Monday, August 8, 2016

Chapter 8: Trading Places

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.


Chapter 8: Trading Places

Monday morning, my brother explained that Lester would be trading places with Frankie for the next couple of days. “Hilda wants to avoid another confrontation. She thought it wouldn’t hurt to be safe. She already talked to Frankie about it.”

“You told … Hilda?” I asked.

“Well yeah, I thought she should know.”

“But Frankie gives me a ride. My car doesn’t have air.”

“I know,” he said, picking up his wallet and keys from the top of the dresser. “I told Lester that he had to drive you.”

“But what about the wasps?”

Robert just looked at me. “Mom?” he shouted. “Have you seen my towel?”

“I washed it honey,” her voice rose up from somewhere down stairs. It’s folded in the laundry room.”

“Yeah, the wasps,” I said again. “The bets still on right, even with Lester and Frankie trading places?”

He gave me an exasperated look. “Grow up James, this isn’t a game.”

“Geez, what wrong with you?”

“I’m saying this is more important than some stupid bet.”

Lester showed up in a huge white car with four doors and soft, tan leather seats. The inside reminded me of a hospital waiting room: it was clean, cold, and smelled like strangers. “It’s a 1982 Lincoln Continental,” Lester said proudly. “Nice huh? Look at the size of the back seat.”

“Is it yours?”

“Uh, no, it’s my mom’s, but, you know, I drive it.”


“This way?” Lester asked, looking to his right as we reached the highway.

“Yeah, take this road all the way down and you’ll know it when you see it.”

We drove for a while in silence. I had to admit, this was a much more comfortable ride than Frankie’s Datsun – almost too comfortable. I stretched my legs all the way out, and still there was room. I looked down at my wrinkled red bathing suit and the tops of my sun burnt knees and wondered if maybe I shouldn’t have put my towel down on the seat before I got in.

“Dude,” said Lester, “you just live down the street from the pool.” The fact seemed to just occur to him. “How’d you end up all the way down in Shoreline when you could walk to work?”

“I’m the manager in Shoreline.”

“Well yeah, I guess that makes sense, but your brother’s awesome to work for.”

“I’m sure he is.”

“That’s right,” he laughed, “you guys share a room and everything don’t you? I bet if you worked together you’d be fighting all the time. I know. I have little brothers.”

“Naw, we don’t really fight, Robert’s cool.”

“Hey, your brother’s like the smartest guy I know. What is he an engineer or something?”

“That’s his major, yeah.”

“I haven’t even decided what I’m going to major in.”

“Me neither.”

“Really? But aren’t you going to be a senior already? Aren’t you supposed to have all that decided?”

“I guess.”

“Dude, I’m only going to be a junior and my parents are already planning college tours and all that.”

“Really? Like where?”

“Oh, they like all these places back east you know, but I want to go to San Diego. I mean why would you want to leave California, for what, the snow? Forget it. I don’t miss it at all. I don’t even like visiting my grandparents during Christmas.”

“Where’s that?” I asked.


“Ohio. Hey, my parents are from Indiana.”

“Awesome, we were almost neighbors. When did you move?”

“Me? No, they moved out here when they got married. We were born here.”

“Really? Robert too?”

“Well yeah.”

“And you guys have always lived there, you know, in your house?”


“So you go to Valley?”

“Yeah.” My high school was on the east side of the valley; Lester’s high school was on the west.

“Really? Wow, that must be, you know,” he looked over at me, “that’s cool, that must be cool, you know.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

He seemed thoughtful for a while.

“And your brother went to Valley too?”

“Lester, what do you think?”

“Sorry dude. It’s just that … you know, I’ve never really, you know…”

I did know what he was getting at, or trying not to get at, but I wasn’t about to be helpful. Remember the wash … dry grass and tumbleweeds on one end, country clubs and golf courses on the other? That about summed up the differences in our neighborhoods as well. Lifeguards like Lester had swimming pools in their backyards and had to drive “down” to the nearest public pool to work. Guards like my brother and me, as Lester pointed out, could practically walk across the street.

“So,” Lester said. “Have you taken your SAT, you know, your college entrance test?”

“Yeah, I know what the SAT is. No, not yet.”

We drove a little longer in silence and the odd thought occurred to me that, like Lester, I was also driving “down” to work.

“Dude, there’s nothing even out here. Did we pass it?”

“Pretty soon,” I said. “You’ll see a sign that says Shoreline. Don’t miss it. It’s too hard to turn around if you do.”

“Why do they call it—Oh! There it is.”

