Spring 1989, Volume 6.1
Don D. Walker
The Summer of the Swift
Don D. Walker (Ph.D., University of Minnesota) is Professor Emeritus of the Department of English at the University of Utah. He currently lives and writes on his ranch near Holden, Utah. His book, The Adventures of Barney Tullus, a collection of humorous cowboy stories, was published earlier this year. A story, "The Flambe6ed Canard Sauvage," appears in the current issue of The Western Humanities Review, and a critical satire, "The Minimal Western," appears in the summer issue of Western American Literature.
He had known heat before. He could remember the times when the lava rim shimmered colorless in the desert distance. The sky seemed more white than blue, and lines of fence and road and ridge had melted. If you stood anywhere but on your own ground, rooted for the time like a deep-set post, you would be lost. The whole world would be as soft as a fading illusion.
He remembered many summer days when he had stopped and waited, felt the familiar ground, a rock or a hole he had known, I while the air swirled hotly around him. If there had been confusion, it had passed. He could finally see the rounded butte, and the world stopped its spin. He could go on along the faint trail. So he remembered now to feel his way, seizing, at least touching, the rocks, the clumps of shadscale, the patches of brown sand, and even the blind ing pools of bone white alkali.
But now a strangeness had come over his familiar world. As he walked the old path, the certainties had changed. The surrounding air still swirled in blurred light above the shimmering horizon. The shine of oaks still stirred without shattering in the hot afternoon breeze. Now even the path was moving, darting, darting in hurried streaks of brownish grey. Only in memory could he know what moved. As a boy he had been fascinated by the small lizards that waited on the warm rocks, that raced along the wooden fences, that even scurried up the window screens, never curious about who watched their rubbery bellies from inside the room. He snared a small collection, which he kept in a cage with a glass front. The technique of catching required little equipment and much patience, more patience than most of his friends were willing to share. From the tip of a willow pole he suspended a two-foot length of nylon thread with a half-inch loop at the end. The trick was to find a - lizard sunning itself on a rock or a bare juniper log, lower the loop down and back over the long pulsing neck while the eyes seemed to be small lifeless beads, and then jerk the pole quickly upward, tighten ing the noose, leaving the lizard squirming gently in the bright warm air. With care the lizard could be cupped in the hand, tail still attached, and slipped into a wide-mouthed glass jar. By then his friends would be gone, but he could hear their final derision. "Lassoing lizards! Geez!"
The cage he built himself, nailing the plywood bottom to the sides and back, fastening a molding to hold the glass, and then tacking wire screen to the top, with a corner that lifted and shut like a door. He covered the bottom of the cage with sand, added a few rocks, a chunk of red sandstone, and the ragged butt of a dry sagebrush. He would have said that the lizards liked their home.
For hours at a time he watched the lizards as they waited motionless upon their private sand. Sometimes he carried the cage to a flat stretch of lawn grass, and there he lay on his own belly with his face only inches from the glass wall. He could not have said what he was looking for. He could not have said what he expected to find out. Sometimes he wondered how they could hold so still. Sometimes he wondered if they were watching him, their beadlike eyes open to his own sight without focus. Once he flipped the glass with his spring-like finger, and they scurried in shut-in confusion.
Now when he saw them dart in a dustless hurry he could see only the almost colorless movement. Had he wanted to paint it, he would have used watercolor, a grey touched with brown, swept across the paper with a small square brush. He did not want to paint it, though he did think of painting as a way to make what he saw hold still. He knew that if he held out a square sheet of coloring paper explosively streaked with soft lines of brownish grey it would not be what he saw, not what he experienced. If it held still, no matter how pleasant it might be to seize the shape and color of its chaos, it would be dead. Beneath the stiff paper that soothed the old hands, the frightening movement would go on. He needed to see a lizard as he had years ago, close up, unmoving, holding all the chaos of the world in its bright unblinking eye. He stopped his slow walk along the path, hoping to see a lizard before it broke into its streak of speed. But even when he kneeled in the dust and peered steadily he could not distinguish the lightly striped body with its slender waiting tail. He realized he was looking for what he could not see. He had left his reading glasses on the pages of his opened book. I can turn around and find my way back, he said to himself. I can still follow a path, if it does not turn too often, if what I still believe is the hard earth does not sink away beneath my tired old feet.
