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.

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.”


“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.”


“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!”


“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.”


“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.


“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.”


“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?”


“You work here?”


“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.

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.


“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.”


“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.”


“No,” he laughed.


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?”


“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.”




“Nothing, never mind.”

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



“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

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Chapter 4: Geronimo’s Last Jump and the Battle in the Break Room

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.

Chapter 4: Geronimo’s Last Jump and the Battle in the Break Room

Friday we would take our flies to my brother’s pool and win our bet. I knew Robert and Gina meant Pizza Palace when they said dinner, but they hadn’t been specific. Frankie suggested we demand the Cliff House, but considering the debatable means by which we were about to achieve our victory, I suggested we probably shouldn’t push it.

“See, that’s just like you, James. You’re already admitting we cheated. They’ll want to buy us cheeseburgers from Taco Mart and you’ll let them because you’re feeling guilty.” Frankie was up in the lifeguard stand, which was a five-foot tall permanent platform that leaned out just slightly over the pool’s edge. It had a large umbrella attached and was wide enough for the guard on duty to either sit in the blue fiberglass chair, or stand. Frankie was standing. I stood in the shade the platform created and looked up at him.

“What are you talking about?”

“I know you, man,” said Frankie. “You can think of the crime, but you’ll never commit it.”

“That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Yes it does. Look, you got to believe the lie before you tell it. We killed each and every one of those flies, right here at this pool, with that nasty old fly swatter Marion uses to fan herself. Repeat after me—”

“Relax, dude.”

“No I’m serious. I know you, James. Close your eyes, see yourself swatting those big green flies.” He began flicking his closed hand in the air, pantomiming the motions. “There, you just got one on the fridge. There, next to the pay phone. Oh, and there, one’s landed on Marion’s nose…”

“Okay, I get it.”

A skinny little girl climbed out of the pool near my feet. I think her name was Nessa, or that’s how it sounded anyway. She had on a pink and blue bikini, and like most of the girls was wearing a large white T-shirt, probably belonging to her dad or older brother, over it. “We wanna Geronimo,” she said, looking back and forth between Frankie and me. The water dripping off her onto my feet was refreshing. A boy a little younger than her, whom everyone called Junior, had followed her over and was hanging onto the wall of the pool below us. “Yeah,” he said, cupping a handful of water and throwing it up at me, “Let us Geronimo, lifeguard.”

I looked up at Frankie.

He shrugged.

It was Wednesday, after all.

Wednesdays, for no particular reason, were Geronimo days at our pool. Because the pool was three feet deep on each end and only five feet deep in the middle, there was never any diving allowed. While guards understood that the pool rules applied to pool patrons and not necessarily themselves, the no diving restriction at our pool was respected by both guards and swimmers alike. A few years earlier, a lifeguard named Matt Miller dove off the guard stand on opening day and hit his head on the bottom of the pool so hard that he fractured his jaw and had to have it wired shut the rest of the summer. That he actually dove beautifully with hardly a splash—expertly arching his body down into the water and curving immediately upwards upon entry—and glided dolphin like to the opposite end of the pool, is not really remembered. Neither is the fact that when he began to climb out­—guards never use the steps—his foot slipped and he smacked his chin on the edge of the pool deck. What is remembered is that all summer he growled at the children through clenched teeth and had to suck yogurt and applesauce through a straw for his lunch. The kids tormented him with their questions.

“You hit your head diving in?”

“Nuw. Ah shipt ahn da shide.”

“Aw man, did you go to emergency?”


“Did they have to take you in a helicopter?”


“Aw man, awesome! What was it like?”

“Ah shed nuw. Na gur shim.”

“You were in a coma and now you can’t talk any more?”

“Nuw, ahoh oney taw lye dish fur shee munsh.”

“You lost too much blood and—”

“Gur shim!”

The next summer he transferred to another pool; and with him gone, the legend began to grow. Some kids say his dive knocked the drain cover loose and his head was sucked into the pipe. The fire department had to shut off the power to the pumps before they could get him out—too late, of course, and with his left eyeball missing and never to be found. Some of the older ones, including Marion, like to tell how his head cracked open like a coconut when it hit the bottom of the pool and his brain popped out and bobbed on the bloody surface for hours before anyone dared go near it, and then only to scoop it out with a net on the end of a long pole. In all the versions, Matt, or Smack Miller as some of the guards still call him, dies a gruesome death. No one would believe, or want to hear, that he is currently teaching swim lessons a few towns away and that he put back those fifteen or so pounds he lost that summer (and then some). That would only ruin a good story.

So on Wednesdays, we allowed the kids to jump off the guard stand into the middle of the pool. Jumping, means entering the water feet first. Thanks to the legend of Smack Miller, none of the kids ever tried to sneak in a dive or do a flip, just straightforward jumping with arms out and knees bent. The kids would form a line behind the stand and one by one climb the ladder, walk to the edge of the platform, and say, “Geronimo,” before leaping into the water.

