“The Earth Drank Greedily in the Summer” — Read a New Essay by Matt Jones
ESSAY: SLOW BURN, BY MATT JONES
The earth drank greedily in the summer. This was Houston, Texas, and for weeks at a time the air wrinkled in heat shimmer as if the entire atmosphere had been piped out of the backend of a jet plane. I sat in my garage waiting for the weather to change and when the sky finally did give up some rain, the bayous behind my house swelled and overflowed. The earth guzzled and grew sick and heaved up everything it had swallowed into its tunnels and muddy shores.
At the mouth of the drainage tunnel just beyond my backyard, Jeffrey and I once unearthed a wallet after the water settled. We carried it back to my garage, each a hand on it, each guessing at whether its weight was made up more of mud or money. Jeffrey was lank with ears set perpendicular to his head. I was softer, shorter. My skin absorbed the pink of sunset so I glowed rosy even into the night.
The first thing we did with the wallet was set it in the open sun of the driveway to bake it hard and dry. After that, Jeffrey shifted it to my father’s worktable and set himself to dissecting the innards. He used flathead screwdrivers to pry apart the leather, Popsicle sticks to jimmy each fold. We couldn’t really see anything inside the wallet, but we thought we could. Summer was one distant mirage after another. Through the haze and the distance, there was always possibility. When I took my nail to the wallet and scraped, flecks of dirt came away to reveal the tarnished green of paper money.
As the afternoon went on, the sun dropped lower in the sky and worked its rays into the open mouth of the garage. I tried my hand at the cracked leather, but everything was fused together. We sipped sodas and talked about how we would spend the money, whatever money there might be. Jeffrey wanted cigarettes and Hustlers. I knew I wanted to be taller, less soft.
The great thing about being twelve was that you could look at yourself in the mirror and see anyone you wanted. Potential was always on the horizon as long as you never moved toward it. At that age, Jeffrey and I both suffered under the constant delusion of heat stroke and hallucination, the kind that bends waves of light dancing at the end of the driveway into plumes of smoke and nude women. In that wallet, there was money and in that money, there were things that each of us wanted. I’d never owned a wallet, so I was willing to just stick it in my back pocket at that point, mummified leather and all, and go on pretending.
Eventually, though, we got the money out. A solid mass of hardened and flaky mud, the cash itself was entombed in a hyper-delicate state, flaking into dust upon exposure like a vampire in the sun. Jeffrey filled up a ten-gallon bucket with hose water and when the bucket was halfway full, he tossed the brick of cash in and it sank down to the bottom lightly. I agitated the water with a yardstick and slowly the dirt came off, fleck by fleck, the money made more visible as the water turned itself murkier and browner.
I kept stirring and that once-hardened brick of money swelled and softened, occasionally surfacing in a grimy spiral. When Jeffrey tried to grab hold, it threatened to dissolve like tissue paper. So we just watched it there at the bottom of the bucket. I do remember the way it looked before breaking apart.