Extract: The Last Days of Summer by Vanessa Ronan
Mid-July in Texas. Cicadas shed their dry summer skins, the scent of roses hangs heavy in the still air, and a woman sits alone on her porch at dusk, watching the empty, merciless prairie, its light falling to darkness. He’s coming home.
Upstairs, Lizzie knows, her daughters are safe in their beds. Joanne, still young enough to smile at strangers, one last summer of childhood left in her. Katie, already a beauty, the first flush of womanhood blooming on her skin. Both sleeping soundly.
But out beyond the boundary of their land, the townspeople sleep fitfully. Too many have heard that Jasper is coming back – folk who know him of old, who remember what he did – men who will make it their business to see he doesn’t stay too long round these parts…
Read on for an extract from The Last Days of Summer!
The Last Days of Summer
July flies call in the humid evening, song thick as heat, rolling in uneven waves across the lawn to wash up tuneless on the front porch. The tide of summer. When they were children, they would lie beneath those heavens and marvel at how big God must be to paint the sky that way. Heat would drip sweat down their cheeks, necks, the backs of their knees. Grass would cling to their moist bodies, their scabby legs. Sometimes she itched all over lying there like that, but still she lay on the crisp summer grass burned brown by July sunshine; still she marvelled at the great big sky, too awed, too lazy to move. And sometimes he would tell her the constellations – the Big Dipper, Orion’s Belt, Cassiopeia – his fingers tracing their outlines in the sky, connecting dot to dot. Once he had run an ice cube down her side while they lay there, evening muggy with traces of day, ice exciting, chilling, scary on her skin. Up her bare leg to where her shorts began. Along her tiny arm up to the shoulder. Neck. Collarbone. She didn’t know how to stop it. Stop him. The ice cube felt good in all that heat. Wrong, somehow, but good melting against bare skin. Sometimes when he traced the summer stars he would take her hand and use her finger for the mapping.
He will be here soon. He will be here tomorrow.
Lizzie leans back in Mama’s old rocker and wonders what welcome Mama might have had for him. Tomorrow. Imagines it before, if things had never happened. Imagines it now, after all that has. She feels sweat gather around her, feels it draw her T-shirt to her. Tries to imagine him and her sitting on this porch, side by side, talking. Or lying in the grass, like all those years ago. Can’t.
The evening primroses have unfurled, their blossoms worshipping what little sunset remains, yellow and pink and deeper dark purple stretched across the endless sky. It will be hours still till they will shut, twisting back into tight closed lips, waiting for tomorrow’s dusk to breathe again, and when they do the moths will come to dance against the porch light, beating their fragile hairy bodies against the bulb with primal dedication while the stars above shine from horizon to horizon over the open prairie.
‘I don’t got nothin’ to say to you.’
No one there to answer.
Fireflies flick on and off across the lawn. The cicadas are still singing. The primroses have begun their retreat, but she waits, watching darkness fall till each last flower has shut tight. The girls will be home soon. She rises, stands a moment at the top of the steps looking out into the blackness that stretches across the prairie before her, the porch light illuminating her silhouette but no one there to witness. Her ponytail lightly brushes her shoulders, sticky with sweat. Had anyone been watching they might have thought Lizzie was waiting for someone. For him perhaps. Or the girls to come home. Or perhaps she was looking out beyond that darkness to another time when things seemed simpler, the stars more than children’s wishes trapped. But no one is there. Just memories and the ghosts of memories and whatever new memories tomorrow will bring. In time Lizzie turns and goes inside, screen door slamming.
He’s been staring at the wall for hours. All day, maybe. He hasn’t taken time to notice it passing. Just stares. And what’s confusing him is that he’s never noticed it before. Ten years and somehow he’s never seen it – a crack. Thin black line there in the whitewash. Bottom corner. Runs like a tiny river waist-high to floor. How could he never have noticed it? So he sits, staring. But it does not go away. It does not grow or shrink or move. It’s like it’s been there all along but just now is showing itself. Disguised. Undisguised. Mocking him. The walls cracking around him. Too perfect, like he’s seeing things. And it bothers him. It’s not the image he wants to leave with.
