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  • Writer's pictureMarie Smysor Watson

The Things I Used to Do - Part One

Updated: Aug 24, 2020

Here it is, readers - the first pages of my first novel! But first, a quick synopsis:

It’s summer. Anything can happen.

But mostly, things don’t happen because Carlton, Illinois, is a small, rural town, surrounded by cornfields and not much else. And anyway, twelve - almost thirteen - year old Maybellene “Maybe” Best, doesn’t even live in town. She lives outside of it, in the country, with her handsome Dad, Pete, a general contractor who operates Best Construction, and her Gramma Ike, who teaches Foreign Language classes at Carlton High School. Her own mom is dead but Maybe doesn’t remember her given she was only three when she died. Maybe’s thirteenth birthday is in August, before school starts back up. She is eagerly awaiting it, and alternatively dreading it. Her chief complaint with being a kid: Nobody tells her shit.

Set against the backdrop of the summer of 1990, when hair metal was waning and America first put its warships on high alert in a far away place called the Persian Gulf, this novel explores the challenges of coming of age for a girl like Maybe Best, who never says the right things or wears the right clothes or styles her hair the right way and who’s pretty sure that everyone likes her little cousin Sylvy better than her. Everyone, that is, except Bass.

She meets Bass one day down by the Hole, where she’s not supposed to swim because someone drowned there once. Bass isn’t all there, but Maybe is used to never knowing the whole story, and she quickly strikes up a friendship with him. In doing so, she unwittingly sets forth a chain of events that causes her small world to be blown wide open and all of the secrets that everyone in her life have held close- Aunt Dorrie and Uncle Ricky, Sylvy and Randall, Gramma Ike, Mrs. Wates and Billy Benson, Jimbo and Bass and especially Dad - to bubble to the surface.

And that's it people... away we go! Happy reading...

Maybellene, why can’t you be true?

Oh, Maybellene, why can’t you be true?

You started back doing the things you used to do…

Chuck Berry, Maybellene (1955)

A Note About My Story

Just so you know, there are words marked like this * - that’s an asterisk, but you probably already know that - all the way through this whole thing. These are spelling words that I memorized for the County Spelling Bee. I got second place. I figure that since I bothered to learn them, I might as well use them again. Like Dad says, There’s no good reason to have to learn something twice. Of course, sometimes he adds, But there’s no bad reason either. But don’t ask me why, okay? That’s just Dad. Who knows what it means, if it means anything at all.


Maybellene Augusta Best

PS. This is a true story. These things really happened. But don’t share it with anybody, okay? I’m going to take some of this stuff out. Probably.

June: Chapter One

The Things I Do at the Hole

(Where I’m Not Supposed to Swim Anyway)

Okay, so I’m not supposed to swim in the Hole – Sylvy either – but only because some boy drowned there once. It was a long time ago, way before I was born even, like when Dad was a kid, but every time I ask about swimming there the answer from Gramma Ike is always the same: Why would you want to swim where someone drowned?

Gramma Ike has a way of doing this – turning the question back on me and making me feel like my head is full of nothing more substantial* than that fluffy crap that comes out of milkweed pods in the fall. She’s German, like from Germany, and she teaches Foreign Language - French, Latin, and German of course - at the high school in Carlton. Dad says she knows how to speak Russian too, but she refused to teach it when the principal asked her once.

(I’m telling you - she’s difficult. Don’t worry, you’ll see what I mean),

Next year is supposed to be her last which is really good, because I don’t want to have her as a teacher, like Dad did. Everything about her is hard - her classes, her accent, even her face. She has a cap of iron gray hair that looks like it’s painted on, and a nose that’s sharper than the blade on Dad’s table saw, sitting just below these heavy-lidded brown eyes that make her always look like she’s half asleep.

But that would be your mistake - she’s not. She sees everything and she knows everything. She doesn’t like books which is weird for a teacher, but she’s plenty smart. Too smart for Carlton High School, eh Frau Best? Dad says, tapping her cheek with the pinky finger on his Hand. She snorts, but that’s all. Dad can get away with saying those things. He graduated from there himself, Class of 1968.

It’s my idea to go down to the Hole. I really can’t blame it on anyone else, since I’m an only child. There’s Sylvy, but she’s just my cousin and she lives in town. I’ve never been swimming there before, even though it’s just down a short, steep hill from our house, down where the railroad tracks curve around the lumpy hills but it’s really, really hot today. Hotter than the devil’s whorehouse out there, like Dad said this morning when he thought I was out of earshot. Gramma slapped at him with her dishtowel – Don’t be vulgar, Peter! – but he’s right. Dad’s right about a lot.

(He’s also really corny - he says crap like this all of the time. Sometimes it makes sense, other times, not so much, but you’ll see what I mean).

