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Heat

By Rita Ciresi

All hell broke loose in my first French class when our teacher tried to explain the linguistic differences between those who measured the temperature in Fahrenheit and those who measured it in Centigrade. “When the mercury rises,” Madame C. told us, “Americans say ‘It is hot’--but those who speak romance languages say ‘It makes heat.’”

The fun began when a budding philosopher in the back of class belligerently asked her: “So what exactly is that romantic It that makes the heat?”

Madame immediately began to sweat bullets. But we Catholics in Beginning French (count us: all) practically swooned in ecstasy. This assault on Madame’s cool Gallic sensibility took us to an even higher spiritual plane than watching Sister Saint John of the Cross trying to squirm her way out of this Confirmation-class query: “So say you were an Eskimo, huh, huh, huh? and never heard of Jesus, huh, huh, huh? would Saint Peter still toss you into the flames of hell because you nailed a walrus tusk instead of a crucifix onto the wall of your igloo?”

Yup, Madame found herself in even hotter water than Sister Saint J.C. She could lose her public-school teaching job if she said that the Il in Il fait chaud might be interpreted as a deity. But she might get chewed out by our church-going parents if she insisted that this Il was only an implied subject.

I thought about Madame’s dilemma--her close brush with a word problematic in every lexicon, God--last year when the Pope urged the faithful everywhere to pray for an end to record temperatures in Europe. But the difference between the way Americans express the existence of heat (versus the way folks do it on the Continent) has piqued my mind ever since the year that the Great Big Weatherman in the Sky decided to turn off the spigots over Florida for months altogether. You see, it wasn’t until I turned forty (a gruesome blow unto itself) that I saw for the first time a river that had run completely dry. Lord, it gave me a heart-thumping shock when I stepped onto the once-muddy banks and found that where canoes and alligators once glided, now stood nothing but a dusty yellow canal--as if some ancient deity had leaned down from behind the blazing sun and scraped its angry finger along the earth.

When you live in a climate where il fait chaud all the time and witness every day the blazingly bad aftermath of the sun (failed crops, short tempers, sunburned fat men in Speedos, sunburned fat women in thong bikinis), you get a little innured to the cause as well as the effects of heat. Unless, bien sur, you remember your dear old Madame wiping her forehead with her handkerchief -- calling on whatever god was on hand to hoist her out of this hot mess -- as the din in the classroom reached fascist-rally proportions. Il, il, il! the boys chanted, as if Madame could bring the Main Meteorologist up to the microphone so we could put him to the ultimate quiz. Who is He? Why does He do what He does? Make what He makes?


Rita Ciresi is the author of five award-winning novels and short-story collections: Blue Italian, Pink Slip, Sometimes I Dream in Italian, Mother Rocket, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You. She directs the creative writing program at the University of South Florida.

Collage Art by Art Nahpro