Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dear High School Freshman

Book Smart: The Importance of Independent Reading
By Philip Hoy

Are you a reader? You can…obviously, but do you qualify as one of those people who, you know…like to read? Let me try asking another way. What are you reading right now? Okay…thank you, but besides this blog. I mean, what have you been reading for your enjoyment? You know, what is the name of the book in your backpack, or on your tablet or phone, or next to the couch in the living room, or on the floor of your bedroom?

If you answered with the title and author of a book, any book, then, yes, you are definitely a reader. 

Here is why I ask: 

If you are seriously thinking about going to college after you graduate from high school, then you need to start reading more. And I don’t just mean the reading your history or science teachers assigned, or even the novel your English teacher gave you…that’s homework (and if you’re not in the habit of completing your homework, then you’re not as serious as you think you are about college). Reading for homework is tremendously important, yes, but it’s just not enough. You need to read for your own enjoyment…and some of that reading needs to be literary fiction. 

Now, there’s just something contradictory sounding about that last statement, isn’t there? You need to read for your own enjoyment? Since when was “enjoyment” a requirement of anything you “needed” to do? And why, literary fiction? Say, what you sellin’ here, mister?Personally, as soon as I hear the words, “you need to…” I’ve already decided, “I don’t really want to,” and that’s before I’ve even heard what it is I’m supposed to need. 

But please, hear me out. If there’s one single thing you can do to better prepare yourself for the intellectual rigors of college…it is to start reading more…much more…than you probably are right now. I’ll tell you why.

As teachers, our job is not to simply give students our knowledge, but to guide students to acquire their own…to help them become independent learners. People who read independently—of their own free will and for their own enjoyment—are self-educators by nature. 

Readers are perpetual learners because they are constantly decoding text into meaning. Because of their engagement with the text—clarifying, questioning, summarizing, and predicting—readers are self-teachers. Because of their constant exposure to models of good writing, readers are better writers. Because of their ability to manipulate both the precision and ambiguity of language—to both explain and to create using words—writers make better thinkers. And because these creative and critical thinkers are also readers of literary fiction, readers have acquired the ability to walk in another’s shoes and to see the world through another’s eyes. This practiced empathy allows them to consider a subject from multiple and often differing points of view, and to know that there is never only one answer or only one way to do anything. Because of all this, readers make better communicators, better problem solvers, and better leaders.

But what if, you might ask, reading a novel for pleasure…is actually a painful experience? You’ve tried, but books just don’t interest you. What if you were just not born to be a reader?

Sometimes the difference between natural ability and a learned skill is not all that clear. Is someone good at something—like sports, or singing, or drawing, or in this case…reading—because they were just born that way, or because they worked hard to get that way? Yes, some people are simply better than other people at a particular thing; but often, what appears to be a natural ability is really the result of practice and dedication. 

And while some people may have simply been born with a natural appetite and aptitude for reading, just as many—maybe even more—struggled with reading at first and had to put in hours and hours of practice to eventually become good at it. 

Some readers grew up around books; others didn’t, but found ways to get them. Regardless of what motivated these people to start reading, they now have the academic advantage on their non-reading peers. What matters is that their love of books has made them better readers, with larger vocabularies…and because of that they have learned to be better at many other things as well, and not just intellectual things, but emotional too. 

What matters is that in the competitive world of college admissions, when it comes down to grade point averages and SAT scores…readers have the advantage.

So, if you are not a reader…there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is you are falling behind. The good news is it’s not too late. Start reading…and catch up.

Easier said than done, right? Well, as with any important change you want to make in your life, set realistic goals, and achieve them one at a time. First find a book that interests you and set a goal of reading, let’s say, at least ten pages a day for the first week, then raise that goal to fifteen pages a day for the second week, and so on until you are automatically reading at least twenty-five to thirty pages a day of independent reading. And remember, this is a book of your choice. This doesn’t count homework reading. If it’s a good book, you probably won’t have to count pages, and if it’s a really good book, you might not want to put it down at all…even when you know you should be doing your homework, or going to sleep already. 

If you’re not sure where to find a book you might like, ask your English teacher to recommend one…or any of your teachers. After all, English teachers are not the only people who read for enjoyment. Ask the school librarian. Ask me. Ask that boy in class who is always reading his own book, even when he should be doing something else. Ask that girl who—instead of texting or playing video games— always seems to be reading some kind of eBook on her phone. Ask her what she’s reading and why she finds it interesting. Or go online and Google it. Try a search for the “top ten books for teens,” or the “top ten books for teens who hate to read.” Try it.

And what am I reading right now? I just finished The Humans by Matt Haig.
Absolutely loved it.

This essay was originally published on (reposted with the author's permission, of course). 

Monday, August 29, 2016

Chapter 11: The Last Chapter

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Chapter 11: The Last Chapter

Gina didn’t return to work that summer and I never saw Lester again. That next week, Frankie and I took turns covering the vacant evening shift at Robert’s pool. Hilda did let us go back to work on that next Friday, the day after the crash. We took Frankie’s Datsun; I drove. The kids were happy to see Frankie. Marion looked right past him and he ignored her. It was just like old times. He even took the first thirty minutes up on the stand. I was dreading the one-hundred-and-one questions I knew I was about to get from Marion, but Joe from the Water District showed up and they gossiped together for well over an hour. I know because he was still there when I came in from my first shift. When he did leave, I braced for Marion’s barrage, but it never came. Maybe I wasn’t the only one looking for normal. Maybe we all just wanted one more week of summer.

At the end of the day, I left Frankie to hose out the restrooms while I put the equipment away and signed us out. Along with the cash bag for the day, Marion handed me the binder of wasps. I had forgotten all about it. She didn’t say anything, but I had acquired at least enough wisdom in the last few days to know that this was a gift from Marion, the thing she had been waiting all day to give me. I set the binder on the counter and opened it. The pages, stiff with glue, crackled as I turned them. There were thirty dead wasps on each page. Each wasp was bent, broken, and contorted in its own unique way. Some were pieced back together, some headless, some wingless, others looking like they had simply landed there and might still fly away; except that, all were covered in the same clean, glossy preservative shell of glue. There were four pages. The last page was not completely full, but each wasp was numbered. They totaled one hundred and three.

I closed the binder slowly and with extreme care slipped it, along with the cash bag, into my backpack. Tomorrow I would tell her that we had won the wasp contest, hands down. That the guards at my brother’s pool had presented a plastic sandwich bag of wasps that had still to be counted out. I would tell her that even though the dinner was at Pizza Palace, we ate all the food we could and even ordered our sodas by the pitcher. She would smirk, feigning boredom and distaste, but she would enjoy hearing it, and she would never know that none of that ever happened, that no one even mentioned the wasps again, and that for the rest of the summer, and probably several months after that, the binder never even left the trunk of Frankie’s car.

Lester had some pretty serious problems, a fractured skull, a ruptured spleen, but he made it through okay. Gina, from the time she climbed into the back of the ambulance with him until almost a week later when he was wheeled out to his parents’ car and stood up on his own two feet, hardly left his side. I heard they stayed a couple for almost the rest of the year.

It turned out that Arlene had been in the same English class last year as Frankie and me. I was hanging out around the office during one of those sultry evening swims when, once again, the subject of the SAT came up.

“Have you taken it?” I asked from where I was seated on the edge of the lounge chair between the box fan and Arlene, trying not to hog too much of the air.

“No, not yet,” she said, pushing her hair away from her face with both hands and gathering it behind her. “I signed up for the one in November, didn’t you?”

“Uh, I don’t know.” I watched her twist her hair into a tight bun at the back of her head. “I think so.”

“What do you mean, you think so?” She picked up the pencil next to her clipboard and stabbed it through the bun to keep it in place. “Didn’t you turn in the registration form?”

“What registration form?” I was trying to remember if I’d ever seen her with her hair up like that before.

“The one Mr. Schwartz gave us.”

I didn’t know what was more maddening, finding out that I’d missed yet another opportunity to register for the damn SAT, or failing to notice Arlene in any of my classes before. “Actually,” I said, “I’m taking it in October. My brother’s helping me.”

