In this heat little was possible. I sat on my couch with all the windows and doors open so that the houseflies could do as they pleased. They wandered here and there. My skin was sticky, even after I went and rinsed off at the sink. Here at the beach this heat was unfathomable, though every year in August or September it returned, that humidity, the stale hovering oven heat that told us by the beach that we weren’t special like we assumed. It would come from God knows where, then crawl all the way to the coast, hardly a breeze, with me on the couch breathing like I’d just walked up a steep hill.
It would be better at dusk. I looked out my screen door again to check on the level of the sun. It worked its way down in an arrogant fashion, like a guy who had what you wanted and made you wait on purpose. It was like that – the heat – and I wanted so badly for it to be over. But evening would bring us happiness. We would fill it with a good meal, with drinks, with relaxation through light conversation and laughter. It would be a fine night.
Footsteps stomped up the stairs, and suddenly as if she’d leaped the last three steps Gale was at the warped screen door, pulling it open in a huff.
“Hank! You’ve got to come help.”
“For what?” I said.
“A boy. He’s passed out.”
“In the alley. Over by the trash cans,” she said and thumped down the stairs.
I knew it was serious because Gale hadn’t waited for a response. I slipped barefoot into my tennis shoes and instantly was regretful. I could already feel the hot moistness between my toes. I stumbled down the stairs, holding the dirty railing as I went, and it made me think of the gook on a car’s engine. The low sun was directly in my eyes, blocking my way. I managed down the steps without bothering my knees, and hurried to the alley.
“Hank!” she called after me.
When I got to them there was a boy, maybe twelve, lying on his side near a row of trashcans. His face was wet with sweat, his mid-length hair stuck to his face.
“Is he breathing?” I said.
“Yes, I checked.” Gale was kneeling at his side. She looked up at me for guidance. I shrugged for response. Then she got frenzied. “Well, c’mon Hank! What do we do?”
She stood up and we switched positions, me kneeling so that my joints popped and it was a mixture of relief and fear of the unknown. There were Gale’s eyes, searching, waiting. Then I realized. It was up to me. Gale was a sharp person, better than most I knew, but she looked to me in times of danger. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was because I was a man. Maybe it was because we were a team. I’d never thought to ask.
“Give us some space,” I said warily, touching the boy’s shoulder and turning him to me.
“Careful, his neck might be injured,” she said.
I gave her an annoyed look because she shouldn’t have thrown me in the driver’s seat if she still wanted to drive. It frazzled me and I lost my place.
“I’m being careful,” I said sternly. I let go of the boy’s shoulder and leaned in closer. “He’s breathing.”
“I know, I already checked.”
My hand felt his forehead. He was hot as hell. That was when I turned and looked up to the sky, as though in question. We were all sweating. My shirt was a peel on my torso, and when I turned it caught, so I twisted my body until it gave with a slither.
“Get on the phone. Call 9-1-1,” I said instinctively. “Wait. His eyes are open.”
“I’ll go,” Gale said as she went.
The boy moaned. Then from far down the alley there was the sound of youthful voices. I looked up and there were four boys running toward us shouting, “Dane! Dane!”
“Son, are you okay?” I said to the boy.
“Me?” he said curiously.
Now the noise of the boys’ shouting was booming, low and high voices shrieking. Suddenly, they were upon us, the boys panting and huffing with their hands on their knees.
“Is he okay?” one boy said to me.
“Is he?” another said.
“I’m not sure,” I said. They looked at me curiously, as though I were a fraud. Then I put some gusto into my voice, “He needs a doctor. My gal is on the phone calling 9-1-1. Is this your friend?”
“That’s Dane,” a third boy said.
“This happened to him once after a soccer game,” the final boy said, and his tone seemed to imply that he was desperate to be heard, not so much by me, but the other boys. “I saw it happen. But he was okay. He just got exhausted because he was so hot.” He looked at the other boys with growing confidence. “He was overheated.”
“Makes sense,” I said. Then I looked upstairs, listening for the sound of Gale. I heard nothing so I shouted, “Gale! Bring some water for the kid to drink!”
“Okay!” she answered.
Dane turned on his back and stared up at us, his eyeballs moving, though his head stayed still. And then, strangely, as if a switch had flipped, his face changed with the slightest narrowing of his eyes. His cheekbones rose so that his mouth became a smile. The boys exhaled as though Dane had pulled one over on them. They guffawed, “Dang, Dane!” and shuffled around the perimeter, returning to conversation about the game they had been playing.
