If I had to pinpoint a time, it happened that summer when the west wind came and the heat descended like a plague. It didn’t make the books, but it wedged in me, became my barometer for real heat.
I was living with my grandmother and working for the first time. The job was at a small local bakery near her summer home. Like most first jobs, it wasn’t much. I worked mostly in the back, putting things in the oven and taking them out when they were ready. I weeded out the uglies and the extra crispies and passed the good ones on. I kept track of production and did inventory, counting pallets of butter, sugar, icing sugar, flour.
The job was my parents’ idea, but I was secretly in cahoots with their whole Value of a Dollar sermons. I was sweating for cash in the upright American way they mythologized, but I also got to be out of their house and very nearly on my own. The bakery job was six hours a day, five days a week—in compliance with child labor laws, the bakery owner assured me when I took the job. My grandmother lived in a tiny town on the coast, miles and miles away from anyone who knew me. I was young enough to have absolute faith that a change of scenery could right anything.
Salt air and all-white houses. A single suitcase. Seven weeks. I hadn’t seen my grandmother since pre-puberty; my parents had given me fair warning that I didn’t stand a chance. Her house was a joyless, airless mausoleum. Not a single book worth reading and the radio was perpetually set to gospel. The house was older than women’s suffrage and built in a style she and her friends called gingerbread which I’d annotate as lacy and lacking modern conveniences. Absences made virtues, I read loud and clear.
The first week I was living there, she intended to take me to church. To her dismay, I hadn’t packed a single sundress. The problem had truer origins in me not owning one.
“That bakery apron has got to be the nicest piece of clothing you own,” she said once, and then later in a few different ways.
My grandmother approached our summer together like a business plan. Like an investment. She and the house and the sea air could have some kind of osmosis effect on me—that was the gamble. Her house would soften my edges, infuse me with perfume like it was the house that was a bouquet of flowers, and I one of its dreary rooms. We said grace. She played gospel. I worked hard and stayed clean. She bought me a sundress but not before I requested Sunday shifts. Clearasil products and scented lip balm appeared in the upstairs bathroom, prominently placed in my cluster of things like the finishing pieces to a nativity set.
My grandmother taught me about the concept of the inversion. That’s what she called it anyhow, and with an authority that sounded at once moral and meteorological. The preoccupation went beyond my grandmother; the coming and going of the west wind made the whole town twitch. Talk of it came and went in the bakery, and bounced between my grandmother’s peers who sat on the porch for lemonade or a game of cards. Tourists and locals alike required the sustenance of the sweet sea breeze, the west wind’s counterpoint. When the breeze skipped town, things went sideways.
The smell of salt faded; the town slicked over in the hot air blowing in from the land. Fat, black vampire flies crept in tiny holes in the screens of old houses, descended on the sweet, sticky vacationers at the water’s edge. The west wind pushed out the warm water too, leaving the surf so ice cold you could only stand it for seconds. Even the yellow-eyed swarms of gulls grew weary.
When that west wind thwarted seaside serenity, the inversion was the valiant reversal. Grandmother explained it as: “a sea change, but in the air.” The east wind rolls inland and pushes the hot land air back where it belongs: inland. Grandmother said prayers for it. Out loud. She talked about the inversion like it was a victory of good over evil. Hallelujah she’d mutter the instant that fresh ocean breeze touched her porch. That’s how I still picture her to this day. That porch. Her white rocker. A waving bamboo fan. In a movie, my grandmother would be played by Meryl Streep. That’s not original, but it’s the only way it could be. I had a lot of time to think about these things that summer.
The bakery was halfway across town on Main Avenue nestled next to the handful of commercial life the town had to offer. Tile floors, warped glass windows, buttercream walls. The whole place orbited around Cyrus, the head pastry chef and man of the house. Bald, compact and tan, his smile reminded me of an illustrated man in the moon. There was an undeniable brightness to him. I felt myself unclenching the first day on the job. For once, I could occupy the same space as someone else and not feel like a fish out of water.
Our shifts together would race. I’d follow him like a puppy across the floor of the bakery, hoping to learn and reproduce whatever it was that made him so electric.
“Here she is! Bea Arthur. She thinks she’s about to set foot in the Winn Dixie. My line is ready: ‘No, ma’am. I’m sorry but you can’t get your milk and produce here.’” He’d pipe icing with grace over four rows of cookies. He’d nurse my thumb burns from oven snafus and distract me with stories of defeating southern belles at county fair pie contests. Eventually he became so hated in Louisa County that he had to stop competing there.
