Guest post: Summer Skin

Map: Nebraska, setting of “Summer Skin” by Leslie Newlin

This is a guest post from Leslie Newlin who contributed in response to the American Vignette: Summer Garments call for submissions. The piece originally appeared on her Parchment Cadenza blog. The setting is Nebraska. Enjoy!

My skin has loved sun since it was 14, when I worked my first summer in the cornfields of Nebraska. Prominently exposed to the blazing sun each day, it was protected only by cheap white tank tops and swishy shorts to keep me cool. As an outdoor laborer, I thought the 100+ degree climate combined with the humid sweat of the corn plants felt almost tropical, and I would imagine I was working in an island rainforest somewhere I’d never been. It wasn’t bad, as long as you didn’t get heat exhaustion and confuse your own body with the endless rows of corn. My water bottle hung heavy around my waist, attached to my canvas work apron along with my supplies.

Walking. Walk through the row. Walk through another row. Walk through all the rows one by one all day. It would rain, and we walked still when new mud had caked on inches thick to our throw-away tennis shoes. The sun would bake the earth into cracking puzzle pieces, and we would walk on through the dust combining with sweat making layers on our skin. Calves of steel would present themselves to me at the end of the summer’s toil, like bronze trophies.

If you looked up, you could see floating bands of green leaves against a faraway blue and smell the pollen as it wafted into the creases of your eyelids and pollinated your hairline.

My cousin drove the crews in the company’s 16-passenger van all over the county and farther, to fields we had been hired out to work. I sat in the back and slept with my head bobbing over the bumps in the road on the long rides. Country music played a little too loudly on the radio and the boys sang along in their oversize, deeply cut off T-shirts. The girls did their best to ignore them and reject them when their language became irreverent. We usually sat separately during lunch on the benches.

We found everything to laugh about, everything was funny to us in the van and on breaks. We gawked and snickered at our supervisors whose genders were mildly ambiguous, who spoke awkwardly and had been in the same line of work since our mothers and fathers did their time in the fields. There was always something hilarious about last night’s affairs, our school teachers, and each other.

One older boy, whose identity was mysterious to us as he was from out of town, talked too much about guns and worked with his shirt off. He made us all uneasy. A young married couple studying at the University worked on my crew one summer. They were put together, bright, interesting and unusual. Whether or not we spoke it, there was a balance to be found here in our group, the just right place between personal carelessness and a serious work ethic. We had struck up a syntax for ourselves that was an expression of the best of both worlds.

A ten minute highway drive home at the end of the day found me peeling off the yellowed tank top and washing away the dried pollen and dirt from my skin. In the shower I would examine my sock tan line and assess the pastiness of my toes. After the final rinse off of the season, every soiled tank and pair of shoes would be ceremonially disposed of, to be replaced with breezy blouses and cut off jean shorts. I would quickly try to repair my sock tan line so that trips to the pool in flip flops would not be an embarrassment.

At night and on days off, I rode my bike all over my small town. A glorious weightlessness beckoned me to ride through dusk and cooler temperatures. I wore as little as possible, for the sake of feeling the air woosh across my fresh skin. I rode to the pool, the coffee shop, beside the railroad tracks, circling neighborhoods, and out as far as my yellow belly would take me down the gravel roads. Once at night while riding with my best friend, we witnessed a double shooting star cascade across the velvet sky.

Though I have traded prairie for pavement in recent years of my life, I look back on teenage summers in Nebraska with fondness. I recall them one by one closely when the sun hits my skin and summer sinks in new.

Leslie Newlin is a music teacher by day and blogger by night. She has always dreamed of writing a book, but has been busy fulfilling her other dream of running a piano studio lately. The writing on her blog is often inspired by childhood memories and everyday life in her midwestern world. You can find more of her writing at www.parchmentcadenza.com and follow her @pianoleslie on Twitter.

