Drowning Summer

by Dawn Paul


        My father pulled into the parking lot of Bushey’s Tavern and tossed his cigarette butt out the window. “Look at these guys. Sunday afternoon and they’re waiting for me to open the door.”

        “It’s a shame,” my mother said. “On such a beautiful summer day, to want to sit in a barroom.”

        “Well, they put food on our table,” my father said. He turned around to look at us. “You kids be good today. Remember, Mr. Bushey’s my boss and this job’s been working out good. Brian, no horsing around.” He winked at me. “You be good, too, Sweets.”

        “My name is Sylvie,” I said, but quietly, so he wouldn’t hear.

        “The boy’s about your age, Brian. Eleven, twelve. His name’s Ronnie. Don’t get in any fights with him. The girl’s a lot older than eight, Sweets. She’s in high school. Sorry.”

        “Ronald McDonald,” Brian said in a sing-song.

        “For crissake, what did I just tell you? You be grateful you’re getting to spend the day there instead of sweating at home. Don’t be a jerk.”

        “Joey, I think your customers are thirsty. I’ll pick you up right at nine.”

        “Make sure you don’t fall asleep again, okay?”

        My father walked across the parking lot. The back of his white shirt had a gray stripe of sweat down the middle. I felt bad for him. It had been hot all week, a heat wave everyone said. Mrs. Bushey, the wife of my father’s boss, had called that morning to invite us to swim in their pond. My father hadn’t wanted us to go, but my mother said she didn’t want us spending another day hanging around the house with the town beach closed for pollution. She took the wheel and later turned into a driveway lined with evergreen trees. The air went cool. Their house was tall with lots of big windows. My mother muttered that she wasn’t sure where to park and sat with the engine running.

        “Just park anywhere. I’m roasting back here,” Brian said. “When’s Dad fixing the AC?”

        Mrs. Bushey came out of the house, waving. “Gloria! Just park anywhere. No one else is coming.” She wore shorts and a little sleeveless top, not like what a mother would wear, and had straight black hair below her shoulders. We got out of the car and she fussed over us, how big we were, how hot we must be, would we like lemonade or Pepsi. My mother handed her the bag of chips we’d brought and she acted like they were a big deal saying, “Oh, you didn’t have to do that!”

        I couldn’t wait to go swimming. There was the pond, flashing blue down a green, grassy path through tall bushes. Mrs. Bushey said Ronnie and Polly were already down at the water and Dave, that was Mr. Bushey, would be home later. Someone hadn’t shown up at his other bar.

        “Joey’s so reliable,” Mrs. Bushey said, leading us down to the pond at last. “Dave thinks the world of him, you know. He said this morning, call Joey’s wife and tell her to bring the kids over. He doesn’t invite just anyone.”

        The pond was all I had hoped for. Small enough to swim across, ringed with weeping willows. The shallow water had lily pads and long nodding grasses, but the water in front of the small grassy beach was clear with a clean gravel bottom. Ronnie, a skinny kid with a pug nose, took Brian off on a path to fish on the other side of the pond. The girl, Polly, was sitting in a big inner tube, reading a magazine and drinking a Pepsi. Her hair was the color of new pennies, but she had a nice even tan, no freckles. A perfect life.

        I dove in. The pond was deliciously cold. I turned somersaults, did headstands and did not worry about getting water in my mouth. The pond was spring-fed, Mrs. Bushey said, perfectly clean.

        My mother and Mrs. Bushey sat in the shade on beach chairs drinking fancy drinks. I’d never seen my mother hold a glass with a stir stick in it. At home, she and my father drank beer out of the can. When I was all cooled down, I ran across the grass and asked my mother if I could have the stick from her drink. But she waved me off.

        “You’ve been badgering me about swimming all week, so go swim. Mrs. Bushey and I are talking.”

        Mrs. Bushey apologized that Polly was ignoring me. “She’s sulking today. I don’t think her date last night went very well.” She made a funny face, raising her eyebrows and pursing her lips. I wanted to laugh but remembered what my father said to Brian. “Gloria,” she said, “you ready for another gin and tonic? Around here, every hour is happy hour!”

        I didn’t care about the cute little stick or stuck-up Polly. I just wanted to feel the muggy heat and know that I could jump into the cool water whenever I wanted. The only thing that would have completed my happiness was an inner tube, but I didn’t dare ask Polly if there was another one. Instead, I waded along the edge of the pond, where green frogs sat on lily pads, just like they were supposed to. The willows shivered their leaves in the slight warm breeze. I went back into the water and did a slow backstroke. At some point, I noticed that Polly had gone and left the inner tube floating by the grassy bank. My mother and Mrs. Bushey were talking and laughing loudly. Brian and Ronnie were nowhere in sight.

