SUMMER OF WASPS is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental … no matter how many times you ask.
SUMMER OF WASPS
Chapter 5: Ride of the Valkyries
The wash is a dry riverbed, part natural and part engineered, that curves west to east through just about every city in the valley. During the rainy season, which was August, actually—although we hadn’t yet had a drop all summer—it filled rapidly, violently rushed muddy water across the valley, and dried up just as quickly. At this time last year it rained almost nonstop for two weeks and the pools were closed for most of it. Many of the guards just hung out at their pools and played cards off the clock, hoping for it to clear up. Others found more exciting ways to pass the time such as the game of mud-football played on one of the high school fields that lasted nearly ten hours, and which would have gone much longer if one of the guards hadn’t broken his arm. There was so much rain that summer that the wash remained a rushing river of mud for nearly a week, and there were even news reports of people attempting to ride the waves on small boats and inflatable rafts—until the police began arresting them for their own protection.
This year, although towering cumulous clouds, like floating continents riding the wet hot drafts up from the Gulf of Mexico, enveloped the mountaintops to the east and west, the sky above remained clear. Down in the eastern part of the valley where we worked, the bottom of the wash was overgrown with grey-green bushes and lined with dry grass and tumbleweeds. Up on the west side of the valley, where it ran right down the middle of some of the most expensive country clubs and exclusive golf courses in the nation, the wash was completely covered in a meticulously groomed, luxurious carpet of green grass. This is where we would go ice-blocking.
The Eskimo Palms Ice Company sold twenty-pound blocks of ice, day or night, from a coin operated machine the size of a railroad boxcar outside their ice plant. Two or three of these placed side by side and covered in a folded beach towel would send you flying like an Olympic bobsledder down the steep grass covered hills of the golf course wash. We always ice blocked under the cover of darkness and as late in the evening as possible in order to avoid the security guards, maintenance staff, and furious golf course grounds keepers. All the sliding down and pushing of the blocks back up the hill again left the grass torn up and burnt brown in the morning. And when our blocks had melted beyond use, we would hop the iron fences surrounding the club’s pools in order to wash off all the grass stuck to our muddy bodies. As lifeguards, we were guiltily aware of all the netting, brushing, and vacuuming work we left for the club’s pool maintenance to deal with the next day.
This was the first time we’d planned to ice block in over a month. The last time we tried, someone in a golf cart was staked out at the bottom of the wash. We had parked our cars on the shoulder of the road that crossed the wash and were making our way away from the lights of the passing cars, each of us lugging an ice block wrapped in a towel and walking barefoot through the cut grass, when we saw him. Well, actually we smelled the smoke first, and then spotted the glow of his cigarette. We left the blocks and trudged back to our cars.
Tonight, the coast looked clear. To be cautious, we only told a few people we were going. Besides Frankie, Gina, Nate, and me, Gina’s friend Wendy and a new guard whose name I thought was Morgan, but who everyone called Bucky, also came. Gina said that he was in college already, but that he was cool and I’d like him. I did like the blue leather Top Siders he was wearing, but the upturned color of his polo and the bleached highlights in his brown hair left me skeptical. I almost hadn’t recognized Wendy when we’d met up earlier. Her usual mop of frazzled blond hair was brushed out and buoyed up by a roll of yellow cloth tied high on her forehead, and she was wearing eye shadow and bright pink lipstick. Both my brother and Lester said they would be there, but neither showed up. We had parked a little further from the country club this time and were walking with our towel-wrapped ice blocks hugged against our chests, trying to keep our voices down as we moved away from the street lights and deeper into the wash.
“No one invited Broom Hilda?” Wendy asked in a loud whisper.
“Why do you call her Broom Hilda?” Nate asked.
“Because she’s a witch,” answered Wendy.
“Oh yeah,” Gina said, looking my way. “Thanks for warning us she was coming this afternoon.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “You didn’t call us like you were supposed to.”
“That’s because she went to our pool first this time,” said Frankie, “and then doubled back to yours.”
“See,” said Wendy, “a witch.”
“Yeah, but why Broom Hilda?”
“Dude, her name is Hill … duh,” said Wendy. “Broom Hilda is a witch.”
“In the comics,” said Bucky Morgan.
I’d almost forgotten he was there and looked back to see his pink polo shirt bobbing along behind us in the dark.
“She’s supposed to be Attila the Hun’s ex-wife,” he continued, “and in the comic strips she’s always looking for a new husband.”
“Really?” asked Nate.
“Yeah,” said Wendy. “She’s green and ugly with a big wart on her nose.”
