10 O’Clock

A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Mike Wang


Photo Credit: niXerKG/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The summer of 1978 was meteorologically insignificant in Western New York. By all accounts, it was business-as-usual for the weathermen of Buffalo, but for me July of 1978 was a strange season of contrasts: days of pure bliss and nights of unadulterated terror.

My grandfather had died that spring: heart attack while driving that led to a tragic collision with a bridge abutment. I was only nine, but I remembered him well. At least, I thought I did. Today his memory is mostly a mélange of impressions: the smell of pipe tobacco, the proud look in his eyes when he introduced my siblings and me around at their country club. The summer before, in 1977, we had all made the long trek from England to their house in East Aurora. We were living overseas because my father was a pilot in the Air Force.

That first summer, at the tender age of eight, I thought I was pretty brave, but I had never met a thunderstorm. Living in England, we rarely had summer days topping 80 degrees, let alone generating enough heat and humidity to spawn anything like the gargantuan monsters that blew off Lake Erie every evening. That summer, I had quickly learned to hate bedtime because I knew what nightfall had in store for me.

It was diabolical. While every morning the sky would be clear and flawless, I learned not to be fooled. We would come down from our beds in the converted attic room that served as my grandparents’ office to the smiling faces of its owners. As we ate breakfast: juice and toast with homemade currant jam, an occasional egg, we’d plan the adventures for the day. We’d shop, we’d go to the local pool, get ice cream at Chet’s, maybe go into Buffalo proper to see a museum. Some evenings we’d go to the country club for dinner. As each day wore on, I would nervously note the small, puffy clouds building into cumulus. By the time we were back at the house, playing in their enormous unfenced backyard, I could see the towering fortresses of terror glowering at me from the stratosphere. Invariably, by dinner time, the muted roll of distant thunder asserted itself like a physical presence, making me nervous as a hare. My mother could see the anxiety building behind my eyes. She’d pat my leg and reassure me, but it never worked. I was terrified of thunderstorms.

As if to add emphasis and some tactile sense to my unease, one of the nights that summer we were all sitting in my grandparents’ living room watching a program on their enormous oak console TV. Certainly nothing could go wrong there. My grandfather and my father were in the room. All us kids were bathed and dressed in our PJs for bed. We were safe.

I remember being curled up on the sofa next to my father when an unearthly blue-white light filled the windows on three sides of the room. Not an instant later, the boom, no, the crash, no, the deafening roar of the thunder seemed to crush me down into the plush of the upholstery. My mother screamed at the same instant that the TV went black with an emphatic “Zot” and a wisp of smoke curled over the back of the set. Lightning had struck the antenna… which was bolted to the outside of the attic room where the kids slept.

The next day I loitered in the living room while the TV repairman (they came to your house back then) opened the vault-like back of the TV, revealing its intricate innards. When he removed the panel you could still smell the acrid aroma of burnt electronics. Pushing his cap back on his head, he said, “Whew! Never seen that before.”

Reaching into the guts of the set, he pulled out something that looked like a thick pencil lead, about half an inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. Holding it in the palm of his hand, he poked it with a finger and it squished down into a powdery smear. “That’s a one million volt resistor,” he explained, holding out his hand to my grandfather. “It’s part of the lightning protection circuitry in this set. Good thing, too, or you’d have yourself a new coffee table. I’ll have you back up in a jiffy.”

At eight years old, I didn’t know much about lightning, but I knew that a million volts was a lot and that whatever a resistor was it had given its life to protect the TV. And, more importantly, I knew that the attic didn’t have any resistors and neither did my squishy little body.

So here we were again: new summer, old problem. This time the reassuring presence of my grandfather was gone and my father had stayed in England because he had to fly in some exercise so he couldn’t get time off. I was the man of the house. My little brother was useless, as they usually are. My mother and grandmother spent a lot of time around the coffee table, speaking in low tones and abruptly changing the topic when any of the four kids strayed too close. There was an innate sadness the two ladies shared, sort of like a gray patina over both of them. We did a lot less adventuring that summer. Mostly stayed around the house and did things in Grandma’s little town of East Aurora.

I spent a lot of time in the basement. It was cool and dark and surprisingly dry. My grandfather’s tools and hobby equipment lived down there. I don’t think my grandmother was able to clear it out, not yet anyway. So my nine-year-old self spent many of those summer hours down amidst his train sets and golf clubs. I’d tinker at his work bench and look out the windows, high up in the cinder block foundation, watching the clouds build through the dirt and spider webs.

