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.

SUMMER OF WASPS
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.

“Yes?”

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

“Yes?”

“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?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

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

“No.”

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.

Crash.

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?”

“Okay.”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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.

SUMMER OF WASPS
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.

“Why?”

“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.”

“Maybe.”

“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.”

“Oh.”

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

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

“Yeah.”

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.

SUMMER OF WASPS

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.”

“Nice.”

“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.”

“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?”

“Yeah.”

“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?”

“No.”

“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?”

“No.”

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.”

“Okay.”

“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.

“Huh?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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.”

“Sorry.”

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.

SUMMER OF WASPS
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.

Epiphany.

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Chapter 6: I’d Stay Down If I Were You, White Boy


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 … no matter how many times you ask.

SUMMER OF WASPS
Chapter 6: I’d Stay Down If I Were You, White Boy

The next day I got badly sunburned. I couldn’t stay in the office with Marion, not after yesterday. The truth was, she started the day off rather cordially … she said good morning. This was something she hadn’t done in over a week, although the way she said it sounded more like an accusation than a salutation; still, she was trying. I think she was attempting to hold my gaze, maybe to communicate an apology – not likely – or at least a no-hard-feelings and that-knife-wound-to-your-back-looks-like-it’s-recovering-nicely stare, but when she looked at me, I couldn’t meet her eye, not even for a second. I was just sure she knew what happened last night, that she had seen it in her crystal ball, or read it in that morning’s coffee grinds, or the entrails of a dead dog, or whatever.

Outside it was even worse. Frankie sat below me in the shade of the guard stand as usual, except he seemed unusually quiet today. Sure it could have been that he was just tired and hadn’t slept well because of his asthma acting up last night, but what if he knew? What if Gina had told him what happened? What if she had already broken up with him … after they’d dropped me off last night? What if he knew everything and was just waiting for me to be a man about it and … and what?

When Frankie took his turn on the stand, I went swimming. When my hands started to prune, I sprayed the deck off with the water hose, and then I went swimming again. On top of that, we had exactly twelve swimmers, so we stayed open all day. When I put my t-shirt on to go home, the collar felt like an iron shackle biting into the skin on the back of my neck.

In the car on our way to Robert’s pool with a half gallon of dead flies in the back seat, I found the courage to finally say what had been on my mind all day.

“Sorry,” said Frankie, “sorry for what?”

“I … uh.”

“For yesterday?” he asked.

“Well … uh, I uh …”

“What do you have to be sorry about?” he laughed, “I thought you handled it really well.”

“Really?”

“Hey, she likes you man, it’s obvious.”

“She, told you that?”

“No, of course not, but you can tell.”

“I …”

“Hah! Now Marion has a reason to hate you, maybe even more than me.”

“Marion?”

“You know, what you said about me.”

“What I said?”

Frankie put both hands on the steering wheel and took a deep breath. “If there’s a problem with Frankie and the kids,” he said, lowering his voice and frowning, “It’s that they love him too much.

“I, said that?”

“Yeah, you should have seen the look on Grendel’s Mother’s face.”

“Oh, that yesterday, with Hilda.”

“Yeah, that yesterday, with Hill-duh. Is that why you’ve been acting like an idiot all day?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Well snap out of it man! We have a wager to win, and then a dinner to enjoy!”

At Robert’s pool they were getting ready to open for evening swim. A line was already forming outside the gate.

“Wait,” Frankie said, as I was about to get out of the car. “Maybe you’re right about the flies, I mean, let’s not push it.”

“What are you saying?”

“Well,” he reached across to my side of the car and brought up an old Styrofoam cup from on the floor between my feet. “Let’s just bring in some of the flies, so they won’t get suspicious. If we need more, we’ll come back to our stash and get what we need.”

“Sounds good.”