When he first came here it was the ceiling he used to stare at. Lie on his cot all day, if he could, just looking up. Naked women pencilled there, a gift left from whatever sad fucker had lain there before. Some were like 1940s pin-ups, classy and curvy, hair wavy, curls, big breasts and butts, sexy in what’s not shown. Others were more graphic, long legs opened wide, asses, nipples offered for the sucking. God, if that weren’t whitewash, too, how nice to be there sucking. Big pouty lips looking down at him. He memorized those constellations lying on the cot, tracing them with an outstretched finger, one eye closed to make believe he actually touched them, breasts, nipples and the dark canyons between the women’s legs. In the darkness he’d wish on those stars to come quickly. Sometimes he even thought he could feel them, and the bitches always moaned, always whimpered and begged for more when his finger found them. He still liked the girls. Still fell asleep admiring their beauty, wishing on them again and again, but their thrill had faded with the years. He’d tried to draw his own gal once, but he was no artist, and her uneven proportions marred the perfect ceiling sky. That, he did regret.
But this crack is something different altogether. No artist’s rendering, just time. Just a mark of how very long he must have been here, the walls decaying around him as he’s felt himself decay within them. He isn’t a young man any more.
‘Jasper Curtis, rise!’
The warden is calling him, standing at the bars with a guard on either side. Sad fat bastard stuck in here with all these killers and madmen and thieves. ‘Which one of us do you think is really the lunatic, Warden,’ he’d asked the man once, years ago. ‘I may be locked in here, but you chose this prison.’ His answer had been solitary confinement for a week. It’d been worth the price.
Reluctantly Jasper tears his eyes from the crack. He wishes he’d been there when it first formed, had been able to see the cheap wall split. He rises and walks to the bars, wrists through them, handcu s clicking on for the last time. Down the hall a button’s pressed and the heavy bars slide open. Creak and clink and slam as they do. He meets the warden’s eyes. Not defiant. Not aggressive or remorseful or even curious. Just meets them to meet them. Goodbye, girls, he thinks, stepping for the last time from the cell that has been home. The warden looks at him. Cold, dark little eyes, thin and narrowed. He spits a wad of tobacco onto the concrete. In the summer heat the moisture starts to evaporate the moment it lands.
‘Should have fried you while we had the chance.’
Jasper smiles slightly. Nods. ‘Well, Warden, I suppose I’ll miss you, too.’
Katie cuts the engine and sits staring at the house, key still in the ignition and the radio still on. Floyd Tillman crooning some country song, words sad enough to break the heart, but tune upbeat. All the sunshine and sweet things in life, Are all just a memory… Sun has set and the lawn lies dark, all traces of pink gone from the sky, porch light glowing dimly, flickering from time to time. There’s a light on in the kitchen. It glows yellow gold through the lace curtains. Granny curtains. White two-storey wooden granny house. But it’s hard to get Mom to change anything about the house. ‘It’s not how Mama would have liked it,’ Mom always says. Like Mom’s still caught somehow in those walls in childhood. Like in Mom’s mind she still ain’t the woman of the house. Katie hates this house. The old style of it. The paint peeling outside, the wallpaper yellowed within. She would rather live somewhere modern, in one of the houses closer to town or the stylish places she’s seen on TV. It’s never truly felt like home to her. Still feels like Grandma’s house most times, and like they are only visitors. Even though it’s been years now. Still feels like Grandma’s just in the next room somewhere, rocking, rubbing her arthritic knees, watching her afternoon soaps. When Katie was little, back before they’d moved up from town, she used to love visiting Grandma. Used to love the quiet of the old farmhouse, the vast open yawn of the prairie. It will be hers, though. One day. This house. Or half hers, at least. Like how it stands now, she muses. Half Mom’s, half Uncle Jasper’s.
I’ll never find another sweetheart, I know it can never be… Joanne is asleep in the passenger seat. Dark blonde hair falls loose around her face. Perfect July tan. Dirt under unpolished nails. Her eyelids flicker with passing dreams, hands resting in her lap. A speck of glitter from her eye-shadow has fallen on her cheek, catching and refl ecting what little light there is, the eye- shadow cheap, poorly applied, unnatural on Joanne’s still-child face. It’s Katie’s eye- shadow, one she never used that she’d given her sister at the start of summer. Shimmery blue glittery stuff that clumps up too easy. A mistake, she thinks now. It makes the kid look cheap. Katie sees more of herself mirrored in her sister than she would like. Not just in the face, the hair, the skinny body not yet filled out: she sees her own insecurities remade, her own stubborn rebellions recycled, and it makes her angry. She’s not ready to pass them on just yet. But tonight Joanne is not foremost on Katie’s mind. Not even Josh. Or cheering. Or her upcoming shift waiting tables at the diner. The graveyard shift. Tonight all she can think about is him. The strangeness of him. His approaching arrival.
