Everywhere we looked that day there was food – food like we'd only ever seen on television: bottles of Coca Cola stuck into metal washtubs of ice and hot dogs sizzling on the grill and sliced watermelon on plastic trays. Aunt Vonnie had made fried chicken and Mama had made two bowls of potato salad with little chips of sweet pickles in them. Uncle Bill was churning fresh peach ice cream for Aunt Vonnie – that's short for Vonceil – who was expecting again and craving peach ice cream. She sighed that craving peach ice cream meant they would probably just get another girl.
My brother and I had never been to a lake before. We had bathing suits and new flip-flops for the occasion. Also big beach towels. We weren't sure what to do at a lake that big. But at least, as my grandmother said, we had each other. So we sat together near the picnic tables and try to be unnoticed and waited to see what everyone else would do. And we eyed the food. So much food....
It was our second summer with our new mama – who was also expecting a baby – and an older sister. I used to be the oldest, but my father had gotten himself married again a year earlier, so Julie – that was my mama's daughter – had become, officially, by four years, the oldest. That made me a middle child, for the first time in my life. Something strange and new. Something I wasn't entirely sure I liked.
We'd come here on the Fourth of July, the summer of my ninth year, to Strickland's Landing with my new mama's relatives: aunts and uncles and a large assortment of first and second cousins. Everyone who had no money – and that was this family and everyone this family knew – went to Strickland's Landing to celebrate the Fourth because for one-dollar-and-fifty-cents a whole carload of people could get into the public lake to swim and picnic and could stay to see the fireworks after dark. With this family, that was the best deal going, so everyone piled into station wagons and trucks and cars and made the forty-minute drive from Jacksonville to the boonies.
Beyond the picnic tables, on shady playgrounds, the littlest cousins swarmed like ants over the monkeybars and swingsets. This family had children, lots of children – more children than sense, my grandmother was fond of saying – and our new mom and some of the aunts were expecting again. The pregnant women sat in the shade on lawn chairs and fanned themselves, sweating and rubbing their bellies or their swollen ankles. Every now and then, one of them struggled up to see about a wailing child or to settle a fight. Afterwards, she sort of hovered for minute, then dropped herself down again into a rickety aluminum-framed lawn chair among the other women who were fanning themselves and complaining of the heat and eyeing the white sand beach where old people were playing badminton and where the littlest children and the babies dug with their plastic buckets and shovels.
A long dock ran from shore straight out into the lake and two more docks jutted out sidewise from it. If I squinted, the three docks made a kind of capital F on top of the water. The two spokes of the F separated the swimming areas. The close area was shallow water – less than four feet deep – for waders and those who didn't swim or didn't like to. A lifeguard sat on a tall chair under an orange umbrella. All day he sipped Cokes and kept watch, like a slicked-up guardian angel, over the heads that went under, watching the water until they surfaced again.
Sometimes, my boy-cousins held their breath as long as possible underwater, just to see if they could make the lifeguard nervous. Sometimes this worked. But it made the lifeguard cranky. We could tell by his face that he suspected they were making trouble on purpose. After that, he was just looking for a reason to make someone sit out, so whenever one of the bigger kids started shoving or dunking, the lifeguard blew his whistle and pointed. Everybody stopped swimming then to watch the shover who had to climb out in front of everybody and sit on the dock for fifteen minutes. By noon, we knew who all the bullies were.
The far area was for people who knew how to swim. There was a concession stand at the end of this dock where a man worked whose arms were tattooed blue with snarling dragons. All day long, he sold grape popsicles and hot pretzels and beer in paper cups. He piped music in over a loudspeaker. I didn't know those songs, but I knew the station: WAPE, the Big Ape, the station that played an ape yell, like on Tarzan, every time the announcer said, "You're listening to WAPE, the Big Ape." That ape yell drove my parents crazy, so crazy that they bought an earplug for Julie's transistor radio so they wouldn't ever have to hear it in our house again.
The Big Ape played fast songs, songs to twist to, which Julie and her friends liked. Sometimes, when Mama and Dad went out for bowling, Julie would take the earplugs out and turn the radio up and do the twist in our living room. When she did this, she looked like one of the monkeys at the Jacksonville Zoo trying to scratch an itchy spot in a hard-to-reach place. My brother and I laughed at her and made monkey faces behind her back. My grandmother used to say that listening to the Big Ape had "affected" Julie. And watching her dance, I thought this might be true.
