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.
SUMMER OF WASPS
Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After
The next day at work was pretty uneventful. The kids had taken over the wasp killing and Marion had assumed complete responsibility for gluing and cataloging the dead insects into the kill binder. I continued my ear signals from the guard stand, but after a while it all began to feel like some never-ending game of Red Light Green Light, and I was getting a little bored with it.
On the way home, without really thinking, I reached up and pushed in the cassette tape sticking halfway out of the car stereo. Bananarama’s Cruel Summer abruptly cut off and suddenly Johnny Cash was singing, “Ring of Fire.”
“Oops,” I said.
Lester looked embarrassed. “My dad’s,” he explained, but neither of us made a move to change it. Instead, we started singing along. Apparently, we both knew it very well. Lester turned up the volume and we kept singing. When the song ended, he shouted, “Johnny Cash rocks!”
Laughing, I clicked off the stereo, afraid of what might come out of it next.
Maybe that’s why I let Lester talk me into stopping by my brother’s pool on the way home from work that day.
“Come on, James. It’s not going to be a problem,” Lester assured me. “Look, I’ll wear a disguise even.”
“You know, I’ll put on a baseball cap, change my shirt.”
“Fine, fine, we’ll stop by for a few minutes,” I finally agreed. “Besides, I’m still carrying around the cash bags from the last few days. I should drop them off with Arlene.” The truth was, I wasn’t as worried about the cash bags as I maybe should have been. I had my own reasons for wanting to stop by.
As soon as we walked through the gate, Lester was in the pool, not bothering to take off the orange T-shirt he had changed into or the green baseball cap pulled tightly onto his head. Arlene was busy working the concession window, but she managed to smile up at me before turning her attention to the line of dripping youngsters counting out their wet change. I was a little surprised to see Frankie sitting up on the guard stand. Gina was standing in the small patch of shade on the pool deck next to him. I waved across to them and Frankie returned with his usual lift-of-the-chin acknowledgement, but Gina either didn’t see me or chose not to respond. I joined my brother and Nate over at the picnic table.
“James,” my brother said as I sat down next to him. “He’s not supposed to be here.”
Nate whipped his head around to look at the pool behind him. “Lester’s here?” Several kids had already latched onto Lester’s back and he was towing them around the deep end. Nate stood up and removed his shirt. “Nice hat,” he said as he dove into the pool.
“I’m sorry,” I said, watching as a game of keep-away with the green baseball cap was beginning in the pool. “He begged me. Besides, I’m still carrying around the cash bags from the last few days. I need to drop them off. We won’t stay long.”
I could feel my brother staring at my neck. “Who gave you that?” he asked.
Gina was handing up a cup of something to Frankie. He took a long drink before passing it back. “Well, leave me some!” Gina said loudly after putting her mouth to the straw, although she didn’t sound mad.
“Don’t stay long,” Robert said, still watching me. “Okay?”
I shouldn’t have been offended by what he said; it was just the overly gentle, sympathetic way he said it that made me angry. I suddenly regretted coming here and got up from the table and went over to the edge of the pool. When Lester saw me standing there he immediately pointed to his wrist and then held up five fingers. So I walked over to the small brick office to leave my cash bags with Arlene while I waited.
Three little girls were huddled around the snack bar window speaking excitedly in Spanish with Arlene. She was leaning her head out of the window toward them as the girls all took turns touching the dark, thick curls of her hair. She shot me a helpless look as I walked over. I went around and entered through the door-opening of the tiny office. The girls had taken to comparing the wet split-ends of their own hair, but when they saw me standing behind Arlene, they ran off, giggling.
“Sorry,” she said, turning toward me.
I opened the zipper of my backpack. “Girl talk?”
“Yeah,” she said, laughing softly to herself. “I guess so.”
I pulled out three cash bags and handed them to her.
“James,” she said with exaggerated relief. “And I thought maybe you didn’t need me anymore.”
