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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Summer's End

A short story about a synesthete taking a bicycle ride into town.


Summer’s End

            Days are dwindling
            Nights are growing
            Leaves are turning, dying, falling

            Colin Hayes woke up with the song in his head, and afterwards he realized that it probably explained why he thought of going to Zoe’s house in the first place.  The old melancholy Cailey Stephens song had appeared from nowhere, in the way that old melancholy songs do, flitting just on the edge of consciousness.  As he opened his last box of cereal and poured some into a bowl, he was humming it, a little off key, not even fully aware; as he sat at the table, eating it in dry mouthfuls, it was still there, the dark, minor key keyboard riffs fluttering around inside his skull.
            “Zoe,” he said aloud, the idea coming suddenly as he was washing up his bowl.  “I should go see if Zoe’s home.  I haven’t been there in years.  I haven’t even thought about her in months.”
            He got together a few things in his backpack, then closed and locked the front door of the little house he rented from Mrs. Debarra and walked out into the cool September morning.  I don’t know why I bother locking, he thought, as he walked down the sidewalk, the air smelling clean and fresh after the previous day’s rain.  There was hint of the smell of dying leaves; a brown smell, a curled and crisped smell, like butterscotch, like overdone toast.  I haven’t had toast in a long time, he thought.  Maybe I should figure out if I can make some toast when I get back.
            He passed the sleeping bulk of his gray Toyota Celica, running his fingers along its dusty surface.  His bicycle was in its customary location, leaning against the wall, and he checked the air pressure in the tires.  It was fine – they were holding air since he’d replaced the tubes three weeks ago with ones he’d gotten from the bike shop down the road.  He donned his helmet, swung a leg over the seat, and with a push on one of the pedals he coasted out of the garage and onto the rough gravel of the driveway.
            The rolling hills of upstate New York slid past, and the wind in his face carried smells that flowed over him and away.  Colin sometimes wondered if he could have cycled the thirty miles into town by his sense of smell alone, done it blindfolded, the colors in the air guiding him and showing him the way.  The acrid, but not unpleasant, gray-green smell of the cattle up at Carroll’s farm.  The cool, bright blue smell of the woods near Corley’s Crossing.  The placid smell, deep green like bottle glass, of the stream that bubbled its way under Tucker’s Bridge.  He saw the sheep up on the hill just past the stream, and they turned their long, foolish faces toward him, baaaing plaintively.  The sheep didn’t have much of a smell, not at this distance, and Colin wondered how much longer they’d be there, now that winter was coming.
            The road into town wound its way down from the hills, up and down but always further down than the next hill was up, and so descended into the valley.  The sun had risen above the treetops by then, and Colin stopped momentarily to pull off his shirt and stuff it into his backpack, enjoying the feeling of the fresh air and sunshine on his skin.  Maybe the pond near his house was still warm enough to go for a swim that afternoon; he’d have to see when he got back.

            My heart is empty, calling your name
            A bell ringing in the open sky

            It was nearly noon when he passed the vague boundary between the open farmland and hills, and the treed streets of the north end of town; houses began to pass by him with more frequency, and he saw a sign that said “M. C. Petrie Elementary School” with an arrow pointing off to the left, where a low brick building stood partially hidden in a maple grove.  The monkeybars and teeter-totters were empty at the moment, but Colin remembered the smells, the overwhelming smells, of paste and fingerpaints and modeling clay and the teacher’s perfume and the peculiar, beige-tinged scent of textbooks, and his mind was carried back to when he’d been that age, it was what?  Almost thirty years ago?  It hardly seemed possible.
            The school flew past as he coasted easily downhill, and he maneuvered around a truck that someone had left parked crooked, its tailgate hanging open, halfway out into the road.  Inconsiderate, that sort of thing.  Colin looked around for the truck’s owner, but his momentary thought that he’d like to tell him to move his damn truck, someone could get in a serious accident, slipped past as the truck disappeared behind him.  He passed a street sign – Torrance Road – and thought briefly about heading up that way, and seeing if his parents were home.  He was fairly certain they wouldn’t be, but he felt a twinge of guilt at riding on past, not even heading by and seeing if his dad was out mowing the lawn, or his mom doing the final garden cleanup before the hard freeze that was certain to come in the next few weeks.
            South of Torrance Road was a row of auto dealerships and car repair shops, and the faint, burnt-orange scent of motor oil clung like a low fog around them.  Colin wrinkled his nose.  He’d always hated that smell; it reminded him of his uncle, who was a mechanic and a bully, and whose hands always had faint dark lines where the soap couldn’t reach.  That smell always came with him, and Colin was glad that he hadn’t seen his uncle in a long time.  It was okay, that was okay with him, even if now Colin was as big as his uncle and unlikely to have his shoulder pinched or the back of his head slapped for saying something stupid.
            Zoe lived up on the west side of town, in a neat little subdivision near the high school.  It was her parents’ house; she’d gone to college to study architecture, but when the economy went south and the job market dried up, she’d come back home.  There’d been phone conversations – several of them – but they’d never progressed past, “How are you?”  and “I’m fine” and “How are your parents doing?” and “They’re fine.”  Colin had always intended to ask her out, see if she’d like to see a movie, maybe get dinner at the little Greek place on College Avenue, but his nerve had always failed him.  He pictured himself, suavely asking her to go out, then taking her out to a club afterwards for drinks and dancing.  Maybe bringing her back to his place after that (thirty miles out in the middle of nowhere, he thought, why would she want to go all the way out to your place?).  Then the thought that maybe she would ask him over to her place, maybe her parents would be away for the evening, maybe they could snuggle on the couch or even make out a little.  The daydream always stopped there; he wanted her, to feel her warm, tanned skin press against his, but it seemed too much to think about to consider that he could ever have made love to her.  He contented himself with the daydream of sitting on her parents’ couch, pressed together, her dark hair fanned out across his shoulder, holding her while she dozed.

