This heat is like a fairy tale giant that’s moved in from the dark woods while the villages slept. When they closed their eyes for the night, all was cool and expectant; but when they woke the fog burned away the frost and now the crops are turning brown and there is a giant stomping on all the flowers. When they look to the sky all they see are sun devils, and when they look toward the ground sparks fly behind their eyes. They are afraid, and are thinking of their wells and their livestock.
The heat was like this, like a giant, when I worked my summers as a tour guide, during the spring, summer and fall of my high school years. The heat would make a swamp out of my skin, and sweat would pool in the crooks of my knees and elbows. I usually had several books in my backpack, tucked in safely away from the sweating cold bottle of ice water I packed each morning along with my lunch. The summer between my sophomore and junior year, I had assigned reading to complete, and the temperature (nearing a hundred and ten degrees), would make the words on the page swim and congeal and turn to illegible mush. I had been accepted into a fledgling honors history program, and we were supposed to read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (we would be studying immigration and the emergence of labor unions), and a six hundred page piece of dry nonfiction chronically the first world war.
I read The Jungle in an afternoon; work was slow and I had the luxury of compensated time. I was usually stationed near the historic trains at the park, and though the exhibits were popular, they were not at that time air conditioned. Most visitors kept to the cool indoor buildings instead, ducking in from one to another and fanning themselves when they had to be exposed to the relentless yellow sun. I practically had my end of the park to myself, and read non-stop both before and after lunch, stopping only to give tours to children who wanted to see the trains and trolleys. Most children don’t mind harsh temperatures as much as grownups do, and they happily clanged the trolley’s silver bell and sat in the engineer’s seat of the black steam engine. Their parents and grandparents mopped sweat from their foreheads, and walked slowly as though underwater.
Once the tours were complete, I sat back down to read. Since I had finished The Jungle so quickly, I tried to slog through a chapter or two the World War One book, but ended up usually only finishing a page or two a day. I started placing more interesting reading materials in my backpack before work, and a small spiral bound notebook, where I would write lists of things I liked (purple pens, striped socks, dogs and cats, babies, coffee, rain, winter). Since I was avoiding my obligation to read the nonfiction book, reading the books I had selected and writing in my journal felt like a delicious indiscretion, clandestine and sexy.
The book I most remember reading that summer (instead of the boring one), was Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, which I had snagged from my sister’s bookshelf. She had claimed she didn’t like it; she thought Robbins was a chauvinist. Since I loved to form opinions opposite of my sister’s, I started reading it immediately and with relish. I didn’t expect much out of it at first. I didn’t really expect it to form the way I thought, and read, and wrote for the rest of my life. I still read it at least once a year.
The book opens with a passage about amoebas, and since I was the sort of girl that loved science from a very non-technical and purely philosophical sort of way even at sixteen, I was immediately enraptured. Here is a sentence from that first passage,
“Well, the first amoeba may be floating on his/her back in a luxurious pool in Hollywood, California. The first amoeba may be hiding among the cattail roots and peepers in the muddy swallows of Siwash Lake. The first amoeba may have recently dripped down your leg. It’s pointless to speculate.”
During my lunch break on one of the cooler days, I took my lunch and the book to a quiet, secret spot beneath an old covered bridge that bordered the park. Lying back on the grass, using my backpack as a pillow, I looked up at the under-planks of the bridge, and the sunlight that dappled through the cracks, and read the book and wrote in my journal. It was as though something inside of my head had unlocked. Reading and writing was all I wanted to do; everything else was a cumbersome obligation.
That summer now sits in my memory as now the summer I found out about Sissy Hankshaw, The Chink, Bonanza Jellybean, and the Countess. I never finished the World War I book (when the honors class convened in the fall, it turned out that only one boy had actually finished the book, and none of the girls), but I read Cowgirls at least three times. Some of the parts I read so many times, and highlighted and underlined in blue ink so much, that when I open the old paperback copy now, the pages almost open of their own accord, falling away and presenting themselves to me as though I am unwrapping a gift.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues probably isn’t considered appropriate reading material for a sixteen year old girl on any curriculum. But oh, how it taught me everything I needed to know. Kissing, fucking, loving, reading, the Universe, civilization, the open road, travel, fear, shame, physical deformities. I remember wanting to find a church where a minister would quote the book from behind the pulpit, slamming his fist down and driving truths like this into the parishioners’ heads,
“There are many things worth living for, a few things worth dying for, and nothing worth killing for.”
“I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred. Ha Ha Ho Ho Hee Hee.”
“A book no more contains reality than a clock contains time. A book may measure so-called reality as a clock measures so-called time; a book may create an illusion of reality as a clock creates an illusion of time; a book may be real, just as a clock is real (both more real, perhaps, than those ideas to which they allude); but let’s not kid ourselves – all a clock contains is wheels and springs and all a book contains is sentences.”
“Who will sing the praises of silly and dangerous kissing?”
I liked these words (even if they were just sentences) better than anything I had heard in church about disciplesship or salvation. Salvation from what? My life seemed beautiful and open when I was sixteen, I had yet to fall victim to the cold strong tides of alcohol and the rehabilitating plague of depression that would fall onto my head when I was seventeen. Tucked into that book, with its naughty dirty sexy interludes tucked between pockets of mind blowing philosophy, I held the universe in my young body. The first amoeba was dripping down my leg and I was eternal.
What about you? Was there a book (or film, or painting, or photograph, or album) that knocked your feet out beneath you at an early age? One that you were so strongly influenced by that it still permeates through your thoughts, dog-eared and soft on your soul? I’d love to hear about it.