She took the bags from me, stepped over to her own red backpack hanging from a hook on the back wall, unzipped it, and dropped them inside. I remembered what Frankie had said the other day and I stole a quick glance at the little white shorts she was wearing. I felt my face flush and quickly turned my head to look out the window. Frankie was still on the stand. Gina was still standing loyally by his side. I turned back to Arlene who had resumed her usual seat on the stool between the two windows.
“Arlene?” I asked, and suddenly felt warm in the face again.
“Do you…” I caught myself about to ask whether she spoke Spanish or not. “I was wondering…”
“I heard something the other day, and well, I’ve been wondering what it means, and… I thought you might know.”
“What was it?”
“Well it sounded like, vear-win-sah,” I said clumsily. “No tea-in-as vear-win-sah, or something like that.”
“Vergüenza,” she said, spinning the letters off her tongue.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
“Vergüenza, it means shame.”
“Shame, you know, embarrassment, humiliation, disgrace.”
“There’s no shame?”
“No tienes vergüenza,” she repeated the phrase. “Well, yeah, actually. It’s like asking, where’s your shame? Or more like saying, you should be embarrassed; you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Did someone say that to you?” Her eyes searched my face.
I felt her looking at the mark on my neck.
“Not exactly,” I said.
Suddenly Lester shoved his head and shoulders through the concession window. “Okay, we can go now, boss,” he sputtered.
“Oh, hey Arlene! Did you miss me?”
“Every minute, Lester,” she said, smiling and shaking her head, “every minute.”
Lester leaned completely through the window and grabbed the corner of a towel sticking out of the lost-and-found laundry pile and yanked it free. “Hey, I think this is mine,” he said, holding it up. “Perfect!” He pulled himself back through the window as quickly as he had appeared, taking the towel with him.
I looked over at Arlene and shrugged. “Thanks,” I said with an awkward little wave goodbye. “I’ll see ya.”
But when I turned around, Gina was there. “Hey, you,” she said and kissed me hard on the mouth, pressing against me with her whole body like she’d run into me on accident or something and then moving quickly past me into the office. “Has anyone seen my towel?” she asked no one in particular. I hurried out of the office, not daring to look back.
Outside, Nate was on the guard stand and Frankie was making his way toward me. Lester was already walking backwards out of the gate into the park, parade waving to the pool in general with his reclaimed towel wrapped sarong-style firmly around his waist.
“Leaving?” Frankie asked.
I stopped, standing at an angle, my left side turned just slightly away from Frankie. “Yeah,” I said, covering the spot with my hand by rubbing my neck like it was stiff or sore. “I gotta make sure this guy safely leaves town.”
“Everything cool?” he asked.
My own distorted double-image mirrored back at me from the surface of his sunglasses. “No man, it’s not,” I said. “Marion really misses you.”
That made him laugh. “Catch you later then.”
“Later,” I agreed, then turned and followed Lester out of the gate.
We were almost half way to his car when I saw, just down the street at the far end of the park, a metallic green low rider with chrome trim slowly turning the corner and heading our way.
“Lester,” I called after him, “Wait. I … you forgot your hat, didn’t you?”
“Oh,” he said reaching up and touching his bare head. He spun around and hurried back through the pool gate. From the edge of my sunglasses, I watched the low rider drive past and continue down the street just as Lester returned, cap in hand, “Thanks, man, it’s my little brother’s.”
I stole another glance as we headed to the car again. The green low rider turned right at the next corner, just as I feared. It was circling the park.
Lester opened his side and then unlocked mine by hitting a button above the armrest of his door. As I climbed in, I tried to keep a lookout for the low rider. Behind the pool building, through some shade trees, and just past the iron monkey bars, there was a brief view of the street on the far side of the park. I fixed my gaze, unblinking, like a sniper’s crosshairs on the spot. The low rider passed through it.
I turned to find Lester getting out of the car.
“What are you doing?” I almost screamed.