Anyway, no one’s ever actually come right out and said that I absolutely can’t go swimming at the Hole. They just kind of pass it off in ways that all adults do. We send you to swimming lessons, Gramma Ike says, isn’t that enough for you? Jimbo says, Why don’t you go play in the Creek? Dad just shook his head when I asked him once, saying, No reason to stir up the waters there, Maybe.

Gramma Ike isn’t really my boss anyway, even if she does live with us now. It’s only been a few months. Honestly not one of Dad’s better ideas. I know he doesn’t want me going through my teenage years without a woman around, but I already have boobs and my period and anyway, Gramma Ike is old. I mean, she’s sixty-two and besides, her being around like a hot, wet blanket being thrown over your head when it’s ninety-seven degrees outside, like today. A hot, wet, moldy blanket that still speaks German when she’s mad and wears knee-high pantyhose that roll down by themselves as the day goes by, like they’re trying to get away from her swollen knees or something. It’s exactly like being smothered, which is why I tell her I’m just going down to the Woods, to get away from her and those cold, brown eyes that suck you down just like Spoon River mud in spring.

I’ve got on jeans and sneakers and an old t-shirt from sixth grade with the lineup of Poison stretched across my chest (Bret’s on one boob and CeCe’s on the other). It’s a little tight but I don’t ever wear it if I think I might see anyone I know. I’m still twelve for a few more weeks, but I’m a big twelve. Where did those tits come from? I heard my Aunt Dorrie say in a loud whisper to one of her clients just this past spring, glancing in an obvious sort of way at my chest. She’s about as tactful as a hot poker up the ass, like Dad says, when he thinks that I can’t hear him. They didn’t come from my mom, for sure. I mean, she’s dead, but I’ve seen pictures of her and she was built like a fence post, all straight and narrow.

It’s way too warm for the jeans, but I’m kind of self-conscious about my legs, ever since Gramma Ike said last summer that I had legs like a German hausfrau. I still don’t know exactly what that means, but coming from her, I doubt it’s good. The sweat runs from the back of my knees down into my sneakers, making them suck up against my feet like leeches. My new glasses, heavy and maladroit*, slip down my sweaty nose. It doesn’t take long for me to make it to the Hole. Little ripples tap up against the rocks that circle it, because of the water that drops from the culvert.

(I have to be honest if I’m even gonna bother telling you all of these things: I’m kind of disappointed. The water just looks like any other boring old water. I mean, you’d never know that someone actually died here. It’s totally possible they made it up, just to keep me from coming down here. I don’t know why they’d do that, but I wouldn’t put it past any of them because adults tell all kinds of lies to kids if it makes them think that they’re keeping us stupid and safe. You know what I mean, right? Yeah, I bet you’ve done it yourself a time or two).

I have my swimsuit on under my clothes. I feel kinda weird about stripping down, even though I’m alone. I mean, there’s no one else here and I still feel like I’m on display. It’s hard not to be self-conscious when you’re one of the tallest girls in your class and what Aunt Dorrie kindly calls healthy. Honestly, I wish she’d bought my new suit for me. But instead, Gramma Ike bought it just after school let out for the summer. She called the cut modest and the style demure, which means that it was made for fat girls. I might be a lot of different things, but I’m not completely stupid. Of course, Gramma Ike didn’t come right out and say that, but I knew what she meant. Anyway, the cut and the style aren’t my problem, it’s the color: yellow with a wide black stripe running from shoulder to hip. It makes me look like a chubby, cockeyed bumblebee. Still, I knew Gramma Ike wouldn’t budge, even if I threw a fit, which I did. She’s like the iron clamp on Dad’s workbench where this kind of stuff’s concerned: she locks herself in.

“Clothes are only meant for two things, Maybellene: keeping you warm and keeping you from getting arrested.” That’s exactly what she said, word for word, when I told her there was no way I was going to wear it, right there in the middle of Harrison’s Department Store. But then, I knew it wouldn’t matter. She’d already made up her mind to buy it and there wasn’t a thing I could say to change it. And I was right: she bought it anyway because she’s inexorable*. And she’s still irritated at the fact I don’t like the stupid suit. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it and I’m just being difficult, according to her.

(I’d like to point out to you that she’s also the person who still wears the same clothes from when she first came over to America. In 1948.)

I strip down fast behind a tree. It doesn’t really give me all that much in the way of privacy, not that I need it, but still. The water falling into the Hole from the culvert makes a happy, splashing sound as I step out from behind the tree. My naked legs glow a little because they hardly ever see daylight. Usually only at swimming lessons, and even then, they’re covered by the water. Looking out at the Hole, I can see two waters, one through my glasses and one looking under the edge of my glasses. One looks close and the other one looks closer, like I don’t even need to step toward it – I can just reach my hand out a little and I’ll be able to touch it.

