originally published in Storyglossia, Issue 24, October 2007
On the way out of the house, Ryan encountered his mother in the living room, the ever-present coffee cup propped on the arm of her chair. Brandy already? At 6:30 in the morning? He didn't know.
"I saw dad after practice yesterday," he said. "At the pool?"
"He was waiting in his car."
"Nice of him to take an interest." She was shaking her head.
"He wants Aileen to spend the weekend with him."
She'd been staring at the wall, but now she looked him in the eye. "If he wants time with your sister, he can ask me."
"He said he tried to call."
"Well he can fucking try again." She drank deeply from her cup.
"You should get in the shower, mom," he said. "You'll be late."
On the front porch, he slipped on his heavy cotton letter jacket with the white leather sleeves and walked out into the street. He wanted a joint something fierce. The night before, he'd sifted through his ashtray and pulled out all the roaches. Too late to call Glen or Patrick, so he grabbed his bong and went to the pool alone, using his key to get in. He sat on the rough concrete, picking the sticky, black remnants one at a time from a baggie and stuffing them into the bowl, watching intently as the smoke bubbled out of the water and filled the Plexiglas tube, lifting his thumb and inhaling the entire captive cloud in a split second, holding, holding, then releasing the smoke just shy of a massive coughing fit. Each hit took him further away, lightened the world, pushed a smile into his face. A light breeze blew tiny ripples across the black surface of the pool. The label on his disposable lighter read, "Warning," and a memory crept in of a night three years ago. "Jill, we didn't sign up for this," his father had said. "We both wanted the pill, but the damn church, and before we knew it, two kids. We were kids ourselves."
"It's taken you twelve years to figure this out, Arlen?"
Ryan listened through a crack in the door, his bedroom feeling like a prison. The walls were still the same smooth painted surface, still covered with posters by Roger Dean, eerie landscapes of jagged formations and flowing waters all airbrushed in fluorescent reds, blues, and greens. But the place felt smaller, and the odors from the floor—the worn socks and underwear and the chlorine-soaked Speedo and goggles—were more pronounced. Even the ray of light from the door had an air of captivity to it. He was twelve years old then, Aileen, eleven, sleeping in the next room, snoring like a sailor. He wondered if they could hear her.
"Well, Arlen, I want all the things you want," his mother said. "I want an apartment over in Almaden where I can go and make a mess and drink wine coolers and play the guitar. I want the kids by arrangement, not every damn morning, noon, and night. But I don't get any of that, do I, Arlen? What I get is my independence, and a part in a goddamn Helen Reddy song . . . " Ryan had an itch in his side, but he didn't move. " . . . And why is that, Arlen?" she said. "Why do you get Bruce Springsteen and I get Helen Reddy? Why is that?"
His mother's question had lingered in his mind then, the word "Warning" staring back at him from the lighter. He had waited a moment, giving the memory a chance to change, but it was no good. There was still no way to restart the intervening years. At this, he had packed the last roach into the bong, watched the steam rise from the pool for a while, then gone home to bed.
Now, the next morning, he was walking back to the pool, wanting another hit, but grateful for the cold air, the quiet, and the work.
In darkness, he approached the massive boiler room door, unlocked it, swung it open, and went in. The twenty-foot-high boilers hummed loudly, washed in the dim light and surrounded by a maze of pipes and valves. He went past the boilers to the small door on the other side of the room, and stepped out onto the pool deck. His job, given to him by his swimming coach, was simple: every day before school, hoist the pool brush on its long aluminum pole and sweep the crud toward the drains; stick a high-pressure nozzle on a long hose and blast the dirt and trash under the fence and into the gutter; empty the trash cans into the big dumpster; and if algae spots start to form, put a pumice stone on the pole and go from spot to spot, scraping.
