Innocent Bystander: Summersend

Among English railwaymen, “Summersend” used to be an imaginary, but usefully generic, place-name; at the other end of its primitive single track, “Summersend” connected with an equally hypothetical village called “Winterstoke.” To avoid collisions, trains were only allowed to proceed in either direction when the enginedriver was in personal possession of a large staff like a shepherd’s crook (of which there was only one, of course), bearing a substantial tag marked, naturally, “Summersend to Winterstoke.”

In spite of this provenance, though, I’m sometimes inclined, when this time of year arrives again, to think that “Summersend” is a real place, or at any rate, a real state of mind. There is no place in the Julian Calendar quite like our own late August, with its electrically charged deadweight of muggy heat and heavy cloud, implying its own end in heavy, thunderous rain, quick clearing, and a cool and crystal dawn of palest peacock blue.

But it is under the steaming fog of August mornings—soon burning off to a universal heat haze with the mean, piggy red eye of the sun shining implacably through-that we suffer and triumph more, perhaps, than at any other time of year. January is wicked and wither-wringing, but warm clothes, warm cars, and warm houses force it to keep its pretty distance: there is a picture postcard in every window even when the biggest blizzard of the season does its worst outside. At the end of summer, there is less escape: we feel burdened by the weight of heat and moisture, and we sag as the trees do (as they do almost pal-

pably in the “Summer” movement of Vivaldi’s Seasons). If you suffer from the heat, like me, you rise in the mist of morning to the certain knowledge of another scorcher just ahead, and you wait fearfully for the first drops of sweat to break out on your brow. If this happens on the way to work, you know it will be a fierce one, and you slump in your air-conditioned office for half an hour before getting seriously to work, letting the chilled and filtered fake-fall air soothe you back into a semblance of crisp and able humanity.

Twenty years ago, I had the extreme displeasure of working for two summers in an office devoid of air-conditioning. Moreover, it was located on the second floor over a filthy, garbage-reeking alley; to make the world more manifest, my desk was just above the exhaust fan of a cheap restaurant that specialized in fried foods. On the sidewalk below the fan was a large and ineradicable pool of smelly darkbrown grease. Fortunately, my employer was an easygoing fellow who, though he would not allow us the luxury of an air-conditioner—he alone had one—looked the other way when we spent two or three hours for lunch in any of a number of low bars, all with boreal iced air, in the near neighborhood.

It’s eleven thirty. I glance out my office window at the square outside. All hard edges are dissolved in heat. The big granite public building opposite seems to be bathed in a pinkish, prismatic light that softens its bulky outline. The sixty-story building one block over never reaches its apex; its steep sides tumble home more steeply than at other seasons, and it tapers to a vanishing point somewhere around the forty-seventh floor. The walkers on the street plod laboriously, as if through Gobi sands. I ask myself if it is really worth going out to lunch. At this point, one of three things happens: either I have brought a sandwich in a brown bag, in which case I stay inside and eat with the other brown-baggers at a conference-room table; or I whisk mouselike round the corner to a sandwich shop and bring back an unsatisfactory replica of the corned-beef sandwiches of yesteryear (a yesteryear like, say, 1972) for a thoroughly modern price (like, say, $2.00); or I make a date and step out with a friend to while away a longer lunch hour at some more distant eating place.

For a heat-sufferer, this walk to lunch is an odyssey, or at least an anabasis. Each sticky step in molten tar under the uncompromising sun is a step down into the inferno; I wait again for sweat to start, for the wall of humid, superheated air to overwhelm my personal thermostat. After three blocks on a ninety-fivedegree day, I know I’ll begin to fume, wilt, and go delicately purple; and cabs are no help in my town, since none of them are air-conditioned.

At last the restaurant, a cool cave of dim white napery and faintly throbbing refrigeration plants, which almost makes it all worth while. The friendly waiter—and why not, since he’s been taking his ease in this cool air all morning?—hurries back with our drinks, and we lose our tetchy irritability in the glacial, chinking depths of a martini, or, more temperately, a frosted goblet of Johannisberger Riesling. Now the real work of the day often begins, assuming my companion is also a colleague. Away from the urgencies of the office, we erect and study long-range schemes, some plausible, some not. Great summer trees of consequences ramify, and maybe for the first time all week or all month, we understand the implications of the day-to-day chores we’ve been grinding out, willy-nilly, against our deadlines. Finally, as the second drink seeps in and exalts us slightly and alas, temporarily, we move to some astral plane where our chatter seems inspired and our comfort seems only a meet reward for having braved the tortures of the August morning. Then we order lunch—with, perhaps, more wine— and the two deep-green salads come, earnest of summer, the only native produce of the year. We can taste the earth—though not the dirt, since this restaurant purges its vegetables efficiently of sand—in every crackling lettuce leaf, and the real olive oil and wine vinegar suggest some sort of Italian holiday, perhaps on a terrace on Anacapri, with Vesuvius poking an ignorably monitory finger of smoke into the azure sky.

