The Summer of J.
By G.J. Reynolds
As a kid I believed everything mattered. I mean everything. What was said, what was done, who was your friend and who wasn't—all of it. I wasn't the center of the universe, but every moment was. Call it pre-adolescent self-importance, that's about right. Normal, even. Except for me this was different in the very real sense that the nature of pleasure and happiness was mutable and fleeting, while the slightest rebuke, the briefest recrimination, might burn in me for hours and days. Errors must be tallied, mistakes indelibly recorded, one's shortcomings numbered like hashes on tree, forever growing in the bark. What moments of joy there were could not be made to last long enough, and afterwards came the inevitable hangover of regret: one more brief summer of pleasure giving over to a long autumn of discontent.
The best time of my life was the summer I turned twelve. In those days we had a house that for some reason my mom and dad called a "cottage." The cottage was up north on one end of a long lake, a big open lagoon that was only a small part of the complete lake but for me it was the whole thing. We went there every summer for a few weeks of vacation. But that year we went for the whole three months, or nearly that, ten or eleven weeks, whatever we were allowed and as much time as we could manage.
We thought it was great and that our parents were doing it just for us kids. But really it turned out my dad was taking classes that summer to finish up his master's degree. There was a state university about an hour away from the cottage and a couple of nights a week he would drive out there for classes. During the daytime he did his reading and other work on the sun porch while he watched the only TV we had, a little black and white set we brought with us in the car. My dad was watching TV because those were the days of Nixon and that summer the Watergate hearings were on. My mother spent most of her time in bed, "resting," and about the only time she came out was for lunch or when my dad needed her to type up one of his papers for class.
Most days my brother and I were pretty much free to do as we wished. We spent hours swimming off the dock and sometimes on the days when his schoolwork was done he would take us fishing for crappie or bluegill. I have memories of this time like old sun-washed Polaroids of trees and clear water and the pristine outlines of the houses on the other side of the lagoon from us, all which exist in my memories as splotches of shape and color like you find in the rustic scenes of jigsaw puzzles and faux impressionist art.
Once a week my dad would take my brother and me into the little town nearby to get a few groceries and gas up the Ford. My brother was older than me by two years and liked to go outside and pretend to be a man and talk cars with gas station attendant, and this was one of the best times for me because I was alone to go through the comic books. I was a Spider-Man addict then, and missed the Saturday cartoons, the old ones with the lame song (I still love that song) and the art quality so low they couldn't afford to put those trade mark spidey webs on his whole uniform, just the head. I was discovering the Fantastic Four then too, and was trying to decide who I liked better, the Thing or the Human Torch, and overall felt a little bit strange about it, wondering if there wasn't something a little bit wrong in the whole nuclear family thing they had going on, Reed Richards with his weird gray temples and Sue with that dopey Jackie O hairdo that made her look so old I couldn't believe she wasn't really Johnny's mom instead of his sister.
When it was all finished, there was the inevitable loitering by the comic rack. My dad would have all the groceries in one or maybe two paper sacks—milk and eggs, two loaves of bread, some cans of Spam that he liked to fry in the mornings for breakfast. It was his weird thing, fried Spam, cooked in the same pan as the eggs so that they picked up the little leftover bits and grease to give them flavor. He always gave in when he saw me. I hate to think of it now, so manipulative. But I was kid and I wanted something and that's what you did with my old man. You didn't ask for something; you just kind of moped around a bit until he realized what you wanted and then he'd get for you if he could. He'd give me a dollar and let me pick out what I wanted, and comics then being only twenty cents I tried to pick the best five I could find. Only Marvel would do, because they had the coolest superheroes and the best artwork, but if they were running low on titles and I was getting desperate I'd sometimes slip in a DC title, Green Lantern/Green Arrow or Mister Miracle, neither of which I really understood, but they were sort of cool just for that fact alone (and never Superman, he was old and dull like adults and the drawings still had those simple colors like the Sunday funnies, or Batman, who was darker and cooler, but was then on TV in afternoon reruns and reminded me too much of coming home from school).
My mom never went with us on these trips, or at least I don't remember it that way. This was a time when her problems weren't really apparent to me, well before the days when she would begin to imagine things and become angry over nothing at all, only to collapse into weeping fits that lasted days on end. At this point in my life, her oddities were simply that, brief ticks or quirks, some odd comment or behavior unobtrusive enough that we could get on with our daily lives and not think much of it. A harbinger, to be sure, of her later brushes with the erratic and uncertain state of mind that would dominate the last decades of her life and make my dad's life increasingly miserable.