Guest post: Sandy Bottoms

Map: Virginia, setting of “Sandy Bottoms” by Kim Norris

This is a guest post from Kim Norris who contributed in response to the American Vignette: Summer Garments call for submissions. The piece was originally published on her 4 Good Ideas blog. The setting is Virginia Beach, VA. Enjoy!

Hot summer mornings we awoke to cicada sounds – zwhirrrrrrr-chi-chi-chi – from the tops of the high pines that lined our backyard in Virginia Beach. Harbingers of heat, their call meant beach weather to me. Mom taught school, so she had summers off too, and most days – every day it didn’t rain – we pulled on swimsuits and shorts and tees over them. Mom directed as we loaded the Volkswagen with beach bags full of soft, faded sheets and fluffy colorful towels. She filled a cooler with sandwiches and snacks and poured iced tea or lemonade in a dispensing thermos. We stacked folding chairs and a half-inflated rubber float in the hatchback. I packed whatever I happened to be reading that week – Nancy Drew most likely, or a Little House book.

Car loaded, we’d head for the oceanfront. We shunned the crowded narrow beaches where tourists laid down in front of the concrete boardwalk, side by side like sardines in a can, the Atlantic Ocean lapping nearly at their heels as high tide approached. Mom preferred the far end of Atlantic Avenue, down to 64th Street; only locals knew where to park and the beaches were broad. White, hot sand flooded flip flops and burned feet as we crossed from the street to the dunes. Prickly sweat trickled down my neck with every step as I trudged toward the green, foam-capped surf, the sounds of its crashing audible even before Mom had killed the car’s ignition. I longed to drop everything I carried, strip down to my bathing suit, run to the water, and let the coolness rush over my feet and up my calves, but Mom had a certain order to things. First sheets must be spread, chairs unfolded, the cooler and thermos buried under a pile of not-yet-sandy towels to keep the high, hot sun from melting the ice too soon. Mom insisted on sunscreen for us girls, cocoa butter for herself; I hated to apply lotion, not liking the way it made the sand stick to my skin. Finally satisfied, Mom would sit primly on the sheet smoothing the wrinkles and futily wiping away sand blown by the shore breeze.

“You were born on the other side of that ocean,” Mom would tell me. On clear days, I believed I could see Spain’s hazy distant shore at the far emerald edge.

The ebb and flow of a perfect beach day: first dig toes deep in shifting wet sand, taste salty spray, feel the brine. Wade out, jumping waves to push past the breakers, turn and body surf back in, stomach as a longboard, no need to fear a wipeout. Sit submerged to the neck just behind the break line, and let the rhythm of the wind and water lull. Return to the soft sheet, eat a PB & J, trying desperately to keep the sand from clinging like sticky jelly; fail, and learn to love the crunch. Stretch out and let the hot sun beat down relaxing back muscles, bury both hands in the cooler sands below the sun-baked surface. Seek heat relief at the water’s edge; drip dreamscape sand castles at the tide line. Walk the hard, wet sand. Search for shells.

Grass-covered dunes shimmered in summer heat. Cooler and thermos emptied, afternoon storms building above, we packed up, crossed the scorching sands to the unrelenting swelter of the street. We’d lay damp towels down on the Volkswagen’s leather seat to keep from burning our legs. Sandy, salty, sweaty bathing suit bottoms made us wriggle and itch. All the windows rolled down, wind would further tangle the mess of sea-water curls that snaked the napes of our necks, glued by sweat.

Home again, and still a certain order to things. “To the spigot!” Mom would say. “No one goes in the house until they rinse!”

Sis and I raced to the backyard, both wanting the first water out of the hose, warm from the sitting in the sun. The perfectly heated stream chilled quickly. We rinsed clean our arms and legs, unburdened sandy bathing suit bottoms of fine white silica. Followed the cold hose with a tepid shower, cool Noxzema on hot burned skin, tangles combed. After, we sat on the screened back porch and sipped root beer floats, sweet and foamy, so cold it caused a headache when I drank it too fast.

