Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Chapter 1: Big Mother Is Always Watching

SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. Yes, I worked as a lifeguard in my teens. Yes, I drove a Volkswagen Bug with no air conditioning. And yes, the song “Cruel Summer” by the group Bananarama was released in England in 1983, but wasn't a hit in the US until 1984, when it was used in the movie The Karate Kid. But other than that, 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.


Chapter 1: Big Mother Is Always Watching

We were really bored. It had become a very slow summer and it was only the beginning of August. Swim lessons were over, and even though every day seemed hotter and more humid than the next less people came to swim at the pool as the month wore on. The other lifeguard, Frankie, was not talking to Marion the cashier, and he refused to be anywhere near her. And since she worked in the only room, of the only building, with the only fan and since he was my best friend we both stayed outside most of the day.
We took turns sitting up in the lifeguard stand and telling the same kids, for the thousandth time, not to jump into the shallow end and to stop running on the pool deck. Every thirty minutes we would rotate. Frankie would climb up and I would climb down. I would wander around the pool deck, maybe get in the water for a while and see how long I could hold my breath, race some kids short ways across the pool (without using my arms), or go inside and make small talk with Marion. We talked about anything but Frankie. Then thirty minutes later I would take my turn on the stand while Frankie would then do pretty much the same thing except talk to Marion. Sometimes one of us would walk down to the end of the street and buy burritos and giant Styrofoam cups of flavored rice water called horchata from Sancho's Market.
Like I said, we were bored, and things probably would have stayed that way if not for the wasps. That summer there were wasps everywhere. Not leave-them-alone-and-they-won't-bother-you bees, but don't-even-look-at-me-or-I-will-sting-you-to-death wasps. They would land anywhere there was water: the pool, a puddle on the pool deck, a wet towel rolled up in the corner of the bathroom — it didn't matter to them. When they stung it burned and itched for hours and left a red welt with a white center like you'd been shot at close range with an industrial size rubber band.
So we started killing them; at first half-heartedly, sneaking up on them floating in the pool and splashing them until they drowned. But this was slow work and not always a sure death. Often they would drift up from the bottom of the pool, float waterlogged at the surface for a moment like soggy yellow flower petals, and then, while you watched in horror, they would suddenly stand up on the water, shake themselves off, and fly menacingly away.
But I'm getting ahead of myself; it didn't really start with the wasps. First it was the flies. And before that it was the cash-box affair. Which led to the episode with the bicycle, and later the guard tower incident... oh, and our boss, the aquatics supervisor, of course. Since all of this began with Marion though, I'll start with her.
The next public pool was in an only slightly more populous city, thirty minutes away. My brother worked there, as well as Frankie's girlfriend, Gina. Gina just also happened to be Marion's niece: Gina's mother's sister. Marion imagined that she knew everything about everyone — and their next of kin — for miles. She would often remind me that she knew me when I was still in diapers, which technically could be true, considering she was once married to my aunt's brother-in-law. On some days, when she was feeling particularly insecure about something, she would remind me that she used to change my diapers. And whether or not she literally meant this, it was regardless, not true. My mother would never have left me, or any of my brothers and sisters, with that crazy woman for even an instant. And while age, I imagined, had mellowed her somewhat, I would never have allowed myself to forget that mental picture I had of her, standing in the street, nine months pregnant and viciously smashing the windshield of her now ex-husband's red firebird with a wooden baseball bat. Her long bare legs, protruding stilt-like from beneath her yellow and pink-flowered pup tent of a dress as tiny pieces of glass showered all about her skinny arms and kinky lion's mane of bleach blond hair, screaming, “You bastard!” with each swing of the bat.
Actually, I couldn't have been there, but I'd heard the story so often that the picture was as good as my own memory. Somehow the fact that Marion was the storyteller didn't matter. And even though her hair now had more gray than any other color, and her once pink skin now resembled the weathered, leather quality of an old baseball glove, she retained a nefarious instinct for survival that was not lessened, but merely obscured by age.
September through June, Marion ran the cafeteria at the public elementary school across the street. In the summer she was the city pool’s cashier, a job she had held for twenty-five consecutive summers. Lifeguards came and went. Sometimes they were rich kids from the west end of the valley, "slumming it" in order to earn a little spending money and make their parents happy by doing something constructive and character building over the summer. Sometimes they were former barefoot, snot-nosed, kids from the neighborhood who, thanks to a six week after-school training program at the local Boys and Girls Club, no longer had to scrape together the dollar-a-day admission to hang out at the pool, but were actually paid almost twice minimum wage to do nearly the same thing.
