SUMMER OF WASPS
Chapter 11: The Last Chapter
Gina didn’t return to work that summer and I never saw Lester again. That next week, Frankie and I took turns covering the vacant evening shift at Robert’s pool. Hilda did let us go back to work on that next Friday, the day after the crash. We took Frankie’s Datsun; I drove. The kids were happy to see Frankie. Marion looked right past him and he ignored her. It was just like old times. He even took the first thirty minutes up on the stand. I was dreading the one-hundred-and-one questions I knew I was about to get from Marion, but Joe from the Water District showed up and they gossiped together for well over an hour. I know because he was still there when I came in from my first shift. When he did leave, I braced for Marion’s barrage, but it never came. Maybe I wasn’t the only one looking for normal. Maybe we all just wanted one more week of summer.
At the end of the day, I left Frankie to hose out the restrooms while I put the equipment away and signed us out. Along with the cash bag for the day, Marion handed me the binder of wasps. I had forgotten all about it. She didn’t say anything, but I had acquired at least enough wisdom in the last few days to know that this was a gift from Marion, the thing she had been waiting all day to give me. I set the binder on the counter and opened it. The pages, stiff with glue, crackled as I turned them. There were thirty dead wasps on each page. Each wasp was bent, broken, and contorted in its own unique way. Some were pieced back together, some headless, some wingless, others looking like they had simply landed there and might still fly away; except that, all were covered in the same clean, glossy preservative shell of glue. There were four pages. The last page was not completely full, but each wasp was numbered. They totaled one hundred and three.
I closed the binder slowly and with extreme care slipped it, along with the cash bag, into my backpack. Tomorrow I would tell her that we had won the wasp contest, hands down. That the guards at my brother’s pool had presented a plastic sandwich bag of wasps that had still to be counted out. I would tell her that even though the dinner was at Pizza Palace, we ate all the food we could and even ordered our sodas by the pitcher. She would smirk, feigning boredom and distaste, but she would enjoy hearing it, and she would never know that none of that ever happened, that no one even mentioned the wasps again, and that for the rest of the summer, and probably several months after that, the binder never even left the trunk of Frankie’s car.
Lester had some pretty serious problems, a fractured skull, a ruptured spleen, but he made it through okay. Gina, from the time she climbed into the back of the ambulance with him until almost a week later when he was wheeled out to his parents’ car and stood up on his own two feet, hardly left his side. I heard they stayed a couple for almost the rest of the year.
It turned out that Arlene had been in the same English class last year as Frankie and me. I was hanging out around the office during one of those sultry evening swims when, once again, the subject of the SAT came up.
“Have you taken it?” I asked from where I was seated on the edge of the lounge chair between the box fan and Arlene, trying not to hog too much of the air.
“No, not yet,” she said, pushing her hair away from her face with both hands and gathering it behind her. “I signed up for the one in November, didn’t you?”
“Uh, I don’t know.” I watched her twist her hair into a tight bun at the back of her head. “I think so.”
“What do you mean, you think so?” She picked up the pencil next to her clipboard and stabbed it through the bun to keep it in place. “Didn’t you turn in the registration form?”
“What registration form?” I was trying to remember if I’d ever seen her with her hair up like that before.
“The one Mr. Schwartz gave us.”
I didn’t know what was more maddening, finding out that I’d missed yet another opportunity to register for the damn SAT, or failing to notice Arlene in any of my classes before. “Actually,” I said, “I’m taking it in October. My brother’s helping me.”
“Oh, well if Robert is helping you.”
And her eyes. Why hadn’t I noticed her eyes? They were so big, and dark, black coffee near the center, but a lighter caramel around the edges.
“Why October?” she asked. Little wisps of her dark curls were already beginning to come loose and spill down around her neck. “If you waited until November, you’d have another month to study.”
“And your brother,” she continued. “He’s going to be off at school mostly, isn’t he?”
