THE NEON SUMMER

MATTHEW MITCHELL

 

My friends and I spend our summer days at the San Fernando Valley public pool. Sitting back in the shallow end, we scope out the babes, hoping to find someone worthy of taking to The Pool Cue—the Valley’s local hot spot for making out and eating burgers. We like to tuck our swim shorts up high so the gals can see our bulges, but we do it subtly. It was Brucie’s idea. He thinks it’s like a piece of art. Look at us, we’re just a couple of Monet’s, eh, he’d say.
 
“You guys wanna go to Van Nuys and catch a flick tonight?” Brucie asks.
 
“What’s playin’?”
 
“Nothing much,” he replies. “But we could go see The Last Picture Show. Cybill Shepherd’s tits are in it and, for a couple of nickels, I think it’s a good investment.”
 
“Why do you only care about grass and tits, Brucie?” I ask.
 
“Not just any tits, Dover. I’m talking about Cybill Shepherd’s tits. The El Dorado of tits.”
 
“I can go home, close my eyes, and imagine a pair of tits all for the price of nothing,” I reply.
 
Brucie is a chunky kid, always scrunching his nose like he’s smelling something awful, and has eyes that our classmates say “could kill a man and steal a woman,” whatever that means. But, the kid does have good taste in women. I guess his parents don’t love him enough, because he’s always looking for attention. The worst part about Brucie is he never has any money.
 
“Fine, guys, we don’t have to see a movie,” he says. “But can we please smoke tonight? I’m itchin’ for a toke.”
 
“Sure, Brucie, we can smoke tonight,” I say. “But only if you’re buyin’.”
 
“Dover, come on, you know I don’t got any cash.”
 
“Then I guess you aren’t smokin’ tonight, Brucie.”
 
I look up because the girls at the opposite end of the pool are laughing, but I keep looking because of her—a beautiful babe stripping down to a striped two-piece bikini near the high-dive. Her hair falls down to her shoulders; her hourglass figure almost bursts out of the tight, cotton suit stitched to her skin. “Up On the Roof” by the Drifters blares near the Snack Shack. She twists her hips slightly to the rhythm, pulls a lollipop out of her mouth, and purses her lips. Before climbing up the ladder, she tosses her heart-shaped sunglasses onto a beach towel where her friends are standing. Once she’s at the top of the high-dive, she backs her body up against the gray sun and sprints forward before jumping off. Her cannonball into fifteen feet of water warrants a round of claps from the young boys wading and whistling in the shallow end.
 
“Wow, she’s bitchin’, boys,” Brucie whispers. “So, are we seeing Cybill or should I tell my ma I’ll be home for dinner?”
 
I walk away from Brucie and the guys and start heading towards the doll drying off near the lifeguard deck.
 
“Hey, Dover, where ya goin’?” Brucie asks.
 
“Get bent, Brucie,” I say.
 
“But, wait, there’s room enough for two,” he sings as the song speeds through its final verse. I look back and see Brucie and the rest of the guys puffin’ on some roaches as he eyes me intently. “She’s never gonna go for a chump like you, Mullins!” Brucie’s voice echoing off the chain-link fence encloses the pool. I faintly hear a piss on him, boys, let’s go get some franks paired with a cacophony of shuffling bare feet near the limp lounge chairs in the distance.
 
I manage to make my way over to the lifeguard deck where she’s patting herself dry. We make eye contact after she puts the lollipop back in her mouth, wetting the candy with a few lurches of her tongue. Before I can say anything, she beats me to it.
 
“I’m Kiwi.” Her voice catches me off guard and I start blushing. Kiwi. What a name. She’s gorgeous up close, man, let me tell you. The sun beats down on her freckled shoulders and there’s a timid gleam of sunscreen on her collarbones. The lollipop wets her lips like a glass of water. As I get close, my arms tingle. There’s a feeling of otherworldliness surrounding her. It encases her entire body.
 
“Like the fruit?”
 
“Yes, like the fruit,” she replies. “I know, it’s goofy.”
 
“No, it’s not goofy at all. It’s endearing, actually.” I hope she doesn’t catch me staring at her chest. That’d be bad. Our eyes meet, though. Those pale ones suck me in as she mouths some words, the electricity on her lips drowning them out. I hear a ya think so? flood my ears.
 
