A

single

red

leaf

hangs

on a tree.

I look out my kitchen window and notice it just hanging there, in all its boldness. Green leaves around it are blowing in the wind. But this single defiant and brilliant red leaf makes me stop and take notice.

The leaf reminds me of a woman who has stepped into a Washington reception on a Wednesday night in summer. Everybody else is in a plain business suit. But this woman dares to wear a red velvet gown in August. She is stunning. Everyone turns and looks at her.

She is overdressed, they think, in that brilliant red.

It is not the season for velvet.

My single red leaf outside my kitchen window is overdressed for this occasion, this being early September. Perhaps it is announcing something: an end to summer.

But who is to say the precise moment at which one season ends and another begins? Who says summer has to go away just because of the arrival of the vernal equinox or the tilt of the Earth on its axis? What exact day, hour, minute does it all begin to end? I am looking for that elusive moment, the culprit that told the season to start changing. I am looking at that one red leaf in a tree of green.

I notice something else. What happened to the mosquitoes? They were here just last week and now they are gone. Who told them to go? I never liked them, but as long as they annoyed me, stinging me for the hell of it, singing in my ears then flying off, eluding me, and again finding their way into the house despite the window screens, I knew summer was still here.

And who turned on the street lights so early? Don't they know that when the lights come on too soon, the summer party is spoiled? The children, noticing the flicker of the lights so far above their heads, the lights turned on too soon, know it is time to go home. What happened to the summer days that went on and on, slowly fading into crickets and fireflies?

Just the other week, I went looking for patio furniture at Montgomery Ward. It was still August and I thought I would find a big umbrella to shade my deck.

"Sorry," the salesman told me. "Those are all gone. We sell out of those in June."

So it must be the department stores that have decided that summer should end sooner. Maybe they turned the street lights on too soon. "The end of $ummer mean$ $uper $ale$!!!!"

Sadly, I leave that store and walk through the mall and see all the little boys lined up to get their summer hair shorn. I don't believe the boys would conspire against summer this way. Somebody else must have told them they needed to get their last summer haircut, and, of course, somebody must have taken them to this barber shop in Capital Plaza Mall.

And look--the little girls are all sitting in their summer short sets on telephone books in the swivel chairs of the African hair braidery. They are holding their heads in their hands, flinching as braiders tug at their scalps, braiding their hair in nice cornrows to wear to school. One little girl is not smiling. Does she know this means summer is over, too?

Now all the peaches in the grocery store on Annapolis Road are artificial. They are pretty but they might as well be plastic. The plums are plastic, too. The honeydew is no longer sweet. The cantaloupes taste like water. When fruits lose their sugar water, does that mean summer is over?

Who took their sugar water?

Probably the same people who made the mosquitoes fly away or the people who control the street lights.

I heard the bell of an ice cream truck the other evening. Clang. Clang. It was a weak clang, as though the driver didn't have it in him to ring the bell any louder. No kids ran to stop him. So the ice cream truck did a U-turn in my cul-de-sac and drove down the street. The ice cream man didn't even wait for me to grab a quarter or two and run to him, yelling at him to slow down. Doesn't he know I still believe it is summer?

We've turned the air conditioning off. That seemed so impossible just weeks ago when everyone in the house was sweating because the compressor broke. But the new chill riding the night air mixed with the artificial air blowing through the vents is too much. When we turned the button to off, did that tell summer to go away from my house?

Defiant, I go to my pantry to find a jar, any jar that is less than half full. No, the peanut butter jar won't do. Too sticky.

Here. Here's a jar of what was once mustard. Yes, a mustard jar is perfect. Mustard and hot dogs hold the scent of cookouts in July. Mustard knows what summer means. The smell, I think, will be inviting.

I unscrew the lid. I go outside. I try to figure out where the wind is blowing.

I want to fill up my jar with the last of summer.

Maybe if I close the lid tight enough, I can keep a taste of summer in it, even if no one else can see it. I'll label it the Summer of 1999 and store it on a shelf.

The

red

leaf

is still

hanging there

in its velvet gown.

Will somebody please tell it that it needs to put on a sundress?

It is not yet the season for velvet.