The Things I Used to Do - Part Four
Thanks to all of you who've been with me so far... hope you're enjoying the story! For those of you new to the book, read the previous parts to catch up, please - otherwise, this won't make a lick of sense!
(In case you haven’t figured it out yet, Jimbo is Dad’s older brother, and when I say that he’s older I mean he’s old-er. Dad’s forty, Jimbo’s fifty-seven and Uncle Ricky’s only thirty-two, or like Dad says, He’s in the “terrible thirty-two’s” stage, which Uncle Ricky does not think is funny at all. Jimbo’s plenty old enough to be Uncle Ricky’s father but it’s not what anybody would call a close relationship. He and Uncle Ricky just flat-out don’t get along. Dad and Jimbo get along fine and Dad gets along with Uncle Ricky too, mostly because they work together and so Dad’s always around to smooth over Uncle Ricky’s rough spots. Dad’s the middle child, the conciliator*. They probably can’t help being so different though, considering that they’re all actually only half-brothers. Their dad, my Grampa Ike, was married three times and was working on his fourth wife when he came down with the cancer that killed him. The first wife, Jimbo’s mom, stuck around the longest – fourteen years – but even her good Christian self couldn’t hold out forever. Anyway, she died before I was born. Gramma Ike, my Gramma, she only lasted a couple of years before she’d had enough of his ways. She never talks about him, my Grampa Ike, not about him being her husband anyway. When she does mention him, she calls him Isaac Best, like she’s talking about the mailman or something. Which is funny, because he was the mailman. Rural delivery. He was a farmer too and that’s the only memory I have of him - bouncing high on his lap over wet fields. I don’t know a whole lot about Uncle Ricky’s mom, except that she’s still alive and living in Puerto Rico, in an artist’s community where she makes and sells things from stuff she found on the side of the road. I don’t know a whole lot about most things, but I do know that each one of his wives left him on account of him being a ladies’ man, or so I’ve heard in the bits and pieces that the grown-ups drop, like crumbs off of the dining table. And I’m just like Tater, gobbling each one of them up before they hit the ground. That’s the only way I ever find out anything around here because no one ever tells me shit. Oh sorry - have I said that to you before? Well, it’s true. They just don’t. Anyway, Jimbo’s the good uncle. He doesn’t have any kids and he’s never been married. Once, when I asked him why, he shrugged and said that he could never convince any woman to stick around for very long. I love him a lot, but I can see why. He lives in Grampa Ike’s old house just about a mile down the road and around the corner from us. It’s falling apart and he doesn’t seem to care. No woman with her head screwed on straight, like Dad says, would ever put up with it).
“I don’t know a whole lot. Dad won’t talk about it.” I suck on the ends of my hair.
“Have you tried asking?” He whistles a little when he talks, on account of his false teeth. He used to pop them out at me to make me laugh when I was little but he doesn’t do that much anymore, now that I’m almost thirteen.
“A couple of years ago. But Dad just said, Let sleeping dogs lie, Maybe, and so later I went and asked Gramma Ike and she said she really didn’t know anything about it at all and to quit sticking my nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Huh. Sounds like both of ‘em, alright,” he says, looking out towards the fields. His hair puffs out from the sides of his cap, and it’s rough and curly and almost completely gray. His nose is long with a bulb on the end, and his face looks just like one of his boots, crackly and brown from too much wind and sun. The bottom half of it is covered by a droopy, langorous* mustache. Of the three brothers, Dad got pretty much all of the looks. Not that Jimbo cares. Honestly, I don’t even think he notices. Unless it’s about the fields or the woods or the roads, Jimbo doesn’t seem to worry much about anything else.
“So are you going to tell me, or not?"
Jimbo rubs at his face, his hand scraping over his unshaved cheeks. His other hand stays on the wheel.
“I can tell you that it’s a sad story – that’s what I can say. Someone dying young is always sad.” We hit a pothole, a big one, causing Jimbo’s old truck to veer back and forth.
“Christ on a cross! Marshall needs to get his worthless ass out here and grade these goddamn roads. You know, that’s what I pay my goddamn taxes for. You’d think the money was coming out of his own goddamned pocket…”
Jimbo carries on for a little bit about the abhorrent* state of the gravel roads. It’s the same thing, every week. He’ll cuss the road commissioner up and down, calling him a goddamn-son-of-a-whore or a goddamn-communist or a goddamn-no-good-piece-of-shit-waste-of-space no matter that I’m sitting right beside him. I just let him carry on without interrupting. He’ll run out of steam in time, he always does. He never, ever gets mad at me like that.