“Heads up,” Cyrus called to me in the back. “Tori Spelling Society at twelve o’clock,” referring to a notorious group of semi-regulars. Three girls my age. Sunburnt sylphs who’d slouch into the bakery every week or so and split a single jelly donut amongst themselves. All snake eyes and smirks. Spiky hip bones and razor-thin eyebrows. “Probably their sustenance for the whole day,” I sneered. Cyrus would wait on them in my place. He’d flash them his Cheshire Cat grin. He knew I was terrified.
The owner showed up every other week. Cyrus charmed the smartly dressed “sweet old square” without fail. The place was always spotless when the owner happened to arrive, as if Cyrus had a crystal ball and knew when he’d drop in. An inexplicable trust trafficked between them, I can tell that now more than I could then.
“The first thing to learn about work is how to work the management,” Cyrus told me on the afternoon the west wind arrived. We were sharing a malformed cookie. He paused to extract a carton of buttermilk from the commercial fridge and poured us each a shot.
“Life,” Cyrus said, smacking his lips “is knowing what you can get away with.”
“In that case, be my management for life?” I asked him then, flashing my naivety like a playing card.
He grinned, a high-watt one, then scrunched his nose. “Jesus, kid. Nobody wants a boss.” I picked at the counter.
“If you’re good, by the end of summer I’ll teach you how to do the night audit.”
I remember being filthy. Working the oven my sweat beaded, cooled and dried in cycles. Cyrus called it “baked stink.” There was something wonderful about it. That’s how I was the day the west wind set in. On the way home from the bakery, I felt a hot wind hit my dirty neck. My mind lingered behind me. It followed Cyrus home like a bold little stray. I wondered what the inside of his house was like. What he made for dinner, how he handled this heat, if he ever sipped buttermilk outside work. A warm bubble rose inside my chest. That summer, I had a friend.
I kept my aquamarine TYR bathing suit on a hook by the back door of my grandmother’s. A rear door that was the servant’s entrance back when Wilson or someone like that was president. I shed my exoskeleton bakery clothes for the TYR and dashed down to the water.
Harsh, cold and green, the waves stung my face. I wasn’t a very good swimmer, but I was young and stupid and a bit of rough surf didn’t scare me the way a lot of other things did.
A small girl on the beach stood and watched me, her lower lip pushed out, her bathing suit covered in white dotted flowers. The waves were quick, one right after the other. The girl watched me keep up. I tread water, leapt and dunked, my legs and mind churning at different paces. Something was happening. I knew it, but couldn’t name it. It was happening to me, in particular, but then it felt like it was just happening all around me. Something dogged. Something drumming.
The girl in the flowered suit saw me watching her too and she retreated, stumpy legs swinging up the beach.
At the sound of my alarm at 4:30 the next morning, my grandmother called through the door. The AC had stopped working. My parents made her install one a couple of years ago when she started taking blood thinners. It’s okay, I told her through the door. I’m getting used to it.
At work, Cyrus brought up the inversion. He took it seriously and so did I. We wringed our hands like the olds. Cyrus asked if the wind was waiting for a written invitation.
We worked the front together, slinging iced coffee and paper bags of donuts until the blinding morning became steamy afternoon. “The last thing anyone needs in this heat is a wad of shortening and sugar in the guts,” he said when the rush finally subsided.
While I wiped down the counter, a man in athletic clothes and small black sunglasses came in carrying a clear plastic pitcher. He was there for Cyrus, who emerged from the back, beaming and wiping his hands on his apron. The two of them chatted in elevated whispers. They snickered and shook their heads at each other. Then the man left, giving Cyrus the pitcher. I watched a wisp of something pass over his face while they spoke. Something I didn’t fully recognize.
“Basil lemonade,” he alerted me, pointing a sharp finger at the pitcher. “You have to try this. So delicious it’ll make you forget we’re living in the eye of the sun.”
“How do you know him?” I asked, gesturing out the door. The sour yet grassy lemonade tasted like a brilliant idea.
“Oh, Jack.” Cyrus said casually. “We know each other from around.” I held on. He scanned me once.
“I know him from Providence.”
“Rhode Island?!?” I tried to imagine Cyrus in boat shoes and seersucker. It wasn’t farfetched.
“No,” he said, Cheshire-catting. “It’s a place near here. Seriously. No kidding? You never heard of it? It’s a… ya know.” He shrugged. “It’s a club.”
Cyrus poured me more lemonade, a little fidgety. “It’s just a place where you can be yourself.” He thought for a second. “Where people like us can be ourselves.” People like us. My mind fumbled. I had no picture, no point of reference.