            You will not answer, for you have gone
            Following the birds to other lands
            But still I seek you, still I want you
            Still I need to see your face again

            Zoe’s parents’ house was a tidy little Cape Cod on Carson Street, its front only set ten feet back from the maple-lined sidewalk.  Colin turned on Duvall Street, then took a right on Carson, and coasted the rest of the way to the fourth house on the left.  The neighborhood was quiet, a breeze rustling in the orange-streaked leaves of the trees, bringing that brown butterscotch scent of autumn to his nostrils.  Colin stopped, looking up at the house, and then leaned his bicycle against the nearest tree.  He reached into his backpack, and pulled out his shirt – somewhat rumpled from being balled up for the past two hours – and shrugged it on, tugging the bottom into place and hoping that he didn’t smell sweaty.  He didn’t think he did, but he also had heard you don’t always smell your own sweat, so he wasn’t really sure.  He’d run out of deodorant – and in any case the smell of anything but the unscented, hypoallergenic types was so strong that he couldn’t bear to use them.  The few times he had done so he got flashes of red and orange, sharp, hard-edged smells, from his own body, and it was so distracting that at the first chance he could he’d rushed home, stripped naked, gone to the shower, and scrubbed his skin until it was almost raw.
            He walked up the sidewalk to Zoe’s front steps, and climbed them to the front door, and knocked.

            I close my eyes and I can see you
            Feel your touch, feel your kiss
            But then you turn and walk away
            I open my eyes, and you’re gone

            No one answered his knock.
            It was possible, of course, that they were just out.  Colin thought that, standing there.  They’re just out.  They’re just away.  He knocked again, waiting for the sound of footsteps, then looked up and down the street.  A deer came out of the neighbor’s yard, regarding him with wary liquid eyes, and then turned away and began to munch on the overgrown twigs of a rhododendron bush.  Colin looked down the steps at the little front garden, that Zoe’s mother had so meticulously maintained.  Goldenrod and asters and witch grass grew up through the dying leaves of the peonies and sea holly and black-eyed susans.  She’d better do some weeding soon, Colin thought, before the ground freezes.  It’ll be too late, then, until next spring.
            He turned the handle of the door, and to his surprise, it opened, and he walked onto the front porch, his footsteps clunking hollowly on the wood planks.  The door of the house stood a little ajar, as if Zoe or her mom or dad had just come through it, off to check the mail or walk the dog or chat with the neighbor.  Colin pushed it open, calling, “Hello?”
            The house was a confusion of smells; old, very old, traces of the smells of cooking, gray with age; and a nearer, dark purple smell, hanging in the air like smoke.  A heavy smell, cloying, like dying lilacs.

            I dreamed of you, I dreamed you near
            I dreamed you lying next to me
            I dreamed you take your hand in mine
            Lead me to where you’ve gone

            It wasn’t until he entered the living room that he understood; or maybe he had understood, weeks, months, a year earlier, and just couldn’t bring himself to believe it.  She was lying on the sofa, one hand curled under her head, brown hair fanned out across the pillow.  There wasn’t much left but bones, not really; and the smell that was left wasn’t unpleasant, just dark, dark purple like stormclouds.  It would have been worse had he come sooner, that he knew; then it would have smelled black, black like the death it was, black like the death that had taken them all – all but him.  Maybe there were others, but if so, he hadn’t seen them, hadn’t seen another human being for over a year, from the time the epidemic had roared through, leaving only him.  Only him, and the crumbling remains of the world, breaking up and falling like the leaves in autumn.

            The world’s grown cold since last we met
            There’s nothing left for me here,
            There’s none to dry the tears I’ve wept
            There’s none to draw me near

            You will not answer, for you have gone
            Following the birds to other lands
            But still I seek you, still I want you
            Still I need to see your face again

1 comment:

  1. Okay... I was not expecting this. I should know better by now. I have so much to say, that I will save it for the dinner table... leaving a comment here would fill your inbox. This story rocks. Let's just say that.