“Yeah, I really do. I’m Dover, by the way.”
 
“Well,” she says, “Thanks a bunch, Dover. You live around here?”
 
“Yeah,” I say. “Born and raised. Grandparents moved here after World War II.”
 
“I just moved in from New York,” she says.
 
“How do you like the Valley?” I ask.
 
“It could be better,” she chuckles. “I’ve always wanted to see California, but I’m taking it with a spoonful of sand.”
 
“Spoonful of sugar.”
 
“What?” she asks.
 
“The phrase is spoonful of—forget about it.”
 
“Do you know those guys over there?” She asks, pointing to Brucie and the other boys standing at the shallow end.
 
“Uh, yeah. Those are my friends. I’m sorry about the one in the middle,” I say.
 
She studies the boys, mostly Brucie, and sucks casually on her lollipop. Surveying them, she lets out a few hums. “His eyes are cute, but he’s sucking his chest in like a fool.”
 
“He’s something else,” I say. “But if he was serious, he’d be over here with me right now. It’s his loss.”
 
“So you think you’ve got a shot with me, Dover?”
 
“I think you’re boss, if that’s what you’re asking.”
 
“I dig you,” she says, smiling.
 
“I dig you, too. I saw you dancing to the Drifters earlier.”
 
“Oh, yeah, my dad loves them. They’re always playing in my house. He still thinks it’s 1963 or something.”
 
“This is gonna sound a bit out there, but, would you like to grab a burger and Coke with me?”
 
“Uh, I don’t know. I mean, I guess I could eat. I’m a little hungry,” she says hesitantly.
 
I run into the changing room as fast as I can and strip completely. I put on my clothes like the Flash and run outside without drying all the way off. Kiwi is already leaning against the fence when I run out. She’s decked out in a thin, tight sweater and her shorts cling to her skin. She’s looking at the wet streaks running down the front of my ringer tee.
 
“In a hurry?” she asks.
 
“I guess you could say that,” I say, laughing.
 
My bell-bottom jeans scrape against the concrete. The soles of my PF Flyers squish against the wet ground. We walk together towards my car—a white ‘68 Ford Mustang—that’s parked near the basketball courts.
 
Some boys in tight shorts sit on the pavement by the chain-link fence—smoking joints and hustling each other in a card game. They whistle at Kiwi as we walk by. Hey pretty lady, that’s a sweet ass you got there. Wanna smoke a joint and talk about it? Kiwi doesn’t even flinch at the boys and keeps walking. The tin walls of the adjacent bank glisten off my car; a glimmer bounces off the hood.
 
“Is that your ride?” she asks, pointing at the ‘Stang.
 
“Yep, this baby’s mine,” I say, proudly.
 
“It’s so bitchin’. How’d you afford it?”
 
“My grandpa bought it for me before he died,” I say. “He was my best friend when I was little.”
 
“That was sweet of him.”
 
“Yeah he was the best. I loved him a lot. Actually, he died three years ago to the day. I didn’t remember it until just now. He was sick.”
 
“I’m sorry, Dover.”
 
 
Grandpa had a lot of secrets. During our checker games, he’d blurt out nonsense. Everything depended on the way the sun aligned with his house—a furnished Tudor-style home overlooking a green meadow on the edge of San Fernando Valley that beckoned spirits. Grandpa called himself a dreamer many times as he was moving his wooden checker pieces across the board. He lived his life according to his dreams; a patrimony passed down to me when I was old enough. God bless the hope for a summer of neon and beaten branches he’d say every morning while buttering his toast. My parents blamed the shit he said on the war, claimed he lost his mind in Germany, warned me of the different dimension he was always stuck in. I listened to his words, even if I didn’t believe everything he said.
 
“Grandpa, what really is the summer of neon?” I asked.
 
“The summer of neon,” he said, “Will be beautiful, and the entire world will be coated in glitter.”
 
“The world won’t be gray no more?”
 
“No. The moon will flood us with pigments so vibrant that it will erupt and swelter among flames.”
 
“How will we know when it’s here?” I asked intently. “What if I’m sleeping? What if I miss it?”
 
