Swimmers Club

25th February 2017


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Treading Water

Check which is the shallow end and note the point where you will be out of your depth.


Who: Kate Jayroe
Where: Portland, Oregon
What: Writer, Editor


The cold dew makes my bare feet ache. It's sunny out. We keep walking past the chicken coop, past our busted-up camper, and way back toward the wood. Jay said we could go back here whenever we want, since there's trails. Our dog Bear is buried back here. There's a pile of rocks and I picked the shiniest ones I could find for Bear when he went. It's been months, now.

I'm taking us to the deer stand. Orange juice taste from breakfast is still the taste in my mouth, and when I breathe just right, it's in my nose too. The stand is a little wet but not as wet as the ground. The bottom step is broke so I have to hop in order to get to the second one and climb up. There's chains around the stand. I climb up first and tell you to hop like I did. You're scared, I can tell. You scare easy. But you'll do what I say because I'm five months older and you're my play guest at my house. And you do. You climb up and sit beside me and sniff in the snot that's trying to get out of you. Then you wipe it with your shirt sleeve.

We barely slept at all last night. We played secret games. One of them is where we crawl like babies down the hallway and listen to Deddy asleep in his chair. Mama sleeps in the bed, but it's too far to crawl. The first time you came over to play, I showed you Mama and Deddy's bed and it wasn't made. You touched Deddy's side and made a face when you felt the grit feeling. Sand. You said it just like that. Sand. With no surprise in your voice.

Another secret game: We sign onto my AIM account and talk to strangers in chat rooms. We tell them we are naked models and that we go to Russia just to go shopping and have fashion shows. We tell them to unzip their pants. We tell them we want to "cyber". That's the code for sex. When they say they want to too, we say: Your attention, please. This is George W. Bush and you are officially under arrest for the next forty years for talking dirty to a man like me.

We look out over and into the wood, and off to the side, where the wood is kind of there but then there's nothing but rolls of green grass and little yellow pops of Dandelion starting to open for the day. That's where the telephone poles are. Seeing this makes me think of the 1980s even though I wasn't alive then. Maybe it all would have looked newer back then. Or something.

You make your fingers look like a gun and point at the sky, then point at the ground, then point at yourself. You make the gun noises too, little pow pow pew pew noises. You say, My big brother is giving me his BB gun when he gets his first shot gun. A 12 gauge. I say, What will you do with that? And you say, Shoot some squirbles. We laugh and then we both are pointing our gun fingers at the sky, at the ground, at each other, making the noises and I snort because I start to laugh so hard that I lose my breath a little.

We hear a rustley noise. One of the kitties is here in the wood. I see its tail and I know it is Henry our wildest of our wild kitties. We don't get our kitties fixed. We don't bring them inside either. Right now, we have eighteen. I counted just yesterday. Mama says not to name them because I get so sad when one of them goes. But I keep a journal of all the kitty names. There are forty-six names in there. Five of them are Henry, but they're probably all related. So it's ok.

You start to talk. You say, How are we going to get down from here? I say, The same way we came up, duh. You're already worried about coming down and we just got up here. You think too much. You say, Will you go first and show me? And I say, I ain't gonna do that I climbed up first. You have to climb down first. You say, Ain't isn't a word. You're always telling me I'm wrong for something. Stuck up. I say, if ain't ain't a word then why is it in the dictionary? And then you're quiet again. We breathe in and sigh out at the same exact time.

You look so funny trying to climb down. You take way too long turning your whole body so you're facing out and not down and trying to crawl down like a crab or something. When you're only half down I scramble down and kick you off the ladder with my feet. You cry out like a baby. But you're fine. You shake yourself off. The whole ground is dead leaves.

We walk back past the camper the other way and we go in the garage. We make furniture out of these big wooden things. They look like the circle that thread wraps around. But they're big. And made out of wood. Wires go on it for Deddy's job. We use them like footstools and we play that we have an office in here in this garage. It is an office for nail technicians. We pick up two of the kitties and sit them down on the stools and rub their claws over and over and ask them questions. I ask my kitty, Sunny: What season is your favorite season? Where do you go to school? And you ask your kitty, Tiger: Have you read any good books lately? Do you like music? And we laugh so hard that we can't hold them down anymore and they run off. They hiss as they go.

We take turns pushing each other on the rope swing. You ask, Do you think you'll ever get married? And I say, Duh it's what happens when you turn eighteen. It's the law. You ask, Who do you think you will marry? And I say, probably one of my cousins who is so close to not being my cousin that it wouldn't matter anymore. I ask, Who do you think you will marry? And you say, I will meet a strange man in a strange place on my eighteenth birthday and then we will ride horses until we get to the beach. And I say, That's not realistic.

Deddy is at work and Mama is at work and Jay is at band practice and Christine is at a friend's house. Ever since Christine became a teenager I see her so much less. She is always staying with one friend or another friend and once I saw her carrying a tampon to the bathroom. She wears Wet N Wild mascara and lets me play with it sometimes. She says she will dye both my hair and your hair with Kool-Aid for my birthday.

We go into the kitchen and I take out the Pop Tarts. Strawberry. I show you my secret. This is kind of like secret games but it's the snack edition. I take pats of butter and put them on each tart and put them in the microwave for ten seconds. You look at me like it's gross and you say, My Mom won't buy us processed foods at my house. And I say: I'm sorry for you, then. And you eat the Pop Tart anyway and love it because it's great.