“Well … yeah.” How could I tell her it wouldn’t actually be me taking the stupid thing?
“If you want, James,” she said, pushing a fallen strand of hair behind her ear, “you could always study with me.”
So on that last workday of the week, I took my own car to Robert’s pool in the evening. Frankie said he had some things to do at home before his mom would let him drive up to Riverside on Saturday with me. We planned on going to the big mall there to buy some new school clothes with some of our summer earnings.
I noticed that week that sometimes Arlene brought her car to work and other times someone came to pick her up. When I didn’t see her little yellow Ford parked out on the street, I worked up my courage to ask her if she needed a ride home.
“Sure,” she said.
“My car doesn’t have air,” I confessed, and immediately wished I hadn’t.
“That’s okay, James,” she smiled. “I don’t live far.”
Her house was in a neighborhood across town from mine. I had a list in my head of things to talk about in the car: who she thought we’d get for English next year, U2’s new album, the space shuttle ... but I didn’t need it.
“So why are you guys driving all the way to Riverside to go clothes shopping?”
“You know Eric Rodriguez?” I asked, instead of answering.
“Isn’t he a friend of yours?”
“Well yeah, but the thing is, last year on the first day of school, we came wearing the exact same thing. And I don’t mean just the shirt … the shorts, the shoes, everything.”
That made her laugh. “Come on, that sounds like girls and their prom dresses.”
“Well, it was kind of embarrassing.”
“Okay, and Frankie? Did he have a similar clothes emergency?”
“No, really, Riverside, it’s just something to do,” I admitted. “I mean, that really happened with Eric and the clothes, but—”
“Oh, turn left here.”
I almost asked her if she wanted to come along.
“It’s there on the right. Oh, my dad’s home.”
“Your dad?” I pulled over in front of her house. A man was spraying off the driveway with a water hose. The giant black and brown dog standing behind him started barking.
“Sorry James, but now you’re going to have to meet my dad.”
“Meet your dad … is he mean?”
“No,” she said with her soft laugh. “But he sees you dropping me off and he doesn’t know you so I have to introduce you to him.”
“Does your dog bite?”
She laughed again.
The dog came at me as Arlene rolled back the entry gate. He barked a couple of times, smelled me, and then let me rub the top of his head and behind his ear. Arlene’s dad shut off the nozzle on the hose and dried his hands on the legs of his jeans.
“Dad, this is my friend James, from work … and school.”
He reached out and shook my hand. “John Fernandez,” he said.
“Nice to meet you, sir.”
The dog pushed roughly against my thigh with its head.
“That’s Lobo,” said Arlene.
I reached down to scratch behind his ear again. “Big dog.”
“It looks like it might rain,” said Mr. Fernandez, squinting up at the darkening roof of clouds gathering over our heads.
At the sound of the front door opening, I looked up to see a woman standing there. Arlene took my hand and pulled me gently away from the dog and her father, and led me toward the house. “And now you have to meet my mom,” she said.
Her mother said something to Arlene from the doorway that I didn’t understand. Then she disappeared into the house, leaving the door open for us. “And you’re staying for dinner,” Arlene said, squeezing my hand.
As soon as we walked into the house I couldn’t help but take a deep breath of the delicious aromas of oils and spices coming from the kitchen.
“Mmm,” Arlene said. “Chile Rellenos.”
That’s when something caught in my throat. It was only a tickle at first, but it started me coughing and I could feel my face turning red.
Arlene’s mom came around the corner with a glass of water in her hand. “Lo siento,” she said, handing me the glass. “It’s the chiles I’m roasting.”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Fernandez,” I managed between coughs.
She smiled and motioned for me to drink the water.
“Come on,” Arlene said as her mother returned to the kitchen. “I’ll take you to the other room until dinner is ready.”
And there and then, realizing that Arlene was still holding my hand, I knew that finally, my summer of wasps was over.
LAST WEEK: Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After