The Summer that Melted Everything - Tiffany McDaniel
Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World
—MILTON, PARADISE LOST 1:1–3
THE HEAT CAME with the devil. It was the summer of 1984, and while the devil had been invited, the heat had not. It should’ve been expected, though. Heat is, after all, the devil’s name, and when’s the last time you left home without yours?
It was a heat that didn’t just melt tangible things like ice, chocolate, Popsicles. It melted all the intangibles too. Fear, faith, anger, and those long-trusted templates of common sense. It melted lives as well, leaving futures to be slung with the dirt of the gravedigger’s shovel.
I was thirteen when it all happened. An age that saw me both overwhelmed and altered by life in a way I’d never been before. I haven’t been thirteen in a long time. If I were a man who still celebrated his birthday, there would be eighty-four flames flickering above the cake, above this life and its frightening genius, its inescapable tragedy, its summer of teeth that opened wide and consumed the little universe we called Breathed, Ohio.
I will say that 1984 was a year that understood how to make history. Apple launched its Macintosh computer for the masses, two astronauts walked the stars like gods, and singer Marvin Gaye, who sang about how sweet it was to be loved, was shot through the heart and killed by his father.
In May of that year, a group of scientists published their research in a scientific journal, revealing how they had isolated and identified a retrovirus that would come to be called HIV. They confidently concluded in their papers that HIV was responsible for the acquired immune deficiency syndrome. AIDS, as the nightmares say.
Yes, 1984 was a year about news. It was the year Michael Jackson would burn for Pepsi, and the Bubble Boy of Houston, Texas, would come out of his plastic prison, be touched by his mother for the very first time, and moments later die at just twelve years of age.
Overall, the 1980s would prove industrious years for the devil. It was a time you couldn’t just quit the horns. Satanic cult hysteria was at its height, and it stood tall. Fear was a square that decade so it could fit into our homes better, into our neat little four-cornered lives.
If a carton of milk turned over, the devil did it. If a kid showed bruises, he’d be put in therapy immediately to confess how his own parents had molested him around a bonfire while wearing black robes.
Look no further than the McMartin Preschool investigation, which started in ’84 and ended with fantastical allegations of children being flushed down toilets and abused by Chuck Norris. While these allegations eventually would be flushed down the toilet themselves, that time of panic would always be remembered as the moment when the bright, bright stars could not save the dark, dark sky.
Breathed’s own devil would come differently. The man who invited him was my father, Autopsy Bliss. Autopsy is an acutely strange name for a man to have, but his mother was an acutely strange woman. Even more, she was an acutely strange religious woman who used the Bible as a stethoscope to hear the pulse of the devil in the world around her.
The sounds could be anything: The wind knocking over a tin can. The clicking of rain on the windowpane. The erratic heartbeat of a jogger passing by.
Sometimes the things we believe we hear are really just our own shifting needs. Grandmother needed to hear the spook of the snake so she could better believe it actually existed.
She was a determined woman who pickled lemons, knew her way around a tool box, and raised a son by herself, all while earning a degree in ancient studies. She had the ancients in mind when she named her son.
She would say, “The word autopsy is a relative of the word autopsia, which in the ancient vernacular of the Greeks means to see for oneself. In the amphitheater of the great beyond, we all do our own autopsies. These self-imposed autopsies are done not on the physical body of our being but on the spirit of it. We call these ultimate examinations the autopsy of the soul.”
After the summer ended, I asked my father why he had invited the devil.
“Because I wanted to see for myself,” he answered with the definition of his name, his words doing their best to swerve his tears lest they