­­­­­­­­­­­­I didn’t know how to act around Gina, but when we gathered at the picnic table under the shade of the corrugated metal awning, everyone assumed a kind of drug-dealing, mobster stance. Robert faced me with Lester, Nate, and Gina fanned out behind him. Frankie had my back. Wearing his sunglasses and a confident smirk like Rico Tubbs from Miami Vice. That would make me Sonny Crocket of course, which made sense as something was definitely about to go down.

Frankie kept his hand like a lid over the top of the Styrofoam cup. “You guys show first,” he said.

“All right.” Robert motioned with a wave of his hand. “Lester, show ‘em.”

Lester brought forward a clear plastic punch cup. It was not even one fourth of the way filled with flies. I could see Frankie was trying to keep a straight face.

“Wait,” Gina said, and then she ran to the office, leaned in the concessions window, and came out with some papers in her hand. She brought them to the table. They were unused accident-report forms. She flipped both over to the blank sides and slid one across to our side of the table. Then she assumed her former stance and nodded for Lester to proceed.

Lester carefully sprinkled the contents of his cup as evenly as he could over the white paper. My guess was that there couldn’t be more than twenty-five to thirty dead flies there; they seemed so small.

Robert was looking smug, “Gina, count them.”

“Wait,” I said, and looked to my partner to confirm with him before continuing.

Frankie nodded, once.

“You might want to save yourselves the trouble.” I gave a palm up motion with my right hand. “Frankie?”

Frankie stepped forward. He held the Styrofoam cup out horizontally above the table with his palm still covering the top. Then he slowly removed his hand and let the dead flies shower like fat black rain drops onto the paper, covering it almost completely and spilling over its edges.

“Eww!” someone said.

“What the hell is that?” asked Robert.

“Flies,” I said.

They all rushed in to take a closer look. “Eww! What are they?”

“What do you mean? They’re flies.”

Robert wasn’t impressed. “You got those at a bait shop.”

“A bait shop,” I said with as much incredulity as I could muster, “I swear to you, we did not get those at a bait shop.” I didn’t have to look at Frankie to know we were both thinking the same thing. A bait shop would have been much easier.

Gina stepped back from the table. “You cheated!”

“Cheated?”

“Those aren’t even flies.”

“Now come on you guys,” I said, “Don’t be sore losers.”

“No way!”

Gina came up close to me and grabbed me by the front of the shirt, igniting the sunburn on the back of my neck. “James, you look me in the eye,” she said, putting her face right in front of mine, “and tell me, the truth, that you and Frankie killed each and every one of those … things you’re calling flies.”

I tried, but I couldn’t.

“That’s what I thought,” she said, smiling tenderly at me as she unbunched her fists from the front of my shirt, and then shot Frankie an evil look.

He made an exaggerated scene of coming to my rescue by pushing Gina away and smoothing out the lapels of my nonexistent pastel blazer. “You all right?” he asked me.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Gina taunted.

“That just wasn’t called for,” he turned toward the others, all Rico Tubbs again, “Keep your hands off my man. Understood?”

Robert was smiling now and shaking his head. “Forget it, you guys.”

“Cheaters.”

“Aw, I was looking forward to dinner,” Lester said. “Another bet.”

“Yeah,” said Nate.

Robert crossed his arms and then raised one hand to his chin. Then he turned and looked behind him, at what I’m not sure, before facing us again. “Wasps,” he said.

“Wasps?”

“Yeah, wasps,” agreed Gina. “You have ‘em, we have ‘em, they look exactly the same, and you can’t buy them at a bait shop.” She looked at my brother. “Can you?”

“No,” he smiled. “No, you cannot.”

I turned to Frankie.

“Fine then,” he said, “If you’re going to accuse us of cheating, then I guess we have no other choice but to prove you wrong, again.”

“Robert?” it was Arlene calling from the guard shack. Her voice sounded urgent. “Robert!”

“Ok, Arlene,” he called over his shoulder, “let them in. Nate, you first on the stand.”

“Where’s Lester?” someone said.

