Trigger warning: death of a child.
The road by our house was sand-sealed, not paved. It would heave and tilt every spring, shedding gravel and tar clumps for the graders, men, and dump trucks to set right again.
The kids in our neighborhood were friendly enough, and when we weren’t in our backyards, the road was our playground. We played Red Rover until too many scraped knees made tearing up and tossing frisbee-shaped chunks of sand-seal more fun. We never got in trouble for that.
Trouble unlike any we had ever known before started on a sunny Saturday morning in a poor neighborhood where my grandparents lived. A family was moving into the rental next door, and my sister and I were supposed to be friendly with a new girl called Gracie. We wanted to please our parents, but really, we weren't interested. We already had our friends, and it was summer, our time for adventure.
Banging the front door behind us, my sister and I raced to see who could be out on the front lawn and into the sunshine first. We tripped down wooded steps to the front yard, collapsing into a heap of limbs, tickling or being tickled, laughter in our ears.
“Stand up!” commanded my sister, too soon exhausted.
“Why should I?” I demanded.
“You’re covered in grass stains!” she replied.
The grass was wet, and we should have known better. We tried smearing the grass stains off our clothes, but it was useless. Mom would have so much to say. It would be a lecture, for sure.
Speaking of lectures, the movers next door needed one. Men tossed furniture and boxes off a beat-up truck and dumped them on the grass. I wondered why the movers didn't take everything into the rental. My sister whispered, “Welfare People,” and I nodded, trying to understand.
A strange girl in a ripped blue and white polka dot dress stood in the heaps of old things, lamp stands, and furniture. We knew we could play with her, but she kept staring at us in a strange way.
My sister giggled when the girl, who must have been Gracie, finally gave us a dirty look. My sister dared her to stop staring. Gracie double-dared her back. Then, my sister said that new kids should show more respect. She was going to teach Gracie a lesson.
“Brownie!” my sister yelled as she walked over to her.
“Come closer, girl!" Gracie said.
My sister was way taller than Gracie. But just when I thought she would push Gracie down, Gracie smacked my sister clean across the face!
Everything went so fast. My sister wanted revenge. Her nosebleed all over her poncho! Gracie said she had only started to dish! I wanted to run. Run far away. Then a mover got mad and used words so bad. Never such bad words before! There were no cats around. No cats fighting, just two girls, my sister on the ground. So she had to get up! Get up! Such a pretty poncho, all covered in blood!
The mover was so tall and strong, with tattoos on his big hairy arms, his cigarette hanging from his mouth between my sister and—
"Cut that out! Get up off the ground, whoever you are!" yelled the mover.
Parents were all of sudden outside. Everyone was apologizing. Gracie gets a hug from her Mom. Where's my hug? I started crying so much, I couldn't stop till my chest hurt.
My sister jumped on my bed.
“Rise and shine, make the day mine!” she yells.
I kicked at her but missed. She's wearing the poncho again.
“I thought the nosebleed ruined that poncho! Get off my bed, you moron!”
“Mom used special yellow soap. See, all better!”
She hopped off my bed and showed me where the blood stain was. She thought it was better.
I was looking for my clothes, which were still on the floor.
“Aren’t you going to leave now?” I asked.
“Oh, alright,” she said. “You better hurry up. Dad’s not going to wait for you. If you want to earn money at the store for Natal Day, that is.”
In the car, Dad's mad. I ran out, no shower, no breakfast. We had to get to Grandad’s grocery by nine o’clock.
Later, at the store, Dad is at the cash register, while my job is to put pop bottles in the water cooler. Sticky bottles had to go in that smelly water that only got changed once a month. Even the towel I used to wipe those glass bottles for customers smelled bad. Tuttle's pharmacy had dime a bottle air-cooled drinks. So much better.
Most days, I was sweating so much in the store that I liked the cellar a lot. The cellar was where I got the bottles from. It had a dirt floor for storage and creepy spiders. It smelled like really old dirt. You could still see where the coal was dumped into the basement from a window. Except it wasn't a window, just a wooden door kind of window. I hauled drinks from where the coal used to go. Working at the store was mostly boring, except for the cellar.
Gracie and her friends arrived around eleven o'clock. I remember the time because when a crime is about to be committed, you should always know the time, just like on TV. I almost ducked into the cellar. But Dad didn't like me doing that. He always said you had to face problems in life.
Those girls were in old, faded bathing suits. I wished I could go swimming! Banook Lake was down the hill. Gracie was at my cooler so quick. She lifted the lid.
“Don’t you have no Mountain Dew?” she says.
“I’ll get some,” I say.
She slams the lid. “Oh, don’t bother. You expect me to drink warm pop?”
