The Things I Used to Do - Part Five
I was going to pick Sylvy up at her house, but she’s already waiting at the edge of town on her pink bike. I’m sad to not see Tater - he usually bounces straight off the ground, all four legs in the air, anytime he sees me pull up into the yard - but I’m glad because if we go ahead and leave now we’ll be able to ride up by the Kwik Shop to get candy and soda before we go to swimming lessons. Of course, Aunt Dorrie has other plans for us.
(This is what I don’t get: why do grown-ups always wreck kids’ plans? Why do they have to have everything their own way? It’s like we have nothing better to do than to bend and sway to every little thing they want. Kids, especially kids my age, would like a little autonomy.* I mean, I’m almost thirteen, for cryin’ out loud. But it seems the older I get, the less choices I get to make for myself. It’s like they’re trying to break me down or something. Possibly you could explain it to me sometime, because I just don’t get it, not at all).
“Mommy says we’ve got to take this note to Daddy,” Sylvy says, fluttering a yellow piece of paper in front of me. It’s all taped up around the edges, which unquestionably* means that Aunt Dorrie doesn’t want us to read it. That’s fine with me. I don’t want to read any dumb thing she has to say anyway. Especially not to Uncle Ricky.
So instead of making our way past the cemetery where Mom’s buried under a headstone that has a big open book carved into it, past the group of trailers where one of Carlton’s three police cars usually sits, and then on to the Kwik Stop to get our treats, we wind up in the other direction, at the parsonage where Dad and Uncle Ricky are working.
Dad’s on the roof. I see him from way down the block. No shirt, as always. Uncle Ricky’s climbing up the big extension ladder, carrying a bundle of shingles hoisted over one shoulder. He’s smaller and tighter than Dad, but he’s every bit as strong. The cords in his neck stand out as he flips the bundle over the edge of the roof. He’s already climbing down when he spots us, riding up the crooked driveway.
“Well, my stars,” he says, his voice high-pitched and accented, “if it ain’t the pride of Carlton, Illinois! Tits McGee and her trusty sidekick, The Boy Wonder.”
My face goes red. Da-a-aad! Sylvy whines.
(I don’t need to explain why Uncle Ricky says this about me, but he started calling Sylvy The Boy Wonder last year when she got her hair cut short, like Chynna Phillips, because, as he said, A person might wonder if you’re a boy or not, Sylvy. Honestly, if you didn’t know her, you might mistake her for a boy even though her hair’s grown out just past her shoulders again. But I wouldn’t tell her that, of course).
Uncle Ricky laughs, a mean little thing that starts at the top of his throat and forces it way past his clenched teeth. We squirm as the laugh goes on for too long. The way he stares at us, with watery blue eyes that look nothing like Dad’s, creeps me out. Then, someone else laughs from the back of Dad’s pickup. Legs that end in a ratty pair of Chuck Taylors’ hang over the tailgate. The two laughs echo off of each other for a few seconds, then Uncle Ricky stops.
“Hey! What’s so fuckin’ funny?” he says, slamming his fist into the side of the truck. His blue eyes have flattened into slits. The other laughing stops. A body pops up and the legs swing out of the truck bed and onto the ground.
Sylvy’s big brother. From listening in on Gramma Ike and Dad, I know that he’s seventeen and he’s had a hard sort of life in Peoria. His dad’s been in jail for drugs twice even though he’s a lawyer and should probably know better. Randall’s face is broken out and the zits make his face look like an angry dot-to-dot puzzle. He has brown eyes and heavy brows, just like Sylvy. His hair is greasy, somewhere between yellow and brown in color and it hangs partway in his face, which obviously bothers Uncle Ricky.
“Get your hair outta your goddamn face and get your ass up that ladder,” he snaps. “You’re no Mexican, not as far as I know anyway, so siesta time’s over. Go haul another bundle up to Pete.”
Randall glares at him and Ricky glares right back and for a second there, everything snaps and pops in the air between them and all I’m hoping is that Dad comes down the ladder before anything bad happens. Finally Randall drops his eyes. Smart move. He shoulders his load with a grunt. Uncle Ricky watches his back until he starts up the ladder, then he turns to us.