At that point, though, we weren't worried about my mom, at least not us kids, and what my dad thought is hard to guess. Being somewhat older than the typical parent, he was still of that generational demeanor which prized emotional distance and viewed introspection and feelings as highly suspect. In a way, his stoicism insulated us kids, and we went about that summer as if our lives were as normal as anyone else's.
At our cottage on the lake we didn't see that many people. Not that we were completely isolated, but mostly we encountered weekenders and retirees, a few hearty types who lived out there year there, or no one at all. On one side of our cottage was a birch woods, on the other a small house occupied by an older couple who came to stay every summer. Unlike our "cottage," which had four bedrooms, a sun porch, and a complete upstairs apartment for my grandparents when they down from Winnipeg to visit, their little house seemed impossibly small, not more than six or seven hundred square feet. It always seemed a little forlorn there by itself, like an apartment someone had severed and planted on the ground in the hope it would take root and somehow manage to grow of its own accord. It took root, but it didn't grow, of course, and instead remained there stunted and curious.
It was something, really, to come out in the morning with mist still on the clear waters of the lake and the old woman on the front patio, a little ten-by-ten square of cement with a couple of planters and a set of redwood Adirondack chairs, smoking and talking on the phone. She was always smoking, or should I say, she always had a cigarette lit, one in the ashtray, this white, ceramic job that was dimpled all around and supposed to look like a big, hollowed out golf ball. Inside, when it was clean, you could see the burned up insignia of a golf course somewhere in Arizona or Alabama, or maybe it was Arkansas, one of those A states that all seemed so far off and exotic to a kid then.
Usually the old woman was alone while her husband went fishing or off on his own golfing, or whatever he did, but that summer they had their grandkids around, a boy two years older than my brother and a girl just a few months younger than me. We didn't really think about the girl, who mostly kept to herself, and instead my brother and I were both drawn to the boy. The first day we met him he was outfitted with a BB gun and a pair of weak, plastic binoculars that he hung around his neck on a leather shoelace. He had the soft, pale skin that would brown and freckle after only a few minutes in the sun and was the epitome of budding male vitality to us back then. He wore T-shirts with the sleeves cut off and stalked the distance between his grandparents tiny bungalow and the birch grove beside our cottage like a conquistador, like G.I. Joe or Sgt. Fury come to life.
The girl was something else entirely. Her name was Janine, to her grandmother she was Jan, but to the rest of us she was Jay, or just J. The first few days she kept inside almost all of the time, and when she was outside she wore pants and mostly sat in the same chair looking over the water. I say "looking over" instead of "looking at" because of the way she kept her head back a little and always made it seem like she was watching something on the water or maybe just above it. She had a long neck and even as a kid I was drawn to the tilt of her jaw. Her complexion was much the same as her brother's and after a little while in the sun she browned and freckled like a young Jodie Foster, when she was still on TV, doing guest spots on Kung Fu and The Partridge Family, the epitome of 1970s youth, earthy and natural. She sat in one of the Adirondack chairs and every morning her grandmother squeezed lemon juice in her sandy hair until by the end of the first week it had bleached to the color of straw. Thinking about her even now, after all these years, makes me want to put on some John Denver and pull out the most faded, rattiest jeans I own and go sit on the porch. She was that kind of girl.
What I most liked about her then was the way she seemed to have everything in hand. A grade behind me in school, she was self-possessed in a way that I most certainly was not. After a week of watching her everyday, sitting by while her grandmother paced the square of patio and smoked, talking on a princess phone with cord that was spliced together so long it could almost reach down to the water, I realized that I had to get close to her. Not "had to" as in "wanted to," but "had to" as in "needed to." I needed to get close to her. I had to know more, to try and understand her.
I was torn, of course, between J., who could sit for hours and not say a word, looking over the water, and the adventures of our two brothers, who went off every day into the birch grove and shot things. Trees and rocks, but sometimes living things, birds and chipmunks, which they carried back as trophies on a piece of torn off cardboard. They laid them out and pretended they were hunters, imagined that what they had done was somehow vital and necessary. Their trophies sat in the sun until they forgot about them and some animal came along, a cat or a skunk looking for a quick, free meal, devouring the bounty of our brothers' murderous playacting in a corner somewhere like Frenchmen and their ortolans, minus the relish and shame.
