Monday, August 15, 2016

Chapter 9: Si Se Puede

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 9: Si Se Puede

The next morning, Lester picked me up in his mother’s car again. I didn’t feel like talking so I asked if the stereo worked and he was quick to want to impress me with the quality of its sound. On the radio, Rick Springfield was singing about his love for Jesse’s girl. Lester blasted the volume.

At the pool, I took the first rotation. When Lester came out to relieve me, he was eating a handful of green grapes.

“There’s grapes,” he said.

Joe from the Water District was in the office laughing about something with Marion. They each had a handful of grapes.

“Grapes in the fridge,” Marion said.

“Wash ‘em,” Joe added, and then laughed like it was the punch line of a joke.

Inside the refrigerator was an entire two-foot wide packing-box of grapes. I grabbed a handful and took them with me into the boy’s locker room and ate them while I stood under the shower. I wanted to be alone and to not think about Gina, but I did anyway. Then, after a while, I remembered the wasps.

Yesterday, several of the kids had made it their mission to kill and collect wasps without Lester noticing. I had improvised some hand signals to keep them appraised of his whereabouts. If he might be coming out of the office, I would grab my right earlobe as the sign for caution. If he were definitely coming, I would grab both ears. If I put both of my hands on the top of my head, it meant the coast was clear. Two kids were responsible for hunting and killing the wasps. One used the flyswatter and his partner watched his back. The wasp killer, it was mainly Chico, could concentrate completely on the wasp in front of him and his partner, usually ‘Nessa, would let him know what the signals were and watch so that if he didn’t get the wasp on his first try, it wouldn’t come around and sting him from behind. The rest of the kids stationed themselves around the pool so they could relay my signals to the killing team. If I grabbed my ear, they all grabbed their ears, and ‘Nessa would tell Chico. If I grabbed both ears, they all grabbed both ears, and then the fly swatter would disappear, someone would scream, someone else would splash, and suddenly everyone was doing something else. It was really amazing to watch.

Lester would never leave the office until my thirty minutes on the stand were up; so I used the caution and coast clear signs mostly, with a few double ear signals just so I could marvel at the transformation of their behavior. At the end of the day, Chico left the dead wasps in an old chip bag inside the empty paper towel dispenser in the boy’s restroom, just as we agreed. I had moved it into the refrigerator on the way out of the building as we locked up.

Remembering this all at once, still dripping wet, I left the shower and rushed back to the office, straight to the refrigerator. I had left the wasp bag where the box of grapes was now. Maybe they were still there, crushed beneath the box?

“So the flies didn’t work out, did they?” Marion asked.

I looked up. Joe was gone and Marion had the wasp notebook open on the counter before her. She was gluing the wasps onto a blank piece of paper with a new bottle of glue and real loose-leaf paper.

“Don’t worry,” she said, her eyes on her work, “I’ll put it away before Lester comes back in.”

“Sure,” I managed.

“Let’s just make sure you win this time,” she said, placing a wasp corpse in the center of a white puddle of glue.

“Okay,” I said, and then added, “Oh, Marion, do I need to buy any chips today?”

“No, Sweetie. Not today, thank you, but tomorrow maybe.” And for the rest of the summer, that became our code for managing the low attendance.

I grabbed another handful of grapes, rinsed them off in the shower, and took my turn on the guard stand.

There was a man in the pool. Adult swimmers were rare. Usually they came with their kids, but he seemed to be alone. He was swimming back and forth underwater, short ways across the pool. When he reached one side, he would stop, lean with his back against the wall for a minute or two, and then take a deep breath and swim to the opposite side again. His skin was three shades of brown.

His body reminded me of stain on wood and the summer my dad renovated the kitchen and gave me the job of finishing the new cabinets. I would apply the dark, gasoline-smelling stain to the bare wood with a paintbrush and let it set for a while before wiping it off with an old t-shirt. If I wiped the stain away immediately, it looked like the color of the man’s stomach and legs. If I let the stain set for a while, it would stay dark like his face and arms. If I got distracted and left the stain on too long before wiping it off, it stayed the darkest, like the color of the backs of his hands and neck.

It occurred to me that he was probably the source of the grapes. As I bit down on a single piece of the pearly green fruit, tasting both sweet and tart in my mouth, I wondered whether or not I should thank him. He had stopped on the wall bellow me, just inside the square of shade cast by the guard stand. I turned toward him, but he spoke first.

“Do you buy grapes?” he asked.

The question caught me off guard. “My mom does,” I answered around the grape in my mouth.

“Tell her not to,” he said, turning back to look out over the pool.


“Because,” he seemed to think this over for a second, “Tell her they’re poisonous.”

I stopped chewing. “I washed these.”

He looked up at me. “Not to eat,” he said, “to pick.” Then he took a breath, ducked his head under water, and swam to the other side again.

One of the younger kids, Edward, moved into the same shade spot below the guard stand and called up to me, “Life guard, throw me a grape!”

I dropped a grape down to him and he caught it in his mouth. He doggie paddled a little further out into the pool. “Again,” he called. “Lifeguard, again!”

I tossed another grape to him. This one bounced off the side of his face and fell bobbing at the surface of the water next to him. Laughing, he rescued the grape, plopped it in his mouth, and still chewing, shouted, “Again, lifeguard, again!”

The man, leaning against the wall on the far side of the pool, seemed to suddenly notice our game. 

“Dejar lo!” he snapped at Edward.

Edward turned to see who was speaking.

“No tienes verg├╝enza!” the man said, clearly angry.