“So what about the boy who drowned?” I ask after he finishes cussing Layton Marshall, the lazy road commissioner with a one-legged wife and so many kids that no one knows exactly how many he has. Jimbo adjusts his rearview mirror, adjusts his hat, adjusts himself in his seat. Finally there’s nothing left to adjust and he says:
“He had a hard life, poor kid. It wasn’t easy for him, not at all. Even so, it was a sorry way for it to end. He was only fourteen.” His voice is quiet, far away.
“Tell me about it please, Jimbo.” Listen, I’m not Sylvy. I don’t usually ask a lot of questions. First off, I know adults don’t like it when kids ask too many questions, even kids as old as me who should be allowed to know some things. And second, like I just said, Jimbo doesn’t say a whole lot about much of anything. I’m in what Dad calls uncharted waters, trying to get some answers from him.
“Well,” he says, pulling at the ends of his mustache, “I don’t know much about it, but I know that he was by himself, just fooling around by the rocks down there. It was a blistering day, like today, so I guess he decided to take a swim. Not sure why though.”
“That makes sense,” I say, nodding my head to keep him talking. Jimbo frowns, fingering the dirty brim of his Pioneer cap.
“Yeah, that’s what doesn’t make a lick of sense though, Maybe. Because he couldn’t swim.” He clears his throat and glances over at me. “At least that’s what his goddamn worthless piece of shit father told the sheriff when they went to tell him the news.” The tingle begins again, the same one I felt a few hours before down at the Hole, an electric thrum-thrum-thrum starting in my feet and moving up slowly through my legs, clear up to my middle.
“Why would he be swimming if he didn’t know how?” I ask. Jimbo shakes his head lightly.
“Not sure,” he says. “Maybe he wasn’t swimming. Maybe he was just looking for something and fell in.” He clears his throat again and rolls his shoulders like he’s shaking off the dust of the road. “Anyway, I’m not sure what you were doing down there missy, but don’t be swimming there, okay?” he says, glancing sideways at me. “It’s not safe. That water is way deeper than it looks.”
I don’t say anything, and after a beat he reaches over and shakes my arm. His big mustache droops down over his mouth. I can’t see his lips moving.
“Okay?” he says, looking at me side-eye. He’s not really asking - he’s telling - and I know it, but I nod my head anyway to show him I understand.
“Okay,” he says, moving his other hand back to the wheel. “Okay,” he repeats, smoothing down his mustache like a satisfied cat.
“Wooo-weee,” he says, after a minute. “It’s so damn dry that the catfish are carrying canteens.”
(Sometimes, he’s not any better than Dad at saying what he actually means. You know what I mean, right?).
We drive on the dusty back roads outside of Carlton, me and Jimbo, over the broken roads that Layton Marshall won’t put to rights. Something twangy comes on the radio and Jimbo turns it up. He slaps his hand lightly against the steering wheel in time to the guitar that wails a little like a lonesome baby might at night when he needs his mama and she’s nowhere to be found. The sonorous* music fills the cab of Jimbo’s truck, blocking out everything else. And so that’s the end of our one and only conversation about the boy who drowned in the Hole.
(As you can probably already tell, the people in my family aren’t big believers in transparency*).
June: Chapter Four
The Things that Happen at Swimming Lessons
This is what Aunt Dorrie says when she doesn’t know how to begin or end her sentences. It’s weird and can be pretty annoying, but I guess I understand now why she does it. Sometimes there’s just no good way to begin or end things.
It’s not as hot out today but it’s just as sticky as always because there’s absolutely no breeze coming in through the windows.
(Of course, we don’t have any air conditioning at all. Never have. Dad works in all kinds of weather every day, so he’s used to it. Gramma Ike isn’t human so it doesn’t bother her either. And no one ever seems too worried about how I’m handling things. I’m just a kid - or didn’t you remember?).
Christ almighty! It’s as still as a cripple in quicksand, Dad says before he leaves, pulling his Best Construction hat down over his eyes. He’s headed back to Pastor Wright’s house with Uncle Ricky. They’ve been there for a few days now, putting on a new roof and replacing some of the siding that got damaged in a windstorm last March. Dad’s been putting off the job. He told Gramma Ike: The church is so tight they’re still waiting for the Bible to come out in paperback, which made Gramma Ike say, Peter!, in her teacher's voice. But then, miracle of all miracles, she laughed. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to hear any of this, but I did.
It’s been four days since Bass. I haven’t been back to the Hole and I still don’t know if it’s because I’m afraid to go or if I just haven’t had the chance. Gramma Ike has taken it upon herself in the intervening* days to clean the entire house, top to bottom.
