A Storm
Summer Passing

By: Madison Cole
(© 2008 by the author)

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East Tennessee knows how to grow things right. The region is home to the most beautiful rhododendron and dogwoods and irises in the entire world, and one of those valleys in the Smokies where the pink, white, and lavender beauties grow so abundantly also bred my childhood love, Lola Mae Morgan. Well, Mary Nell and Albert Morgan—her parents who lived across the hill from us—actually bred Lola Mae, but I’m convinced there was still something unique to East Tennessee itself that made Lola Mae bloom as richly as the plants and trees for which the area is famed.  Maybe it was the air, clear and rich like Lola Mae’s laugh, or the water, or the country food, but surely something tangible in that resplendent region was responsible for packaging the woman of all my manchild fantasies.


Lola Mae was beautiful no matter the season, but she was doubtless most stunning with the summer sunshine full upon her. She worshipped the sun, and was out of doors with the first light of morning and wouldn’t go in until even the fireflies had given up. A true tomboy, Lola Mae had already been married once, and was twelve years my senior. A cross to me between Elly Mae Clampett and Annette in the Beach Blanket Bingo years, Lola Mae was definitely full-bodied, and even though she was pin-up girl material in her cut-off Daisy Dukes and a work shirt tied tightly underneath her bosom, when Lola Mae fixed herself up, she shifted effortlessly from country girl to uptown woman.  It seems that, in recollection, Lola Mae’s legs surely came up to my shoulders; they were tanned, lithe, and smooth—a woman’s legs, yes, Lord, strong and healthy, built for both speed and endurance. 


Lola Mae was my best friend for as far back as I could remember. She played catch with me for fleeting hours and endless summers, her big, country-girl, chestnut-brown hair piled skyward on her head, amazingly suspended there with a solitary bobby pin. And when she’d stop playing, and sometimes I think only to mystify me, she’d remove the single clip, shake her head just twice, causing that mass of hair to tumble down around her shoulders, and she looked for all the world like Cleopatra’s maids had pampered her with some kind of mystic sandalwood combs. It amazed me every time.


Lola Mae’s eyes were the deepest kind of brown, with a richness that glows from the inside, like the eyes of a cocker spaniel, with just that same measure of love and trust and happiness that little boys in particular are powerless to resist. Even though she stood a good head taller than me at five-feet-ten, Lola Mae still loved me, I was sure, and I was further convinced of this every time she looked at me with her chocolate puppy-dog eyes and smiled at me with those gleaming white teeth. I thought her teeth were perfect, but my Aunt Rachel said that Lola Mae’s mouth was too full; just like that “bitch Julia Roberts,” who Aunt Rachel swore was either “part horse, or some Kennedy love child.” But I didn’t care what Aunt Rachel thought about Lola Mae. As long as she smiled at me, Lola Mae could’ve had eighty teeth and still been perfect.


Framing those teeth were Lola Mae’s full, ever-smiling, infinitely kissable lips, always painted in the newest, brightest possible tint of red from the makeup counter of Colonial Village Discount Drugs and Apothecary. Her favorite shade, though, was candy apple red; I suppose because it made her think of her most coveted car, the Corvette, which Lola Mae said was perfect in candy apple red. Lola Mae swore one day she’d own one of those blazing red Corvettes and put a bumper sticker with something scandalous printed on it that would shock all the ladies of the J.O.Y. (“Jesus First, Others Next, Yourself Last”) class at Meridian Baptist Church where her mother was a member. “I swan I will someday, Kenny,” she declared. Jesus, Lola Mae shocked the Sunday School ladies anyway, even on foot.  Maybe especially on foot, for when she had a mind to and the right dress on, Lola Mae’s generous hips swayed like the pendulum in Aunt Rachel’s wall clock and had caused more than one driver to hop a sidewalk with a look that went on an instant too long. Lola Mae’s walk made the men stare at her with appreciative lust, and the men’s wives stared at her with envy and thoughts of infliction of bodily harm.


Lola Mae even had beautiful feet, and I don’t know how she managed that.  It was a marvel that her feet weren’t totally bruised and cut up, considering that she didn’t really care too much for wearing shoes, and when she put them on she wore only the briefest of sandals, and only when absolutely required to do so. And those toenails of hers always mirrored the fire of her fingertips. So barefoot, we ran together through the hills and woods, playing and giggling as if we were classmates instead of a generation apart.