Edward gave him a dark look. It was the same murderous expression I’d seen him give Chico when he and the older boy were fighting for possession of a tennis ball, and Chico resorted to punching him in the stomach to get it. I thought Edward was going to respond; instead, he ducked his head under water and swam off.

“He’s not an animal,” the man said, looking at me.

I didn’t know how to respond.

Behind the protection of my sunglasses, I held his gaze for as long as I could, until he took a breath and resumed swimming his underwater laps. After a few more minutes of this, he climbed out, gathered the rolled up bundle of his clothes from the table, and exited the pool through the boy’s locker room. A little later, I thought I saw him walking up the street in the direction of the church.

After work, I let Lester drop me off at home again. My mother was in the back yard, watching my little sisters, Natalie and Michelle, and one of their neighborhood friends, Karla, run through a sprinkler set up in the middle of the back yard grass. I pulled up a lawn chair and sat next to my mother at the edge of the girls’ action.

“Mom,” I said after a while. “Why did you and Dad move here?”

“This house?”

“No, California.”

“Well, Honey, your Dad found work out here.”

“Was it hard?”

“Finding work?” she asked.

“No, for you, you know, so far from your home and family. Wasn’t it just … so different?”

“It still is, so different. It was hard. But it was the right choice.”

“How do you know?”

“Well Honey,” she said, turning to look at me. “I just do.” She reached out and ran the tips of her fingers through the hair above my ear. “You always did get so blond in the summer,” she said, “so golden blond.”

Later that evening, Gina called and asked me to come over. She was standing on the sidewalk near the place we’d met the night before. She was already smoking her cigarette and before she opened the passenger side door of my car, she tossed the last of it into the gutter. She shut the door and immediately leaned over and kissed me wetly on the mouth.

“I missed you,” she said.

“Me too.”

She turned to sit with her back to the door, stretching out her bare legs and feet and resting them across my lap. I placed my hands awkwardly on her shins. They were smooth and just a little slick with lotion. She reached out and clicked on my stereo, pushing the eject button on my cassette player before it had time to start playing. She moved the dial on the radio back and forth until she found a song she liked. Then she turned the volume down so low it was almost too quiet to hear.

Out of nowhere, I heard myself ask, “You know Spanish, right?”

She shifted around a little, getting more comfortable in her seat. “No,” she said, “not really.”

“It’s just that I heard this word and I’ve been wanting to know what it means.”

“What word?” she asked.

“It sounds something like, vear-win-sah?”

“I have no idea,” she said, and she took her legs off my lap and spun around in her seat with her feet tucked under her.

She leaned over and we kissed for a long time. As I drove home later that evening, I could feel the sting of the hickey she left me burning high on the left side of my neck. “Score!” Frankie would say. It was the kind of make-out session that you couldn’t wait to tell your best friend about … unless, of course, you were making-out with your best friend’s girl.

I was lying in bed, still wide-awake, when my brother came home. He set his keys on the dresser and then tripped over my backpack on the floor in the middle of the room. “Damn it, James,” he hissed. The air conditioner cycled off and the room went quiet. His bed frame creaked. I could hear him moving around, trying to get comfortable.

“What if I want to go off to college?” I asked, my voice overly loud. It sounded more like an accusation than a question, but he must have thought I was talking in my sleep or something, because he didn’t immediately answer. “What if I want to go to college?” I repeated. “Why don’t I know this stuff?”

The air cycled on again. “What stuff?” he finally asked.

“Well, how did you know what to do to get into college? Who told you where to go and what to ask? Why does everyone know about this except for me?”

“James, I saw your report card,” he said, sounding overly patient. “You don’t even take school seriously.”

“What are you talking about? I have A’s.”

“Yeah, A’s in English, history, and art, but you got D’s in math and science. You always have. Colleges don’t recognize D’s. They might as well be F’s.”

“I could take them over.”


“And I could take this SAT test.”

“Do you even know what that is?”

“Yes I know what that is. I’m not stupid.”

“Okay, okay. Why the sudden interest? You never asked me any of this before.”

“I don’t want to stay here,” I said. “I hate this place.”

I could hear him shifting around on his bed. “Come on, you hate this place?” I could tell that he had turned to face me in the dark. When he spoke again, it sounded almost tender. “James, what are you talking about?”

“I just—” my throat closed up for a second. “I just never thought about it before, about college, going to college.”

“Do you even know how much school costs?”

“Don’t you have financial aid or something?”

“A little, but I also have scholarships, and I work. Especially in the summer, as much as I can.”

“I work,” I said. “I can work.”

“You need a higher grade point average than you have, James.”

“What do you mean?”

“You have to apply to a university, and they look at your grade point average and your SAT scores. The higher your grade point average is the less you have to worry about your SAT score, and the higher your SAT score, the less you have to worry about your grade point average.” The air cycled off. “You would need a really high score on the SAT.”


From far away came the familiar sound of the train whistling as it passed through town.

“It’s a really hard test,” Robert said.


The air came on again.

Robert was quiet for such a long time that I thought he had fallen asleep. So when he did speak it surprised me and I didn’t understand what he said at first.

“What?” I asked.

“I could take it for you,” he said again.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, they give the test like once a month, on a Saturday usually, and they don’t offer the test at Valley, right? So you’re going to have to take it at another school anyway. Most people take the test at Central, right? But no one says you have to. Register to take it earlier, like in October, at a school farther away, like West Hills. No one even knows us over there.”

“Yeah, but what difference is that going to make?”

“I’ll take your Driver’s license and school I.D. I’ll take the test for you,” he said, “No one will ever know.”

NEXT WEEK: Chapter 10: Wednesday and What Came After

LAST WEEK: Chapter 8: Trading Places

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