You’ve been warned about this kind of summer. In Rome, where you live, the sidewalk repairs have turned gummy, the roach population is burgeoning, and there is talk of water rationing. In California, where you used to live, a wildfire has engulfed an area larger than San Francisco. In Antarctica, where you’ve always wanted to go, an iceberg weighing three trillion tons has broken away from the Larsen C shelf. It is three times the size of the greater London area, twice the volume of Lake Erie. Sixty miles north of Rome, doctors wait for the go-ahead to move your friend to a hospice. The air-conditioning at his home chills the sweat on your neck. You kiss your friend’s husband on the cheek. He is the older of the two, he didn’t expect to be left behind. You want to hug him, but you’re afraid he’ll break.

* * *

In August, a kind of nuclear dare me and diplomatic bookmaking ensues between heads of state. On the Spanish coast, a rubber raft approaches the sand and migrants pile out amid beachgoers. Here in Italy, a brush fire kills two people in Tivoli. Tivoli is famous for other things, like that villa with its elaborate system of garden fountains and stone nymphs and grottos. Your little village north of Rome is not famous, but it’s cooler. You and a neighbor take your laptops outside and sit on stone walls. You remove your shoes, cool your heels on volcanic rock peppered with flecks of prehistory, zigzagged by old slug trails that make you think of peaceful summer evenings when you were still children born to a fortunate generation.

* * *

Despite the public service campaigns, despite the pet-friendly B&Bs, people still abandon their dogs for the summer. You see this for yourself as you drive down the street of the town, as you park at the supermarket, as you walk through the old village at sundown. Because the wood-colored dog is everywhere. The dog is the color of chestnut with a honey-toned stain. It’s some kind of mix, a bloodhound crossed with something taller and less droopy. At the supermarket, you ask, is that dog yours? He’s a stray, the cashier says, and then gives the hound some scraps. Maybe we should put him on Facebook, a neighbor says, maybe someone lost him. No one lost him, you say, and you hear the bite in your voice. You could be wrong, but what if you’re right? Once the dog’s abandonment becomes official, its days could be numbered. At the height of the heat wave, the hound runs the two main streets of the town as if in a hurry to get somewhere, then slows as he tip-taps up to people, expectation in the scrunch of his tiny brows. There is a chain around his neck, but no ID, and his butt-bones and ribs are showing in the harsh, hot light. Next, you see the dog running along the scorching asphalt down by the cemetery where, a few weeks earlier, you and other townspeople walked behind your friend’s coffin. While his husband, a cane in each hand, moved forward, then stopped, moved forward, then stopped.

* * *

Up by the church one evening, you see the chestnut hound running towards two women with smaller dogs. See? one woman says to the other. That’s the dog, the one I told you about. The humans crouch down and face the canine, speaking softly. The dog stands still and looks at them. What now? they all seem to be saying. What now?

* * *

A moment of relief. The piercing heat is broken by early-morning thunderstorms that roll through town, pounding on doors and pushing a current of cool air through the alleyways. But another heat wave is on the way, just in time for Italy’s midsummer holiday. You learn this from the news, just as you learn that the melting of a glacier has uncovered human remains on the Italian side of Mont Blanc, probably those of a mountaineer who went missing in the 1980s.

* * *

This is a season of tough lessons. You learn that bacteria levels are above legal limits at more than a quarter of the Italian beach areas examined by an environmental association. That the national government has pulled egg products off the market due to an insecticide-contamination scare. That two farmers who witnessed a mafia hit were chased and killed by the aggressors. That torches, thousands of miles away, can drive a person to tears. Torches, lit and burning high against the inky sky of a distant city, in the country that you still call home. A city which, three years earlier, was named the happiest in the US.

* * *

Torches burn against a night sky, clutched by people who say they are defending their race, their heritage, reclaiming their land. Scuffles turn to out-and-out fighting, then a car rams through the crowd and backs out at high speed. The governor tells the torch bearers to go home, tells them they are not welcome. There are six hours between you and them, at least six between you and family, between you and old friends. Sometimes you feel cut off, left behind by those whose lives have evolved without you. But on days like this, the miles are a buffer between you and the sting of certain realities. As the governor speaks, the sky in your time zone deepens to a midsummer velvet. In kinder years, you used to tip your head back and scan the darkness for shooting stars. You think of your friend who is gone. Oh, quick, you have to make a wish! he would have said.

* * *

The traditional summer exodus is nearing an end. In Rome, riot police and water cannons are used to disperse migrant squatters gathered in a piazza near the main train station, a fraction of those who’d been cleared out of a building nearby the day before. Police say there are other occupied buildings to be emptied. Politicians argue over policy and morality. Police say some of the squatters threw gas canisters and stones. In an oft-repeated media image of the water cannons, a woman is knocked to the ground by the force of the spray. She is lying face-down. The weather forecast says it’s not over, temperatures are set to spike again.

* * *

You wonder, will next summer be as hot as this one? You step up to the door and peer at the darkening horizon, hoping that it’s not too late in the season to see tiny blips of heaven, sparking on contact with the atmosphere and filling your eyes with light.

Charmaine Wilkerson

Charmaine Wilkerson

Charmaine Wilkerson is originally from New York but lives in Italy. Her story "How to Make a Window Snake" won the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award 2017. Other stories and essays can be found in Reflex Fiction, Spelk, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, New Letters and An American | In Italia.
Charmaine Wilkerson

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