The Heat of August and the Chill of Death


Rock Island, IL

There are at least two advantages to being stung by a bee on the underside of your toe. One is that a day or so hence, when your whole foot itches bad enough to make you batshit crazy, you’ll scratch it until you cross a threshold and enter that mysterious region where it’s difficult to distinguish between pleasure and misery.

The second is that you’ll be in a good position, not to mention an amenable state of mind, to contemplate the significance of crossing that threshold. You’ll have scratched yourself into a kind of ecstasy (to borrow a phrase from Richard Russo), but you’ll never be sure where exactly the line is between getting relief and inflicting more pain.

The feeling is akin to the unnerving sense of impending doom that accompanies the long but shrinking days of summer, a sense that seems each year to arrive and settle in fully by the time August is about ten days old. The children, chasing fireflies or playing Ghost in the Graveyard or Capture the Flag well into the jeweled and star spangled dark, still have no sense of time in that way of theirs, free as they are to stretch their green and golden days to the very limits. But you, with your bee sting and your foot swollen like a blowfish—you know the days are getting shorter. Even as the tomatoes ripen and the mature summer fruit comes in in horns of plenty, you feel as palpably as the muggy air that discomfiting sense of time running out. You inhabit another of those mysterious regions.

It may be worse. It may be that another summer’s promise has come and gone. Or, worse yet, it may be that you feel in the warm breezes of August the hot breath of death on your neck.

E.B. White changed the temperature and captured it elegantly in that splendid tribute to summer, “Once More to the Lake,” an essay at once respectful of the thresholds and regions adults can’t help but scratch themselves across and into and yet at the same time attuned to the dizzying raptures of a child at play in the fullness of time’s oblivion. White remembers being a boy at a summer lake, marveling at his father’s great authority in unpacking the trunks and suitcases and doing all those other things that fathers must do when the family is at play. In remembering this, and in performing those duties himself now, White necessarily looks out through the eyes of his father.

And, as he sees his son fishing and swimming and doing all the things he once did as a child, he finds himself looking out at the summer scene through the eyes of his son as well. The alternating perspectives unsettle White; they leave him uncertain who exactly is doing the observing: himself or his father? Himself as a boy or himself as a man? He is never quite sure whose fishing rod he’s at the end of.

But, notwithstanding his uncertainty as a character in the narrative, he is unfaltering as its narrator: he hits upon the mind of a father exactly—and upon the mind of a son exactly too. You might say he is perfectly faithful to two psychologies at once.

And then the essay ends with White watching his son take down his wet swimming trunks from the line after a rain shower.

When the others went swimming, my son said he was going in, too. He pulled his dripping trunks from the line where they had hung all through the shower and wrung them out. Languidly, and with no thought of going in, I watched him, his hard little body, skinny and bare, saw him wince slightly as he pulled up around his vitals the small, soggy, icy garment. As he buckled the swollen belt, suddenly my groin felt the chill of death.

The spell is broken, the uncertainty gone. And the scene White paints is no less precise in its details than the evoked sensation is. Read the essay, or read it again, and ask yourself whether there is any better way of saying what gets said. I’m not sure there is.

I rather doubt White said to himself one day, “there are at least two advantages to putting on an icy wet pair of swimming trunks.” But I expect he spent a lot of time wondering about the meaning of things, maybe even bee stings to the underside of the toe. Certainly he spent some time thinking about summer and its warring tugs and impulses. “Summertime, oh summertime,” he wrote, “pattern of life indelible, the fade-proof lake, the woods unshatterable, the pasture with the sweetfern and the juniper forever and ever, summer without end.” And he shows us the girls with long hair and the boys mastering their outboard motors and the restaurants and restaurant food and tablecloths, changeless and unchanging in the long days of summer.

And then at the end, in spite of it all, the chill of death. How the days stretch out even as they shrink to nothing. So it is, down through the years, on and on and on.

My older boy got his first pocket knife this summer. He’s about the age I was when I got my first knife. He used his to whittle a stick for roasting his hotdog and to carve his initials into a birch tree. He buggy-whipped his fly rod in a river for the first time, hooked his first trout—did a lot of those things he’s been hoping for a few summers now to be old enough do, including (especially) firing the .22 for the first time. As any boy will tell you, there’s isn’t much that can compete with the crack of something bigger than a bb gun, especially the first time you hit the beer can and knock it off the wood pile.

And it was all as White described. I was there but never sure whose fly I was floating. Was I the boy getting his first pocket knife or the father helping him pick it out? Was I in my own shoes or beside them? Was I pulling up the icy garment or watching it chill someone else?

Then a sonofabitch bee flew between my foot and my sandal and stung me on the underside of my toe, sending me a day or so hence into fits of itching and paroxysms of meditation. And I’m obliged to conclude that it has been a summer of thresholds and regions. Pleasure and pain have been at war, the battle line between them indistinct and always moving. One day, trying to get relief from the itch, I fairly sawed the carpet with my swollen bare foot, all the while inching ever nearer a greater misery. Scratching an itch is a great pleasure. But, like all pleasures, it is one small trespass from turning into its opposite.

Not every moment, not every action, is as poignant as the one during which a plump trout throbs on the end of your fly line. Not every moment, not every event or milestone, is ponderable or capable of bearing the weight of analysis. Sometimes sharing a root beer with your boy doesn’t have to harken back to any other shared root beers. But it does seem to me that life is sometimes more like a bee-stung foot than a normal healthy one casually dangling over the arm of a chair on a thoughtless carefree summer day.

And, by God, I’ll have its meaning before the hot blast of death’s incessant motion chills me to the bone and stretches me out ass-side down in the cold cold ground.

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