        I pulled the inner tube away from the bank. It was big and my legs were not long enough to sit down and plunk my rump inside the circle. I wrestled with it, hoped my mother wouldn’t tell me to leave it alone. But she and Mrs. Bushey were laughing and slapping each others’ arms. Finally, I scrambled on top of it and flipped myself over with my rump in the middle. But I was so skinny that instead of sitting in the tube, I slid right through the circle in the middle. Somehow my feet got caught in the circle and I was hanging upside-down under the tube. I looked up through the water, could see my feet against the yellowish-blue sky. I did not panic. I was used to being underwater, was a good swimmer, able to hold my breath. I tried to pull myself up but could not reach the tube. I kicked my feet. Then I had to breathe. Water came up my nose, filled my mouth. Someone grabbed my arm and pulled me up into the light and air. Mrs. Bushey. My mother was standing by the beach chairs, screaming. Not screaming my name, just screaming. Mrs. Bushey pulled me to shallow water where I could stand up. She pounded my back to get water out of my lungs, then wrapped me in a towel. I was shaking, my teeth chattered and my fingers were numb. My mother asked me if I was all right. I said yes without looking at her, because she stood screaming while Mrs. Bushey saved me. Your mother is supposed to jump right in. But maybe, I thought, she didn’t know I was really drowning.

        Polly came flouncing back down the path with a new can of Pepsi and Mrs. Bushey yelled at her not to leave the inner tube in the water again. “She almost drowned just now,” she said, pointing at me. My mother put her hand over her mouth, hiccupped and giggled.

        I spent the rest of the day teaching myself to do handstands in the water. Later, we all went up to the house. Mr. Bushey was home and grilled hamburgers. We had potato salad and chips. The three adults sat under a tree and talked and drank. Brian and Ronnie played in the driveway with a remote-controlled car. A boy drove up in a Volkswagen bug and Polly went off with him, smiling, her hair still wet. I was not allowed to go in the water by myself, so I sat on the steps, watched fireflies and listened to frogs croaking down at the pond. When the mosquitoes came out at dusk, I went into the screen porch and curled up in the corner on a glider swing. Then I woke and my mother was tucking a blanket around me.

        “We’re going to stay here tonight. Won’t that be fun?” She talked like she was out of breath.

        “What about Dad?”

        “Mr. Bushey is going to pick him up so he can join the party. A sleepover!”

        I was tired after my long day in the water and fell back to sleep, my head full of pond dreams, of floating on an inner tube, of jumping into the water in the early morning before anyone else was up.

        I woke to people yelling. It was dark. I heard my father say, “I want these kids home in their own beds, not some filthy cot.”

        “How dare you!” That was Mrs. Bushey.

        “Relax, Joey, we just wanted to have a good time,” Mr. Bushey said.

        My mother came and pulled the blanket off me. “Wake up, Sylvie. We have to go home.”

        “But I want to wake up in the morning and be here.” My mother pushed my flip-flops onto my feet, backwards, and yanked me off the glider. My father and Mrs. Bushey were still yelling.

        “I’m dog-tired, for crissake. I don’t need this crap. Where the hell is Sylvie?”

        “Stop shouting or I’ll call the police!”

        “Gloria! Get out here!”

        In the driveway, Mr. Bushey grabbed my father’s arm. “There’s your wife, Joey. Now get her in the car and go home.”

        Brian was already curled up in the back seat pretending to sleep. My mother sat in the passenger seat, sniffing and wiping her eyes. My father started the car, revved the engine and drove so fast down the driveway that the tires spit gravel. “I told you this was a bad idea,” he said. “And from what Dave tells me, it was a real bad idea.”

        “You came and ruined it,” my mother said, sniffling.

        “He said you were making a fool of yourself. With his wife sitting right there. A pajama party.” He made a spitting noise. “He just didn’t want you driving, the shape you’re in.”

        “I was just teasing. Having a little fun.” She blew her nose.

        “The hell you were,” my father said.

        “I almost drowned today,” I said quietly.

        “That,” my mother sniffed, “is a bit of an exaggeration.”

        My father squinted his eyes at me in the rearview mirror. “That’s great. A perfect day had by all.” So I did not tell him that Mrs. Bushey had to save me.

        Brian lifted his head. “I didn’t do anything, Dad. Me and Ronnie got along good.”

        My mother whipped her head around, her face rumpled and smeary. “You just shut up, Brian. No one’s asking you a thing.”

        The hot summer would go by. Whenever I shut my eyes, I would see the pond shimmering blue, cool and inviting, the weeping willows trailing their long green leaves across the water. My father would find another job at another bar. My mother would find a job sweeping up hair at a hairdresser’s, then come home crying one afternoon and not go back. Brian would get caught by the police for throwing rocks at a stop sign. The Board of Health finally announced that the town beach was closed for good because of leaky sewage pipes and an article in the newspaper listed three teenagers who died in a car accident, including Polly Bushey, age seventeen. Then, thankfully, summer was over.



Dawn Paul is the author of the novels The Country of Loneliness (Marick Press) and Still River (Corvid Press). Her short fiction and poetry have been published in anthologies, journals and magazines. She has served on the organizing board of the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and performs with the Improbable Places Poetry Tour. She has received writing residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, Ragdale, the Spring Creek Project and Friday Harbor Marine Laboratories. She has an MFA from Goddard College in Creative Writing and teaches in the Liberal Arts department at Montserrat College of Art.