As evening approached, I’d get more anxious and taciturn. This summer my mother didn’t have the emotional reserves to spare for  me, so I’d work on comforting myself as night fell and atmospheric battle commenced outside. Eventually, the dreaded call of “bedtime” would ring out and all of us would trail upstairs to get in bed.

The attic was paneled and painted, but it had the strange ceiling contours of the inside of the roof, angled 45 degrees. Four twin beds took up the space where there was usually a small sitting area, while the desk and filing cabinets stood against the end of the room. There was one round window high up in the angle of the roof. Because of the shape of the ceiling, the acoustics of the room made it sound like my siblings across the aisle were right beside me. One by one, I could hear them drift into sleep and settle into a deep, regular breathing. As for me, I would lay there with the sheets pulled up to my nose, my eyes darting to the high window, waiting for each lighting flash and counting the seconds before the timpani of thunder reached me.

When the storm got close, the wind would increase and send the weathervane spinning in wild, rustily-shrieking circles. Rain would lash the window and pound on the roof tiles above my head. Then all I could do was curl into the fetal position and grit my teeth, clenching the covers over my head. Through my eyelids, each flashbulb pop of lightning registered as a pink haze. It was exhausting.

Eventually, the heat of the day would give up all its energy to the storm gods and the thunderstorms would wear themselves out. When they went to sleep, so would I, sweaty in my sheets and worn thin. That’s how every night passed. Slowly, so slowly, in a mindless terror. No one bothered to weigh me, but I’m sure I lost a couple pounds that summer. I stumbled around hollow-eyed and sleep-deprived most days.

But I started this missive speaking of blissful days. What of them? In actuality, there were only about three weeks of bliss. We had been there a fortnight and had 21 days to go, when on one of our trips to the public pool, I saw her. Beauty personified. To a nine-year-old, she was angelic. It wasn’t physical, really. I mean, she was nine as well. Her hips were straight and her chest was flat as mine. If it wasn’t for social convention, she could have pinned her hair tight and worn my swim trunks; no one would have seen a difference between us… though, that’s not exactly true.

She had an air, a certain carriage of the head and shoulders that set us apart. She seemed to float where I plodded. She dove into the deep end with the lithe grace of a naiad, pointed toes and hands reaching, long and lean. I plopped in like a baby duck.

We had been to the pool in the previous two weeks that summer, but I hadn’t seen her. Later she’d tell me that her family was visiting her aunt in Albuquerque (wherever that was). But the first day I saw her, it was like she singled me out. Across the pool, she nimbly lifted herself onto the edge and grabbed a towel, careful with the glasses that were wrapped in it. As she dried her face and put the glasses on, she turned and looked straight at me, smiling. I remember turning to look over my shoulder; certainly there must be someone she knew behind me. When I looked back and discovered it was me she was focusing on, her smile became a cascade of good-natured laughter. She had a strangely deep alto laugh for such a young girl. It had a tripping, almost singing quality that made people around her laugh along. I smiled and looked down. I didn’t talk to her that first day at the pool, nor at Chet’s where we usually went for ice cream after swimming.

Her family pulled up two slots down in the parking lot while we stood at the window and ordered Chet’s famous peanut butter ice cream. I looked away and pretended not to notice her while my family shuffled over to a concrete table under the corrugated metal awning. It was a thin pretense since my young psyche was constantly and acutely aware of her. It was like she was a magnet that made the compass needle in my mind follow her every move. We didn’t speak, but she caught my eye as we piled into the back of my grandmother’s Plymouth. She waved: a tiny but graceful motion of her still-raisiny hand. Somehow, I forced myself to wave back and added a wan smile.

That night, I gritted and sweated my way through another tortuous bout of thunderstorms, but it was somehow a little easier, a little less tortuous. I thought of her, out there somewhere, lying in her little bed, probably sleeping the sleep of the blessed, and it comforted me. In retrospect, it was strange that where both my mother and grandmother were so smothered by grief to lend me aid, an unknown little wisp of a girl could do just that. At the time, I couldn’t process that idea. All I knew was that thinking about her helped me weather the storm. As I drifted off to sleep, the thunder still echoing outside, I resolved that I would talk to her the next day at the pool.

But, it didn’t happen. At least not the next day. “It’s not fair!” I raged. “Why can’t we go to the pool?”

My mother was a little taken back by the outburst and my uncharacteristic vehemence. “Samuel, you know why.” She used my full name. “We’re going over to the Edmondses’ for lunch. Your grandmother wants to show you off,” she said, smiling. “Now be a good boy and get your shirt on.”

