Dead Pan

 
 

Two days before summer, a group of us take a pontoon out on the lake and float around for awhile. We listen to Mac Demarco's album Salad Days and eat melon chunks. I cover my lips in zinc. I worry about sun blisters. I sit there drinking whisky out of a clear plastic cup, my lips white as soap. After two hours Katie says, "Ok," and goes over the side. Later that night Graham gets a heat migraine and can't sleep. I don't own sunglasses so my eyes burn. They're red for three days. We eat a catfish dinner at a restaurant on the lake called Big Daddies. Chris says, "I hope they didn't catch these fish here." Ceiling fans push fishy air around. J gets up and leaves. Later we sit in the car with our foreheads pressed against the air vents, our sweat turning to salt on our skin.

In 1919, a flood of molten molasses spilled out of a giant molasses tank and flooded the city of Boston, trapping people in their basements and caramelizing them alive. I think of Texas summers this same way, except instead of a 25-foot wave of boiling syrup moving at 35 miles an hour through a densely populated area, it just gets very very hot here. A 1975 Texas Monthly article, The Hottest Place in the Whole U.S.A, reported: "Forget about Death Valley, Arizona, Nevada, Floridanone of them measures up. Texas alone has the right to be known as Number One, the worst. This distinction has not been established merely by consensus or legend, but by scientific investigation." So they looked into it, I guess, and it didn't look good. Still though. We’re here.

The city smells bad in the summer. We sweat toxins into the air. The air becomes toxic. I keep my mouth shut. The train smells like diarrhea. Nobody says anything about it. We sit there with sweat burning in our eyes and big, dumb smiles on our faces. This is how they will find us, encased in sugar.

Hot places are friendlier than cold places. Warm cultures vs. cold cultures. The heat softens us up. Texas is legendary for its hospitality. We have "Hi-How-Are-Ya" smiles. I honk gently when the driver doesn't see the green light. Another way to say that a person is friendly is to say that they are warm. But we all have our limits. At some point we'll start killing each other. The murder rate is known to rise with the temperature. Don't forget: we're all packing here. Camus' Meursault blamed his homicidal outburst on the sun. A hot head. But he also didn't cry at his mother's funeral so what are we supposed to believe? Temper comes from the word temperature. We try not to lose our cool.

The first day of summer is on a Monday and, hello there, I'm hung over. The skin on my elbows is peeling off so I wear a long sleeve shirt. Outside my apartment, I see the silhouette of a rat flash-burned into the curb like the nuclear shadows in Hiroshima. At some point today it will be 97 degrees. I read an article that said more people are going to die this summer than normal. Old men pass out inside their trailer homes. It's very sad to think about. I walk in the shadows to the train station and then wait in the shadows for the train. A woman hands me a pamphlet. She says that God loves me. I point to my headphones and shake my head. The trains are air conditioned but they can't keep up at rush hour. Each body puts off the heat of a hundred-watt light bulb. My shirt is damp before I get to work. This will be the longest day of the year but then the days will start getting shorter again.

In the summer we have less options for lunch. We won't walk past Main St. On the plus side, we're learning to appreciate what's been right in front of us all along. JusMex Mexican diner. The Mad Hatter cafe. Subway. Sometimes we don't eat at all. The heat saps our appetite. When I come back from the bathroom I find Elizabeth with her head in the freezer, eating a blue-flavored Otter Pop.

A partial list of Texas summer clichés:

  •  "It's hot enough you could fry an egg on the sidewalk."
  •  "It's not the heat, it's the humidity."
  • "Why would anyone build a city where it gets this hot? I'd've kept heading for California."
  •  [tbd]
  • [tbd]

The weather man points to a heat map of Texas. The state looks engulfed in flames.

It's my birthday on Friday. I'm turning 29. My boss says the only reason I'm allowed to leave my job is to go be a successful sitcom writer in Los Angeles. Why did I settle in Texas when I could have kept on for the coast? These are the questions I ask myself when my dress shirt is sticking to my skin. The woman at the Budget rental car counter said that my June birthday explained my sense of malaise. I didn't know it was so obvious. She was holding my driver's license, her fake fingernails clicking against her keyboard. We were here for Kyle's wedding. I was born in the summer, a child of sluggishness and sloth. Saturn is coming around the horn. Sometimes I can barely move my arms.

I'm trying to be a nicer person but it's hard when the whole city is running a temperature. Yesterday a bank sign read 187 degrees.

My wife, J, says they're predicting 100% humidity this weekend. I say, "Isn't that called rain?"

Breaking: A group of vigilante teenagers roams Dallas with baseball bats looking to free dogs from parked cars. Snow cone business is booming. The most popular flavor this year is Cruzberry Cream. Meanwhile the Dallas county health department has reported this year's first heat-related death. A 55-year-old man. They don't say that he passed out in his trailer home but I can read between the lines.

It's Wednesday but everyone agrees it should be Thursday. I'm not convinced time moves at an even pace. J and I flew to California for Kyle's wedding. I was a groomsman, which doesn't happen often. I lose touch with people. We rented a Volkswagen and drove into the hills. Everyone was five years older than I remembered. It’s showing around the eyes. People told me what they were doing for a living and they're all freelance graphic designers. It was 72 degrees and getting colder. We put on jackets. A drunk bridesmaid asked me why I was sad so I told her why. When we got back to Dallas my glasses went foggy and my lips turned into blisters.