We all turned to see who was speaking. From the sound of the voice, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see an old man in a wheel chair strapped up to an oxygen tank. Instead, walking toward us were two men, one as big as the other was small. Neither one looked like they’d come to swim.

The big one was wearing jeans cut-off just below his knees, a large white t-shirt over a white muscle shirt, white tube socks, and some kind of black slip-on shoe. His dark hair stuck out of his head exactly a half-inch in length all over. He had something written in Gothic letters that began just under his right ear with the letter M, and continued around the back of his neck. Other tattoos covered his forearms.

The little one had on an oversized blue plaid, short sleeve shirt buttoned only at the neck, over a white t-shirt, new jeans, and shiny leather shoes. His head was shaved completely bald. Something about him looked familiar. Even with his dark sunglasses on, I recognized him from school. His name was Mark. We had driver’s ed. together.

“Who’s Lester?” Mark asked, stepping over the same puddle of water his big friend had just slogged through.

No one moved or spoke. The big one stopped in front of Frankie, who happened to be the only person standing between him and Lester, and glared down at his own reflection in Frankie’s sunglasses.

Frankie didn’t budge.

Finally the big guy stepped around him and moved toward Lester.

“Wait!” Lester blurted as he took a step back, holding his hands up in front of him, “We were only talk—”

But the big guy’s inked fist was already moving toward his face and Lester never finished his sentence. There was a muffled clap, and Lester crumpled backwards onto the pool deck.

“Hey!” my brother shouted, but still no one moved.

“Stay out of it,” said Mark to Robert.

Lester groaned, rolling onto his side.

“I’d stay down if I were you, white boy,” said the little one, still keeping his eyes on Robert. Yes, it was definitely Mark. He had the same raspy, old man’s voice I remembered from class, like he was whispering, but loudly.

The big guy stood over Lester with both fists clenched.

“Stay down, Lester,” whispered Nate in an urgent hiss.

“That’s right, Lester. Listen to your homeboy.”

Lester stopped moving.

“Next time,” the big one growled, causing Lester to flinch. “I’ll kill you.”

Mark continued to stare down Robert as his partner turned and walked toward the exit. When he was about half way there, Mark turned and followed his friend out of the gate and into the park.

Nate and Gina helped Lester sit up. “Shouldn’t we call the police or something?” Nate asked Robert.

“Depends,” said Frankie.

“Yeah,” said Gina, standing. “What did you do, Lester?”

He was rubbing his jaw with a distant look on his face.

“Lester?” asked Robert. “Where were you last night?”

“That was Janice’s boyfriend,” said Gina, “Wasn’t it.”

“We were just talking,” Lester finally answered.

Robert gave Lester his hand and pulled him to his feet. “I told you to stay away from her.”

“Yeah. I swear, Robert, we were only talking.”

“Where?”

“Outside her house.”

“He could have killed you, you stupid idiot,” Gina said shaking her head.

“She doesn’t have a phone,” said Lester, as if that explained everything.

“Robert,” said Nate, “don’t you think we should call the police or—”

“No!” interrupted Lester.

“Nate’s probably right, Lester,” Robert said. “If they decide to come back—”

“No, they won’t. Look, I’m fine. He didn’t hit me that hard, really.”

“I can’t have you bringing trouble like that into the pool, Lester.”

“Robert, I’ll stay away from her. It was no big deal. I got their message. It’s over.”

Robert bit his lower lip thoughtfully. “I don’t know, Lester.”

“Robert, really,” Lester assured. “Let’s just forget about it.” He gave an awkward laugh, like someone had just told a bad joke. “Come on you guys, forget about it.”

Everyone was looking at Robert, waiting for his answer; except Gina, she was looking right at me.

“Okay Lester, for now,” agreed Robert. “For now.”

A few minutes later the pool was full of swimmers. Robert was all business though, and he had every one of his guards out on deck this time. So Frankie and I decided to go.

As soon as we rounded the corner of the pool fence and began walking across the grass to Frankie’s car parked out on the street, we regretted leaving so soon.