(That’s the thing I hate about these new glasses – they make me feel like I’m living in two different places, one close and one even closer. I liked it much better when everything was soft and fuzzy. Possibly you don’t wear glasses though, if not, this won’t make a bit of sense to you at all).

So that I don’t lose them in the rotted leaves or the wildflowers that grow down here - because that’ll make Gramma Ike apoplectic* - I leave my glasses on one of the big rocks at the edge of the Hole and stick my foot in the water. Like everything else about me, they’ve gotten bigger too – I wear a women’s size nine and I’m not even thirteen yet. It feels pretty warm, so I jump right in.

Boy, am I wrong. The top of the water, heated by the sun that pokes through the trees, is just warm enough. But that’s only about two feet down and after that, the water is cold, cold like the inside of the basement freezer when Gramma Ike asks me to fish something out of the bottom. My insides shrivel, crowding towards my belly button like they’re huddling together to stay warm.

Shit!” I yell, but it’s instantly swallowed up by the trees and rocks. Which is a good thing because Gramma Ike doesn’t like swearing, although I have heard her say Verdammnis! a few times and she also said something like Yer-in-son! once when she scorched a batch of strawberry jam. I’m pretty sure they’re both cuss words.

“Hey, Maybe!” a bright voice calls from above. My stomach scrabbles further up into my throat until my brain catches up with the sound.


She waves at me from the railroad tracks. Her dog, a little weiner/beagle mix named Tater, trots along beside her on stumpy legs. Dad says he’s dumber than a bagful of assholes, but this is one of the few times I disagree with Dad. Tater knows everything that’s going on around him. He’s definitely smarter than Sylvy most of the time. Not that that’s any kind of accomplishment or anything.

“Hey Maybe! What’re you doing in there? I don’t think you’re supposed to be in there – are you? Don’t worry – I won’t say anything but I think that Mommy told me that someone drowned in there once when she was a little kid but I’m not sure though.”

Sylvy bounces her way down to the big rocks at the edge of the Hole. She walks like she’s got some kind of spring built into her feet. Dad says she’s just like a fart in a skillet. Sylvy Sunbeam, people call her. Everyone – Dad, her parents, Jimbo, the bus driver, even Pastor Wright at Church, who always tells us to call him Pastor Mike, but I don’t because I think it’s stupid to act like the Pastor is your best friend or something. It’s quite possible that this is why people like Sylvy more than they like me.

(You don’t have to disagree because I know it’s true).

She stands there at the edge of the Hole, smiling her stupid smile at me like she’s just been told a big secret. Her fuzzy red-brown hair glints like an old, worn penny, one that’s been worried around in a pocket for years and years. Her eyebrows are thick and dark, like two perfect birds’ wings and her eyes are an extraordinary* kind of blue, like the bluebells that grow thick in Jimbo’s pasture. My own eyes are a grubby sort of brown and my hair’s almost exactly the same color and I hardly have any eyebrows to speak of, they’re so light and thin. They’re the only thin thing about me, to be honest. Really, my face is just boring, sort of like Jimbo’s fields – rows after rows of the same thing all blending together, where nothing stands out as different or special.

“I can’t believe I found you here!” Sylvy says. She actually wraps her arms around herself and squeezes, hugging her own waist. Seriously, she’s gonna have a hard time in junior high if she keeps acting like this.

(Just so you know, Sylvy’s parents are my Aunt Dorrie and Uncle Ricky, Dad’s younger brother. Aunt Dorrie’s a beautician, which means that she gossips a lot and her and Uncle Ricky fight over the dumbest things. She’s pretty dramatic, but she’s okay - I mean, I get along with her and everything. Uncle Ricky is another story. He works with Dad doing construction and I never don’t get along with him, but he makes me a little nervous, like I should always be watching him out of the corner of my eye or something, you know? He can be a little mean too, sometimes, pinching me hard on the arm when he says hi to me, and then acting like he’s just joking. The thing is, I don’t think he ever is. Joking, I mean).

“What’re you doing here?” she asks me again. “I like to swim, you know I do, Maybe, cuz you’ve seen me at swimming lessons, and I’m pretty good at it too, but I’m not sure we’re supposed to swim here. Are we, Maybe?”

She says all of this in one breath, looking down at me with the dumb half-smile of hers. I don’t say anything, because I’m pretty sure we’re not, and if anyone got wind of it, my ass would be grass and Dad would be mowing, as he likes to say.

“Why are you swimming here, Maybe?” she repeats for the millionth time. Honestly, if there’s one thing I hate, it’s people who repeat themselves. And Sylvy does that a lot. Sylvy freaking Sunbeam. She’s just a year and four months younger than me which puts her birthday right at the beginning of December and so that makes her two years behind me in school. She’s going to sixth grade which means that she’ll be at Carlton Junior High with me come September. The thought makes me a little happy and a lot annoyed at the same time. I mean, I love Sylvy. But.