Sometimes in their excitement they climbed the ladder and crowded the platform several at a time, but Frankie or I would be there in the guard chair to pace the jumpers. For some reason, it seemed paratroopers in old war movies and cartoons always shouted “Geronimo” before they jumped from their planes, so we made it a requirement. No one asked why. Maybe they thought it meant, “Watch out I’m jumping!” Which, I guess, it did.

The mid-air poses the kids performed were almost as interesting as the variety of ways “Geronimo,” could be vocalized. The name could be sung, growled, shouted, or whispered. It might be high and piercing, low and rumbling, guttural, nasal, with a western twang, a hillbilly drawl, in someone’s version of an exotic foreign language, or some combination of any or all of these.

“Okay,” I said, “Make a line.”

About thirty minutes later, I was taking my turn in the guard chair. As Chico Lopez was flying spread-eagle into the air Geronimo-ing like Tarzan of the Jungle and Frankie was standing next to me about to jump himself, Grendel’s Mother drove up behind us. We both turned around just as the sputtering sound of the orange Volkswagen’s engine shuddered to a stop right outside the pool’s fence.

She didn’t immediately get out of the car, which I’m sure was beginning to heat up inside like a clothes dryer. From our perch, all we saw through the bubble windshield besides the tops of her tan thighs was her right hand reaching up to stub out her cigarette in the dashboard ashtray. Frankie and I both whispered the same bad word under our breath as we turned around again to face the water. The five kids in line below were quick to catch on and quietly, bless their hearts, drifted here and there and back into the pool. Finally, the door of the GM’s car snapped open.

“Hi James,” she called cheerfully. “Hi Frankie.”

“Hi,” we answered in unison, but with only a quick twist of our heads in her direction to show that even though she was our boss, we were not to be distracted from our vigilance over the pool. Yeah right.

“Don’t have very many swimmers, do you?” she asked, moving toward the chain-link fence.

“No ma’am,” I said over my shoulder.

“Why don’t you send those kids home then and come inside. I want to talk to you.” She tilted her head down to peer at us over the top of her sunglasses. “All of you.”

A few minutes later, the four of us were seated face to face in the tiny break room.

Marion was the first to speak. “The children are afraid of Frankie,” she announced.

“What?” Frankie sputtered. It was one of the few words he had spoken directly to Marion all summer.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this Hilda,” she went on, “but it’s true. They tell me that he’s mean to them, he cusses at them and calls them names, and that he pushes them in the pool.”

“Marion,” I said. “What are you talking about?”

Grendel’s Mother had opted to arrange all four of the metal folding chairs in our office to face each other in a cramped circle over Marion’s suggestion to meet outside on the picnic table. Frankie managed to get both the box fan and the lost-and-found box between him and Marion, but I was sitting so close to Grendel’s Mother that whenever her knee brushed against the hairs on my leg, a slow chill would go up my neck and down my arms. The smell of her menthol cigarettes was gradually overpowered by the flowery sweet coconut and purple flower scent of her suntan lotion.

“Little Vincent went home last Saturday with a hurt back,” Marion continued, addressing Grendel’s Mother. “He was crying inconsolably.”

“Wha?” I managed, trying to catch my breath, and at the same time thinking that “inconsolably” was an unusually big word for Marion. I looked toward Grendel’s Mother for her reaction, but she just sat there with her head tilted to one side and her chin forward as if she were listening to the waitress at Bob’s Big Boy repeat the day’s lunch specials.

“Honey, I asked him, what’s wrong?” Marion’s eyes darted toward me and then back to Grendel’s Mother. “The lifeguard kicked me in the back, little Vincent said. Did you tell the other lifeguard, the manager? I asked him. Yes, he said, but he wouldn’t listen. He never listens to us.”

Frankie looked like he was about to jump out of his chair and strangle her.

“This is ridiculous,” I said. “That never happened.”

“It’s true, and Vincent hasn’t been back since. Just like many other kids.”

“Liar,” said Frankie, beginning to breathe heavily now.

“Vincent’s family went back to Bakersfield after the grape season,” I said. “Just like many other kids.”

“I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, Hilda,” said Marion. “I mean I’m just the cashier and not a manager or anything … but I see things, and I feel I have a responsibility, you know, to the children, to this community.”

“Aw, come on!” Frankie stood up. “She’s lying!”

“Frankie,” said Grendel’s Mother, “sit down, please.”

Marion was almost grinning with satisfaction.

“Is any of this true?” she asked me, as soon as Frankie had returned to his chair.

“I don’t know what she’s taking about.”