I was used to people talking, my brother, for instance, who hardly ever shut up, or my mother when she was in one of her talking moods and sometimes sat with us to watch TV programs in the evenings. And I was used to quiet too. My father hardly said anything anymore, and me, I was used to keeping quiet. But even as a little kid I was already a listener, interested in other people. I didn't always understand what made a person say or do the things they did, and that fascinated me. Listening to other people talk was a way to learn about how they thought and what ideas they had, what they thought was important. I hardly knew anything about my father because he didn't say anything, never let us kids into what he was thinking, what he cared about, what he wanted out of life. This should have been confusing to me, but he was older and adults didn't make sense anyway.
J. was different. She didn't not talk because she was quiet or thinking about things, but rather because she didn't seem to have any words or ideas she wanted to let out. Me, I had words and ideas, and even then I knew things, or was trying to know things, but I didn't always know how to say them. J. just didn't have anything to say. Her natural element was silence. Like some inscrutable bodhisattva she waited and tolerated me, my frustrated efforts to blurt out bits of conversation, followed by prolonged and ever deepening periods of nothing at all between us. For my part I wished deeply that she would become the talker, relieve of that burden, for which I was so utterly ill suited.
At one point my desperation became so profound that I was reckless enough to act on it. After being ignored for what might have been 20 minutes or several hours, I can't honestly say now, I looked at her, her profile, her short, rounded nose and thin lips, her skin freckling even in the shade, and said, "How come you never talk?"
She looked at me as if she hadn't noticed me before and then pushed herself up using the arms of the chair like parallel bars and stood beside me. She gave one last glance out over the water, then turned. I watched her back, her narrow, girlish shoulders, her body still undefined, an ordinary rump and suntan lines near the tops of her arms. She walked away from me with some minor difficulty—I thought her leg must've fallen asleep. Then she disappeared, the aluminum storm door banging, the inner shadows of the little house enveloping her. I stayed where I was, looking back at the house and then out over the lake, the way she had looked our over the lake. Her grandmother didn't seem to notice she was gone, or that I remained. Chattering into the phone, lighting another cigarette, tapping the ash into that silly, golf ball ashtray of hers.
I had a new batch of comics around then, beginning of a new month, a new set of issues having arrived at the little store in town. It started out as a good time for me. Rain set in for nearly a week, the air got cold, and everyday it seemed grayer and farther from summer. I curled up on the sun porch and drifted into the Marvel universe while my father grunted and grimaced at the news out of Washington and struggled through his statistics homework, which was now a required subject for education graduate students. It wasn't enough to give out tests and mark papers with a waxy red pencil; one had to know about means and standard deviations and the appropriate strategies for grading curves, numerical analyses of student performance, and so forth. Not that he would ever use it. In those days in the small town where we lived it was almost unthinkable to question a teacher in such a way. You were bad or you were good, liked or hated, but no one would presume to challenge the underlying methodology of your grading.
This time I found quite peaceful. The rain absolved me of confronting what happened with J. I didn't have to explain or worry, only to wait out the bad weather and the go outside once more like nothing had ever happened. We were children, after all, and expected to forget such things and go on without a sense of guilt, or any of the regrets that adults suffer from.
My brother, barred from his outdoor expeditions with J.'s brother, was set adrift, having no focus for his cruelty, and it wasn't long, a day or two, before the whole afternoons of comic book idyll were lost, those moments of pleasure reading and rereading each one cover-to-cover became shortened, brief interludes really, from my older brother's pre-pubescent tyranny. "Only retards read funny books," he said. "You wanna wind up in a home?" "Home" being a generic term for a foster home or a boy's home, which was itself a euphemism for reform school, juvenile detention. I didn't really know any of those things then, only that "home" used in that way meant something bad, something that would break a kid like me.
I had just discovered Swamp Thing and was impressed by the hideous nature of his fate. The closer the brother my came to me, the more he pushed and poked at me, the more he threatened me for my feebleness and corrupt nature, the more I understood how it felt to be a lumpen mass of vegetation in love with the quiet loneliness of the swamp. Of course I had never actually seen a swamp, but I was convinced I knew the feeling from having lived near the lake. The birch grove adjacent to our cottage led far back around a bend where the lake narrowed and became still, where the waters were choked with reeds and algae. Fishermen only went in with john boats and their motors off to keep their props from fouling, and, except for the fishing boats and the sunlight and the noise of cars crossing the viaduct at the end of the lake, it was just like the kind of place where a Swamp Thing might go to be at peace.
When the rain let up, the summer weather turned more or less normal again. If you're not familiar with summers in the wooded north, the climate on the good days is both marvelous and strange. Near its solstice, the sun stays up well past ten o'clock and rises so early in the morning that it seems there's hardly any darkness at all. Mornings could be cool, afternoons sun-drenched, evenings steamy and mosquito-laden as the breeze dies and the lake turns shiny and quicksilver calm.
