Stories 3
                                                                                    Nonfiction

 

 

GROWING GILLS

by Caroline Taylor

 

It's 1955, and I have turned twelve. My father and I are on our way from El Paso to Houston. It's his birthday present for me—only me. Not my older or my younger sister. Me. I’m feeling pretty special.

Once we leave the moonscape of the Davis Mountains, the terrain becomes flat and desolate, dotted here and there with cactus, sagebrush, and the occasional giant, metal-clad black grasshoppers, pumping oil from the ground. The highway heads straight ahead toward the horizon where a shimmering puddle of water forever straddles the blacktop ahead of us.

“How far can we see?” I ask him.

“Maybe twenty miles?”

Toward late afternoon, we begin to count the low ridges that interrupt the highway’s flatness at seemingly regular intervals. Fourteen ridges later, we arrive in Fort Stockton and find a white stucco motel with a flat roof, red metal chairs lined up outside the doors, and a swimming pool where my father teaches me how to float on my back.

We eat dinner at a truck stop across the highway. Country music blares from the jukebox, reminding customers that love don’t last and drinkin’ and fightin’ only land you in a heap of trouble. The truckers around us look tired and tough and not very friendly, but the food tastes nearly as good as home. The buxom, red-haired waitress calls me “hon” and lavishes other endearments on the truckers. To my father, she says “yessir” and “nossir” and “have a nice trip.”

We leave Fort Stockton at dawn and head into the glare of a brilliant sunrise.

“You’ll like the Richies,” he says. “Their daughter Rita is the same age as you.”

I figure I'll like anybody rich, since we're nearly the opposite. (It's only later that he spells their name: Rische.) “Will we be staying with them?”

“You’ll sleep in Rita’s room.”

I try wrapping my mind around the idea of having your very own room without nosy, pesky sisters knowing everything you do from the minute you get up till the Sandman carries you off to the Land of Nod. It would be heavenly. On the other hand, Rita will probably hate having to share with me, even for a night or two.

“They have a swimming pool in their back yard.”

So that’s why he’s teaching me how to float.

The next day, we're pelted by a huge thunderstorm. It rains so hard, we have to pull to the side of the road as lightning streaks across a purple sky. Finally, the sun comes out, clothing the sagebrush in sparkly beads of water. By the time darkness falls and the desert air begins to cool, we can’t seem to find a decent motel, so Daddy decides to drive all night. There are so many stars in the sky, I make him stop so we can look straight up and as far as the eye can see in every direction. I count six falling stars, wishing each time that the trip—me and my father, just us two—will go on forever.

The chill air finally drives us back into the car and the company of late-night radio stations, fading in and out with dance music “from the Fountain Room at the Roosevelt Hotel” and preachers threatening hell and damnation to blasphemers.

At Sonora, we find a motel with a red tiled roof and, again, white stucco walls. This one has both green and red metal chairs resting outside the doors. While Daddy registers, I examine a rack of postcards with scenes of cactus and yucca and sand dunes. The one I like best shows a black stallion, nostrils flaring and tail streaming in the wind, standing on his hind legs against the backdrop of a lurid turquoise sky streaked with orange and yellow. Most postcard horses are white like the Lone Ranger’s Silver or Palomino like Roy Rogers’ Trigger. Black stallions are wild and free and don’t belong to anybody.

Somewhere around New Braunfels, the desert terrain changes into rolling, grass-covered hills. Scrub cedar and stunted pines take over from the sagebrush, and here and there a twisted live oak clings to the side of a hill. Crops are planted in the valleys, and the towns are closer together.

It's gradually becoming more humid. By the time we arrive in Houston, I can hardly breathe, the air is so heavy with moisture.

“If you want to survive here,” Daddy teases, “you’ll have to grow gills.”

I sit there, trying to picture my ears giving way to two large, scaly flaps, designed to suck oxygen out of the water so I can breathe. I can float pretty good, but I still don't know how to swim. Can fish hear?

“We’re almost there,” he says, as the cluster of skyscrapers that make up downtown Houston draw nearer. “This whole place is basically a swamp,” he adds.

I shudder, wondering how those huge structures keep from sinking into the muck that surrounds us, although that same goo does seem to nurture a stunning amount of plant life that includes brilliantly colored bougainvilla, magnolias, and towering oak trees, draped in Spanish moss.

Rita turns out to be really pretty, a brunette with rich chocolate-colored eyes, much taller than me. But she has to put up with three younger brothers who are smelly, noisy, and, as Mommy would say, “full of beans.”

