That Heavy Summer
It was heavy that summer. The wind, never blowing, instead hung pressingly among the people who milled around, shoulders slumped, eyes blinking slowly. The air clung to the Sodden like that self-proclaimed friend who never fails to turn up when least expected and least hoped for. It felt like swimming, though without the comforts of swimming–none of the crisp, cool droplets of water that bring immediate goose-bumps to one’s arms and legs, stimulating them to the surface. There was no comfort in the humidity; there was no relief in being drenched in one’s own sweat. The people’s lungs, instead of being filled and refilled with the refreshment of the sweet summer air, felt burdened and thick as if trying to breathe pudding. There was no sweetness in the pudding of that heavy summer. Their breath could never be satiated. There was no fun to be had in that air, no relief, no refreshment, no satisfaction.
The same foreboding air bore down on the shoulders of Raph, whose back, puddled with sweat, tightly gripped the already sweat-stained cotton of his shirt. That shirt, which he removed gratefully each afternoon–though it’s sticky clench required him to crane his balding head down to his knees, that gravity might help release him from the clutches of both the shirt and his duties–was given to him by the United States Postal Service on the day he first reported to the Monroeville distribution center. That day stood nearly eighteen years in the past.
Donning the shirt each morning, just before the sun blinked over the ever-flattened horizon, Raph understood well his duty, for he mumbled it begrudgingly as the sun kissed the day and as Raph, notable not kissing her, rolled over his wife and into the kitchen where he greeted the coffee maker. Only Raph and his beloved Mate awake at such an irritable hour.
The rest of the house, indeed the rest of the neighborhood, lie asleep in dread of the coming heat.
Their bed rested in the corner of the small, though well-kempt room. The closet door was cracked open, revealing only darkness. Melanie, stirring at Raph’s arousal, was equally irritated by his early rising, though always impressed by his commitment she would never tell him of her admiration. As the hollow words of Herodotus rattled in her still-sleeping brain, seemingly amplified by the low ceiling, she could not ascertain Raph’s motivation: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Mel snickered silently at the fact that Raph still recited these words each morning, confident that he was the only mailman who participated in such folly. The mantra, Raph claimed, was taught to him during his week-long training and he was advised to start each day with it. So he did. It became a habit, one of many gears in a rigorous daily routine that allowed him to carry on for all these years. Melanie thought it childish and useless.
Only a small cherry dresser accompanied the double bed in the tiny bedroom. The room, though dark now, would in a handful of minutes be flooded with the whisper of dawn.
The size of the bedroom was commensurate to the rest of the tiny house, though it was not uncomfortably small. It had five rooms, each of which was well worn from daily use. The living room, though nothing extravagant, suited the small family. A small love seat, not comfortable for sleeping, sat on the longer wall while a worn rocking chair, though meant for the outdoors, graced the space across from it. There was no room for a full sized couch. However, a small coffee table, a wedding gift, now nearly eighteen years old, stood loyally between the two.
The coffee table had fared the past eighteen years better than Raph and Melanie. It had the resilience and surety of purpose that Melanie lacked and the patience and strength that Raph simply could not conjure.
The room was uncluttered. Though a fine layer of dust relaxed on each flat surface.
The kitchen was a room of a similar size. The microwave, though caked with years of splatter, still heated cans of soup and TV dinners, but it failed to sing when it finished the job. Cupboards and appliances cramped the space making it impractical for cooking, eating, and entertaining.
There wasn’t much entertaining to do anyway. Raph left early in the morning and came home exhausted in the afternoon. He usually snagged a short nap before Carly came home from school.
The spitting and spattering of the school bus lurched him from the sweetness of his sleep, just as the children sitting on it were lurched at every stop, some of them smacking their young skulls against the deceivingly unpadded and ever-dirty seat in front of them. He greeted Carly on the front porch, for her stop was conveniently located directly in front of the house. As he kissed her forehead, she said, as she did each day, in that gentle but strong voice, similar to her mother’s,
“Hi daddy, how are you?”
“I am well. And how are you darling?” he would reply, no matter how he was feeling.
Though those questions of ‘how are you’ would usually go unanswered, he knew them necessary formalities for any conversation, even one with his beloved little girl.
They would go on to chat about the day’s events and what happened at school. Carly was sure to tell her dad about the gossip she whispered with her friends at recess and the homework which she was given to wrestle with that evening. Her life brimmed with the innocent stories of second grade and her wrestling only required about half an hour of grappling–perhaps a page of simple multiplication problems, or a large-print vocabulary worksheet.
