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 2: Never Count Your Money While You’re Sittin’ at the Table
“You think she has someone spying on us?” We were driving down the single lane highway that was the only way I knew from our pool to my brother’s pool twenty-five minutes away. We were halfway there and the air conditioner in Frankie’s little Datsun was just then beginning to wheeze cool air. It was my turn to drive today, but since my car had no air conditioner at all, we always took Frankie’s. I was stuck at the speed limit behind a row of semis. Frankie would have whipped out and passed them long ago, but I was still trying to be upset with him and this was the best I could do.
“Spies? What, are you serious?” he asked.
“I’m just saying that—”
“Hey! Stupid, it was Marion!”
“Don’t call me stupid, Evel Knievel! You’re the one trying to get us fired.”
“Marion called Grendel’s Mother, man, you know she did.”
“Yeah, maybe, but—”
“And she told those kids to bring me the bike.”
“Yeah, that little Victor kid comes up to me and says that Marion told him to ask me if he could ride his bike in the pool.”
“Oh now you’re telling me you were set up? I’m not listening to this.”
“Whatever you say, boss.”
“Go around them.”
As usual, my brother’s pool was full of swimmers, at least enough to have two guards out on deck, maybe even three. Of course he didn’t. As we walked across the park, through the chain link fence we could see one guard on the stand, and my brother Robert, Gina, and another guard, Lester, sitting at a picnic table under the shade of the corrugated metal awning where parents sat during swim lessons near the shallow end of the pool. Close by, a white ring buoy leaned against an empty folding chair near the edge of the pool with its coil of yellow plastic rope wound loosely beneath the seat.
The cashier at my brother’s pool, with a book open in one hand and a flyswatter cocked in the other, lowered her rumpled paperback and greeted us cheerfully as we entered. “Hi guys.”
“Hey Arlene,” I said, “How’s it going?”
“Just fine, thanks.”
She was alone in their cramped shoebox of an office. Besides the door, it had two openings, not windows per se, with glass or screens, just window-like openings in the brick. They were positioned one at each corner of the room so that without leaving the stool, the cashier could collect admission from the opening that faced the entry gate or sell candy and chips from the other that faced the pool deck. The heavy plywood panels that covered these openings were hinged upwards and held there by chains dangling from the ceiling. Watch your head at closing time because it was a quick one, two – slam, slam – slide the deadbolts and you’re out the door. There was just enough room left for a box fan on the floor that was usually aimed at the lounge chair along the wall, which most days was covered in a dirty laundry pile of the guard’s wet towels, t-shirts, shorts, and sometimes on top of all that – one of the guards.
“Hi Frankie,” Arlene added, waving at him with her flyswatter as we passed.
“Hey sexy,” he growled.
Why couldn’t she be our cashier? I asked myself.
“James?” Arlene called after me.
I turned back and stepped up to her window. She looked at me expectantly, like she wanted me to say something, to give her something.
“James,” she said again, her brown eyes moving from mine to the envelope sized canvas bag in my hand. “Did you want to leave that with me?”
“Oh yeah,” I said, passing it to her, “Thanks, sorry.” I always dropped our cash bag off at my brother’s pool since he stayed open later and had to drive up to the main office to drop his own off anyway.
“Not a problem, James.”
Gina got up from the picnic table and met Frankie halfway there. I continued to the table as Robert acknowledged me with one of his I-know-what-you’ve-been-doing — even though he didn’t — smiles. “What happened to you?” he asked as I sat down next to him facing the pool.
“We decided to take the afternoon off.”
Suddenly, I heard Gina yelp and then there was a sharp sounding slap. I looked over as Frankie was making a big show of moaning and holding the side of his face with his hand. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Gina was saying, trying to get Frankie to show her the damage she’d done.
“What ever it was he did,” I said, “she just forgave him.”
Robert smiled, but Lester said loudly, “We’re in the middle of a game here!”
Gina ignored him.
“You wanna play, James?” Lester asked, as he packed the many cards in his hand together and made to return them to the discard pile.
“No,” Robert said, as he reached out and covered the cards on the table. “James, you play Gina’s hand. She won’t care.”
“We’re playing to see who goes up next,” explained Lester, unnecessarily.
“Yeah, I remember this,” I fanned Gina’s hand out before me. It had one reverse card and was full of draw-fours and draw-twos. Robert was smiling faintly to himself.
“If you lose,” Lester said loudly in Gina’s direction, “Gina has to go up!”
“Okay,” I said, but I knew who would be going up next.
When we were kids this game was called “Crazy Eights,” and we played it with a regular deck of cards, matching numbers and suites in order to discard, with eights of course being wild. Now they made special decks with nasty little cards that skipped turns, reversed the order of play, and forced players to draw extra cards. The object of the game was to go out first. Or in this case, not be the only player not to.
