Monday, August 1, 2016

Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

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 … except for Bert and Ernie, of course. Those guys are for real.

Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

The next day at work, Marion knew all about what happened. Always able to find joy in another’s loss of ease, she was in a great mood. “Maybe where this kid’s from it’s okay to just talk with another guy’s girl, to go over to her house for an innocent little social visit. What do they call it, courting? Did he think he was courting her? Did he bring flowers? Candy? A promise ring?” she laughed. “What’d he want, just a kiss? One kiss? He’s lucky her father didn’t come out of the house and shoot him in the head. Or does this girl have a father? I mean, you know, even if he’s not around, she’s bound to have uncles or brothers. Just talking—my ass! And what kind of girl sits in some other boy’s car, in front of her own house—talking, when she knows her boyfriend’s going to find out? I hope your little friend knows just how lucky he is. Oh, I bet he thinks he’s in love with the little senorita, but she’s just having some dangerous fun with him, some dangerous fun.”

“This guy I work with has one testicle,” Joe from the Water District put in first chance he got. “His brother-in-laws found out he was cheating on their wife—I mean sister—you know cheating on their sister, his wife, and they took him out in the desert and … they were wearing masks of course … but he knew because they were talking, and they cut off one of his testicles, just like that. Next time, we’ll kill you—just like that—next time, we’ll kill you.”

“Unh huh,” said Marion.

I had to get out of there. I took the fly swatter and started hunting wasps. By the time it was my turn on the stand, I had killed four. The first was in the locker room, the second and third were hanging around the drinking fountain, and the fourth had stopped to enjoy a patch of wet pool deck and never got up again. I put the dead wasps in an empty chip bag and passed it and the fly swatter to Frankie as we switched places.

“Thanks, German,” he said.

Frankie decided to get in the pool and go for the wasps landing right on the water. He thrashed the first one to land near him by slapping it repeatedly with one of his sandals, but when he went to fish it out with the fly swatter, it came to and flew right at him, landing on his sunglasses. He screamed out, flinging the glasses and the wasp back into the water, and began beating the surface hysterically with his shoe again. This quickly drew a crowd, and before long he had delegated the job to three enthusiastic kids. To one he gave the flyswatter, and the other two, a sandal each. By the end of my shift he’d bagged eight more wasps. “At this rate,” he said, “we won’t have to cheat.”

Standing in the shade of the guard stand, I counted the swimmers in the pool. Great, if we didn’t get at least three more swimmers by the end of the next hour, we’d have to close early again.

“Man,” Frankie sighed, “I could really use a soda right now.”

“What are the chances of Grendel’s Mother dropping in on us?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but it’s more likely Marion would call her if she knew one of us left to the store. Never mind.”

“She can’t call if she doesn’t know I left.”

I guess I was still angry about the other day, angry enough to take my chances. But then I remembered that my wallet was inside the office with the rest of my things.

“Take mine,” Frankie said, motioning with his head to the picnic table where he liked to nap. “I don’t see why you trust your stuff in there alone with her anyway.”

I looked over at the picnic table and the padlocked exit gate behind it. My keys were attached to my whistle. Those always stayed with me. I could easily slip out the gate, cut across the ball field, and then walk up a couple of blocks before cutting back over to the street that led to Sancho’s Market. Marion would never notice I was gone.

“Screw it,” I said. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”

“Wait,” Frankie said, slipping his feet out of his sandals and scooting them toward me on the platform. “You’ll need these.”

A minute later I was running through the grass of the ball field with Frankie’s wallet in one hand and his plastic sandals clutched in the other. As soon as I hit the street, I tossed down the sandals and tried to step into them. They were at least two inches too small for my feet. Okay, fine, I thought, I’ll just run from shade spot to shade spot like we did when we were kids and walked from our house to the pool every day.

I envisioned myself crossing the street in giant, graceful leaps and bounds like a gazelle in slow motion; my feet would hardly touch the ground long enough to feel the heat. But halfway across, I knew I was mistaken. By the time I reached the stubborn patch of dry grass growing from the base of the telephone pole on the other side of the street, I could hardly catch my breath.

“Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” The sound wouldn’t stop coming out of my mouth, “Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” It felt like chunks of molten asphalt were still clinging to the bottoms of my feet. Hopping first on one foot and then the other, I managed to shove my feet into Frankie’s sandals. I found that as long as I stood on my toes, my heels wouldn’t touch the burning ground.

