By Greg Richard Bernard
It’s the smell I notice more than anything. The room reeks of sweat, socks and desperation; all wrestling rooms do. I turn to watch my best friend, Tony, slide backwards through the window and lower himself to the matted floor. We’re in.
Tony’s smaller than I am. He wrestled at 140 this year, and if he hadn’t screwed up his shoulder I think he would’ve made some noise at state. As it is, he finished the season in street clothes.
I don’t wrestle. I swim, backstroke. My shoulders are solid, but my head isn’t on right. That’s what Coach says, anyway. I had some good meets, even broke 57 seconds in our home pool in January, but I couldn’t pull it together. Some Asian kid from Battle Creek ended any hope I had at state glory, touching me out for second in the 100 at regionals.
“Tell me again what we’re doing, Jim?” Tony asks.
“We’re meeting the girls at the pool,” is all I say for now.
“If anyone saw me unlock that window yesterday we’re dead.”
“If anyone had seen you they would have nabbed you right then, or locked it after you left.”
“I suppose,” he says, but even in the dark I can tell he’s second-guessing this.
Honestly, so am I.
It’s not like either Tony or I have that much to lose if we do get caught. Neither of us has ever been north of the 3.0 grade point average needed to make the Dean’s List and qualify for the academic scholarships the Rotary Club hands out each spring. Interest in Tony as a wrestler dried up after the deal with his shoulder and, if it wasn’t for a form letter from a division III coach down in Wisconsin, I wouldn’t think anyone had noticed I’d been swimming the last four years.
But we’ve only got two and a half months left in this place, and the thought of getting tossed this close to graduation suddenly seems pretty stupid. Besides, my mom works too hard, is too damn tired. What would something like that do to her?
On the other hand, and it’s a monster fucking hand, there’s Heather McMann. She and her best friend, Christy Woodall, are, at this very moment, waiting outside the doors to the pool. They each have a bottle of Mad Dog, and they want to go swimming. Oh yeah: It’s late March and neither of them brought bathing suits.
“Just follow me,” I say, and we push ourselves through the door and head down the hallway.
It’s Saturday evening, in that dead time of the school year after basketball and wrestling have ended, but before spring sports have begun. The track is still covered with gray snow, and the baseball team won’t start throwing in the gym for a week. Tonight there is absolutely nothing going on. I’m pretty sure my father is down at The Lucky Strike bowling alley, looking for a refill, shaking the ice at the bottom of his glass at the nearest waitress. My mother is on the overnight shift again up at St. Anthony’s, her white-soled shoes squeaking down the dimly-lit hallways. And my older brother Tommy is either getting high at his girlfriend’s house, or getting high in the cab of his truck. He delivers diesel fuel for my uncle, and he’s such a fuck-up I’m pretty sure he’s gonna blow himself to pieces one of these days, dropping chunks of his charred remains all over town. At least it’d be a way out.
I won’t end up like Tommy. I’ve got some options. True, I’m no Albert Einstein, and I won’t be coming home for Christmas vacation smelling like chlorine, sporting a shaved head and a Stanford Cardinals sweatshirt. But, once I walk that line in June, I am getting out of here. My dad keeps talking about the service. I don’t know, maybe. The Coast Guard might be all right. And no one knows it, not even my mom, but I did keep that letter from Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
So, what’s the point? For me, the struggle is not to remain invisible. The kids who stick around after graduation–kids like Tommy, probably even Tony–they sort of work themselves into the fabric of the community. Sure, they get laughed at when they cruise into the Tom Thumb parking lot on Saturday nights looking for a party, but at least that’s recognition. And the superstars–the quarterbacks, the show choir chicks, and the math team geeks–they’ll all go on and light up the sky with glittering accomplishments.
The hallway is getting warmer, and that sharp smell of chlorine–the one that always makes me slightly dizzy–has replaced the musty, close odor of the wrestling room.
“Be careful, okay,” I say as we make our way around the pool and over to the big double doors that open to the rear courtyard of the school. “There isn’t a lifeguard on duty tonight.”
“Who needs a guard? You seen the size of Christy’s life preservers?” Tony cups his hands and hovers them way out in front of his chest.
“Be nice,” I whisper, but we both crack up.
