That Taste of Summer

by Laura Mason

Summer days in Chicago vary widely. Oh, there are constants. There are always tourists and shoppers along Michigan Avenue. And restaurants all over the city put out tables and chairs on the too-narrow sidewalks, sure that patrons sick of winter will be ready to eat amidst the car exhaust and milling pedestrians. Ice cream stands pop up and it becomes perfectly normal for well-dressed adults to be licking at cones as they walk along the streets. On the river and the lake, tour boats and commuter boats and sailboats dot the waters. Music flows from plazas at lunch time, and farmer's markets ensure people in business suits will be walking to their trains with armfuls of flowers and fruit.

So, Ray Vecchio thought, there were things about summer in his city that came every year, reassuringly the same. But the tenor and temperature of those summer days and nights was always changing. "Cooler by the lake." A popular phrase among weathermen, and maybe it was true. But you didn't need Lake Michigan to get a breeze some days. Cooler away from the asphalt was probably more true, Ray mused as he drove past Garfield Park's abundant and welcome late afternoon shade.

There were days when the sun was so bright even the grass seemed to reflect it, and the lake blinded you. Those were the days when people crowded on Navy Pier and the beaches, their skin slowly burning under the glow of sun screen, sweat, and water. Music -- or someone's best attempt at music -- was played on street corners all over the city, donations very welcome. Kids ran under sprinklers in his neighborhood, and sold lemonade from under shady trees. Boys on bikes raced up and down the residential streets while little girls gave their Barbies baths in wading pools. Older kids vanished inside until nightfall, sleeping during the hottest hours, then congregating on street corners to discuss their options for entertainment. And, if they were like Ray and his friends had been so many years before, often doing nothing *but* talking, or eventually walking back to someone's basement to watch TV and complain about their parents, lack of dates, and the specter of school starting again.

There were stormy summer days, though Ray preferred the nights. At night he'd watch thunderstorms from his front porch, or from the window of his room, and the lightning would make his familiar neighborhood strange and wonderful. There was a smell in the air before, during, and after those storms -- never the same, but always wonderful and stirring. When summer rains hit during the day, it wasn't the same exciting event. But Ray still preferred it to winter rains. If a person was going to get soaking wet, it was better to do it when it was warm outside.

Ray could remember days, back when he actually walked a beat, when his summer-weight uniform was drenched with sweat before 10 AM. Temperatures climbed all day, then just hung in the 90's all night, making everyone miserable. Strange crimes took place over those too-hot nights, all crimes of passion in a sense, because they were all inspired by the sweltering discomfort that never let up. It kept people on edge, ready to pop. And always, some of them did. Last week had been that kind of weather.

But a cool front would always come through, bringing relief and respite. Then people could sleep again, and their open windows caught roaming winds instead of mocking them with no air. Fans and air conditioners were shut off or turned down, and it seemed to Ray that the city no longer buzzed with the noise of a million compressors and spinning blades.

That magical shift in air temperature had happened this very morning, and now Ray drove with his windows down, feeling the rush of cooler air fill his shirt through the rolled-up sleeve on his left arm. People were outside everywhere along his route, sitting on the park benches and standing on the corners, laughing again instead of looking miserable. Kids on scooters raced up the sidewalks, chasing the ice cream truck as it tinkled down the block. Ray felt that he was standing still, watching them pass him as he sat in his car. In the winter it was easy to forget just how many people lived here.

He was headed to Benny's. Two years now he'd been doing this, and it was hard to remember a time when the drive wasn't part of his routine. During the recently-ended heat wave Ray decided that Fraser had already suffered enough. The Canadian had practically melted during last year's relatively mild hot weather. So Ray brought an old window unit from Mrs. Turelli's basement to Racine Street for Benny to use. Two days later he'd learned that half the building was sleeping on Fraser's floor with the Mountie and his wolf, enjoying the cooled air.

It was just like Fraser to do that, and never question why he alone was paying for the electricity to cool off everyone. Ray smiled to himself, then shook his head. He hadn't balked at paying the old bat fifty bucks for the air conditioner, either. Maybe he was getting more like Benny, unlikely as that seemed.

At least they were still friends. Ray knew they'd never gone back to the closeness they'd shared before the shooting, but they were improving. Really. It was getting better all the time. And Ray didn't even remember what they'd been like before, to tell the truth. He never thought about how smoothly they'd worked together, how Ray always felt he knew what Fraser was thinking and planning. Even when it was later proven that he didn't have a clue...

