“I wish I could go back to a summertime,
I knew more than twenty years ago.
Lay between the sheets,
Lie underneath the maple tree.”
—Everclear, ‘Fire Maple Song,’ World of Noise (1993)
I have known Aimee for almost my whole life, even though she didn’t move to Drury until we were in junior high. When we were kids, she would come to visit her grandmother, Dorothy. Dorothy was the organist at our church, and she lived in an old farm house a quarter mile from my childhood home. When I was little, Dorothy taught my mother to play the piano, and they had always seemed to have a special bond. She would take Tommy and me over to her house every Sunday to eat lunch. After lunch, we’d go outside and play while Mom practiced her old piano skills with Dorothy.
In the summers, Aimee would come to visit, and she would join us as we explored the ancient farm. It all seemed so exotic to us, an old, decrepit barn and several rusting vehicles littered the property. We would play hide and seek and tag, running in and out of the barn and a few old grain silos for hours.
I don’t know what I believe in when it comes to love. I don’t know if it is something that is fostered and grown, like a house plant, or if it’s more concrete than that, a physical force that exists, like gravity or air pressure. It seems to me that either definition is possible.
When I look back at Aimee, I could define it either way. I could say that those early years, when we were six or seven years old, somehow planted a seed that didn’t blossom until we were older. Or, I could argue that the love was always there, like a magnetic attraction. A force that we were just unable to understand until we were much older.
Whatever it was, I can honestly say that I remember almost every summer afternoon that we spent together. The summer I turned eight, Tommy got the chicken pox and had to stay home. Aimee and I went without him down to the creek and wound up stripping down to our underwear and wading into the water. Even then, when I had no capacity to understand the connection between boys and girls, I found the whole thing thrilling. Whatever was going on, I knew that we were breaking some kind of rule, and it was exhilarating.
The following summer was the last time she came to visit. Dorothy was getting old and frail, and she would die of complications from emphysema that winter. I remember sitting on the front porch one hot summer morning while Dorothy told us old river legends and Indian stories. She told us about the boy who married the water spirit and lives eternally in the current, and she told us the Sauk myth about the stag and the valley winds.
We listened, enthralled by the old stories and the ancient legends.
Just before we went in for lunch, she pointed to a large red maple tree in the front yard. She said that every fall, the leaves changed to a dull red, but that every five years, the maple tree turns to fire, the leaves turning deep, vibrant shades of red and orange, like blood and fire.
“It’s a reminder to us from God,” she said. “Just like a rainbow.” She had slow, drawn-out speaking voice that could lull you to sleep. “There’s reminders like that everywhere. The bond of his covenant.”
I’ve always wished I could have a faith like Dorothy’s. My mother had that same kind of faith. A faith that could move mountains. Solemn pride and all that.
Aimee had that faith, too. She never lectured me or preached, but she always had a way of guiding me, leading me towards truth and understanding. She probably came by it naturally, passed down genetically from Dorothy to her mother to Aimee.
Unfortunately, I seemed to get a lot of my genes from my father. While Tommy had my mother’s faith and self-assurance, I inherited my father’s uncertainty and paranoia. I know it’s all too simplistic to call our personalities genetic, but there’s no denying that Tommy took after our mother, and I took after him, and every single time someone reminded me of that, I wanted to burn them to the ground.
There was no doubt that Aimee inherited the best qualities of her family. She spoke with a calm, tender voice, and she never had trouble viewing the big picture. I know that her stability is part of what made me fall in love with her. From the earliest of ages, I felt drawn to her warm, calm center like a bug flickering at a spotlight.
A few years after Dorothy’s death, her mother and father separated, and Aimee’s mother moved them back into Dorothy’s house. Though the house was ancient, it had a strong foundation, and within a few years, Aimee’s mother had it looking very nice.
The summer after our freshman year of high school, I went on a canoe trip with David, Mark, and a handful of other boys from school. We camped out for the night, and then in the morning, the canoe company would pick us up at the camp and drive us a few miles upriver.
I’m sure all of our parents realized that we were packing coolers of beer for the trip, but I doubt they realized that we had invited a group of girls along for the ride as well. A few of the guys in the group were eighteen and had set the whole thing up. We felt like Pinocchio visiting Toyland. None of us could believe that we had pulled the whole thing off.