He was standing in the street, struggling to remove the towel from around his waist. “Sorry, man, but I can’t drive with this thing.”
“Hurry up,” I said, trying to track the low rider’s progress again, then more to myself, “I think I saw Mark.”
“Mark, who’s Mark?” Lester had folded his towel and was now carefully positioning it on his car seat, tucking one side of it into the back crease of the upholstery, smoothing the edges.
“Lester! Get in already!” I snapped. “Mark, the little one with Janice’s boyfriend!”
“What!” He was instantly in the car. “Where?”
“They’re circling the park.” I twisted around in my seat to look behind.
“What!” He was fumbling with his car keys, trying to get one into the ignition with it still attached to the whistle lanyard around his neck. “You know him?”
Too late. There they were, turning the last corner. “Shit,” I said, “get down!”
“Shit!” Lester repeated, bending his knees and sliding forward, completely off his seat, towel and all, until he’d pinned himself like a broken limbo player, bent backwards between the floor matt and the bottom of the steering wheel. I flopped over sideways across the front seat, my forehead conking the top of Lester’s skull.
“Oh man, oh man, oh man,” he kept repeating.
“Why are they still looking for you?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.”
“Are you still seeing Janice?”
“No, no, no,” he moaned. “Just the once.”
“Damn it, Lester!”
“I know, I know, I know.”
“Lester, shut up,” I whispered. The car would be passing us right about now.
“I’m dead, I’m dead, I’m dead,” he whined, banging his forehead on the bottom of the steering wheel every time he said it.
I grabbed him by the hair, pulling hard enough to pin his head against the seat of the car. “Shut up – shut up – shut up!” I hissed.
He stopped moving and was quiet. I tried to listen for the sound of an engine or a car’s tires on the street, but all I could hear was my own pulse pounding in my ears. The inside of the car had become so unbearably hot that I could hardly breathe. My body, head to toe, seemed to have burst instantaneously into a sweat.
“Lester,” I whispered, my hand still clenched firmly in his hair. “I’m going to let go now. When I do, get up slowly, take the car keys off your neck, start the car, and let’s go.”
I let go, sat up slowly myself, and looked around. “Okay, they’re gone,” I said. “Let’s get the air on in this thing.”
But Lester was still struggling to get out from under the steering wheel. His body was twisted at an odd angle so that his left arm was extended up and holding on to the top of the steering wheel, but his right shoulder was wedged against the base of his seat, pinning his other arm beneath him.
“I’m stuck!” he cried out, his voice high pitched and panicked. “Help me!”
I reached over and got my hand under his trapped shoulder, pushing down against the seat with the back of my arm and up against his shoulder with the front of my hand until it came free. Now, with both of his hands firmly gripping the top of the steering wheel, he took a deep breath and pulled himself up the rest of the way. Both of his elbows though, bearing all his weight, lodged themselves against the center of the steering wheel and pushed the car’s horn. The sound trumpeted forth so loudly that it went through me like an electric shock.
I suffered a split second of delayed understanding before it hit me like the punch line to a really bad joke. And I think, at that moment, we both would have laughed, if it weren’t for the fact that the horn continued to blare loudly. It was stuck.
That’s when Lester lost it.
He got the correct key in the ignition, started the engine, shifted the gear into drive, and stomped on the gas pedal. With horn wailing and tires screeching, we slid away from the curb, shot forward into the street, and just missed smashing the taillight on Frankie’s Datsun by mere inches.
“Slow down!” I shouted, but the Lincoln continued to rocket forward, gaining speed. Before I could get out another word, we’d run the stop sign of the four-way intersection in front of us and were heading straight for the next, the sounds of other car horns already fading behind us, blending with our own.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!”
I looked over at Lester. He was pulling on the steering wheel and pressing on the gas so hard that he’d lifted himself up and out of his seat. His brain, I think, was telling him he was pushing on the brakes; his body though, had betrayed him.
In the next intersection we weren’t so lucky.