When he entered the patio, his wife saw him. Hurrying from the kitchen door which she was about to enter, she put a hand tightly on his shoulder and turned him so she could see his eyes. "What is the matter, dear?" Seeing the dust on his trousers, she went on. "Did you fall?"
"Nothing is the matter," he answered. "And I did not fall. I kneeled down to see something." Before she could ask what, he answered, "A lizard. just a lizard." He could tell from the fall of her hand that she was puzzled. "And please don't ask me why I wanted to see a lizard."
Returning her hand to his shoulder, she guided him to a lounging chair. "Sit down, dear," she said. "I'll fix you a gin and tonic. It must be the heat."
"I tell you, Mildred," he said, "there's nothing wrong. But if you insist, let's just say it's the heat."
He sipped the drink slowly, enjoying the coolness of the glass itself, the dull rattle of ice when he shook it gently. He was still a bit dizzy from the heat, and he knew the drink would make him dizzier. But for the moment he did not care. He could sink deeper into the cushioned chair. There was no place to fall. If the world began to spin, he would ride it out by letting the chair hold him.
When a car horn broke the long silence, he knew he had been dozing. But until Mrs. Thatcher or Wayne Gretsky or someone of still greater importance opened the patio gate, he would wait quietly on his cool rock. Mildred could handle everything. Maybe she would even remember that he could use another gin and tonic.
But when a second and different horn cut the air, -he knew his peace was threatened. There was a sudden burst of bright skirts and odd-colored slacks, and before he could count or sort out the pieces, the patio was alive with movement, voices chattering, laughter sweeping around the table. When he looked closely, he could be sure of his two daughters and his only son.
Sunny, his younger daughter, rushed toward him, trailing a tail of happy young faces, all of them smiling or laughing all of them turned toward the man sitting a bit befuddled in the patio chair. "Dad," his daughter said, "don't be such an old poop. Come join us. We're all going to jump into the pool. And then we're going to eat and drink a thousand crazy things."
They swirled around him, bright flashes of cloth, laughing white teeth, hair flaring the color of gold, and then in a pause of movement, or seeing, a young man's face, the hair short, the eyes made serious by dark-rimmed glasses. The tanned face of a girl drew close as if pulled by a zoom lens. She smiled widely, her white, white teeth obscured for a second by a tongue that licked the upper lip. He knew she taunted him, but it was all in a hurried spin of fun, and he could only try to smile back.
Then they were in swim suits, chasing each other around chairs, tables, dark red grapes flying through the air, with cries of "I'm hit. I'm hit. I'm dying."
He could no longer watch although he could not escape from seeing and hearing the swirling liveliness. If I weren't so tired, he said to himself, I would crawl up and find a comer where the world holds still, where I can see one thing at a time, even if that thing is just the slipper I've dropped, where it's so quiet I can even count my own heartbeat.
"They're having a good time, aren't they?" It was the practical voice of his wife. He had not seen her come through the kitchen door.
"And Sunny thinks your husband is an old poop," he answered.
She laughed. "Well, in a way you are."
"You speak from firsthand observation no doubt," he said.
"Oh, yes," she answered. "I wouldn't make up rumors about my husband."
"If you ever start making up rumors, Mildred," he said. "Tell them your husband is planning to climb Mount Everest."
She laughed with amusement.
"In the winter, no less," he added.
The hubbub had quieted around the pool. No doubt, he knew from memory, they were all lying in drying rows, their towels spread like bright rugs, a box of crackers moving slowly from head to head. 'Would you like another gin and tonic?" she asked. "I would," he answered. "I would especially." And when she returned, his hand enclosed at once the hard cold glass. "It's the heat, I guess. It didn't seem to bother me when I was young. Now it seems to crowd around like baking cotton."
"It will change in a day or two," she said. "I didn't listen to the weather report this morning."