After Gracie slammed the lid, Dad's all upset again. Gracie’s friends were buying penny candy near the cash, plunking down one penny at a time and fussing as girls do over what they want. Why is he mad? I'm not buying penny candy! I'm not allowed to have any! Oh, it's Gracie he's mad about. "Treat her as special," Mom and Dad said after the fight.
I lift the cooler lid, fishing a slimy red bottle out of the water. “Look here,” I say. “This here is cream soda! You people like that sort of thing, don’t you?”
Now Gracie gets mad. Her eyes get all blotchy, with her teeth so white.
Then that darn red bottle is a rocket, blasting off like astronauts on TV. One bump, two, then splashdown! Pieces of glass so sharp, mustn't touch. Way too sharp, with foam and hissing bubbles everywhere.
Gracie laughs, slapping her knees and wiping her eyes like she is crying. And I started laughing too! Only Dad and our "permanent customer," as Grandad used to call them, look mad. Gracie and her friends leave the store, still laughing, going down McCormick to the beach.
Our permanent customer was a woman at the pay phone. Sort of like my Mom but way older. "Young'uns have no respect these days," she says. "Somethin' bad happenin' soon, mark my words!"
She is scary! Halloween lady, I call her to myself. She keeps staring like she wants me to say something. But I just shrug my shoulders and try to think of a joke. Then, she's talking on the phone like nothing happened! All this after an hour on our payphone for a nickel!
But Grandad is always okay with people being in the store. Pay phone people, stop robbers! I don't know how they do it; it's a mystery, like the candied ants tin that Grandad would try to sell just to say he had done it! Sell a can of sticky dead ants, I mean. What's it like to be covered in candy? It must be too much of a good thing like Uncle Clyde says all the time—
"Don't just stand there!" Dad shouts. "Get the mop from the back stairs. This time, bring the pail. You can do the whole floor while you are at it.”
"Sorry Dad," I say.
"Never mind, sorry! Get the mop!"
My grandparents had a party on Natal Day to celebrate our town’s birthday. Nanna made sweet rolls and snacks, with candies in trays on every tabletop. It was “help yourself, make yourself at home,” so different from regular days. On the deck beside the kitchen, you could see Banook Lake, the beach, the rides, everything! And we got to drink pop! The grownups had alcohol with their pop. My sister said alcohol made adults act stupid. Maybe that was why Aunt Crystal and Uncle Clyde were talking so loud.
Cigarette smoke, Grandad’s cigar, and Dad’s cigarillos, all that grey smoke, headed out to the Natal Day fairground just below our deck. Thank goodness the store was closed for the day! We watched crowds go by our corner store on the other side of McCormick Street, across from us.
Dad kept telling Grandad how we could have "barricaded" the store and made "a mint" selling treats and snacks out the store's front door for double the regular price. But Grandad wasn't interested.
"Money isn't everything!" he said.
That sounded great, like telling everyone who might bug us to leave us alone for once! Besides, I liked watching people, dads opening their wallets to buy ride tickets, and moms fighting with kids who wouldn't listen. But I should have known it wouldn't last. My sister was banging the deck railing with her foot.
“I’m bored!” she said.
“What? Natal Day is here!” I said. “Mom told us to have lunch first. After that, we can have all the fun we want!”
I had a medicine vial full of quarters I had saved for months from working at the store. I saved all my money for my three favorite rides: the Tilt-a-Whirl, the Scrambler, and the Roundup. The Roundup had only these little chains to keep kids safe. I asked Dad how the Roundup kept kids from falling to the ground when they were upside down in that spinning wheel. He said the chains were just for show and that "Centrifugal Force" kept kids safe. My sister said that if the Roundup ever had a problem and got stuck, all the kids in that ride would fall to the ground. My sister was so smart. She wouldn't go on any rides, no matter how much I asked her to.
“Let’s have some real fun!” she whispered.
I got upset. “No way. You're not getting me in trouble on Natal Day!”
“Will you keep your voice down!” she said. Lucky for us, all the adults were busy watching Dad at the Crown and Anchor game, the ice in their drinks making this tinkling sound every time they laughed.
“I need to sneak out, and I need your help. You don’t have to come. Just say that I’m helping Nanna in her bedroom.”
Nanna wasn’t well and she always liked having people read to her. My sister’s plan was perfect.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I just saw her. She’s in that awful swimsuit of hers—”
“On Natal Day?” I said. Everyone knew the beach was closed.
“Right. Now, remember the plan.” She got up, brushed by where I was sitting, said “Excuse me” a few times, and went into the kitchen. From there, I knew she could take off out the front door when no one was looking.
I went into the kitchen to get another cola. Mom had her back to me, making ham sandwiches with toothpicks, cheese, and pickles at the kitchen counter.
