This story was written for the April 2016 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month!
On a night like this, I remember writing “Summer Man,” my first song that made the charts. That was so long ago, over thirty years! But when that summer moon shines, and the desert air flows into my open window–and especially when my favorite cover of “Summer Man,” sung by Austen Waters, comes on the oldies station–then this twisting desert road leads me back through time to a lonely Sunday at the State Park.
It was the first barbecue of the summer, and the first barbecue my aunts and uncles had held since my dad died the previous Labor Day.
The scent of hot dogs made me sick. The world didn’t seem right to me, that someone else besides my dad could grill up the hot dogs.
I wanted there to never be another fire in a grill ever again. Shouldn’t every coal extinguish now that Dad was gone? Life can’t continue. Stop the world.
But the world didn’t stop, and other men who weren’t my dad kept lighting barbecues and grilling hot dogs. And then they expected us to smother the frankfurters with mustard and ketchup, stick them in a bun, and eat them, charcoal bits and all.
Now that I think of it, that was the summer I became a vegetarian.
Funny how from a distance we can look back to a particular Sunday afternoon and see all the changes that stemmed from it: writing my first hit song, becoming a vegetarian, pulling away from a bad cycle and making a change for a good. That was some Sunday afternoon!
I remember sitting at the chess board across from one of my cousins who was rattling on about something… some strange astrophysics impossibility, if I remember right. I couldn’t process anything: my mind stuck. There was the scent of burnt meat on the grill, the nasal drone of my little cousin, the chess position before me, the gossiping of aunts and other cousins at the picnic tables nearby, and all along my heart was tied up in fishing line that kept getting bound tighter and tighter. Even felt like there was a hook in there somewhere.
I had to get out. I left the picnic area and followed the trail through the arroyo. I hiked all day. At first, I couldn’t see anything. I just felt that fishing line around my heart. It was hard to breathe.
Slowly, I began to feel the sunshine. Of course it was hot. But there was shade from the mesquites along the trail, and when I walked into the spots of sunlight, I felt the golden heat enter and penetrate my bones. Slowly, that fishing line began to loosen. I could breathe again.
After a few more hours of hiking, I unwound the fishing line. The hook was still there, cutting into my heart. But I could breathe. I could listen. A mockingbird sang from the mesquite. Across the path, a cactus wren hopped in the chollas, calling out a snarly song. A thrasher sang like water from the top of a saguaro.
A few more miles, and I could see. My dad loved when the sky was like this: deep blue with soft white clouds washing over.
“Monsoons will be here in a few weeks,” he’d say on an afternoon like this one. “Just give that sun a little time to stir up these clouds, and we’ll be hearing the spadefoot toads mewing again!”
Oh, God! This would be the first summer I’d hear them without him.
But I would hear them.
I walked along the trail, realizing that spadefoot toads would continue to call every night after the rains. Tadpoles would continue to fill the ephemeral ponds. I’d still scoop up buckets of them and carry them back to the pond in my backyard, so even when the sun drank the water from the daily ponds in the wash, these tadpoles would still be safe.
Life stopped for me last summer, but the world continues.
I walked down the trail.
A few more miles, and the fish hook came unlodged. I lay down beneath a mesquite tree and looked up through the leaves into the sky. It was so quiet out here. I closed my eyes and felt the world turning. I was turning with it. I was gonna make it. I knew that afternoon that I was gonna have a long life, and I was gonna keep going. I knew my heart was gonna break again and again through the years, and my face would become lined by the paths I took along the way, and I knew, too, that the sun would go on shining and I’d keep feeling its warmth.
It didn’t help remove the grief, not entirely, for I was realizing now that I was bereaved and this marked and changed me, but the sun’s warmth helped me move through it.
I turned and started the long hike back towards the picnic area.
That was when I heard somebody singing in a soft low voice.
A man stood fishing in the river. I was across the path from him, and I could still feel the warmth from his skin.
I sat down on a rock where he couldn’t see me, and I watched.
That was when the song came to me.
Fishing line and ball of twine
At the riverside…
I kept playing with the lyrics as I walked back. What was I after? I couldn’t put my finger on it.
When I got back home that night, I looked through my old photos for the first time since last Labor Day. There was the one I took earlier that summer when my dad picked me up from culinary school on my last day of class.
He looked so healthy in that photo, but looking at it now, I can still see a shadow, somewhere around his eyes, as if the smile didn’t quite reach all the way inside. Or as if it did, but then it blended with the sorrow of knowing.
That smile was what I’d wanted to capture in this song. What does a smile carry that lasts more than a moment?
I stayed up late into the night, writing that song. The melody came easily–it had the same cadence as my dad’s laughter, so when I played it, I felt him standing by me.
Standing by my side
Just like before.
Standing by my side
Turn with me forward.
All that night, while I slept, the song rolled through my dreams. When I woke, my heart felt open like a rose.
Something changed in me that day. I still had grief. I was still bereaved. But the pain left, and I could sing out loud again.
The other day, here it is thirty years later–and the other day, I was at the library, and this mom, who’s not much younger than me, and her son were there, browsing the stacks, each with their own ear-buds in, each singing aloud with the song they were listening to, separately, in their own self-contained worlds.
Follow your dreams
Fishing line and ball of twine
They were each at different parts of the song, so they sang it like a fugue. I could tell from their rhythms and keys that the mom was listening to Austen’s cover, and the son was listening to a recent cover by The Destiny Divine. I wondered if they even knew they were listening and singing along to the same song. They sure as heck didn’t have a clue that the song they were separately singing had been written by me, this funny gray-haired woman with the braids and flannel shirt, leafing slowly through a vegetarian barbecue cook book with bright shiny photos of fruit and veggies on the grill.
He’s with me, this man that was my dad, and every time somebody sings those lines, I see that brave man’s smile and I feel him by my side.