Katrina M Barnett2,355
1 LMU Drive MSB 6689
Los Angeles, CA 90045
Summertime in Denton Texas was not the picturesque Mayberry that they'd like you to believe it was for all of us growing up, but it seemed close enough at the time. Those few, fleeting summers that we all longed for during the lagging hours behind a desk and a pulitzer-prize winner (which was almost always overrated in my opinion) dissolved so quickly into sweat and pool chlorine and dog drool and dried up grass that ruined many a pair of shoes, but it was still glorious in its own way. I was busy in those days; busy writing novels I thought would make me the child prodigy of the decade, busy discovering how the internet worked when my parents let me use it, busy trying to determine my exact bra size. I was obsessed with growing my hair out so I could give it to cancer kids, jumping the gun by painting an unfinished treehouse, mowing lawns and trying to interest my little sister in the plastic kiddie pool; a distraction which always seemed to be so much to her liking that she ended up using it for all of her hygienic needs. Those were the days of freckled cheeks (for me) and tanned shoulders (for my genetically gifted playmates). The years after and after and after would leak and bleed into one messy decade of a rut in which Christmases became indistinguishable, and from all of my eager acquaintances I would retain only one close friend-- but those summers were made to be pocketed, scrapbooked, pressed and savored and smelled.
That summer in particular I was enjoying my second year of being on the local swimteam. I was a respectably fast swimmer, even won a few meets in my time. My breaststroke- the most horrendously named swim-stroke so far as a group of adolescents is concerned-- was superb and swift. In the mornings my mom would nudge me out of bed, drop me off at 8 at the local swimming pool- a nice, gated spot with a snack bar, diving boards and a sizable blue water slide-- and I would swim laps to our coach's hearts content. Doing swimteam was just the thing to do once you went as far as you could go with swimming lessons, and it was fun, too, because you found yourself being trained by the same guys that taught you how to tread water when you were six years old. My group trainer was the ineffable George, he of the funny voice and incredibly tan chest. I never saw him without his visor-like sunglasses and we all called him George of the Jungle, though the only connection to the cartoon baboon man was his name. After George let us go- we usually got to wind down by doing a few cannonballs off the boards- Mom would be there without fail to shuttle me home. By then the sun was showing its stuff and I was due for my downtime. A popsicle was usually procured, and then a nice, relaxing hour or two of Little House on the Prairie was in order. Something about Laura Ingles' face and orange stained wrappers seemed to blend together so well in those months.
As if two hours in the morning were not enough, it was of course the fashion for the families to pack up their little ones and toss them into safe, life guarded waters. Because of my sister's age my family rarely went together, but I usually hitched rides here and there. There were sunburns aplenty, and because of the crowds come mid-day the pool waters were not even all that cold, but we didn't care. It was a necessary part of life.
One afternoon, mid-July, our friends the Ringwalds invited me to come along with their four kids- Ashley and Aubrey, a pair of twins my age, and Meg and Jake, 6 and 7. I wasn't a huge fan of the Ringwalds; I never knew quite how to behave around Ashley and Aubrey. They seemed to me like beauty queens in training, and they were already caring about their clothes and asking me if they had things stuck in their teeth. Nevertheless, Aubrey knew how to knock out a genius cannonball and between the two of us we could try at least a few more newer games before Marco Polo ended up dominating. So I polished my goggles, refreshed my sun block which may not have worn off since the morning, and accepted.
The place was packed. The grassy and shady areas were jammed with families coddling their babies or eating nachos or keeping a wary eye out on their kids or on other people who might be keeping an eye on their kids. The wading pool was jammed with toddlers admiring their own gravity, the diving boards were quaking from stress, and beach balls flew every which way. As we searched for a place to start, a familiar group waved to us. "Hey guys!" Andrew Mitchell, the skinniest freckled kid I have ever seen in my life, was surrounded by two boys I knew from church. There was Juan, a quiet boy, looking relieved to be away from his family of eleven, and Arnie, the kid who refused to let go of his baby fat. The three of them nodded at us to come join them. Aubrey, who had a major crush on Juan, was quick to comply while the rest of us straggled along behind. "Go to the shallow end," I heard Aubrey mutter to their youngest siblings. Jake made some sort of protest but he and Meg finally took leave.
We congregated together around Ashley's Disney Princess beach towel (which she was much too old for) and exchanged greetings. A lot of "boy, is it hot!" seemed to be floating around, as well as some criticism directed at me for my surprise use of the a-word in conversation (I tried to tell them it was in the Bible but nobody seemed to believe it). Finally, Arnie jumped up with sudden joy. "Look!" he pointed at the waterslide. "The line got really short!" We followed his gaze. A "short" line for the most sacred of all poolside activities meant somewhere in the range of 10 people, but still, this was somewhat momentous. Before I had time to toss my sun block the gang was on their way, walking as quickly as they could, the girls giggling. As I followed them, a bit more slowly, I noticed a kid fall into step behind me. "You're not going to go in the pool first?" I looked over my shoulder but kept walking. "Hm?" He asked me again. "It's going to be cold if you just fall in like that." He was another funny looking, dark-headed boy. His swim trunks looked too long for his legs, like he had borrowed them from his dad. As I curiously studied his drippy curly hair that flopped over his face I realized I knew him, vaguely, as the younger brother of Mike, one of my swimteamers. Mike was a jerk, one who had recognized early the potential his build and perfect nose could be, but his brother, this kid, was always the quiet one, sitting on the side of the pool with a book, occasionally watching the girls on the boards, occasionally making awkward attempts at cartwheels in the morning sprinkler-kissed grass.