J. did not return to her morning perch on the Adirondack chairs. I missed her and kept looking over, no matter how much I tried not to. I wanted to see her again. I imagined talking to her, telling her about the comics I had read, commiserating over the boredom of the recent bad weather. I worried that there was something wrong. Maybe she hated me now. So much that she didn't come outside because she didn't want me around.
A day or two after the weather cleared, my brother and I were playing down near the dock, the water that day a bit too cold for swimming, we were hanging over the side using our arms to swing toy boats around in wide circles. On every other turn my brother tried to crash his into mine, at first gently, comically, but soon it devolved into an effort to knock mine loose and send it spinning out over the water where I would have to choose between getting wet or watching it float inexorably away. I had come to recognized this sort of escalation, where playing turned rough and then cruel, and before it got too far I sat up and pretended that I was repairing my boat on the dock so that I wouldn't have to face him anymore.
"Come on," he said. "Play, stupid."
"You play, stupid," I said.
"You're a baby. You're weak."
I looked him over. He was a couple of years older than me, taller, bigger, stronger. That put him at an advantage. But when I was his age, I would be taller, bigger, and stronger than he was now. Eventually I would catch up, and then pass my brother. I wanted to feel sorry for him, but I couldn't. He didn't deserve it.
That was when J.'s brother reappeared. He crashed out of the woods, shirtless, a torn strip of cloth tied around his head, bramble scratches across his torso. He was out of breath from running through the woods, carrying his BB gun across his body like a soldier.
He had something to show us, he said.
We got up and followed, my brother first, then me. We hadn't been into the birch woods since the rain, and that day, leaving the sunlight of the yard for the deep shade of the woods was a bit like entering some sort of lost world. The ground was still damp, the air heavy with the moldering smells of the woods. The water, only a short way off, was nearly screened out, morning breeze diffused to an eerie stillness. You heard sounds you didn't hear on the lawn or near the water. Animal sounds and rustling noises that were always just out of reach, emanating from the shadows and places just out of sight.
One of the secrets of the birch grove was that if you got far enough you came to a thick stand of blueberry bushes. We had known about them for a couple of summers and each year made it a point to check on them regularly, waiting for them to ripen, and when they did, we would gorge ourselves on the fruit, berries round and so blue they were almost black. So sweet. Full of flavor, not like what you get in the stores, ripened in crates in a warehouse somewhere.
We followed J.'s brother deep into the grove. He had found a squirrel nest and been peppering it with BBs for the better part of the morning. Still nothing happened. Even I knew it was late enough to be abandoned and even so it was enormous, wedged into a high notch in one of the ash trees that stood out among the birches, with thick sides to protect against the northern winters. Shooting it with a BB gun was pointless; the squirrel would be gone and even so, that high up, the BBs wouldn't do anything but bounce around the sticks and get lodged in among them. This was enough for J.'s brother, who believed in the accumulation of damage and saw every little brass sphere arcing into the treetops as an extension of his own meanness.
I left them there. I wasn't above them so much as bored by their behavior, the pointlessness of it all. I found the berry bushes tangled and thick and already heavy with blue-black orbs of fruit. I picked one and put it in my mouth, rolled it on my tongue, tender as bruised flesh and then pinched it between my teeth, just a little, to let the juice out. It was with elaborate caution, as if I were risking some sort of dreadful poison, some unripe berry disease that everyone knows about but somehow forgot to mention. The berry was firm and still sour with only enough blueberry flavor to make you think how good they would be soon enough. I chewed a little to get the taste, then spat out the rest, blue spittle staining my shirt and lips.
J.'s brother came over, and seeing the berries on the bushes and me spitting on the ground, leveled the BB gun at my chest. I don't remember the model or the type, only that it was one of those ineffectual types that seem to have only enough power to kill something weak and small, but I was afraid nonetheless.
"These are my blueberries, so keep your hands off," he said. My brother stood behind him grinning. He thought it was funny to see me scared. He was the sort of big brother who got bullied a lot and took it out at home when he could, and now he thought it was all good fun to see me on the other end of things.
I sputtered something about how they weren't his, that we came there every year, but he just moved the BB gun a little higher and then a little more until it was pointed at my throat. He was more likely to kill me if he turned it around and hit me with the plastic stock, but the idea of being shot in the neck did not appeal to me in the same way that any sort of pain does not appeal to kids at that age, for whom there is no such thing as a minor cut or abrasion.
