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

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