“Oh, well if Robert is helping you.”

And her eyes. Why hadn’t I noticed her eyes? They were so big, and dark, black coffee near the center, but a lighter caramel around the edges.

“Why October?” she asked. Little wisps of her dark curls were already beginning to come loose and spill down around her neck. “If you waited until November, you’d have another month to study.”

I shrugged.

“And your brother,” she continued. “He’s going to be off at school mostly, isn’t he?”

“Well … yeah.” How could I tell her it wouldn’t actually be me taking the stupid thing?

“If you want, James,” she said, pushing a fallen strand of hair behind her ear, “you could always study with me.”

So on that last workday of the week, I took my own car to Robert’s pool in the evening. Frankie said he had some things to do at home before his mom would let him drive up to Riverside on Saturday with me. We planned on going to the big mall there to buy some new school clothes with some of our summer earnings.

I noticed that week that sometimes Arlene brought her car to work and other times someone came to pick her up. When I didn’t see her little yellow Ford parked out on the street, I worked up my courage to ask her if she needed a ride home.

“Sure,” she said.

“My car doesn’t have air,” I confessed, and immediately wished I hadn’t.

“That’s okay, James,” she smiled. “I don’t live far.”

Her house was in a neighborhood across town from mine. I had a list in my head of things to talk about in the car: who she thought we’d get for English next year, U2’s new album, the space shuttle ... but I didn’t need it.

“So why are you guys driving all the way to Riverside to go clothes shopping?”

“You know Eric Rodriguez?” I asked, instead of answering.

“Isn’t he a friend of yours?”

“Well yeah, but the thing is, last year on the first day of school, we came wearing the exact same thing. And I don’t mean just the shirt … the shorts, the shoes, everything.”

That made her laugh. “Come on, that sounds like girls and their prom dresses.”

“Well, it was kind of embarrassing.”

“Okay, and Frankie? Did he have a similar clothes emergency?”

“No, really, Riverside, it’s just something to do,” I admitted. “I mean, that really happened with Eric and the clothes, but—”

“Oh, turn left here.”

I almost asked her if she wanted to come along.

“It’s there on the right. Oh, my dad’s home.”

“Your dad?” I pulled over in front of her house. A man was spraying off the driveway with a water hose. The giant black and brown dog standing behind him started barking.

“Sorry James, but now you’re going to have to meet my dad.”

“Meet your dad … is he mean?”

“No,” she said with her soft laugh. “But he sees you dropping me off and he doesn’t know you so I have to introduce you to him.”

“Does your dog bite?”

She laughed again.

The dog came at me as Arlene rolled back the entry gate. He barked a couple of times, smelled me, and then let me rub the top of his head and behind his ear. Arlene’s dad shut off the nozzle on the hose and dried his hands on the legs of his jeans.

“Dad, this is my friend James, from work … and school.”

He reached out and shook my hand. “John Fernandez,” he said.

“Nice to meet you, sir.”

The dog pushed roughly against my thigh with its head.

“That’s Lobo,” said Arlene.

I reached down to scratch behind his ear again. “Big dog.”

“It looks like it might rain,” said Mr. Fernandez, squinting up at the darkening roof of clouds gathering over our heads.

At the sound of the front door opening, I looked up to see a woman standing there. Arlene took my hand and pulled me gently away from the dog and her father, and led me toward the house. “And now you have to meet my mom,” she said.

Her mother said something to Arlene from the doorway that I didn’t understand. Then she disappeared into the house, leaving the door open for us. “And you’re staying for dinner,” Arlene said, squeezing my hand.

As soon as we walked into the house I couldn’t help but take a deep breath of the delicious aromas of oils and spices coming from the kitchen.

“Mmm,” Arlene said. “Chile Rellenos.”

That’s when something caught in my throat. It was only a tickle at first, but it started me coughing and I could feel my face turning red.

Arlene’s mom came around the corner with a glass of water in her hand. “Lo siento,” she said, handing me the glass. “It’s the chiles I’m roasting.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Fernandez,” I managed between coughs.

She smiled and motioned for me to drink the water.

“Come on,” Arlene said as her mother returned to the kitchen. “I’ll take you to the other room until dinner is ready.”

And there and then, realizing that Arlene was still holding my hand, I knew that finally, my summer of wasps was over.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After

The next day at work was pretty uneventful. The kids had taken over the wasp killing and Marion had assumed complete responsibility for gluing and cataloging the dead insects into the kill binder. I continued my ear signals from the guard stand, but after a while it all began to feel like some never-ending game of Red Light Green Light, and I was getting a little bored with it.

On the way home, without really thinking, I reached up and pushed in the cassette tape sticking halfway out of the car stereo. Bananarama’s Cruel Summer abruptly cut off and suddenly Johnny Cash was singing, “Ring of Fire.”

“Oops,” I said.

Lester looked embarrassed. “My dad’s,” he explained, but neither of us made a move to change it. Instead, we started singing along. Apparently, we both knew it very well. Lester turned up the volume and we kept singing. When the song ended, he shouted, “Johnny Cash rocks!”

Laughing, I clicked off the stereo, afraid of what might come out of it next.

Maybe that’s why I let Lester talk me into stopping by my brother’s pool on the way home from work that day.

“Come on, James. It’s not going to be a problem,” Lester assured me. “Look, I’ll wear a disguise even.”

“A disguise?”

“You know, I’ll put on a baseball cap, change my shirt.”

“Fine, fine, we’ll stop by for a few minutes,” I finally agreed. “Besides, I’m still carrying around the cash bags from the last few days. I should drop them off with Arlene.” The truth was, I wasn’t as worried about the cash bags as I maybe should have been. I had my own reasons for wanting to stop by.

As soon as we walked through the gate, Lester was in the pool, not bothering to take off the orange T-shirt he had changed into or the green baseball cap pulled tightly onto his head. Arlene was busy working the concession window, but she managed to smile up at me before turning her attention to the line of dripping youngsters counting out their wet change. I was a little surprised to see Frankie sitting up on the guard stand. Gina was standing in the small patch of shade on the pool deck next to him. I waved across to them and Frankie returned with his usual lift-of-the-chin acknowledgement, but Gina either didn’t see me or chose not to respond. I joined my brother and Nate over at the picnic table.

“James,” my brother said as I sat down next to him. “He’s not supposed to be here.”

Nate whipped his head around to look at the pool behind him. “Lester’s here?” Several kids had already latched onto Lester’s back and he was towing them around the deep end. Nate stood up and removed his shirt. “Nice hat,” he said as he dove into the pool.

“I’m sorry,” I said, watching as a game of keep-away with the green baseball cap was beginning in the pool. “He begged me. Besides, I’m still carrying around the cash bags from the last few days. I need to drop them off. We won’t stay long.”

I could feel my brother staring at my neck. “Who gave you that?” he asked.

“No one.”

Gina was handing up a cup of something to Frankie. He took a long drink before passing it back. “Well, leave me some!” Gina said loudly after putting her mouth to the straw, although she didn’t sound mad.

“Don’t stay long,” Robert said, still watching me. “Okay?”

I shouldn’t have been offended by what he said; it was just the overly gentle, sympathetic way he said it that made me angry. I suddenly regretted coming here and got up from the table and went over to the edge of the pool. When Lester saw me standing there he immediately pointed to his wrist and then held up five fingers. So I walked over to the small brick office to leave my cash bags with Arlene while I waited.

Three little girls were huddled around the snack bar window speaking excitedly in Spanish with Arlene. She was leaning her head out of the window toward them as the girls all took turns touching the dark, thick curls of her hair. She shot me a helpless look as I walked over. I went around and entered through the door-opening of the tiny office. The girls had taken to comparing the wet split-ends of their own hair, but when they saw me standing behind Arlene, they ran off, giggling.

“Sorry,” she said, turning toward me.

I opened the zipper of my backpack. “Girl talk?”

“Yeah,” she said, laughing softly to herself. “I guess so.”

I pulled out three cash bags and handed them to her.

“James,” she said with exaggerated relief. “And I thought maybe you didn’t need me anymore.”