“You’ll know, buddy,” he said. “You’ll know.”
 
We sat on the front porch where you can only see the road and a pond swans gathered at to nest. Grandpa would pour himself a cup of coffee with some dry whiskey at the bottom and I’d suck some Coca-Cola through a striped straw. We’d twist to the radio all morning and spend our afternoons listening to Dodger games outside instead of watching TV.
 
“Grandpa,” I said, “Everyone thinks you’re crazy because of the war. They think you’re going mad.”
 
“They don’t live in their dreams,” he exclaimed. “Are they the dreamers? Or are we? You tell me, buddy.”
 
We sat in silence, only humming over our moves. The mourning doves serenaded our game. Wills hits a liner into right, Vin Scully yelled through the speaker. Maury Wills had just hit a single off of Mike McCormick, but the Dodgers were still down 4-0 against the Giants.
 
“Roebuck is playing like a bum this year.”
 
“Grandpa, he’s eight and two.” I’d been following the papers. Of course, Roebuck was no Sandy Koufax, but he was doing okay.
 
“I don’t care. You can lose against other teams, but you’re a bum if you get jerked around by the Giants. I don’t give a damn about no Willie Mays.”
 
“Well, Mays has two hits today.”
 
“Quit your mouthing off and take your turn. Don’t ever disgrace the Dodgers like that.”
 
“Tell me more about the summer of neon, grandpa.”
 
“Well, I found it in the war,” he said. “There was a rip in the seam off West Germany.”
 
“A rip in the seam?”
 
“Yeah, a rip. You know, like a tear. If you looked through it, you could see a different place; a new tomorrow. Hell, you could even see colors.”
 
“Bright ones?”
 
“The brightest.”
 
He quickly downed the rest of his coffee and slammed the cup on the table, cracking it up the side. A rush of blackness filled his eyes as he stared up at the sun.
 
“And I looked in it and I saw someone and she was blonde and she wore a red bathing suit.”
 
“Blonde? Red? I don’t know what that means,” I said.
 
“Neither did I, but those were the first words that came to mind.”
 
“So, what color is the sky right now, Grandpa?”
 
“It’s gray, son,” he responded. “It’s gray like it always has been. But one day, it will be something else. I saw it in a dream. I saw our future. Don’t tell your folks. This is our little secret. Okay, buddy?”
 
“Okay, grandpa.”
 
 
Kiwi and I hop into the car and glide down to the bottom of the bucket seats. Her voice fades out and slides down the interior as I pop the keys in the ignition and turn up the stereo. You’re listening to XERB in sunny, Los Angeles, California. Next up, we’ve got an older hit to combat this August heat wave. You guessed it, here’s “Good Vibrations” by The Beach Boys. The station is coming out fuzzy. I smack the top of the dash and the signal straightens out for a moment. Kiwi leans back in her seat—her hair suffocates against the headrest—and pops on her heart-shaped sunglasses.
 
“You look like Lolita,” I say.
 
“Who?”
 
“Lolita. It’s a Kubrick movie, but it’s kind of perverted.”
 
“So, you like those kind of movies?” she asks.
 
“Oh, what? No, no, no, I just respect his craft. He’s a good filmmaker.”
 
“I’m sure he’s great.” She laughs. The sun glaring through the windshield tans her kneecaps. She hesitantly touches the arm rest before yanking her hand back.
 
I watch the sweat beads roll down her thighs. She pulls out a pack of Marlboros and beats on the bottom.
 
“Got a light?”
 
“Uh, yeah. Here.” I say, pulling a supple pack out of my pocket and handing it to her.
 
“Thanks.”
 
She sparks the match between her teeth like somethin’ you’d see at the county fair. The match engulfs the end of the cigarette in a towering flame, but only for a second. She’s studying the pack of matches as if it’s a textbook and runs her thumb over the FLAMINGO BAR logo on the flap. She takes in a belly of smoke, exhaling smoothly, and smiles. “Where are we going?”
 
“Marty’s,” I say.
 
“Marty’s?”
 
“Yeah, it’s a burger joint down in L.A.,” I reply.
 