Back to work. The return march, gravid with drinks and lunch in the height of the torpor. I swim like a turtle through the brackish water of the glaring afternoon. Again, the rest cure—over a bitter, black iced coffee—at the office. Half an hour later, I am restored and typing some not-too-trying little copy job. By four, the second wind arrives, and I tackle some more demanding project. A little after five, I flick off the IBM electric and compose myself for the third encounter with the heat.

As I walk out of the building on my way to the bus, great cumulonimbi have at last moved up to overawe the sun; I walk slowly in a black shade no less sticky and humid than the preceding sunshine. The bus is crowded, packed with sweating people and their raveling bundles homeward bound. I get a too-small seat and hope the air-conditioning will function when the engine is started. At five thirty, the driver kicks the starter; the tepid coolness begins to trickle out of the window vents, no match for the Quonset-hut-like heat that has built up inside the alloy shell. I am doomed to sweat miserably throughout the forty-minute ride to where my car is parked.

Through hissing, lowing traffic, the big bus makes its way to the outer suburbs. Right on time, partly because the traffic, without winter’s tens of thousands of student cars, moves more quickly in the summer. At Howard Johnson’s, where the bus stops, I retrieve my car from under a tree that does not shade it very well. Having forgone air-conditioning for assorted reasons, including the ridiculous expense of cooling a Porsche, I strip off my tie and jacket, open the sunroof and the rear quarter windows, and take off in a blast of moving, if not cooling, air. Five miles down the road, the blast has equalized my temperature, and with drying forehead, I am free to survey Vivaldi’s drooping trees. The country is locked in summer. The dog days rage and bite. Relief is seasons, even years, away.

At home, my wife, who does not sanction air-conditioning, though she indulges me, ushers me into my air-conditioned workroom and supplies me with a sizable iced coffee. I sip and read Newsweek. Soon dinner is ready, and we sit down to another salad: this time, unconscionably costly crabmeat, but what the hell, it’s August. Melon for dessert. And more iced coffee. This being Thursday night—I don’t work Fridays so that I can attend to my own writing at home—I leisurely perambulate the browning lawns and flowerless gardens and settle down, after “Washington Week in Review,” to read a book for possible review or just for pleasure. Tonight it is a rereading of A Coffin for Dimitrios. The air-conditioner drones; I glance occasionally out the window at the building thunderheads and the yellow cracks of heat lightning between the hills on the horizon and the occluded sky; I return to my iced coffee and the exigencies of Ambler’s evil men, as typical of the thirties as Auden’s scouts and spies among the pylons of the new forbidden country.

The storm breaks. Against the total dark of nine o’clock, chain lightning and all its variegated brethren; a gusty roll-cloud wind; then steady rain, pouring and beating as if to penetrate our house (which it sometimes does, to the disgust of our insurance agent). More reading as the storm slackens sail and regresses to a solid drum of rain; then news, mostly trivial and local; then to bed. I sleep, at the end of the week, with unusual panache. Dreams, which often surface memorably on other nights, remain submerged. I lie unclaimed by wakefulness until, at four o’clock, my over-forty-yearold bladder sounds the charge, and I totter to the toilet.

Morning. I awaken at eight, a late hour for me, and look out the window at the mountains (mountains here, foothills in other, more precipitous parts). Surprisingly, they are there, some thirty miles away, against a backdrop of blue, chilled, cloudless sky. The storm has passed; August has, only temporarily, passed; the dog days have been replaced by the first morning like real fall.

I shiver, characteristically—unhappy at change, for all my glee at summer’s end—at the first chill. The temperature must surely be—what? fifty-five? I place my bets. I’ll say, experienced countryman, fifty-one. I go downstairs and look at the thermometer outside the dining-room window, already beaded with condensation, a forerunner of frost: fifty-two. Close enough: I have again accredited myself as a supreme weather prophet. I walk out, conscious of my flapping bathrobe over my summer shortie pajamas, to get the paper. When I return, the coffee’s on the boil. I am delighted with the prospect of a hot drink: how fast the summer flies. I look out the window at the woodpile. Two cords ready for the burning, and this would not be an unthinkably warm day to start.

I retire to my workroom (or study or library—what is a sufficiently unpompous term?) to write a poem. The cool airs spur the juices. I find myself writing a fall poem, complete with all the requisite stigmata, including the felled leaves and the first killing frost. I finish it and walk outside, lost in a comically tolerant philosophic mood. I address the ash leaves, the marigolds, and the budded asters, asking them, without actually speaking (I’m not that far gone yet), whether they’re ready to meet their maker, whether extreme unction is their wish. They don’t respond. Neither do the worm-worrying robins, dotting the lawn, or the thrush that still sings in the woods. No matter; I have done my bit. I am at one with the changing world.

Friday morning metamorphoses into Friday night. There is a faint aurora, the autumn’s first. Lavish draperies bar the vexed way to the north, impeded by high clouds. What’s this? Another low?

Of course. Morning dawns foggy and dripping. Saturday is summer’s end resumed: the weeping trees, the coruscating air, the hills locked in a vaporous sunrise, the temperature and humidity both streaking toward the hundred mark. Cicadas tune their resined strings for many more bars of their arched song—a song that returns to chained earth after its highest flights.

Summersend is not yet. But now I welcome summer’s continuanceheat, sweat, and all-in view of the alternative.