The Risches treat us to a barbecue dinner on their large patio, overlooking a lawn so green that the only thing that has since called its emerald hues to mind is the scene in Giant when Rock Hudson goes back to Virginia to marry Elizabeth Taylor. The air is so hot and wet, I wish I did have gills.

I can't sleep in damp sheets that probably never ever get dry in this climate. Rita's snoring just a little bit. So I get up to use the bathroom.

I can hear them talking in the living room.

"… brought you back, didn't we?"

My father grunts. "Sure took you long enough. My wife was beside herself with worry."

"I wrote Ruth, kept her up to speed."

"So did I, only apparently none of my letters made it out of Guatemala. I sure hope you were sending her some cash."

There's the sound of ice tinkling in somebody's glass. "It got a little messy there, I'll admit. But you needn't have worried. We take care of our assets."

"Well, that's why I'm here, Ed. I could use a bit more than you paid me. After all, I stuck my neck way out getting you the inside scoop on Arbenz."

"And I appreciate it, Larry. Only I’m not the one holding the purse strings."

"Of course," Daddy says this with a sneer of disbelief. "So why don't you ask Washington?"

They continue to argue, their voices muted, as it dawns on me the "birthday" trip isn't such a special thing after all. Daddy was going to come here anyway. Worse, the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that he could have brought my older sister just as easily. The reason he didn't is obvious: Rita Rische is my age.

Back in my damp sheets, I toss and turn, wondering what sort of asset my father is to this man. I've heard about Arbenz, though. My father told us he was a Communist dictator who wouldn't let any Americans leave the country and that's why Daddy was stuck down in Guatemala for nearly six months. Now there's some other president named Armas, who is not a Communist.

The next day, Daddy and Rita's father announce they're headed downtown on some business. "Are you going to ask—?" I stop myself from saying Washington because then they'll know I've been spying. "—uh, what we're going to do?"

Daddy smiles. "I don't have to. It's hot as Hades out there."

Rita and I take turns locking ourselves in the bathroom while putting on our swimsuits. Her backyard swimming pool is nearly as big as the one at the motel in Fort Stockton, only this one is full of dirty water. Rita’s brothers have already taken their turn, splashing water out onto the grass, which is now a quagmire, and tracking mud into the pool. Maybe they were supposed to somehow clean it, although I have no idea how they could. I stand there in the suffocating heat, realizing I must be one of those people who prefer beaches to lakes—not that I've seen a beach lately. No way am I going to cross that muddy yard in my bare feet. But even if I go back for my sneakers, they will get coated with mud by the time I reach the pool. Trying to float in that cloudy, nearly gray, water makes the hairs on my arms stand up.

None of this seems to bother Rita, although she does tip-toe across the expanse of thick, black mud to reach the pool. Plunging in, she immediately sends clouds of fresh dark mud dispersing through the water.

I turn away in disgust, my eyes smarting as I realize I really don't want to grow gills. Exchanging the steamy slime and muck of Houston for the clean sand and dry purity of the desert around El Paso can’t happen soon enough. But I can't beg my father to take me home. Not until he gets what he came here for. Meanwhile, Rita's staring at me like I'm some kind of yellow-bellied coward.

“That’s what you get for wishing this trip would go on forever,” I tell myself, and for a minute there I swear I feel the skin at the sides of my head swell up as new, but necessary, organs try to emerge, covering the place where my ears once were.

# # #

 

Bio: Caroline Taylor's father spent six months in Guatemala in 1954 during the regime of dictator Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. He later claimed that he was "helping" the CIA in its efforts to oust the dictator and replace him with Carlos Castillo Armas, who was thought to be more pro-democracy--a belief not borne out by history. The author of numerous short stories, Caroline Taylor's "Just a Song" appeared in the winter 2009 music edition of The Greensilk Journal.
 
 
Caroline Taylor

 

 

Don’t Trick my Cherry

             by  Ann Everett

It was happy hour at Sonic and five cars back in the drive-thru,I looked out my window and watched the vapor of heat rise off the pavement. Until recently, it seemed relevant to my life, burning off into the atmosphere, day by day, with not much to show for it. I could hear my dad’s voice in my head loud and clear. “Come on, Maggie. Don’t be a ne’er do well. Photography is a hobby, not a career.”

It wasn’t true. I wasn’t a ne’er do well. I was a ne’er do well enough. At least, where my dad was concerned, I was. He was disappointed in me and that was new to him. I was a good kid. I made good grades. I was popular. I said no to drugs.So, I took a job as a nanny and paid my own way to college. So . . . it took me eight years to finish a four year degree. Big deal.

