~ corn moon ~
At 120 degrees, all hope for a mild August was lost. Grace watched as the concrete on the other side of her glass arcadia door emitted wavy heat lines into the already sweltering surroundings. The plastic thermometer that was strapped haphazardly to her back fence was melting slowly, becoming part of the brown concrete wall. Its single black hand hung limp – pointed straight down – as if to compare this summer to the atmosphere in Hell. Even the butterflies painted on the square tin frame of the outdoor clock looked sad, haphazard.
She hated this place. Especially in August.
She had moved to Arizona in August five years ago, the worst possible time to come to the worst possible place. “You don’t know what it’s like to survive here in the month of August, honey. It’s dangerous. If I can help, just let me know,” Nancy, her new neighbor had said, popping her pink Bubbalicious and tugging at her too-small tube top before disappearing into her house.
Grace had smiled and thanked her, trying to be gracious as she was standing there sweating. She didn’t realize at the time that Nancy wasn’t exaggerating.
In this kind of weather, everything becomes dangerous. Drinking glasses shatter if left outside. Electrical lines snap and pop in the arid, desolate air. The asphalt melts the soft rubber soles of shoes and parking lots smell like tar pits. She couldn’t even think of getting the morning newspaper without bedroom slippers or flip flops. Even her cracked, calloused heels couldn’t protect the tender, fleshy parts of her feet from scorching. She soon realized that getting into the car in August is worse than navigating a walk over hot coals. Door handles can’t be touched without a protective towel. Steering wheels singe flesh. Mothers have to carefully wrap metal seatbelt clips with worn t-shirts to make sure that their children, who they are trying to protect from sharp curves and bad drivers, don’t suffer permanent burn marks.
People don’t go anywhere during daylight hours unless it is absolutely essential. Fruit, milk, and meat spoil from grocery store to home. Ice cream becomes milk soup. Grocers stock extra large bottles of purified water and pack freezers full of bags of cubed ice for when ice-machines break. People creep slowly through the freezer section pretending to look at the rows of packaged meals when they really are looking for salvation. The produce department cranks their cooling units to maximum power to make sure that the week’s haul of onions, lettuce, strawberries, roots and peaches won’t rot and stink in the refrigerated bins.
The entire town challenges their individual cooling units to reach that unobtainable goal of 75 degrees. The result is a dizzying hum that permeates the town as the air-conditioning units whir and click constantly. The faithful purr is almost comforting, lulling the townspeople into a false sense of security, until the unit fails to murmur. A series of cracks, pops and hisses gives way to cursing on a daily basis. It is the ebb and flow, the desperate music of the month.
Any indication of a breeze exists only to invoke the unsettling feeling of walking past an undertaker’s crematorium. The green-brown leaves on the sagging trees beg for mercy. Grace listens to them whisper and rustle, shaking like maraca beans in crisp, dried husks. Flowers shrivel – beg for cool rain to wet their parched roots. Nature stalls and only emerges in the silent, dead night. Nightfall brings the screeching of crickets and the low, flapping sounds of brown bats in search of water and sustenance. It also brings the people of Esker, Arizona.
Eskerites, as they fondly refer to themselves, don’t emerge from their climate controlled boxes until after the sun has set and night has declared her presence. Grace noticed this fact her first August in town. The unfortunate ones who emerge in the daylight hours for work, or some such triviality, are careful not to move too much lest they sweat in their carefully pressed linens and arrive at their destination looking like wrinkled hags.
People are angry in August – much more so than other months throughout the year. There are more fights between husbands and wives, who yell in hushed tones so the neighbors don’t eavesdrop; more full-mouthed threats by willful teenagers to leave town and never return; more crimes committed. The anger burns everyday interactions – swearing matches ensue in parking lots over who should have the privilege to park in the prime shaded spot. Friends tiptoe around one another, avoiding any sudden moves or sharp tongued words. Most days, they avoid interaction all together. People stop calling one another – the shrill ring of the phone is enough to bring the most patient person to the edge of reason. No one is to be trusted. God forbid someone makes a mistake and tells the newspaper editor’s wife that her husband is regularly seen after work with his slinky advertising manager. Everyone has known their secret for months, but no one can do what is right, what is needed. Perhaps in August, people whisper.