She took the bags from me, stepped over to her own red backpack hanging from a hook on the back wall, unzipped it, and dropped them inside. I remembered what Frankie had said the other day and I stole a quick glance at the little white shorts she was wearing. I felt my face flush and quickly turned my head to look out the window. Frankie was still on the stand. Gina was still standing loyally by his side. I turned back to Arlene who had resumed her usual seat on the stool between the two windows.

“Arlene?” I asked, and suddenly felt warm in the face again.


“Do you…” I caught myself about to ask whether she spoke Spanish or not. “I was wondering…”


“I heard something the other day, and well, I’ve been wondering what it means, and… I thought you might know.”

“What was it?”

“Well it sounded like, vear-win-sah,” I said clumsily. “No tea-in-as vear-win-sah, or something like that.”

Vergüenza,” she said, spinning the letters off her tongue.

“Yeah, that’s it.”

Vergüenza, it means shame.”


“Shame, you know, embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace.”

“There’s no shame?”

No tienes vergüenza,” she repeated the phrase. “Well, yeah, actually. It’s like asking, where’s your shame? Or more like saying, you should be embarrassed; you should be ashamed of yourself.”


“Did someone say that to you?” Her eyes searched my face.


I felt her looking at the mark on my neck.

“Not exactly,” I said.

Suddenly Lester shoved his head and shoulders through the concession window. “Okay, we can go now, boss,” he sputtered.

“Hi Lester.”

“Oh, hey Arlene! Did you miss me?”

“Every minute, Lester,” she said, smiling and shaking her head, “every minute.”

Lester leaned completely through the window and grabbed the corner of a towel sticking out of the lost-and-found laundry pile and yanked it free. “Hey, I think this is mine,” he said, holding it up. “Perfect!” He pulled himself back through the window as quickly as he had appeared, taking the towel with him.

I looked over at Arlene and shrugged. “Thanks,” I said with an awkward little wave goodbye. “I’ll see ya.”

But when I turned around, Gina was there. “Hey, you,” she said and kissed me hard on the mouth, pressing against me with her whole body like she’d run into me on accident or something and then moving quickly past me into the office. “Has anyone seen my towel?” she asked no one in particular. I hurried out of the office, not daring to look back.

Outside, Nate was on the guard stand and Frankie was making his way toward me. Lester was already walking backwards out of the gate into the park, parade waving to the pool in general with his reclaimed towel wrapped sarong-style firmly around his waist.

“Leaving?” Frankie asked.

I stopped, standing at an angle, my left side turned just slightly away from Frankie. “Yeah,” I said, covering the spot with my hand by rubbing my neck like it was stiff or sore. “I gotta make sure this guy safely leaves town.”

“Everything cool?” he asked.

My own distorted double-image mirrored back at me from the surface of his sunglasses. “No man, it’s not,” I said. “Marion really misses you.”

That made him laugh. “Catch you later then.”

“Later,” I agreed, then turned and followed Lester out of the gate.

We were almost half way to his car when I saw, just down the street at the far end of the park, a metallic green low rider with chrome trim slowly turning the corner and heading our way.

“Lester,” I called after him, “Wait. I … you forgot your hat, didn’t you?”

“Oh,” he said reaching up and touching his bare head. He spun around and hurried back through the pool gate. From the edge of my sunglasses, I watched the low rider drive past and continue down the street just as Lester returned, cap in hand, “Thanks, man, it’s my little brother’s.”

I stole another glance as we headed to the car again. The green low rider turned right at the next corner, just as I feared. It was circling the park.

Lester opened his side and then unlocked mine by hitting a button above the armrest of his door. As I climbed in, I tried to keep a lookout for the low rider. Behind the pool building, through some shade trees, and just past the iron monkey bars, there was a brief view of the street on the far side of the park. I fixed my gaze, unblinking, like a sniper’s crosshairs on the spot. The low rider passed through it.

I turned to find Lester getting out of the car.

“What are you doing?” I almost screamed.

He was standing in the street, struggling to remove the towel from around his waist. “Sorry, man, but I can’t drive with this thing.”

“Hurry up,” I said, trying to track the low rider’s progress again, then more to myself, “I think I saw Mark.”

“Mark, who’s Mark?” Lester had folded his towel and was now carefully positioning it on his car seat, tucking one side of it into the back crease of the upholstery, smoothing the edges.

“Lester! Get in already!” I snapped. “Mark, the little one with Janice’s boyfriend!”

“What!” He was instantly in the car. “Where?”

“They’re circling the park.” I twisted around in my seat to look behind.

“What!” He was fumbling with his car keys, trying to get one into the ignition with it still attached to the whistle lanyard around his neck. “You know him?”

Too late. There they were, turning the last corner. “Shit,” I said, “get down!”

“Shit!” Lester repeated, bending his knees and sliding forward, completely off his seat, towel and all, until he’d pinned himself like a broken limbo player, bent backwards between the floor matt and the bottom of the steering wheel. I flopped over sideways across the front seat, my forehead conking the top of Lester’s skull.

“Oh man, oh man, oh man,” he kept repeating.

“Why are they still looking for you?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“Are you still seeing Janice?”

“No, no, no,” he moaned. “Just the once.”

“Damn it, Lester!”

“I know, I know, I know.”

“Lester, shut up,” I whispered. The car would be passing us right about now.

“I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead,” he whined, banging his forehead on the bottom of the steering wheel every time he said it.

I grabbed him by the hair, pulling hard enough to pin his head against the seat of the car. “Shut up – shut up – shut up!” I hissed.

He stopped moving and was quiet. I tried to listen for the sound of an engine or a car’s tires on the street, but all I could hear was my own pulse pounding in my ears. The inside of the car had become so unbearably hot that I could hardly breathe. My body, head to toe, seemed to have burst instantaneously into a sweat.

“Lester,” I whispered, my hand still clenched firmly in his hair. “I’m going to let go now. When I do, get up slowly, take the car keys off your neck, start the car, and let’s go.”

I let go, sat up slowly myself, and looked around. “Okay, they’re gone,” I said. “Let’s get the air on in this thing.”

But Lester was still struggling to get out from under the steering wheel. His body was twisted at an odd angle so that his left arm was extended up and holding on to the top of the steering wheel, but his right shoulder was wedged against the base of his seat, pinning his other arm beneath him.

“I’m stuck!” he cried out, his voice high pitched and panicked. “Help me!”

I reached over and got my hand under his trapped shoulder, pushing down against the seat with the back of my arm and up against his shoulder with the front of my hand until it came free. Now, with both of his hands firmly gripping the top of the steering wheel, he took a deep breath and pulled himself up the rest of the way. Both of his elbows though, bearing all his weight, lodged themselves against the center of the steering wheel and pushed the car’s horn. The sound trumpeted forth so loudly that it went through me like an electric shock.

I suffered a split second of delayed understanding before it hit me like the punch line to a really bad joke. And I think, at that moment, we both would have laughed, if it weren’t for the fact that the horn continued to blare loudly. It was stuck.

That’s when Lester lost it.

He got the correct key in the ignition, started the engine, shifted the gear into drive, and stomped on the gas pedal. With horn wailing and tires screeching, we slid away from the curb, shot forward into the street, and just missed smashing the taillight on Frankie’s Datsun by mere inches.

“Slow down!” I shouted, but the Lincoln continued to rocket forward, gaining speed. Before I could get out another word, we’d run the stop sign of the four-way intersection in front of us and were heading straight for the next, the sounds of other car horns already fading behind us, blending with our own.

“Stop! Stop! Stop!”

I looked over at Lester. He was pulling on the steering wheel and pressing on the gas so hard that he’d lifted himself up and out of his seat. His brain, I think, was telling him he was pushing on the brakes; his body though, had betrayed him.

In the next intersection we weren’t so lucky.


I guess crash is a good word for what happened, but the feeling that comes with the sound – the sound and the feeling – that’s more like a crunch.

The car that finally crunched into us was a truck, I think.

