Mental Floss by Jay Squires
Share Your Story contest entry
Artwork by Linda Bickston at FanArtReview.com
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.|
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.
I tried to keep it short, but it was a memory, after all.
Failing brevity …
I tried to keep it as engaging as the memory itself.
Barry and I laid our beach towels side-by-side, so our feet would be facing what was now a scuddy, gray surf. Chaunce never used a beach towel, choosing rather to lie or sit directly on the sand. While Barry and I had taken the steps down to the sand, like two army scouts sent ahead to check out the action, Chaunce was off to “snag a brew” at the taco stand, which was on the street, above the concrete retaining wall rising behind us.
Back in ’56, Barry and I were too young to drive. Chaunce, who never divulged his age to us, though we knew he was at least twenty-one, drove us that morning to Avila beach. He'd also taken us a week earlier, the day Barry and I ditched, just two days before summer break.
Chauncey was his full given name. Barry and I were just two of a handful allowed the privilege of shortening it. Chaunce stood less than average height, at about five-and-a-quarter feet. I can recognize now a compensation mechanism secretly at work, cramming all Chaunce’s insecurity into the obscene bulge of his chest, shoulders and arms, and thick ropes of muscle crawling over his thighs. At the time, I hadn’t a clue that beneath all that muscle, a short, skinny man cried for acceptance. All I knew was I felt a heady and delicious danger being in his company. I’m sure Barry felt the same, though we never talked about it at the time.
A salt-and-seaweed fog draped us. There were only two other beach towels, one occupied by a paunchy middle-aged woman, lying on her back with her arm draped over her eyes. The other towel nearer the pier, was vacant.
“We’re early,” I reminded Barry, whose thin arms crossed his chest as he tried to hug his body-heat into himself. His hairy thighs were goosepimply below his red, jockey-style trunks. “The fog won’t lift for a couple of hours. The chicks’ll wait till then to come down.”
“Yeah. Wouldn’t want their titty hard-ons to show.”
We chuckled at his ribaldry, but broke eye contact.
“Think your babysitter will come?” I asked him, and the color invaded his face.
“Rema Faye’s babysitter.” Rema Faye was his nine-year-old sister who was what we, today, call Down Syndrome, but at that time—in ’56—bore the title Mongoloid, or Mongolian Idiot. He added, “She told me she almost lives at the beach during the summer.”
“She’s what—twelve? I can’t believe your folks let a twelve—”
“I told you, because they had to go to Dad’s … whatever … function,” he said, scowling. “I had swim practice. They needed someone to babysit Rema Faye till I came home.”
“Almost thirteen. But Jesus, Jay, you said you’d keep it to yourself.”
“Like there’s anyone around us. You told Chaunce.”
He hugged his knees, now, facing the ocean. He sighed, then as quickly, smiled. “Yeah, I guess I did. But that was because she used the exact same words with him over in the caves”—he jerked his head to his left— “that she used with me.”
I turned my head toward the cliff face that formed the southern boundary of Avila Beach. Like the low-lying, ragged half of a triangle. At high tide, the surf crawled up the base of it, but at low tide, a person could navigate around the protrusion to the caves on the other side. That was the bend that Barry and I had watched Chaunce and the babysitter shuffling toward on ditch-day, hand-in-hand. They’d stopped there long enough for him to hoist her to his shoulders, and then they rounded it.
I felt a wave of revulsion at the thought of a grown man, with two days’ stubble, for crying out loud, taking her to the caves. “I thought she came to see you, Barry. You same as invited her.”
“I only said we were ditching to go Avila. I didn’t tell her to come.”
“Okay, smile, but that was after we … after she—” He flopped to his stomach and grimaced at me. “You don’t have to keep smiling. Christ, Jay, what would you o’ done? She went down on me on the bench press, for Pete’s sake.”
I remembered his weight room was in the garage. “Why were you two in the weight room?”
“She wanted to see where I work out. My sister was asleep so we went. Don’t act like I never told you about it.”
Of course, I remembered it. Every detail of it. And my imagination filled in what he didn’t tell me—but God help me, I wanted to hear it again. And I was sure he wanted to repeat it. “I know, but I still can’t imagine a twelve—”
“Thirteen. She looked thirteen, anyway.”