Beyond the first dock was where Julie and her friends hung out – near the older teenagers and the adults who drank beer. I thought it must be really cool to be old enough to drink beer. My grandmother always said that Julie liked to run with the fast ones, so I thought that was why she hung out on the other dock, that and because she could swim. She was always trying to look and act all grown-up: she'd convinced Mama to buy her one of those padded swimsuit tops this summer that made her look like she had boobs. Julie had a lot of things, but she didn't have boobs.
Before we left the house that morning, Julie had painted her fingernails and toenails "Passionate Pink" to match the new two-piece swimsuit and the pink flip-flops she would wear that day. She liked things to match. She had her hair pulled back tight in a ponytail and she twisted and twisted the end of her ponytail around her fingers, trying to make a curl. This was because she had straight hair and curly hair was what everyone really wanted in those days, including Julie. I had straight hair too, but it was what my grandmother called "hopelessly straight" hair. I thought this was much worse than just plain straight hair, so I knew I was just going to have to wait and endure until I was old enough to have a permanent wave put in, probably thirteen or fourteen years old. Until then, I was convincing myself I couldn't care less. Watching Julie fidget and fuss the curl into her straight hair was fun enough for me.
My brother and I had never been swimming before. Even bathtubs had us in a kind of terror. I think this was because my grandmother had told us, for years by then, all the terrible stories she'd ever heard about kids drowning in bathtubs and backyard pools or ponds. She said it was possible for a grown man to drown in a teacup of water. I think she did that – told us those grisly stories – so we wouldn't do something stupid and, in the doing, accidentally drown ourselves. It worked too: my brother and I never put our faces into the bathwater and we never went close to the pond near our house. Part of that was because of the quicksand that got ahold of Tim Riley's dog once and sucked him under. It had taken hold of his hind legs first and we'd had to watch while Tim whistled and whistled and cried and his dog howled and bayed. At the end, the dog tried hard to lift his face out, but the quicksand got him anyhow and, when it reached his mouth, he made a gurgling sound and then there was a sucking sound, and then the whole woods went still except for Tim sobbing and tearing off through the palmettos towards the road again. Then just the heat and mosquitoes.
Mostly we didn't go near the water though because our grandmother had warned us about how ponds could suddenly drop off to deep water.
You'd drown she'd say shaking her head sadly, and then how would we find you to give you a Christian burial? Christian burials were important to her. They're decent, she always said and that's something she and my mama agreed on. Mama would sometimes look out the window and say there was nothing she could imagine worse than a child's body rotting alone somewhere and no place to bring flowers to on its birthday. She'd get that look on her then and I'd know she was thinking of that little girl who was stolen right out of her parents' car one night at the 7-11 on San Juan Boulevard and nothing was ever found of her except for later when her dress was discovered by police dogs down under the St. John's River Bridge and it was all bloody and torn like a wild animal had got ahold of her. That girl's momma stopped going to church altogether and finally her daddy did too because they said that it just seemed to them like if God was omnipotent and merciful He ought to have been able to keep a little child from harm or at least to let them find her body and bury her decent.
So that day, for a long time, my brother and I didn't even go down to the lake's edge. Only after the uncles start telling my father how they taught their kids to swim – by throwing them into deep water – did we creep into the shallow water and wade and splash around, trying to look bold and unafraid...as if that was swimming, as if that was what we really wanted to do. Finally, because we were the oldest kids in the shallow water and we must've look strange splashing and playing among all the little kids and the babies, Uncle Bill – who my grandmother always said was a merciful man, and I believe that too – brought out inner tubes for my brother and me. Suddenly it looked as if the day would be great after all, because we finally got to float around in the lake water with the other cousins our age, out in deeper water, out by the second dock. We were having a good time then; we were having such a good time we didn't even feel our sunburned shoulders and faces anymore. We learned to hang on and spin and spin in the water. We did it for hours. We did it until we made ourselves drunk. We did it until we felt like we would throw up.
Right after lunch, my new cousin Buddy – who was one of the troublemakers – started monkeying around. He swam underwater and yanked my brother's legs down hard through the hole of the inner tube. He did this to pull Michael from the inner tube, to frighten him. He did it like he did everything in those days: out of spite and mischief. But my brother held onto that inner tube like a mad thing and came right up again, gasping and choking and snorting. There was water in his eyes and up his nose. His face was running with snot. He thought he was drowning. I thought he was drowning. I realized suddenly that I didn't know exactly what drowning was, just that it was supposed to be terrible and that you could die from it.