“Never been.” The tunes go in and out as we speed down the pavement. She starts curling her lips to the music. She likes Sam Cooke. She’s such a bitchin’ babe. We pull into Marty’s and grab a slot near the door. “Wanna grab a booth inside or stay in here?”
 
“We can eat in here,” she says. “I like listening to the music.”
 
Wel-come to Marty’s, go ‘head with your or-der when-ever you’re rea-dy.
 
“Hi uh, can I get two patty melts and two Cokes?” The speaker’s muzzled voice blasts back at me and I agree to whatever it’s saying. Kiwi has made her herself at home, hanging her legs outside of the car. She fluffs her hair up for a moment. “I’m airing out my neck,” she says. Within minutes, a waitress in a tight raglan and jeans comes running out the door towards my car.
 
“I’ve got two patty melts and a couple of Cokes for ya.”
 
“Thanks,” I say as I hand her some quarters. “Keep the change.”
 
I watch her chow down on the burger. She constantly hums to the music, even if her mouth is full of food. As I take a bite of my patty, Kiwi holds the cup of Coke to her forehead. “It’s refreshing.”
 
She eyes a kid in a blue NASA shirt eating an ice cream cone with her mother.
 
“When I was that age,” Kiwi says, “I wanted to make a staircase that went all the way up to the moon.”
 
“How were you gonna do that?”
 
“Well, my dad got me some lumber—they were small pieces because I was too young to buy, let alone use, big pieces—and I only got about a foot off the ground before I gave up.”
 
She looks at me while sipping some Coke out of her cup that’s starting to grow lousy in the heat and ruffle in her hand. “I was gonna sell it on tee-vee, too,” she mutters with a mouthful of burger. I change the radio station to KLAC where the Dodgers are playing. Sutton on the mound, Vin Scully reports, he’s thrown seven and a half stellar innings for the Dodgers. The hometown boys are up four-ta-two here in the bottom of the eighth. Foli at the plate for Montreal.
 
“Dodgers, huh?” Kiwi asks.
 
“You don’t like them?”
 
“Oh, well, I don’t really watch baseball.”
 
“Oh,” I say. I hope she can’t see the disappointment on my face. Everything about her is serene, but how can someone who lives in California not like, let alone love, baseball? There was a game in 1953 where Roy Campanella hit a homer that almost touched the moon and Grandpa was there with Grandma and he always told me about how they kissed right before it happened.
 
 
Grandpa had been a little lonely after Grandma died. Mom and Dad told me she’d been sick, but grandpa had other ideas. When I was eight, we cooked a late breakfast together. That was when he told me about the night where he touched hands with Grandma, even though it’d been nine years to the day since she passed.
 
“She came to me when I was dreaming,” he said.
 
“When you were dreaming?”
 
“Yeah,” he said. “She stood at the end of our bed for hours. I didn’t say much of anything to her, if I’m being honest. Before the crack of dawn, she pressed her palm onto the bedspread and it lit up. It was a great mosaic of colors, buddy. Then she touched my hand. It tingled. Before I knew it, she was gone.”
 
“Did you tell Mom and Dad?” I asked him. He was looking through me at something. I think it was the sun peeking through the trees just outside the window, but hell, it could’ve been something else.
 
“No, they’d just think it was a silly dream. Between you and me,” he said as he grabbed my hand and enclosed it in his, “I think she was telling me that everything was going to be okay.” His voice cracked towards the end and his eyes watered before he looked down at his bowl of Frosted Flakes. He shoveled a spoonful into his mouth and chewed quietly. “I had never seen a moon as vibrant as the one I saw that night. It reminded me of when Roy Campanella hit a homer off the stars one night against the Senators. I was there in the bleachers at Ebbets Field on vacation. It’s right near where your grandmother grew up. We had met in Brooklyn about seventeen years before that. Did you know that?”
 
“No,” I said. “Why were you in Brooklyn?”
 
“I went to visit my cousin in Poughkeepsie and we spent the day in the city. She was playin’ stickball with her little brothers. I told her I was from California. And you know what she said back to me?”
 
“What’d she say, grandpa?”
 
“She said it had always been her dream to go to California.”
 
“Well, if this Garvey guy can hit a ball to the moon one day, then maybe, just maybe, I’ll root for the Dodgers.”
 
