by Ree Davis
My mama’s been knocking me around all morning with her do this and do that, get me this and take it over there, get your hands out of your damn hair or we’ll be pulling it from the deviled eggs kind of way.
“Ain’t no time like the present,” she says with her arm out, waiting for me to hand over the mayonnaise from the fridge. She recognizes I’ve got no interest in learning what she knows, but she just won’t give up that fight. She’s got her fighting roots so deep here in Boiling Springs, I think she’s the reason for the name. When I hand the jar to her, we both look at it, each of us with almost the same face.
The pool Daddy’s been digging out and cementing in one truckload at a time is ready for its unveiling party. Thing I like most, besides that we got a pool, are the little blue tiles he set around it at the waterline. No one tile’s the same size, shape or shade of blue. They turn the water a color better than the sky, like nothing I seen before. It’s a thing of beauty to say the least. We filled that pool three days ago with hoses snaking out of all the house’s faucets. It took forever, like watching rain fill a bucket. When I finally got in, the water felt like a baptism compared to the creek out back where my sister Alice and I’ve been swimming since before she could walk. I floated on a tube and touched each one of them tiles. Some have waves and ripples like icicles that make we wonder how they’re made. Others are smooth like the way my mamma polishes that old silver teapot she claims came with my great grandparents from Ireland.
From the picture window I see Larry and Delia coming up the drive in their new truck Billy calls that “fully loaded, top-of-the-line, MP3-playin’, leather-bucket-seat-ridin’, GPS-usin’, tinted window-hidin’, four-wheel-drivin’ piece of heaven” that I personally never’d want to own, let alone sit in. I say, “Mama, they’re here.”
Mama’s sighing says she’s done trying with me. “Go on and help Delia, Angel.”
Delia’s waddling up the drive. She’s a little settled in her figure, if you know what I mean, not like my mama, so scrawny and bony she’d break if it weren’t for her family’s blood, which is like Super Glue holding her together with her ‘my forefathers didn’t take no shit’ toughness. Delia runs past me in the drive with her “Hello, Angel darlin’,” and enough fried chicken for an army when it’s just us seven. She always brings it in one of those decorated aluminum trays with a plastic top that’s all foggy from the chicken, leaving me alone with Larry, which in my mind is just plain stupid or mean, I can never tell which.
Larry comes up close. The way he stares at me makes me feel like I’ve been covered in slime. It’d be better to still be a kid and not know what his look might mean. He already smells of gin mixed with something sticky sweet. He says what he always says, like after, I don’t know, twelve years since I can remember, it’s something new. “Angel, you sure live up to your name.” His voice’s soft, like he thinks it sounds special. He holds out something. His hands are big and meaty in a way that makes me wonder what Delia ever saw in him. It’s a fifty-dollar bill folded up tight to look like a bird. That’s when I see Billy standing in the door of the shed. I wonder how long he’s been there.
“Why Larry, it’s not my birthday or nothing,” I say, all mannered-like as I pluck that bird from his hand. He looks startled, like maybe I don’t recognize something I should. Mama always says ‘don’t look no gift horse in the mouth’. Well I’m not getting anywhere close to Larry’s mouth. It’s not what he’s done, it’s what it looks like he’ll do. So I’ve got no problem taking something from him because I think he’d like to take something from me.
I play with the bird’s wings and smile like I’m still a stupid kid, which perhaps he’s hoping the fifty dollars will make me. But I’m almost sixteen and old enough to not understand what makes him such a good family friend, just because my father and he grew up together and none of them ever left this place. And he keeps my father in work. It’s not my forever because whenever I get outta here, I’m making sure I never see Larry again.
Billy comes over, clears his throat, and puts out his hand for a shake, almost like saying he’s the same class as Larry, which is silly. Billy can barely find a job besides working on farms or cars, though I’m not complaining. I’m in love with Billy. Mama said it started in grade school. I’d be following Billy around like a baby bird after its mama. And I don’t want him to ever be like Larry.