Ray pulled up to a red light, watching kids in shorts and tee shirts walk past carrying their super-soakers, all of them drenched. Nope, they'd had rough times even back in those early days. Ray was romanticizing, something he knew was easy to do once time has passed. Some nights he got maudlin, remembering his brief days as a married man. Angie became a saint on those nights, for putting up with him at all. Or he'd remember her as a sexy goddess, brightening his lonely bed. Memories of Ange in puke green facial masques when he came home after work, or her own "bad day" at work that required ordering a pizza and sitting in her bathrobe for the meal and the rest of the night -- such memories were never on call at those depressing times.

Though, Ray realized with a shake of his head, even those were fond memories for him. It had been a part of their closeness, their one-ness, to be able to see each other at less than their best. Something like what he and Fraser shared, really, now that their friendship had been tested and he no longer thought Benny was too perfect to be real.

Just look at the tricks memory played with childhood. Ray was always seeing email or newspaper junk that rambled about those wonderful days of youth, emphasizing the carefree contrast to adult problems. He'd buy it for a few minutes, remembering the exhilaration of riding a bike or the excitement of being old enough to stay out until the street lights came on. But then he'd remember how agonizingly important all those supposedly simple childhood problems felt at the time. And even the passage of years couldn't make Ray forget how much he'd hated school. After all, he didn't have Fraser's brains. His teachers had seemed like bullies or idiots, the parish priests felt it necessary to discipline altar boys for any pranks -- and there were always other kids to pick on him, too. Even without Frankie Zuko, there were lots of bullies in the neighborhood. Including his own pop. Ray had struggled with his weight for years, then acne, then had the agony of dating. Still, as he looked out the car window again at a group of boys on the corner, Ray decided he really wouldn't mind having the summer off again, or letting someone else pay the bills for a change. Someday...

So time did soften even the lousiest experiences, and now Ray's memories of Benny's first months in Chicago were all taking on a rosy color. He remembered walks with Fraser and the furball, not the rooftop chases. Or Fraser helping him with a project or a case, instead of Fraser telling that perp to go ahead and shoot Ray.

But the fond, false memories stopped after she came to town. Everything from that point was sharp and clear and still hurt just as much as it had at the time. Ray was sure no amount of time could erase what she'd done, and how their friendship and then their lives went to hell. Neither of them could ever forget, though they'd managed to forgive each other. Ray wondered if he'd ever be able to forgive himself. It hurt, particularly whenever he saw Fraser hesitate as he got out of a chair, or stretch his back as if it hurt. That pain was Ray's fault, and he knew he was a screw-up, just like he'd always been told, because that bullet never should have been fired.

He pulled the Riv into an open space down the block and across the street from Fraser's apartment. Fraser wasn't expecting him, but it was too beautiful an evening to stay cooped up in this neighborhood. Ray thought he'd take Benny and Dief to the beach, or the park -- their choice. They could have an ice cream and enjoy the twilight. Ray thought about fireflies and smiled as he walked back toward the shabby building they'd saved from destruction. Even this street was full of people, and Ray nodded to those who greeted him and ignored the panhandlers with the ease of someone who'd been living here all his life.

He glanced up to Fraser's window, then froze, staring. God damn it.

A man bumped into him and Ray didn't even check for his wallet, he just kept staring up at the open window and the candle that was burning there. He remembered coming here while Fraser fought for his life at that hospital, Ray's own damn bullet so near his spine...

Ray remembered scraping melted wax off the windowsill and the table and the counters. He washed smoke smudges off the glass and the walls, scrubbing until his arms ached and he was exhausted enough to sleep on that thin cot that still reeked of her. He'd rest just long enough to go back to the hospital and stare at Fraser some more, hooked to so many machines, paler than death.

Fraser had been going with her. Ray knew that even before Fraser admitted it. Fraser would be with her now, if he knew how to find her. Love didn't end just because someone betrayed you, framed you, shot your wolf and murdered someone. Not Fraser's kind of love...

God damn it.

The candle wasn't a beacon for him. Ray was smart enough to know that it never would be.

Ray's eyes finally left the window, dropping to his own feet when he felt the sting. Not tears, not really. He'd just been staring too long.

He turned on his heel and walked away, blind to the beauty of the summer night.

 Lyrics, courtesy of Cat:

 "SOFT PARADE OF YEARS"
 by Dion

 I've lost myself in lips that taste of summer,
 and left the tribes of children far behind;
 now cities seem to open just like flowers
 as I sit down to watch the clocks unwind.
 This wanderlust no longer overtakes me
 and each shadow on my pillow disappears,
 so I watch the caravan of time go by
 and listen for the soft parade of years.
 The seasons move like wild rushing water.
 I listen to the million sounds of night.
 All my friendships ripen into love now;
 and age has made the passing years look bright.
 The key they're playing trembles with my heartbeat.
 A happy tear falls slowly then takes flight,
 and far beyond the ragged edge of skyline
 the soft parade of years rolls out of sight.

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