He thought of his dad's job, more complicated, in a missile factory where orchards used to stand, in something called a potting lab: some dangerous little corner of missile-making that Arlen Sorenson had never risen out of despite classes at the junior college, company training programs, applications for promotion. And while nothing had worked yet, it was the Bicentennial now, two-hundred years since the founding, and the company was making a big deal of it: missiles, aircraft, and satellites, a trident of security for the next century. Ryan was seeing hope in his dad's eyes again, and he was trying to share it, to believe that the withdrawal from Vietnam and the pomp of the Bicentennial would somehow deliver Arlen Sorenson from the toxic heat and fumes of the potting lab.
He went back into the boiler room and dragged a heavy coil of hose out onto the deck. Ryan liked the quiet of his early hour at the pool. It wasn't loud and frenetic like the afternoon swimming practices with all the shouting and splashing and grunting, and it was dark, the water black and motionless until he chose to switch on the pool lights. On cold winter mornings like this one, steam wafted from the surface, making the pool look like a vast, rectangular cauldron, a place that could consume you.
He lingered a moment at the door, tucking his hands deep into his sweatshirt pocket, breathing in the cool air, and looking out on the twenty-five-yard racing pool and fifteen-by-fifteen diving well that were now under his care.
And then he came to the other memory, that strange day two years ago, the family meeting. He remembered how weird it was to see the four of them sitting together in the living room—no one missing, no one off with friends, working late, or sleeping off swimming practice—how very weird it was when his father said, "I'm going to be moving out for a while."
"Oh for Christ's sakes, Arlen," his mother said. She shook her head and looked at him with disgust, her arms folded in front of her. She dropped them to her lap and said, "Ryan, Aileen, your father is leaving. We're most likely going to get a divorce. It's got nothing to do with you guys at all . . . "
His father began to interject. "Yeah, guys, hey, nothing to do with . . . "
"We've just been having some problems is all, and we can't seem to work them out. These things happen sometimes is all."
"When?" Aileen said. Seeing her tears, Ryan started to cry too. And the answer was, the next day. While they were at school, their dad and a friend packed up and moved him to the friend's house in Almaden Valley. There were weekend visits after that, long talks, attempts to explain himself. Ryan listened with Aileen as their father blamed religion. "Neither of us were really ready for marriage," he said, and Ryan just shifted in his seat and looked next to him at his sister's frown. He had always thought of his parents as very good parents, very ready and able parents.
Aileen started to get quiet, to become unavailable on visiting weekends, to leave Ryan alone with his father more and more. And their mom started to drink brandy from a coffee cup. Aileen, twelve years old, was able to figure it out right away. "All that tough stuff when he left," she said. "That was an act. She was trying to convince herself she'd be okay, but she's not. She's definitely not."
And Ryan started with the pot, and the occasional six-pack with Glen and Patrick, but he still kept a straight course. He didn't see any reason to miss swimming practice or cut school, and he liked having his job and his own money. And with that thought, he set to work, uncoiling the hose and stretching it across the deck, then walking over to the fence hooks where the pool brush hung. He was taking the brush down when he heard moving water behind him.
There was someone in the pool.
"What the fuck!" he said. All he could see was a shadow, out in the middle in the darkness and the steam. "Who is that?!" he said. No answer. "Goddammit!" He dropped the pool brush with a clang, marched to the boiler room, switched on the pool lights, and marched back out. Seeing that the figure was a girl, he thought of bare wet skin and soaked Lycra, tits lifting with the tug of a strap. She was moving away from him, toward the opposite end of the pool. "Hey!"
When he reached her, she didn't move away again. It was Aileen's friend Heather Mallock, wearing a one-piece bathing suit, grinning widely, her eyes at half mast. "Heather," he said, more quietly now. "What are you doing?" He thought about his shoes. He was always embarrassed by these ancient Keds, but he kept forgetting to buy new ones.
Heather laughed at him, her voice grown up, sultry. "Hey, Ryan," she said.
"Heather, you've got to get out of there," he said. "Aren't you cold?"