(I bet you’ll never guess who has the distinction* of being her trusty sidekick? Lucky, lucky me).
The days have been so hot and so long. I guess they’re supposed to be, because it’s summer, although no one would know it from spending time around Gramma Ike. She’s like a machine - she doesn’t sweat, she doesn’t seem to get tired, and she never, ever answers a question. Just yesterday, while we were wiping down the faces of the kitchen cabinets, I asked her why she never got remarried after Grampa Ike. She just looked at me with those muddy brown eyes of hers and said dispassionately*, Don’t ask questions that you’re not old enough to understand the answer to, Maybe.
Whatever that means.
Anyway, today we’re dusting the entire house, which means pulling each and every one of Mom’s books off of the shelves.
(I think dusting is more pointless than making beds, don’t you? I mean, everything’s just going to get dirty again. Why not just let it go? But I absolutely, positively, 100% know way better than to ask a question like that).
Gramma Ike schools me in the proper way to dust a book. Like I care.
“No, no, not like that,” she says, plucking the book out of my hands like she’s pulling a nasty weed. The Awakening is the name of the book. I’ve never read it but Mom obviously had because when I crack it open, there’s lots of underlined words and dog-eared pages. She runs a raggedy dishtowel over the spine of the book and then over the top, where the pages came together like a prayer, and then she blows against the top of the pages just to be sure she’s sending every last bit of dust back out into the air. It tickles my throat and coats the lenses of my glasses with a light fuzz. I sneeze once, twice, three times. Gramma Ike stares at me with those cold eyes of hers, like I’m doing it on purpose or something.
“Your mother and her books,” she says, as we put back the last of them, dust-free and perfect. I know her well enough to know it’s not a compliment, especially the way she says it in a stiff voice, that accent spilling over the edges of her words like soda foams over the top of a cold glass. I actually overheard Jimbo tell Dad once that Gramma Ike sounds like a cross between Adolf Hitler and Colonel Klink from Hogan’s Heroes. Dad didn’t seem too happy with the comparison, but he didn’t disagree either.
“They were her escape, those books. Escape from what, I couldn’t tell you. That girl had everything.” Gramma’s tone makes me defensive. I feel like I need to say something, if only because she’s talking about my Mom.
“She loved to read,” I say. I’ll admit it’s a weak comeback, but it’s all I have. I mean, I didn’t know her. It’s super hard to defend someone you don’t know.
“I know what she was like. You don’t need to tell me. I knew her,” Gramma Ike says, like she read my mind. Her mouth settles into a hard line.
(You’re probably wondering why someone who makes a living as a teacher is so disdainful* of books. And I’d love to answer that for you, I really would, but the truth is, like so many things, I just don’t know).
After the dusting, we change the bedding on each bed. Dad’s bed smells warm and little sour, like the heavy bread Gramma Ike makes in the dishpan. She wrinkles up her nose at the smell, but I hold the dirty sheets to my face and breathe in. Obviously, this upsets her because she says my name so sharply that I yank them away from my face like I’ve been stung. I put new pillowcases on, thinking of Dad and how lucky he is that he gets to go leave the house every day, even if he has to work with Uncle Ricky. He gets to build things and he never, ever has anyone telling him what to do.
(Bass’ there/not-there flace floats close to the surface and he’s lucky too, even though I don’t even really know him or why he’s down there by the Hole, because no one will tell me, but I don’t need to know any of that to know that he’s lucky because he doesn’t have anyone telling him what to do or where to go, or even what to be. I’ll bet you ten kisses from Billy Benson that he wasn’t ever forced to learn the right way to dust books).
“Abhauen,” she says, with a stiff flick of her hand, after she smooths the quilt over her bed. It means something like Get out! in English. She’s said it enough times - to me, to Sylvy, to Tater, to the flies who have the nerve to land on the TV when she’s trying to watch Star Trek - that I get what it means without really knowing.
(Honestly, I’m just used to it. She’s always been like this, even when I was little. I thought for the longest time that there were no words for please or thank you in German, but now I know it’s just her).
Anyway, all of this work must’ve finally got the best of her, because she goes into the living room and turns on the TV. The Channel 25 newsman’s voice is low and monotonous*. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I’m sure it’s as pointless as his voice.
I wait to hear the squeal of the springs of the old chair she sits in and her old lady grunts and sighs before I leave. I’ve got swimming lessons this afternoon and I don’t want to be late. I shut the screen door in a conscientious* sort of way, so it doesn’t bang. Even though she told me to go, for some reason, I still feel like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to and have to be very, very quiet so I don’t give myself away.
Tune in next Friday for Part Five!