– I –
Even if the billboard out front said the Camelot Motor Lodge was the perfect rest stop for Snow Birds passing through Georgia on their way to Florida, it owed its survival to the Albany housewives who brought their kids to the pool out back. It was my third Saturday there, and I loved it.
Danny Dixon was floating on his back by the near ledge of the pool. He cupped his hands over his mouth and hollered out that the trick to treading water was to keep my arms paddling with my head above water and “oh two” circulating through my nose.
Dad stood poolside cheering me on. He nudged Mister Abrams, the motel owner. “Whaddya think, Stanley?” he asked. “Is he a natural or what?”
I had been in and out of the water that morning more times than I can count. I laughed my head off each time I skipped by Dad before diving back in toward the teenager awaiting me with his hands held up like he was about to catch a football. I twisted around from atop the shiny metal stepladder to make sure that Dad was watching.
Mister Abrams pulled him aside. “Well, Buck,” he said. “It’s just that in my opinion you ought to do what you can to give your boy a leg up in the world. Lord knows he’s better off hitting the books than hanging around here all day long.”
Dad looked haltingly at Mister Abrams. He glanced over the vacant deck chairs scattered around the fenced-in terrace.
“Buck? I mean it might not be such a good idea to, well, you know—”
Dad looked down at the short old man in front of him. “Spit it out, Stanley.”
“—to continue bringing your boy to the pool.”
“And if it didn’t make a lick of difference the last two weeks?”
“I’d like to, Buck. I swear I would.”
“Dammit, Stanley. What the hell’s the difference between the boy’s mother and Maureen Burns over there who’s doing her damnedest to brown up every bit as much as Cleopatra?”
I had never seen Missus Burns without either a drink or a bottle of Coppertone in her hand. Mister Abrams glanced over to her. He dropped his eyes to his black wingtips. “Honestly, Buck,” he said. “I don’t know. But I’m starting to feel the heat.”
“It’s his birthday, for crying out loud.”
A raucous peal of high-pitched belly laughs drowned out Dad’s voice. So I rubbed the goose bumps from my arms and jumped in, hoping their talk had nothing to do with me.
No sooner did I reemerge choking down a mouthful of water than Danny Dixon quipped that it served me right because here he’d been pleading with me for the last five minutes to concentrate and wouldn’t you know it I wasn’t even paying attention. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Dad, even as I struggled to stay afloat.
Mister Abrams pushed back his Panama hat as far as he could without its falling from atop his comb-over. “Buck, I got a phone call last night. And all I heard was the sound of a match being lit.”
“That’s just some fool trying to be funny.”
“I don’t think so, Buck.”
Dad’s slack-jawed face went as still as backwater. Mister Abrams tugged at the collar of his checkered sport coat. He turned his back to Dad and called out: “Dixon!”
The next thing I knew I was going it alone in the deep end. Danny Dixon glided effortlessly to the edge of the pool. He hoisted himself up. He toweled his back dry with a dewy ear pricked toward Mister Abrams, then took a duffel bag from atop a slatted chair and pulled out his wallet.
Which hardly made any sense at all because just a week earlier Dad had insisted on paying up front for all twelve swim lessons. He said it with a wink because Mister Abrams could hardly be expected to understand that my swim lessons were indispensable. As he explained it, how every Fairchild had been not just a good swimmer but a great swimmer and how that hotshot Dixon kid who was the captain of the varsity swim team was just the boy to teach me.
I looked on wide-eyed as Danny Dixon counted eleven singles back into Dad’s palm. Dad stared down at the money for what seemed like an eternity, then called me poolside. Spitting out water like a tug boat, I flapped and flailed over to the stepladder. I hugged it. Dad knelt down on one knee. He asked how things were going. As uneasy as I was with the dim look in his eyes, I managed a convincing, “Terrific.”
Dad, pleased, nodded. He looked away. He sighed and, turning back to me, said, “Pack up.”
“What about my swim lesson?”
“I’ll teach you myself. Just not here.”
“But I like it here.”
“Just do as I say. Okay?”
I looked over Dad’s shoulder—but not toward the cleaning lady pushing a bulging linen cart or Danny Dixon who was feeding the soda machine directly behind her.
Instead I watched the slow flap, straight glide of a hawk drifting in an updraft. I clutched the fat lip of the ledge and climbed out of the pool, dripping.
Derrick, Vincent, and the Tillman kid came up to me. Vincent stepped forward. “I can swim better than you,” he said.
I thumped water from my ear with the heel of my hand and said, “So?”
The Tillman kid, who never got the drift of things right off, asked why I wasn’t finishing my swim lesson. I picked at my wedgie as Vincent explained that it was probably because my dad had another one of his spats with Mister Abrams.
Derrick narrowed his eyes in the direction of the frothy green drink being forced into Dad’s hand by Mister Abrams and said, “Yeah, your dad’s a real pecker head. Last time he wouldn’t let you come with us to Ben’s Burgers and now this.”