“So what d’you two lovely ladies need?” he asks, his mouth twisting back into a mean little smile.
“Mommy told me to bring this to you.” Sylvy hands over the taped up note. Ricky shakes his head, still smiling. He looks at it for a minute and then tears it in half, unopened. He starts to shove it in his pocket, but changes his mind and opens up the two halves and puts them together. He’s quiet for a bit while he reads, the muscles of his jaw working like he’s chewing a phantom* piece of gum.
“You tell her…. “ he hisses, and then stops. And just like that, like a tornado, he changes course and throws his head back and laughs. It’s deep and it’s loud, loud enough to bring Dad over to the edge of the roof.
“What’re you… Oh hey, Maybe Girl! Hey, Sylvy Sunbeam!” Dad’s face opens up like the sun after a rain.
“There a problem Ricky?” Dad asks. I see a cloud pass over his face, not obvious to anyone but me. Because I know my Dad. Ricky doesn’t look up, just shakes his head.
“No problem, big brother. Just women,” he says, like that explains everything.
“Ricky,” Dad says, a warning. He’s clear at the edge of the roof, hands on his hips, elbows thrown out. The sun is behind him and it reflects off of my glasses like a laser beam into my eyes so that I have to squint. The smile drops off of Uncle Ricky’s face.
“Careful, Pete. Wouldn’t want to have another accident,” he says over his shoulder, lifting his right hand into the air. His pointer and middle fingers are bent down, mimicking* Dad’s Hand.
Randall finally makes it up the ladder, plunking the shingles at Dad’s feet. Sylvy and I get back on our bikes. Goodbye, girls! Dad hollers from the roof. Randall climbs slowly down the ladder towards Uncle Ricky, who isn’t looking at him at all because he’s watching us.
“Yeah, goodbye girls,” he says. He grins so wide that he looks just like the picture of the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, with his stretched mouth and his lupine* eyes. It’s enough to make us both pedal away a little faster than necessary.
After a safe distance, I look over at Sylvy, who’s concentrating on pedaling and steering so hard that her tongue is sticking out of her mouth. Poor Sylvy. Dad said the same thing about her a few days ago, and I think it now. Poor Sylvy.
“What the hell was that all about?” I ask.
“Dad thinks Mom has a boyfriend, but I’m not supposed to know.” Sylvy turns back to the
road, her jaw set, her eyebrows pulled together.
“I’m not supposed to know anything,” she says, “but I do.” Instead of sounding like a little kid, she sounds an awful lot like me. I’m not sure I like it. I’m really not sure at all.
(I’ve been trying to find a place where this fits in to tell you about Randall, but this will just have to work. Sorry, but sometimes things just don’t fit in any good place and they have to be left out there to stick out like a sore thumb, like Dad always says. So anyway, Sylvy used to be an only child. I say used to, because all of the sudden she’s gained a big brother. Aunt Dorrie and Uncle Ricky dated all through high school, even though she’s two years older than him. They have this hysterical picture up in their dining room that shows them at Aunt Dorrie’s senior prom and they have matching hairstyles, all blond-ish and feathered back. Anyway, as soon as she left to go to college – she calls it college like it was the University of Illinois or something, even though it was just a dumb beauty school in Peoria – she dropped him like a bad habit, so Dad says, and took up with this other guy, Randall’s dad. Naturally, she got pregnant, because they were so in love - obviously she wasn’t paying attention in sex ed like I was, if they even had it then. Anyway, something must’ve happened, because shortly after Baby Randall was born, she wound up back in Carlton with her cosmetology license but no Baby Randall. It was just like nothing ever happened, right up until a few weeks ago when Randall showed up at the door with nothing more than a duffel bag, saying his dad had kicked him out and he had no place to stay. Of course, I heard all of this while I was listening to Dad and Gramma Ike at the door. Because no one ever tells me shit. Surprisingly, Sylvy hasn’t really said a whole lot about it either, not to me anyway, but I’m pretty sure it’s thrown her for a loop. Because now she has to share. So now you know the story of Randall and his sudden accession* into our family. All I can say is Thank God it wasn’t me, because I don’t know what I’d do with both Randall and Gramma Ike in my immediate family. Probably drown myself).