"No way," she said. She hung onto the side of the pool and leaned back, her breasts rising above the surface between her outstretched arms, her nipples hard and protruding.
He had wanted Heather for a long time. She and Aileen, both a year behind him in school, had been inseparable for years. He'd seen Heather grow from a skinny eight-year-old into a curvy, flirtatious teen-ager. He'd often dreamt of slipping her low-cut jeans down to reveal the fair, smooth skin of her perfectly rounded ass.
Heather lost her grip and fell backward, beneath the surface. She was under long enough that he nearly panicked, but then she emerged, laughing and coughing. He had a vision of giving her CPR, mouth-to-mouth with those dripping pink lips. When the coughing ceased, she said, "Come on in, Ryan. It's really warm." Heather and Aileen had gotten a little wild since entering high school that year. He didn't see them very often, and he'd heard that Aileen was spending most of her days with some older guys, burnouts, who had a duplex not far from school.
"You have to get out of there, Heather," he said. She was standing now, unsteady, looking very sleepy but still smiling. There was sediment on the bottom of the pool. She'd kicked up a good bit of it. The pool brush lay where he had dropped it. She sang to him, "Rahy-an, Rahy-an." With effort, she pulled the straps of her swimsuit down, taking her arms out. Why would she do that? "Come on in, Ryan," she said. "It'll be fun."
"Heather," he said. She pulled the swimsuit down, exposing her breasts. They were supple, as he'd imagined them, the nipples small and pink. There was no one around. "Oh, man, Heather. Come on, please come out of there." It was school, but he knew, there was no one around. He wore the old Keds, jeans, thermal underwear, a hooded pullover sweatshirt. Complicated. He thought about towels. There were none. "Heather," he said, "please." She swayed. It was still an hour before anyone would show up on the pool deck, but it would be getting light soon. There were freckles leading down from her neck to her tan line. She was looking very sleepy. "Heather, why are you—" But she wasn't responding. Her eyes rolled back and closed. Her head went slack, then she fell into the lane divider and slid under the surface again. "Heather!"
He grabbed her under the armpit, almost tumbling into the pool. "Heather," he said. "Wake up!" She was dead weight. Last summer, he'd seen Heather with Aileen in the backyard sunbathing, beach towels spread out in the dirt. He'd watched from his bedroom window, taken in the fullness of Heather's legs, the dimples in her lower back. He managed to get both of her armpits and raise her above the surface. "Goddammit," he said. She didn't move. Heather Mallock, bare-breasted—and passed out. "Shit!"
He jumped into the pool and felt a blast of cold that faded quickly, the pool warmer than the early morning air. His clothes were heavy—wet denim, a sopping sweatshirt—and Heather was hard to turn. Struggling for leverage, he felt her back, her ribs, her hips. He faced her, her wet cheek brushing across his, then resting on his shoulder. He rested there for a moment before holding her away from him. Such beautiful breasts. Such shapely bare breasts. He shook his head and dipped a shoulder into her, then cocked his hands behind her knees. From under the water, he lifted her butt up onto the side, rose, sitting her up, and just caught her before her head fell back onto the deck. He laid her back as gently as he could. "Goddammit, Heather," he said.
His eyes were back on her breasts. The only real, in-the-flesh tits he'd ever seen were Aileen's, and then only for a split second when he'd barged into the bathroom unawares. These were so much bigger, even as she laid back, these were still so much more a woman's tits. He was only faintly aware of being wet, or being in the water at all. Steam rose all around him. It rose from Heather, from her skin and hair. It rose from her mouth, her breath a weak, but steady wisp in the cold.
He jumped out of the pool and knelt over her, shivering. He patted her cheeks. "Heather, wake up!" Still no response. And those tits. They had shape, but weight, too. He noticed how they fell to the sides. He saw the look again, Heather's look as she had taunted him. The wet lashes over her eyes, and the smile, mischievous as she wriggled her shoulder straps down. The anxious way her tits came out.