“I’ll tell you what’s true around here,” said Frankie. “This woman is trying to kill me with her cigarette smoke. I have asthma you know. I can’t even come into the office to get out of the sun because she’s always smoking in here.”

I wondered suddenly if smokers had some kind of unspoken loyalty to each other.

“I go outside to smoke,” she growled.

“Oh, right, since when is the doorway outside?”

“I have to watch the money!”

“The money? Oh, you want to talk about the money now, do you? I think we should talk about the—”

“Marion,” I said, finding my voice. “You never once told me any of this before. If Frankie really hurt one of the children, you should have told me. Why didn’t you say something to me? Now, suddenly, you accuse him in front of … Hilda? It just doesn’t seem right.”

I want to say that at this point in the battle, Grendel’s Mother, or I should say, Hilda, gave me an appreciative look. I didn’t so much see it as feel it in Marion’s reaction.

“I’m telling you,” said Marion slowly, pausing between each word, “He is a problem.”

“If there’s a problem with Frankie and the kids,” I said, my confidence growing, “it’s that they like him too much.” I’m pretty sure Hilda smiled when I said that, but again, it’s hard to be sure. “They love him. They hardly listen to me unless he backs me up. Edward’s mother sent him those burritos on Sunday. That bracelet he’s wearing? Janice made it for him in day camp. Just last week—”

“Okay,” interrupted Hilda, “Listen to me carefully … all of you … because I will not be out here to do this again. We will not have another conversation like this … again. If the three of you can’t work together, then I will replace you.”

Marion was looking satisfied.

“All of you,” she repeated. “And if I can’t replace you, I will close the pool. For every dollar Robert’s pool brings in, this pool loses two. I don’t like losing money. All I need is an excuse.”

Marion was looking a little less sure of herself. Frankie had murder in his eyes.

“So I will ask you all just once. Can you work together, professionally? Yes or no.”

“I can if they can,” was Marion’s response.

This seemed to be enough for Hilda. “James?” She turned to face me directly and for the first time I noticed she had tiny freckles like red pepper flakes dusting the tops of her cheeks and nose.

“Yes, of course.”

Frankie looked resigned, but didn’t answer. This too seemed to be enough. She stood up, and we did the same. The smell of coconut and purple flowers filled the room. No one looked at each other for one very awkward moment, and I was afraid she was going to have us all shake hands. Instead, she asked Frankie to carry in some supplies from her car, and he followed her outside.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 5: Ride of the Valkyries

LAST WEEK: Chapter 3: You'll Catch More Flies with a Fly Killing Machine

Monday, July 4, 2016

Chapter 3: You’ll Catch More Flies with a Fly Killing Machine

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.

Chapter 3: You’ll Catch More Flies with a Fly Killing Machine

“Arlene?” I asked, “Cashier Arlene?” We had gotten to work a little early and had enough time to walk down to Sancho’s Market for some lunch before it was time to open the pool. We kept to the middle of the street, shuffling past the rows of cramped little houses, each bordered in chain link fence.

“Yeah, Cashier Arlene,” said Frankie. “You should, you know, ask her out or something.” Frankie thought most girls who crossed our paths deserved to be asked out, if not by him, then at least me.

“Well, she’s, you know, pretty and all, but I don’t know.”

“C’mon man, didn’t you see those shorts she was wearing?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“James … James…” he said, sounding like a sultry Bond Girl. “It’s like she can’t help just saying your name or something – she’s hot, man. I could talk to Gina. Set you up.”

“You know?” I wanted to change the subject, “I think we should buy a second flyswatter, so we’ll be able to kill twice as many flies by Friday.”

“Man, we’ll never win that way. We need a better plan.”

“Like what?”

“Like finding a dead dog.” He motioned up ahead to a pack of mutts crossing the street a few blocks away from us.

“Those dogs aren’t dead,” I pointed out.

“Yeah but, it seems like there’s always a dead dog lying around here somewhere. Maybe later we could drive around and look for one.”

“And then what? We still have to kill the flies.”

“You ever seen a dead dog that’s been lying on the side of the road for a few days?” he asked.

“I guess.”

“There’s so many flies on a dead dog; it’s just black with them. You can’t even see it anymore. And if it’s busted open, then there’s even more on the inside.”

“Okay, then what? We still have to catch the flies.”

“Well we could get a big—”

“No, I know! We could gas it with a can of bug spray, and then just sweep up the dead flies!”

“Now you’re thinking!”

And I was. By the time we reached Sancho’s Market, I was seeing flies everywhere: on some overflowing trash cans next to a house we passed, still more humming around the group of men sitting in front of the market sipping from their wrinkled brown bags, and even a few crawling along the underside of the glass deli counter inside the store.