“Do you really want to spend your life taking care of somebody else’s snot nose kids? What’s wrong with you, Maggie? You use to be so sensible.”

Regardless of what he thought, it was the perfect job. Robert Starling, a doctor and his wife Jennifer, a lawyer, paid me well and furnished me a car, fully loaded right down to a personalized plate which read, NANE25. I also lived above their garage, rent free. I kept their kids during the day and went to school at night and I was finally done. I was a bona-fide photographer with a degree to prove it.

As part of my final, I had to choose a subject and do a series of photos showcasing it. I chose hands. I took pictures of working hands, baby hands, elderly hands, caring hands. Every kind of hand I could think of. My professor was impressed. Especially with the one entitled “Five Generations.” It had the hands of a great-granddaughter, granddaughter, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, all presented slightly touching, back-dropped with black. That picture, along with one featuring twenty-six students, all displaying a letter of American sign Language, got me featured in Eye of the Camera magazine.

I inched forward in line. Even though, I had a full crew, I tuned them out. It was a feat I had mastered. Four girls and one boy, all blue-eyed and beautiful, ranging in age from three to nine, all talking at the same time and I didn’t hear a word. Shaking my dad’s voice from my brain, I came back to reality.

Seven-year-old Caleb was sputtering, grunting and beating out a rap beat on the back of three-year-old Catherine’s seat. “Stop Caleb, Stop!” she wailed, as she kicked the seat in front of her, where nine-year-old Elizabeth sat.

“You stop, Catherine. Stop kicking my seat,” Elizabeth snarled.I pulled the whistle from around my neck, brought it to my lips and blew. A hush settled. It was one of my best nanny tricks. It worked much better than yelling.
“Please stop kicking the seat, Catherine. And Caleb, stop making those annoying sounds and stop kicking Catherine’s seat,” I said.

“Maggie, you know what? You know what, Maggie?” Catherine asked.
I had just picked her up from swim lessons. She was wrapped in a bright yellow terry cover-up, her big blues eyes peeking from beneath an orange duck bill.

“What Catherine?”

“I want to tell you something,” Catherine said, her eyes getting bigger. I turned to look at her. “What?”

“I want to tell you something. You know what?”

“What?”

“At swimming, I could touch the ceiling on the bottom.”

Elizabeth laughed. “That’s silly. The ceiling is not on the bottom.”

“I did too touch the ceiling on the bottom. I did. With my foot,” Catherine snapped. Pinching my lips tight, I shot Elizabeth a look.  “That’s great, Catherine. I bet by the end of the week, you’re gonna be swimming like a fish,” I said.

Five year old twins, Caroline and Clara were dressed in full princess regalia. Well, Caroline looked more like a hooker than a princess. She was wearing a red-sequin skirt left over from a devil costume, with a light blue top from a Cinderella ensemble, showing plenty of five-year-old mid-drift. She had finished off the outfit with a mismatched pair of high-heel play shoes, one pink and one red. Clara was wearing a lovely green and yellow frock from the Princess and the Frog and matching yellow shoes. Both girls had crowns and wands.
Caroline was the leader. Clara was the follower, unless trouble arose, then she sprang into action and became the protector.

“Do you want to come to our Mermaid sacrifice?” Caroline wanted to know.

“You’re going to sacrifice a Mermaid? That doesn’t sound like it would be very nice,” I said.

“Oh, oh, oh,” Caroline stammered. “Yeah, yeah, well, we only sacrifice old Mermaids.”

I tried to keep from laughing. “I see. But, that still sounds like it would hurt. Exactly how do you sacrifice her?”

“Oh, well, we throw her into the volcano.”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “That sounds awful. I don’t think we should be throwing anyone into a volcano.”

Clara chimed in. “She doesn’t stay in there.”

“No, no. First we throw her in, then she rises back up and she’s young again and we have to bow down to her,” Caroline quickly added.

“So, it doesn’t hurt her?” I asked.

“Well, it just hurts a little,” Clara said.

“Yeah, yeah, kinda like getting a shot or your ears peered,” Caroline declared.

“Oh well then, maybe I could take part in the sacrifice, I guess. What do we have to do?”

“First we have to do a Mermaid dance. We need music for that. Find a song on the radio,” Caroline said.

While I started to scan the channels and Caroline and Clara talked about choreographing the dance, Elizabeth looked over at me and asked. “What’s a whore?”