When Billy and Larry shake, I can’t help giggling. Not because it’s funny. I just want them to know I’m not taking them serious. Larry looks as sad as Billy looks pissed. I squint my face. Men act stupid when it comes to pretty girls, and since everyone says I’m too pretty for my own good, men can look pretty damn stupid to me. I just think the whole male thing is full of holes—stuff they know about each other and don’t like never gets in the way of their hand-shaking or back-slapping, especially if they want some girl to think they’re all right. I’d be happier if Billy broke a few of Larry’s fingers, but then he wouldn’t get any work at all. And Daddy might not like him.
Larry goes up the drive, rubbing his hand on his hip like he’s wiping off the feel of Billy’s. Billy leans up to me leaning against Mama’s car and says, “Gimme that fifty bucks.”
“Get your own,” I say, though I’ll probably spend it on him anyway. Billy has his eye on this new tattoo of a cross stabbed with a dagger dripping blood that fits his idea that he’s a tortured soul. He’s short almost forty dollars, which is just about impossible to round up in this town anytime soon. But I won’t give in easy.
“If you don’t hand over that fifty bucks, Larry’s gonna think you’re for sale or something.” Billy can’t tell what kind of man Larry is, because he’s a guy and most guys just think the best rather than the worst about a person.
“And if I give it to you, don’t that mean you’re some kind of pimp?” I say.
Something about the way Billy’s muscles tighten and his veins pop up when he’s mad makes me crazy. I’m under his skin, right where I want to be.
“Touché, sweetie,” he says, though he only heard it in a movie and I’m sure doesn’t really know what it means except take that and shut up.
His chest is smooth under my hands, and I hope he never grows a lick of hair there. I can sound real sweet when I want to. “Baby, let’s get some of Delia’s chicken,” I say. “We gotta save her from eating it all herself.”
Billy pinches my arm and I give him my ‘we’re supposed to grow outta that’ look. He heads up the drive to more friendly folks and I’m right behind him.
Larry, Delia, Mama and Daddy are on the fancy iron furniture we got last Saturday. Daddy and Larry are drinking beer from bright orange cozies. Daddy and Larry have been friends since they were babies, so he puts up with Larry more than I ever have to. Mama and Delia’s pink drinks glow in cups with sparkles stuck inside the plastic. I think Mama feels sorry for Delia but won’t ever let on because Mama don’t make a practice of sympathizing. Billy’s already eating. It’s like he’s some kind of superhero moving from place to place faster than the speed a light. He looks like he’s never been fed, but it’s pretty close to the truth. His mama don’t care much about how any of her kids get fed, and she’s got five of `em. Guess that’s one of the reasons Billy’s been hanging around since forever. I don’t mind because he’s got those veins that start pulsing when he gets all over me. Most likely my mama’s already put aside some of that chicken for him to take home without Delia noticing. Alice is sitting on the patio playing with Elroy, her pet iguana, which makes me nervous because next she’ll put him in the pool and he’s gonna shit in that blue water. Nothing like iguana shit to ruin my pool.
I walk by and say, “Don’t you put that damn monster in the water.”
Mama can’t help but nag me. “I told you not to use that kinda language in my house.”
“Well, then it’s a damn good thing we’re all outside.” I can’t help myself.
Alice’s so dang attached to Elroy, she doesn’t know how bad his shit is. “You swim in the creek, don’t you?” she says, rubbing Elroy’s head like he’s a dog or something. She likes to put her hand over his eyes when I come around. She says it calms him down, like I do nothing but agitate everyone.
“Don’t mouth your older sister,” I say.
Alice doesn’t look up but she knows how to whisper so Mama can’t hear her swearing. “Creek’s full of all kinda shit.” Alice’s hair is bright as copper. Mama says it’s from Daddy’s grandma. Alice says, “You been swimming in shit all your life.”
