An Indian Summer Ethan Kastner
The feeling is of fall, but of a fall before junior year. A fall before running away from home, before the falling out with our psychopath friend, before my parents’ divorce. It’s the fall after Sam studied abroad in Germany, but before she was wholly abducted by Christianity and by Zach. The feeling is a mix between listening to Death Cab for Cutie, faking a smile at an old friend in the hallway. Sam went to Germany during the spring semester of our sophomore year. She was already fluent in German from living there during the Fourth Grade, but she wanted to return, to study abroad. Sam’s mom, Mrs. Wanta, taught German at the high school. I’ll never know exactly what it was like. There aren’t any pictures. I don’t know if she didn’t take any, or I didn’t get to see them, or I don’t remember them. Either way, I don’t know what her room looked like. I don’t know what the building she went to school in looked like. I don’t know what the city looked like. I do know what her exchange partner, Robbie, looked like. And I know that she thought she needed God. When I imagine Sam being there, I picture it all from her point of view, instead of me watching her. I picture running down a gravelly path with grass on both sides, and a low stone wall to the left. But I can’t imagine anything in the distance. There are no facts to substantiate these images. They are completely fabricated. She only told me she liked to go on runs. It’s about the feeling of the thing, anyway. During that summer, after Sam came home, we started a project. We wanted to make wine from wild grapes. Sam’s backyard was connected to her neighbors’ by this grassy path that went behind all of the houses. It was a little grassy highway. At the end of the path, past the last house, there was a wild place. I don’t mean “wild” how Steve Macherey means “wild”, as an
adjective for something cool, I mean “wild” as in untamed and unmowed. It was sunset when we went there, and we approached from the east. The rays of the sun filtered through sparsely leafed trees. I don’t remember the way the tangled branches filled the space. The lasting impression I have is of fuzziness, and the sun shining towards us. But I guess the sun shines in all directions. We talked, and we gathered grapes. There are pictures of us sitting around Sam’s kitchen table. It’s Sam, our friend Melissa, and me. We’re picking the grapes from their vines and separating them out from tangles of elderberries. Mrs. Wanta liked to take pictures of us doing things that were childlike. I don’t know what’s childlike about trying to make your own wine. Her parents had laughed at the idea, maybe because we had been honest about it. I guess they didn’t know that we had gotten drunk for the first time in their basement a few weeks ago, on the Fourth of July. I also think they thought we wouldn’t succeed. Maybe this feeling, this small part of the story of Sam, represents the transition period. Fall is a time of changes, and I realize this connection only in retrospect. But it wasn’t even fall, it was late summer. We smashed the juice out of the grapes and discarded the wrinkled skins. We added a pinch of yeast, and poured the extracts into a plastic gallon-milk jug. It fermented in the Wanta’s garage. Sam seemed like she was with us. She seemed like she was with us during the summer and fall. But maybe not. Maybe we were convincing ourselves that it was all okay, that it was all the same as four months ago, before she left. Sam gained 15 pounds in Germany. She lost it relatively quickly throughout that summer. So maybe she was disappearing, and in two ways. I didn’t realize how hard it was for Sam to be in Germany. She never really talked about her reconnection with God there, though. I guess she knew Melissa and I wouldn’t understand.
At the end of summer, the gallon of grape juice exploded. The only consequence was that we had to scrub the stains from the garage walls. That, wasted time, and the sting of a failure. We tried again, with strawberries. The grapes were out of season. I guess we bought the strawberries in plastic cartons anyway. Making strawberry wine was more complicated. We had to buy cheesecloth to use as a strainer. On this second try, the juice fermented in my closet and there wasn’t an explosion. I told my mom it was tea. She was stricter than Mr. and Mrs. Wanta, but not suspicious. Or ignorant by choice, at least. I don’t think most parents expect their kids to set up a microbrewery in their closet. Fermentation is strange. Alcohol is strange. We poison ourselves and our livers for fun. But there’s more to it than that. It’s about the feeling. The strawberry wine was a success. It was really fall then, well into October or maybe November, and I walked over to Sam’s house with the gallon container. I hid it in the tall grass in front of their house. Our friends Laura and Alex parked a block away, and we told Sam’s parents we were going to a bonfire party somewhere. We were really just going to the backyard. Along that same grassy highway we walked along to gather grapes, there was a treehouse. It was about a stone’s throw into the woods, and it didn’t belong to us. Someone had built the treehouse for their kids a long time ago, and the kids grew up and left home. It was multistory, and more of a deer stand, or just a series of porches on stilts, than a treehouse. The four of us walked to this treehouse and camped out on the top level. We shared drinks of our homemade strawberry wine, along with other alcohols in various waterbottles. Sam and Alex made out a lot at the end of the night. This distressed me. Sam was dating Zach. Later, I puked several times from the top of the treehouse. There was a gap in time between the retching noise I made, and my vomit splattering the ground. Laura and Alex had to walk me back to my house, supporting me in the classic “drunken Christ figure” arrangement.
The next morning, Sam, Zach and I went to our debate tournament. Sam and I were hungover, and laughed and felt cool about it. But it wasn’t fun to sit through the first round with a pounding headache. We still laughed at the idea that we were hungover at a debate tournament. Sam soon told Zach about making out with Alex. A little more than two years later, they’re still together. Everyone thinks they’re wrong for each other, and it’s sad to watch. Zach has always been Catholic, and we think he’s stifling her. Sam has always been very good at justifying her choices, and has planned to marry him for a long time. They haven’t had sex. I didn’t really know that people still thought that way in 2013. Somehow, during Junior year, Sam slipped away. She slipped away into being a Christian, and into being boring with Zach. That sounds so immature to say, but it’s true. They act like grandparents, babysitting their younger siblings and cousins together, playing house. I think Sam thought she needed God because she was lonely. Maybe Sam needs Zach because she is lonely. Maybe we are all lonely. We poison ourselves for fun. The feeling is of fall. The feeling is of losing a friend. All there is to do is scrub the stains from the garage walls.