Summer 1982

One more time.  Summer 1982. The weather in Pittsburgh is unbearably hot.  Two weeks of high temperatures and high humidity.  Nights not much better than the days.  Nights too hot for sleeping, days sapping what’s left of the strength the sleepless nights don’t replenish.  You get sopping wet climbing in or out of a car.  Especially if your car’s little and not air-conditioned, like my mother’s Chevette.  Nobody remembers the last time they felt a cool breeze, nobody remembers pulling on clothes and not sweating through them in five minutes.  “Unbearable” is my mother’s word.  She uses it often but never lightly.  In her language it means the heat is something you can’t escape.  The sticky heat’s a burden you wake up to every morning and carry till you’re too exhausted to toss and turn anymore in your wet sheets.  Unbearable doesn’t mean a weight that gets things over with, that crushes you one and for all, but a burden that exerts relentless pressure.  Whether you’re lifting a bag of groceries from a shopping cart into the furnace your car becomes after sitting closed for twenty minutes in the Giant Eagle parking lot, or celebrating the birth of a new baby in the family, the heat is there.  A burden touching, flawing everything.  Unbearable is not that which can’t be borne, but what must be endured forever.

Of course the July dog days can’t last forever.  Sooner or later they’ll end.  Abruptly.  Swept away by one of those violent lightning-and-thunder storms peculiar to Pittsburgh summers.  The kind signaled by a sudden disappearance of air, air sucked away so quickly you feel you’re falling.  Then nothing.  A vast emptiness rubbing your skin.  The air’s gone.  You’re in a vacuum, a calm, still, vacated space waiting for the storm to rush in.  You know the weather must turn, but part of the discomfort of being in the grip of a heat wave or any grave trouble is the fear that maybe it won’t end.  Maybe things will stay as miserable as they are.

-from Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.

storm clouds over homestead smokestacks

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