A day came toward the end of our summers together when I left the house early, the heat already up, the humidity high. Aunt Rachel had peered at the sky since before sunup, telling me to watch out for a storm later on in the day—she said it couldn’t be this hot this early in the morning without some-thing “bad” happening to cool it off. I sped away on my bike and headed across the hill to find Lola Mae. When I did, we played ball all morning, and somewhere past lunchtime we walked into the village to Kay’s Ice Cream Shoppe for a Cherry Coke and an order of cheese fries, her treat. Lola Mae always paid for outings like this, because I never really had any money to spend. Allowances were for school stuff, and Aunt Rachel would have tanned my hide if she’d caught me spending money in a soda shoppe. She thought it was ridiculous to pay people hard-earned money for food you could fix at home. Lola Mae put everything into perspective, though, with her usual mix of wisdom and belief in taking pleasure where one could find it: “Well, Aunt Rachel feels that way because of growin’ up in the Depression, I guess, when they didn’t have money at all. But I guess I’d flat die without a Cherry Coke every once in a while. It’s the only thing that cuts this summer dust out of my throat.” As she said this, she sucked the last of the sweet dark drink through her straw with a loud, icy rattle.


As we cooled off inside the shop, luxuriating in the air conditioning, Lola Mae was the first one to notice the sky going dark outside the large plate glass windows. “Storm’s comin’, Kenny,” she breathed. Lola Mae quickly gathered up our cola cups and the waxed-paper lined cardboard basket the crinkly fries came in, and she pitched them expertly into the trash can four feet away. In the same moment, the wind in the parking lot picked up discarded Dixie cups strewn on the pavement and whirled them wildly in a mini-cyclone across the asphalt. Lola Mae gouged my left calf with her big toe.  “You want to stay here, Kenny, and ride out the rain, or do you want to make a run for it?”  I looked at Lola Mae, glanced outside, and back at Lola Mae. Though my country boy’s instincts told me with certainty we’d never make it before getting soaked by Aunt Rachel’s predicted storm, “Let’s make a run for it, Lola Mae,” I said anyway, grinning broadly.


Assessing the rapidly darkening skies, we decided to take the shortcut home through the woods, rather than the streets of the village.  Even though we ran as fast as we could, we were sure enough soon overtaken by that swift, blowing rain, hurling wet pellets at us so big they hurt when they splattered on our bodies like shrapnel. We were instantly drenched. I took Lola Mae’s hand in mind, pulling her along ever faster through the thicket of trees, giggling wildly all the way. “Damn, Kenny! I can’t see nothin’,” Lola Mae sputtered. “That’s OK, Lola Mae,”I shouted over my shoulder, “I know where I’m goin’.” We came to take refuge in my secret place, a clump of six ancient oak trees that grew closely together in a circle in the heart of the woods. Once we slipped in between the wall of trees, we were totally sheltered from the storm. There, not even the persistent deluge was able to penetrate the solid tapestry of summer leaves. I stripped out of my T-shirt, wringing out the rainwater. Then I realized that was just a stupid thing to do, for then I didn’t know what to do with my shirt. It was still too wet to put if back on, and it looked lame to hold it, so I just tucked it into the back of my cutoffs. I looked up at Lola Mae as she reached up into that thick hair, taking out that amazing single bobby pin. She shook her hair down and water flew over us again. We laughed, and then she stopped. Lola Mae was looking at me, and on her face was an unfamiliar, regretful sort of half-smile. She slowly reached out for my hand, holding it tightly with her long, delicate fingers. The two of us often held hands, but just then something passed between us that was different. Lola Mae shook, just a little— I don’t know if it was from some sudden loneliness of her own or from the quick chill caused by the water evaporating on her skin. I only knew then, that in the closeness of my secret place, Lola Mae’s skin smelled incredibly sweet—like flowers, rain, and maybe a hint of green apples. I looked at her fingernails painted in her signature shade of red, and she told me, oddly, that one day I was going to be a “beautiful man.” 


I swallowed hard, and suddenly blurted out what I’d wanted to ask for as long as I could remember; I asked if she would marry me when I grew up. I was positive, from my childhood nights spent reading Peter Pan, that such a thing was possible—if only Lola Mae loved me the way I was sure she did, the way I loved her, she’d somehow be able to wait for me, to let my age catch up with hers, and that all my boyish longings could one day come true.