I hit Robert with a draw-four right away, then reversed the direction of play and wasted little time dumping the rest of my arsenal on poor Lester. By the time Frankie and Gina came and sat down next to Lester, I was out and it was between Robert and his lifeguard.
“Not having a good day are you Lester?” Frankie asked.
“Not as bad as Nate,” Gina said, motioning with her head in the direction of the guard stand. The guard was sitting with his knees pulled up and his towel completely draped over him so that only his sunglasses and bare feet were showing.
“You’re going to lose your tan, babe,” Frankie said, leaning a little away from her and looking her over, “if you keep playing so well.”
“Don’t you worry about my tan.”
“It’s the luck of the draw,” said Robert, “the luck of the draw.”
Through the reassuring sounds of screaming, laughing, and splashing coming from all around us, a boy’s high-pitched voice began calling out, “No running! No running! I said no running!”
“Hey!” Robert barked, “Out of the chair!”
I turned to see a dark little boy with a shaved head and cutoff jeans jump up from the folding chair at the pool’s edge and, laughing hysterically, leap into the water. I returned my eyes to the table to find Lester was staring mournfully at Robert’s last card on the discard pile.
“Sorry Lester,” he said.
“Oh well,” Lester sighed. “Is it time?”
“Five minutes ago,” said Gina.
Lester pulled out a plastic bottle of children’s sunscreen from the back pocket of his swim suit. “Gina?” he asked, motioning with the pink container.
“Come here,” she said, taking the bottle out of his hand and twisting around on the bench as Lester sat down on the edge with his back to her. On the guard stand, Nate was looking over and beginning to peel away his towel. “He’s on his way Nate!” Gina called out as she squeezed a gob of the lotion into the palm of her hand.
I looked away, and in order to avoid Frankie’s eyes, I focused instead on Robert as he gathered the cards up from the table to prepare for the next game. I noticed he was picking out the draw-four, draw-two, and reverse cards from the discard pile and placing them at the bottom of the deck in his hand. He looked up and winked at me before shuffling the cards, and I could see that each time he did he let the bottom cards slap down first, leaving his special cards untouched. When we were kids he used to lick his finger and then temporarily glue two or three cards together with saliva so that he could secretly discard several at once. His new system seemed a little more efficient.
“You know,” I said, “You really should have more than one guard out on deck.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “We have four.”
“Six, with these guys,” said Lester.
“Yeah,” said Gina, “but they aren’t getting paid.”
I looked over to discover that she was not slathering lotion over Lester’s bare shoulders, as I had assumed, but dabbing her index finger into the sunscreen in her palm and carefully tracing it over the large pale letters already across Lester’s brown-baked back that spelled, “I Love Janice.”
“Who’s Janice?” I asked.
“Trouble,” said Gina.
“She can’t help where she comes from,” Lester said frowning over his shoulder at Gina.
“She’s a local girl,” Gina said to me, as if that explained everything.
“You’re a local girl,” said Lester.
“You know what I mean,” she said.
From the pinched look on Lester’s face though, I don’t think he did. He shrugged his boney shoulders, ran a hand through his sun burnt hair, and didn’t say any more.
“Big ugly boyfriend, huh?” asked Frankie.
“Dude!” Lester twisted around to see Frankie. “With a tattoo on his neck!” He stabbed frantically with his finger at the side of his own neck as if he were suddenly in pain.
“Hold still Lester,” Gina snapped, “or you can do this yourself!”
“So what happened really?” Robert asked, turning to me. “Why’d you guys close early, not enough swimmers?”
“No,” said Frankie, “too many flies.”
“Yeah, well, no one has as many flies as we do,” Lester declared.
“You think so?” Frankie asked.
The two things you could count on this time of year were an abundance of flying insects and an oppressively humid, pot-boiling, lung-scorching heat. Saying that one pool had more flies than another, and I don’t care what city it was in, was like saying that the weather was hotter here than our pool twenty-five minutes away.
“Well our pool is hotter,” I said.
“Oh, right,” huffed Gina.
“You call this a fly problem?” Frankie asked. “We have so many flies, sometimes I have to wear a handkerchief over my mouth just so I can breathe.”
“Oh yeah,” said Lester. “Yesterday the flies were so bad I had to borrow Nate’s goggles when I was on the guard stand, just so I could see the swimmers!”
“Yesterday,” returned Frankie, “to keep the flies away, we had to borrow one of Marion’s cigars and take turns blowing smoke in each other’s faces, just so we could breathe!”
“Oh, shut up,” said Gina.
“A bet!” said Frankie.
“Okay,” said Robert, “a bet.”
“How much?” asked Lester.
“Dinner,” said Gina.
“Okay,” said Robert, “dinner.”
“Whoever kills the most flies … by this Friday afternoon,” declared Gina, “wins.”
“You’re on!” said Frankie.
“Fine,” I said.
NEXT WEEK: Chapter 3: You’ll Catch More Flies with a Fly Killing Machine
LAST WEEK: Chapter 1: Big Mother Is Always Watching