It hit the front end of my side of the car and sent us into a counter-clockwise spin. How many times we went around I can’t be sure, maybe once, maybe six. I know we stopped though, when Lester’s side of the car met the light pole in front of Perez Hardware and Paint. I looked over at Lester. His hands had finally let go of the steering wheel. He looked relaxed. His head was leaning back against the headrest and turned just slightly away from me as if he was calmly listening to something important the pole had said and he didn’t want me to hear. Mr. Perez was the first person to come running out of the building.

After that I’m not really sure.


Many hours later, I walked out of the emergency room to find my family and friends, even my boss, waiting for me. Frankie was there, but not Gina. My mother was there. She was sitting in a waiting room chair next to Arlene. Arlene was holding my mother’s hand; or more so, my mother had one of Arlene’s hands grasped tightly between the two of her own. As soon as she saw me, my mother stood and crossed the room. I saw Arlene attempt to let go, but my mother dragged her along and did not release her hand until she was able to wrap me in both of her arms. Arlene stood behind my mother a little awkwardly for a moment, and then returned to her seat. I saw her pick my mother’s purse up off the floor and place it protectively in her lap.

My brother and Hilda entered the waiting room from where they had been standing in the outside hallway looking in through the glass.

“Can you go home now?” my mother asked.

“Yes, I guess so.” I’d been lying in a hospital bed for as long as I could remember, until a doctor finally came in to examine me. When he was done, he explained the after effects of soft tissue bruising on the body, suggested Tylenol, and said I could get dressed and go. “Where’s Lester?” I asked.

“They took Lester to another hospital,” Hilda said. “I just got off the phone with his parents. I’m going there now.”

“Is he all right?”

“They don’t know yet,” she said. “How do you feel?”


“You know you were unconscious for a while there, James,” she said, searching my face. “You had us worried.”

“I don’t really remember, but the doctor says I’m okay.”

“Shoreline can stay closed tomorrow,” Hilda said. “I’ll call Marion and tell her to put up a sign. School starts in little more than a week; maybe it will just stay that way.”

“Hilda,” I said. “I’m okay, I can work.”

“James, you stay home tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll see how you’re doing on Friday.” Then she looked over at Robert and added, “You can finish the summer at your brother’s pool.”

“Hilda, please, don’t close my pool. I’ll stay home tomorrow, but let me finish the summer, please.”

She reached out and touched my arm. “We’ll see, James.”

I didn’t know Hilda that well. Who did? But I had a feeling that was as close to a maybe as I was going to get.

We all walked out of the waiting room and to the parking lot together. “How did my mom get here?” I asked Frankie.

“Arlene brought her.”

“How did you get here?” I asked.

“With you, in the ambulance.”


“Where’s Gina?”

“She told the paramedics she was Lester’s girlfriend, so they let her ride with him.”

“Oh,” I said again.

I watched my mother take her purse from Arlene and then give Arlene a hug. Arlene got in her car and drove away. My brother had walked Hilda over to her car, and the two of them were standing next to it talking quietly. Then my brother opened Hilda’s car door for her, but before she got in, they kissed and then held each other for a long moment. Then Hilda also got in her car and left.

When my brother walked back over to us, he must have noticed the look on my face. “Like you didn’t know,” he said.

He was giving me way too much credit, but any credit I could get from my brother, I’d take.

Then Robert opened the front door of his car and let my mother get in. On his way back around the car he turned to look at me standing in the middle of the parking lot and said, “James, what are you doing? Get in.”

I turned to Frankie, who was still standing at my side. “Oh, I’m with you,” Frankie said, and when I started for my brother’s car he followed me there.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 11: The Last Chapter

LAST WEEK: Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

Monday, August 15, 2016

Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

The next morning, Lester picked me up in his mother’s car again. I didn’t feel like talking so I asked if the stereo worked and he was quick to want to impress me with the quality of its sound. On the radio, Rick Springfield was singing about his love for Jesse’s girl. Lester blasted the volume.

At the pool, I took the first rotation. When Lester came out to relieve me, he was eating a handful of green grapes.

“There’s grapes,” he said.

Joe from the Water District was in the office laughing about something with Marion. They each had a handful of grapes.

“Grapes in the fridge,” Marion said.

“Wash ‘em,” Joe added, and then laughed like it was the punch line of a joke.

Inside the refrigerator was an entire two-foot wide packing-box of grapes. I grabbed a handful and took them with me into the boy’s locker room and ate them while I stood under the shower. I wanted to be alone and to not think about Gina, but I did anyway. Then, after a while, I remembered the wasps.

Yesterday, several of the kids had made it their mission to kill and collect wasps without Lester noticing. I had improvised some hand signals to keep them appraised of his whereabouts. If he might be coming out of the office, I would grab my right earlobe as the sign for caution. If he were definitely coming, I would grab both ears. If I put both of my hands on the top of my head, it meant the coast was clear. Two kids were responsible for hunting and killing the wasps. One used the flyswatter and his partner watched his back. The wasp killer, it was mainly Chico, could concentrate completely on the wasp in front of him and his partner, usually ‘Nessa, would let him know what the signals were and watch so that if he didn’t get the wasp on his first try, it wouldn’t come around and sting him from behind. The rest of the kids stationed themselves around the pool so they could relay my signals to the killing team. If I grabbed my ear, they all grabbed their ears, and ‘Nessa would tell Chico. If I grabbed both ears, they all grabbed both ears, and then the fly swatter would disappear, someone would scream, someone else would splash, and suddenly everyone was doing something else. It was really amazing to watch.

Lester would never leave the office until my thirty minutes on the stand were up; so I used the caution and coast clear signs mostly, with a few double ear signals just so I could marvel at the transformation of their behavior. At the end of the day, Chico left the dead wasps in an old chip bag inside the empty paper towel dispenser in the boy’s restroom, just as we agreed. I had moved it into the refrigerator on the way out of the building as we locked up.

Remembering this all at once, still dripping wet, I left the shower and rushed back to the office, straight to the refrigerator. I had left the wasp bag where the box of grapes was now. Maybe they were still there, crushed beneath the box?

“So the flies didn’t work out, did they?” Marion asked.

I looked up. Joe was gone and Marion had the wasp notebook open on the counter before her. She was gluing the wasps onto a blank piece of paper with a new bottle of glue and real loose-leaf paper.

“Don’t worry,” she said, her eyes on her work, “I’ll put it away before Lester comes back in.”

“Sure,” I managed.

“Let’s just make sure you win this time,” she said, placing a wasp corpse in the center of a white puddle of glue.

“Okay,” I said, and then added, “Oh, Marion, do I need to buy any chips today?”

“No, Sweetie. Not today, thank you, but tomorrow maybe.” And for the rest of the summer, that became our code for managing the low attendance.

I grabbed another handful of grapes, rinsed them off in the shower, and took my turn on the guard stand.

There was a man in the pool. Adult swimmers were rare. Usually they came with their kids, but he seemed to be alone. He was swimming back and forth underwater, short ways across the pool. When he reached one side, he would stop, lean with his back against the wall for a minute or two, and then take a deep breath and swim to the opposite side again. His skin was three shades of brown.

His body reminded me of stain on wood and the summer my dad renovated the kitchen and gave me the job of finishing the new cabinets. I would apply the dark, gasoline-smelling stain to the bare wood with a paintbrush and let it set for a while before wiping it off with an old t-shirt. If I wiped the stain away immediately, it looked like the color of the man’s stomach and legs. If I let the stain set for a while, it would stay dark like his face and arms. If I got distracted and left the stain on too long before wiping it off, it stayed the darkest, like the color of the backs of his hands and neck.

It occurred to me that he was probably the source of the grapes. As I bit down on a single piece of the pearly green fruit, tasting both sweet and tart in my mouth, I wondered whether or not I should thank him. He had stopped on the wall bellow me, just inside the square of shade cast by the guard stand. I turned toward him, but he spoke first.

“Do you buy grapes?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. “My mom does,” I answered around the grape in my mouth.

“Tell her not to,” he said, turning back to look out over the pool.


“Because,” he seemed to think this over for a second, “Tell her they’re poisonous.”

