It was the hottest summer of the decade the year we bought our first air conditioner. It was August 1988, the summer before I entered high school, the summer before life got complicated. The six of us (seven if you count Daisy, the basset hound) loaded into the green Chevy station wagon and drove to Sears, Roebuck and Co. (as it was still called back then.) We were the only people on our street to get an air conditioner. Ronald Reagan was king and we were rich.
Sears was the closest store to us, but was still over twenty miles away. I got everything that was important to me in my life there; my first Radio Flyer bike, my first Coleman tent, and later that year, my first training bra.
It was the summer before they paved a street behind our house and lined it with identical-style homes, and the summer before I would kiss a boy from one of those homes under the streetlight. But for now it was still fields of timothy hay and a horse paddock that belonged to our neighbor, Gus.
Long lazy summer days were spent playing on the tractors and making forts with the bales of hay. I was wild, running free in my overalls. It was the last summer my mother would let me wear my overalls with no shirt underneath.
We didn’t see our school friends until the school year began again. It was always just us and the neighbors, safe in our cocoon.
It took Gus and my father to put the hulking air conditioner in our living room window. We hung faded flowered sheets in the doorway of the living room and dining room, and lined towels under the windows to keep the cold in. Dad slept on the couch, mom in her chair, and the four of us kids slept in the middle, a mishmash of pillows and blankets and stuffed animals. The smell of fresh laundry wafted through the room, the gentle ‘wurr’ of the air conditioner lulling us to sleep. My sunburned skin dimpled from the cold air. It was like a tomb.
In the summers my youngest aunt would sun herself in our backyard. This summer, though, she had become more interesting for me to look. Her tanned body, the way it glistened with baby oil, the way her pointy hip bones dipped down when she walked. After my nightly bath I would wrap a towel around my body, pretending it was an evening gown, and slink around in front of the mirror trying to mimic her. I thought she was the prettiest woman I ever saw, pretty enough to be a model or movie star.
She had a boyfriend named Butchy. Butchy drove a loud motorcycle. He wore black t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, showing off flame tattoos creeping up his biceps. When I would hear him coming down the road I’d run to the front window to watch. My aunt would run to him and leap into his arms, wrapping her legs around his waist.
My family had known Butchy since he was a kid. He was a friend of my brothers growing up. I would play sports with them in the backyard while my sisters watched from the patio. He even stayed with us for a few months when his parents split up. He called me "kid." One day Mom caught Butchy taking a bottle of Wild Turkey out of the liquor cabinet, after that he wasn't allowed over anymore.
My aunt favored me over my sisters (I suspected,) because we were both the babies of the family (I figured.) Last Christmas we did a Yankee Swap, or White Elephant as many people call it, and I chose a special ornament that my Grandmother made, of course my older sister took it from me on her turn, even though she knew how much I wanted it. It’s really a maddening game. When it was my aunt’s turn she then chose the ornament from my sister. After the party I found the ornament on my bed. She was always doing things like that for me.
One summer afternoon she asked me if I wanted to go for a ride to get a Raspberry-Lime Rickey at the ice cream shop she worked at. We rolled the windows down in her white Chevette, my hair whipped in the wind. It didn’t have a passenger seat so I sat on a pillow on the floorboard. I watched her in awe as she sang along to Pearl Jam.
On the way home she asked me to get her cigarettes out of the console but instead I pulled out a round pack of pills with the days of the week listed on them.
“What are these?” I asked holding them up.
She looked at me and hesitated.
“Don’t ever let a man get the upper hand on you. Make sure you always hold all the cards,” she told me.
I stared at her. I had no idea what she was talking about. But I nodded.
My aunt didn’t come around for a few days after that. But then one morning I looked out and saw her sunning herself as usual on her towel in the backyard. I plopped down next to her eating my Popsicle, rambling on about how I crushed the neighbor’s flowers when I jumped out of his tree and how he told me I wasn’t allowed to climb his trees anymore, when she pulled her sunglasses off. She had green and purple bruising around her right eye.
“Ouch, how did you get that?” I asked, wincing.
“There are things you say. And things you only think,” she answered. Again her advice was lost on me but I didn’t ask for any further explanation and continued telling her how the neighbor had it out for me. Later that day I heard her tell mom she got hit while playing horseshoes at Gilly’s. After that she started spending less and less time at our house, and Butchy hardly ever picked her up anymore.
One evening I heard the familiar roar of Butchy’s engine and ran to the front window. Butchy pulled into the driveway as usual but didn’t come in. My aunt ran out front to meet him and jumped onto the back of his bike, wrapping her arms around his waist.
She saw me watching from the window and waved to me as they backed out of the driveway. I waved back from the safety of the house as they disappeared together down the road. Mom asked me what I was looking at but I didn’t say anything. And that was the last time I saw her, the last time anyone saw her.