15. To The First Storm of Summer

Over the spring and early summer, the pullets grow into young hens, Inglorion finishes the Thousand Nights and One Night, and both households’ crops mature. Brutus gives Inglorion a tobacco plant and teaches him how to cultivate it.

Summer settles in, and it’s as bad as everyone says. Worse, since predictions and warnings are abstract, but persistent heat affects every detail of daily life. The chickens crowd into any patch of shade they can find. They’re drooping and panting, too tired to bully one another. Plants are scorched, and can wither over days or even hours. Inglorion and Lucius water the more fragile crops ceaselessly. The cisterns get low.

Most of all, it’s miserably hot from the instant the sun peeps over the horizon until well after sunset. Lucius and Inglorion become almost entirely nocturnal. When they’re forced outdoors during the daytime, they take cover in the shade diligently, like soldiers in no-man’s-land. They forage and scavenge and tend the crops and livestock when they absolutely must, and spend the remainder of their time lying flat, Inglorion reading or writing, Lucius humming and paging through books of engravings and fabricating jewelry with a patience and ingenuity that bores and frustrates Inglorion on his behalf.

The weather becomes still worse in late June and early July, with the addition of humidity, and the stubborn absence of rain. The river slows to a muddy trickle, and water becomes a luxury and a worry.

Inglorion is lying in the front room one evening, wearing shorts and nothing else. The shorts are distinctly ratty, a vague gesture towards decency. Lucius left the house an hour ago, lured out by the rumor that someone has a stash of turquoise beads, and would exchange them for a dressed rabbit.

Inglorion refused to go out; he’s busy breathing and sweating, and these two activities leave him just enough energy to read Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in French. The Beckett is not going well. Inglorion has felt for some moments that he should reach over, pick up the dictionary and confirm whether or not mouchoir means “mustache,” which seems nonsensical in this context. The dictionary is heavy and he doesn’t care to sit up, so he resigns himself to an imperfect understanding of what little action Beckett has portrayed.

There’s a knock on the door.

“Who is it?” Inglorion yells irritably, trying to determine if he has to put a shirt on.

“It’s Brutus. I have something for you.”

“Is it an ice cube?” Inglorion asks as he opens the door. “Otherwise I’m not interested.”

“I’ve made agua fresca and sangria,” Brutus says. He eyes Inglorion’s outfit, but refrains from comment.

“What’s agua fresca and sangria? And where are they? I notice you’re empty-handed.”

“They’re refreshing drinks, and they’re at my house.” He’s standing in the middle of the room, plainly expecting Inglorion to follow him halfway across town on the promise of refreshment. “Storms are building over the mountains. It’s very likely to rain, and if it does, the temperature will drop 30 degrees before midnight.”

Inglorion sniffs. He’s forgotten what rain looks like. Brutus seems certain of his facts, however, and touchingly eager. “Oh, very well,” says Inglorion with poor grace. “I’ll even put a shirt on, though I’ll be damned if I’ll button it.” He starts sorting through the various items of clothing hanging from the coat rack, setting aside a fur cape, a cavalryman’s jacket, and a hat trimmed with peacock feathers.

“Nice abs,” says Brutus. “You wiry fellows have all the luck.”

“Fuck you,” says Inglorion wearily. “What does ‘mouchoir’ mean? Is it mustache?”

“No. Handkerchief. Why do you ask?”

“Because one of the characters in Beckett’s Endgame keeps folding and unfolding his mouchoir and putting it on his head.” He muses, “Why did I think it was mustache?”

“I imagine it’s because your French vocabulary is poor,” Brutus says helpfully. “You keep hoping you’ll learn words by context without having to pick up a dictionary. It doesn’t help that you’re reading an absurdist play. Perhaps you should switch to realism. I can loan you some Zola.”

“You’re right, as usual. It’s what one most dislikes in you.” Inglorion finds a shirt draped over the back of the couch and slips it on.

