It was 104 in the shade yesterday–at dusk. Even in the twilight I could see the wrinkled air above the asphalt on the road, trembling echoes still hot to the touch. I sat bare chested on the front porch in a pool of saltwater my body had just made out of pork chops and potatoes. The evening sun, now only a pink blush on the world’s western cheek, left things smoldering on its way to bed. My dog, Peanut, lay spatchcocked atop the cement floor; his tongue draped across my bare feet, vibrating like the noisy end of a timber rattler. Every few minutes I would search deep within the recesses of my soul in order to gather the necessary strength to push through the heavy wet air and swat at an army of mosquitoes as big as turkey buzzards that were bent on having my midsection for supper.
In the sweltering haze, I joined John the Revelator in his apocalyptic visions. Behold, a third part of the earth was burned up. Fiery beasts with heads like the business end of scorpions descended upon me to eat up my flesh. I saw a pale horse, and Hell–riding high in the saddle–dug his hot spurs into the nape of my neck. I longed for a cool drink from the crystal fountain, a quick dip in the river of life. But alas, there was no more sea. Then Peanut licked my ankle, as did the dogs to poor ailing Lazarus, bringing me back just this side of Armageddon.
In a moment I was back on the porch, but in another time. It was now 1988. I sat watching Papaw shake his head at the thin tube of mercury that hung between two strings of dried cayenne peppers.
“A hunert degrees and creepin’,’ ‘ he said, and spat. “We in the ‘Dog Days of Summer’ now.”
In the intervening years I have learned that “dog days” was simply a euphemism for “death throes.” In other parts of the world, Summer drifts easily into the gentle embrace of Autumn like a long lost lover clinging to an old promise. But not here. Here Summer is vengeful and mean. In the Deep South, Summer dies by suicide; burning out in a blaze of glory, hoping to take everything with it when it goes.
By late August, the end is nigh, and it seems like the end of an age. You can feel the terminus of the season through the soles of your feet. It’s like walking across heaps of charcoal from an overturned grill. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Papaw would watch me try to walk across the yard barefooted, half-hopping, half-dancing, and he would laugh. But he wasn’t worried. By then, he had watched the earth turn over 80 times, and during every revolution it nearly rusted off its hinges by September. So he just laughed and fished Pall Malls from his breast pocket, fighting fire with fire.
But Mamaw wasn’t so sanguine. A temperate evening was among Summer’s last lies. Every wisp of cool air was a false token, every thin breeze a Judas Kiss. She believed that in the dying days of Summer, nature turned on itself. A time when Hell moved underfoot, and earth commiserated with it.
She told us not to pet the dogs. “They call em’ the ‘Dog Days’ because at the end of the Summer when there’s no relief from the heat even in the shade, even a good dog will bite you,” she’d say.
She told us to watch where we stepped. “Even the snakes is meaner this time of year. They shed in this heat, and they’re scale-blind from the shedding. Makes em’ twice as likely to strike and half as likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.”
And this was as good as gospel to us because we had all seen the angry copperheads coiled under the porch steps, or watched Papaw evict a cottonmouth squatting in the well house, or hid behind the door as Mamaw took a broom handle to a mad and sightless moccasin perched behind the commode.
Mamaw used to quote the Lord’s Prayer at bedtime, but in late August she tended to add the Twenty-Third Psalm to the evening liturgy as well. In the unrelenting heat, the Devil seemed a little nearer at hand.
I reckon this is why we always flocked to canvas tents in abandoned fields during this time of year. We children would sit on (or under) hot metal folding chairs while the women beat the air into circulation with paper fans with a picture of a pale-face Jesus on one side and a funeral home advertisement on the other. All the while, gray men with red faces yelled at both us and the Devil well into the night. Sermons from those leather-lunged preachers were punctuated by congregational songs like “O Why Not Tonight” and “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” thumped out on an electric piano or flat top guitar. I would wager that better than half of the souls saved in our county before the year 2000 were ushered into the Kingdom while half tangled in three miles of extension cord or while leaning on a leaking Igloo ice cooler doubling as a makeshift altar.
After we finally made it home, Papaw would find me in his bedroom with my head laying on the windowsill, listening to the hum of the police scanner and the crickets, and waiting for the faintest whisper of a breeze. But when I awoke, it was to a warm yet gentle wind. Mamaw’s words gathered around my head like a pillar of fire by night. “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for Thou art with me…lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” She fought fire with fire too.