again and was gone.

     I looked turned to Mr. Murdock, who said, "She doesn't know what to do with herself when she isn't writing. Do you like to fish?"

     "I love it."

     He paused, then spoke hesitantly, as if afraid he were pushing his luck: "How about bowling?"

     "I haven't done it in a long time, but I like it a lot."

     He sat back, relieved. "Great. Bowling. We can go bowling sometime. Great." He glanced toward the door, then back at me. "I suppose you're going on to college?"

     "Well, I've been accepted at the University of Virginia..."

     "Fine school. I know some people from there. What will you study?"

     "I want to study history."

     "Really?" He leaned forward again. "I was a history major." He smiled. "For a whole year."

     "I guess you're glad Jayson is going to a school that's close to home."

     He gave a puzzled frown. "Really? Where?"

     I stared. "Davidson, isn't it?"

     "Is it? I knew he was accepted at... well, everywhere. But I thought he wanted to go to MIT...or was it Harvard?"

     Mrs. Murdock returned with a plate piled high, and set it in front of me.

     Murdock said, "What school did Jayson decide on, Harvard, wasn't it?"

     She sat down. "No, Harvard was for graduate study...it was Duke, wasn't it?"

     He shook his head emphatically. "No. He won't go there. That's where he took all those..."

     He trailed off, and as she finished the sentence for him, their eyes widened, suddenly anxious: "...all those tests..."

                                                *                  *                   *

     My plate had long been emptied, and I had refused several offers to have it refilled, when the Murdocks decided to call it a night.

     Mrs. Murdock pushed back her chair. "I guess we've kept you up late enough, Eric."

     "No, I'm still wide-awake." Startled, I realized that that was true. "Besides, it's only...one o'clock?"

     While I stared at my watch, they stood and moved to the back door, repeating their offer of lunch tomorrow. I nodded, still staring, then remembered my manners and walked with them. I stood on the back steps as they vanished into the house next door. I turned, then stopped as I saw a figure walk around the corner from the front of our house.

     "Eric?"

     "Jayson? Are you still up?"

     "Apparently." He moved to the foot of the steps. "I just had the most interesting conversation with your parents."

     I opened my mouth, but he continued. "The usual get-acquainted stuff, I suppose...and yet..." He looked up at the sky. "What? Three hours? Good grief, I didn't think it was that long." He turned to me. "You must be ready to drop, so I'll say good night."

     "Good night, Jayson."

     He took a few steps, then stopped and turned. "By the way, your folks invited me over for lunch tomorrow."

     I laughed. "Well, guess what." I gave him the et cetera.

     He laughed. "Great! It's like a bad sitcom plot. We can get Patty Duke to play you—and me."

     "Should we tell them?"

     "Of course not." He continued walking. "Parents get so few thrills."

 

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