Marion though, she was always the cashier. Just the cashier. The lowest ranking employee. She was the last dangling rusty link in the chain of command who, for all practical purposes, ran the place. As far as she was concerned the lifeguards, swim instructors, coaches, and pool managers in particular, were only visitors.
The locals paid her due respect when necessary, witch-lady that she was, but otherwise kept their distance. Those mothers that did come around quickly dropped off their kids and left. No hi, good morning, how are you, or see you at church... just a frigid indifference and then the evil eye, a rude remark from Marion — slut — or a bit of scathing gossip — makeup don't cover them bruises honey — as soon as they were out of earshot. She did receive social visits from this little guy named Joe from the Water District. He was always wearing his khaki work uniform with his name patch sewn above the pocket and would often drop by on his lunch break, though he never had food, and sometimes stay talking for the entire afternoon. Even though he was young enough to be her son, they seemed to get on pretty well, exchanging stories like old bar-buddies over corn nuts and cigarettes. They had to smoke outside of course, which for Marion was only as far as the doorway, never more than three steps away and always in clear view of the chips, candy, and cash-box.
Joe would describe how he single handedly saved three men from being buried alive in a muddy grave by diving into an open drainpipe with only a rope tied to his waist, his St. Christopher medallion around his neck, and an oversized crescent wrench in one hand. And she would explain how her son was wrongfully serving time for possession of drugs that really belonged to a friend. "You know how when you get into someone else's car you like to take your wallet out of your back pocket and set it next to you on the seat so you can sit more comfortably?" she'd ask, and Joe would nod empathetically, "Well when the cops pulled them over, the driver, who he really hardly even knew..." And so on.
I found their conversations about as fascinating as a car wreck. Frankie though, couldn't stomach it. I read somewhere that the reason people sometimes abhor certain behavior in other people, is because it too closely resembles something about themselves that they don't like to admit. The way I saw it, Marion's storytelling and exaggerations were like a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future for Frankie. The way he saw it, Marion gave all self-respecting bull-shitters and know-it-alls a bad name. And so because Frankie couldn't stand Marion, Marion couldn't stand Frankie more. The fact that Frankie was intimate with her niece was, for Marion, like fresh lemon juice on a nasty cold sore: bitter, painful and ugly.
If Marion had known that Gina had been going out with my older brother, Robert, all last summer, our relationship might have been less than cordial, or maybe she did know but was still waiting to see where I fit in and what, if any of it, could be used against me. It was hard to tell with Marion. Frankie and I were tight, she knew that, and so that's the scab she usually picked, "I told my niece, Gina, whatever you do don't get serious with a local boy. And if his dad's a drunk, you can bet he will be too. It's only a matter of time. Like father like son, it's the God's truth, Gina I said, and if the dad hits the mom, sooner or later, he'll be hitting you..." And so on.
Frankie knew about Robert and Gina last summer of course, but it didn't seem to bother him that they worked at the same pool and spent so much time together now. In fact, nothing really seemed to bother Frankie... except Marion. "She takes money right out of the cash box. She thinks the thing's her own damn purse. Do you even read the daily reports you sign? How many kids did we have today, ten? I bet they all bought a bag of chips. You bought a bag of chips. I bought a bag of chips. She didn't write anything down when I bought mine. Did she write anything down when you bought yours?"
"She probably counts them later and subtracts what she's sold."
"Think about it. What kind of inventory system is that? At the Burger Box we had to keep track of every piece of lettuce. If you dropped a lettuce on the floor you had to write it down."
"I bet at the end of the day the report says six bags of chips sold."
"Come on."
He was right. Six bags. What about the other six bags sold? Fifty-cents a bag, multiplied by six bags a day, was three dollars. That could add up! What was I supposed to do, tell someone? Robert? What could he do? Nothing. Call our supervisor? What could she do? Maybe fire us all? No, not yet, I decided. I was the pool manager. I would take care of it. Maybe Marion had a good excuse. I was sure she could come up with a good excuse. Did I really want to hear it? Was it really that big of a deal?
Yes, it was. If she was stealing chip money she could just as easily be stealing pool admission. It was the county's policy that if there were not at least twelve pool patrons in attendance within the first hour, the pool would have to close. We never bothered with the first hour thing, but if our daily reports ever showed less than twelve swimmers, our timecards would have to show that we clocked out early that day. I needed all the hours I could get. We barely had that many swimmers a day as it was, and this late in the summer, consistently low attendance could mean an early closing of the pool for the season. So it was much more than pinching a few dollars a day from the cash box. If we couldn't show twelve swimmers a day on our reports, the pool would close and I'd be out of a job.