He reached down and touched her breasts with both hands, tracing their undersides with his fingers, running his thumbs gently over the nipples. She still didn't respond, her face serene now, no longer smiling, no longer tempting him, no longer singing his name. He had a boner now, pressing into his jeans. He scanned the rest of her as he caressed her tits, knowing the rest of her was a woman, too. A woman of fourteen.
Suddenly he felt nothing but the cold of his sopping clothes and the cold of Heather's bare, wet skin under his touch. He pulled his hands away, passing his thumbs one more time over her nipples.
He found her things in a heap near the far corner of the pool: tennis shoes, jeans, panties, a Kiss T-shirt, a sweater, a suede jacket, and a half-pint Southern Comfort bottle, empty. Drunk. Of course she was drunk. There was always some truth, though, wasn't there, to what people did when they were drunk? He gathered everything up. His heart thumped, and the wet denim of his jeans rubbed together as he ran. He would toss the bottle somewhere. The dumpster. Returning to Heather, he moved to cover her, then paused to look again. Such beautiful tits. Tits he would never forget now. Tits he never could forget. His first tits, but could he tell anyone? A drunk girl, passed out. "Heather fucking Mallock? Passed out on the pool deck, Sorenson? No way!" That wouldn't be cool, though. He'd be pathetic. He'd be a punk. But look at those fucking tits, man!?
He did it again. This time, he ran his fingertips gently over her nipples. The nipples were soft now, supple. What was the physiology of these things? She's passed out so she's not feeling cold, or what? He felt her pulse, pressing two fingers to her jugular like they'd taught him in water safety class. Normal. A normal, slow pulse. She was definitely passed out. A cold breeze hit him on the back of the neck. He was sopping wet. His clothes weighed a ton. He covered her, first the sweater, then the jacket.
He could pull her swimsuit back up. He would toss the bottle and pull the swimsuit back up. Oh shit, he'd better pull her swimsuit back up. People don't remember things they do when they're drunk. He reached under the jacket and started working her left arm into the strap. It bent easily at the elbow and shoulder. A light went on. It was the coaches' office upstairs, a wall of huge windows that overlooked the pool deck on the outside and the locker room on the inside. He and Heather were at a good angle, though, out of sight from whoever was up there. But there was someone up there. Probably Coach Clark, the mutant wrestling coach. Totally buff. Even his face was chiseled. Clark would never come out on the deck, but Ryan had to get Heather out of there without him seeing. He remembered Clark in PE class: "Those sixty-three sit-ups ain't worth shit if you can't do one pull-up, Sorenson!"
She was still totally passed out. He kept working the arms. Her tits jiggled. He was careful not to scrape her arms or elbows against the rough cement. He pulled the swimsuit over the left breast quickly, raised her shoulder and replaced the strap. The other side was just as easy. He covered her again. The tits were gone, and her sweater was getting wet. He needed to get her inside where it was warm, near the boilers.
Heather and Aileen ridiculed him sometimes, like they had at his swim meet two weeks ago. Heather yelled from the bleachers, "Nice Speedo, Sorenson!" and "Hey Ryan, show us your tan line!" Aileen sat next to her, shaking her head and smiling, but quiet, always quiet. Still, he felt his face go flush. He knew he was red. He always got really red. His teammates, the seniors, capped on him like crazy in the showers, snapping him with wet towels. He covered up his dick so they wouldn't snap him in the dick. A kid had done that when he was twelve, and it hurt like shit. He had welts on his legs and ass from the seniors, but he didn't care. He even liked the welts, because he knew the seniors were just pissed. They wanted Heather just like he did. He decided he loved the welts.