Heather McMann and Christy Woodall exist pretty much in the same social circle as Tony and me. If Steve Hildenbrand or someone else from the A-crowd throws a kegger after a football game in the fall, we’re all invited. Truthfully, the girls are probably invited. I mean, Christy does have a nice set. Tony and me, we’re the kind of guys who can show up. I’m not complaining, exactly. Not everyone can do that. I remember one night last summer these two band kids, Danny Buchanon and one of his friends, showed up at one of Steve’s parties. Everyone got really quiet when they made their way up to the fire. It was eerie. All those flame shadows dancing across Steve’s face. He started acting super polite to them, over-the-top polite, asking if they needed anything to drink, maybe eat. Told them if they saw any girls they liked to let him know. Danny’s buddy took the hint and vanished. Danny wasn’t so lucky.
Or, maybe it had nothing to do with luck. Maybe he woke up that morning and decided to prove something to himself. What ended up happening was that Steve and two guys from the offensive line dragged him into the woods, stripped him down to his underwear, and duct-taped him to an oak tree. A couple hours later some girls went and helped him get free. I guess he was crying pretty hard, and had mosquito bites all over his body. Pathetic.
Then again, everyone remembers that night. And we all know Danny Buchanon by name.
“It’s about time!” Christy says when I open the doors. “We’re freezing our asses off out here!”
“Sorry,” I offer. I’ve never been very good at talking with girls, unless I’m drinking and they’re drinking more. Tonight I might have a shot. But, for what I’m planning, I’m gonna need all the help I can get.
Tony grabs Christy by the wrist and they run off toward the shallow end.
“You want a drink?” Heather asks. She holds the Mad Dog out, and I take it from her hand. She wears rings on three of her fingers, and I can see the breath pour out of her mouth when she talks.
“Thanks,” I say.
I make a move to shut the doors and she steps forward at the same moment. We bump into one another, and then both slide sideways to make room. I move in the same direction she does, so we’re still in each other’s way. She leans in and kisses me on the mouth. Her nose is cold against my cheek and her tongue tastes like the wine, as sweet and strong as cough medicine.
Heather isn’t my girlfriend. I haven’t ever had one, unless you count Teri Hutchings. She and I were married during recess back in fourth grade. I can’t remember if we kissed, though, so I don’t think it was too official. As I recall, it didn’t last much more than a week. Tony stole a comb from her back pocket and threw it over the playground fence. When I refused to either retrieve the comb or beat Tony up, she called the whole thing off.
Heather likes swimming. Okay, I don’t know that for sure. But she and Christy come to the home meets. Maybe they just enjoy looking at us guys in our Speedos. We’ve been hanging out more, too. Without Tony or Christy. I’ve even driven her over to Bowersville for pizza and a movie a couple times. I’ve never seen her naked, and until tonight that’s been fine with me. She’s not that kind of girl, and she knows I’m not that kind of guy.
Tonight is different, though. Tonight I’m taking chances. I’m already over the line, so I figure I might as well go for broke.
“Is the water cold?” she asks.
“Nah,” I say, taking a hit off the bottle. “But don’t worry, I’ll keep you warm.” It’s a totally lame thing to say, and she just kind of smiles and makes her way over to the diving board. She removes her coat, boots, and socks before climbing up the roughened steps.
The pool’s surface is as smooth as an agate. The ceiling is high in here, and everything has an echo-y quality to it.
“So, what are we waiting for?” she says. She’s gently bouncing the end of the board, her legs flexing and relaxing inside her jeans.
Tony’s voice reverberates off the walls as he comes tearing down the length of the pool, whooping, stripped down to his underpants. When he’s within ten feet of me, he launches himself into the air and tucks his legs into a cannonball. I turn away just as a sheet of water sprays me. I look over to the diving board. Heather is wiping at her face. I think she calls him a dumb shit, but it’s hard to tell with her hands in the way.
“The judges award a 3.5,” Christy says from behind me.
“Yeah,” I add. “And most of that’s for I.Q.”
We all laugh, but the tension’s still there. Tony takes some water into his mouth and spits it in an arch across the pool. “It’s just clothes, guys.”