Besides riding with Jimbo in the truck, swimming lessons are my favorite part of summer for lots of reasons. Obviously my new swimsuit isn’t one of them, but I really do love the way everything looks hazy under the water. I can’t wear my glasses with my goggles on. Also, I love the way it feels when I jump off of the diving board, like I’m nothing but air and when I hit the water, I cut through it just like a hot knife through cold butter. I even love the smell of chlorine, I really do. But I love swimming lessons mostly because of Billy Benson.
Today’s the underwater safety test. Even with our little detour to see Uncle Ricky, me and Sylvy still get to the pool fifteen minutes early, which is a small freaking miracle considering Sylvy’s general dumbassed-ness: Hey, Maybe, d’you think the Griffith’s dog could chase us faster if it only had three legs? I mean, there wouldn’t be as much wind resistance. I saw something about it on the Discovery Channel.
(I mean, Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick, like Dad says. But if you don’t have a little cousin, then you probably won’t understand).
I cross my arms over my chest and wait under the shade for my round of lessons to start. I’m wearing one of Dad’s oversize Best Construction t-shirts to hide my suit which I’m not going to take off until the very last possible second. Billy Benson’s already in the pool. He’s got black hair that looks like sealskin when it’s wet and a mouthful of very beautiful and very straight white teeth, all except one of the front ones which has a little chip out of the inside corner. I like the chip - it makes him look a little more real. Anyway, I really like him. I mean, really, really like him.
(Okay, I’ll only admit this to you: he’s the star of mostly all of my nighttime fantasies, the ones that I’ve had to squash since Gramma Ike moved in with me. I don’t care that he’s almost seventeen and he’s my teacher. I don’t care that he always looks at Dena Minor - another swim teacher who has the really little kids - like she’s a very moist piece of chocolate cake. The middle piece, the piece that’s always the softest and most fresh. I don’t care because it’s summer and anything can happen, everybody knows that).
Since she’s not able to stand still for more than three seconds, Sylvy flits around the small group of waiting kids in her pink sparkly sandals that match her pink sparkly suit that just so happens to match her pink sparkly bike too. She doesn’t like her swimming suit either, but only because it’s pink and not green. I told her that at least she doesn’t look like a corpulent* bumblebee. Sometimes I don’t understand you at all, Maybe, is all she said about that.
Billy Benson blows the whistle that hangs down his lightly muscled chest. Lessons start now.
“I wish I was that whistle,” Sylvy says, sighing and kicking off her sandals. I press my mouth into a thin line. Dad tells me that I look exactly like Gramma Ike when I do this. I take off my t-shirt and toss it behind me and then walk to the edge of the water, shoulders hunched, arms crossed. Billy Benson smiles at me as I slide into the water.
(Here’s a few reasons why I love him, so you know: just last week, he told me that I’m the best swimmer in his class. He actually said, Maybellene, you are by far the most advanced swimmer in this class. Way to go! and he hugged me with one arm. Sylvy looked just a little less sparkly when he said this, which made me very, very happy. And he told me that he likes my swimsuit, because black and yellow are his two favorite colors. I thought it might be because it’s the same colors as his car but he says it’s because it reminds him of daisies, which are his favorite flower. That made me hate it just a little less - but only a little).
“Good afternoon, Sylvy!” he says to my nimrod cousin. Then he turns to me.
“Guten tag, Fraulein Maybe!” I know he’s only saying the same thing to me that he says to everyone and he’s only saying it to me in German because he took Gramma Ike’s Intro to German class last year at School. But the fact that he always says it to me in another language makes my insides warm.
He also says hello to the other three in the class: James and Jesse Oliver, twin boys with sunken chests and spindly legs, who shiver in the water no matter that it’s already been the hottest June on record in over twenty years; and Hannah Sharp, whose parents own the pool.