A metallic green low rider was parked alongside the curb, right in front of Frankie’s Datsun. Mark was leaning against the passenger side door of Frankie’s car, waiting for us.

“Just keep walking,” whispered Frankie.

“But your car.”

“Forget it, we’ll come back later.”

“I think I know this guy.”

He turned to look at me. “What?”

“I know him from school.”

“Dude,” said Frankie, “you better.”

In high school there were two types of classes: college prep and regular, or academically speaking, classes for the smart kids and classes for, well ... everyone else. Of course, this had more to do with motivation than intelligence. Some people just weren’t interested in school. Nevertheless, a person belonged to either one group or the other, with the exception of three classes: P.E., Health, and Driver’s Ed.

I hated P.E. and health was a joke. I didn’t learn anything in there that I hadn’t already read about and saw pictures of in the encyclopedias and old nurse’s training books we had at home. But Driver’s Ed, at least that served a practical purpose: a driver’s license. I didn’t know anyone in that class though, and I couldn’t help but feel like some kind of foreign exchange student in there. This must have been Mark’s impression as well, because one day he just started explaining things to me: hydraulics, chrome plating, wire rims, chassis reinforcement, engine blocks, carburetors, sanding, priming, taping, painting, pin striping, airbrushing, upholstery … even the difference between a Chevy Impala and a Pontiac Parisienne.

Now, as we approached, Mark took off his sunglasses and slipped them into his shirt front pocket. “German,” he said, tilting his head back, “que paso?”

“Hey Mark,” I said extending my hand. “How’s it going?”

He brought his hand up, slowly but purposefully with his palm down and his fingers spread, and shook my hand, “I’m good, Holmes.”

“This is Frankie.”

The two lifted their chins in greeting.

“German, what are you still doing here? You’re supposed to be in college, ese.”

“No man, I’m still in high school. I got one more year, like you.”

“Not me, ese. I’m done with that.”

In Driver’s Ed, Mark had explained other things as well. One day he leaned over and whispered hoarsely, “Check it out.” He had lifted up the leg of his new jeans, and there, tucked into his black sock, was a long flat piece of metal about three-fourths of an inch wide and about a foot long. He peeled down his sock a little to give me a better view. The edges of the weapon were rough but sharp, like he’d patiently scraped them against the sidewalk for hours.

“There might be some trouble today,” he had said as he straightened the cuff of his pant leg down around the top of his black Navies. “I’ll be ready.”

The thought had occurred to me that I could have gone through a lot less effort and have achieved a much better result by simply smashing the wood from the handle of one of my dad’s long carving knives. It would have concealed just as well, and not have required sharpening. I had kept this to myself of course. Who was I to question the function or aesthetics of a concealed weapon? After all, I was only a visitor in that classroom, and although I’d learned so much in the past few months, there was still so much I would never know.

“So, what are you,” Mark asked, “like a lifeguard or something?”

“Yeah.”

“You work here?”

“Sometimes.”

“And this Lester, he a friend of yours?”

“Lester? He’s all right man. He doesn’t know.”

Mark’s eyes moved toward the pool and back. “You think he knows now?”

“Yeah, I think he understands.”

He looked like he was about to say more, but then stopped himself. He glanced quickly over his shoulder at the green and chrome trimmed car idling in front of Frankie’s tan Datsun.

“Orale German, my homeboys are waiting for me,” he said, extending his hand and shaking mine firmly. “You study hard now white-boy. Make us proud.”

“I will,” I said, not knowing how else to respond to that.

He gave us one more backward tilt of his head and then got in the passenger side of the green low-rider. Frankie and I just stood there, waiting for the car to leave. Instead the widow rolled down and Mark stuck the top of his head out to look back at us.

“You vatos need a ride or something?” he asked.

“No,” I said, pointing to Frankie’s Datsun. “This is ours.”

He smiled broadly as his head disappeared and the car pulled smoothly into the street and drove away.

