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: Taste Better in the Pie

Map: Georgia, setting of “Taste Better in the Pie” by Tim Oliver

This is a guest post from Tim Oliver who contributed in response to the American Vignette: Pie call for submissions. The setting is Valdosta, Georgia, circa 1964. Enjoy.

It was the summer we were hillbillies. I was eleven, my brother Kerry was eight, and brother Bob, two.  Mountain Dew soft drink had a promotion going on (as well as the homey motto, “Yahoo, Mountain Dew, it’ll tickle yore innerds!”). If you bought a case of the stuff you’d get a hillbilly hat complete with corncob pipe. Our Uncle Curt was a barber in a small town and purchased multiple cases every week. That’s how we got our hats and pipes, right after our annual summer buzz cuts. I was old enough to begin to resent the forced shearing and was grateful to have a cool hat to cover my skinned dome. An older cousin gave us some rabbit tobacco (Pseudognaphlium obtusifolium) for the pipes and laughed as we coughed, turned the color of tree frogs,and retched. We studied famous hillbillies like Snuffy Smith, Lil’ Abner, and, of course, the Clampetts, to savor the vernacular and get every nuance down pat. Combined with our natural south Georgia drawls the results were worse than anything Hollywood could ever hope to pervert. It drove Momma to distraction. Every drawn-out, elongated and purposely mis-pronounced word was a personal affront to her. We also studied the musical stylings of Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, and Flatt and Scruggs. By studying them I mean we watched them on TV. Thirty minutes of either would leave us with the agreeable sound of a plinking banjo in our heads. We shirked our chores more than ever, often citing “sinkin’ spells” or, “Ain’t holdin’ with bein’ shiftless,” neither of which were ever sufficient excuses.

After a long summer day of nothing more taxing than arguing whether “professional rasslin'” was real or fake or laughing at our friends, and betting on which one would actually puke from smoking rabbit tobacco, we’d drag home in our hats and cut-offs, barefooted and shirtless. Momma would be finishing preparing supper. Bob would be transfixed by Mister Rogers on the tube. We’d be ordered to clean up, put on shirts, and leave our hats in our room. We would often remark on the smells issuing forth from the kitchen. For greens and cabbage it would be, “What’s that stinkin’?” For frying chicken or pork chops, “Gosh, I’m hungry!” For cakes and pies, speech eluded us, just gustatory harumphs and big smiles.

One such day we skulked in and the kitchen was permeated by a subtle, unidentifiable smell, sweet but not buttery. Kerry and I exchanged glances. “What’s that smellin’ good?” I queried.

“Macaroon pie,” Momma smiled.

“Raccoon pie?” Kerry asked, and we cackled, even moreso when Bob tore his attention from a mewling cat puppet on TV and echoed, loudly, “Raccoon pie?”

“Yeah,” Momma smirked. “Just for you hillbillies!”

“What is it, really?” I asked, reasonably, sweet confections being a matter of upmost importance.

“Macaroon pie. It’s a recipe from a restaurant in Macon called Len Berg’s.” Macon was where Momma and Daddy lived when they first got married, before us younguns’ came along, which was why the place was spoken of in a dreamy reverence. Kerry and I looked for signs of pie construction seeing only bowls piled in the sink.

“Ain’t no bowl to lick, no spoon?” Kerry asked.

“ISN’T ANY! Ain’t’s not a word!” she fumed.

“Reckon what kinda’ pie don’t make a bowl or spoon to lick?” I wondered. She shot daggers at me and was about to speak when Bob tottered into the kitchen all wide eyes and cotton-top stubble, “Where raccoon?”

After a great home-cooked meal of something, the warm macaroon pie was sliced, placed on saucers, and topped with homemade whipped cream. More like a large soft cookie than a pie, it was delicious with flavors unfamiliar to our palates. The list of raw ingredients only confused us: soda crackers, chopped dates, egg whites, pecans, sugar, baking powder, and almond extract. Upon trying a date, Kerry spit his out, invoking Momma’s wrath. I made what I was sure was a suitably ugly face and swallowed with difficulty.

“Kinda’ like a prune with sand in it, ” Kerry observed with considerable distaste. We all laughed, Momma included.

“Taste better in the pie,” I admitted. Indeed, it still does, with or without a nice rabbit tobacco buzz.

Tim Oliver was born in Macon, Ga., raised in Valdosta, Ga., and mellowed to a twisted turn in Tybee Island, Ga. He is currently living a life of what Eugene Walter would call, “shallow licentiousness” in Atlanta. About this vignette he says, “This is less about pie than it’s about when families used to eat together and have fun in the process. Also, we dressed better the summer we were hillbillies than the summer we were Tarzan, but, not as good as the summer we were James Bond.”