(You know, I think there might be something wrong with her. She moves so slow and laughs about five beats after everyone else’s already gotten the joke. Also, she never seems to mind when her swimsuit crawls up the crack of her ass. And, she’s fifteen. Honestly, she shouldn’t even need swimming lessons anymore. But she’s been in my class ever since I started and she never seems to get better. I mean, she can barely keep her head above water. And the stuff she says? God, even Sylvy isn’t that dumb. Not most of the time, anyway).
“Okay, ladies and gents,” Billy says in his lazy voice. “Today is underwater safety. Does anyone know what that means?” he asks, shading his eyes with his hand so that he can see each of our faces.
“Not drowning?” says Hannah. Sylvy laughs loudly, but Hannah doesn’t seem to notice.
“Well, not drowning is a good way to start with safety, Hannah,” Billy says, smiling at her with those blinding teeth. She smiles back like a dumb dog.
“Hannah’s right though,” Billy says. Sylvy stops laughing. “It really is the whole reason we teach you about underwater safety. So you don’t drown.”
I pretend to listen for a while, but I’m really just concentrating on Billy. His hair’s so black it has a blueish tinge to it; it reminds me of the night sky. It’s started to dry already in the heat, and the longish parts around his ears and neck begin to curl, just barely grazing the lobe of his ears. I have a sudden wish, an almighty wish, right at this moment, to reach up and tuck it behind his ear, possibly accidentally grazing my fingers against the skin there with its fuzzy little hairs like a peach. Which would be nice if my fingernails weren’t bitten and ragged like usual but beautiful and polished with glittery silver polish. They’d look just like stars in that blue-black hair. They’d belong.
(I bet you think I should be listening, but, honestly, I know that underwater safety is nothing more than a breath-holding contest, and I’ve been practicing since last year. After the pool shut down last summer, I started practicing in the bathtub. After I’d done what I was supposed to do in there, I’d plug my nose and shut my eyes tight and hold myself below the water. And I’d count like Jimbo had taught me: Onespoonriver, twospoonriver, threespoonriver… I’ve gotten all the way up to twotwentysixspoonriver before I have to come up for air, my lungs starved and burning).
“Maybe?” Billy says, his voice a question. He’s looking at me and his eyes are so cool, like the chlorinated water of the pool – like Dad’s – that my face doesn’t even flush.
“Yes?” I say, dream-like.
“Can you tell me what the number one cause of drowning is?” He tilts his head to one side, like Tater does when he’s thinking really hard about something. I’m honestly caught off guard, so I just stare at him. He grins and then, honest to god, he winks. My mouth goes dry.
“Not paying attention to your surroundings,” he says, answering his own question. His eyes are still on mine. Sylvy has to ruin it, of course, by giggling again.
“She’s distracted,” Sylvy says, smiling and casting her eyes sideways in my direction. I splash some water in her face to shut her up. Honestly, she’s such a monumental pain in the ass. Thank god she’s only my cousin and not my sister.
Jesse Oliver, one of the sunken chested twins, complains that he’s cold, no matter that the thermometer under the canopy said 91 degrees, so Billy cuts to the chase and starts timing. He doesn’t have a watch or anything because he’s in the water, so he counts the way Jimbo taught me to count off the seconds, except he says Mississippi instead of Spoon River: onemississippi, twomississippi, threemississippi… Billy’s lazy voice metamorphosizes* into a sharp stopwatch, an even rhythm. Even so, Sylvy leans towards me.
“I’m not sure he’s right,” she says. She smells like coconuts from her suntan lotion. I have to admit that it’s a nice smell, even though I hate the taste of coconut. Gramma Ike insists on putting it in nearly every dessert she makes, and then gets irritated at me for not wanting to eat it. But I don’t like coconut, I tell her, which she then mimics back to me in a whiny, high-pitched voice that doesn’t even sound a thing like me.
“What’s not right?” I ask her.
“Well, he might count faster for them than he does for us. I’m not sure it’ll be fair.” She emphasizes the word fair, like she’s George freakin’ Bush making a point in one of his boring speeches.