On that first day of class, I remember sitting in the last seat available. Mark had turned to look at me as if I had offended him somehow. “What are you,” he had asked accusingly, “Irish or something?”

“No,” I had said, “German.”

“German?” he laughed. And the name stuck.


NEXT WEEK: Chapter 7: Sunny Day, Taking My Cares Away


LAST WEEK: Chapter 5: Ride of the Valkyries

Monday, July 18, 2016

Chapter 5: Ride of the Valkyries


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 … no matter how many times you ask.

SUMMER OF WASPS
Chapter 5: Ride of the Valkyries


The wash is a dry riverbed, part natural and part engineered, that curves west to east through just about every city in the valley. During the rainy season, which was August, actually—although we hadn’t yet had a drop all summer—it filled rapidly, violently rushed muddy water across the valley, and dried up just as quickly. At this time last year it rained almost nonstop for two weeks and the pools were closed for most of it. Many of the guards just hung out at their pools and played cards off the clock, hoping for it to clear up. Others found more exciting ways to pass the time such as the game of mud-football played on one of the high school fields that lasted nearly ten hours, and which would have gone much longer if one of the guards hadn’t broken his arm. There was so much rain that summer that the wash remained a rushing river of mud for nearly a week, and there were even news reports of people attempting to ride the waves on small boats and inflatable rafts—until the police began arresting them for their own protection.

This year, although towering cumulous clouds, like floating continents riding the wet hot drafts up from the Gulf of Mexico, enveloped the mountaintops to the east and west, the sky above remained clear. Down in the eastern part of the valley where we worked, the bottom of the wash was overgrown with grey-green bushes and lined with dry grass and tumbleweeds. Up on the west side of the valley, where it ran right down the middle of some of the most expensive country clubs and exclusive golf courses in the nation, the wash was completely covered in a meticulously groomed, luxurious carpet of green grass. This is where we would go ice-blocking.

The Eskimo Palms Ice Company sold twenty-pound blocks of ice, day or night, from a coin operated machine the size of a railroad boxcar outside their ice plant. Two or three of these placed side by side and covered in a folded beach towel would send you flying like an Olympic bobsledder down the steep grass covered hills of the golf course wash. We always ice blocked under the cover of darkness and as late in the evening as possible in order to avoid the security guards, maintenance staff, and furious golf course grounds keepers. All the sliding down and pushing of the blocks back up the hill again left the grass torn up and burnt brown in the morning. And when our blocks had melted beyond use, we would hop the iron fences surrounding the club’s pools in order to wash off all the grass stuck to our muddy bodies. As lifeguards, we were guiltily aware of all the netting, brushing, and vacuuming work we left for the club’s pool maintenance to deal with the next day.

This was the first time we’d planned to ice block in over a month. The last time we tried, someone in a golf cart was staked out at the bottom of the wash. We had parked our cars on the shoulder of the road that crossed the wash and were making our way away from the lights of the passing cars, each of us lugging an ice block wrapped in a towel and walking barefoot through the cut grass, when we saw him. Well, actually we smelled the smoke first, and then spotted the glow of his cigarette. We left the blocks and trudged back to our cars.

Tonight, the coast looked clear. To be cautious, we only told a few people we were going. Besides Frankie, Gina, Nate, and me, Gina’s friend Wendy and a new guard whose name I thought was Morgan, but who everyone called Bucky, also came. Gina said that he was in college already, but that he was cool and I’d like him. I did like the blue leather Top Siders he was wearing, but the upturned color of his polo and the bleached highlights in his brown hair left me skeptical. I almost hadn’t recognized Wendy when we’d met up earlier. Her usual mop of frazzled blond hair was brushed out and buoyed up by a roll of yellow cloth tied high on her forehead, and she was wearing eye shadow and bright pink lipstick. Both my brother and Lester said they would be there, but neither showed up. We had parked a little further from the country club this time and were walking with our towel-wrapped ice blocks hugged against our chests, trying to keep our voices down as we moved away from the street lights and deeper into the wash.