She remembers him vaguely. Tall, dark figure of childhood. Swinging her up into strong arms. Giving her sweets. She confuses memories of him with her father, as though somehow, oddly, the two for her are one before they both gone off. Daddy run off and Uncle Jasper… well. She knows the stories about what he did more than she remembers him. Hard not to, working in the diner nights with headlines screaming at her above cooling coffee cups and key lime pies. Hard not to with everyone always whispering. It’ll just get worse from here on out, school only a month away, and cheer camp starting in two weeks. She envies Joanne her lack of memories.
The backs of Katie’s legs stick to the seat. Uncomfortable yet familiar. Mama will be waiting. She tears her eyes from Joanne back to the kitchen window. So peaceful, this house. This view. This night. Now, at least. They took the stars out of Heaven the day they took her from me… Katie clicks the radio off, pulling the key out of the ignition. Can’t help but think how tomorrow all will be changed. This house. This garden. This familiar feeling. Coming home.
Joanne stirs when the music shuts off, sleepy eyes glassed over as lids struggle open. Katie nudges her, forcing a smile. ‘Come on, Lady, beauty sleep some other time. Mama’ll be waitin’.’
He was bitten by a cicada once. Lizzie’s not sure what made her remember that, but it was the image she woke with: his face unnaturally white as he cried out in pain, the July fly holding on to him tight as though he were a tree branch where it had just settled. Alien exoskeleton shed as it perched there on his arm. She had screamed louder than he had, seeing the creature emerge, its old self left attached to his skin. Mama’d screamed. She can’t remember how Mama finally got the bug off or what happened to the skeleton – they were so young then – but that’s the face Lizzie keeps seeing now, Jasper’s child face all those years back screaming and screaming, distorted with fear.
That boy isn’t the man who’s coming home today.
Reverend Gordon pulls up in his sleek red Ford pickup. Paint still shiny and new. She can see him from the kitchen window driving up the lane towards the house. She puts the breakfast plates back into the lukewarm soapy water and hangs the dish rag on its hook. She’s glad Joanne’s gone off doing chores already. Wonders where Katie is.
By the time the reverend’s pulled up the driveway, parked the pickup and eased himself out of the driver’s seat, she is waiting for him, hands on hips, standing on the front porch, leaning on its supports. Top of the steps. He hesitates a moment as he strolls towards her. ‘Morning,
‘Mighty fine day, isn’t it? Why, I don’t think I seen a cloud in the sky.’
She looks up at the stretch of blue above them. Says nothing.
‘Shame ’bout the heat, though, isn’t it?’ He forces a smile. ‘I heard it on the news last night we ain’t seen rain for nearin’ thirty days. My, your roses are beautiful this summer! Lord himself musta blessed your garden to keep them flowers bloomin’ so nicely.’ He wipes sweat from his brow. A mockingbird calls out from a shrub somewhere nearby. Not even nine and the heat bakes.
‘Yes, Reverend,’ Lizzie says slowly, picking her words with care. ‘I reckon I’m just ’bout as blessed as can be.’
His smile drops. A pause, the type when most men would shuffle the dirt with their boots or might spit tobacco. A throat-clearing pause, but he just stands there, silent, staring at her.
‘I suppose you want to come in.’
‘I’d be mighty obliged.’
Silence for a moment while she gets the coffee and the mugs and sets them out on the table. ‘Milk?’
‘Don’t mind if I do.’ He pours till the cup almost spills over.
‘Just a spoonful, hon.’ That smile again. Forced. Four heaping teaspoons. He stirs. Lizzie watches. She drinks her coffee. Black.