You can’t fight city hall. We drove off for lunch and then spent the afternoon playing in the Edmondses’ backyard while the adults spoke in the same muted tones that pervaded Grandma’s house. As it turned out, that little pause probably steeled my resolve to talk to the girl the next day. Now I was determined.

Sometimes temporary insanity masquerades as resolve. That next day, I was certainly mad, but full of resolution to speak to her. As soon as we got to the pool, I threw my stuff down and walked right up to her. She and her friends were quietly chatting on some chaise lounges at the far end of the pool. Socially inept as I was, I broke in without a pause in their conversation. Her friends awkwardly ended their confab in mid-sentence. I was vaguely aware of their puzzled censorious faces turning towards mine, but hers was smiling and open.

“I’m Samuel,” I blurted.

“Hi Sam-O,” she smirked back.

I wasn’t sure she had heard me, what with all the splashing and kids yelling behind me. “No. It’s Samuel.”

“Yeah, I heard you, Sam-O.” Now her friends were smiling too, but not in the same friendly way that she did. “You don’t mind if I call you Sam-O, do you?”

How could I mind? I mumbled something about, “No… fine with me,” as I looked at my bare feet, suddenly self-conscious about how dirty they looked. “What’s your name?”

“I’m Helen,” she replied, blue eyes dancing behind her large frame glasses. In later years I would have called the color of her eyes heliotrope, but at that point I only knew that they were blue. Bluer than anything I had ever actually seen in person. The centers of the irises were slightly lighter than the purplish rim around each. “Captivating” is the word.

As if to exhibit my learned character, I said, “Helen. That’s name of a lady who launched a hundred ships.”

She laughed. That beautiful sound of falling water. It wasn’t a wicked retort, just an amused acknowledgement of my small mistake. “I think you mean she had a face that launched a thousand ships,” she giggled.

Now I was really confused. I contemplated my dirty feet again and murmured that maybe I wasn’t so good at math. That little comment brought forth another little gush of laughter, this time joined by the tittering of her friends. Aware that I had accidentally said something funny, I looked up and smiled back. Helen invited me to sit down and the circle opened to admit me. That was how it started: an awkward interruption, an instant nickname, a botched reference to The Iliad, and some good-natured laughter. Oh, that more of my lasting relationships were so easy to break into.

From then on, we seemed to be inseparable. Every day followed the same basic pattern: a quick breakfast and then a sprint into my grandma’s backyard. It turned out that Helen’s folks lived in a house that backed up to Grandma’s just a few doors down. No one had fences, so all the huge yards flowed together to make one giant park for the neighborhood kids to play in. We’d meet at the junction of the yards at the base of an ancient elm tree. Most times my pesky younger brother tagged along, but strangely, I didn’t mind. Other kids from the neighborhood knew that there was a daily meeting of the minds under the big tree, so it usually turned into an opportunity for hide-and-seek or tag or red rover. Sometimes we’d play kickball until lunch when the whole gaggle would pack into someone’s kitchen for baloney sandwiches and then it was off to the pool. After swimming, Chet’s was the order of the day, and then we’d chase fireflies in the falling light while the thunderheads built overhead. Eventually, all the moms signaled dinner time, and we would reluctantly retire for the evening. Helen and I were usually the last to trail inside; we’d stall and dawdle and look at each other over a widening expanse of grass until the elm tree blotted out our view.

The thunderstorms still raged every night, joining battle over Lake Erie, but somehow I didn’t care so much. It wasn’t that I was “cured” or anything, just that the space where the fear had rooted in my soul was slowly getting filled with the warm feeling of fellowship, kindred spirit, dare I say it? Love? I couldn’t articulate it then and I wouldn’t call it love today: it was both more and less than that. It was a call and answer. The recognition of “likeness” in another that was new to me then. I’ve felt it since, with my best friend, Bill, and with my wife; I can put words with concepts today, but then it was merely the awareness of a resonance between Helen and me.

It was as if that resonance served as a frequency that offset and canceled out the terror that had once vibrated through my heart at the first muffled sound of distant thunder. I still avoided bedtime. I still hated the darkness and the sudden stabbing white-hot light that filled the little window in our room, followed by the madly bellowing thunder. The weather vane shrieked and I still cowered under the covers for a time, but with less conviction, less urgency, less fear. I usually fell asleep early in the storm cycle of the evening and rose refreshed, ready to meet under the elm tree again that day.