The bottle. He had to get it to the dumpster. And he had to get Heather to the boiler room. He was still soaking wet, and freezing. Clark was probably sitting at his desk. Which desk was it? He never got it right around Clark because he was scared of him. He was fine with the swimming coaches, but wrestling was fighting in a way, and swimming was more like dancing, and Clark was fucking buff. All the coaches had desks up there, and he didn't know if Clark's desk had a view of the pool. "Heather." He patted her cheeks again. Her swimsuit was on and he was ready to stash the bottle. "Heather, wake up." Still nothing.
He looked across at the light inside the boiler room. He remembered the stuff they stored in there: extra rain parkas, a big gymnastics mat the divers used for on-deck training. Heather could dry off in there and go out the huge back door. Her swimsuit was on, the bottle was ready to stash, and she would be warm and dry in the boiler room. The steam still rose from the cauldron in a heavy cloud.
He piled Heather's clothes on top of her and worked his arms in under her legs and shoulders. He lifted her and started for the boiler room. His wet clothes stuck to her skin. The bottle shifted in the pile. He glanced back over his shoulder at the coaches' office window. No Clark. He shifted Heather to get a better grip, and she began to wake. Her head had been hanging back, but now she lifted it. Her arms came around him, she rolled toward him, and the bottle went crashing to the deck. He felt laughter from her, didn't so much hear it as feel it, a tiny bounce of her body, a faint chirp in his ear, her lips on his neck, dry and cold, an image of the rocky beach at Bonny Doon, wind howling around them as they lay protected in a down sleeping bag.
Inside the boiler room, he switched off the light. Still holding Heather, feeling groans from her now, sexy sounds, sounds from movies, he peered out the door. Clark was looking directly at him from the coaches' window, but doing nothing. He closed the boiler room door with his foot and switched the light back on. He knocked the divers' mat over flat and laid Heather down. She groaned again and curled up like a baby. This is how she would be, inside the down bag, and he would be behind her, wrapped around her. He grabbed a broom and dustpan, and went back out.
Clark was there, standing over the scatter of broken glass. The Southern Comfort label held its shape, as lucent as the shattered pieces around it.
"What's this?" Clark said.
"Someone threw it, coach, over the fence." Clark's chiseled features distorted as he made sight of Ryan's sopping wet shoes and clothes. Ryan said, "I don't know who. They must have gone by on a bike or something."
Clark ignored him. "You're wet, Sorenson," he said. "What the hell's going on here?" Ryan looked down at his shoes, and the broken glass, then back at Clark. "Sorenson, did you get drunk and fall in the pool?"
"No, coach, no. I didn't drink anything, I swear." He paused. "I did fall into the pool, but I didn't drink anything, I swear." Ryan tried to imagine Clark's reaction were he to find Heather. He couldn't. He couldn't remember ever seeing the coach in the presence of a girl, or a woman, before.
Clark glanced down at the glass again, then looked back at Ryan. His eyes were steely blue, small, and deep set. "Let me smell your breath, son." Ryan lost hold of the broom handle, but snatched it back before it fell to the deck.
"Coach, I swear, I didn't drink anything."
"Son, I have to be sure. Let me smell your breath." Clark, in coach's letter jacket and tight blue jeans, with his thick build and his bowl-legged walk, stepped around the glass and moved toward him. The coach's face and head drew closer, the crew cut and tidy creases rocklike and true. "Be careful, honey," his mother had said to Aileen. She'd set her cup down and out of the blue had hugged her daughter, then she'd turned and left the room, and Aileen had said to Ryan, "I don't know what's in that cup, man, but it ain't coffee."
"Let's have it," the coach said. And Ryan let out a deep, open-mouthed breath right into Clark's nose. With no change of expression, the coach stepped back. He glanced over Ryan's shoulder into the lit boiler room, then turned back to the glass. "You didn't see who threw this?" he asked.
"No," Ryan said. "I wasn't looking. It almost hit me."
Clark's blue eyes locked on Ryan's for a moment, then he said, "Alright, Sorenson. Get back to work."
