“I am a spirit of no common rate,
the summer still doth tend upon my state
–A Midsummer Night’s Dream
In the summer there were ghosts in the deep shaded lanes between the trees, that swam in the swimming air, in the delectable grace and case of the land.
The ghost of Elvis came in August and he was always, of course, blue. August is a blue month–red-blue of the carnal sunset slash across the dusk, new-mown scent of sex and dirt in the grass of the vacant lot; electric blue, like the intolerably hot, perfect parking-lot sky at noon; then there was the deepest mystery in the hours after midnight when you know you shouldn’t be out and your chest is tight with fear and excitement so it hurts–that was a very dark blue.
It was 1956, and it was a different land. Paradise had only just left America, and it lingered in the summer like the arcadia of an ornate whitewashed bandstand under the dark enameled leaves in the park. Elvis was a late figure of Paradise, and, in his time, illuminated under the fireworks at night, you could see dark figures in silhouette, hair streaming as they ran along the top of the ridge, between the trees.
The suburbs and the country were connected, when I was young, and you could step through from one to another, like through a door. There was a stream, small but clear, that a connected the backyards. And though it wasn’t much of a stream, after dinner you could splash through it to the side open to cornfields and small clusters of woods. And there it was all ivory and dark green in relief when dusk made pageantry of our hiding places, like in those old hills around the Mediterranean where they ran through the dark pines at night with their god; then we sat by the water gasping and grinning wildly in warm air, sweat sticking hair to our foreheads.
In the day, the white frame houses stood in the sun. It was cool inside; in the shadows; blue flickering shadows like reflections off water, like television in a dark room, or like the spots in your eyes when you come in from the sun glare. There was certainly a ghost in that light.
All the shadows were blue in August, it was the color of the month, the height of the year. When we were closest to the sun and most in our bodies. The ghosts were then ghosts of sex and girls’ skin and hair, blond along the edges from the sun–fair, clean salt sex, damp bathing suits on the wooden floor of the cottage and the crumpled white linen, priestly and sad.
And Elvis was the ghost along the railroad tracks, and the mound of off-white stones beneath the tracks, and the row of trees along the tracks where you hid and watched.
Later, it was evening. After the movie theater. After the way the colored lights from the Coke and popcorn machines made the candy girls’ faces glow in the underwater light of the lobby.
There were signs, rumors. There was the man in the white trench coat, who waited in the empty field behind the houses. There was the large black Labrador, who everyone said they saw in the alleys, who might have been Mrs. Walker. In my dreams I would see that dog coming through the screen of my bedroom window. Someone was found tied up once, a pattern of pebbles near his head. My friend and I learned magic tricks from a book, to sustain this atmosphere. It was one of the remnants of Paradise.
And were there lights in the sky? There were lights in the sky every August. Their rumor teased the town, stories about them over lonely places discarded by industry, like the old canal or the wilderness of furnaces off I-55. There would be color supplements about them in the news magazines, cool white dots against the purple sky. They glowed like creatures of the hot night air, like the igniting of all the dreams that trembled skyward at night off those baking suburban tar-shingle rooftops, the way the air trembles and rises in summer over the interstate.
Paradise left our streets, stayed in the sky for a while, and then not even there. But even now there are ghosts in the summer, in that air and that night, and Elvis always comes back in August, when it is indescribably blue.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Will Northerner.