“You’re sure nobody ever told you about Providence?” he asked me again. Cyrus knew my dad grew up around here, knew how warm and fuzzy my grandmother was toward anything left of center. “They’ve tried to shut us down like four times at least,” an edge and then a weariness to his voice. I couldn’t think of anything to say and my insides writhed. I thought about telling him I was glad it stayed open. A customer interrupted with a request for a special order.
Cyrus and I closed together. Summoning courage, I lobbed more questions about when he liked to go to Providence, if he always went with Jack or with others, where the other goers came from. Cyrus poured me another cup of basil lemonade; after three glasses it began to sting my gums raw. Cyrus was open. Patient. That wasn’t as remarkable then. Now it has me wanting to find him, to see how he made out, look up all the contests he must be winning around the state. There was a part that I still carried of me from that summer that wanted to show him what I’d grown into. But I never have, never made the effort.
“Can I check it out sometime?” I asked, dredging up the best casual tone I could. Christ, I was so very young.
“Ha!” Cyrus said. I was just thankful he didn’t clap or bring his hand down on the counter to punctuate what I’d said.
“Honey. You! You devil, you.” He said, noticing my face had fallen. He squeezed my elbow. “I don’t know about this summer. Plus you smell like baked stink.”
Black flies thudded against the walls and ceiling of the house. I splashed my face and neck instead with cold tap water. It was even too hot for the beach. Grandmother’s neighbor Lydia had a son in heating and cooling and he’d come as soon as he could to fix the busted unit. Grandmother hadn’t told my parents’ the air-conditioner was broken. I knew better than to pass it on. It was hard to tell if the heat was creeping into dangerous territory. If grandmother was scared, she didn’t show her hand. I offered to make dinner so she could rest.
“Just rummage through the fridge,” she said. She was draped in white linen giving her the look of an elegant beekeeper, and flapped a bamboo fan with a wooden handle. “We should be able to cobble something decent together.”
I felt her watching me. Grandmother was at an age where she was trying to keep up the appearance that she still prepared bougie, balanced meals, while to the trained eye, it was clear she was cutting more and more corners. Her tomato and cucumber salad, something she was known to make in batches all summer long, had a stand-in with a white deli label. The dairy that summer was prone to getting fuzzy before she noticed. I pulled out some sliced pieces of roast that were probably going on a week old.
“That’s still good,” Grandmother hollered, her bamboo fan reaching a fever pitch.
“Find the horseradish sauce, too,” she said, pointing in a vague direction. I improvised the rest of the meal as best I could. Some holey yellow cheese and wedges of deli bread.
Hoping to take the edge off the picnic-nature of dinner, I changed the tablecloth on the table and put the bread in a basket beside a pretty linen napkin.
Grandmother actually smiled when she saw my table setting, swanning over from her rocking chair and brushing my shoulder. “Not bad” she said, reaching for the bread basket, rocking me with scandal that we were skipping grace.
“I’m starving,” she said, loading up her plate.
“Me too,” my hunger had snuck up on me in the heat. The cold horseradish sauce tasted so nice and sour on the beef.
Grandmother wanted to know what my parents were up to; she just wanted to hear it from me even though she and my father talked pretty regularly—more than he and I talked to each other.
“Work stuff,” I said. “They go on a lot of bike rides together, and with that bike group,” a group biking trip through Normandy was planned for the fall. Sounds like hell, I was tempted to add. Grandmother knew about the trip, but swooned about Paris in the fall, which is like Paris in the spring only less obvious to Americans. She hummed a few bars of Edith Piaf as I got up to get a drink.
“Could you make me something cold?” she asked. My mind landed on the basil lemonade Jack made and I told her about the concept.
“I don’t know why I’ve never thought of it!” I had hoped she’d find it fancy and delightful like I did.
“Who was this who made it for you?” she had an expression I couldn’t read. Her fork rested in her hand.
Just the guy I work with, I explained. The one who runs the place. She knew I had male coworkers. Her way of selectively forgetting information, I came to understand, was a skill. She had probably even heard Cyrus’s name before, but she was trying to sniff out something else.
I tried to match her stare. My insides squirmed. Meryl Streep in her later, villain-era roles. There was a small yellow flash in her eyes. I was petrified, but didn’t know what she could be getting angry about, here, in this moment. I remembered to pour her a drink and decided ice water would suffice. As I bent over the sliding drawer freezer—which always required elbow grease—I heard the bamboo fan going again.
“You must be turning into quite the little baker. You’ll have to bake something for us when this heat dies down. Maybe something we could mail to your parents. We should impress them, don’t you think?”
Sliding the ice water across the table like a diner waitress, I said otherwise.