"What's your name again?" I asked him as we strolled to the beckoning line. "Jackson," he said, quickly. I smiled at him. "You wanna go down the water slide with us?" He nodded back eagerly, as if he had been waiting for my invitation. Juan and Andrew greeted him as we approached, turns out we all kind of knew each other. Arnie informed me that before I had reached them fat lady was going to take my place in line, but they scared her off. Ashley declared her sudden desire for an ice cream sandwich-"napoleon style", and the line moved forward.
The funny and great thing about the water slide at the public pool was its size- it wasn't steep, and it wasn't huge. Just a nice, winding slide with a few dips and turns. In the "landing area" of the pool was a rope that circled the slide to prevent kids from getting too close to the slide's ejectors, but the rope was constantly surrounded by those too timid or lazy to take the plunge themselves, or those who had already and who wanted to cheer or jeer their friends as they twisted and plummeted into the water. The anticipation of the splash and the pressure to make an impressive landing swelled within all of us-- there was so much more to a water slide than met the eye.
We were on the stairs now. Arnie, the fat one, had decided to muscle his way to the top, and he was the first to go. He put his goggles over his face-- which you were not supposed to do-- and obnoxiously made the peace sign as he flung himself down on his belly. We all cheered and stepped up. Ashley, her long blonde hair now blinding in the sun, watched to make sure Arnie had made touchdown, then, giggling, sent herself on her way. We stepped up. The metal stairs were hot and my feet were dry; I tried to step in puddles left behind from those who went before. As we watched Ashley's splash, I turned to check that Jackson was still in tow. He smiled up at me now as if he was sure we were to be lifelong friends. "I love this slide," I think he said. "Are your parents around?" I asked, as we stepped up to watch Aubrey take her place. "No," he mumbled, trying to wring out a handful of curls. "I just walk here sometimes." I nodded, understanding, though I immediately thought my parents would never let me do such a thing. "It's okay, mine aren't here, either." I looked back at him again, but he seemed to be somewhere else.
Aubrey was already in the water, and Andrew was on his way. As he sped around the curves, his tiny little body would occasionally lift into the air, to his shock. I gave him an encouraging cheer as he barely made a splash. Juan went next, taking a deep breath and giving me the thumbs up as the water jets carried him away. He made a big woop- probably the most noise I've ever heard from him- as he landed- and at last it was my turn. "I'll see you down there," I said to Jackson, excitedly. He waved me to the top. "I'll clap for you!" He called after me, but I was off. The first touch of water on my back was an instant, wonderful shock, and as I braced myself I felt the anticipation of a pebble in a slingshot- before I knew it I was spiraling at the speed of light, and it was all over, and I was in the pool. I didn't hear Jackson cheer for me, but I'm sure he followed through.
As soon as I resurfaced I made my way under the rope and into the great, noisy, sloshing chaos that kids so delight in. Arnie and Andrew and Ashley had already moved on, but Juan and Aubrey clung to the rope and smiled at me through splashes and wet hair. "Its just over so fast!" I was saying as Jackson appeared, flung from the slide and into the roped-off water. We cheered, though we were jostled to one side by a group of older boys, and when the next kid crashed into the pool we cheered again. It wasn't until the third kid flew from the slide that we realized that something, something in this great, chaotic throng was not right. "Where's Jackson?" I asked no one in particular. I thought maybe he was on the other side, and strained my neck to see. No- there he was- still in the rope circle- I recognized his moptop. We called to him, that the lifeguards would get mad at him, that he better haul butt, but he didn't move. Actually, he didn't move at all. We stared. "Where's his mom?" I suddenly became aware of Juan's voice in my ear, but I just shook my head. The forth kid landed, this time bumping into Jackson on the way up. "Hey--" he shouted, giving a shove, but Jackson's head did not change it's downward position. Finally, I heard myself calling Jackson's name. We all struggled against the rope-huggers to get closer to him. I saw Juan motion to the lifeguard, who lept from his place to assist, but the noisy crowd still did not part, the splashing, the pushing, the shoving did not stop. For a minute, I thought I saw Jackson raise his face to look at me and I almost breathed. And then we saw the blood.
My mom came to pick me up that day, and didn't make me cover my seat with a towel. She said I looked dry enough. We had beans and cornbread for dinner, and I went to bed early.
I quit the swimteam the next year because I hated waking up before 7 in a town where the nights were as hot as the swelter of the midafternoon. Little House On The Prarie was bumped by Hawaii Five-O, and I got fat. I still saw the same kids around town- at the bookstores, the coffee shops, on dates. Some of them are married, some of them don't even drive. The last time I saw Aubrey was at a party where an idiot frat boy toppled out of a tree- he was fine, but I saw Aubrey's face when he fell and it was enough. I caught her eye afterward, and we shared a cautious moment before she left with a gaggle of pawing nerds and I went out the back gate alone.
Our summer season ended with Jackson Gould, and summers after it did not have the same smell.