A small green and white sign bearing the city’s name and an arrow pointing left was visible just ahead. “Get in that turn lane,” I said. “The trucks don’t like to slow down.”

Lester pulled into the narrow center lane just as a diesel shuddered past, blasting its horn. He let a couple of oncoming trucks go by before turning off the highway.

“Why do they call it Shoreline?” he asked, as soon as we crossed the railroad tracks. “What’s it on the shore of?”

“I’ll tell you what. When we get to the pool you can ask Marion. I’m sure she knows.”

Because the land out here was so flat, and the desert brush grew so wild and thick right along the edges of the road, until you left the highway, you couldn’t really get a good view of the area. Now there were green agricultural fields stretching out in all directions.

“See that street sign on the corner up ahead? Turn right there.”

“Wow, what are those, grapes?”

“Yeah.” The vines grew at about the height of the car in rows that ran perpendicular to the road. Looking down the rows as we passed always made me dizzy.

“I don’t see any grapes.”

“It’s already pretty late in the season. There probably aren’t very many left in there.”

Suddenly a small prefab home appeared on one side of the road surrounded by a chain link fence. Several dogs rushed out from under the house to bark at us as we passed. A similar looking house appeared on the next corner. Then another, and suddenly there was the rough yellow stucco of Sancho’s Market with its single gas pump, the red brick of the post office, and the bright blue paint of the Laundromat. Behind these three distinct buildings the town stretched out into row upon row of cramped little houses, each bordered in chain link fence. The neighborhood was empty and quiet now, but as soon as the sun moved far enough to one side of the sky to give things back their shadows—right about the time the pool closed each day—people would start to appear in their yards. The music, talking, yelling, and laughing would begin, and the air would fill with the oils and spices of dinners being prepared.

“Oh my God,” breathed Lester, “is this what Mexico is like?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been there.”

At the end of the street was a small white church with a bell tower topped with a cross. Across from the church was the swimming pool surrounded by a baseball-soccer field and some basketball courts. Finally, behind that was the elementary school, closed now for the summer. And there was Shoreline, pretty much the whole town.

The usual kids were lined up at the open door. Someone yelled, “They’re here!”

“It’s a new lifeguard!”

“Where’s Frankie?”

“Look at his car!”

“Is he the new manager?”

“What happened to Frankie?”

Marion greeted us as with a welcoming smile. She had actually tidied the office. You’d think I was bringing some kind of visiting foreign diplomat. More like, fresh meat. “You must be Lester,” she said, “I’m Marion.”

“I’ll go up first,” I said, grabbing the life buoy.

“Uh, are you sure?”

“Yep.” Besides, he had it coming.

“Oh, you poor thing,” Marion began, without a hint of sarcasm in her voice. “I heard about what happened to you. Are you all right? Hilda gave me all the details. She wanted me to make sure…” and so on.

“Lifeguard.” It was Chico.

“You want us to kill wasps today?”

“Yes, but don’t let that lifeguard see you,” I said, looking back toward the office. “He works at Jefferson pool. He’s a spy.”

Chico’s eyes grew wide, then narrow. “Ten-four good buddy,” he said, speaking into his hand.

We stayed open all day that day again. It looked like we weren’t going to have more than eight swimmers, but Marion and I each bought two bags of chips and didn’t eat them, so it turned out we had enough swimmers after all. Lester didn’t seem to notice a thing.

“Dude,” He said when we were in his car and driving home again, “You guys had me all terrified of her. Marion’s not that bad. She’s cool.”

“Say that again after a few more days.”

“Yeah, yeah. Did she really baby sit you as a kid?”


“Yeah, right. You guys have it so easy out here.”

“What, didn’t you find it a little slow compared to the action at Jefferson?” I guess I was somewhat disappointed that he’d apparently had such a great time at our pool.

“Eh,” he shrugged.

“Didn’t Frankie also take your evening shift?”

“Yeah.” He seemed to consider this for a moment. “But I’ll find something to do with the extra time.”

I should have reminded him to go straight home when he dropped me off at my house, but when I thought about it, it was too late, he had already sped away. Not that he would have listened to me anyway.

I wondered how Frankie was doing on his end of the trade. I considered walking over to my brother’s pool, but I had no real reason to just go and hang out there. After what happened on my last walk, I decided to just go inside and call it a day.

My dad was eating dinner on a tray in front of the television.

“Well hello, son.”

“Hey, Dad.”

“Aren’t you home a little early?”

“Yeah, a little.” I think my parents just assumed Robert and I kept the same hours.

“Is your car running all right?”

“Oh, yeah. I got a ride with one of the other guards. His mom’s car has air conditioning.”