She would take a shower every evening before bed. The bathroom was also small, but functional. Though he had scrubbed it many times over, the dirty grout surrounding the shower smiled teasingly at Raph each time he entered the wallpapered room. Wallpaper isn’t meant for bathrooms. It bubbled in the places where even the tiniest moisture had decided to settle, giving the bathroom the smell of a wine cellar, though the room lacked the appeal of being full of surplus maturing wines.
Carly didn’t mind the dirt in the shower. At least she never mentioned it. She came out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam. She took the hottest showers, even on the most humid days–the mirror left dripping as if it too was sweating.
The final room in the precious brick house was Carly’s bedroom. The small room, smaller than some of the disgustingly spacious walk-in closets in some of those newer homes–with a devoted space to hundreds of shoes, a thousand hangers, and tens of drawers for socks and underwear and tee shirts–treated Carly kindly. She enjoyed her time in that room, singing, dancing, sleeping, snoring. The walls were bare. A single sconce lit up the space with an uninteresting yellow glow.
Raph spent many hours in Carly’s room. After her shower he would read her a story; she was growing to like the longer chapter books now, so he would read an excerpt from one of those. Treasure Island was her favorite. Raph reserved it at the library a couple weeks back after seeing it at a garage sale and remembering how much he loved it during his younger years. Though his father never read to him before bed, the crinkling of the plastic sleeve on the library’s copy reminded him of wrapping paper on a gift. The book, indeed every book, was a gift, a surprise waiting to be opened. He was overjoyed that Carly was willing and excited to open the gift of literature at such a young age. He hoped this love for books would last beyond the time when it becomes uncool and nerdy to read. He feared life without books.
Before Carly would fall asleep, but when she knew that sleep was inevitable based on the weight of her eyelids, Carly would whisper to her dad, lids fluttering as candles in a breeze,
“I love you daddy.”
“I love you too, sweetheart,” he would say. Even to this day, as on the day when she first learned that most heartbreaking line, Raph overflowed with pride and love and joy. Tears threatened to break from the bottom of his eyes. If he let them, they just might flood that bedroom with the bare walls and that single sconce.
Raph would sit on the edge of her bed. His eyes would rest tenderly on Carly’s face. The softness of her skin was visible, the curls on her head could be felt without touching. He would take her fragile hand into both of his, kissing it with his fingers, from the pad of each of her fingers down to the creased skin where her hand and wrist met, where her heartbeat rested.
He sat, simply loving her, for a long time. Sometimes he sat for hours adoring her. Avoiding his wife who, based on the slamming of the cupboard doors, had just returned home. He sat.
Carly could not recognize the fact of the matter. She was simply too young. Her naivete weighed all the more heavily on Raph–how could he tell her the truth? How would he? Carly would never know her mother. They lie asleep with only a thin wall between them, but never would they meet.
She went into the room with the dresser each morning before school. She and her plaid jumper, which rested peacefully on the soft skin of her small frame, would kiss mommy each morning saying,
“Feel better soon mommy.”
Mommy would never answer. She was always asleep. Carly rarely saw her conscious.
She knew that mommy was sick. She knew that mommy had to rest for a long time each day. She knew that mommy had to be away for a long time each day in order to get her medicine so that she could stay alive.
She did not, however, know that mommy was an alcoholic. She did not know that mommy was only asleep because she had temporarily destroyed her ability to be conscious or because her body was immobilized by a wrenching stomach, her eyes unable to open for fear of daylight. Carly did not know that mommy’s medicine was prescribed not by a doctor with a white coat but by a bartender in a white button down shirt; both of whom make a living off of other’s disease.
Raph knew all of these things, he’d become quite familiar with the truth of the past six years or so. Carly’s first sip of breastmilk seemed to correspond to Melanie’s first sip of booze. She had never taken an interest in alcohol before that first sip. Raph stood in fearful awe at the power of that chemical, he had never witnessed anything so seemingly innocent destroy someone so slowly and painfully.
He considered her dead. He had mourned each part of her in the past six years and could now feel himself mourning not her death but that Carly would never know her mother. Raph first mourned the loss of her personality. She was, before alcohol, lovely in every way. She didn’t speak often, but when she did, her voice, like a song, was soothing and intentional. Her sense of humor was quiet and critical, painfully funny so long as you weren’t the subject of her mocking. Even then she was never mean-spirited or cold.
Her laugh too had to be mourned. Oh how he missed it! Raph clung dearly to memories in which he could hear that laugh–so absolutely unique, without being weird, off-putting or abrasive. Rarely would she laugh from the depths of her stomach, but when she did, Raph would find himself immediately refreshed. He heard notes of that laughter when Carly would laugh. Her childish laugh was similarly refreshing–like that gulp of cold water in the morning which can be felt into one’s chest–though it stung too, burning with all that he had lost when he lost Mel.