And I guess this obviousness is what the girls were waiting for, because, when I look back to the diving board, Heather already has her shirt unbuttoned and is stepping out of her jeans. She’s wearing a matching bra and panties, both festooned with what look to be pink and red roses. With a grace I’m sure will be burned forever in my memory, she kicks her pants across the open water. They fall in a soft pile against the wall. She wads her shirt into a ball and heaves it toward the jeans. The shirt comes unballed mid-flight, and one sleeve slips into the pool, gently swaying in the currents.
“Go, girl!” Christy says, and then she too has stripped off her clothes. Both girls dive into the water. I’m alone on deck, fully dressed. Tony and Christy meet up where the bottom begins to slope away toward the deep end. There is some light laughter, a splash of water in Tony’s face. They drift into the shadows lapping from the other side of the pool and all grows quiet.
Heather strokes over and hovers below me, sculling with her arms to keep in place. “You coming in, Jimmy?”
“Yeah,” is all I can say. I disrobe carefully, setting my clothes on top of my shoes. I’m wearing boxer shorts, and they suck to my thighs as I slip into the pool. Heather swims up to me and, placing her hands against the gutter, she corrals me. My fingers seek the small of her back, and we float together–smooth and wet and hard.
Later, the moon spills through the chlorine-stained windows high above. It reflects off the surface of the pool. Heather is so beautiful my heart aches.
“You looking forward to graduation?” she asks.
“I guess,” I say. Mostly I’ve avoided thinking about it; the weight of my indecision is too much to bear.
She nods, but it isn’t until much later that I realize just how much she understands me.
“What about you?” I ask. A single drop of water hangs from the end of her nose, shining like a blue pearl in the moonlight. “Big plans for the summer?”
“I’m sure I’ll be working down at KFC,” she says.
I wince. “You’re kidding, right? That place is so disgusting!”
“Oh, really?” she asks. “And what makes you such an expert?”
“Hey, whatever you have to do to make a buck, right? All I’m saying is my life is gonna be a hell of a lot more than greasy chicken buckets and fat chicks in sweat pants.” Tony hears this and barks, his laughter skipping over the water.
“Cute,” she says and pushes away. “Christy, I think it’s time we bailed,” she calls.
“No, wait!” I say. “Christ, it’s just a summer job, Heather. Lighten up.” I can hear the desperation in my own voice. I’m not sure what it is I’ve said to offend her, but I’m too close to pulling this evening off to let it get derailed. “I’m sorry, okay? But you can’t leave yet.”
“Why not?” She’s pulled herself out of the water, and sits with her knees together, arms crossed over her chest. Christy is making her way over to our side of the pool, and I can hear Tony making motor-boat sounds as he follows behind her.
“I need your underwear,” I say.
“Screw you, pervert!” Christy says, joining Heather poolside.
“Just listen for one second, all right?”
“I thought you knew me better than that,” Heather says. She has this look on her face that makes my heart ache all over again, but in a bad way. I need to handle this, and quickly.
“Look, it’s not that, I swear. We just need your bras and panties–we don’t want you.”
“Speak for yourself,” Tony says, and ducks as I backhand a fan of pool water at him.
“Why?” Heather asks.
“For the dummies,” I answer. “Coach Thompson keeps his CPR dummies right outside the pool office.” I turn and point down to the shallow end, where two large lockers loom from the shadows.
“And?” Christy asks.
I run my tongue over my lips, tasting the salty water. “And Tony and I are gonna dress four of them in our underpants, dump them into the deep end, and wait until Monday morning when Coach Thompson brings his Beginning Swimming class in here. Someone will see the bodies floating down there and come unglued. It’ll be all over school by second period.”
“No shit?” Tony asks. He starts laughing. “That’s fucking priceless, Jimbo! I thought you just wanted to come in here for a piece of ass!”
“Hey!” Heather and Christy shout together.
“Sorry,” Tony says, and lowers his mouth beneath the surface.
Heather turns back to me. “Why?”
“I don’t know. Why not?” I say.
“Bullshit. Answer me,” she says.
We stare at each other for a long time. I can hear drips of water hitting the pool beneath the diving board.
“Fine. This is my shot at being remembered, okay? Of being ‘that guy’ for once. It’s perfect. What are they going to do, trace our underpants? Even if word gets out that it was us, no one will be able to prove a thing. Hell, I don’t even need the credit right away. Just knowing people are talking about it is going to be sweet. We can fess up at the senior party in June.”
Now Christy begins to laugh. “It is pretty funny, Heather.”
