My dad and his replacement family lived on the banks of a Lake Erie tributary, in a lopsided old house near the dead-end of a winding, mile-long dirt road. The house was too small and hot for eight his-and-her kids who resented each others’ presence for six weeks every year.
I preferred the outdoors, anyway.
Summers in Michigan were a crisp contrast of green trees against the dense blueness of sky, belying the sweltering heat. In Florida, where I really lived, I would trek miles in my flip-flops just to cool off in the municipal pool, or to sneak a swim in some motel pool, or to cannonball off the little bridge on Roberts Road into the deep, dangerously weedy canal.
In Michigan, my body never stopped yearning to swim.
My thirsty nature longed for the sensory rush of diving in: the airborne arc of me, the piercing of the water’s smooth skin with my fingertips hands arms head shoulders torso thighs shins ankles toes—I’m in, bulleting through the cold liquid underground. I wanted to be swallowed whole into the deep wet kiss of water, to be engulfed, immersed, sealed in the cool silence of submersion. To decompress, to reach languorously for handful after handful of the ungraspable, to pull my weightless self forward, into the unknown. I was not supposed to be earthbound all the time.
It figures that we were forbidden to swim in the lake behind the house. It was filthy, my father told us, although we couldn’t see any debris floating around, just the occasional bloated catfish slapping against the steep banks. Often we’d spy a water moccasin, swimming fearsomely straight and fast, its black blunt head angling up from the water like a demon speedboat.
On the hottest or longest or most boring days of summer, however, not even poisonous snakes that swam faster than we did could keep me and my siblings and step-siblings from plunging shoes-first into the greenish-brown, zero-visibility of the polluted water.
“Did you give feet?”
“No way! Did you?”
We were afraid to touch bottom, where we knew from past summers that broken glass and jagged rusting objects jutted up wickedly from the shit-like sludge of the lake floor. Giving feet at the bottom of Lake Erie, you were lucky to get them back.
We would tread the dark water, hiding under a dock’s slatted shade where our splashes and hushed voices echoed, until we got tired of the weight of our clothes and mucky shoes dragging us under. The younger kids, envious of our courage and dubious refreshment, threatened to tell, but they never had to. We were always given away the next morning by our earaches.
Once I was caught by my stepmother with a Lake Erie earache, and I was doled an unbearable punishment. My father banned me from going to the Little Red Store.
“For how long?” I asked.
“Until your stepmother and I can trust you.”
“You can trust me,” I said, my hand covering my throbbing ear.
“I used to think I could.”
Walking to the Little Red Store was my major daily diversion. It took forever. I scuffed my sandaled feet over the mile of dirt, watching breaths of dust cough up and settle on my tanned ankles and toes, powdering my feet gray. I watched my legs walk, watched the current of sunlight winking in the golden hairs on my alternating shins. I felt sweat surface on my temples and under my clothes, felt a fat bead slip down the valley of my spine and puddle in the small of my back, felt the cold exhilarating ribbon of its evaporating trail. I felt I was never going to make it to the store, but when I did, I was going to take my time standing in front of the open cooler looking for the frostiest bottle of cherry pop I could find. Then I’d drink it real slow, make it last the whole way back home, then hide the bottle to return next time.
After about two weeks of no Little Red Store, I quit asking permission, and I started looking for a way to fund a clandestine expedition. I thought of selling night crawlers to the fishermen that were always near the bridge, but I’d have to wait until almost dark to flood the ground with the hose and dig up the worms, and then it would be too late. I didn’t want to wait another day.
Then I remembered where I could get some free money.
I had seen my stepmother putting pennies on top of the refrigerator a few times. Pennies. She would never miss them. “Sharon?” I called out. The house was still, except for the humming refrigerator.
I climbed up on the counter noiselessly, scooped up all the pennies I could and jumped down, a few copper coins escaping my little fists. I picked up the strays and darted out the door without looking back. I’d passed about six houses without hearing anyone call after me before I finally unclenched my damp, dented fists inside the front pockets of my cutoffs. After that I chinked softly with every step. I kept adjusting my stride, but nothing I tried quieted the metallic rattle of the coins fattening my pockets. The white cotton pockets bulged out the bottom of my cutoffs like two pale lumpy kidneys, the ensacked pennies bouncing heavily against my brown thighs.
I looked up when I heard car tires crunching in approach. Dad?
I refused to save myself, to sidestep into the woods. It was too early for Dad to be home from work, and anyway, I should be allowed to go to the store by now. I would protest. But when the car’s chrome grill rounded into view, dread filled me solid, like quick-drying cement. It was Sharon’s car.
When I recognized the Ford I hung my head like I wasn’t looking, and dangled my arms awkwardly down the front of me, palms over my thighs. My heart panicked in my chest. I walked on unnaturally, dramatically oblivious to the slowing car.
“What you got in your pockets?” I looked sideways at the driver; it was my oldest brother, Benny. Sharon must have sent him on an errand. “I thought you were grounded,” he said.
“You’re going to the store, aren’t you?” Benny asked. “Who said you could go?”
“No one,” I answered.
“Now you’re learning, Sis.” He grinned, then spun the car’s tires in the gravelly dust and ripped forward.
When I finally reached the end of the dirt road, I crossed the highway and started walking over the bridge. I felt safe. I’d made it. I had escaped the hostile territory of step-summer. And I could see the humble little embassy ahead where inside I would seek familiar refuge in the penny-candy aisle. The square, red-brick building was nestled on the opposite bank, just on the other side of the bridge. Almost there.
Halfway across the bridge, I heard the rusting screen door of the store spring open. I looked up…It can’t be her; Benny has her car. I looked at the parking lot. There was the other car, the Rambler, rumbling. There were two of my stepbrothers in the back seat, shouting at their mom, wildly pointing at me. My legs kept moving forward, kachink, kachink, kachink.
Sharon stood rigidly in the parking lot, holding a brown bag of groceries in one arm, the baby in the other. In her clenched jaw she appeared to be holding her temper. As I got closer, I expected her to say something, for her to recognize the jingle of stolen change, but a few steps later I found myself inside the store, clutching an orange Nehi. I pulled the weird-looking old coins out of my pockets and dumped them hurriedly on the counter.
“That’s a lot of wheat pennies you got there,” said Eddy, the cashier. I stared dumbly at him, and said nothing.
The Rambler was gone when I came out. The sun sat fat and heavy on the horizon. It would be dark out when I got home.
The Nehi turned syrupy and warm before I even crossed back over the bridge. When I reached the dirt road, I stopped walking and slowly poured out the neon pop. It swelled briefly in a sickly orange pool, staining the parched ground.