“Well, I’m not. I’m not getting good at it,” heat rising to my cheeks. The hand fan kept going, I felt her studying me. “They’re not teaching me how to bake. That’s not the point. Of me working there.”
She paused, relaxed a little in her perch at the table. The flash hadn’t left her eye.
“What is the point then?”
Angry now, I told her if she didn’t know she should go ask my parents. Snottily, with a snarl. Classic teenage kiss off. It felt good, bad, and then good again in a matter of seconds.
As I climbed the stairs to my room, I heard her switch on the radio. She skimmed past her evangelical AM station and I could hear voices and violins flash in and out as she scanned the channels.
I took a cold shower and dabbed Clearasil on my face. It was 9pm and I had nothing more to do. Hot air shifted in and out of the windowsills and I climbed into bed without anything on, my skin still cool. My thoughts turned to the bakery. To Cyrus. To Jack and Cyrus, laughing conspiratorially. Then to Providence. I slid my hands to the cool part of the pillow. Scenes appeared in a thin vapor. Splintering neon lights and a thrumming bass over a tide of bodies in shadow. People impossible to identify. All of it was right there, I could hear it, I could feel the noise, began to have the sensation that I was weightless until everything started moving farther and farther, just out of my reach.
I wake just before my alarm goes off. Everything touching me is soaked with sweat. The air is thick and feels almost dusty. Dried acne paste has made its way down my face to my neck. Still, it was the coolest I’d felt in days. I dress for work in my white apron and jeans.
I’m ravenous when I get to the bakery. I check the back for Cyrus and find Noreen instead. My heart sinks; Cyrus is off today. Noreen, a semi-retired pastry chef from two towns over, covers his monthly off days. We have a limited rapport, but I manage to get a few donuts out of her while we share gripes about the west wind and heat.
A petite, well-dressed woman comes into the bakery and for brief, horrible moment, I think she’s the mother of a girl I go to school with. One of the vindictive ones, those golden-hued rumor-starters. The woman looks around the bakery like she’s looking for black mold or rodents. When she gets to the the counter, I see it isn’t her; it’s just another woman with an expensive haircut and a wisp of malice around the mouth. I relax as she leaves with her iced coffee, but when it’s too quiet again I count the precious number of days left before the new semester.
Around noon, Noreen says there’s a call for me. My grandmother. I take the call despite the way I feel about her right now. Lydia’s son is coming over now and needs some kind of air filter cleaner I can get at the hardware store. ASAP, let’s not waste the nice man’s time. She clearly has yesterday fresh in her mind, too. Noreen insists I take the rest day off. Way too hot for sweets, she says.
The hardware store, like every other business in town, is just steps from the bakery. The interior of Deuce’s Hardware felt like descending into a relative’s neglected basement. It was dusty, poorly lit and disorganized except for one glowing paint display near the front of the store. You could tell the paint company had mandated its appearance, the lush spread was non-negotiable, a package deal.
I circled the store looking for the obscure cleaning product. Four aisles up and down quickly, then combing slowly backward step by step.
Someone approached a shopper at the paint display. It was her voice, in my memory, that grabbed me. The store assistant. Taking her in, I wondered if she was some kind of veteran, though she was undoubtedly too young. Without clear reason, she looked like she could fly a plane. A big one. Her thin gray shirt had no sleeves and it just touched the top of her heavy black pants. What would my grandmother call them? Dungarees. There was bearing in her stance and a weight in her voice. Her wide hands spread the color swatches for the customer in a way that made me lose my breath. Everything about that shop assistant was so right that it made me feel ridiculous. Idiotic. It made me want to learn to fly a plane. That instant.
A man came around from the next aisle. He wore a white polo and had coin-shaped black sunglasses resting on his forehead. After one and a half seconds I recognized him. It was Jack, Cyrus’s friend. He saw me, saw it all, whatever it was. His face was placid. Cradled in his arms, a shopping basket filled with brown twine. I looked away.
My body, circulating emergency electricity, screamed at me to bolt. I left the filter cleaner on the shelf; I remember thinking: I got out of there alive. Walking up Main, heading for the ocean, I passed rows of gingerbread houses with undulating flags and noticed that they were pointing east. No doubt my grandmother was perched near her open window and muttering some variation of hallelujah into the breeze.
Me, I didn’t care one way or the other about heat, the direction of the wind, the state of my grandmother’s air conditioner, the school year ahead. I would spend the rest of that summer thinking about heaven.
Charlotte Hammond is a writer living in New Jersey with her husband and one-eyed cat. Her work has appeared in Tulpa, The Same and the Capra Review.