Heather squints hard. “Okay, but on one condition. We change into our clothes in the locker room. We’ll bring our underwear out after we’re dressed.”
“Deal,” I say.
“And we want your underwear,” she adds.
“What? Why?” Tony asks.
“Fair’s fair, that’s why?” she says. “We’ll get changed and you guys can dress two dolls with our bras and panties. Then you give us your underpants and we’ll dress up the other two with your shorts while you’re down on the bottom positioning the first two mannequins. When you’re done, we’ll wait outside while you get dressed.”
Tony and I look at each other and smile. This is going to be perfect.
The girls grab their clothes and head into the locker room. Tony and I exit the pool and retrieve the life-sized dummies. We drag them around the pool to the deep end and wait. There are giggles coming from inside the women’s room, and then the door opens and Heather and Christy come out. They are dressed, wearing their coats and boots. Heather’s hair is slicked back, and the moonlight shines off the water soaking the shoulders of her jacket.
“Here,” she says, and both girls toss us their underwear.
Tony and I get the panties on the mannequins without any difficulty, but the girls need to help us fasten the bras.
“Amateurs,” Christy says, and she and Heather share a laugh.
“Ready?” I ask Tony.
“Let’s do it,” he says, reaching for a doll.
“Hold on, Sporto,” Heather says. She places a boot on top of the dummy I’m beginning to drag into the water. “Lose the boxer shorts.”
Tony and I slip into the pool and strip out of our underpants. I hug to the wall, suddenly vulnerable.
“Okay, you guys get them into our shorts while we drown these two,” I say.
“Done,” Heather says.
Halfway down, I need to stop and de-pressurize. I grab my nose, pinch it shut, and force my ears to pop. It’s hard to see in the darkened water, but Tony is looking at me with a huge grin, his face obscured in a silver bouquet of bubbles. We get to the bottom and kick over to the drain. The CPR mannequins have hollow chest cavities, and it takes a few moments for them to fill with water. By the time they’re properly placed, I need to kick hard to the surface.
The first thing I notice is the steam rolling off the water. Through the veil of fog, I can see Heather and Christy standing between the open doors. The second thing I notice is that the other two dummies are still naked. And the third thing is that Heather not only has my underpants, but is holding my neatly folded pile of clothes.
“What the hell?” Tony asks. Christy’s arms are full of his things.
“Okay, girls. Very funny. Now hand them back.” Again, I hear the twinge of panic in my voice. Neither girl moves. “Really, joke’s over.”
“Let me ask you something, James,” Heather says to me. “What does your mother do for a living?”
“My mom? She’s a nurse. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You know what my mom does?”
“What?” I find myself asking, unable to take my eyes off my clothes. Both girls have everything, even our shoes.
“She owns Serenity’s Kentucky Fried Chicken, asshole.”
“Heather, I swear to–”
“You know what you were saying about fat chicks in sweat pants, James? Well, at least they have pants.” There is the faintest of smiles touching the corners of her mouth.
“Later, boys,” Christy says.
And then they’re gone.
Tony and I float in the pool for several minutes, clouds of steam billowing about us.
“Jim,” he finally says.
“Yeah,” I answer.
“My car keys were in my pants pocket.” His voice is philosophical.
“Of course they were,” I say.
“Jim?” he asks after another moment.
“We’re never gonna live this down, are we?”
“Nope.” And suddenly I’m laughing, the sound of my voice bouncing off the walls and rising with the steam that streams outside to meet the thin, cold air.
Greg Richard Bernard's work has appeared in Voices Magazine, Open Wide, Red Weather, Fire Ring Voices, Whitetail Fanatic, Minnesota Monthly, Poetry Motel, and Wisconsin Review, as well as online at Defenestration, Front Street Review, Prism Quarterly, Flashquake, Dragonfly Spirit, Megaera, and Miller's Pond. He also has pieces in the anthologies Poetry for Students and the best-selling Chicken Soup for the Golfer's Soul. He has work forthcoming in Gray's Sporting Journal and Swell. Greg won Minnesota Monthly's 17th annual Tamarack Award for short fiction in 2002, and was adjudicated the 1997 Award of Excellence by the Central Illinois Chapter of the National Society of Arts and Letters. He is under contract with Loonfeather Press to publish his first novel, Alpha Summer, in summer 2005.
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