“Yeah, well … you said twelve, at first.”
“She wanted to watch me bench press, so I laid down on my back and did two reps with the eighty-pound bar. I no sooner put it back in the cradle than I hear her say, ‘I think I know what you want.’ Cross my heart, she was standing at the foot of the bench without a stitch on. Before I could even sit up, she’s bending over, unbuttoning my Levi’s. Okay, I kinda helped her shimmy ‘em off my hips and then she bent her head down … and … and hell, she did it, Jay.”
“Damn …” I said.
“Damn right,” he said. “When she finished, she put on her clothes like nothing happened and said, ‘You know what I want now?’ Course, I’m thinking it’ll be money, but she says, ‘I want a cookie.’”
“A cookie,” I parroted.
“Yep, a cookie. And then we listened to music on the request line, and talked till my parents came home. I don’t even remember how the subject came up, but at some point, I told her how you’n me were gonna ditch and go to the beach.”
I nodded past him. “There’s Chaunce.”
Chaunce stood at the top of the stairs next to the pier, one hand on the railing, the other clutching his beer, and seemed to survey the entire area with the sweep of his gaze. He bounced his pecs to the beginning of “Rock Around the Clock” that the Taco Shack belted from its oversized speaker. Setting his bottle at his feet, he hooked his thumbs into the front of his white trunks, which left nothing to the imagination, and dragged his thumbs, ceremoniously, along the elastic to the sides. There, he drew them both out, and like guns, index and middle finger extended, he pointed at us, making little jerking movements like recoils. Blowing on his fingertips, he replaced them to his pretend holsters, then bent down and retrieved his bottle. He tilted it to his lips, burped, and took his first confident step down the stairs.
“Barry, you know you’re not gonna get your second chance with her,” I told him.
“I don’t want one.”
“Go to hell. I don’t, really. Every time the phone rings I’m afraid it’s gonna be her mother.”
“That’s stupid. You think she’d tell her?”
“Her mother’s a whore, you know.”
“You heard me. Audrey says that’s how she pays the rent and puts food on the table.” He finished without moving his lips, “He’s comin’. Quiet.”
Chaunce stood, his back to the retaining wall, and stared down at us, expressionless. He took a swig of his beer and in one fluid movement squatted, without the support of his free hand, and assumed what I now know as a modified lotus position. I tried the movement in the privacy of my bedroom after that and always ended in a bone-popping tangle of limbs.
“Where’re the squirrels?” he asked, both hands gripping the bottle. Chaunce was the only one who called girls squirrels.
I raised to my elbows. “We’ll be fogged-in a while longer.”
He nodded toward the woman on her towel below us. “Meanwhile, think she could use some company?”
“Did you get a close look at her, Chaunce?” asked Barry.
“You guys got a lot to learn. Put a bag over their head an’ they all look alike.”
“It’s not just her face. With her you’d need a whole body bag.” Barry was proud of that, and I had to smile, too.
Chaunce didn’t. “Sheeeut. I’d climb into that bag with her, and zip it up. In the dark they all look the same, boys.” He looked first at Barry, then at me, I think to gauge how impressed we were. “When d’you think what’s-her-name, your babysitter’s—comin’?”
Barry gave me a quick glance and his face reddened. “She probably won’t even show up. She’d have to find a ride.”
“D’you tell Jay about her?”
“He told me.” I didn’t know how much of what Barry told me he’d shared with Chaunce. Barry was only two years older than Audrey. And she did blindside him. There was a three-year difference between Audrey and me. And given the same unexpected temptation, I doubted I could have resisted. I felt another wave of revulsion. Could I even be certain I’d resist such a direct temptation if I were Chaunce’s age?
“No, thanks,” I heard Barry’s voice, as from a distance. I must have been immersed in my thoughts since I flinched at an amber bottle suddenly thrust in front of my face.
“No. No, I’d better not.” I smiled, hoping the corners of my lips didn’t visibly quaver.
“You guys are a ton o’ laughs.” Chaunce gulped down the rest of it.
“Tell me, Chaunce, did you …” I stopped, regretting.
