It’s in the summers that I miss the desert the most.
I have a memory, one of those crystal-clear childhood memories that’s so perfect and so isolated that I couldn’t tell you if I was five or fifteen, of riding in the car with my father. It’s summer, so I must be wearing shorts. He will have been, too, unless we’re on the way to work, hauling rocks out of the way to build retaining walls and shovel itchy three-quarter-minus bark around tender new plants. That would be fifteen. Maybe I was five, though, still a year or two away from my favorite dress, the one with the horses on the skirt, purchased at Goodwill. It was my favorite dress and perhaps my only dress; I wore it to school twice in one week and the girls made a circle around me and taunted me for not having other clothing. That was third grade. A lot of years, a lot of dirt, a lot of car trips.
We’re in the car, my dad and me, and we’ve got the windows open because it’s summer, because we don’t buy the kind of cars that have A/C and power windows and no mysterious rattles where the seatbelt meets the doorframe. We’ve got the windows open and I’m sticking my hand out, making little aerofoils and letting the wind push my arm up and down as we go down some two-lane highway, and my dad says, “At ninety-five degrees, Mae-mae, the wind doesn’t cool you down anymore. It just makes you hotter.” From then on, whenever that is, I’m a temperature ninja. I can tell you if it’s ninety-five, when the mercury in the bulb climbs to that magic number. I don’t tell anyone the secret.
In Portland, that’s eighty-five. In Chicago, just below eighty. Too hot, too wet. I learn what “it’s a dry heat” means. I learn to wait for the wind, and I learn to be disappointed.
In the summers, I miss the desert and the way nothing grew, the way our “lawn” of patched secondhand sod died and pulled away from the clay soil around it in chessboard chunks. Here everything grows and I wander listlessly among clover and amaranth, catchweed and chickweed and chicory, mallow and dandelion, blackberries and London rocket, tugging my mower after me.
I have to tug the mower, because the handle is a little broken and so, because the throttle is attached to the handle, pushing down on the handle chokes the engine. He’s a good mower, though, patient. He, not she, although I know it’s customary to give mechanical devices the feminine pronoun, because something about the way we interact makes me think of him as a he. Maybe it’s because of the grudging way he protests my orders, then gives in. Maybe it’s because of the way he always insists he can’t do a thing until I give in, kicking and pleading, and then he coughs and shudders to life and helps out. Maybe it’s just because I don’t want to yell at a woman, treat her as interchangeable with an inanimate object. I already feel vaguely guilty about my interactions with Siri, with how the most effective way to communicate with her, the way she is programmed to understand human interaction best, is to adopt my old boss’ most degrading speech patterns. Siri knows exactly what I want when I treat her like shit. When I treat her like a human and speak in reasonable, respectful sentences she retreats into bewildered silence and placating questions.
Siri didn’t exist and the iPhone was years in the future when I bought my mower from a friend. “It’s on its last legs,” he explained, and then ripped me off for fifty bucks. That was fifteen years ago, and the mower’s still on his last legs but still game to chew through a baby hawthorne or two, skip the prostrate knotweed and cough up a slurry when he hits real grass once in a while. The spark plug is gapped with tinfoil and I have to spray carb cleaner into the gas tank to adjust the octane, but he still gags himself to life every spring and once or twice in the winter.
There’s no good day to mow the lawn, even though I like mowing. If the weeds are dry enough to mow easily, I’m sunburned by the time I’ve half finished the postage-stamp backyard and I’ve still got both sides and the front to go. The fitful wind won’t cool me down, and I think resentfully of ninety-five, eighty-five, seventy-eight degrees, of dry heats.
If I’m not miserable, the mower is: gagging on wet grass, stuffing his craw with chunks of sod and earth scrapings where the dogs have kicked up the yard but I can’t adjust the mow height higher because the dachshund’s legs are so short. Maybe once upon a time when he was a bagging mower it would have been ok, but the bag attachment never worked right and it’s somewhere in the garage now, probably shredded by mice and rats and time.
In the desert I used to wait impatiently for fall, for the first rains and the slow greening of the hillside as new blades pushed through summer-dry hay. I miss that the most, that feeling of coolness, of coming relief after thunderstorms and fire all summer long, after ninety-five degrees and lake trips and sunburns and dirt and rocks. Here everything grows all summer long and the wind won’t cool you down and I miss the desert the most in the summer, too.