Day relented and moonlight emerged, in pink cotton pajamas, we watched fireflies sparkle in the backyard. On the line, our summer suits dripped dry in the humid night air. Crickets sang. Heat lighting rolled across the sky.

Kim Norris learned to hold a pencil when she was four and she immediately began writing poems and short stories; her plots improved after she learned to read. She has no musical talent, mathematical ability, or business acumen, so she works as a technical writer, editor, and marketing coordinator. She’d rather be a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, but so far, that has proved more challenging than algebra. She consoles herself by blogging and writing fiction. She blogs more fact than fiction at Four Good Ideas, more fiction than fact at 4 Good Ideas, and offers mouthy opinions on Twitter @KimHNorris.

Guest post: Quarters

Map: New York City, setting of “Quarters” by Laurie Stone

This is a guest post from Laurie Stone who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. The setting is New York. Enjoy.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Manhattan’s Upper West Side was a landscape of violent neglect that was also accommodating of deviance. I had a friend who at the start of each month would dole out $40 to a different homeless person and say, “Look at me, and don’t ask for money again.” It made my friend feel okay not to give the rest of the time. Others donated books and clothes to people they knew. Gardner used to hand off his change at the end of the day.

In 1990 Gardner died of bone marrow cancer, and afterward, in the mornings, I would wake up wanting to talk to him. I was 44. When it was time to walk my dog, I would pack a bag of food to distribute to people on the street. I was volunteering at God’s Love We Deliver, the organization that feeds homebound people with AIDS, and sometimes there were leftovers.

On the first anniversary of Gardner’s death, I ran into Jimmy, who camped outside the Korean market around the corner. He was skeletal with only a couple of teeth, and his hips and shoulders were hitched at different angles, so he walked with a shuffle. When he first showed up, Gardner and I thought he had AIDS and would die soon, but five years later he was still at his post. The previous summer he’d worn a cast over a leg, exposing swollen, scaly toes, but when the plaster was removed, he seemed no worse for the wear. Sometimes he slept indoors. I had seen him shambling toward West End Avenue when the mercury plunged, but mostly, on freezing days and in the heat of August, he was on the sidewalk, extending a grimy hand.

As soon as he’d spot Gardner, he’d leap up and mutter words I couldn’t understand. Gardner would fish in his pockets. Jimmy kept his distance from me, and I remembered a remark Norman Mailer made: “Every meeting with a homeless person is an ugly encounter.” He meant the gap between having a place to live and not having one.

After Gardner died, I gave Jimmy food if he was around. This day he limped toward me, and I gave him a container of pasta salad. As I moved off, he called out, “Miss, I want to ask you something.” I turned. His voice was clear. He said, “Where is your friend?” A cab raced to make a light. I said, “He died.” Jimmy folded in half and stood still, his head working sorrowfully from side to side. Traffic whizzed along. A kid rode his bike fast on the sidewalk. Pedestrians scattered and cursed him. The kid leered at them as if their anger was fueling him. Jimmy’s response looked like a performance. I started to walk off, but I turned to see him still shaking his head, and I thought about the invisible threads that attach us to each other and the meanings we leave behind. Why have I remembered English twin sisters from a transatlantic ship crossing? I was 20. They were fat and generous. They wore feathers and velvet and sang music hall tunes, injecting theater every night into the group of us that had formed. I don’t think we thanked them enough.

The next day Jimmy was sitting on the pavement. I gave him food, and he said, “I really miss my friend.” I said, “So do I.” He said, “I had a dream about him last night.” I said, “What did you dream?” He said, “He was standing over me, tossing quarters, one after the next.” A car door opened, and Sinatra sang “Witchcraft” on the radio. I felt Jimmy was tossing quarters to me.

Laurie Stone is author of three books of fiction and nonfiction. Her recent stories have appeared in Open City, Four Way Review, Memorious, and Nanofiction. She is at work on The Love of Strangers, Flash and Short Fiction by Laurie Stone and My Life as an Animal, a Memoir in Stories.