Now, I had to finish. “… use a—a body bag with her?”
“What? Who?” He carelessly tossed the empty bottle over his shoulder. It shattered against the wall. “Who?”
I stared at the broken glass, behind him. “The babysitter.”
“What’re you drivin’ at?”
The amber shards took on a sinister aspect. My heartbeat and breath flapped and fluttered in me like a flock of frightened birds. “Did you—you couldn’t have—she couldn’t have turned you on, or anything. Right?”
“The little nymph.” He laughed, then abruptly cut it off, and drew a stream of air through the sluice of his clamped teeth, finishing with a chattering like he was freezing.
To this day, how I remember that bizarre sound and his tight jawline! His vacant eyes. Those teeth. It had no precedent at the time. It wasn’t until almost forty years later, that Anthony Hopkins, in the persona of Hannibal Lecter, sucked in that same cold, wet, susurration of air through his teeth. It expressed in ’91, as it did in ’56, the same ownership of depravity for which words were merely insipid derivatives.
“What’d you think, Barry?" he said, levitating himself from his lotus and moving to recline on his side, facing Barry. “Your first, right? Never mind.” He winked at me over Barry’s back, then gave his prey’s shoulder a playful squeeze. “She was a little squirmer, though, wasn’t she? She had the cutest little …” He cupped both palms, and smiled at them. “… little starter titties.”
Barry turned a pleading face to me. His pulse throbbed in his neck.
I swallowed. “If they found out what—what happened … Barry’d just get a good talking to. He’s only two years older than she is. But …”
“But what?” Chaunce raised higher on his elbow to better see me.
“But … well … you know, you’re twenty-something. At least twenty-one. Audrey’s jail bait if … anyone ever found out what you—”
“How’s anyone gonna find out?” He did something with his eyes. Very studied. Very practiced. And to me, very threatening. “You, Jay? You?”
I shook my head, energetically. “Not me, no, Chaunce. That’s not what I meant. But you know, she could brag to her school friend. And that friend could tell her folks. And first thing you know …”
“Hey Mus-kuls!” a sudden, thin voice sang from behind the railing at the top of the retaining wall.
Chaunce’s face transformed and he leapt to his feet. “Hi, Princess. C’mon down. You see who’s here?”
“Swimmer-boy.” She squealed. “And the blonde. Hey Blondie, where’s Dagwood?” Her joke dissolved to a twitter. She wore the same yellow one-piece as on ditch day. Even from this distance, her eyes seemed unnaturally large, her brows penciled thick and black, and her lips were painted red. Thin, very white legs crossed as she leaned against the railing. She stopped giggling to say, “Can I trust you?”
“Not me, sugar,” said Chaunce, “but you’ve got Swimmer-boy and Blondie to protect you. Come on down.”
“Oh, all right,” she said. Then suddenly: “I can jump. You wanna catch me? I’m not afraid, you know.” Before anyone could protest, she’d crawled under the railing and stood atop the one-foot ledge of the wall. She tossed her towel, which fluttered down. “I’m not afraid; I’m really not.” Her mouth was grim, determined.
“Don’t do it,” I yelled up to her. “It’s at least ten feet. Even Mus-kuls couldn’t break your fall.”
Chaunce scowled at me. “You don’t know what I can do,” he said, his words clipped and low, meant only for me.
“I’ll do it—I really will.”
“That’s stupid,” I told her.
“You’re just a chicken, Blondie.” She spun a half-turn and began walking the ledge toward the stairs, like a tight-rope-walker would, toe-to-heel, arms straight out to the side, while Chaunce walked the base of the retaining wall, just under her.
Barry and I stood on our towels and watched the drama unfold. I felt an odd excitement in the pit of my stomach. At one point, she stopped and seemed to sway, her arms flailing. Chaunce readied his stance at the bottom, but his face looked stricken. She either regained her balance or resumed her ploy. Where the ledge met with the handrail and the stairs, she hopped off, back onto the sidewalk, and grinning down at us, she took the stairs, two-at-a-time.