Of course, it couldn’t last. We were going to be heading back to England in a week or so. My father finally joined us, done with his flying exercise. He’d watch me, puzzled, then shoot meaningful looks at my mother as I wolfed down my breakfast and bolted out the back door, screen door slamming. She’d sigh and smile and shrug her shoulders as they watched me running across the grass towards the big tree. I think she was happy to have my father, her man, in the house again, and I also think she saw the budding of joy returning to the family as well.

But, that summer, joy was working on a time limit. The spate of perfect days couldn’t go on forever. I tried to ignore it, but the paradox of time was, and is, that the very passage of each wonderful day with Helen brought the end of those days closer. I felt it. We both did.

As the day of our departure drew nearer, Helen and I would look for opportunities to break away from the rest of the kids. We’d find a tree and sit on opposite sides with our backs to the bark and just talk. We didn’t need to see each other. We didn’t need to touch each other. In fact, I had never purposely touched her except when we were playing tag, or handing the kick ball back and forth. There was no romantic physical yearning, or anything so poetic, though had it been a couple of years later, there might have been. There was only an acknowledgement, a settled agreement between our two souls.

The things we talked about were inconsequential. What do nine-year-olds have to talk about, really? It was the act of communicating, of “communing,” in truth, that we were interested in. All the more as that last day of August crept closer.

The fact of our impending separation stalked us, tracked us, and eventually moved in for the kill. My family was leaving the next day.  Mom could see the strained sadness on my face, but she was too involved with the logistics of getting her four kids and husband ready for a transatlantic flight to give me much solace. My dad was no help either. He was hustling around the house at the direction of my grandma, trying to finish all the little chores that had been neglected for almost six months now.

That last day, we went to the pool, of course, but it was an awkward interlude. Helen and I were both filled with a sense of impending loss that was tough for kids to identify. We talked softly and swam a little bit. As we dried off and sat in the sun to warm up, we chatted, averting our eyes from one another. I mumbled and bumbled and tried to hold her hand, but she wouldn’t let me. We were desolate.

At Chet’s she got progressively quieter. I could read her mood. There was a deep contemplation raging behind her eyes. She was forming a plan, coming to some resolution. Right before we left for the evening, she whispered to me, “Meet me at the elm tree at ten.”

I nodded.

Our families were saying their goodbyes. We would be leaving for the airport early, so we wouldn’t see them tomorrow. Amidst that confusion of handshakes and back slaps and promises to “see you next summer,” I caught Helen’s eye and nodded again.

Dinner at home. Baths. The final packing that needed to be done. It all drug along with the somnolent sluggishness of a bad dream. In the back of my mind I heard the distant rolling thunder, and it suddenly dawned on me that I had promised to meet Helen outside at night when the storms were sure to be raging. For a moment, just an instant, my courage wavered. But then the look of her eyes, the sound of her laugh, the totality of our summer together, crystallized my resolved to be there, under that tree, no matter what.

My father had given me a watch that year, one of his old ones. It was too big for me, so I hardly ever wore it, but that night I had it strapped to my skinny wrist. I hid under the covers so my siblings wouldn’t see the glowing hands on the watch face as they inched towards ten o’clock. Far away, faintly, thunder cracked and rolled across the lake. The lightning flickered, but at a distance. I held out hope that the storms would peter out before they got to us tonight. Maybe they would just march in another direction. Not to be. By eight-thirty, the rain was pelting the roof, the wind was busy pummeling the weather vane, and I was balled up under the covers steeling myself for what I knew had to come.

By 9:55, the storm was raging, but it was time. I slipped out of bed, momentarily caught in the strobe light of a flash of lightning. I saw, frozen on my retinas, the images of my brother and sisters sleeping. Then it was black again as the thunder pounded my eardrums. I was terrified. I took advantage of the noise that the thunder made to open the door and step out onto the creaky landing. The light from my parents’ room made a bar on the carpet in the hallway. I could hear their voices, muffled by the partially-closed door. My mother’s shadow passed over the light and I froze, but she was just walking to their closet. Downstairs the house was already dark.

I glanced at my watch. Just a few minutes to our meeting. I had better hurry. I slipped down the stairs and out the kitchen door, this time holding the screen so it wouldn’t slam closed. Outside, the atmosphere was oppressive. The bulk of the house sheltered me there on the stoop, but even so the wind was whipping the tree tops into a frenzy, blowing sheets of water that had already made a quagmire of the backyard. Lightning flashed, outlining the elm tree in black and white. The thunder tore the sky, louder than I had ever heard it.