The features of her face also showed up in Carly. That furrowed concern would wrinkle her forehead when musing over a difficult homework problem or a new word that was difficult to pronounce; the same wrinkles used to appear on Mel’s forehead while imagining what life might be like for the baby girl in her belly. He never saw that concern after Carly was born. That alone threatened to crush him.
Carly’s whole face, except for her nose and the vein that threatened to burst from her forehead, belonged to Mel. She had her eyes, green and thoughtful, as if they contained an entire universe within them. Their hairs were dark and curly, winding this way and that, driven wildly out of control by the summer’s humidity. Their lips were small and thin, but by no means made unattractive by their thinness. The tiniest and lightest little hairs, not visible unless examined most intimately, speckled the space between the upper lip and nose.
The vein on Carly’s forehead, however, was nowhere to be found on Melanie. This vein, snaking like a river down the length of her forehead, losing itself somewhere around her nose, pumping blood into her brain, nourishing her intellect, perfecting her beauty, was evidence of Raph’s participation in her livelihood. There was no denying that she was Raph’s beloved.
Her vein, like Raph’s would explode into being during a fit of laughter, or after having held her breath in the pool. The vein would scream from both of their foreheads if they smiled with all of their teeth and cheeks and chin. She was beautiful. Like her mother. Like her father.
Melanie was no longer beautiful, though remnants of her beauty remained packed away in Raph’s memory. Carly had no such memories; mommy was sick for as long as she had lived.
“Has mommy always been sick?” she would say, not aware of how much this question pierced Raph’s already tender heart.
“She wasn’t always sick,” he would say, “we used to take long walks together. We went swimming in the reservoir and would take picnics to the park when she was well.”
“I love mommy,” she would reply, “I hope she will be healthy again so we can do those things together, just the three of us.”
“I love her too,” he said, trying to wrestle the ever-welling tears back into his head; doing everything he could to convince Carly and himself that he was telling the truth.
“Did I make mommy sick?” she would say, looking up with innocence, “Was she sick because I was in her tummy?” “No, no sweetie,” turning away to wipe that first tear. “It’s no one’s fault that mommy got sick. It just happened”
Raph couldn’t stand the thought of burdening Carly with a lesson in postpartum depression. How could he possibly begin to explain that to a second-grader? He wasn’t sure that that was the culprit anyway, it was just the only explanation that he could think of. It had quickly become the only explanation.
He knew mommy would never be healthy again. He was assured of this by the fact that she was unable to get out of bed unless motivated by her next drink. He hadn’t seen her eat in weeks. She hadn’t brushed her teeth in the same amount of time. That alone prevented him from sleeping in the same bed as her, preferring instead to sit on the edge of Carly’s bed until sleep overcame him and placed him on her floor. He would wake up before her so she wouldn’t ask him about why he wasn’t sleeping with mommy.
The smallest fragment of the tutu stuck out of the closed door of the car as Carly and her dad pulled out of the driveway. The cement cracked under the weight of the sun, the weeds lifted by that same scorching weight.
Raph prayed that Carly wouldn’t notice that their other car was absent, that she wouldn’t ask where mommy had gone.
“Where is mommy?”
She never missed anything.
“Mommy must have gone out to get her medicine again,” he lied, knowing that she had left yesterday evening and had not yet returned.
“Will she be at my recital?” Carly asked, full of hope. Hiding his anger Raph replied,
“I don’t think she’s feeling up to it today honey, her medicine makes her really tired and achey.”
He noticed the sadness in her eyes and voice.
They merged onto the highway. The dance studio was only about fifteen minutes away.
“Are you nervous about your recital sweetie?” he asked, trying to change the subject.
“Umm, a little bit. But I know I can do it, because you’ll be there watching me!”
“I wouldn’t miss it for the wo––” Something caught in his throat.
The car came out of nowhere, speeding against traffic, screeching as it swerved. All Raph could see was the glare of the sun off of the windshield, blinding, brighter and brighter as it approached him and his daughter.
Raph stuck his arm out without thinking, attempting to brace Carly for impact. It was not enough. It never could have been, she was simply going too fast.
His vision blurred in and out, as if caught between sleep and waking. He saw her small body, thrown from the car, bloody. Noise and silence.
He called, noticing the scratchiness in his small voice. She did not respond to his weak calls. Her tutu, and the knees beneath it, were now torn, shredded by the road. He could see those hazel eyes, unblinking. Her vein spat life onto the simmering road.
As his breath expired, along with his life, Raph recognized the license plate number of the swerving car–the car that should have been parked in his driveway–and the curly hair that stumbled out of it. Mommy had taken her medicine.