In the summer I listen to Jackson Browne because that was the music of my sixteenth summer, and even then it was old, it was the music of my boss at my summer job, but it played in our store on the best corner of Long Beach Island and I memorized every word without realizing it. My boss loved him so much she even named her son Jackson; I babysat him one winter, in the off-season, and I kept dashing into his bedroom to make sure he was still breathing. Babies are terrifying and also too simple. A few summers later her car wrapped around a tree on her way home. I can’t remember how I found out about it – I suspect my mom broke the news – but I do remember standing around the kitchen of my summer restaurant, hating the looks of sympathy my coworkers were sending me in between waiting tables. This wasn’t about me; I didn’t want their emotions.
I can’t think of summer, I can’t live summer, without thinking about her. Or this: the lingering concern that I spend too much time trying to get back to those July days when a cut of blue air would land on my heart, when the hours drifted by in a haze of cotton, a distant radio, sand tracked on tile floors. Shift work. Lunch breaks. A register ringing. Crushes on the coffee boys, a car that rarely started.
At 16 I swept the floors on an empty August afternoon on the block between beach and bay, after everything had been folded and refolded and straightened and restocked, and waited for night. The doors were open and I rested against them; frowned upon, but the salt air was too tempting, and there were people to watch in the ice cream line. I waved to my boss as she crossed the street in her running clothes. She always liked me; a treat, since I knew she didn’t like everyone. Jackson Browne was playing, of course, and when she entered the store she hummed along.
How many nights did I spend like that, watching the ebb and flow of the island, watching the girls in short shorts and the boys in flannel, watching the others, watching, listening. How many nights now am I hit with a breeze, or a scent, or a song, that swirls and swirls around me until I hear her voice singing that song?
When I go back now, of course it’s different, and of course I try to make it the same, and of course I will forever fail at that. When I drive I drive there, when the stoplights are off and the tide is high, and when I hear summer coming up my driveway I hear that road, that etched sidewalk, that jangle of coin. In the store where I spent so many summers, after she died a plaque was hung – her photo, her dates, “In memoriam.”
The store’s owners divorced a while back; whoever ended up with the business in the settlement has changed things, renovated, redecorated. The plaque is gone. When I visit it’s so different I can’t even pretend it’s the same. I can’t even pretend I’m sixteen again, learning everything for the first time.