He places the spoon carefully on the table. Takes the time to take a sip. Places the mug back down. Little splashes of milky coffee pool around the spoon. ‘Now, Elizabeth, hon, we ain’t seen so much of you on Sunday since your mother passed.’ He watches her. She struggles to keep her face neutral. ‘And, see, we’re all worried ’bout y’all, you and the girls that is. I know things mustn’t be easy out here on your own, two young girls and all.’ He forces a laugh, smiles. ‘I was thinking maybe you should come round more often. Bring the girls down. We’d all like to see y’all more down there. You know, your mother was a fine woman, Elizabeth. A fine, God-fearin’ woman.’
‘You’ve come ’bout him, ain’t you?’
‘I heard you’re fixin’ to take him in.’
‘We’re worried ’bout y’all, Elizabeth. We’re worried ’bout the girls. Quite frankly, I ain’t sure that it’s a good idea them bein’ round a man like that.’
‘He ain’t just some man, Reverend. This is Jasper we’re talkin’ ’bout.’
‘Is it, Elizabeth? When was the last time you seen him? You been down to Huntsville holding his hand? Christ almighty, his own mother didn’t dare go down there!’
Cold eyes meet his. Lizzie is not smiling. ‘When was the last time you went down to Huntsville, Reverend? When did you ever go there to see if Jasper was all right? I may not be no perfect sister after all he’s done, I may have been no perfect sister before, but don’t you go preachin’ to me when you done gone ’n’ turned your back, too.’
His mouth opens to object.
‘No, you hear me out, Reverend – this house here is as much his as mine. By law it’s half his. We both done grown up in these rooms, and damned if I’m gonna turn him from the only home he ever known.’
Quiet enough to hear the clock tick. That mockingbird still calling from out in the prairie somewhere. Clock just there tick-tocking.
‘When does he arrive?’
‘You pickin’ him up from the bus stop?’
‘Reckon someone’s got to.’
He nods. Sips his coffee. ‘You sure you know who you’re lettin’ into your home?’
She thinks about Jasper’s child face all them years back, distorted in that cicada scream. She thinks of mapping constellations and ice cubes in summer darkness. Remembers that cicada shell. ‘Reckon I don’t know at all.’
He nods again. ‘Any chance to change your mind?’
‘I’ll walk you to the door.’
She watches from the top of the porch steps as he crosses the lawn back towards his pickup. So red in all the burned-brown grass, so red against the gravel and the pavement. He’s put on weight since last she seen him, his jeans and belt cutting the gut into a forced hour-glass. His hair, maybe, is greyer, too. She hadn’t noticed before just how brown the prairie had grown. They could really use rain soon. Maybe the flowers are blessed.
He turns, hand just reaching for the pickup’s door handle.
Pleading in her voice, her eyes: ‘Where else he gonna go?’
As the Greyhound pulls off of I-10 up the exit ramp, Jasper feels his first moment of panic. It’s hard to breathe. Then it passes, and he’s left with the flutters in his gut, heavier than butterflies, more like caterpillars crawling back into their cocoons. He thinks about the feel of prairie grass burned by the sun. Imagines his hands against it, running through it, like combing out a woman’s dry, tangled hair. The sting of the grass against him. This calms him a little.
When they first let him out and he walked from Huntsville’s high electric gates onto the waiting bus, his pulse was even, steady. He didn’t turn to look back at the penitentiary one last time. Just stared out of the window, waiting for whatever was left of life to take him away. He didn’t feel panicky on I- 45 either, looking out at all that forest and rolling hills. It was around Houston when the trees turned to prairie, far as the eye could see, tumbleweed drifting, that traffic on I-10 seemed to blur round him. He didn’t remember buses going so fast.
He is wearing the same clothes as the day they locked him up. Jeans. Grey T-shirt with the Coca-Cola slogan on it. Nikes. He never wore boots much. There was a ten-dollar bill in his pocket. A packet of chewing- gum that he tossed away, spearmint. This is all he has with him now – the clothes on his back. He’s surprised at how well they still fit him. ‘Got to keep your wits ’n’ fists about you in prison.’ That’s what he told himself those first days that turned to months that turned to years. And the letter. He has the letter too, folded and refolded in his jeans pocket. The only letter she wrote in all those years.
Heard you’re getting out. Reckon you should come on home.
There’s a bed for you if you need it.
Not even her name at the end, but he knows her hand. Reckons the letter is more than she could have done. Might be more than he deserves.