“Ain’t no sense talking to you,” I say. “Be better when you get some smarts and let me have that thing made into a pair a shoes.”
But Alice won’t hear me because she’s stuck on Elroy like she gave birth to him rather than him showing up in the arms of her math teacher after his wife found Elroy crawling into the crib with their new baby. Now I swear Alice wears him around like a piece of jewelry. She even sleeps with the damn thing on a branch stuck over her bed, though I don’t know how she can because I’d be scared he’d fall or shit on my face. Elroy’s gotta weigh twenty pounds with all the collards and dandelions she’s been feeding him. Hell, Elroy eats better than Billy, that’s for certain.
“It’s no wonder you’ve got no friends, Alice. Ain’t anybody interested in that damn reptile for a hundred miles.”
She’s still not listening to me like she’s lost in one of those books she’s always reading where everybody likes lizards and magical science-y stuff.
“Angel, get the men another beer.” My mama yells like my day job is a waitress. My father smiles, which is why I do anything around here. He’s got a quiet way about him, but Mama never figured out the value of nice.
I go inside to get beer from the fridge, pop two open on the counter so I can take a few sips. I see through the window that Larry’s walking toward the pool. I start thinking how I don’t want to swim in none of his shit either. I spit in Larry’s beer because I can.
Larry doesn’t stop at the pool. He goes on over to Alice, which kind of makes my blood boil and my skin creep at the same time. He leans over and whispers in her ear like they got a secret. I kick open the screen door. “Larry, I gotta cold one right here for you, but ya better come get it.”
Larry looks like he can’t decide what he wants, that beer or my sister, so I say, “Delia, want to tell your husband to help me out, so I can get y’all more daiquiris?”
But Delia doesn’t get the point, which makes me think she’s as blind as much as she’s got no sense—she helps by taking Larry’s beer to him. I give my daddy his but don’t take my eyes off Larry, who’s kneeling next to Alice and petting Elroy. Elroy looks less like a reptile with that old, fat lizard squatting next to him. I know from the way Daddy’s looking at me, he’s thinking I need to stop because nothing’s happening. Like I’ve spent my whole life overreacting when I’m damn near a model of serenity compared to Mama.
I say, “Billy, why don’t you go play with Alice an’ Elroy.”
Billy looks at me like I’m crazy. He’s got chicken grease all over his mouth. He’s not happy with me because he wants that fifty dollars, and I not ever supposed to say no to him, but I always do. At least until I’m ready to say yes. He gets up, making all this noise like it’s some kind of major problem to do what I ask. We been given’ each other a hard time since the tides turned and he started chasing me, but it don’t mean a thing. It’s just our way. He walks over to Alice and Larry like he’s got to break up a fight. He picks up Elroy, lifts him in the air, and hurls him the pool. Alice screams. I can’t say I blame her, because I’m ready to scream about how Elroy’s scaly shit is going to wreck the only thing a beauty we got. Billy goes back to his chicken. He doesn’t even look at me, like I interrupted something important like brain surgery or signing the Constitution.
Alice doesn’t like the pool because the water’s too deep, so she’s screaming. Her hands are waving and her toes are gripping the edge of the pool just above the row of blue tiles. But it looks like Elroy doesn’t mind the swim. He’s moving in the water like he goes for a swim every day.
“Look at him go,” says Daddy half standing from him chair and taking a few steps toward the pool.
Larry wraps his arm around Alice’s shoulder, and my blood gets into my head like I’m going to explode. Alice keeps shrieking. Larry doesn’t see me coming when I shove him in the pool, hard because I want to make it hurt. Alice stays put but now she’s shaking. And Mama says, “Damn you, Angel,” like she never guessed what kind of creep Larry is.
Daddy drops his beer and for a second I feel bad.