“No one invited Broom Hilda?” Wendy asked in a loud whisper.

“Why do you call her Broom Hilda?” Nate asked.

“Because she’s a witch,” answered Wendy.

“Oh yeah,” Gina said, looking my way. “Thanks for warning us she was coming this afternoon.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You didn’t call us like you were supposed to.”

“That’s because she went to our pool first this time,” said Frankie, “and then doubled back to yours.”

“See,” said Wendy, “a witch.”

“Yeah, but why Broom Hilda?”

“Dude, her name is Hill … duh,” said Wendy. “Broom Hilda is a witch.”

“In the comics,” said Bucky Morgan.

I’d almost forgotten he was there and looked back to see his pink polo shirt bobbing along behind us in the dark.

“She’s supposed to be Attila the Hun’s ex-wife,” he continued, “and in the comic strips she’s always looking for a new husband.”

“Really?” asked Nate.

“Yeah,” said Wendy. “She’s green and ugly with a big wart on her nose.”

“But Broom … I mean, Hilda,” stammered Nate, “you know, the boss. She’s not ugly.”

“Yeah,” admitted Wendy, “but she’s still a witch.”

“Actually,” said Bucky Morgan, “she’s not a witch.”

“Of course she is.”

“No, I mean Broom Hilda.”

“Witch,” said Wendy.

“No, the real Broom Hilda,” he went on. “The name is a play on the actual one from Norse mythology, Brynhildr.”

“Uh… that’s the same,” said Nate.

“No, well it might sound similar, but it’s spelled differently.”

“She was a shield maiden,” I pointed out, “and a Valkyrie.”

“Aw James,” groaned Frankie, “Don’t encourage him, man.”

“What’s a shield maiden?” asked Wendy.

“A virgin warrior,” said Bucky Morgan.

“Yeah, right,” she laughed, “that woman’s no virgin.”

“What’s a val-kill-me?” asked Nate.

“Val-kee-rees,” explained Bucky Morgan, “were these goddesses who brought back the souls of dead warriors to Valhalla.”

I had to admit, this guy knew his Norse Mythology. I wondered if he’d learned all this in college, or if he was just another Lord of the Rings junky like me whose favorite place in the library was the myths and legends section.

“See,” he went on, “Odin needed an army to fight for him in the afterlife.”

I could almost hear Nate working up his next question.

“This looks like a good place,” said Frankie.

“Yeah,” said Gina, “my ice block is starting to melt.”

“They’re these beautiful women with helmets and spears on winged horses,” I said as we all started up the hill, and I could feel Frankie rolling his eyes.

“Actually,” said Bucky Morgan, “they rode wolves.”

“Really?” I didn’t know that. I wasn’t sure I liked this guy after all.

“Yeah. They would appear among the corpses after a battle to claim the most heroic warriors. In fact, Valkyrie were supposed to be more like ravens than women because—”

“Okay, college boy,” interrupted Wendy, “give it a rest. We’re here.”

“Sure,” Bucky Morgan chuckled, apparently not offended, “how do we do it?”

“Well,” Nate began, “you can go down with one block but it’s hard to stay on, so we put two or three together and take turns.”

Frankie slid Gina’s block next to his and covered it with his towel. “I’ll go first and make sure it’s safe.” He climbed on and disappeared head forward into the dark.

“Nate,” Wendy demanded, “give me your block!”

For the next half hour we were up and down the hill. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes in pairs, and finally all six of us with our legs hooked around the waist of the person in front. We made it at least half way down before we careened out of control and spun apart.

“I lost my block!” Nate shouted from somewhere in the dark.

Gina shushed him loudly.

“Forget about it,” said Wendy. “Mine’s almost completely melted anyway.”

Frankie coughed roughly. “I hafta get this grass off,” he said to me, and I could hear an asthmatic rasp in his voice. “I’ll meet you guys up at the pool.”

“Where’s the pool?” asked Bucky Morgan.