“Fair is what you are to other people.” Dad always says this when I complain about the same thing. I’m not really sure what it means, but I’ve heard it so many times that it comes out of my mouth automatically.
“I guess,” Sylvy says, her face crinkling. I bet a million and two bucks that she doesn’t know what it means either but she seems worried.
The Oliver twins only make it to twentyfive mississippi and twentyseven mississippi before they each shoot to the surface, sputtering.
“Good job guys!” Billy says, even though we all know it’s not. It’s downright pathetic but he high-fives both of them anyway. They slap at their eyes like the water is acid or something. I know they’re only ten, but come on.
“Okay, girls, your turn. Ready?”
“Ready, Billy!” Sylvy says, as brightly as she can.
“Yep,” Hannah mumbles, in her dumb, slow way. I nod, sliding my goggles down over my eyes. I focus on taking short, shallow breaths.
“Okay…… GO!” Billy shouts, and the water splashes up against him as all three of us go under. Neither Hannah nor Sylvy has goggles on, so I know the most they can see of me is my stupid swimsuit. But they can’t see me. Not really.
twentyfivespoonriver, twentysixspoonriver, twentysevenspoonriver…
We’ve already outdone the boys, no surprise. I feel good. My lungs are clear and bright, like Billy’s eyes
like Bass’s face
and Hannah’s at my left, and she’s letting out bubbles in a steady stream, which means she’s losing steam. Sure enough, at my count of ninetytwospoonriver, she lifts her head out of the water. This leaves Sylvy, to my right. She looks small, really inconsequential*, surrounded by so much water. She’s hanging onto the bottom rung of the ladder, forcing herself to stay under.
(I can’t help it. You know how it is, when you’re trying hard not to remember something? Well, I try to not think about it, because it hurts me like a buried splinter, but the memory comes anyway. It’s Jimbo, talking to Dad in his shop. I’m just outside the door. I can’t be more than seven. Too bad the girls are so close in age, because everybody loves Sylvy, Jimbo says. His voice is kind but I know what he presupposes.* I know it. I’m not like Sylvy - Sylvy Sunbeam who glows like she has an entire galaxy of stars up her ass - but it hurts to hear Jimbo, of all people, say it. I can’t remember if Dad agrees with him or defends me, and the fact that I can’t remember – that hurts too).
Sylvy’s face is tight. She’s struggling. The bubbles come out of her mouth one by one. My own lungs are only the tiniest bit heavy.
Honestly, if it was even possible, I could spend all of my time underwater looking at things through my goggles. I can’t see clearly above the water without my glasses but below it, it doesn’t matter, everything’s already out of focus anyway. Also, I can see things that you can’t see above land, things that you obviously can’t see in the caliginous* water of the Hole. I’ve seen the bottom of Dena Mills’ breasts, perfectly shaped like round peaches, smaller than mine, when her bikini top floated up. I’ve seen the tip of Greg Jenner’s penis, looking like a small turtle’s head when it poked out from the leg of his swimming trunks. I’ve even been able to look carefully at Billy Benson’s ankle tattoo. It’s some kind of Chinese writing, and it’s been much discussed between me and Sylvy. It’s on his left ankle, just above the bone. I was only able to really study it once, last year, its swirls and dips made wavy by the water.
But today there’s perfect little Sylvy Sunbeam with a thin ribbon of yellow trailing from the crotch of her sparkly pink swimming suit like a plume of smoke, already disappearing into the clear water. My smile is so wide, too bad no one else can see that. She stays underwater for just a few seconds longer - twoohninespoonriver - her green eyes bulging and blind. Then she explodes to the top and there’s nothing left underwater but BIlly’s legs, long and hairy. I can’t help but think of Bass. My lungs burn something awful, a fire like the one that Jimbo sets to clear out his pasture in the spring, one that burns everything completely down to the ground. But I stay under just a little longer anyway, just to make absolutely sure I’ve won.
Stayed tuned for Part Six next week - the final part of the excerpt
from The Things I Used to Do!