I stopped chewing. “I washed these.”

He looked up at me. “Not to eat,” he said, “to pick.” Then he took a breath, ducked his head under water, and swam to the other side again.

One of the younger kids, Edward, moved into the same shade spot below the guard stand and called up to me, “Life guard, throw me a grape!”

I dropped a grape down to him and he caught it in his mouth. He doggie paddled a little further out into the pool. “Again,” he called. “Lifeguard, again!”

I tossed another grape to him. This one bounced off the side of his face and fell bobbing at the surface of the water next to him. Laughing, he rescued the grape, plopped it in his mouth, and still chewing, shouted, “Again, lifeguard, again!”

The man, leaning against the wall on the far side of the pool, seemed to suddenly notice our game. 

“Dejar lo!” he snapped at Edward.

Edward turned to see who was speaking.

“No tienes vergüenza!” the man said, clearly angry.

Edward gave him a dark look. It was the same murderous expression I’d seen him give Chico when he and the older boy were fighting for possession of a tennis ball, and Chico resorted to punching him in the stomach to get it. I thought Edward was going to respond; instead, he ducked his head under water and swam off.

“He’s not an animal,” the man said, looking at me.

I didn’t know how to respond.

Behind the protection of my sunglasses, I held his gaze for as long as I could, until he took a breath and resumed swimming his underwater laps. After a few more minutes of this, he climbed out, gathered the rolled up bundle of his clothes from the table, and exited the pool through the boy’s locker room. A little later, I thought I saw him walking up the street in the direction of the church.

After work, I let Lester drop me off at home again. My mother was in the back yard, watching my little sisters, Natalie and Michelle, and one of their neighborhood friends, Karla, run through a sprinkler set up in the middle of the back yard grass. I pulled up a lawn chair and sat next to my mother at the edge of the girls’ action.

“Mom,” I said after a while. “Why did you and Dad move here?”

“This house?”

“No, California.”

“Well, Honey, your Dad found work out here.”

“Was it hard?”

“Finding work?” she asked.

“No, for you, you know, so far from your home and family. Wasn’t it just … so different?”

“It still is, so different. It was hard. But it was the right choice.”

“How do you know?”

“Well Honey,” she said, turning to look at me. “I just do.” She reached out and ran the tips of her fingers through the hair above my ear. “You always did get so blond in the summer,” she said, “so golden blond.”

Later that evening, Gina called and asked me to come over. She was standing on the sidewalk near the place we’d met the night before. She was already smoking her cigarette and before she opened the passenger side door of my car, she tossed the last of it into the gutter. She shut the door and immediately leaned over and kissed me wetly on the mouth.

“I missed you,” she said.

“Me too.”

She turned to sit with her back to the door, stretching out her bare legs and feet and resting them across my lap. I placed my hands awkwardly on her shins. They were smooth and just a little slick with lotion. She reached out and clicked on my stereo, pushing the eject button on my cassette player before it had time to start playing. She moved the dial on the radio back and forth until she found a song she liked. Then she turned the volume down so low it was almost too quiet to hear.

Out of nowhere, I heard myself ask, “You know Spanish, right?”

She shifted around a little, getting more comfortable in her seat. “No,” she said, “not really.”

“It’s just that I heard this word and I’ve been wanting to know what it means.”

“What word?” she asked.

“It sounds something like, vear-win-sah?”

“I have no idea,” she said, and she took her legs off my lap and spun around in her seat with her feet tucked under her.

She leaned over and we kissed for a long time. As I drove home later that evening, I could feel the sting of the hickey she left me burning high on the left side of my neck. “Score!” Frankie would say. It was the kind of make-out session that you couldn’t wait to tell your best friend about … unless, of course, you were making-out with your best friend’s girl.

I was lying in bed, still wide-awake, when my brother came home. He set his keys on the dresser and then tripped over my backpack on the floor in the middle of the room. “Damn it, James,” he hissed. The air conditioner cycled off and the room went quiet. His bed frame creaked. I could hear him moving around, trying to get comfortable.

“What if I want to go off to college?” I asked, my voice overly loud. It sounded more like an accusation than a question, but he must have thought I was talking in my sleep or something, because he didn’t immediately answer. “What if I want to go to college?” I repeated. “Why don’t I know this stuff?”

The air cycled on again. “What stuff?” he finally asked.

“Well, how did you know what to do to get into college? Who told you where to go and what to ask? Why does everyone know about this except for me?”

“James, I saw your report card,” he said, sounding overly patient. “You don’t even take school seriously.”

“What are you talking about? I have A’s.”

“Yeah, A’s in English, history, and art, but you got D’s in math and science. You always have. Colleges don’t recognize D’s. They might as well be F’s.”

“I could take them over.”


“And I could take this SAT test.”

“Do you even know what that is?”

“Yes I know what that is. I’m not stupid.”

“Okay, okay. Why the sudden interest? You never asked me any of this before.”

“I don’t want to stay here,” I said. “I hate this place.”

I could hear him shifting around on his bed. “Come on, you hate this place?” I could tell that he had turned to face me in the dark. When he spoke again, it sounded almost tender. “James, what are you talking about?”

“I just—” my throat closed up for a second. “I just never thought about it before, about college, going to college.”

“Do you even know how much school costs?”

“Don’t you have financial aid or something?”

“A little, but I also have scholarships, and I work. Especially in the summer, as much as I can.”

“I work,” I said. “I can work.”

“You need a higher grade point average than you have, James.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have to apply to a university, and they look at your grade point average and your SAT scores. The higher your grade point average is the less you have to worry about your SAT score, and the higher your SAT score, the less you have to worry about your grade point average.” The air cycled off. “You would need a really high score on the SAT.”


From far away came the familiar sound of the train whistling as it passed through town.

“It’s a really hard test,” Robert said.


The air came on again.

Robert was quiet for such a long time that I thought he had fallen asleep. So when he did speak it surprised me and I didn’t understand what he said at first.

“What?” I asked.

“I could take it for you,” he said again.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, they give the test like once a month, on a Saturday usually, and they don’t offer the test at Valley, right? So you’re going to have to take it at another school anyway. Most people take the test at Central, right? But no one says you have to. Register to take it earlier, like in October, at a school farther away, like West Hills. No one even knows us over there.”

“Yeah, but what difference is that going to make?”

“I’ll take your Driver’s license and school I.D. I’ll take the test for you,” he said, “No one will ever know.”

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After

LAST WEEK: Chapter 8: Trading Places

Monday, August 8, 2016

Chapter 8: Trading Places

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Chapter 8: Trading Places

Monday morning, my brother explained that Lester would be trading places with Frankie for the next couple of days. “Hilda wants to avoid another confrontation. She thought it wouldn’t hurt to be safe. She already talked to Frankie about it.”

“You told … Hilda?” I asked.

“Well yeah, I thought she should know.”

“But Frankie gives me a ride. My car doesn’t have air.”

“I know,” he said, picking up his wallet and keys from the top of the dresser. “I told Lester that he had to drive you.”

“But what about the wasps?”

Robert just looked at me. “Mom?” he shouted. “Have you seen my towel?”

“I washed it honey,” her voice rose up from somewhere down stairs. It’s folded in the laundry room.”

“Yeah, the wasps,” I said again. “The bets still on right, even with Lester and Frankie trading places?”

He gave me an exasperated look. “Grow up James, this isn’t a game.”

“Geez, what wrong with you?”

“I’m saying this is more important than some stupid bet.”

Lester showed up in a huge white car with four doors and soft, tan leather seats. The inside reminded me of a hospital waiting room: it was clean, cold, and smelled like strangers. “It’s a 1982 Lincoln Continental,” Lester said proudly. “Nice huh? Look at the size of the back seat.”

“Is it yours?”

“Uh, no, it’s my mom’s, but, you know, I drive it.”


“This way?” Lester asked, looking to his right as we reached the highway.

“Yeah, take this road all the way down and you’ll know it when you see it.”

We drove for a while in silence. I had to admit, this was a much more comfortable ride than Frankie’s Datsun – almost too comfortable. I stretched my legs all the way out, and still there was room. I looked down at my wrinkled red bathing suit and the tops of my sun burnt knees and wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have put my towel down on the seat before I got in.