The Greyhound slows as it pulls into the station, brakes squeaking. He is the only one to exit, though the bus is far from full, few folks in Houston having boarded, and even fewer still now heading further west. Stepping past the driver, Jasper nods to the other man. ‘Thank you,’ he says, and even to himself his voice sounds out of practice. He steps down onto the pavement and watches the bus pull away, easing itself back into the rushing flow. He watches it go till it becomes a tiny silver speck.
He had fretted for a time over the welcome party that might be waiting for him. Had wondered how many hostile faces might come to see him home, but fear had never dictated Jasper’s life and he does not intend to let it now. Many restless nights in the penitentiary he had pondered if his first free steps back home might be his last, but Jasper has promised himself he will step off the bus fighting, if that’s what freedom requires, and he feels no different now. He scans the near-empty service station. The only welcome he had not imagined was the one with no one there to greet him at all.
He’d written her back the date, time, place. Never doubted that Lizzie would come. A tiny part of him now almost wishes she won’t. Maybe it’s enough just to stand here feeling the warm sun on his face, humid air thick around him. At the same time, if he’s honest with himself, Jasper knows he’s well past ready to go home.
It’s an old gas station, not one of the fancy well-lit new ones, like closer to Huntsville, Houston or Dallas. Out here folks don’t care so much about what’s shiny and new. Or else the world just don’t care so much about making out here seem shiny and new ’cause who really comes all the way out here anyway? This station’s been here long as Jasper can remember. Looks just like he remembers too – old-style rusted pumps, diesel and unleaded the only options. Just two pumps. Texaco sign hangs off its post a bit crooked. No cover over the pumps. No credit cards accepted. Rust everywhere rust can rust. Just a tiny shop down the back with windows that look like they always need washing even right after they’ve been washed, a couple old pickups parked in front of it.
The bell rings as the door opens. Two loud chimes and then a softer one as the bell settles again, gently rocking on the handle. A red string ties it there. That sound, so familiar, and Jasper pauses in the doorway, savouring the comfort of it, as his eyes adjust to the dark interior of the shop. Momentarily blind from all that sunshine. Blinks to clear the eyes. Lets the door slam softly with another jingle behind him. They’ve got air-conditioning. That’s new.
The boy behind the counter looks up when Jasper enters. Boy. That’s all he is, really. Some high-school kid. Blond and tanned and clean. Skin still soft, like a baby’s. Bit of baby fat still clinging to chubby, almost feminine cheeks, baby-boy face swallowed by his ten-gallon hat. The effect borders on comical – a child playing dress-up, not a hero of the west. That boy wouldn’t last five hours in Huntsville. Jasper doesn’t recognize him, but he nods to him anyhow, wondering who the boy’s folks might be, thinking back on the blurry children’s faces of Sunday mornings ten years back, but no face comes into focus and Jasper reckons he must never have troubled himself back then with noting what wasn’t of concern to him.
Jasper passes the shelves of candies, potato chips, beef jerky hung up in long red plastic packets, passes the household essentials – toilet paper, paper towels, soap, shampoo. The car essentials – oil, air pump, windshield-wiper fluid, air fresheners shaped like leaves with names like ‘Maple’, ‘Forest’, ‘Garden’, ‘Pine’. He picks up ‘Garden’. Thinks of the roses by Mama’s front porch. The primroses unfurling come dusk. Bluebonnets in early spring, and Indian paintbrushes blood- red. Breathes deep. His memories don’t smell a thing like ‘Garden’.
He puts it back and walks on. Pauses a moment by the magazine rack. Can feel the boy’s eyes on him, drilling into his back. People. US Weekly. Last month’s Cosmopolitan. Last month’s Playboy, the slut’s boobs concealed by the magazine’s plastic wrapper. All you see is hungry eyes begging for cock, lips moist and parted. Whore. A redhead. Different. He likes that. Just those eyes peeking at him is almost enough. Almost. Another nudie mag, all bound up in plastic, too. Time magazine, but who wants to pick that up? One copy of the Reader’s Digest that looks like it’s been sitting there a while, pages all crinkly and browned as though soda got spilled on them and then the magazine dried out. The National Enquirer claims to have found the world’s fattest baby, and something about the model’s smile on the cover of Southern Living reminds him of his mama back when he was small. He doesn’t look at the newspaper headlines. Doesn’t want to see what might be there.