I almost turned back, almost just went back into the house, but then I saw her. Across the vast expanse of the yard, I could just make out a white smudge, a blur, moving towards the tree. I instantly started moving too. Within moments, I was soaked to the bone, but not cold. Those summer storms had a sweet, warm quality to the rain. As I splashed across the yard, lightning cracked the sky again, followed very closely by the crash and peal of the thunder. She beat me to the tree. Underneath it was drier but still blustery.

She was in her pajamas too, a lightly ethereal, diaphanous white night gown. Our eyes met in the gloom, slowly adjusting to the darkness. She was smiling. “I knew you’d come,” she said.

“I almost didn’t,” I admitted, forlorn.

“Yeah, but you did,” she smiled again.

“This probably isn’t safe,” I had to nearly shout over a peal of thunder.

“I know,” she replied, the corners of her lips curled up.

“I think I love you, Helen,” I said, looking into her eyes.

“I know,” she answered.

“When will we see each other again?” I quested, a little frantic about the answer.

“We see each other now, don’t we?” she laughed and took my left hand in hers.

“I’m serious. Will you come to England?” I had to shout. The lightning and thunder were beating the sky overhead almost continuously, cascading in an avalanche of light and sound. Wind and rain buffeted us under the elm and I could hear branches snapping close by.

“Probably not.” She answered matter-of-factly. “We can’t afford that. Maybe next year. Maybe later. Much later.” She took a long look up into the branches overhead. “But I think we’ll always be… special to each other. You’ll always know me; I’ll know you.”

At that moment, she stepped back towards the trunk of the ancient elm. I clung to her left hand with mine. At that instant the air was filled with blue light, it flashed and froze the raindrops in mid-air. The thunder was so loud, so immanent, I felt it rather than heard it. Even today, in my mind, I see the ropey lightning, as if in slow motion, twining down through the crown of the tree, burning bark and leaves as it comes. Helen’s eyes were fixed on mine as the bolt flew out of the trunk behind her, passing through her night gown just to the left of her sternum, and then down her left arm into mine. We flew apart like a landmine had gone off between us.

Raindrops. My face is wet. Something smells like ozone and burning wood. As I opened my eyes, the scene came back to me. I was dazed. All I knew was that the old elm was a wreck, split from crown to root, and smoldering in the wind and rain. Helen? Where was she? I sat bolt upright off the wet grass. There she was lying on her back amidst the wreckage of the tree. I ran to her, a deep throbbing pain in my left hand slowly registering. She looked like she was sleeping. Her face was dewy from the rain; it held a serene half smile. The only thing that looked out of place was a small burn mark over her heart.

I touched her face. I sat looking at her then I started to cry. A moment later, my father was next to me, along with several of the neighbors. They had seen the old tree take a hammering, seen the destruction, and come out to investigate. If they were surprised to start with, imagine their astonishment when they found a little dead girl and a little boy with one of the fingers on his left hand nearly burned off.

Naturally, our plans changed. We couldn’t leave the next morning. There was the funeral, of course. A specialist had to remove the ring finger from my left hand and sew up the gap. He said he was giving me a “Mickey Mouse” hand. I think he was trying to connect with his pediatric patient and be funny at the same time. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but my parents didn’t see the humor in it. In any case, it was a week before he would let me fly back.

Eventually, we did go back. Life went on. Almost returned to normal. I never worried about thunderstorms after that. My hand healed and I got along just fine without that finger. I’m right handed after all, but it did affect me in one way later in life. I couldn’t wear a wedding ring. My wife understood. She knew about my accident when I was nine. I never told her about Helen.

pencil

“My name is Mike Wang (pronounced like “Long”). I know, Vera pronounces it like “Bang.” I’ve never talked to her about it, but I think she changed the pronunciation because it’s just easier in business. I get it, but if I ever do get a chance to talk to her, I’ll have to mention how difficult her choice has made my life! Anyhow, I’m a 49-year-old husband and father of two girls, 12 and 9. Been married for 28 years to the same great lady, Kris. I grew up in an Air Force family and I flew fighters in the Air Force for 21 years. Now I fly 737s for Southwest Airlines. We’ve lived in Phoenix for the last 19 years and I think we’re officially anchored here for the long haul. I’m not an author and I’ve never had anything published, but I’ve always enjoyed writing. This is a first step into a new world.” Email: mnkwang[at]aol.com