"Yes, the weather will change," he answered. "The weather always changes if we wait. That's the only thing I like about weather. It seems to get young again."
"the gin has made you fuzzy headed," she said.
'Maybe I'll just stay that way. There are worse things than being fuzzy."
"Being an old poop?" she said, touching the limp arm that lay along the cushion.
"Is that a dignified state of being?" he said. "Somehow I think I'd rather be fuzzy. I don't think I'm much good at being dignified. I should say at feeling dignified. I think I'm afraid of it. I suppose it reminds me of being dead."
'Now the gin has really made you silly," she said.
"It's the heat," he said again. "This damn summer, has cooked something out of me."
'Why don't you go up to your study?" she said. "At least it will be quieter there."
"It's quiet enough here," he answered.
"But not for long," she said. "Any minute now this whole place is likely to explode in fun and games."
"And you think I'm not very good at fun and games."
'You used to be," she answered.
"But not now? When was that? Way back before all the wars began?"
"It doesn't matter," she answered. 'We're not writing history."
'Just feeling it," he said.
"You said it was the heat, and I believe you."
He rose and walked through the short hallway and up the low flight of stairs. The half-story was supposed to provide a view and a sort of remoteness, but now it was simply another little pull of gravity to push against. The book he had been reading lay open on his desk, and his glasses lay folded upon the pages. The title of the novel, he thought to himself, should be simply Love and Dying. There was a lot of love, and much of the love was wonderfully funny, but still the fun had the unmistakable stink of death. He put on the glasses and went to a corner of his book shelves. Desert was the title he wanted, and while he looked along the shelves a line of a poem repeated strangely in his memory. "Where the carrion beetles come and go. Where the carrion beetles come and go."
He found the book, and before he sat in the desk chair he had found the section on lizards. Sagebrush lizard. Uta graciosa. Why graciosa? He knew the Spanish word gracioso, meaning a favorite or a comic character. That fit the little lizard. He was certainly a comic character. His liveliness sometimes almost seemed an antic dance against his hot and barren world. But he did not know Latin, and so he could not be certain that graciosa was at all the same as gracioso. The more he said the words the more he liked them. Whatever they technically meant, they became the sound of greeting. Graciosa. Gracioso. You could speak the sounds to anybody or anything, friend or stranger.
Suddenly he was silent, even to himself. Nothing echoed, even in memory. He listened, hoping to hear the senseless giggle of surrounding voices. A warm breeze rattled the dried oaks beyond his window. The cicadas had come and lived their rattling time. The tips of branches had bent down and died, and the pale shells of dead cicadas still clung head up to the wire screen. How did they know the proper position of death?
lie removed his glasses, folded the bows, and laid them lenses up across the opened book. The lizard illustration became blurred, the print seemed to fade into a general grey, but the glasses looked back at him with a strange new sharpness. I am looking at myself, and my eyes are looking back at me. He had never before felt so strongly how much of him looked out through the round holes in his skincovered skull.
During the night he awoke again to an oppressive darkness and silence. The summer heat had clung to the earth. Even beneath a single sheet he was sweating. He arose and walked quietly to his study. Taking his glasses from the book, he moved to the window.
Without the glasses he could see only a faint streak of light the sunset had left. It must be overcast, he thought. That explains the heat. He put on his glasses and continued to look out of the window. He could see even less. Now the streak of light was lost in the immediate blackness. I've never before looked out, he thought, and seen so much of the inside of myself.
His wife had awakened and turned on a bed lamp. "What are you looking at?" she said.
'Nothing," he answered. "Absolutely nothing."
"Couldn't you see that just as well in bed?"
"It's not the same," he answered. "There needs to be a window."
"I don't understand," she said. "I don't understand at all. Maybe you should take a sleeping tablet. Let me get you one."
"No," he answered. "I'll just stand here a few more minutes and then I'll give up looking."
"Maybe there'll be a shower. Maybe the heat will break." She turned off her light, but even in the dark he knew she was still watching, her face puzzled by his own senseless watching.