“Come on, I’ll show you,” Wendy said, grabbing Bucky Morgan by the wrist and following Frankie up towards the quiet condominiums above.

Gina was eying the remaining ice blocks. “One more time down the hill, James?” she whispered excitedly. “Please?”

We were almost to the bottom of the wash when my end of the ice sled separated and sent me tumbling over the wet grass. I knew Gina must have made it all the way down because I could hear her alternately laughing and moaning somewhere out there in the dark.

“Help me up,” she called from somewhere on the grass.

“Where are you?”

“I’m right—” she started to say, and then her hand grabbed the pocket of my shorts and pulled me down, right on top of her. “Here,” she wheezed. I quickly rolled off of her and onto my back, and for a while we both just lay there laughing.

“Ouch,” I finally managed. “Are you all right?”

“I think so,” she said, rolling toward me. “You almost killed me.”

“You pulled me down.”

She leaned over me. “You’re all bones,” she said, and moved closer until her body pressed up against mine and her hair fell around my face.

“You’re all soft,” I said.

She kissed me on the mouth.

I kissed her back.

She stopped kissing me after a moment, reached up to her face and brushed a piece of grass off of her tongue with the tips of her fingers. I stood up and helped her to her feet. Holding hands, we walked back up the hill. When we got near the top of the wash, she let go and walked ahead of me without turning around or saying a word. I slowed down to give her a little distance.

Suddenly Nate appeared out of the dark carrying the towels we’d left behind. “Val-kee-ree,” he said under his breath as he passed me, almost too quietly to hear.

“What?”

“Val-kee-ree,” he said again turning to smile at me. “Val-kee-ree,” he repeated slowly, and chuckling to himself, walked on ahead.

***

The house was dark by the time I got home that night. I found a casserole dish of half eaten lasagna covered with plastic wrap in the refrigerator and ate a few bites of it out of the pan, still cold.

“You can heat that up in the microwave, you know.” My mother was standing in the kitchen doorway in her nightgown.

“I didn’t want to wake you guys up.”

“Your brother didn’t come home with you?”

“No, his car wasn’t outside.”

“Hum.”

“Mom, you don’t have to wait up for us.”

“Says who?”

“Good night, mom,” I said, kissing her on the forehead.

In my room, I stretched out on top of the covers and let the chilled air from the vent above spill over me.

I woke to the sound of the front door opening and closing, and I heard my mother and Robert speaking quietly in the kitchen before drifting off to sleep again.

The sound of Robert’s car keys on the dresser woke me again.

“You’re in my bed,” he said.

“Sorry, I forgot.” And I had. During the school year, I had the whole room to myself.

“Just keep it,” he said dropping down onto my bed, “you have it all hot already anyway.”

“You didn’t come ice blocking.”

“I know.”

“It was fun.”

“I changed my mind. I went out with … some friends.”

“Lester?”

“No,” he laughed.

“Oh.”

The air conditioner shut off and the house was dead quiet. It was difficult to fall asleep without its rumble and hiss, but this time of year the compressor never rested for long. I thought I smelled something flowery in the room and pulled the front of my t-shirt up to my nose, but it only smelled like chlorine and sweat. “Robert?”

“Huh?”

“I made out with Gina tonight.”

He didn’t immediately answer, but then said, “Doesn’t surprise me.”

“It doesn’t?”

“Where was Frankie?”

“Not around.”

“Hum.”

“Robert?”

“What?”

“Nothing, never mind.”

The air conditioner turned on again, filling the silence and swaddling me in an icy blanket.

“James.”

“What?”

“Don’t worry about it. Frankie would’ve done the same.”

“Okay,” I said, and my last coherent thought before finally falling to sleep was of the subtle but distinct smell of coconut suntan lotion, purple flowers … and cigarettes in the room.



NEXT WEEK: Chapter 6: I’d Stay Down If I Were You, White Boy


LAST WEEK: Chapter 4: Geronimo's Last Jump and the Battle in the Breakroom