Chaunce met her at the bottom and bent down so she could climb onto his back, her heels digging into his thighs and her spindly arms circling his shoulders. He bounced her up and down, playfully bucking her all the way to the towels; there, he quickly dipped one shoulder, throwing her over the other, then grasped her the instant before she landed on her back, softening her fall, while his momentum caused him to sprawl atop her. He remained a moment, then dismounted; it didn’t seem lost on her.
“Naughty boy.” She giggled. “You could’ve caught me with those big ol’ mus-kuls. You wanna go for a walk?”
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Barry’s swing to me.
“Naw, you made me work up a thirst,” Chaunce said. “I’m gonna go get a brew. Swim-boy’ll walk with you.”
The words were hardly out of his mouth before Audrey was beside Barry, her arm hooked in his.
“Not me,” said Barry, his body awkward, rigid. “I gotta—gotta go to the bathroom.”
She giggled. “You can pee back in the caves. I won’t watch … unless you want me to.”
“No, Audrey, I—I—” He slipped his arm from hers.
“Then there’s Blondie,” Chaunce offered. “You can go look for Dagwood together, right, Blondie?” He winked.
Audrey turned her face to me, with a hopeful look. Barry stared. Chaunce waited, watching my mouth.
“I—uh—I don’t see—”
“Any reason why you shouldn’t, right, Jay?”
“Oh, Jay! I like that name,” said Audrey. She clasped her hands in front of her chest and jumped up and down. “Please, Jay, take me for a walk.”
My arms and legs weakened. “I don’t—really think I—should,” I stammered; the words squeezed out between torrential breath and battering heartbeat.
“With one who needs to pee and one who needs … his mama … well, Princess … I guess it’s gonna be you and—”
“Wait!” By the time I heard the command and realized I was the commander, all three pairs of eyes turned to me.
“Um … sure. Okay … let’s go, Audrey.”
She took my hand in hers and we walked through the fog-cool sand in silence.
Then, “Where’ll we go look for Dagwood?” Incipient taunting tinged her reedy voice.
Her voice just starting to change. Not as jangling and abrupt as boys’, but a change just the same. Glands ripening, plumping, transforming. A boy’s first step on the bridge to manhood. A girl’s to becoming a woman. I was thirteen when …. Still, only three years ago.
“Think we’ll find him over there?” She made a slight head-dip to where the tide had already receded from the glistening arm of rock. “Probably got trapped in the caves by the tide.”
The obvious rejoinder would have been—should have been— “Well, now he can come back on his own.” I’ve wondered, over time, if I even thought of the obvious comeback. I remember she offered the question to be answered. I know, for whatever reason, I chose not to.
Chaunce and Barry are back there ogling us. Aroused, probably. Imagining themselves, anticipating.
I figured my earlier warning had given Chaunce pause. He realized how stupidly careless he had been. That was why he refused Audrey’s offer, fobbed her off first to Barry, then to me. But then he cast caution to the wind. Unless … unless he had me figured out. That I would rush in and save the maiden from the black knight.
So there I was, gripping a warm, moist hand. Hers? Mine? Both? I had no plan, no strategy. I was no white knight, but I knew, beyond doubt, I wouldn’t initiate anything. I wanted to think I could rise above anything she might offer. I needed desperately to believe I could.
“Mus-kuls calls me Princess. He told me I was pretty.” Her eyes slanted up to mine. “Do you think I’m pretty, Jay?”
Careful. Breathe. Think. “Audrey …?”
The corners of her mouth took a pouty dip. “What?”
We stood at the base of the rock. Little pools had been left there by the waning tide. I worked my hand from hers, squatted and rippled the water with my fingers. A sideward glance caught her rubbing her palms briskly together. “Audrey, why’d you ask me that?”
“Well? Do you?”
“Audrey, you—you’re twelve years old. You should be—” my mind scrambled for an image— “building sand castles. Not going to the caves with boys you don’t—”
“Next month,” she interrupted.
“… you don’t even know,” I finished, then remembered. “What next month?”
“When I’m twelve.” And without a pause, “Let’s go, Blondie.”
She grabbed for my hand, which I pulled away. “Jesus! No! You’re eleven? You’re—no, damn it, no!”
“Chicken, chicken, chicken,” she chanted. She spun and would have stalked off had I not thrust out an arm, grasped hers and pulled her back. She tried to wrench her arm away, but I captured her other in my free hand and pulled her to me, turning her around.