Lining both sides of the street were neat rows of cramped little houses bordered in chain link fences. Each space, from the front door to the street, was a crowded mix of junkyard and botanical wonder. Anywhere that didn’t have flowers, or cactus, or vegetables, or a shade tree growing in it was full of old furniture, stacked cinderblocks, piles of wood, various parts of cars, or cars with various parts missing. What this town didn’t have was sidewalks. There were no sidewalks or even curbs anywhere, just crumbly grey asphalt that faded into powdery grey dirt at the edges.

So I started walking up the middle of this particular street as casually as I could. Tiptoeing along in my tank top and bathing suit, I felt more like a half dressed man in high heels than the confident, golden haired, bronze skinned lifeguard I imagined myself to be.

Everything seemed quiet and deserted at first, but eventually a dog started barking, and then another, and another as I made my way through the neighborhood. By the time I reached the end of the street, my high-heeled strut had shifted into a tiptoed sprint.

The end of the street? I’d never actually been this way before.

Where was the crossroad? The asphalt just stopped and then there was desert. Not desert with big mouse-eared cactus, scruffy grey-green bushes, and the occasional stubborn wild flowers, but desert in its most literal sense: just dirt.

No turning back now, I told myself. I took off in a modified high heel sprint across the barren wasteland. Broken pieces of glass and old roots and branches stabbed at my toes and into the soft arches of my feet and the backs of Frankie’s sandals tossed handfuls of hot dirt up my legs and onto my head and shoulders with every step.

“Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” I began making the sound again, “Hotch! Hotch! Hotch!” in rhythmic torment with my feet.

Finally, the dirt turned into asphalt again. I had crossed to the other side and stood panting on solid ground as I tried to find my bearings. This wasn’t where I thought I would be at all. I could see the yellow stucco of Sancho’s Market just over the top of a last row of houses, but the map in my head said those houses shouldn’t even be there. And I was so close. I was not about to go around them now. I scanned the back yards of the houses separating me from my final destination. The two in front of me looked pretty well lived in, but the one just next to those seemed practically deserted. I moved closer to get a better look. No cars, no laundry, hardly even any junk.

Putting Frankie’s wallet between my teeth, I cursed the makers of my uniform shorts for failing to give them even one pocket large enough to hold anything more than a key or a couple of quarters, and climbed over the four foot tall chain link fence.

I was almost to the front of the yard when I saw it, next to a water spigot connected to the side of the house: a dog’s water bowl, a big bowl, filled with water. Before I saw it, before it saw me, I started running.

And that’s when I felt it, right behind me. It never made a sound, not a growl, not a bark, but I knew it was there. I felt the force of its malice, its hate, its single-minded, bone-crunching, soul-consuming need to devour me before I could get over that fence.

But my fear was faster.

It wasn’t until I’d leapt the fence and landed rolling in the dirt that it started barking. I looked back just once at the snarling beast after I’d picked myself up. It was even bigger than I had imagined. I brushed the gravel from the palms of my hands, took Frankie’s wallet out of my mouth, and hurried shakily across the street.

By the time I walked into Sancho’s Market, I felt like I’d already been gone from the pool for days.

I ordered two large Cokes with extra ice from Myra at the deli counter. She looked me over just once from head to toe and then, without saying a word, went to work filling my order. I looked down. I was covered in a grey film of dirt. There were cuts and scratches on my feet and ankles and the skin on my right knee was completely scraped off from where I’d fallen in the street. The blood mixing with the dirt outlined every wound with a ring of red mud.

“Where’s your friend?” Myra asked, pushing the two large Styrofoam cups across the counter toward me. I had put Frankie’s wallet back between my teeth in order to unwrap and insert a straw into the lid of each sweaty container, so I just kind of grunted and motioned with my head in the general direction of the pool. “Oh,” she said. My hands, I noticed were almost in as bad of a condition as my feet. My right elbow was beginning to throb and burn. I grunted thanks as I picked up my drinks and got in line to pay.

The big man in the sweaty grey polo shirt was working the register. I set the drinks down and ripped back the Velcro fastener on Frankie’s wallet. Ninety-eight cents plus ninety-eight cents plus tax came to two dollars and eight cents. I opened Frankie’s wallet. There were only two dollars.