“But Broom … I mean, Hilda,” stammered Nate, “you know, the boss. She’s not ugly.”
“Yeah,” admitted Wendy, “but she’s still a witch.”
“Actually,” said Bucky Morgan, “she’s not a witch.”
“Of course she is.”
“No, I mean Broom Hilda.”
“Witch,” said Wendy.
“No, the real Broom Hilda,” he went on. “The name is a play on the actual one from Norse mythology, Brynhildr.”
“Uh… that’s the same,” said Nate.
“No, well it might sound similar, but it’s spelled differently.”
“She was a shield maiden,” I pointed out, “and a Valkyrie.”
“Aw James,” groaned Frankie, “Don’t encourage him, man.”
“What’s a shield maiden?” asked Wendy.
“A virgin warrior,” said Bucky Morgan.
“Yeah, right,” she laughed, “that woman’s no virgin.”
“What’s a val-kill-me?” asked Nate.
“Val-kee-rees,” explained Bucky Morgan, “were these goddesses who brought back the souls of dead warriors to Valhalla.”
I had to admit, this guy knew his Norse Mythology. I wondered if he’d learned all this in college, or if he was just another Lord of the Rings junky like me whose favorite place in the library was the myths and legends section.
“See,” he went on, “Odin needed an army to fight for him in the afterlife.”
I could almost hear Nate working up his next question.
“This looks like a good place,” said Frankie.
“Yeah,” said Gina, “my ice block is starting to melt.”
“They’re these beautiful women with helmets and spears on winged horses,” I said as we all started up the hill, and I could feel Frankie rolling his eyes.
“Actually,” said Bucky Morgan, “they rode wolves.”
“Really?” I didn’t know that. I wasn’t sure I liked this guy after all.
“Yeah. They would appear among the corpses after a battle to claim the most heroic warriors. In fact, Valkyrie were supposed to be more like ravens than women because—”
“Okay, college boy,” interrupted Wendy, “give it a rest. We’re here.”
“Sure,” Bucky Morgan chuckled, apparently not offended, “how do we do it?”
“Well,” Nate began, “you can go down with one block but it’s hard to stay on, so we put two or three together and take turns.”
Frankie slid Gina’s block next to his and covered it with his towel. “I’ll go first and make sure it’s safe.” He climbed on and disappeared head forward into the dark.
“Nate,” Wendy demanded, “give me your block!”
For the next half hour we were up and down the hill. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes in pairs, and finally all six of us with our legs hooked around the waist of the person in front. We made it at least half way down before we careened out of control and spun apart.
“I lost my block!” Nate shouted from somewhere in the dark.
Gina shushed him loudly.
“Forget about it,” said Wendy. “Mine’s almost completely melted anyway.”
Frankie coughed roughly. “I hafta get this grass off,” he said to me, and I could hear an asthmatic rasp in his voice. “I’ll meet you guys up at the pool.”
“Where’s the pool?” asked Bucky Morgan.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” Wendy said, grabbing Bucky Morgan by the wrist and following Frankie up towards the quiet condominiums above.
Gina was eying the remaining ice blocks. “One more time down the hill, James?” she whispered excitedly. “Please?”
We were almost to the bottom of the wash when my end of the ice sled separated and sent me tumbling over the wet grass. I knew Gina must have made it all the way down because I could hear her alternately laughing and moaning somewhere out there in the dark.
“Help me up,” she called from somewhere on the grass.
“Where are you?”
“I’m right—” she started to say, and then her hand grabbed the pocket of my shorts and pulled me down, right on top of her. “Here,” she wheezed. I quickly rolled off of her and onto my back, and for a while we both just lay there laughing.
“Ouch,” I finally managed. “Are you all right?”
“I think so,” she said, rolling toward me. “You almost killed me.”
“You pulled me down.”
She leaned over me. “You’re all bones,” she said, and moved closer until her body pressed up against mine and her hair fell around my face.
“You’re all soft,” I said.
She kissed me on the mouth.
I kissed her back.
She stopped kissing me after a moment, reached up to her face and brushed a piece of grass off of her tongue with the tips of her fingers. I stood up and helped her to her feet. Holding hands, we walked back up the hill. When we got near the top of the wash, she let go and walked ahead of me without turning around or saying a word. I slowed down to give her a little distance.
Suddenly Nate appeared out of the dark carrying the towels we’d left behind. “Val-kee-ree,” he said under his breath as he passed me, almost too quietly to hear.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“Where was Frankie?”
“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