“Listen to me, Audrey. Listen. You gotta stop what you’re doing.”
“You just have to, that’s all. You’re gonna get hurt.”
She glanced over her shoulder at Chaunce and Barry, then brought a smile back to me. “You’re just too chicken, yourself. Like Mus-kuls said about you wantin’ your mama.”
“Well, where’s your mama, Audrey?” I asked, stung by her remark. “She shouldn’t let you come to the beach by yourself.”
“She brought me. She’ll come back to get me.” She tried to squirm free from my grip. “I’m gonna scream—I am—really. Let go; I wanna go back to Mus-kuls.”
“I’ll let go. But promise me, Audrey, you won’t go with Mus-kuls back to the caves.” I cocked my head and let my eyes plead with her a moment until I realized she really was going to scream, and then I let go. Her spindly biceps were pink where my fingers had been.
“I will if I want to.” She took off in a dead run, but stopped after about twenty feet, and spun. “You’re not the boss o’ me. You’re just jealous,” she said, and a pointy, pink tongue shot from her mouth and was as quickly drawn back before she turned and resumed her run.
# # #
I asked Barry—about seven years later—if he’d ever heard anything more about that little girl who had babysat his sister and who visited us a few days later at Avila Beach. We were in the kitchen of our shared flat in San Antonio. We’d moved there from California, so he’d be in the same city as his girlfriend. He had a job as a swimming instructor, and I enjoyed my California unemployment insurance benefits. He’d just taken the first bite of his PB and J sandwich when I posed the question, and while he worked it around his mouth, his eyes went into remembrance mode, rolled up and to the left.
“Gretchen, was it? Rachel? What was her name?”
“Two syllables, I’m pretty sure. So you haven’t heard anything about her?”
He smiled and took another bite, chewed a moment and swallowed. “Audrey … wasn’t that her name?”
"You know, we’re about as old now, as Chaunce was back then?”
I did the calculation. “About—why?”
“Well … can you imagine yourself, now, doing it with a twelve—”
“Shit.” He grinned. “So? Would you?”
“No … but if she caught the older you by surprise, like she did the younger you?”
He replaced his sandwich to the plate and leaned back in his chair. After a long moment, he raised his shoulders all the way to his ears and dropped them.
I wonder, now, about the honesty and the complexity of Barry’s shrug and the nature of his silence that ensued, but back then I marveled that he didn’t press me about my all-too-quick “no.” Perhaps that accounted for my only slightly oblique change of subject.
“You heard about Chaunce?”
“About him and Audrey’s mother?” He scraped his chair across the floor on his way to the fridge.
“No! Tell me.”
He turned, with a grin. “You tell me what you heard, first. Those be the rules.”
I broke off a corner of his sandwich, opposite his bitten side, and popped it in my mouth. “That he got hit by a car crossing the street in front of the high school.”
“No shit!” His eyes were locked on my mouth. “Wait, which one crossed the street? Chaunce or the car?” He brought the milk carton to the counter and reached for a glass from the cupboard.
I followed him with my eyes, incredulous. “What difference does it make?”
“Was Chaunce in the crosswalk?”
“And that, too. What’s the difference?”
He poured a half-glass of milk, and set the carton down. “The corners of your mouth. They’re twitching, trying to hold back a huge smile. Like they can’t wait to get to the punchline. And my questions … are keeping you from it. It’s great fun.” He took a drink and looked at me over the glass. “You’re putting me on, aren’t you?”
I sniffed. “Maybe …” I’d planned to tell him. As soon as I calculated how believable was his story. We put each other on like this a lot. It passed the time. But we knew when the chips were down we could count on honesty between us. “Audrey’s mother, huh?” I spread my smile fully.
“You know Roy, don’t you?"
I did. He and a cadre of his friends filled the Chaunce-vacuum left when Barry and I leapt off the idolatry train. “Are you finished with your PB & J?”
“No.” He downed his milk, poured another half-glass, returned the carton to the fridge and brought his glass to the table. “Just keep to your half.”
“So? Roy?” I peeled a strip of crust off my portion.
