June 26, 2024

John Margolies Roadside America photograph archive (1972-2008), Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Red in the Face Fiction by Jay Graham

Heidi is my babysitter, and today she’s taking me to the community pool. She has long dehydrated hair and a few years ago she let me suck on a strand of it because she thought I was napping but I wasn’t. When I say her name in my head I think about the Alps and sheep and The Sound of Music. She also has a boyfriend named Benji. Sometimes Heidi brings Benji over to “hang out with us” when she’s babysitting me, even though my parents would not allow it. I would tell my parents but I know that if I do Heidi won’t be able to babysit me anymore, so I don’t. Benji wears jeans that are frayed at the bottom and walks around barefoot and his toes are thin and I don’t like looking at them but I do. Benji’s mouth is loose and always falling open into a laugh-smile and he makes pretend farting noises to embarrass me in front of Heidi. When he does this I look at the floor and then Heidi goes, “Benji, come on.” One time he left the bathroom door open a crack when he went to pee and I saw him standing in front of the toilet with his hips jutting forward and his chin tucked in a little bit. The sound of his pee was different from mine, probably because he was peeing from a further distance because he was standing and I sit down. 

“Want help with your suit?” Heidi asks, glancing over at me. She’s putting bottles of things into a floppy canvas beach bag. Benji is not here today. My whole body rings. I try hard to contain this ringing inside myself.  But I don’t need help. I’ve just gotten distracted looking at her face so now I’m standing in front of her with a half-on suit. “Okay.” She pulls the straps of the blue Speedo one-piece up over my shoulders and fixes the left one, which has gotten twisted. Her fingernails have a polka-dot design on them. She’s chomping on a piece of gum, making wet noises with it. It reminds me of the neighbor’s horses outside grandma’s house, which is an hour and a half drive away. We give them clumps of grass and they roll their jaws around on them and snort bad breath into your face. Heidi smells like bad breath too but it’s mostly hidden under Orbit sweet mint flavor, the kind she always gets from the gas station when she buys me yellow Gatorade. It’s her favorite. “Ready?” she asks me. “Ready.” 

From the backseat of the minivan I can see her hands holding the wheel with her thumbs tucked over her fingernails and her right shoulder and the right side of her hair. She makes smooth, quick movements to manipulate the radio and the AC controls and the window lock system. The polish of one of the polka-dot nails is flaking off. “Can you undo it?” I ask. She always undoes the window lock system for me, because she knows I’m not an idiot. With the window down, the wind moves its fingers through Heidi’s hair so that parts of it touch the headrest and the top of the seat. I am sweating into the faux leather seat cushion beneath my thighs. I wonder if she is doing it too. 

The world outside the window is a smear of very bright colors, but mostly green. It’s too beautiful to look at directly so I let myself take it in through the side of my eye. Also, this way I can keep Heidi in the center of my view, which is important. “It’s good to be out of the house, right?” Heidi says, looking at me in the rearview mirror. By the shape of her eyes I can tell she’s giving me a smile. “Yeah. It’s good.” I give her one back, doing the same thing with my eyes. I don’t like the house, and Heidi knows that, and that’s why she’s saying it. She’s very smart. 

“We’ve got to put sunscreen on your face this time. You’ll help remind me, won’t you?” The last time we went to the community pool she let me do everything but the face sunscreen and then I got a bad burn and my face skin started peeling off into little tubed rolls when I ran my hand over it. It hurt a lot and made my whole head feel huge. I heard my dad’s voice going hard downstairs when he talked to her about it. Her voice did something in return I’ve never heard it do before, which was let some of his hardness into it when she responded. It takes a lot to talk-back like that—I’ve done it before, but not for a while. When I heard her do it I felt her bravery inside my body like light rushing up and down my legs. Then she came into the bathroom with me where I was sitting on the black and white diamond tile pressing my fingers into the spongy lining that surrounds each tile. She knelt down so we were at the same level and plucked off some of the skin rolls and swiped them onto the rim of the tub. She found Aloe Vera gel in the cabinet—it’s a thick green jelly with bubbles in it—and worked the coldness of it all over my face. Then she left the bathroom and I looked over at the rolled tubes of my skin on the edge of the tub and felt the best feeling I’ve ever felt so far. I picked up the rolls and ate them and they tasted like nothing. 

The car bounces to a stop. Heidi is an aggressively skilled parallel parker. We get out and slam the doors and admire her spot. “See? Within a foot from the curb,” she says, nodding her head. The eggplant-colored minivan sparkles with pleasure. In my head I start to make a list of things I can do to get Heidi to nod at me like that: at the top of the list, let her do the face sunscreen. She swings the bag over her shoulder and clacks toward the pool in her flip flops. I clack after her, running my thumb under the waistband of my Nike shorts, which I wear everyday with everything, to check if the suit is damp there from sweat. It is. I worry there is a dark ring around the torso of my Speedo and that if I take off the shorts I’ll look stupid. I could also look stupid for keeping the shorts on, so I’ll have to choose which stupid is worse. As we move toward the entrance there are several layers of sound growing on top of each other: water slapping and high pitched laugh-shouts and warning tweets from a lifeguard whistle. 