Eyes back to that hungry redhead, and he thirsts for her, and she thirsts for him, and he thinks about buying the magazine just to pass the time, to see what constellations might lie within, but he can feel the boy’s eyes still on him, judging him, so he doesn’t even pick it up. Grabs a Coke from the fridge instead.
Jasper hands over the ten-dollar bill. He doesn’t like being in the shop. It’s stuffy. Too small. Dark. Reminds him of rooms just left never again to be entered. And yet it’s familiar. It’s nice to feel that familiarity. He looks out at the sunshine still baking the pavement, cooking the rust, then back to the boy and tries out a smile. ‘You know,’ he says, ‘I used to work here when I was ’bout your age.’
‘Yep.’ He glances out of the window again. So much sunshine. Eyes back to the boy. He hesitates. Cold cans of beer snuck out the back. Long days spent over magazines and staring down I-10 imagining the distant life he’d lead. ‘Mo still running the place?’
‘I reckon.’ Something hostile in the boy’s eyes. He places the change on the counter.
Jasper hesitates another moment before scooping it up. ‘Don’t suppose Mo’s here?’
‘Don’t suppose he is.’
Jasper nods. Hands deep in his front pockets, he glances out at all that sunshine and back into the darkness of the shop. ‘Any work going at the minute?’
The boy leans against the cigarette counter behind him. Arms crossed over his still skinny chest. Hasn’t filled out in the shoulders yet, and his red Texaco T-shirt hangs off his frame. Desperately needs to lose that baby fat before he’ll be anything remotely like a man. The boy looks Jasper up and down with cold eyes. Blue as ice under all that blond hair, under that ridiculous ten-gallon hat. Jasper seldom wore hats. The boy’s eyes f ick from the newspaper rack to below the register and back again. Unless it’s moved in the last twenty years, Jasper knows Mo’s old Remington bolt action’s kept there. Shot plenty of beer cans and a few squirrels with it back in the day. The boy’s eyes meet Jasper’s. ‘I reckon there ain’t much of any work round these parts.’
He’s sitting on the kerb when she pulls up. Right out in the sunlight where the heat is roasting. Empty Coke bottle beside him. A slight flush in his cheeks. Lizzie didn’t intend to be late. Or maybe the bus was early. No traffic and all that. But she couldn’t have tolerated the thought of being early and waiting for him either. For a moment, pulling up, Lizzie wants to turn around. Back the pickup right out of the station. He might not have seen her yet. Drive till she’s right back home in her own driveway, no Jasper to think about or worry about or be a sister to. For a moment she imagines growing up without him. Running alone through drying clothesline sheets. Lying alone under the stars, taking her own finger to map them out. Sitting alone with Mama and Daddy at the supper table. He used to make faces at her when they weren’t looking and she had to swallow her giggles to keep them from being found out. Once she couldn’t and Daddy’s belt had come out fast, and that welt on her legs took weeks to heal. But that’s how it always was, her laughing and getting in trouble for it, and Jasper’s eyes clouding over as Daddy hit her. Sometimes it was worth it. The laughter. Those funny faces breaking the solemn silence of the dinner table.
She pulls the pickup close. Cuts the engine. Bits of grey in his mousy hair. Lines on his face she doesn’t remember. But it’s Jasper. Or some aged form of Jasper, a shadow of himself that is no shadow, stranger, darker, her brother and not her brother, and Jasper all the same. You sure you know who you’re lettin’ into your home? The reverend’s voice on repeat all morning.
She doesn’t get out of the truck. He walks over slow. Taking his time with each step. Not like he’s scared. Not like he doesn’t want to reach her. Just carefully, as though each step changes his life, and it does in a way, she reckons. And, anyway, Jasper was never one to rush. He stops beside the pickup, gazes at her through the rolled-down window.
She leans across to open his door even though he could have reached right in the window himself. The hum of insects from the tall grasses beside the ditch vibrates the summer heat. And I-10 has its own wave sounds as cars speed below. He looks at her a long time through that rolled-down window, both of them saying nothing, sun reddening his neck and ears, heat moistening their skin. At length he nods, the most thanks she’s likely to get from him, she reckons, and he reaches for the handle.
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