Lola Mae flipped her thick tresses back off her shoulders and stared up through the trees as if she were looking for something: an answer, the sky, maybe. Lingering drops of rain trickled down the milky ridge of her throat and into her cleavage, and like so much spun sugar left in the midday shower outside our forest fortress, I melted instantly. She smiled, thoughtfully, and then began to laugh at my impossible proposal (how could she not?), but instead of being offended, I smiled with her, drawn in as always to whatever Lola Mae was feeling—it was unthinkable not to smile or laugh out loud or even cry when she did. Lola Mae’s laughter that day began with the same skipping sound the mountain brook made not far away from us in the woods; it danced free and happy across the rounded river rocks, swelling like the brook rising in the storm’s downpour.  Lola Mae’s anatomy always took over when she laughed, and she lustily threw her chest forward, responding to my outlandish suggestion, finally guffawing for all the trees to hear. And those trees, the wind, and even the summer thunder shook, laughing with us both.


Her laughter subsiding, Lola Mae wiped her eyes, looking down at me. In her husky, gingerbread-rich alto, she asked “Lord have mercy, Kenny.  What in the world would you do with an old lady like me? I’d make two of you.”


“Shucks, Lola Mae,” I said.  “I’ll grow into it.”  And with that, Lola Mae erupted again into a belly laugh. She was still giggling as she reached up for me, and said, “Come here, child.” Drawing me softly into the pillows of her magnificent chest, Lola Mae rocked me like a baby within the circle of oaks. I smiled to myself as I laid my hand shyly, lovingly, on Lola Mae’s right breast. “Oh, Kenny,” she sighed deeply, suddenly no longer laughing. “You’re growing up.” She said it as though the realization was new to her, too, something unexpected, perhaps even unwelcome.


Tentatively, she leaned her face down into mine and whispered into my ear, “Sweet baby. Sweet baby boy,” she said, exhaling. Then with her tongue she slowly flicked from the top of my ear a collected drop of rain that had blended with boy-sweat, and she bit into the flesh ever so lightly, so achingly.  More softly still, she sighed, “My baby boy.” She took her index finger and traced around my Adam’s apple in a circle, then slowly ran the finger down my throat, down my chest, and to the flatness of my stomach. The tips of her fingers reached into the top of my cutoffs, and those incredible nails of hers scratched just below my navel as I caught my breath. She smiled at me and asked, “How long have you had that hair around your belly button, Kenny? . . . it’s like silk.” I shivered and blushed furiously, feeling my hateful freckles dance on the crimson of my face, trying to pretend that the trail of down on my stomach wasn’t new to me as well. But Lola Mae knew, instinctively, and undid the snap of my shorts as she said, “Never you mind, Kenny. You are so delicious to me.” Looking into my eyes, she shushed me with her index finger, whispering, “It’s all right, baby boy. It’s all okay.” Like a colt’s, my legs were trembling perceptibly, as I stood there in my soggy red Keds, but it was a shaking born from neither dampness nor chill, but from a certain well of desire that only teenage boys in special summers can know. 


A stray jag of lightning streaked across the sky, making the grayness beyond our leafy sanctuary turn green for a brilliant moment. It was one of those flashes of stunning, silent illumination for me as well: I knew that I was about to become a man, whatever that might mean, and my life would never be the same. I knew somehow that things might even be different between Lola Mae and me, too, but hell, in that instant, I suppose I didn’t care. In those seconds, time became endless, and everything that was forbidden by my Southern Baptist upbringing was suddenly hollow. The woman of my boyhood fantasies was now kneeling in front of me, taking me into her mouth, doing things I had only imagined in my most breath-catching nocturnal moments. With a tongue of velvet insistence, Lola Mae licked me, breathing huskily. She kneaded the tin-muffin cups of my backside with her fiery nails. A starburst of that same red color was what I saw moments later when I suddenly shuddered, spasmed, and gave in to the peak of my adolescent lust. A final, derelict diamond bolt of the storm’s energy exploded above our heads; and with a last thunderous rumble, the storm subsided and passed on, leaving Lola Mae and me locked together under a dripping canopy of emerald leaves.


Long moments later, Lola Mae slowly stood up, tousled my shock of carrot-colored hair like she always did, and gave me a familiar wink and smile, but now more knowing, more conspiratorial. She reached into the back pocket of her cutoffs and produced a Lucky Strike cigarette, which she lit expertly, shaking out the fire from the match, holding it until it was cool enough to toss to the dampened ground. She inhaled, leaving a perfect red-kiss imprint of her full lips on the end of the filter tip. I didn’t think about it much then, but Lola Mae loved her Lucky Strikes, too, and smoked them often. When she smoked them, sometimes I became fleetingly conscious that Lola Mae was indeed a “grown-up,” and the thought was somehow unsettling. I didn’t really like her smoking, but since she had told me she loved her cigarettes, I magnanimously let Lola Mae continue with her habit. And when I’ve thought of Lola Mae through the years, I’ve especially remembered that day when, as a fifteen-year-old, I proposed to her in the rain and the tree branches laughed and the thunder shook us—not the too-frequent reality of Lola Mae with her head encircled in a cloud of carcinogenic smoke. 