The walk over isn’t bad. The temperature has dropped outdoors. As they walk, the wind picks up. It’s cool, and smells of creosote. By the time the two reach Brutus’s house, lightning plays all around the horizon. The air is strangely thick and oppressive, relieved by sudden cold gusts.

Brutus throws open all the doors and windows and lights a lamp, saying, “Now, I’m quite proud of what I’ve done here. I came into a handful of tamarind pods, and a kind of tea that Mexicans call jamaica — I can never remember the English word.”

They sample the tamarindo, with its curiously earthy citrus flavor, and the jamaica, which is a deep crimson shade, and charmingly tart. 

“I’ll show you the knack of making them, if Lucius doesn’t know,” Brutus says. He’s set aside little cloth bags with precious handfuls of the tamarind pods and dried flowers. 

“And now for the sangria,” Brutus says. “Independently of the previous effort, I scored two bottles of wine, which obliged me to find a preserved lemon, two mangoes and a bottle of seltzer water. I already had honey, of course. There was very little rum to be had, more’s the pity, but it’s still a fine sangria.”

Inglorion sits bolt upright, as if he’s been electrocuted. “I don’t drink,” he says.

“You’re kidding,” says Brutus. “Why ever not?”

Because you did and I hated it doesn’t seem like an eligible answer. Finally Inglorion says lamely, “I’ve seen the effects. Honestly, I don’t see the point of it.”

“The point isn’t something you observe from the outside,” Brutus says. “It’s something you have to experience. You really don’t drink at all? You never have?”

“No.” He adds conscientiously, “I had some rum punch once, by mistake. It tasted like orange-scented industrial solvent, and it made me giddy.”

“Sounds like that fellow had no idea how to make rum punch,” Brutus says. “I can’t tell you how to live your life, Inglorion. I’m no role model. But I do think you’d like it.” He smiles, and in the dim lamplight, Inglorion sees mischief and invitation in the older man’s face.

“I’m afraid I’d get addicted to it. I’ve seen that, and it’s a horrible, degraded state.”

“Well, yes. My father was, and I believe I was, too, in life. And yet there are infinite shades of enjoyment prior to addiction, most of them quite pleasant.” He shoots a sudden, hard look at Inglorion. “Have you ever been addicted to anything?”

“You mean besides cigarettes? Something that causes intoxication?”

“Something that changes your state of mind and causes you to injure yourself and others.”

Inglorion sits there, staring into space, unconsciously tracing the scars on his wrists and forearms. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Pussy and hurting myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I fucked anything that moved, cheated on every woman I knew. I stopped when I met my wife.” Brutus stands there quietly, watching him, waiting. Finally Inglorion adds, “As for the other — I cut myself when I was a kid. As I got older, I hid it better — starved myself, sparred and brawled and was constantly injured. I don’t think I ever stopped. Even at the end, I took stupid risks, and it wasn’t carelessness. I knew I’d get hurt or sick or whatever. I died of it.”

Neither of them speaks for a long time. Inglorion’s surprised at his own words. He’s never admitted that explicitly, even to himself. They listen to the wind, which is steadily rising. There’s a flash on the horizon, and they both count until they hear the crack and rumble of thunder.

Brutus turns back to Inglorion. “Like I say, I can’t tell you how to live your life. It’s a pleasure I’d like to share with you, that’s all.”

This is the only thing about which Inglorion is cautious, even fearful. He looks at his father’s face, serene and beautiful in the dark, and he feels the familiar recklessness welling up within him. It’s an invitation from his father, an opportunity to share something fundamental to his character.

He says, “I will, then.” His brow is furrowed with worry.

Brutus looks amused. “Why, thank you.” He places the bowl of sangria on the coffee table, uncovers it and stirs it, ladles out two servings. He takes a seat next to Inglorion on the couch, and raises his glass for a toast. “To the first storm of summer.”

For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.

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