There were tiny shards of glass lodged in the rough cement. Ryan knew he wouldn't get them all with the broom. The team would be out there in the afternoon. He'd have to blast the shards away with the hose. He'd have to make sure.
Back inside, Heather was curled up on the mat, her clothes in a heap partially covering her. Her bare legs were nearly dry now, completely different here in the dim light and the warmth, the boilers filling the room with a loud, consistent hum. His clothes were the only cold thing in the room. The denim, the sweatshirt, sopping, would take hours to dry.
He retrieved a parka from the cabinet nearby. He shoved the heap of clothing off her and paused, looking down on her. Yes, this is how she would be, her skin cleansed by the water, washed of the heavy makeup she'd started wearing only recently, but seemed to have been wearing forever. She stirred, and he rushed to her, laying the furry lining of the parka onto her, keeping her warm and subdued. The peace and calm of her made him think of Aileen.
The last time he'd spoken to Aileen, actually had a conversation with her, was about a month ago when he'd walked up to the house after practice.
"There's a note from Mom," she said. "She's out with Cheryl, won't be home till late."
"No shit," he said, and leaned against the fence next to her. Close to her for the first time in months, he saw how fine she looked. Not nearly as much makeup as Heather wore, with an olive shade to her skin and a smallness to her, a lightness. Her face was set in a severe frown as she looked out across the rough chip-seal and loose gravel of the road.
"This place is driving me batshit, Ryan," she said. "If something doesn't change, I'm gonna get the fuck out of here, one way or another." Two years before, he'd seen the same severity in her eyes, the same bitter frown at their dad's explanations.
The old man across the street had another car up on blocks, one Ryan hadn't seen before. From the looks of it, the engine had been pulled. The driveway had an oily tarp spread out with tiny parts on it, all lined up in neat rows. The guy needed to know what order they came out so he knew what order to put them back in.
"Where would you go?" he asked.
She turned to him briefly and flashed a smirk. "There are places."
Ryan felt small and afraid. His sister, fourteen years old, had options he knew nothing about. What was more, she'd gone out into the world with Heather and secured those options while he just stayed on the path and never thought about options at all.
"Oh great," he said. "Some burnouts in a duplex let you crash there, then what? Where will you get money without mom to steal from?"
She turned and glared at him. "I don't fucking know, Ryan. All I know is those two people"—she pointed at the house—"are driving me fucking batshit, okay?" A loud and beaten Pontiac pulled up to the curb, the tires sliding in the loose gravel. "And Paul and Rafe are not burnouts, Ryan. They have diplomas and they work just like everyone else, so don't give me any of your shit, okay?"
Heather yelled from the car, "Whoa! Aileen the machine! Down girl!" The two men in the front laughed as his sister got into the back seat and the car sped off.
He spread Heather's damp sweater out on the mat to dry. Outside, light had started to rise, the sky a slate gray, the cauldron glowing blue against the wet cement. Ryan thought of pulling up the rear at swimming practice later, picking up his paycheck on Friday, his mom's stupid coffee cup, his rebellious little sister, and this crazy chick in the boiler room. "Heather fucking Mallock? Drunk on a mat in the boiler room, Sorenson? No way!" Yesterday, after giving him the message to take home, the message for his mother about more time with Aileen, his father had said, "I tried, son, really I did."
He put the pool brush back on the hooks and began blasting the deck with the hose. The splash of water on the rough cement pierced the silence and became a steady crackle as he worked. Small stones and bits of debris were sent flying, the glass was washed away, and the cement behind him was left wet and clean. In his mind, he saw Heather. It could be tomorrow, or maybe later today. She passes by him at school or in the back seat of the Pontiac. Her expression is vacant, impassive. She might have some memory, some inkling, but if she does, it's vague and meaningless to her. She looks at him with disregard, and he longs to hear her heckling him from the bleachers again.
Copyright ©2007 Bruce Overby