Poison Ivy in the Key of C Minor (an opera)

I know, I know. It wasn’t that long ago I complained about how cold May was, but now. Now that I’ve chosen to take the day off work somebody’s gone and punctured Satan’s left lung releasing a heat index of 120–two degrees past the Geneva Convention treaty for humane outdoor existence.

But I promised my brother I’d take my niece to Nerstrand-Big Woods State Park to count the number of rare Dwarf Trout lilies living there. It’s for some Girl Scout badge and he’s too busy doing oh I don’t know what working in his air-conditioned office I guess.

I bring a plate of cookies for the forest ranger as a blatant bribe to sign my niece’s book so we can just get the hell out of there but as soon as we step out of the car and into the humidity, the hairy forest ranger has us walking through the woods to Hidden Falls and Pioneer Creek. He looks like Smoky the Bear in a big girl’s blouse.

Ten minutes later we are being led down the side of a high and steep ravine, staggering through ankle-deep fungus, sweating, hyperventilating, clinging to clumps of brush and vicious flesh-ripping nettles, the major moments of my life flashing before me in soupy color, the heat screaming through the trees, deer ticks longing to infect me with some muscle-withering disease, and mosquitoes regarding my tender skin the way a Little League team would regard an unattended ice cream truck.

While the ranger and my niece count lilies, I fall face forward into the creek and try to drown myself. When that doesn’t work, I crawl back to the bank and rest my head against a decomposing stump, wondering how I let myself agree to this.

“Fantastic, don’t you think,” the ranger says, slapping his heavily-titted chest. “Getting out of the city and into nature.” I better be in my brother’s will.

Now back in the cool air of my home, I inspect what’s left of my sunburnt and ravished body. I am a heap of sores, rashes, scratches, bruises, hives, bites, pustules, and cuts. I look like an early Christian after a particularly stressful day with the lions.

The state park has its pastoral value of course. The acres and acres of untouched trees, the clear air, merry waterfall, fauna and flora whirling about in heavenly ecstasy. And I’d trade every painful bit of it for the ease of crossing Grand Avenue during the haze of rush hour to grab a margarita in the nearest bar.

Land of the Free, Home of the Brave

We arrive at Uncle Frank’s house while he is squatting beneath the gas grill trying to read the instructions for starting the barbecue. “Let’s see now, push in knob and turn left…there that should do ‘er.” The hiss of escaping gas sounds like the distant wind of a storm heading our way. Frank rises to his feet, shakes himself down trying to remember where the hell he put the matches.

Frank stands over the grill now and pulls a match from the pack. The match doesn’t quite make it halfway across the back cover when a whoosh of blue flames strikes back at him, drawing a gasp from the party. He ducks like a batter avoiding a fast inside curve.

Uncle Lowell guffaws loudly from a nearby lawn chair. “Hey Frank,” he whoops, his burgundy face flush from alcohol and sun. “I thought the fireworks didn’t start till after dark.” Lowell laughs at his own joke until his laughing suddenly evolves into a wet loose cough. He coughs so much I fear he’s going to choke but he recovers and shakes a Marlborough from a pack and pops it in his mouth. The coughing fit has momentarily humbled him and for a while he’s silent as he lights his cigarette, looking out through watery eyes.

Out front my parents have pulled up. Mom carefully exhumes a bowl of potato salad from the floor of the back seat. She’s in charge of this operation and she wants Dad to help by just staying out of the way. The bowl is sealed as if it were radio active plutonium. Like one too many pallbearers at a funeral, Dad lends a well-intentioned, yet useless hand to the bowl that Mom carries.

“Where the hell did those hot dogs go to?” Uncle Frank yells.

A pickup truck arrives next. My cousin Steve hops out wearing a tractor cap over his long thin hair. He unloads a sack full of fireworks and a rocket launcher. He carries enough explosives to blow up an Afganistani village.

Inside the house the kitchen table is loaded down with bowls and plates of food. The men snack on chips and cheese, talking about the pitiful state of professional sports. The women try to out-compliment each other on their salads and desserts. For some reason, Dad is attempting to name the members of Nixon’s Cabinet.

Suddenly there is a lot of commotion. Looking out the window it appears that Uncle Frank’s barbecue is on fire. He waves the gray smoke away and rescues the hot dogs like bodies pulled from a disaster. They are curled in agony, crispy and black. There are no survivors.

After supper, Steve sets up the rocket launcher and ignites the first round of fireworks. Kids scream and yell. There are aahhs and oohhs. But each successive rocket fails to live up to the one before and soon everyone is slapping mosquitoes and heading into the house. Steve and Lowell, with their cigarettes, stay out there sitting, lonely silhouettes against the fading sky.