My dad just smiled and nodded his head appreciatively. His job as a building codes inspector for the county had him driving all over the place. Sometimes he’d be gone for a few days at a time. “Well, your mother made chicken and dumplings for dinner,” he said, tapping the nearly empty plate in front of him with his fork. “And if we’re lucky,” he added, looking over his shoulder toward the kitchen, “something for dessert.”

Later that evening the phone rang in the middle of Little House on the Prairie. My youngest sister Natalie jumped up to answer it. “James!” she shouted, walking as far into the living room as the coiled phone cord would allow. “It’s a girl!”

“Can we talk, James?” It was Gina.

“Well, yeah…”

“Come over.”

“Come over? Uh … you mean come over, to your—”

“James. Don’t think about it too hard, don’t ask your brother for advice, and don’t call Frankie. Just get into your car and drive over to my house.”

“But your dad.”

“Well don’t come in. Park down the street, like Frankie does. I’ll come out.”

On the way over, I passed Frankie’s house to make sure his car was still in the driveway, which made me feel so guilty I almost turned around and went home. But when I parked at the end of Gina’s street and she stepped out of the dark and slipped into the front seat of my car, the only thing I wanted to do was kiss her.

“Hey, I forgot you had a Bug.” She was wearing pajama bottoms and a loose t-shirt. “Why don’t you ever drive it?”

“No air.”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot.” Her hair looked like it was still damp and she smelled like baby shampoo. “Too bad, it’s cute.”

“You want to listen to some music?”

“No, that’s okay.” She reached up and pulled a cigarette from above her ear with one hand and pushed in the lighter on my dashboard with the other. “You don’t mind if I smoke do you?”


When the knob popped she held it to the end of her cigarette, her face glowing red as she inhaled. “Frankie hates it.” She rolled her window down all the way and blew most of the smoke outside.

“He has asthma,” I said.

“I know.”

“Oh … sorry.”

She turned and looked at me directly for the first time, then reached over and squeezed my arm. “Relax James. We’re just talking. We never get to talk.”


“So how was it with Lester today? Did my aunt talk his ear off?”

“Pretty much.”

“What about Lester?”

“He thinks she’s great.”

“Hah,” she laughed. “He would.”

A car passed slowly, temporarily flooding the inside of the car with light, causing us both to turn our heads away and slouch down a few inches in our seats. For a while we just sat there, even after the car was long gone.

When the silence became too awkward, I opened my mouth, not sure what would come out. “I was thinking about college,” I said.


“College. I was just thinking about college today. Are you going, you know, to college after next year?”

“I’ll go to Community, I guess.”

“Why Community? Don’t you want to go away to college?”

“Community is a college.”

“Well, yeah, but only two years.”

“And then you transfer and finish somewhere else. Besides, my dad doesn’t want me leaving home. Not yet, anyway.”

She inhaled deeply from her cigarette and the smoke flowed gently out of her nose. I was thinking if she offered me one, I’d probably say yes.

“So, have you taken your SAT?” I asked.

“My what?”

“You know, your college entrance test?”

“Oh yeah, no. You don’t need that for Community.”


“I thought you knew all this stuff James.” She twisted a little in her seat to face me. “I mean, your brother’s in college. I thought you’d probably go to the same school, you know, be roommates, go surfing every morning before class, and all that.”

“I don’t know, I haven’t even thought about it.”

“You’re a strange one James. That’s all your brother ever talked about last summer.”

I tried to imagine sharing a dorm room with Robert, but it didn’t look any different than the room we shared now. “I’ve never even been on a surf board in my life,” I said.

I don’t know why, but that made her smile. “I’m sure you could probably figure it out.”

A second car drove by, and we were quiet again.

“Which one’s your house?” I asked after a while, leaning forward and peering up the street.

“The ugly one.”

“I don’t—”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh,” I stopped looking, “I didn’t—”

“God, it’s hot. I wish you had air in this thing.”


She looked at the dwindling length of her cigarette, and then tossed what was left of it out the window. “I better go inside now anyway.”

Instead of opening the door though, she reached over, grabbed the front of my shirt, and pulled me to her. Her lips were puffy and soft and her mouth tasted like cigarette, kind of minty and metallic at the same time. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is what it would be like to kiss Hilda. Not baby shampoo, but coconut oil and purple flowers. Then she got out of my car and disappeared up the street.

I drove home in a daze, feeling happy and guilty at the same time. By the time I parked the car and went inside, I was just really confused.

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

LAST WEEK: Chapter 7: Sunny Day Taking My Cares Away

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