Yesterday I asked Elizabeth to help me complete my list of summer clichés but instead she sent me a picture of chocolate chip cookies baking on a Toyota's dashboard. The caption read: "Meanwhile, in the South..."

At lunch we saw a group of kids beat someone up. They were 10 stories below, on the train platform. One of them was holding a hammer. I called the police but by the time they got there the kids had dispersed back into the city. The cops stood there for a second and then shrugged. It was 98 degrees outside and the air conditioner in our office was on the fritz.

A billboard for AC repair reads, "Don't Lose Your Cool This Summer, Dallas," but as far as I can tell nobody's making any promises.

A billboard for AC installation reads, "Your wife is hot." The alternative, I suppose, being that your wife is frigid. There is a sexuality to temperature. In this case, the hotter the better.

J goes out of town with two lesbians and I buy a cheap bottle of whisky and drink the whole thing. I have this trick where I drink and drink and drink and drink. Later I think about deactivating my Twitter account. I have the temper, temperament and temperature of a mountain hermit. I'm not planning on being funny.

The heat opens up our skin. Our pores are gaping. We've gone permeable. Things can pass right through. Last week a teenager in Ohio died from an amoeba he picked up while swimming in a lake. It went to his brain. I have a strict policy about washing my hands.

Every year your death would be a little less tragic. At what point do people start jogging? It’s almost my birthday and the earth keeps tilting toward the sun. The stars are always aligning in one way or another.

The police report claimed that after the Dallas-area dad left his six-month-old daughter in the broiling-hot car all day he tried to cool her off by putting her in the refrigerator. Victims of heat stroke have described the experience as euphoric. I once passed out on a basketball court. When I came to I was staring up at the sky. It was the pale blue color of a sucked-dry snow cone. My dad was carrying me into the shade.

I wake up early on my 29th birthday and say my little prayer, what I've read is the only prayer: "Please, God, have mercy on me." J pulls me over to her side of the bed. The blinds start to glow. 

The sculptures are melting at the Nasher sculpture museum. Sunlight is bouncing off the high-rise luxury apartments and down into the garden. The art is getting sticky. It's a big problem but what can you do. At work they gave me a two-gallon vat of mayonnaise. An inside joke. Mayonnaise as malaise. On the lid they wrote: "Mayo Birthday Wishes Come True!" I am very fond of everyone. Tommy buys us lunch while the UK votes to exit the European Union and 40 people are hospitalized at a Tony Robbins event after trying to walk across hot coals. It's almost time for us to stop believing in ourselves but that might just be the mayonnaise talking. Hours after the historic vote, Google reports a surge of searches coming from the UK: "What is the European Union?"

At my birthday dinner my mom shows me a picture of myself from ten years ago. I forgot that I used to have a tan. When we leave the restaurant it's a bearable 137 degrees. The whole city is wearing flip flops. They pop like fire crackers. A brief round of applause. It's almost the fourth of July. I am working on a 40-minute deadpan monologue of all my favorite news stories. I hold my iPhone and read the summaries off Google news. At the end I say: "Well, you get the gist." If I'm not sure they get the gist I say: "Well do ya?"

The second case of flesh eating bacteria has been reported from the Texas gulf. We have to be very careful where we swim. Inspired by the UK, Texas is considering leaving the United States. A move they're calling "Texit." You know what they say. If you can take the heat, get out of the union. We’ve survived worse summers than this one. We have thick skin and thin blood. It’s not the heat that bothers us, it’s the humility.   

The train lurches and I re-crack a rib trying to keep myself on my feet. John says that getting old means your knees hurt. I can't remember the last time I ran flat out as fast as I can, but I've been breaking a sweat every day just crossing the street. After writing that last sentence I got up and ran two miles. Later I finished a bottle of whisky. I have my ups and downs. I would like to stop reading this book about cigars but I've gotten this far. I dreamt last night that someone I respect was disappointed in me. My skin is falling off but I haven't gone swimming in four years. When people look at me on the train I know what they’re thinking. What’s eating him?

In the mornings I sit in Starbucks and let out a steady stream of rotten whisky farts and watch everyone's faces stay exactly the same as they were before. I read a news story about an airline passenger whose farts were so unbearable they had to land the plane. A stewardess described it as an "act of terror."

J says the reason I'm not further in life is because I don't stick with things. I ask if she thinks I should rejoin my ultimate frisbee league. I say: "At some point we quit everything except the one or two things that, for whatever reason, end up mattering to us." She tells me to be careful. I might accidentally quit those things too.

I would like to make some progress on my monologue but it's hard when the average temperature is hot enough to slow cook a stew. I would like to complete my list of clichés. Ben says every good thing should come as a pleasant surprise. I'm trying to keep my expectations tempered.

I went running yesterday for the second day in a row. I didn't drink any whisky although I did drink some beer. I finished my cigar book and then I emptied out the dishwasher. Small acts of survival are the hardest. Just keeping up with things. Making appointments, etc. In the morning I check the news. A mom in Texas shot her two daughters. They were arguing in the street where the concrete can reach 158 degrees, the exact temperature an egg begins to fry. Meanwhile, in the South. It's getting hotter but this can't go on forever. J and I breathe directly from our AC vents like SCUBA respirators. We are losing one minute of daylight every day and I am making my 30th lap around the sun at sixty-six thousand miles per hour, flat out.



Mike Nagel's writing has appeared in The Awl, Hobart, Salt Hill, and The Paris Review Daily.