One thing to know about the community pool is that it smells like the kind of bathroom that stinks worse the more it gets cleaned. I open my mouth and take in my oxygen like a dog. Everyone here is freely giving their sourness to the air and soon I will be too. The moms in the shallow end are doing it as they steer their floating toddlers through the water by their balled-up fists. The two lifeguards cooking boredly on their tall chairs are doing it. And the kids in the deep end—some my age and a few older, all of them bashing at the water—are doing it too. One of the boys beating the water is very good at beating the water: he’s lifting his arms high above his head and bringing them down hard to send big arcs of pool water into the sky. I think I could be very good at this too. Then he transitions into a windmilling motion that is too fast and choppy, and I decide I will be avoiding him. 

I look up at Heidi. She’s seven feet tall. The sun is a huge circle of white light behind her head. I have to squint. She’s the most interesting person at the community pool. You can tell by her cat-eye sunglasses, and the way she is decisive about everything she does with her body, even when she’s just choosing which chair we’ll dump our stuff onto. That one, she points. Yes, of course, that one. 

“I’m ready for the face sunscreen now,” I say to her. Heidi gives me a smile, a wider one this time, revealing the smallest spit bubbles around her gums. She nods slowly, which means everything is going exactly right, and pulls the tube from the bag.  She has me sit on the poolside lounge chair so that she can apply it to my face. The plasticky slats flex a little under me when I put my weight on them. She squeezes some cream from the tube and rubs her palms together and then takes my face into her hands and I watch a focused look settle into her eyes and the line of her mouth as she works, releasing a chemical coconut smell into the space between our faces. She’s firm but careful about it, making sure to smooth the thick paste over my forehead and cheeks and nose til it’s clear. Finally she does my ears, rubbing her thumbs around the rigid parts and squeezing the lobes at the end to let me know that she’s done. 

I have decided to take off my shorts and jump into the pool as quickly as possible. This way I’ll expose my ring only for a couple seconds. It turns out this is a very good idea. A few steps across the rough concrete and I am safe in the waters, clouded with what I know are tiny pieces of poop. Heidi joins me and we hang out together in between the shallow and deep ends, which is where heaven is. I am ringless and ringing. The windmill doesn’t exist. Babies don’t exist. Houses don’t exist. We stay there forever talking to each other and dunking and practicing treading water, before she tells me I have to go rinse off under the showers in the locker room, and then we’ll head home. By now the sun is  a reddish ball in the sky, like a clown’s nose.

I don’t want to go shower but I go because I’m always good for Heidi. The locker room is the source of the community pool smell, which is actually a combination of smells: chlorine and body and a plant-scented cleaning solution that is designed to get rid of the body but the thing I learned is you can’t get rid of the body. 

I find the shower area, which has no one in it. I stand over the drain with my feet apart and think about waterfalls. I think about Heidi’s bravery filling my legs. I think about Gatorade. I pee a small amount, and that’s it. It doesn’t sound like Benji’s at all. I stare down at the puddle as it shrinks and disappears down the drain. The boy with the windmill arms comes into the shower area holding a large towel around his waist with the face of Sylvester the Cat on it. For a second I’m happy. The Sylvester the Cat towel is just as stupid as my Speedo ring was. “What the hell. You can’t be in here,” he says. He points to the sign with the icon and the braille bumps underneath. Then he looks at me and the way I’m standing over the drain. His eyebrows crawl up his face meanly and his mouth starts to go into a smile. He looks like he’s just found somebody’s hidden treasure and he’s going to keep it all for himself. I leave as fast as I can before he can look some more, feeling the worst thing I’ve felt since the last time I talked back. 

I turn sharply to go into the other locker room and twist on the shower faucet and stand under it. I want to cry globs of hot tears, but I can’t because this locker room is not empty. There are adult women showering around me and a few changing from their swimsuits back into their clothes. When they lean over to put their feet through the underwear holes their fleshy white thighs flash at me, and I can see for a second the dark hair between their legs. They’re allowed to be naked here because it’s the changing area. I soap up my whole body in a casual way, then rinse it off and, dripping everywhere, go back outside so the sun can touch my head. 

I sit on the edge of the pool a ways away from the other kids and become extremely busy making a spiral current with my feet. Crows do their strutting walks in the grassy square behind me, jabbing their beaks into the ground and snipping worms in half. I think of all the worms with the ribbons around their little soft pink tube bodies from where they were snipped and regrew. They sing songs about how it feels, at pitches too high for people to hear. 

The windmill’s mom and Heidi are talking near the locker room entrance. I see their hands take turns making gestures. I stare down into the water and think about vanilla-chocolate-swirl pudding cups. I think about last Sunday at bible school, when we learned how Adam and Eve were kicked out of paradise. They were the first people, Sister Angela told us. They had no parents. Heidi comes over to me with at least two expressions competing with each other on her face and then giving up and adding to each other. “Listen, don’t worry about it. You’re just a tomboy. I was one too. You’ll grow out of it,” she says. Her face goes bright at the end of the sentence. It doesn’t make sense for her face to do that. Soon after, we leave. It’s getting dark anyway. I walk barefoot across the cooling pavement of the parking lot. The worms sing their little songs to me the whole way.

Jay Graham lives in Brooklyn. Their work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and Wonder Press.