 Elizabeth was a fashion plate. She wore denim shorts, a bright pink top and flip-flops to match. She had bracelets on each wrist, two necklaces and earrings. Her blonde hair was in a side pony-tail.

“What do you think it is?” I asked calmly.

 Nanny rule number one, don’t answer a question, especially that kind of question, until you find out what they know. I had learned that the hard way. When Caleb was five, he asked me what sperm was. By-passing the mechanics, I had given him a rather long, awkward definition, finishing with “Why do you ask?” To which he replied, “My teacher said tomorrow we’re having a program about Sperm Whales and I wanted to know what that was.” Ah-oh. Lesson learned.

“I don’t know what it is, that’s why I’m asking you,” Elizabeth said.

“Okay. Can you use it in a sentence?”

“Shirley Miles is a whore. That’s what it said on the bathroom wall,” she said.

“Well, a whore is a woman who dates a lot of men at the same time.”

“Oh,” she said.

From the backseat, Caleb yelled. “What’s a tampon?”

“It’s something for women,” I said, hoping it would be enough. No such luck.

“I know that,” he said. “What’s it for?”

I took a deep breath. “You know what a suppository is?”

“Yeah,” Caleb said.

“Well, it’s like that.”

“Oh,” he said.

“That one! That one!” Caroline yelled as the radio found a station playing a lively song, in Spanish.
“Okay, everybody dance,” Clara said.

She and Caroline started moving their arms up and down in a swimming motion. Elizabeth and I joined in. I really got into it. I swam to the right. I swam to the left. I held my nose with thumb and fore finger and waved my free hand in the air as if I were going under. We were all grooving to the beat, which turned out to be a religious song. But hey, we were sacrificing an old Mermaid, so a hymn seemed appropriate.

We moved forward two cars and the Jeep in front of me got my attention. The guy was adjusting the rear-view mirror on his door in order to get a better look at our sacrifice dance. He was laughing his ass off. His hand was nice, tanned with no ring line. I felt my face start to burn, but managed to smile at him.

He leaned his head and both hands out, looked into the mirror and applauded. He had really nice hands.
I focused on the back of his Jeep. I smiled, realizing I could tell a lot about him just from reading the five bumper stickers he had plastered across his tailgate. Texas needs Perry for Governor. Hidden Hills Club member. NRA member. Texas Tech Alumni Association. Sunset Baptist Church. He was a Red Raider, gun-toting, Christian Republican golfer...with really nice hands.

“Okay, everybody, what do y’all want?” I asked.

One by one, I got their choices. Elizabeth wanted a cherry slush. Caleb, a root beer. Catherine wanted a small lemon-lime drink. Caroline wanted sweet tea and Clara wanted her regular order, a cherry lime-aid. As the Jeep disappeared around the corner to the pick-up window, I placed our order. When I got to Clara’s, she started to shout, “Tell them don’t trick my cherry!”

Yesterday, on our daily happy hour run, they had failed to put the cherry in Clara’s cherry lime-aid and she wasn’t gonna let that happen again.

“Tell them Maggie. Tell them, don’t trick my cherry. Tell them. Tell them!” she screamed.

“Okay, okay. I need a medium cherry slush, a medium root beer, a small lemon-lime, a small sweet tea and a small cherry lime-aid.” I ordered.

Clara started to scream hysterically. “Tell her! Say it! Say, don’t trick my cherry!”

I leaned in to the speaker. “Oh, and don’t trick my cherry,” I said.

“What?” the confused order taker asked.

From the backseat, Clara was still screaming over and over. “Don’t trick my cherry. Tell her, Maggie. Tell her!”

“Please don’t leave the cherry out of the lime-aid,” I explained. I could hear laughter from more than just the order taker. I pulled around to see the Jeep still at the window. Again, he was laughing his ass off. I gave a-palms-up shrug. He pulled away and I took his spot and offered my money to the order taker.

“You don’t owe anything,” she said. “The guy ahead of you paid. He said to give you this.” She handed me his card. I looked down at it. Joel Brandt, Detective, Tyler Police Department. He had written his personal phone number on it and the words, I hope you’ll call. I smiled. I didn’t have a picture of a policeman’s hands.

  

BIO: A retired junior high school secretary,  Ann Everett is  currently an active member of the Northeast Texas Writers' Organization, where she serves as co-chairman for the yearly spring writers' conference. A native of the Lone Star State, she resides in Northeast Texas with her husband of forty-three years.