“Dude,” said Lester, “you just live down the street from the pool.” The fact seemed to just occur to him. “How’d you end up all the way down in Shoreline when you could walk to work?”

“I’m the manager in Shoreline.”

“Well yeah, I guess that makes sense, but your brother’s awesome to work for.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“That’s right,” he laughed, “you guys share a room and everything don’t you? I bet if you worked together you’d be fighting all the time. I know. I have little brothers.”

“Naw, we don’t really fight, Robert’s cool.”

“Hey, your brother’s like the smartest guy I know. What is he an engineer or something?”

“That’s his major, yeah.”

“I haven’t even decided what I’m going to major in.”

“Me neither.”

“Really? But aren’t you going to be a senior already? Aren’t you supposed to have all that decided?”

“I guess.”

“Dude, I’m only going to be a junior and my parents are already planning college tours and all that.”

“Really? Like where?”

“Oh, they like all these places back east you know, but I want to go to San Diego. I mean why would you want to leave California, for what, the snow? Forget it. I don’t miss it at all. I don’t even like visiting my grandparents during Christmas.”

“Where’s that?” I asked.


“Ohio. Hey, my parents are from Indiana.”

“Awesome, we were almost neighbors. When did you move?”

“Me? No, they moved out here when they got married. We were born here.”

“Really? Robert too?”

“Well yeah.”

“And you guys have always lived there, you know, in your house?”


“So you go to Valley?”

“Yeah.” My high school was on the east side of the valley; Lester’s high school was on the west.

“Really? Wow, that must be, you know,” he looked over at me, “that’s cool, that must be cool, you know.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He seemed thoughtful for a while.

“And your brother went to Valley too?”

“Lester, what do you think?”

“Sorry dude. It’s just that … you know, I’ve never really, you know…”

I did know what he was getting at, or trying not to get at, but I wasn’t about to be helpful. Remember the wash … dry grass and tumbleweeds on one end, country clubs and golf courses on the other? That about summed up the differences in our neighborhoods as well. Lifeguards like Lester had swimming pools in their backyards and had to drive “down” to the nearest public pool to work. Guards like my brother and me, as Lester pointed out, could practically walk across the street.

“So,” Lester said. “Have you taken your SAT, you know, your college entrance test?”

“Yeah, I know what the SAT is. No, not yet.”

We drove a little longer in silence and the odd thought occurred to me that, like Lester, I was also driving “down” to work.

“Dude, there’s nothing even out here. Did we pass it?”

“Pretty soon,” I said. “You’ll see a sign that says Shoreline. Don’t miss it. It’s too hard to turn around if you do.”

“Why do they call it—Oh! There it is.”

A small green and white sign bearing the city’s name and an arrow pointing left was visible just ahead. “Get in that turn lane,” I said. “The trucks don’t like to slow down.”

Lester pulled into the narrow center lane just as a diesel shuddered past, blasting its horn. He let a couple of oncoming trucks go by before turning off the highway.

“Why do they call it Shoreline?” he asked, as soon as we crossed the railroad tracks. “What’s it on the shore of?”

“I’ll tell you what. When we get to the pool you can ask Marion. I’m sure she knows.”

Because the land out here was so flat, and the desert brush grew so wild and thick right along the edges of the road, until you left the highway, you couldn’t really get a good view of the area. Now there were green agricultural fields stretching out in all directions.

“See that street sign on the corner up ahead? Turn right there.”

“Wow, what are those, grapes?”

“Yeah.” The vines grew at about the height of the car in rows that ran perpendicular to the road. Looking down the rows as we passed always made me dizzy.

“I don’t see any grapes.”

“It’s already pretty late in the season. There probably aren’t very many left in there.”

Suddenly a small prefab home appeared on one side of the road surrounded by a chain link fence. Several dogs rushed out from under the house to bark at us as we passed. A similar looking house appeared on the next corner. Then another, and suddenly there was the rough yellow stucco of Sancho’s Market with its single gas pump, the red brick of the post office, and the bright blue paint of the Laundromat. Behind these three distinct buildings the town stretched out into row upon row of cramped little houses, each bordered in chain link fence. The neighborhood was empty and quiet now, but as soon as the sun moved far enough to one side of the sky to give things back their shadows—right about the time the pool closed each day—people would start to appear in their yards. The music, talking, yelling, and laughing would begin, and the air would fill with the oils and spices of dinners being prepared.

“Oh my God,” breathed Lester, “is this what Mexico is like?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

At the end of the street was a small white church with a bell tower topped with a cross. Across from the church was the swimming pool surrounded by a baseball-soccer field and some basketball courts. Finally, behind that was the elementary school, closed now for the summer. And there was Shoreline, pretty much the whole town.

The usual kids were lined up at the open door. Someone yelled, “They’re here!”

“It’s a new lifeguard!”

“Where’s Frankie?”

“Look at his car!”

“Is he the new manager?”

“What happened to Frankie?”

Marion greeted us as with a welcoming smile. She had actually tidied the office. You’d think I was bringing some kind of visiting foreign diplomat. More like, fresh meat. “You must be Lester,” she said, “I’m Marion.”

“I’ll go up first,” I said, grabbing the life buoy.

“Uh, are you sure?”

“Yep.” Besides, he had it coming.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Marion began, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “I heard about what happened to you. Are you all right? Hilda gave me all the details. She wanted me to make sure…” and so on.

“Lifeguard.” It was Chico.

“You want us to kill wasps today?”

“Yes, but don’t let that lifeguard see you,” I said, looking back toward the office. “He works at Jefferson pool. He’s a spy.”

Chico’s eyes grew wide, then narrow. “Ten-four good buddy,” he said, speaking into his hand.

We stayed open all day that day again. It looked like we weren’t going to have more than eight swimmers, but Marion and I each bought two bags of chips and didn’t eat them, so it turned out we had enough swimmers after all. Lester didn’t seem to notice a thing.

“Dude,” He said when we were in his car and driving home again, “You guys had me all terrified of her. Marion’s not that bad. She’s cool.”

“Say that again after a few more days.”

“Yeah, yeah. Did she really baby sit you as a kid?”


“Yeah, right. You guys have it so easy out here.”

“What, didn’t you find it a little slow compared to the action at Jefferson?” I guess I was somewhat disappointed that he’d apparently had such a great time at our pool.

“Eh,” he shrugged.

“Didn’t Frankie also take your evening shift?”

“Yeah.” He seemed to consider this for a moment. “But I’ll find something to do with the extra time.”

I should have reminded him to go straight home when he dropped me off at my house, but when I thought about it, it was too late, he had already sped away. Not that he would have listened to me anyway.

I wondered how Frankie was doing on his end of the trade. I considered walking over to my brother’s pool, but I had no real reason to just go and hang out there. After what happened on my last walk, I decided to just go inside and call it a day.

My dad was eating dinner on a tray in front of the television.

“Well hello, son.”

“Hey, Dad.”

“Aren’t you home a little early?”

“Yeah, a little.” I think my parents just assumed Robert and I kept the same hours.

“Is your car running all right?”

“Oh, yeah. I got a ride with one of the other guards. His mom’s car has air conditioning.”

My dad just smiled and nodded his head appreciatively. His job as a building codes inspector for the county had him driving all over the place. Sometimes he’d be gone for a few days at a time. “Well, your mother made chicken and dumplings for dinner,” he said, tapping the nearly empty plate in front of him with his fork. “And if we’re lucky,” he added, looking over his shoulder toward the kitchen, “something for dessert.”

Later that evening the phone rang in the middle of Little House on the Prairie. My youngest sister Natalie jumped up to answer it. “James!” she shouted, walking as far into the living room as the coiled phone cord would allow. “It’s a girl!”

“Can we talk, James?” It was Gina.

“Well, yeah…”

“Come over.”

“Come over? Uh … you mean come over, to your—”

“James. Don’t think about it too hard, don’t ask your brother for advice, and don’t call Frankie. Just get into your car and drive over to my house.”