By ten thirty that night, the pairing off and tent switching had begun. Mark and David had already shacked up with girls, and I was sitting on a picnic table near the camp fire. Aimee had known me for long enough to know that I wouldn’t have the nerve to make any kind of move, so she came to me, sitting next to me by the fire and resting her head on my shoulder.
That night, we fooled around a bit like the young and inexperienced kids that we were, and then we fell asleep together, nestled together like spoons on an air mattress. Even now, I remember the smell of her hair, light and citrusy, like the peel of a grapefruit.
The next day, when it came time to pair off for the trip down river, Aimee and I sat together in a canoe. We flowed down the river at a snail’s pace, drifting a ways behind the main group. We drank ice-cold Coors Lights as we followed the group from sandbar to sandbar, the whole lot of us sitting in the chilly waters and slinging back beers.
At one point, Mark brought me over a smoke. I gave Aimee a drag, but she choked and turned green almost immediately. When I couldn’t help but laugh, she slapped my knee and turned away with a violent shrug. For a moment, I was afraid I’d really made her mad, but then she turned back to me and splashed my chest with the cold water, a sly smile perched on her lips.
About a half-mile from the campsite, the water deepened, and the surface current slowed to a crawl. While the rest of the group paddled hard to return to the campsite, we lay back in the canoe and drifted in the slow water. I was sitting in the back, my head resting on the back point of the canoe, and she leaned back and laid her head against my knee. I could feel the cold water from her hair dripping down onto my ankle. Until that moment, I’m not sure that I had ever known complete and total calm.
When we got back to the main beach, we still had about a half mile to walk to get back to the campsite. The others had rushed back in a hurry to refill their coolers and keep drinking, but we were content to enjoy the cooling dusk. We were both floating from the buzz of a half dozen beers apiece, and neither one of us was in any particular hurry to rejoin the chaos of the campsite.
I remember walking along the gravel road, a bit loopy from the booze, and holding her hand, our fingers intertwined. Eventually, we walked face first into a cloud of cluster flies, each of us stumbling forward as we coughed up a half-swallowed gnat or two.
Most of all, I remember her laugh as we walked on. It was a laugh that was loud and strong, and completely unreserved. Later that night, as I watched her bounce around the party at the campfire, Mark came and set next to me. “You can’t let her go,” he said. I looked up at him, a little surprised by the comment. “A girl that laughs like that? That’s something to hold onto.”
I nodded and held my beer bottle up. He reached across and instead of clinking bottles with me, he slammed the bottom of his bottle on top of mine, causing my beer to foam up and start shooting out the top of my bottle. I threw the foaming bottle up into my mouth, sucking foam down into my lungs in the process.
As I choked and coughed up fire, I looked up and saw Aimee, pointing at me and laughing again.
That loud, confident laugh.
Looking back, I know that I loved her from that very moment. Even though we hadn’t really started dating. Even though we were only fifteen. I loved her. Not a childish, stupid infatuation, but a real and deep connection.
By the time Tommy was diagnosed a year later, we were inseparable. I’m not sure that I would have been able to make it through any of that had it not been for her. She had been with us for most of our country cruises, listened to the music with us for hours on end. Tommy was as much her little brother as he was mine by that time, but she managed the whole thing with grace and understanding.
Tommy did, too for that matter. He approached death with dignity. They say everyone goes through the stages of grief, but if Tommy went through those stages, I never saw that. He accepted it all from the very beginning, embracing the end to his short life with complete integrity.
I didn’t understand their serenity at all. I was angry and bitter and ready to fight. I felt consumed by nothing short of rage. When the inevitability of Tommy’s disease was complete, when the cancer had sucked him down to his last breath, I honestly felt like I might just be consumed by the anger, as if I’d burst into flames or spontaneously shatter into a thousand points of light.
It was Aimee that kept me together.
I don’t really remember anything she said, but I remember the sound of her voice. The calm, the ease. The word faith has always sounded empty coming from other people, like a parlor trick or a cliché, but when she said it I believed. It made sense.
I remember one night sitting out back of Mark’s house. Everyone else was inside, and it was the middle of the night, maybe 12:30 or 1 o’clock in the morning. The house Mark grew up in sat right next to the park on the West side of town, and the water tower sits right in the middle of the park. I sat there with Aimee staring up at the water tower, and in that moment everything seemed completely fine, as if we were all following the right path.