We go back to my room. I say, We are going to play another kind of secret game. You say, What are the rules? And I say, get on the bed on your tummy. You do it because you most always do what I say even if you sass me a little bit about one part of it or tell me I'm wrong about one part of it. I tell you, this is what happens when people get married. Take off your pants. You get really stiff for a second but then you do it. I take off my jeans and I rub my panties on top of the back of your panties. Mine are from Limited Too. Yours are cloudy and dork-looking. I'm on top of you and you're wiggling a lot and together we are like one medium sized snake on my bed quilt. We are also like two wild kitties, attached at your back part and my front part. I say, this is what adults do every day after they get home from work. You say, No wonder one of them always has to sleep in a chair, then. I punch your back, hard. The wind goes out of you for a second. I take down your panties and tell you to flip over. You say, No. I punch you again and then you flip over. I kiss your triangle part all around the top and I leave some butter grease on the skin. You stop squirming and just watch me. And now, you close your eyes.

Jay comes home from band practice. He has braces that are Clemson colors and he can't wait to get them off. He says his girlfriend doesn't like to kiss him with his braces and that tenth grade is way too old for braces. When he said that, I remember Mama said, That's a good thing, Jay. You shouldn't open your barn door for anyone until you know you're going to be with her for a long, long time. Until you've married her. Jay looks sweaty. He says to you, Mama said I could drive to drop you off today. He says to me, And you're gonna come with and see how good your big brother can drive a Stick. We jump up and down, excited.

The first time you came over to play, Jay was starting middle school. We were just six. We were eating corn on the cob at dinner. Deddy wouldn't stop spinning the Lazy Susan and coughing. Jay said, Mama, how did you know you were in love with Deddy? And Mama laughed and said, you know, he's like an old pair of shoes you can't throw out because you had such good times in them, even though they're getting worn. Deddy stopped spinning the Lazy Susan and said, Yep. You started laughing. It wasn't your funny laugh. It was your scared laugh.

After Papa died, Jay got his truck. It's old and curvier than the trucks that come out today. It's bright blue and the inside has a big stick with a ball on the end of it. All around the stick is black leather that is like a skirt for the stick and it wiggles around when the stick moves. The whole seat is just a long leather bench that's got a bunch of duct tape on it to keep it from splitting in half. Papa used to take me and Jay and Christine to get hot dogs from Kinard's Snack Shack up on top of Kinard hill, where all the Kinards live. The hot dogs would leave the bun pink and that's how I knew they were the good kind of hot dogs to eat.

Jay opens the truck door and we hop in one after the other. I sit on the end and you sit in the middle and Jay reaches across you to Frog me in the arm. Hey! Hey yourself, he says back. I reach across you to Frog him back but he blocks my fist with his hand like it is paper in paper rock scissors. You reach out both your fists and Frog us both in the arm at the same time. Sneaky.

Jay starts the truck and it sounds like Papa sounded, like it's having a hard time breathing right. Jay starts to drive down the hill that is our driveway but as soon as we move we jerk back and stop moving again. Then we start moving again but right after stop again. This keeps going and every time we dip forward a little like the truck might crash but it's barely moving so what could it ever crash into? Finally we go steady, but there's a big screechy sound like in the movies. Damn, says Jay. Don't Cuss! We both shout back.

We are finally moving steady down to the road and the truck bumps us up and down as we go. This is what horse and buggy times were like, you say. How do you know? I ask. Were you alive then? No, you say. But I read books about it and I watched the Secret Garden and the horses bumped up and down just like this. She's right, Jay says. Little Brainy over here knows her stuff. I Frog you in the arm and look down, pretending like nothing happened at all.

It's about eight miles to your house. One time, we made Mama track it on her car and she made the numbers zero at your house when we picked you up and we all watched it go until we got to my house. We go over the bridge and look out to the side at the lake. There are boats and a jet ski and some old men fishing on the dock that's easiest to see from the bridge. We can't listen to the country station like we normally would in Mama's car or in your Dad's truck because Papa's truck doesn't have a working radio. It has weird dial looking things on it. One time we tried to turn it on and the noise was so bad I had to cover up my ears.

The truck starts to jerk again and Jay is getting sweaty again. He just got his restricted license the other week. But Deddy had him driving his truck around our land when he was just eleven. But it isn't a Stick Bug. It's just a regular truck that is all one shape and is black colored, a normal color. The truck makes that awful noise again and the tires make the truck drag for a minute. That'll probably leave a mark, Jay says. We go forward again and you and I turn around to see if there's a mark and there's a big black mark with tire prints on it right at the end of the bridge road and at the beginning of the regular road. Like paw prints, but from a big old machine.

When we pull up to your drive, there's no cars in your yard. My Mom and Dad work all the time, you say. Me and Jay nod our heads. Your parents work in the big town three towns over and they don't seem to be at your house very much. Your house is always messier than my house even though it's bigger and has stairs that go up higher than my stairs. But your TV is smaller than my TV. And you don't have any soda in your house. And your mom makes sweet tea with only 1/3 a cup of sugar and it tastes like nothing at all in my mouth.

You say, Thank you for having me, to me. You say, Thank you for driving me, to Jay. You wait for me to open my side of the truck. I unlock the door and hop out and you hop out after me. We hug so tight that we try to break each other. It's like a secret game we never made up or talk about but we always do it since we became friends. You go up your side steps and knock until your big brother answers the door. He steps out and waves to me and to Jay and then you both walk inside to have tasteless tea and for you to watch him play video games until you think of something better to do for the rest of the day.

Kate Jayroe is editor at Portland Review, bookseller at Powell's Books, and staff member with Sewanee Writers' Conference. You can find more work by her in Juked, Hobart, jmww, NANO Fiction, Word Riot, Joyland's Medium, and elsewhere.