Garvey’s on first, taking a few steps off the bag towards second.
 
Her smile bleeds into mine. I sift through a pile of trash on the floor behind the passenger seat. When I find my Dodger hat, I place it on her head. Her wavy hair cascades down her shoulders from underneath it.
 
“Why are you giving me this?”
 
“Well, maybe you’ll see it around your house and think of me, or something.” I reply, trying to make it obvious that I’m into her.
 
“Hm. Maybe I’ll wear it around every once in a while,” she chuckles.
 
The waitress comes back and snags our tray and trash. We drive off towards the horizon. I notice that the sun is beginning to set on the greater Los Angeles area.
 
“Ever been to Griffith?”
 
“Griffith?” she asks.
 
“The observatory overlooking the city,” I say.
 
“Oh. No, I haven’t been there before. I saw it in a James Dean movie, though.”
 
“Wanna go up there?” She nods her head in agreement and smiles and scrunches her sunburnt nose. Her sunglasses slide down but she quickly pushes them back up, only revealing her eyes for an instant.
 
We coast down Ventura under the cool streetlamps adorning the corners of the boulevard. A couple of girls strut down the sidewalk next to us sipping on milkshakes from the Bob’s Big Boy on West Riverside. Down near Van Nuys, we hit a stoplight by a Mustang Hatchback—one similar to mine. A barefoot man in slacks and a t-shirt sits on the hood, entertaining a few girls. They lean up against the passenger side and coil their hair around their fingers. There’s a sign leaning up against the car door that reads BRING THE TROOPS HOME/STOP THE WAR IN VIETNAM in big black letters. I can hear “Tumbling Dice” by the Rolling Stones coming out of the speakers inside. The barefoot guy puffs on a joint and passes it to the chick next to him. After he exhales, his face turns toward me. He throws up a peace sign and yells Can you dig it? On my right, Van Nuys Drive-In prepares for its Friday Night Feature Film, The Last Picture Show.
 
I picture Brucie lyin’ on his back atop the hood of his ‘69 Chevy. He’s got a smoke between his chapped lips and there’s a girl standing by the front of the car. He probably scooped her up near the creek he hangs out at. It’s the coldest place in California, but the insects aren’t too bad and the rocks are capped with moss and shade. As soon as the traffic signal changes, we fly down the street towards Griffith.
 
The observatory overlooks the entire city of Los Angeles. The suburban houses bleed from the city skyline. I look towards Kiwi and see her marveling at the big, open world. The sun is beginning to set, but the cirrus clouds above us hold their ground. On our way into the observatory, stomping over the ground with patches of grass sprouting near the curb. Kiwi squats down and picks up a dandelion and hands it to me. “For you.”
 
“Thanks.” I say. “I’ll keep it safe.” The sun is approaching the horizon and I can see the moon begin to appear above the observatory. “It’s really pretty out here tonight. I think the sun is gonna set soon.”
 
“Well, maybe we should go up there,” she says pointing at the balcony where everyone is gathering. “It looks like a good place to be.”
 
We walk up the steps to the central rotunda. We pass by families looking up at the sky, trying to get a glimpse of the stars about to poke through. A guy in a RE-ELECT NIXON shirt offers me a pamphlet, but I shrug it off and keep walking. Kiwi trails behind. She keeps staring up at the Hugo Ballin murals on the ceiling and walls. “They’re so beautiful,” she says. “I’ve never seen anything like it before in my entire life.”
 
“You obviously haven’t seen a California sunset, then,” I say. “The changing of the shades is remarkable.” We make our way up to the balcony where a crowd has emerged. Kiwi’s skin settles under the dim night sky and the sun tiptoes on the edge of the city. I grab her hand and feel something, but I can’t quite put my finger on it.
 
“When I was younger,” Kiwi says, “My family visited Berlin to find my great grandparents who had lived there during the war but went missing. I have almost no memory of any of it, but I do remember the sky being just as beautiful as this one. Oh, and I also remember seeing a guy—a man, actually—who was just covered in all this dirt and mud. He looked scared. I think he was wearing army fatigues.”
 
“There hasn’t been a war in Germany since 1945,” I say.
 