I remember the moon shining, reflecting an impossibly blue light off the side of the water tower that bathed the back yard of the house in an eerie, iridescent glow. We sat together that night and talked about our plans for the future. We were both going to college. She was going to stay home and go the community college route, but I was heading off to either Whitehaven or River Valley College. Though they had both offered scholarships, Whitehaven had offered a full ride. At the same time River Valley was less than a half-hour away.
Sitting with her there in the glow of that blue light, I made up my mind to attend River Valley. I would stay close to home, close to Aimee. I reasoned that they were both good schools, and that I was going to get a good education either way.
When I told her, she protested at first. “No,” she said. “Whitehaven is offering you more money, you can’t pass that up just to stay close to home…”
As she was talking, I leaned forward and kissed her. When she opened her eyes, that smile had returned. The same smile I saw standing outside of Sav-More. The same smile she gave me when we were eight years old and swimming in the creek. She didn’t have to say anything else. Her smile told me everything I needed to know.
Three days later, my mother lost control of her car and drove off the side of Baird’s Bluff. It was the definition of an accident. She wasn’t driving overly fast, the conditions weren’t bad. She just lost control and sailed through the guardrail. Based on the skid marks, the police said that she likely swerved to avoid something in the road, a deer or some other animal might have wandered onto the highway. An act of nature. Wrong place, wrong time.
I had heard that logic before. The it-just-happens line of bullshit. God has a plan, they’d say. Just have faith.
Aimee’s faith might have been enough to support us both through Tommy’s death, but no amount of faith in the world could have carried me through my mother’s death, too. Without Tommy, and without her, all I was left with was my father. What kind of fucked up fate would subject me to that? In what universe did I deserve that? Where was the fucking deer when he was driving home at 3 o’clock in the morning, half lit and cutting up a line of coke on the console?
After that, things were different with Aimee. For some reason, I think I blamed her on some level. I think I was angry for buying into her faith. My mother had tried for years to get me to see the light, but I always rebelled against it. With Aimee, though, it all started to make sense. I wouldn’t say that I was buying in completely, but I was getting there. And then it happened again. Sudden, violent death.
At least with Tommy, I had a few months to prepare myself. With my mother, all I got was a knock on the front door, a square-faced state trooper, holding his hat in his hands.
It happened a few months before graduation, so I went ahead and moved in with David’s family to finish out the year. David did his best to keep things normal, and Aimee kept coming around each day, but it didn’t matter. I could feel myself pulling away from her more and more each day.
Just before graduation, I broke the news. “I’m going to Whitehaven.” I said it directly, a simple statement of fact, void of debate or discussion. She began to cry almost immediately, but I set my jaw firm. I had prepared for that. “I have to get away,” I said. “I just can’t…”
“It’s not that,” she said. We were driving out on the old frontage road, on the opposite side of the river. Fat drops of rain were falling from a dark grey-sky, smacking against the windshield and making it hard to even hear. “I want you to go where you want, but I want you to look at me and tell me you’re coming back.”
“For christsakes, Aimee, I’m coming back, I…”
“No!” she slammed her hand down on the dash and pointed a finger in my face. “Look at me and tell me, look me in the face, and tell me you’re coming back.”
I kept driving, staring through the raindrops at the highway stretching out before me. I wanted to look at her. I owed her that. With all that she had helped me through, it wasn’t much to ask, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t promise that I’d come back because I knew, even then, that it wasn’t true. I was going to leave Drury and Culver County behind, and I wasn’t ever planning on looking back.
So, I kept my eyes on the road. I refused to look.
That was the decision that effectively ended it between us, and I’m not sure I’ve made a single decision since that day that’s made my life any better. The last time life made sense, I was sitting in the blue moonlight beneath that water tower. All of my choices since that day have turned to shit.
And now I’m back. Heading towards a meeting that can only be another example of a shitty life choice, hoping that one fucked up choice will cancel out another. If I had talked to Aimee, she might have been able to direct me to a different path, but I couldn’t have risked that. I can’t stand the thought of putting her in danger.
So I keep my eyes on the highway ahead, and push the gas pedal to the floor.