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

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