“I know that, but he was there and he was looking at me and he was grayer than all of us and for some reason, I told him there’d be color one day. I looked into his eyes and he said I looked like someone his grandson knows. Come to think of it, he did look a lot like you. He had your beautiful brown eyes.”
 
I think back to grandpa telling me about the blonde-haired girl in a bathing suit who told him that the world would know color. Before I can get a word out, I feel a spark of tingling electricity in my palm. I look to my right and Kiwi is glowing. Her hair is strawberry blonde and the sweater she has on is rich with pigments. Pink, I think to myself. That’s what this is. The sky is bathed in orange. My Dodger hat she’s wearing is blue. I look into her pale blue eyes.
 
Static is seeping out from our entwined hands and a strange sound reminiscent of a needle running at the end of a record playing swallows the air. She looks at me and beams. Before I can get a word out, Kiwi begins disappearing into thin air. Her skin splits and vibrant colors erupt from inside. I try to kiss her before she goes, but by the time I get to her face, it’s gone. She’s gone. I look around hoping she’s somewhere else, but there’s nothing. Nothing but colors and screaming.
 
I look up at the sky. The sun has gone beneath the horizon and the moon has emerged from its sleep. I close my eyes and pray this is only a dream. When I open them, I see the moon enriched in an orange glaze like the sun.
 
“The moon is bleeding orange!” someone behind me yells.
 
“Say, pal,” someone says to me in a stuttering shriek, “What is all of this?”
 
I turn towards him. He’s got a frightened look on his face. It’s the Nixon guy. He’s holding a stack of pamphlets with pro-Nixon propaganda slapped on the front. I look through his gaze at the stars poking out behind the moon.
 
“I, uh, I think it’s the neon summer,” I say.
 
“Neon summer, eh? Hmm. Yeah, I like that,” he replies, his gaze growing calm. He hands me a pamphlet from his stack and runs off, announcing to everyone that it’s the neon summer. When I notice that my Dodger cap is laying on the ground, I pick it up and put it on. A blonde hair falls down onto my shoulder and when I grab it, it disappears from in-between my fingers. The sky is bathed in pigments so holy that a bunch of people are on their knees praying. I make sketches in my head of the parts of their faces I can see through the windshield of the car as I climb in behind the wheel.
 
The sun has fallen beneath the horizon and the orange moon is spiking through the trees—the redwoods splitting through the hot wind blowing within the crevices of anxious Californians—but the ease of the August day is disturbed by an emergence of color and the disappearance of black and white. There are a lot of scared faces; men, women, and children hold onto one another for safety. Women reach for the hands of their lovers; mothers search the grounds for their kids. It’s a feeling they can’t name.
 
A young man with wavy blonde hair passionately smooches a brunette girl who has a child hugging onto her leg. She’s got one hand placed on the young boy’s shoulder and the other on the cheek of the man. His Led Zeppelin shirt is soaked in sweat. A girl nearby pulls out a cigarette and searches frantically through her purse. “Need a light?” I ask through the passenger-side window. She hesitantly walks over to my car and I strike a match. When I light her smoke, she inhales smoothly and exhales into my car.
 
“Thanks,” she says. “Wild night, huh?”
 
“Yeah, it’s pretty different,” I say.
 
“Well, thanks for the light, stranger.” She looks right through me to the orange giant towering over the West Griffith Trail. Flicking some ash onto the ground, she begins walking back toward the observatory. I stick the keys in the ignition. The car turns on, the odometer lights up, and the stereo kicks into its groove.
 
You’re listening to XERB here in beautiful California-Los Angeles. Tonight, an unexpected wave of color blanketed the entire greater Los Angeles area. Folks around town are calling it “the Neon Summer” and Los Angelenos are deeming this orange beast a “Harvest Moon.” You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen. We’ve got one more dedication to make. This one’s a long distance devotion from Kiwi to Dover. Dover, if you’re listening out there, this one’s for you. This is “Goodnite, Sweetheart, Goodnite” by The Spaniels.
 
I roll the windows down and drive off towards the city. A purple enamel adorns the sky behind the buildings before me. The orange moon glows in the rearview mirror. Goodnight, sweetheart, well it’s time to go echoes off the sky as I drive towards the burst of color flooding Mulholland.

 
 

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