Larry’s floundering in the pool with the water up to his shoulders, which tells me he’s not much of a swimmer either. Delia’s downed her drink like it’ll help whatever’s happening. Sun’s shooting off the sparkles in her glass. Daddy’s got the pool net, trying to catch Elroy, who seems like he’s familiar with nets and knows how to avoid them. Alice is trying to reach Elroy from the side of the pool. I’m standing at the pool ladder, looking at Larry like he isn’t getting out of that water anytime soon if I have anything to say about it. Of course, Billy’s just eating like it’s his last meal. Elroy seems to be the only one who’s having any fun, and he’s headed straight for Larry.
I haven’t ever had a clue that a reptile had any sense, let alone that this one could swim, but Elroy’s cutting a line in the water to Larry, who doesn’t know what to do with a prehistoric-y creature swimming up behind him and me staring him down in front. I like that his face says he doesn’t know which is safer.
Elroy gets to Larry and tries to climb on his shoulder, and for once I think that all his time on Alice’s neck has been a good thing. Alice’s whining, “Help him, Larry, help him.” But Larry never had any interest in an ugly ol’ reptile, so he’s doing his best to push Elroy away. But Elroy won’t have any of that. I can’t believe my eyes when Elroy opens his mouth, which is full of tiny razor teeth. Larry lets out a yelp like a dog that’s been hit or a man who’s been bit. Elroy is just trying like crazy to get on Larry’s shoulder. His little feet are brewing up a storm in the water.
Mama yells, “Angel,” like every bad thing that happens is my doing.
“I’m not biting anybody,” I say.
Now Alice is crying because it looks like Daddy’s gonna hit Elroy with the pool net.
Like usual, I got to behave like the only adult around. I can’t stand that my favorite tank top and shorts are going to get ruined by being in the same water as that creature. Now I won’t be wearing them tonight when Billy and I go driving. It’s a shame, because I’d looked near perfect in my closet door mirror. I jump in and walk through the water with my arms up. I take hold of Elroy, who’s still trying to climb all over Larry.
“Angel, don’t,” says Alice.
She doesn’t remember I can be gentle, like when she was a baby and I used to cut her little toenails. They were so fine, like tracing paper Mama uses to make dress patterns out of. Now Alice is whimpering like I’m going to kill Elroy or something. Elroy’s nasty little claw feet are still grasping for Larry. Elroy’s skin is softer than I thought it’d be, but it feels old and kind of fake. Larry’s eyes are almost popping out of his head.
Seems like Mama has said, ‘Ain’t no time like the present’ about twenty-seven times today. Now her words are in my head like they really mean something. And I’m thinking I might have something more to learn from her after all. I got Elroy in my hands, but it’s like I’m helping him climb on Larry’s shoulder. Then I whisper in Larry’s ear, “You ain’t touching my sister, you hear?”
Larry’s red except underwater, where the blue tiles make him look white. His toes are all curled up. His eyes are closed tight like he’s gonna blow. When I give Elroy a shake, Elroy seems to know what to do and claws harder on Larry’s shoulder. Larry’s eyes squeeze tighter. Maybe I see a line of blood in the water.
“You are never touching my Alice,” I say.
“I never…” Larry says but he’s got his jaw clenched like he’d say anything right now.
“For God’s sake, Angel.” The way my mama uses my name lets me know I’m not getting away with much the rest of the summer, but right now all I care about is Alice.
“I know you,” I say into his ear. “You can’t even speak to her, you got that?”
Most folks who’re stupid don’t know themselves and Larry’s no exception. But Elroy must be clawing some sense into him and Larry finally says, “Okay. Okay.” He opens his eyes, most likely to make sure I’m paying attention. “I said okay.”
I’ve watched Alice with Elroy enough to know he likes to have his back rubbed, so I give him some good friendly strokes down his dragon-y spine before I cover his eyes. I notice how Elroy’s skin looks like jewels next to those blue glass tiles. “We’re done, Elroy. The man said okay.” Elroy’s proving himself to be no fool and climbs onto my shoulder as I walk him over to Alice at the edge of the pool.