“Where’s your sister?” she asked.
“Upstairs, with Nanna,” I lied.
I had to be bored now—poor me. I sat down at the kitchen table. But it wasn't long before I saw Dad running up, two deck stairs at a time, barely closing the screen door behind him. "Quit while you are ahead," he said, so I guessed he was finished with that game he was playing. With a look from Mom, he stubbed his cigarillo in the kitchen table ashtray and sat down opposite me.
“I’m ahead ten dollars!” he said.
“Great!” I said. “How did you do it?”
“Simple probability. Wait until either the crown or the anchor has not paid off for several turns of the wheel and bet on either one!”
I desperately wanted to go and try it myself, but I didn’t dare ask because my sister wasn’t back yet.
Aunt Beatrice and Uncle Bob poked their heads in. It looked like the party was moving inside. Uncle Bob leaned on the counter beside the kitchen stove.
“George, tell us one of your war stories," he said.
Dad spent the next half hour talking. He used to be a fighter pilot during the Cold War. So, he had lots of exciting stories to tell. My favorite was when Soviet jets chased him when he got lost over East Germany. I would help him tell his stories, jumping in with the right words at the right moment. But telling a lie about my sister to my Mom made me nervous. I wasn't having any fun at all.
Mom noticed first. “What’s wrong, dear? Are you hungry? Nanna won’t mind if we call your sister down so you can eat lunch.”
“I’m fine! Really, I am!” I yelled.
No one else noticed, but from where I was sitting in the kitchen, I could see my sister running up McCormick as fast as she could, dodging people and nearly tripping. She headed straight for our deck stairs. What on earth? Gracie wasn't chasing her. Now, we would be in big trouble for sure. No rides for me now!
Before I could say or do anything, she burst into the kitchen from the deck. She didn't even close the screen door.
“Gracie’s drowned!” she yelled, staring at Dad.
The words she said made no sense to me. I could hear the kitchen clock ticking as Mom looked scared and Uncle Bob got so serious. My Dad's eyes got so strange looking, too, like he knew he had to do something right away, his chair making this huge scraping sound as he got up and went to the door.
Of course, Gracie would be saved! Nothing bad could happen on Natal Day! It would be another story we will tell about my Dad!
But my sister was in his way. Still in the doorway, she had her arms out, spreading her fingers.
“It’s no use! There’s a whole crowd at the beach!” she yelled. Then she started bawling so loud. Mom got her some Kleenex.
Dad stopped suddenly, his shoulders shaking as if he would cry. Then he sighed and turned away from the door, looking at Mom. He looked so lost I couldn't stand it. I jumped from my chair and raced onto the deck.
To tell you the truth, the worst thing was the sound that the crowd made. We didn't know what everyone else seemed to know. The rides were empty, and no one was lined up for them, everyone staring at the lake. As people talked to perfect strangers, an ambulance nosed through the crowd. And everyone's squirmy kids had to be quiet too, moms putting their hands over their eyes as Gracie’s limp body was lifted out of the lake by some men all dripping wet in their T-shirts and shorts.
The crowd sounded like the orchestra I saw at the bandshell last summer, getting louder and louder, a "crescendo," I think they call it. But this wasn't music. It was wailing and screaming like I had never heard before.
Kids weren't allowed to see it, but my problem was that I had to put my hands over my ears even though we were nearly a quarter mile from the beach! Years later, I would try to make sense of that sound, the screaming of groups of characters in movies like Titanic being the closest thing to what I heard that day.
I didn't want to ask her, really I didn't. But before Gracie's body was taken from the lake, how did my sister know she had drowned? I turned it into a game. I would be Jack Webb on Dragnet. Just the facts, ma'am, as they say!
Boy, she was tough! She kept saying that she only told Gracie not to swim at the beach. Then, supposedly, Gracie gave the finger and ran off down the shoreline towards the sluice gate.
Hmm, I say. The water is so dangerous there. Why would Gracie swim near the sluice gate? My sister didn't know. You would say that, I say! Then, real sly-like, I asked her to explain why she was throwing her poncho in the garbage if she was innocent. She said she didn't like it anymore. She didn't even get permission to throw it out. Guilty as charged! I said. We both laughed over that one.
Later that summer, the town paved the road by our house. It was a botched job. The center of the road was as low as the sides. My Dad tried telling the contractor while it was being graded for the asphalt, but the contractor wouldn’t listen.
The pavement went down, black with tar, steaming and hot. I saw grimy men working it over, sweating and cursing their luck to have to labor on a sweltering summer day. When it rained, I knew the water would run all over our road, never going where it should. And I never tossed sand-seal like a frisbee again.