When Grace first moved here from North Tome, New Mexico, she thought that people in Esker overreacted to August. She wasn’t thrilled with the weather, but she knew it wasn’t the end of the world, just another hot month in a desert wasteland. Why did August become a catch-all excuse for craziness? Why was Esker held hostage, its people victims of violent temperatures? She just didn’t understand.
Then again, Jack often told Grace that she didn’t understand a lot of things. She didn’t understand why her neighbors peeked through their wide-slatted blinds into the streets to spy on one another. She didn’t understand the purpose of gossip. She didn’t understand why, after 34 years on this planet, she felt trapped in Esker without any hope for a life that was truly hers. She always wanted to be wild, to travel and taste and explore. Now she looked forward to nothing. Well, nothing significant anyway.
After a few years in Esker, her opinion of August changed. She was now just as skeptical as the rest of them. The Corn Moon that hung low in the heat streaked skies watched her with its yellow, suspicious eyes just like it watched the whole of the town. She began peeking through the slats in her blinds and spoke to no one unless it was absolutely necessary. She never emerged until dark crept in, overtaking the sun and the sky. When she did open her front door and brave the outside world it was only to get her personal necessities or to visit Jack’s grandmother, Gloria. Occasionally, she listened to Nancy’s gossip.
August couldn’t be trusted. People had a way of finding out your secrets in August.
Last week, there was an article in the Esker Daily Chronicle about how people tend to disappear in August. The article is a fixture in the paper every August and has varying headlines offering advice for how to survive the eighth month. Still, the busy streets remain empty during daylight hours; neighbors don’t take homemade casseroles to the sick; novelty stores and antique shops lock their doors tight and place “Gone ‘til September” signs in their front windows. Even more disquieting is the fact that some people disappear forever, without a word to anyone about leaving.
That’s how Jack left. Never said a word to anyone. In September, people began to ask Grace what happened to him. They smiled careful smiles and asked when he’d be back. By the first of December, people had stopped asking and started whispering. August was blamed. August was always blamed.
Grace had the feeling early on that he would leave and not return to her. Each August, he would change. He’d stop calling her his “doll baby” and retreat to the couch to lose himself in television programs. Jack didn’t watch a lot of TV, but Grace got used to him spending hours in front of the box during the late summer. He’d flip through channels, stopping for hours on infomercials and televangelist shows. If someone was selling something, he was ready to buy.
The night he left, she had felt a shift in him early in the evening. Grace was tossing the crisp salad together with wooden tongs and adding pieces of cold chicken to the mix. Jack ignored her – sprawled across the floor, head tilted toward the screen.
“Do you want to be saved? Do you feel the glory of life?” Grace looked over at the box plugged into the wall. A white-haired, perfectly coiffed and manicured televangelist was shaking and sweating. His tailored suit fell straight, his shoes were shining. She shook her head. She didn’t need to be saved. She was the glory of life.
She was about to laugh and tell Jack to switch the channel when the preacher man filled the entire screen. His face came within inches of the camera.
“You are broken,” he said, pointing into living rooms across the country - his imaginary audience.
She felt the current of these three words break into her house and circle the room furiously before landing in Jack’s psyche. The air was charged with the weight of condemnation. Jack slumped. His eyes shifted down and his jaw slacked. She served dinner to herself. He went to bed without saying goodnight.
Grace stayed awake long into the night. The stars shone brightly through the bedroom window, cast long shadows along the closet door. She thought of the seven years she had spent with him. She should know him, know his core. Those days when everything was serendipitous were wisps of thin memories in her mind. She felt the darkness now. She placed her hands on his back while he was sleeping and tried to absorb the feeling of foreboding that had wrapped him like a cloak. The moon rose over the eastern mountains and she fell into fitful sleep. She awoke as dawn spread her thin purple fingers through the black sky. The bed was empty. She was cold. He was gone.
for the rest of this chapter, click here...