“He sent me a letter when I was in the Air Force and told me about it. ‘Pears things went on hot and heavy with Chaunce and Audrey and the gang all through the rest of the summer. Roy and his buds took many a stroll with Audrey to the caves. Or so Roy said.”
“So he said,” I repeated, faking deep thought. “Did they know how old …? Did you tell Roy about you and Audrey?”
“And even about you and Audrey.”
“Which is nothing to tell. And that she was eleven?”
“By the time she got to them she was twelve.”
“Or they got to her.”
“A moot point, methinks. Fact is, there was plenty of time for them, and probably others to get real chummy with her. The incident in question happened, not that summer, but the one following.”
“That’s right,” I said. “It would’ve had to. I was going into my senior year after that first summer, and it was after I graduated that you and I decided to join the Air Force."
He took a swig, wiped away the white moustache with the back of his hand. “Damn, milk’s good.”
“So the summer we were off fighting our country’s enemies, foreign and domestic, she and Chaunce—”
“—and not to forget the Roy Jacobs’ gang. They were back at Avila and the caves.”
“For another summer of beach games.” I pinched off another piece and, with the tip of my tongue, rescued some jelly that oozed out. I popped it in my mouth. “Cutting to the chase … she got knocked up, right?”
“At twelve--thirteen? Not according to Roy. It was something as simple as one more summer coming to an end. And a mus-kully beach-bum not wanting to carry his tender little friend’s escapades over into the winter. Chaunce’s spark had apparently fizzled out. A little spat on the beach. Followed a day or two later by a phone call.”
“Ah. And Roy was the accredited source of this information?”
“About the spat, yes. But it was Chaunce who entertained his audience with the phone call and its aftermath. Mama requesting that Chaunce meet with Audrey and her at their home.”
“Its aftermath? Were you as excited reading about it as I am waiting” —and here, I crammed each word with higher volume than the previous— “for you … to freakin’… finish it?”
“The long or short version?”
“You have to ask? But never mind! I’m gonna guess anyway. The old nine-to-five, when followed by a rousing five-to-nine, was tough on a working woman. Mama’s been noticing, lately, that mascara and blush’ll do only so much, and her lipstick’s been creeping up the little tributaries from her lips …. Meanwhile, Chaunce is standing in the doorway, quaking in his flip-flops ….”
“Except that Chaunce was dressed to the nines. And Mama Margaret—that was her name, Margaret—had not even maxed the big three-oh. The electricity between them could have lit the whole city of Santa Maria. Are you starting to get the picture?”
“So Chaunce and young Mama Margaret—?”
“Are you kidding, you reprobate! What kind of mother would do that with her daughter there?”
“Are you saying …?” I grinned. “You’re not saying …?”
He gave his head a slow nod. “A gleesome threesome.”
For a full minute, I looked for clues in Barry’s eyes, his mouth, especially those tell-tale corners, and his hands, one flattened and splayed, the other encircling his glass and lightly tapping its base on the table.
His heavy eye-lids blinked. “What?”
“And you’re saying it was all done on the roof? In the full view of the neighbors.”
He glanced away, then back. A classic double-take. “What?”
“You’re putting me on, aren’t you?”
“About what part?"
“Any part of it. All of it? Did Roy even send you a letter?"
The corners of his mouth flickered. “Maybe.”
I figured I had it coming. Tit for tat.
“I gotta ask you something, though,” he ventured.
Playtime was over—I could tell.
"Jay, back there when you took Audrey for a walk?”
“Back in those days we weren’t bull-shitting each other … So tell me the truth. Before she told you she was only eleven, were you weakening? Would you have let her take your hand and lead you around the bend to the caves?”
It was my turn to lean back in my chair, to raise my shoulders to my ears, to drop them.
# # #
Truth be told, with over a half-century more under my belt, I am no closer to answering his question. But time does bend our memories weirdly. If, today, the voice of a seventy-three-year-old Audrey intoned behind me, “I think I know what you want,” I’m pretty sure I would have the fortitude to offer this rejoinder:
“If it’s all the same to you, my dear Audrey, I think I might just take the cookie … without the foreplay.”
That should offer some redemption.
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