"Oh, just for shits and giggles.” Dad always says this, but I’m not allowed to, because I’m not supposed to swear. Sylvy laughs and it’s so loud, echoing off of all of the rocks and trees down here by the Hole, I’m afraid that Gramma Ike will hear it clear up by the house. The house is a half-mile away, give or take, but still. Gramma Ike may be old, but she has supersonic, chiropteran* hearing.

"Shut up,” I hiss. She does, but somehow still manages to keep that dumb smile on her face. My body starts to warm up in the cool water and my goosebumps start to smooth out.

(Here’s a story about one time when I was little, just to help you understand a little more about Uncle Ricky. I’d just come in from playing in the snow. I was six, I think and of course, I didn’t know my butt from a hole in the ground, like Dad says, but I was just a little kid. Anyway, Uncle Ricky told me that my winter goosebumps were a terrible disease and I’d probably die in the next five minutes. I believed him, but I didn’t want to waste the little time I had left crying or something stupid like that, so I spent all of those five minutes imagining my own funeral. I mean, I’d never been to one - except possibly my Mom’s but I don’t remember it at all - but I thought it must be a big party where everyone dresses in their nicest clothes and comes to the cemetery to eat my favorite foods because I couldn’t eat them anymore and when they’re finished they all shoot off fireworks and dance around my grave with streamers and big bunches of balloons in their hands. I’d watch it all from my coffin because even though I’m dead, I could still see what they’re up to. You can imagine I was so horribly disappointed when the five minutes were up and I hadn’t died, that I finally cried. I mean, I would’ve been dead and all, but at least it would’ve been interesting).

“You can come in if you want,” I say nonchalantly*, pushing myself further out into the water. She takes off her shoes, green flip-flops. Green is her favorite color even though practically everything she owns is pink because that’s Aunt Dorrie’s favorite color. She dips her feet in the water but she doesn’t make a move to get in. She just sits there quietly, petting Tater, who sits next to her, his tail thumping against the rock like the downbeat of a guitar.

Of course, silence with Sylvy only lasts for so long.

“How does someone drown where it isn’t very deep?” she asks, her head tilted to the side, just like Tater.

“A person can drown in six inches of water,” I say. This is true – they can. Dad says I’m full of impracticable* information. Possibly that’s why I’m such a good speller. I remember how words are arranged in my head, because I give them the space that they need to sort themselves out.

(You might’ve heard that I got second place last year in the County Spelling Bee. I incorrectly spelled a word that’s long, but really pretty easy when you break it down into its parts. I must’ve been tired or something. I mean, we went twenty-nine rounds. The boy who beat me, Adam Hardsong, won he spelled my word correctly and then got aloha* as his final word. Aloha, really? I didn’t look very happy in the picture they took for the Carlton Courier, but it all worked out in the end anyway, because Adam Hardsong was eliminated in the Central Illinois Regional Bee in the second round. He misspelled charlatan*. Dad would call that poetic justice. Anyway, winning second place in the Spelling Bee didn’t make me any more popular or anything, but I was recognized on the morning announcements at school, which is something).

“Is that true, Maybe? I didn’t know that. I didn’t know a person could drown in six inches of water,” Sylvy says, all perky. I don’t answer but of course that doesn’t stop her from talking. “Huh. You’d have to be trying to drown yourself to do that, I think,” she continues.

“Possibly that’s what he did,” I say slowly, like I’m rolling a kickball nice and easy over the center of the plate. “Possibly he killed himself.”

“Well,” she says, scooting back from the edge of the Hole. “Mommy never said anything like that.”

(That’s another thing - Sylvy still calls Aunt Dorrie Mommy. This kills me. Probably because I don’t have a Mom – well, not anymore – but I can’t imagine ever using the word myself. Please don’t tell me you call your Mom that too, okay? It’s dumb).

I swim further out towards the middle of the Hole. The water here comes clear up to my shoulders. At least it covers up my ugly-ass suit.

“Your mom wouldn’t tell you if someone killed himself, especially not right by my house,” I say. I mean, she’s just a beautician, but she’s not stupid.

“Well, she didn’t tell me about Randall, you know, so maybe you’re right, Maybe. I just don’t know.” She sighs. Her mouth turns in a little like someone just made her swallow something caustic*.

I spin in the water, keeping my eyes open so that on each turn, I see her, Sylvy Sunbeam, sitting there on the big rock with her knees drawn up to her pointy chin, that dumb-ass grin still on her face and Tater sitting beside her. He looks like he’s smiling too, but that’s probably just a trick of the light. In between her, there’s just the water, speckled light and dark from the shadows of the cottonwood trees that make a kind of wall on the other side of the Hole. Tiny fish tickle my feet and the water feels silky like an old sheet as it moves between my legs - legs like a German hausfrau - then something touches my ankle.

Something voltaic*.

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