The Last of the Idle Summers
Thick, afternoon light slanted across June’s face and the empty playground, catching them both in a muggy veil. Beneath the red and blue swing set, June shifted in her drooping seat and frowned; the sour, August air was pregnant with angst.
He promised he was staying until the end of summer.
That was back in May, when Richard, June’s older brother, surprised the Go household with a knock on the door and a head of hair like a fluffy, blonde peach. Their mother chided him, saying that people would think he didn’t work—or worse—that he worked at a tattoo parlor. Richard just laughed it off and pulled them in for a big, warm, gropey hug. He had just finished college, and as they breakfasted together, June could see, in the faint glow of his eyes and the movements of his hands, how greatly he had changed in the past six months. Over a bowl of short rib soup, smiling Richard Go looked as much an adult as her exuberant big brother.
Sighing, June dug her hands into the cold swing chains. The links of metal shook, smelling of old iron, shot through with the sweetness of children’s hands and smiles—her brother’s smiles—as they swung into the blue on balmy spring days. Her grip on the chains tightened, her fingers stiff and stapled.
Like a lot of days, June didn’t know why she was feeling sad. Her brother would be going tomorrow to San Francisco where his first real job was waiting for him, and although this sudden news had left her feeling raw and resentful, she was slowly adapting to it.
She felt that there was something else, something sharper, gnawing at her viscera. It was like dislodging the head of a tumour only to notice the black, distended bomb that had been buried underneath for so long; it was the immense under toad, finally surfaced; it was the mean reds. June took a shaky breath and stepped off the swings.
Her brother had told her about the mean reds the day they went plum-picking. It was one of those hot, soupy, midsummer days where the tarmac steamed, and all June wanted was to crawl inside of a refrigerator. Instead, she found herself traipsing after her parents through searing heat and endless rows of trees, her shoes sinking into the soft, mollusc-fleshy earth. When finally, June looked up, she realized that the two of them had disappeared from sight.
It was like her own, comic, personal hell: The weather was hot, offensively hot, her sandals had tracked at least twelve different kinds of dirt, and worst of all, she hadn’t seen a ripe patch of plums all morning. Everywhere she looked there were just these green, unripe ornaments that looked more like the Grinch’s testicles than fruit. What was the point? She wanted to shout.
“Hey June, come over here.” Her brother’s voice leaned from behind one of the nearby trees. Shouldering between the leafy branches, she saw a tote brimming with plums half-green and half-crimson, and, higher up, in Richard’s arms, an elbow-full of them—plums in puberty.
“What are you doing?”
“What does it look like I’m doing?” He said, plopping the rest of them in. “You want one?” He held an especially glaucous-looking specimen out to June.
Richard shrugged and took a large bite out of the absinthe-coloured fruit. “Why aren’t you picking any?”
“Not feeling it,” June said, crossing her arms. “They’re unripened.”
Richard rolled his eyes, “You’re unripened.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t know,” he said flippantly, taking another bite. “You just seem... red.”
“You mean blue?”
“No. When you’re blue, you flail, curse, and groan so loudly the subterranean mole-people can hear you. It’s when you’re sulky and withdrawn, like this,” and he pointed at her with the half- eaten drupe, “that you’ve got the mean reds.”
June stared at him, unimpressed. “Mean reds?”
All day, you’re thinking inside your pruney head how nice it’d be to wake up and find yourself grown into a lush, sumptuous plum.
“Really? I could’ve sworn we watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s together. The mean reds, it’s like... Well, imagine you’re one of these ugly, unripened plums. All day, you’re thinking inside your pruney head how nice it’d be to wake up and find yourself grown into a lush, sumptuous plum. You pine and hope, but in the back of your mind there’s always that niggling fear that, like so many others, you’ll droop, sag, go black and wrinkly, and fall to the ground from your own abortive attempts at life.” Richard paused and took another bite. “That’s the mean reds.”
June wanted to slouch into the earth. She wondered, acidly, if her brother rehearsed all the lectures he gave her. “Well, that’s depressing,” she said, looking at the ground.
Richard hummed and nodded.
June imagined letting out one of those wild, harrowing, rabbit screams. She felt like laughing, and vaporizing, and yanking out her fingernails, and suddenly, the only thought in June’s head was of sticking her face in a giant, industrial fan. Just a few inches off the nose at first, like those jaded girls in magazines, and then the singing, slicing pain as it carves up her face, sashimi-style.
The silence twisted in the air, soft and smothering, like a carbon-monoxide scarf.
When finally, June spoke, it was in a half-broken, half-determined hush: “Does that... do the mean reds follow you around your entire life?”
Richard seemed to mull it over a while. “Yes,” he said, with a slow, decisive nod. “But, then again, life’s all about getting used to discomfort. Remember Emily Schultz? I waited the longest time only for her to say that she didn’t, in fact, love me, and that my breath smelled like an ulcerous foot. It took even longer to hear from Northwestern that I got accepted into my dream program, and, even now, I can’t say whether this job will last one week, one month, or ten years. But that’s just it, Junebug: We can’t always have our purple plums.”
June thought that sounded wise, cheesy, and honest as hell.
In a breezy, twilit corner of a park where a young woman had grown up, on the last day of her seventeenth year, June Go felt something pass her by. It was like one of those colossal manta rays, flapping overhead as she stood oohing and aahing in the long, glass tubes at Sea World. She remembered how frightening they were at first, with their pale faces and socketed, stich- eyes, but the more she looked, the more they resembled gentle smiles. In a way, June had passed by this “something” long ago, but as she strode out of the park into that cool, electric night, she found herself smiling in an entirely new way.
Jack Zhang (18) adores writing of any sort—from short stories to poems to the backs of shampoo bottles. He aspires to be a writer or an editor someday, but in the meantime, he's content penning sad, lurid stories and reading Plath.