That was one of our last days together. Perhaps Lola Mae knew, as I did not then, that some little boy loves are quite impossible, no matter how earnest or heartfelt they may be. Lola Mae had fully bewitched me by making me a man in the space of a single summer shower. And when, still hand-in-hand, we walked out of the woods that day, the sun had once again appeared in the summer sky, but it was already low in the west with the passing of day and the coming of another firefly evening. Lola Mae bent down, kissing me softly on the cheek like we were sweethearts. A tear in her eye sparkled like the wet grass at the edge of our woods. She told me that what had happened was our secret and had to remain forever between us. People wouldn’t understand, she said, there would be stares and whispers, and it would be awful for both of us. I shrugged my shoulders in reluctant assent, looking down as I ground the toe of my right sneaker into some gravel along the path; I instantly sensed that she was right. I would remember this wonderful aching summer day all my life, but I also knew instinctively that no one would understand or forgive her. I looked into her eyes and said, “Gosh, Lola Mae, I won’t tell anybody. You know that.” She smiled, and her face flooded with relief. I knew then she trusted both me and my promise implicitly, like no one else before or since. She ran her hands softly across my shoulders and then down my back. She gave my butt a pinch, and with a smaller, somehow sadder smile, said, “Kenny, always love me like I love you.” She kissed me quickly, gently on the lips, and then one final time on my forehead, in what I now believe was some form of benediction, both to my childhood and to our days together. Quickly turning, she strode down the path toward her folks’ house, toward the setting sun, lighting another Lucky Strike as she made her way between the blackberry briars. “See ya, Lola Mae,” I called. She cleared her throat softly, like her voice was catching on something, but then said in her familiar, husky tones, “So long, Kenny.”


I retrieved my bike from the spot against the tree where I’d left it earlier in the day, at a familiar fork in the path through the woods between our two houses. As I straddled the handlebars, I half-stood on one pedal, and watched her walk away. Lola Mae never once turned back to look at me. Still, she knew I was watching, and she threw her right hand up, extending her fingers in a soft, slow wave back to me. I watched until Lola Mae, the trailing smoke from her cigarette, and the scarlet and orange sunset were one. Then I raced home on my bike, my still-damp T-shirt stretched across the handlebars, flapping in the breeze. I inhaled deeply, my bare chest filling for the first time with the breath of purely masculine pride. It felt good.


After that day, and for whatever the actual reason, things between us were, in fact, different. Lola Mae no longer played catch with me in the summer morning mugginess, nor did she run through the woods with me to escape the heat of the day, and on the still-hot nights she was so busy not even the lure of catching fireflies could bring her out. Seasons changed, and other summers came again, and then were gone, melting into memory. I eventually grew up and moved away, leaving both Lola Mae and my beloved mountains behind, for they were, after all, much too intertwined to ever be separated. I thought of Lola Mae often, for how does one ever dismiss their first love?—and whenever she came padding barefoot ’round my thoughts, it was once again summer and there was rain, and my cheeks were pillowed softly on her breast.


Ironically—but perhaps not altogether unexpectedly, Lola Mae died last month after a brave battle with breast cancer.  I returned home to help lay her to rest in the Tennessee hills she loved so much and which were . . . no, are . . . such a part of us both. As I made my way to her chrysanthemum-draped casket, I expected to see the physical ravages that I was sure years of continued smoking had inflicted on Lola Mae’s beautiful body; but mercifully, I saw no evidence of her physical suffering. There was no havoc wrought by time, nor even the toll of dreams unfulfilled, of shocking the church ladies, of candy apple red Corvettes. I leaned over to whisper good-bye, closing my eyes as I kissed my beloved Lola Mae’s forehead in farewell. And in a flash of electric clarity I felt an acutely bittersweet stab of tenderness for my first love, for my boyhood, and all that she was to it. And in that same moment I saw once more the vital beauty that was Lola Mae in her own youth—earthy, tall, strong, slapping her fist into a catcher’s mitt. There she was, still glowing, in bright streaks of sunshine and her own chestnut-hair shadows; and once again we were running together, across the rich hills and verdant valleys, toward my secret place deep in the woods of home where I no longer go—and I was certain in just that instant I could hear, ever so faintly in the distance, that same long ago storm of summer passing.


Posted: 07/18/08