I did what any kid would do in that situation, what any adult should do also, though perhaps their "good sense" or inhibitions might prevent them: I turned and ran. The first BB hit me square in the back of the neck, stinging so much that I thought it must've lodged there, and in my mind there was blood pouring out of the wound and mixing with a river of warm sweat as I ran. The second hit me in the arm, just below my T-shirt sleeve, raising a tear-drop welt that I would not be able to feel until I was well clear of the shadows and safe again, gasping for breath as I ran past our cottage and around to the garage, which was open, light pouring through onto the back of my father's Oldsmobile.
I hid in the shadows, under an old tarp that was covering some boxes and an old tire that would eventually be cut up and used for bumpers on the side of the dock. I touched the back of my neck and licked my fingers to see if it tasted of blood, but there was too much sweat, too much of fear and old tires for me to tell anything. I closed my eyes and wondered what would happen to me. I imagined the brass orb lodged in my neck, just under the skin. Would it give me its power? Would I gain the strength of brass? Perhaps it had been touched something, some rare leaf or spirit of the woods, that would impart unto me the powers of the forests and trees? The vengeful aura of all the creatures damaged by the gun might imbue me with great powers that I would use to protect them. I would be able to call on the metaphysical nature of plants and earth and woodland animals to protect them and serve the greater good. This seemed right. It seemed fair.
I was crying, of course, my body shaking from the adrenaline and exertion. The welt on my arm was red and shaped like a comet, its tail a quick stroke of pink across my sun-browned skin. The place on my neck hurt much more, throbbing with what I imagined to be the mystical venom of the tree guardians.
I expected my brother to come running any second, pleading or threatening. When he didn't appear, when neither of them showed themselves, I found myself wanting to believe he had stood up for me, that his fraternal concern might outweigh his longing to be accepted by anyone bigger and stronger than himself. But the longer I waited, the less there was to hope for.
I found J. at the dock in front of her grandparents' bungalow. It wasn't much, just a narrow set up gray, weather-beaten planks on steel posts where her grandfather tied up his fishing boat. She was wearing jeans and sneakers with socks and a spaghetti strap top that left her shoulders bare and freckling in the sun. She looked small and tragic, lying stiff on her side, pulling her hand through the water and watching the way the light sparkled off its surface.
I sat next to her and took off my shoes and let me feet dangle down into the water.
"What's wrong with you?" she said.
"Nothing," I lied.
"You shouldn't be here. My brother doesn't like you anymore."
"Yeah, I know."
"Does he do mean stuff to you like everybody else?"
"Used to. Not anymore."
J. rolled over, unbuttoned her jeans. I held my breath. I'd never seen a girl do something like that. She pushed them down over her narrow hips. I could see the bottom of her bathing suit, and let out my breath.
"Help me," she said.
I didn't know what to do. I grabbed the cuffs of and pulled away from her. She was a skinny girl; her jeans slipped off with ease. As they came over her knee something happened. I felt a tug and then her foot fell off, everything below the knee, banging onto the dock. I jumped back. She laughed.
She kicked her jeans off with her good leg, the other coming apart so that it fell loose and sideways. She unbuckled a strap like a belt and pulled off her foot like it was winter and she taking off one of her snow boots. Below her knee there was nothing, her leg ending in a big knuckle of tight skin that was red now where her fake leg had been strapped on. I looked up and she had it in her hand, balancing the flesh-toned prosthesis in the air like she was about to perform a trick. Instead, she dropped it onto the dock, the hard plastic thudding against the weathered boards. She reached up and pulled off her shirt. Her bare stomach plain and taught, her top pressed tight against the nondescript regions that would one day become her breasts.
"Wow," I said. "I didn't know."
J. didn't say anything more, just climbed down and pushed herself away from the dock, her hands slipping through the water as she paddled out. I was afraid she might sink, or worse that she was trying to drown herself. But she got out fine, a few yards from the dock, and then just kind of bobbed in the water. She turned onto her back until she was floating, her hair haloing on the current. She lay still, just like that, her eyes closed and lips parted. I could just see the slow rise and fall of her stomach as she breathed. So peaceful, like an angel of the lake.
I took off my own shirt and climbed slowly into the water. I swam out a bit, till I was near her, and then rolled over, spreading out my arms and legs until I too was floating. I could feel her even though we weren't touching, knew she was with me, that we were both safe now, and free, the cool caress of the lake all around us.QLRS Vol. 10 No. 2 Apr 2011