I guess crash is a good word for what happened, but the feeling that comes with the sound – the sound and the feeling – that’s more like a crunch.
The car that finally crunched into us was a truck, I think.
It hit the front end of my side of the car and sent us into a counter-clockwise spin. How many times we went around I can’t be sure, maybe once, maybe six. I know we stopped though, when Lester’s side of the car met the light pole in front of Perez Hardware and Paint. I looked over at Lester. His hands had finally let go of the steering wheel. He looked relaxed. His head was leaning back against the headrest and turned just slightly away from me as if he was calmly listening to something important the pole had said and he didn’t want me to hear. Mr. Perez was the first person to come running out of the building.
After that I’m not really sure.
Many hours later, I walked out of the emergency room to find my family and friends, even my boss, waiting for me. Frankie was there, but not Gina. My mother was there. She was sitting in a waiting room chair next to Arlene. Arlene was holding my mother’s hand; or more so, my mother had one of Arlene’s hands grasped tightly between the two of her own. As soon as she saw me, my mother stood and crossed the room. I saw Arlene attempt to let go, but my mother dragged her along and did not release her hand until she was able to wrap me in both of her arms. Arlene stood behind my mother a little awkwardly for a moment, and then returned to her seat. I saw her pick my mother’s purse up off the floor and place it protectively in her lap.
My brother and Hilda entered the waiting room from where they had been standing in the outside hallway looking in through the glass.
“Can you go home now?” my mother asked.
“Yes, I guess so.” I’d been lying in a hospital bed for as long as I could remember, until a doctor finally came in to examine me. When he was done, he explained the after effects of soft tissue bruising on the body, suggested Tylenol, and said I could get dressed and go. “Where’s Lester?” I asked.
“They took Lester to another hospital,” Hilda said. “I just got off the phone with his parents. I’m going there now.”
“Is he all right?”
“They don’t know yet,” she said. “How do you feel?”
“You know you were unconscious for a while there, James,” she said, searching my face. “You had us worried.”
“I don’t really remember, but the doctor says I’m okay.”
“Shoreline can stay closed tomorrow,” Hilda said. “I’ll call Marion and tell her to put up a sign. School starts in little more than a week; maybe it will just stay that way.”
“Hilda,” I said. “I’m okay, I can work.”
“James, you stay home tomorrow,” she said. “We’ll see how you’re doing on Friday.” Then she looked over at Robert and added, “You can finish the summer at your brother’s pool.”
“Hilda, please, don’t close my pool. I’ll stay home tomorrow, but let me finish the summer, please.”
She reached out and touched my arm. “We’ll see, James.”
I didn’t know Hilda that well. Who did? But I had a feeling that was as close to a maybe as I was going to get.
We all walked out of the waiting room and to the parking lot together. “How did my mom get here?” I asked Frankie.
“Arlene brought her.”
“How did you get here?” I asked.
“With you, in the ambulance.”
“She told the paramedics she was Lester’s girlfriend, so they let her ride with him.”
“Oh,” I said again.
I watched my mother take her purse from Arlene and then give Arlene a hug. Arlene got in her car and drove away. My brother had walked Hilda over to her car, and the two of them were standing next to it talking quietly. Then my brother opened Hilda’s car door for her, but before she got in, they kissed and then held each other for a long moment. Then Hilda also got in her car and left.
When my brother walked back over to us, he must have noticed the look on my face. “Like you didn’t know,” he said.
He was giving me way too much credit, but any credit I could get from my brother, I’d take.
Then Robert opened the front door of his car and let my mother get in. On his way back around the car he turned to look at me standing in the middle of the parking lot and said, “James, what are you doing? Get in.”
I turned to Frankie, who was still standing at my side. “Oh, I’m with you,” Frankie said, and when I started for my brother’s car he followed me there.
NEXT WEEK: Chapter 11: The Last Chapter
LAST WEEK: Chapter 9: Si Se Puede