We watched in silence as the girl filled and wrapped our carne asada burritos, and I’m positive we were wondering the same thing: How many flies can one of those things attract? Pulling myself from the fly-filled trance, I turned to face Frankie and I saw it … like a fluorescent blue halo glowing benignly above the matted, bed-head curls of his brown hair.

Actually, it really was a florescent halo glowing above him. A humming electric blue fly-killer mounted like a caged light-saber on the wall above the butcher’s table. I could only point, and at the moment Frankie turned, a white spark of energy signaled the death of yet another fly. Its weightless corpse drifting invisibly downward to join the countless dead gathered in the bin bellow.

“How often do you clean that thing out?” Frankie asked the girl behind the counter. She followed the direction of his excited gaze to the light behind her.

“The bug zapper?” she asked, curling one side of her nose.

“Yeah, the bug zapper.”

The other side of her nose curled, her jaw dropped a little, opening her mouth, and one eyebrow went up. The look on her face could only mean one thing: never.

“Can we do it?” Frankie asked. “Clean it out for you?”


“It’s for a bet,” I said. “It’s a long story.”

“Sounds like a stupid bet.”

“Please,” said Frankie.

She returned from a back room a minute later followed by a large sweaty man in a dirty grey polo shirt. He walked around to the front of the counter and stopped chewing on whatever was in his mouth long enough to look us both over. His gaze rested on our wrinkled red and white uniform shorts for only a moment before continuing down to the cheap plastic sandals under our dusty feet. With no apparent change to his disinterested expression, he turned and walked back the way he’d come. Over his shoulder he said gruffly, “Don’t make a mess,” before disappearing into the back room.

The corpse bin of the bug zapper was easy enough to remove and, just as we’d imagined, near overflowing with dead flies. The girl, Myra, who it turned out, went to our school, rinsed out an empty one-gallon plastic mayonnaise jar and we filled it almost to the top. Along with the flies we discovered an assortment of other dead bugs, as well as a considerable amount of fine grey dust. Frankie sneezed, scattering a few flies into the air and tossing up more dust. “We’re going to have to clean these off,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed, “after work.”

After work came sooner than we expected.

An hour and a half later we had to tell the last five kids still swimming in the pool that we were sorry, but they had to leave because there weren’t enough swimmers to stay open, and if we didn’t close we’d lose our jobs. We had nine paid swimmers in all, just three short of the required twelve. “Three people, three dollars,” I said out loud as I put my signature on the day’s report and handed the clipboard back to Marion. “That’s about what I paid for my lunch today.”

“Should’ve saved your money,” she said, pulling out the three-ring binder that held our bi-weekly time sheets. She flopped it open to her time sheet, wrote in the time, and then without turning the page, spun the book about and shoved it across the counter to me. I turned the page over without looking at what she’d written and, checking my watch, wrote in the exact time, to the minute. Frankie was still outside on the deck, but I knew she wouldn’t leave until he’d also signed out, so I turned to his time sheet and wrote in the same time.

“You know what?” she said, and her voice was like paper tearing. “This job isn’t just play money for me. I have grown children. I have bills to pay.”

“I’m sorry Marion,” I said, taken aback, “but it’s not my fault.”

“It isn’t?” She picked up her purse and the cash bag and walked out from behind the counter.

“What can I do about it?”

“Well you’re the pool manager aren’t you?” she demanded, as she thrust the cash bag into my hands. “Maybe you should think of something.”

Later of course, I would think of an appropriate response, but right then I didn’t care. We had some flies to clean.

We began by pouring about a handful of the dead flies into the blue skimmer net Frankie had removed from its pole, and then carefully picked out the other insects mixed among them. The moths and cockroaches were easy enough to get by grasping a wing, leg, or antennae with our fingertips, but the wasps and bumblebees we removed with a pair of tweezers from the pool’s first-aid kit on account of their stingers. Then we ran water gently over them from the hose, removing the grey film of dirt. The more dust we removed though, the more obvious it was that these flies did not exactly look the same as the ones currently buzzing around our faces.

“They’re bigger,” Frankie noted, “and… green.”

He was right; their fat black bodies had a kind of metallic blue-green sheen to them, like the two-tone paint on a low-rider car. “Maybe they’re maggot flies,” I offered.

“Man, all flies are maggot flies.”


“You think they’ll notice?”

“Probably,” he said turning one over in the palm of his hand, “but… we can’t help it if that’s just the kind of flies we have out here. Right?”

Yeah, what would they know? A dead fly is a dead fly, we reassured ourselves. An hour later, sifted and clean, our flies now filled the mayonnaise jar about half way, much more than we would ever need to win.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 4: Geronimo’s Last Jump and the Battle in the Break Room

LAST WEEK: Chapter 2: Never Count Your Money While You're Sittin' at the Table