“I only have two dollars,” I said.

He closed his eyes, inhaled slowly through his nose, and opened them again with a you-have-got-to-be-kidding-me look on his face. Then, exhaling just as slowly, his face resumed its look of disinterest and his eyes drifted off to focus on something behind me. His hand though, reached out to tap a small shallow dish with pennies in it next to the register. On the side, written in black marker, it said, Take a Penny – Leave a Penny.

“Sometimes you give,” he said, with a bored look into the distance. “Sometimes you take.”

I counted out eight pennies, leaving only a few behind in the tray, and placed them along with the two dollars into his hand.

I was just outside the store when the idea hit me. I had to set the drinks down on the ground and remove the wallet from my mouth in order to catch my breath. Something was happening. My eyes darted back and forth. It felt like movement inside my head.


I wedged Frankie’s wallet beneath the elastic waistband of my bathing suit, picked up a soda in each hand and started walking back to the pool. I took the main street this time. As I walked, I sucked soda from the straw of the drink in my left hand, and then after a minute or so, I took a drink from the cup in my right. I shuffled along at a comfortable pace, not bothering to keep my bare heels from making contact with the street, and ignoring the sear of the asphalt each time they did.

A car honked. It was Joe from the Water District. He waved at me as he passed in his big white truck. I lifted a soda in acknowledgment. His lunch break must be over. Marion was alone in the office now without distraction.

I didn’t care. I was thinking about Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. One of my favorite skits had always been one where Ernie was going to share something edible, a cookie, or a licorice or something, with Bert. Ernie would say something like, Hey Bert, there’s only one licorice left. Do you want to share it? Sure, Bert would answer in his uptight nasal voice. Then Ernie would cut the licorice in half and hold the two pieces up side-to-side. One would piece would be a little longer than the other. In order to correct the portion difference, he would take a bite out of the longer piece and then measure them against each other again. But then the shorter piece was now longer, so to be fair, he would take a bite out of that piece. This would go on until the last two tiny remaining pieces were finally of equal size. I used to get a big kick out of this. It still made me laugh.

I don’t know what Bert and Ernie had to do with the brilliant plan taking shape in my head. The memory didn’t really make sense, but my idea did.

Frankie never even noticed me as I walked past him in the street, turned the corner, and returned to the pool through the front door.

I could tell from the look on Marion’s face that, whether she knew I’d left or not, she at least never expected me to come strolling in through the front door. Neither did Frankie. He just watched me, dumbfounded, as I approached the guard stand. “Here,” I said, placing what little was left of both drinks at his feet. “I’m done.”

I returned to the office, got my own wallet out of my backpack, and turned to face Marion. “How many swimmers do we have, Marion?” I asked.

“Nine,” she answered without looking at her report.

“Oh,” I took three dollars out of my wallet. “How many bags of chips can I get for three dollars?” I set the money on the counter.

Her upper lip curled back. “Six.”

“Okay,” I said, “any flavor.”

She reached below the counter without taking her eyes off me. I could hear the crackle of the chip bags as she clutched at them blindly.

“You know,” I said, in as casual and polite a manner as I could, “I’m actually really full right now.” I stepped back, rubbing my stomach. “Too much soda.”

Her eyes narrowed dangerously. I had the sudden panicked urge to turn and run, but held my ground.

“How about you hold on to the three dollars for me and I’ll get the chips later, or whatever.” I started to back out of the room toward the pool deck, but then stopped and moved back toward her as if another idea had just occurred to me.

“You know,” I said, “three dollars … three swimmers.” I pushed the money still lying on the counter closer to her and whispered, “Just in case.”

I held her gaze just long enough to see a thin smile crack the corners of her lips. Then I hightailed it for the pool deck.

We stayed open all day that day, and between us, Frankie and I bagged a total of twenty-eight wasps. After we’d all clocked out and Marion had left, we found a three-ring binder and some white school glue in an old box of day camp supplies left behind from who-knows-when. We glued the dead wasps to the back of an accident report form, five across and six down and inserted it into the three-ring binder. On the paper below each wasp we wrote its number. Two more wasps and we’d start a new page.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 8: Trading Places

LAST WEEK: Chapter 6: I'd Stay Down If I Were You, White Boy

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