So the next day I confronted Marion. She not only denied everything, she started screaming at me. How dare I accuse her of such a thing? She had been doing this job since before I was born! Then she was crying and screaming. If I thought she was stealing, report her! Call the police! Prove it! So I did the only thing I could do, I apologized. Talk about a bad day. And to make things worse, it was the first time all summer we had to close early because of low attendance. Driving home, suddenly three dollars didn't seem like so much when I had just lost a whole day's worth of pay.
The next day, in the middle of the afternoon, the aquatics supervisor called — she rarely ever called. I was in the boy's locker room standing in the shower. Frankie was supposed to be on the guard stand. Occasionally, on a very humid day, I would pass the time this way. The locker rooms were really not locker rooms, just two square cinderblock additions to each side of the office, both with two toilets and a sink on one side — make that one toilet and a urinal in the boys — and a wall of showers on the other. I didn't hear the pay phone ring with the water splashing on my head, but I did hear Marion yell for me from inside the office.
"Hi James, how are things going out there?"
"Uh, just fine ... thanks."
Now, just as it is every boss's tenured privilege to sit among their peers around a massive oblong table eating grapes and sipping wine while sliding small plastic replicas of their employees to and fro about a giant game board — in a natural balance of power — it is every employee's right to make up terribly nasty names to refer to those same bosses behind their backs whenever and as often as possible. The aquatics supervisor’s name was Hilda Webb, but we called her Grendel's Mother. It was Frankie who came up with the name, which confirmed my suspicion that he never really did finish reading Beowulf in Mr. Schwartz’s English III class last year. Okay, so it was the monster Grendel who actually lost his arm while his mother ended up losing her head, but the Norse, slash, Viking feel was right and well, it just seemed to fit. Some of the guards at the other pools called her Broom Hilda. We considered this cartoonish; it lacked originality, and had nothing to do with her condition. She was, after all, a petite and pretty young woman with a perfect tan, a Peter Pan bob of blond hair, and her left arm completely missing about three inches below her elbow.
"James how many swimmers do you have right now?"
"Uh ... I think, uh, about three?"
"I see, and who's working with you?"
"Frankie, and uh, Marion."
Gina, Robert, and the other guard at their pool, Lester, would use the initials, GM, when calling on the phone. Since their pool was en route to our pool, they always gave us a courtesy call as soon as Grendel's Mother finished one of her surprise visits. "GM's on the way," was the usual message. They didn't trust Marion and they were scared to death of Grendel's Mother.
"James, I'm paying three people to watch three swimmers?"
"Well, no. We had a lot more, earlier, but you know, just three right now."
"Marion says you've had only nine swimmers today."
I looked at Marion who was already holding the clipboard up in front of me. Her nicotine yellowed fingertip highlighting the number nine in the attendance column of the form. "Oh, I didn't think... I uh, didn't realize... she didn't tell me," I explained.
Grendel's Mother drove an orange 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. She loved drinking Diet Pepsi and she smoked Marlboro Menthol Lights. It was said she could do all three at the same time. She always smiled, always looked you in the eye — hers were green — when she was speaking to you, and never raised her voice. Often, she would do all this with a clipboard, or a soda, or even her cigarette balanced on the crook of her elbow just above her stub. Under the circumstances, it was easier to focus on her face, than not.
"Listen James,” I pressed the phone firmly against my wet ear, “it’s your job to keep track of these things, that's why you're the pool manager. You know what the attendance policy is. I can't justify paying the three of you when you're not even supposed to be on the clock. Now send those kids home and tell them to come back tomorrow... and to bring their friends."
"Yes ma'm."
No one knew how she lost her arm and no one dared ask.
"Oh, and James, one more thing. I've been hearing some disturbing things lately about what goes on out there. I wouldn't have put you at a pool so far away if I didn't think I could trust you. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Yes, well uh, no, I mean, what disturbing things?"
"Well, things like riding bikes into the pool."
"Bikes?" I thought for sure it was going to have something to do with the chip money. Hearing this, I nearly laughed out loud with relief, "That's crazy. I promise you no one here is riding bikes in the pool. I mean that's —”
"James, don't promise me, just make sure it never happens ... again."
"But --" 
"Good-bye James."
As I hung up the phone, Marion asked in her most concerned voice, "What was that all about?"
I ignored her and walked out of the office and onto the pool deck. Our three swimmers were standing outside of the pool applauding enthusiastically. The youngest, Marlo I think, was jumping up and down shouting, "Again! Do it again!" And there was Frankie straddling a metallic blue bicycle at the pool's edge, soaking wet, with his whistle around his neck and his sunglasses still on.

Next Week:Chapter2: Never Count Your Money While You’re Sittin’ at the Table

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