“But your dad.”

“Well don’t come in. Park down the street, like Frankie does. I’ll come out.”

On the way over, I passed Frankie’s house to make sure his car was still in the driveway, which made me feel so guilty I almost turned around and went home. But when I parked at the end of Gina’s street and she stepped out of the dark and slipped into the front seat of my car, the only thing I wanted to do was kiss her.

“Hey, I forgot you had a Bug.” She was wearing pajama bottoms and a loose t-shirt. “Why don’t you ever drive it?”

“No air.”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot.” Her hair looked like it was still damp and she smelled like baby shampoo. “Too bad, it’s cute.”

“You want to listen to some music?”

“No, that’s okay.” She reached up and pulled a cigarette from above her ear with one hand and pushed in the lighter on my dashboard with the other. “You don’t mind if I smoke do you?”


When the knob popped she held it to the end of her cigarette, her face glowing red as she inhaled. “Frankie hates it.” She rolled her window down all the way and blew most of the smoke outside.

“He has asthma,” I said.

“I know.”

“Oh … sorry.”

She turned and looked at me directly for the first time, then reached over and squeezed my arm. “Relax James. We’re just talking. We never get to talk.”


“So how was it with Lester today? Did my aunt talk his ear off?”

“Pretty much.”

“What about Lester?”

“He thinks she’s great.”

“Hah,” she laughed. “He would.”

A car passed slowly, temporarily flooding the inside of the car with light, causing us both to turn our heads away and slouch down a few inches in our seats. For a while we just sat there, even after the car was long gone.

When the silence became too awkward, I opened my mouth, not sure what would come out. “I was thinking about college,” I said.


“College. I was just thinking about college today. Are you going, you know, to college after next year?”

“I’ll go to Community, I guess.”

“Why Community? Don’t you want to go away to college?”

“Community is a college.”

“Well, yeah, but only two years.”

“And then you transfer and finish somewhere else. Besides, my dad doesn’t want me leaving home. Not yet, anyway.”

She inhaled deeply from her cigarette and the smoke flowed gently out of her nose. I was thinking if she offered me one, I’d probably say yes.

“So, have you taken your SAT?” I asked.

“My what?”

“You know, your college entrance test?”

“Oh yeah, no. You don’t need that for Community.”


“I thought you knew all this stuff James.” She twisted a little in her seat to face me. “I mean, your brother’s in college. I thought you’d probably go to the same school, you know, be roommates, go surfing every morning before class, and all that.”

“I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about it.”

“You’re a strange one James. That’s all your brother ever talked about last summer.”

I tried to imagine sharing a dorm room with Robert, but it didn’t look any different than the room we shared now. “I’ve never even been on a surf board in my life,” I said.

I don’t know why, but that made her smile. “I’m sure you could probably figure it out.”

A second car drove by, and we were quiet again.

“Which one’s your house?” I asked after a while, leaning forward and peering up the street.

“The ugly one.”

“I don’t—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh,” I stopped looking, “I didn’t—”

“God, it’s hot. I wish you had air in this thing.”


She looked at the dwindling length of her cigarette, and then tossed what was left of it out the window. “I better go inside now anyway.”

Instead of opening the door though, she reached over, grabbed the front of my shirt, and pulled me to her. Her lips were puffy and soft and her mouth tasted like cigarette, kind of minty and metallic at the same time. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it would be like to kiss Hilda. Not baby shampoo, but coconut oil and purple flowers. Then she got out of my car and disappeared up the street.

I drove home in a daze, feeling happy and guilty at the same time. By the time I parked the car and went inside, I was just really confused.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

LAST WEEK: Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

Monday, August 1, 2016

Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … except for Bert and Ernie, of course. Those guys are for real.

Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

The next day at work, Marion knew all about what happened. Always able to find joy in another’s loss of ease, she was in a great mood. “Maybe where this kid’s from it’s okay to just talk with another guy’s girl, to go over to her house for an innocent little social visit. What do they call it, courting? Did he think he was courting her? Did he bring flowers? Candy? A promise ring?” she laughed. “What’d he want, just a kiss? One kiss? He’s lucky her father didn’t come out of the house and shoot him in the head. Or does this girl have a father? I mean, you know, even if he’s not around, she’s bound to have uncles or brothers. Just talking—my ass! And what kind of girl sits in some other boy’s car, in front of her own house—talking, when she knows her boyfriend’s going to find out? I hope your little friend knows just how lucky he is. Oh, I bet he thinks he’s in love with the little senorita, but she’s just having some dangerous fun with him, some dangerous fun.”

“This guy I work with has one testicle,” Joe from the Water District put in first chance he got. “His brother-in-laws found out he was cheating on their wife—I mean sister—you know cheating on their sister, his wife, and they took him out in the desert and … they were wearing masks of course … but he knew because they were talking, and they cut off one of his testicles, just like that. Next time, we’ll kill you—just like that—next time, we’ll kill you.”

“Unh huh,” said Marion.

I had to get out of there. I took the fly swatter and started hunting wasps. By the time it was my turn on the stand, I had killed four. The first was in the locker room, the second and third were hanging around the drinking fountain, and the fourth had stopped to enjoy a patch of wet pool deck and never got up again. I put the dead wasps in an empty chip bag and passed it and the fly swatter to Frankie as we switched places.

“Thanks, German,” he said.

Frankie decided to get in the pool and go for the wasps landing right on the water. He thrashed the first one to land near him by slapping it repeatedly with one of his sandals, but when he went to fish it out with the fly swatter, it came to and flew right at him, landing on his sunglasses. He screamed out, flinging the glasses and the wasp back into the water, and began beating the surface hysterically with his shoe again. This quickly drew a crowd, and before long he had delegated the job to three enthusiastic kids. To one he gave the flyswatter, and the other two, a sandal each. By the end of my shift he’d bagged eight more wasps. “At this rate,” he said, “we won’t have to cheat.”

Standing in the shade of the guard stand, I counted the swimmers in the pool. Great, if we didn’t get at least three more swimmers by the end of the next hour, we’d have to close early again.

“Man,” Frankie sighed, “I could really use a soda right now.”

“What are the chances of Grendel’s Mother dropping in on us?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s more likely Marion would call her if she knew one of us left to the store. Never mind.”

“She can’t call if she doesn’t know I left.”

I guess I was still angry about the other day, angry enough to take my chances. But then I remembered that my wallet was inside the office with the rest of my things.

“Take mine,” Frankie said, motioning with his head to the picnic table where he liked to nap. “I don’t see why you trust your stuff in there alone with her anyway.”

I looked over at the picnic table and the padlocked exit gate behind it. My keys were attached to my whistle. Those always stayed with me. I could easily slip out the gate, cut across the ball field, and then walk up a couple of blocks before cutting back over to the street that led to Sancho’s Market. Marion would never notice I was gone.

“Screw it,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Wait,” Frankie said, slipping his feet out of his sandals and scooting them toward me on the platform. “You’ll need these.”

A minute later I was running through the grass of the ball field with Frankie’s wallet in one hand and his plastic sandals clutched in the other. As soon as I hit the street, I tossed down the sandals and tried to step into them. They were at least two inches too small for my feet. Okay, fine, I thought, I’ll just run from shade spot to shade spot like we did when we were kids and walked from our house to the pool every day.

I envisioned myself crossing the street in giant, graceful leaps and bounds like a gazelle in slow motion; my feet would hardly touch the ground long enough to feel the heat. But halfway across, I knew I was mistaken. By the time I reached the stubborn patch of dry grass growing from the base of the telephone pole on the other side of the street, I could hardly catch my breath.

“Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” The sound wouldn’t stop coming out of my mouth, “Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” It felt like chunks of molten asphalt were still clinging to the bottoms of my feet. Hopping first on one foot and then the other, I managed to shove my feet into Frankie’s sandals. I found that as long as I stood on my toes, my heels wouldn’t touch the burning ground.

