Portrait of a Summer Day

A young man sits alone, his large frame taking up the driver’s side of a cherry red 2005 Honda Element. Hand pushing down on the left dial of a broken radio, the familiar chords of "Life in the Fast Lane" sputter out to fill the vacuum of trapped heat and closed windows. The car is warmed by an unrelenting Sonoran sun that refuses to notice that the AC has been broken for months. His body arches forward; a streak of balmy sweat left on the seat clings to the drenched fabric of his white t-shirt, unable to part in the car’s sweltering interior. Sinew and tendon bulge below umber skin, fingers pound the steering wheel, their glistening marks coating the boiling vinyl resin. With each downbeat, shining black hair leaps from his head—chin bobbing up and down, eyes tightly closed, fingers bounding between dashboard and wheel. The scene is almost religious in the singularity of the man’s fixation.

Pausing its dance, one hand flicks down long enough to crack the window. Warm air bursting with the buzz of cicadas rushes in, filling the space with the scent of the day’s earlier rain. It’s his favorite smell, an intoxicating taste of the desert’s verdant mesquite blending with the earthy clay, each dashed into the winds by the monsoon’s rumbling downpour.

As a young boy he was terrified of the torrents of water unleashed with the coming of summer—deluges ignited with blinding flashes of white and booming cracks of thunder that would send his skinny legs banging together in fits of uncontrollable shaking. Strangely, it was only when they would pile into the old car and drive into the maelstrom that he was able to find some amount of peace. The pounding of his heart would keep time with the steady bobbing of his father’s head, perfectly matched with the local classic rock station, and calm only as the weathered hands began their driving rhythm, fingertips thumping with their reassuring regularity. The action captivated him, its insistence not to be drowned out, but to drown out the rain itself, demanded his gaze. It was in these little performances that he would forget, that the world would retreat into the background until only they two remained—the steady thumping of fingers and the small heart’s thud, thud, thud.

The storms remained boisterous as ever, echoing their bravado through the sheer canyons and rocky valleys, but as the years passed the grip of his fear loosened. These days when he returned to the storms, it was the quiet inside the car, a recent addition to the scene that troubled him. His eyes were now fixed on the road instead of the old hands that had once so often drawn them. The chorus of droplets pounding upon the window shield, the dated songs reverberating from dusty speakers, they were oddly irregular, and echoed loudly without their former accompaniment.

He had sat in the driveway for hours, fumbling hands unsure of how or where to find that old comfort. Staring into the oppressive, industrial gray of the garage door, he once more remembered himself gazing at the small metal box, and for what felt like the thousandth time he recalled the dull reflection of light off its drab, icy exterior. It had been innocuous enough, settled between old Starbucks napkins and the owner’s manual in the car’s glove compartment, yet something about it had left him deeply unsettled.

His mother had opened it, had found the pipe with its thin veil of chalky white coating.

Suddenly the car rides became quiet, empty.

His brow is dripping with exertion, the refrain repeats, “Life in the fast lane, surely make you lose your mind.” Eyes tightly shut, listening intently to the smack of his warm hands, he’s once more in the passenger seat, staring, as those weathered hands beat away the storm.