Last summer was not good. Last summer was a deathwatch, last-minute runs back home to the mountains, in rental car or bus, to see the effects of multiple stroke up close. On Yom Kippur it was finished. "Two, three years, I'm getting out of the business. I don't want to be laying in the dirt next to Ma," Uncle Artie said. Two months later, standing at the counter, he hits the floor, gone in the time it takes to switch off a light.
Life goes by like a river -- I cannot make it stop, though sometimes I try. Freeze this night in the Village. Freeze the taste of this lemon ice. Freeze the way, driving back to the city, Artie sings "Fly Low." Summer, especially, with all the universe in bloom, I want to hold. "This year, August off," I say. "This year, for August, a month in the country and old movies on television and I will finally get around to floating down the Esopus on a tube." The next thing you know it's the third week in August and here I am still in town. The thing about the tubes, lately, had begun to get to me. A new thing in the Catskills, not there when I was growing up, but a pretty neat thing, I thought: a big black inner tube, a lift up the creek, then five miles bobbing along in the knee-high water. When they hit the rapids, the tubers scream. I see them when I'm driving back to New York.
This summer, it was no different. In June I think of the mountains, two weeks ago I look around and summer is almost gone. I make a long-distance call. "It strikes me that it won't always be summer and I won't always have a mother, so whadaya say?" I tell her. "You know me," says Ma.
She picks me up in Rhinecliff and changes in the car, a chance to flash 'em for strangers, which she has always liked. She stops to get us an ice cream near Woodstock, to keep up our strength. At the drop-off point she is the fattest lady there, and the only one with gray hair. "There's Doers in life and there's Lookers," says Ma, as we take our tubes to the water and shove off.
Life is a river, the Esopus hardly more than a little brook. What a day in the mountains, though. The sky so blue, the trees so thick, the Esopus full of travelers in big black rubber doughnuts, lying on their backs with their arms and legs, like four points of a compass, sticking straight out. "You know what I like about this arrangement? A person needs to take a leak, a person can," says Ma. And, when she spies a fellow she knows riding the river belly down, "Look out, buddy, you might lose something you want!" We twirl through the rapids, we drift down the stream, we wave to the trailer people parked on the shore, the poor grounded fools. We bounce off the large rocks, we duck the overhanging trees. We travel summer river time -- not the time of the spring flooding, or winter, when it freezes still. As much as one can enter time, travel with time, we have entered.
"Pretty good for an old dame!" Ma hollers when we finish.
Let autumn come.