“What were you kids doing outside in the heat anyhow?” I asked.
“We were playing a game. We were chasing him,” the kid who liked to talk said. “Dane’s out of bounds.” And then accusingly to Dane, “You lose.”
“Forget your damn game!” I shouted, and they snickered and looked at each other.
Gale came with the water and I sat Dane up to let him drink. He sipped tentatively at first, and then realizing it was fine, began gulping the water. When he was finished I took the glass and handed it back to Gale. The talkative boy stepped forward to inspect his friend’s condition. Dane cocked his head back and scowled at the intrusion so that the boy flinched and backed away.
“You call 9-1-1?” I said to Gale.
“They should be on their way,” she said, and then with familiarity, “You know how they are.”
I nodded then looked Dane over again.
“How do you feel?” I said.
“Okay,” Dane said.
“He’s okay,” a boy said.
I jerked my face to the four of them. I said, “This isn’t normal when a person passes out. You get that?”
They nodded silently, some shrugging.
“I wasn’t passed out,” Dane said.
“What do you mean?” I said, and then to Gale, “I thought you said he was passed out!” And then back to Dane, “You were awake the whole time?”
“I had to stop and rest.”
“Because I was tired.”
I looked at the boys and they were quiet, awaiting my response. I exhaled a heavy puff of air.
“Mister, he don’t need to go to the hospital,” a kid said. “If you want, we can take him home.”
“C’mon, Dane,” another said, “Let’s go to your house.”
“There’s Gatorade at my house,” a third boy said, and the fourth’s eyes widened with temptation.
I looked to Gale just as she had looked to me before. There was that silent exchange. I thought she might cry. What the hell was eating her?
“Stupid cops. They’ve got no business taking their candy ass time,” I said and the boys snickered again.
I got Dane to his feet and he seemed fine. Kids were a miracle. I was envious at their youthfulness. I was envious of many things that they wouldn’t understand until much later.
“Brush it off,” a kid said like they were in a baseball game.
“Yeah, Dane. You’re all right.”
“Enough with the cheerleader crap,” I said to the lot of them. “Give Dane room to walk. Now you get him on one side and you get him on the other, and you boys make sure he can walk. If he gets shaky you grab his arms and hold him up.”
I gave a last look up the alley. Then Gale walked to the street. We all waited for her to get there. She looked up and down then shook her head at me.
“Okay, now be careful. You’re sure you weren’t unconscious at all?”
“No. I was just catching my breath,” Dane said with assurance. He brushed himself off and led his pals toward the street. As they walked he said suddenly, “And I’m not out of bounds!” bursting to a sprint.
They chased after him, cackling, and were gone in an instant. Gale looked at me and shrugged. I put up my hands and did the same. She walked sideways with her eyes still hovering where they had turned and gone. So I moved toward her until we met halfway.
“I thought he’d passed out,” Gale said somewhat apologetically, walking to the spot near the trashcans where she had found Dane. She inspected it thoroughly, as though there might be some explanation waiting to be found.
“It’s kids messing around,” I said to her. “I’m sure we were the same way.”
Gale lingered there for a spell, the worry on her face eventually calming to neutrality. She came back to me and we stood face to face in the alley. A long silence passed, that mute conversation flowing through us like a short wave. And then she said, “Maybe the police are busy with the heat.”
“Hell, I’d damn near forgotten about the heat,” I said and chuckled, feeling the texture of my wilted collar.
“Such a scorcher,” Gale said and her eyes rose to the sky where an orange flame was now burning and beautiful.
I looked to the place where the kids had turned and gone out of sight. Gale followed suit, then gave a distinct sigh. We were quiet again, and this time the muted communication between us was awkward. I knew she was thinking about children.
“You think it’ll be as hot tomorrow?” I said, at a loss. Whenever we got on the subject of kids, and the fact that she couldn’t have them, I got awkward with nothing to say.
“That’s a dumb question,” she said dismissively.
When she turned to me, her eyes were listless, and I could feel her mind light years away from mine. There would be no meshing this time, so I nodded and put my hands in my pockets.
Gale made her way toward the stairs like time was of no importance. I stayed put, watching as she made her way up them.
I looked again to where the kids had disappeared, and then to the place in the alley where Dane had lain in exhaustion. I was irritated. Those kids had derailed my night.