Then my brother started to wail. That was one thing about him: he never settled for just crying softly. Not when he could work up a good head of scream. He always had to carry on, screaming and screwing up his face and hollering like devils were after him. Once, when he started up,in the doctor's office, when he got his vaccination shots, people in the waiting room thought someone was being hurt: the littlest children sometimes climbed on their mother's laps and started to cry when they heard all that hollering.
Michael made so much noise, crying and carrying on like all bejesus, that the lifeguard climbed down from his high chair and helped him up out of the water. My brother sat on the side of the dock with his legs dangling over the side, crying and sputtering and hiccoughing, while strangers hovered over him and tried to figure out who his parents were and what to do about him. Then the lifeguard made Buddy come out too. It served him right. He had to sit right next to my brother. They looked at each other real mean and then they looked away and Julie, who'd been watching all this from her sun-tanning towel, ran off down the dock to get Mama and Dad.
I climbed out of the water then, dragging my inner tube behind me, and I sat down next to Michael. I put my arm around him. He was my brother. I was afraid because he was afraid...and I wanted to smash Buddy in the nose. I told him so. He told me, Just try it, horseface, and he made a mean face at me. I didn't waste anymore time on him after that; there was no excuse for calling names. My grandmother said calling names just meant that someone had a poor vocabulary and Buddy was definitely limited in the language department.
Over Buddy's head, I could see my father running pell-mell down the long dock. Mama was behind him and Julie was right behind her, throwing her hands around and carrying on like she always did when she got to telling on someone. Julie sure loved trouble, so long as it wasn't her getting into it. Mama's face was a storm. But when my father got there, things seemed to go okay. We all talked at once – Buddy, Michael, Julie and me, the lifeguard – trying to tell my father what had happened. He looked confused. And worried. A crowd was gathering around us on the dock. At last, my father understood that Michael was okay, just scared. My father relaxed then and smiled, brushing the water from my brother's blonde crew-cut. Michael sniffled up at him and the other people turned back to their beer and music and sunning.
But one man, a big, hairy man with a belly that hung way out over his swim trunks, belched loudly then and said, Sissie. The boy's a sissie. Can't even take a little water in the face.
A quiet came on the dock then. Not the kind of quiet like the good quiet in church after prayers or candle-lighting. It was the quiet like the quiet before a big fight, just before someone throws the first fist into a nose or jaw.
I realized then that I was waiting for my father, my smallish father, to hit the big man. But he didn't; he just stood there, looking down at my brother, with a pinchy look on his face, that look he got sometimes when he came home from work and we'd been bad and my mama would tell him he had to give us a spanking so we'd learn to behave.
Mama and Julie turned away. Julie was chewing on the end of her ponytail and Mama was wringing her hands. The man had upset them. This beer-drinking man with a big fat belly had upset them. At least, that's what I thought, until I heard my mama mutter between her teeth to my father, He needs to learn, Tom. So does she. Teach them...now. Then I understood; it wasn't the fat man; it was what he'd said...that word, the sissie word.
My father straightened and squinted up at the sky. He stood like that for a minute, as if he was suddenly pained, and I noticed how skinny his legs were: little white legs with spikey black hairs sticking out of them. His knees were boney and looked like the doorknobs in my grandmother's house. He had on a pair of baggy blue swimming trunks and a white v-neck t-shirt like old men wear because his skin burned easily. He was paler and skinnier and smaller than all the men on that dock. I remembered how, at the wedding last year, one of the uncles had joked about how my mama was marrying a boy, hardly big enough to be called a man, scrawny like a chicken. My father had looked away and smiled and I thought maybe he hadn't heard, but my mama must have heard it because she'd had the same look on her face then as she did just then on that dock. I wondered if someone like this fat, hairy-bellied drunk man had ever called my father a sissie.
My father ran a hand through his black hair and looked down at us. Then he turned to my mama. She was standing there in her turquoise bathing suit, tanned and petite, those big-framed sunglasses on her face, looking for all the world like Jackie Kennedy. She liked it when people told her she looked like Jackie Kennedy. She dressed like her too: pearls and gloves, little pillbox hats that matched her dresses. My father thought that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. And surely he thought so just then. I thought it too.
My father sighed; he shrugged and struggled to lift my brother in one arm and me in the other. Probably because I was heavier, he threw me first. One minute, I was falling through air, the white clouds spinning overhead, and the next, I was sinking, falling through water, my eyes wide open and burning. Then, there was a strange sound, awhooshing, and I saw my brother plummeting through the water above me, a stream of white bubbles rising behind him as he sank.
My brother was more terrified of drowning than he was of anything else except for burglars and prowlers. That is what saved him, I think, that terror of the water and drowning. He looked at me with his shocked blue eyes, then he turned upwards, towards the light, kicking and flailing his way to the surface again.