Lining both sides of the street were neat rows of cramped little houses bordered in chain link fences. Each space, from the front door to the street, was a crowded mix of junkyard and botanical wonder. Anywhere that didn’t have flowers, or cactus, or vegetables, or a shade tree growing in it was full of old furniture, stacked cinderblocks, piles of wood, various parts of cars, or cars with various parts missing. What this town didn’t have was sidewalks. There were no sidewalks or even curbs anywhere, just crumbly grey asphalt that faded into powdery grey dirt at the edges.

So I started walking up the middle of this particular street as casually as I could. Tiptoeing along in my tank top and bathing suit, I felt more like a half dressed man in high heels than the confident, golden haired, bronze skinned lifeguard I imagined myself to be.

Everything seemed quiet and deserted at first, but eventually a dog started barking, and then another, and another as I made my way through the neighborhood. By the time I reached the end of the street, my high-heeled strut had shifted into a tiptoed sprint.

The end of the street? I’d never actually been this way before.

Where was the crossroad? The asphalt just stopped and then there was desert. Not desert with big mouse-eared cactus, scruffy grey-green bushes, and the occasional stubborn wild flowers, but desert in its most literal sense: just dirt.

No turning back now, I told myself. I took off in a modified high heel sprint across the barren wasteland. Broken pieces of glass and old roots and branches stabbed at my toes and into the soft arches of my feet and the backs of Frankie’s sandals tossed handfuls of hot dirt up my legs and onto my head and shoulders with every step.

“Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” I began making the sound again, “Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” in rhythmic torment with my feet.

Finally, the dirt turned into asphalt again. I had crossed to the other side and stood panting on solid ground as I tried to find my bearings. This wasn’t where I thought I would be at all. I could see the yellow stucco of Sancho’s Market just over the top of a last row of houses, but the map in my head said those houses shouldn’t even be there. And I was so close. I was not about to go around them now. I scanned the back yards of the houses separating me from my final destination. The two in front of me looked pretty well lived in, but the one just next to those seemed practically deserted. I moved closer to get a better look. No cars, no laundry, hardly even any junk.

Putting Frankie’s wallet between my teeth, I cursed the makers of my uniform shorts for failing to give them even one pocket large enough to hold anything more than a key or a couple of quarters, and climbed over the four foot tall chain link fence.

I was almost to the front of the yard when I saw it, next to a water spigot connected to the side of the house: a dog’s water bowl, a big bowl, filled with water. Before I saw it, before it saw me, I started running.

And that’s when I felt it, right behind me. It never made a sound, not a growl, not a bark, but I knew it was there. I felt the force of its malice, its hate, its single-minded, bone-crunching, soul-consuming need to devour me before I could get over that fence.

But my fear was faster.

It wasn’t until I’d leapt the fence and landed rolling in the dirt that it started barking. I looked back just once at the snarling beast after I’d picked myself up. It was even bigger than I had imagined. I brushed the gravel from the palms of my hands, took Frankie’s wallet out of my mouth, and hurried shakily across the street.

By the time I walked into Sancho’s Market, I felt like I’d already been gone from the pool for days.

I ordered two large Cokes with extra ice from Myra at the deli counter. She looked me over just once from head to toe and then, without saying a word, went to work filling my order. I looked down. I was covered in a grey film of dirt. There were cuts and scratches on my feet and ankles and the skin on my right knee was completely scraped off from where I’d fallen in the street. The blood mixing with the dirt outlined every wound with a ring of red mud.

“Where’s your friend?” Myra asked, pushing the two large Styrofoam cups across the counter toward me. I had put Frankie’s wallet back between my teeth in order to unwrap and insert a straw into the lid of each sweaty container, so I just kind of grunted and motioned with my head in the general direction of the pool. “Oh,” she said. My hands, I noticed were almost in as bad of a condition as my feet. My right elbow was beginning to throb and burn. I grunted thanks as I picked up my drinks and got in line to pay.

The big man in the sweaty grey polo shirt was working the register. I set the drinks down and ripped back the Velcro fastener on Frankie’s wallet. Ninety-eight cents plus ninety-eight cents plus tax came to two dollars and eight cents. I opened Frankie’s wallet. There were only two dollars.

“I only have two dollars,” I said.

He closed his eyes, inhaled slowly through his nose, and opened them again with a you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me look on his face. Then, exhaling just as slowly, his face resumed its look of disinterest and his eyes drifted off to focus on something behind me. His hand though, reached out to tap a small shallow dish with pennies in it next to the register. On the side, written in black marker, it said, Take a Penny – Leave a Penny.

“Sometimes you give,” he said, with a bored look into the distance. “Sometimes you take.”

I counted out eight pennies, leaving only a few behind in the tray, and placed them along with the two dollars into his hand.

I was just outside the store when the idea hit me. I had to set the drinks down on the ground and remove the wallet from my mouth in order to catch my breath. Something was happening. My eyes darted back and forth. It felt like movement inside my head.


I wedged Frankie’s wallet beneath the elastic waistband of my bathing suit, picked up a soda in each hand and started walking back to the pool. I took the main street this time. As I walked, I sucked soda from the straw of the drink in my left hand, and then after a minute or so, I took a drink from the cup in my right. I shuffled along at a comfortable pace, not bothering to keep my bare heels from making contact with the street, and ignoring the sear of the asphalt each time they did.

A car honked. It was Joe from the Water District. He waved at me as he passed in his big white truck. I lifted a soda in acknowledgment. His lunch break must be over. Marion was alone in the office now without distraction.

I didn’t care. I was thinking about Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. One of my favorite skits had always been one where Ernie was going to share something edible, a cookie, or a licorice or something, with Bert. Ernie would say something like, Hey Bert, there’s only one licorice left. Do you want to share it? Sure, Bert would answer in his uptight nasal voice. Then Ernie would cut the licorice in half and hold the two pieces up side-to-side. One would piece would be a little longer than the other. In order to correct the portion difference, he would take a bite out of the longer piece and then measure them against each other again. But then the shorter piece was now longer, so to be fair, he would take a bite out of that piece. This would go on until the last two tiny remaining pieces were finally of equal size. I used to get a big kick out of this. It still made me laugh.

I don’t know what Bert and Ernie had to do with the brilliant plan taking shape in my head. The memory didn’t really make sense, but my idea did.

Frankie never even noticed me as I walked past him in the street, turned the corner, and returned to the pool through the front door.

I could tell from the look on Marion’s face that, whether she knew I’d left or not, she at least never expected me to come strolling in through the front door. Neither did Frankie. He just watched me, dumbfounded, as I approached the guard stand. “Here,” I said, placing what little was left of both drinks at his feet. “I’m done.”

I returned to the office, got my own wallet out of my backpack, and turned to face Marion. “How many swimmers do we have, Marion?” I asked.

“Nine,” she answered without looking at her report.

“Oh,” I took three dollars out of my wallet. “How many bags of chips can I get for three dollars?” I set the money on the counter.

Her upper lip curled back. “Six.”

“Okay,” I said, “any flavor.”

She reached below the counter without taking her eyes off me. I could hear the crackle of the chip bags as she clutched at them blindly.

“You know,” I said, in as casual and polite a manner as I could, “I’m actually really full right now.” I stepped back, rubbing my stomach. “Too much soda.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. I had the sudden panicked urge to turn and run, but held my ground.

“How about you hold on to the three dollars for me and I’ll get the chips later, or whatever.” I started to back out of the room toward the pool deck, but then stopped and moved back toward her as if another idea had just occurred to me.

“You know,” I said, “three dollars … three swimmers.” I pushed the money still lying on the counter closer to her and whispered, “Just in case.”

I held her gaze just long enough to see a thin smile crack the corners of her lips. Then I hightailed it for the pool deck.

We stayed open all day that day, and between us, Frankie and I bagged a total of twenty-eight wasps. After we’d all clocked out and Marion had left, we found a three-ring binder and some white school glue in an old box of day camp supplies left behind from who-knows-when. We glued the dead wasps to the back of an accident report form, five across and six down and inserted it into the three-ring binder. On the paper below each wasp we wrote its number. Two more wasps and we’d start a new page.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 8: Trading Places

LAST WEEK: Chapter 6: I'd Stay Down If I Were You, White Boy