When he awoke, the sky was a steel-blue bowl, and already the heat was returning. He showered and for a time sat motionless and shirtless, letting what remained of the morning's coolness surround him. When he sat down for breakfast, his wife kept her attention on the coffee pot before she spoke her greeting. "I hope you are feeling better, dear."
"Mornings are made for hope, aren't they?" he answered.
"And the pleasure of a first cup of coffee." She poured from the silver percolator.
"Even on the hottest day."
"Even on the hottest day," she echoed.
After the old habit of coffee with lightly buttered toast, there was the old habit of reading through the morning hours. He pushed aside the still-open book with its pictures of lizards, but when he had set his glasses and looked for his place in the novel, by a slight shift of his head he could still see the sagebrush lizard waiting, his swiftness held in sudden expectation. By late morning the heat had again become oppressive. The still air seemed to be waiting too, electric in its unseeable tightness. A spark n-dght suddenly tear it into blinding brightness.
He realized that he was seeing less and less of the page. Unless he stiffened his focus, the black letters became mere specks, wandering like floaters in a liquid field of vision. When he could not make out the words, he could still see the lizard. What the hell good does it do to see, he said to himself, if all I can see is a goddamn lizard!
Although it was almost time for lunch, at least time for a gin and tonic or a strong Bloody Mary, he decided to take his customary walk. When he started across the patio wearing the hat calledjokingly he thought-the Sun Crusher, his wife called, "Surely you're not going to walk in this heat. You'll bake your brain."
"I think it's already baked," he answered. "Put your fork into it and see how much like a potato it has become."
"I'm serious," she said.
"I'm serious too," he answered.
"You shouldn't exercise in the middle of a hot day," she said.
"I'm not exercising" he answered. "God forbid that I do that. I'm just walking. I'm just proving that I can still tell my feet from the oak stumps."
He started along the old path where it cut at a low angle through the oaks to the top of a ridge. At one time there had been a scattering of rocks, some of them as large as a man's fist, but over the years, he had tossed them into the brush or kicked them to the side of the path. So the earth was reasonably smooth, with few surprises. You could count on it. Even when the summer heat rippled the distant spiny hills, the path lay warm and solid in its old true direction. But when he reached an open stretch with a familiar straighness, he suddenly knew he was in trouble. The tunnel the path made, in the surrounding air began to turn like the giant barrel in a fun house. As a boy he had met the changing floor by walking against it. Others fell and crawled, coming out at last dusty and defeated saying too loud to themselves, "It was a lot of fun, wasn' t it?"
Now he fell, falling against the turning earth, striking his left arm and shoulder on the edge of the path. If there was pain, he did not notice. That could come later. First he felt hardness, and for a hurried moment he seemed to need to get hold of it, grab it with his entire body. As suddenly the stiffness passed out of him, and he could smell the acrid dust close enough to taste if he had darted out his tongue. In some way he knew he was being watched though he could see no eyes, no face, only the blur of things too small and close. With his right hand he felt the pocket of his shirt where he had slipped his folded glasses. The manner of his fall had saved them. When he had worked them open and pulled them up his nose, he could see the lizard, even the curious pulsing of his long flat throat. He had never been so close.
In the time of the cages, there had always been the glass. Now they were, in the expression of the day, eyeball to eyeball. Yet ironically they were separated by another artifice of the seeing world. He could see the lizard's eyes like black beads beneath a brown triangular helmet. What the lizard could see he could only guess. If a lizard saw eyes, he had to see them through the heavy lenses that enabled him to see the watching eyes.
He watched back, waiting for a sign.
"Blink, you little bastard," he said. "Blink!"
He was ready to try to struggle up from his grotesque position when the lizard's lower eyelids lifted, covering the beads with a skin as thin as a slice of air itself. Could the lizard still see him? Or had he withdrawn into the blind world within his snake-like skull?
The question lingered for a moment, and with it came a curious sense of understanding.
He was suddenly moved to speak, to cry out from darkness to darkness across the hot and sunlit wall between them.
"Graciosa, gracioso. Graciosa, gracioso!"