For some reason I can't remember now, I didn't turn my face upwards or kick my way up again like Michael had. I looked behind me, to where the long trunks of the dock pilings rose, green and slippery, from bottomwater to the underside of the dock. I sort of pushed myself over to one. The bottom of the lake was slimey and a brown scum cloud rose each I time I put my foot down or lifted it up again. There were things under there covered over with a drowned skin, things that had gotten dropped there and never retrieved. Things that had taken on the darkness of scum and lake mud: tree stumps or tires or shoes or cans. Some shapes I couldn't put a name to.
Topside, the hot sun was beating down and the music was playing and the drunks were stumbling against each other. Down there, the blistering mid-summer sun was far off. Bottomwater is quiet and cool and dark, like my room at night when I drift into sleep. I was weightless there, floating and strangely calm. Nothing there was terrible as I thought it would be. I could stay here, I thought, surprised that drowning was that easy, just a matter of giving myself over, of letting go the air inside me, of letting myself fall and settle among the other drowned things.
Then all at once, the air inside me was trying to let go; my chest ached with trying to hold it in. I felt dizzy and my eyes were stinging. I remembered my father...and my terrified brother. I let out all the air in my lungs then. Little globs of bubbles rose to the water's surface, up there where the light was, and then they broke open. I could hear the popping noise when they let go to the air again. I turned and shimmied up the dock piling, feeling the slime against my legs and arms and the side of my face. I felt the water lifting me. When I broke the surface, I hung on like death to the slick piling, which was almost directly underneath the planks of the dock where everyone was standing together, waiting for me to come up again. I tried to take in my air again then without making a lot of noise. It was shady and cool there in the dock's shadow and the water slapped against the pilings. I wanted to cry, I think. But something in me wouldn't let go. Overhead, on the dock, I heard Julie and Mama fretting, talking to strangers and to each other. My brother was whimpering.
It's okay; she'll be up any minute now.
Oh my God. Oh my God.
Do you think she's okay?
Did she come up farther out? Over there maybe – what's that?
Finally, I heard my father say, I'm going in, and there was a splash where he hit the water. I slid my body to the backside of the piling – to make it harder for him to see me. I watched him surface, watched him take in big gulps of breath, watched him dive again. It took him several dives before he realized I was under the dock. He saw me there as he was catching his air: I saw him look right at me. Or I thought he had.
But then he took another breath and dove under again. I sometimes wonder, looking back on it now, if he did that for me. And for himself. That way, it would look as if he'd had to find me, as if he'd had to save me, as if I were in great peril. No one would know I'd been hiding out under the dock, embarrassed, not wanting to come out again, and no one would expect him to punish me for it.
He surfaced under the dock next to me. Drops of water hung from his long, dark lashes. One by one, they dropped off and down his face and chin like tears. But that had to be wrong because my father never cried. Even then he looked at me, steady like he always did, but a little dazed, as if he couldn't quite figure out what was going on. All I could think was that I didn't want to go back up there. I didn't want to be a part of the singing and dancing and swimming and the hot sun and the gulls waiting for scraps.
But my father motioned to me to hold my nose and we went under together, surfacing again just beside the dock. He tried to hand me up out of the water to the lifeguard standing at the edge of the dock, but I refused to let go, so he had to climb the ladder out of the water half-carrying me.
When I was standing topside again on the dock, I didn't look at my father. I didn't want to see him small and afraid of what others thought. But who would I look to, if not to him? Then suddenly, even in the July heat, I was shivering and blue. Mama wrapped a towel around me and shuffled me off, in a crowd of aunts and cousins, back up the dock towards the picnic area.
You'll feel better when you get something in your stomach, she told me and I was strangely comforted, knowing I was to be rewarded with a hot dog and a Coca Cola foralmost drowning. Michael hunched himself against me as we walked back together, shivery and quiet, our towels dragging the ground. Julie followed along behind us, and I could hear her saying something to Buddy about how she was thinking of letting me listen to her radio after what I had been through. She said it always calmed her down, listening to good music. Buddy said he thought that was a good idea too. I looked back over my shoulder. Beyond them, at the end of the dock, my father dropped to a wooden bench, heavily, as if his knees had given way, and the man with the big belly was drinking his beer, his eyes closed, his face to the hot sun, doing the twist and singing along with the Big Ape. . . .
*Some names have been changed to protect the innocent and the unintentionally-wicked.
photo collection of the author, courtesy of iStock.com