I pressed one nostril with my thumb and blew watery snot from the other in contemplation of Derrick’s comment. I turned my back on the boys and tiptoed over hot tiles on my way to the sun-faded umbrella under which my clothes were spread out.
The slap of Derrick’s feet followed me there. “Where are you going?” he asked.
I gathered up my blue jeans and black high-tops and poked around under the patio table for my socks. “Home.”
I squinted in the glare of the sun and patted my face dry, but said nothing. Derrick smiled in the direction of his mother. “My mama lets me stay as long as I want,” he said.
“Mine would too but she’s busy.”
I doubled up my towel and rolled in my goggles. “Wash.”
“Your mama does the wash?”
Derrick’s mother looked lazier than the deck chair she was lying on. I glanced from the manicured hand dangling over the armrest to the cleaning lady knocking on a door with a short stack of towels in her arms, then back to Derrick. “Just kidding,” I said.
Derrick held his nose and dove into the pool, soaking me in the spray of a human cannonball. I wiped the water from my eyes and sat down in a folding chair to watch as he disappeared underwater. He reemerged smiling from cheek to cheek.
A shadow engulfed me from behind. Dad set down his drink, still untouched, on the adjacent table. “I’ll be out in the car,” he said.
I looked up from my shoelaces and nodded.
I zigzagged past four on-coming flip-flops on my way out to the gravel parking lot. I climbed into the hot front seat of our Corvair. I looked up at Dad’s moist upper lip. “Am I in trouble?” I asked.
“Then why are we going home?”
Dad eased out of the parking lot, but said nothing.
“Mister Abrams doesn’t like me, does he?”
Dad flipped on his blinker. He waited for a car to pass before turning. “Stanley likes you as much as he likes anybody,” he said. “I just don’t like that Derrick kid is all.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Huey,” he said. “I want you to know that it ain’t how you look that’s important. It’s how you carry yourself. Your manner of speaking—you know—your upbringing that’s the main thing.”
The inside of the car went quiet as Dad turned onto Maplewood Avenue. He followed it all the way out to Brentwood.
The brakes squealed as Dad pulled up beside a wiffle ball bat that I had left in the front yard of our house. He eased over the driveway and straddled a mound of motor oil-soaked sawdust. The engine went quiet. I fidgeted with my thumbnail before looking back up at him. I braced for his answer before I had even mustered the courage to ask the question. “How do I look?”
Dad sighed. He looked over and held my eyes in his. “You’re a good looking boy, Huey. But sometimes people get jealous and say mean things is all.”
Mom appeared in the doorway with an armful of laundry. Dad snatched at the door handle like it was an escape hatch.
“Why are you boys back a whole hour early?” Mom called out.
I reached into the back seat and pulled out my towel. I dragged myself from the car. I kicked the plastic bat out of my way and mounted the bottommost step.
Inside the house I turned at the sound of murmuring voices in the open doorway behind me. Over the sound of the Berner’s dog yapping across the street I heard Dad say: “Stanley turned Huey out.”
Mom set the laundry basket down. “No.”
Mom bent down and hugged me in the same suffocating way she did when my Aunt Myrna passed. “Don’t worry, Cupcake,” she said. “We’ll get you something nice for your birthday.”
Later that afternoon I scrambled down from the worn seat cushion of an easy chair and bolted through the front door at the sound of a pickup truck pulling up in front of our house.
Grampa Frank shoved open his truck door with a grunt. “Oh my goodness,” he said. “Is this the birthday boy? No, this can’t be. You’re much too big.”
Grampa Frank came by once a year and always made me feel like he did what he could to make up for all the time that had passed since his last visit.
He reached in and held out a gift-wrapped box. He let himself gingerly down from his pickup. I tore my present open and held a brand new magnifying glass up to my face Sherlock Holmes-style. “Lookit what Grampa got me!”
I chased Grampa Frank inside. Mom hung his ball cap on the banister post and called out after him. “So how’s life treating you?”
“Besides being a day late and a dollar short my whole life, you mean? Couldn’t be better. You?”
Mom dialed down the knob on the stove. She poked at half a dozen hot dogs floating in a pot of boiling water. “You know I had a mind to fix up something special. But you know how kids are these days. You think you’re doing something nice for them and it turns out they want something completely different.”
Dad opened the fridge. “You know how it is when you’re the youngest one in the neighborhood,” he said. “But I’m expecting another year of school to change all that.”
Dad pulled out two beers and slapped the refrigerator door shut. Grampa Frank was kind enough not to ask where all my friends were. Instead he took the beer held out to him and moseyed back into the hallway. He stopped beside a finger painting of mine that hung opposite the stair rails. “Glad to see you have these up,” he said.
Mom looked down the hallway. “Huey made that one last year.”
Grampa Frank’s beer made a tinny sound as he rested it on his belt buckle. “I mean the one of Connie and me.”
He took the frame off the hook. He knelt down and brought it up close to my face. “That’s your grandma and me thirty years ago,” he said.
Grampa Frank turned to Mom with the picture still in his hand. “It’s nice of you not to have changed much in the house. Makes me wish Connie could see it for herself.”
“How is Connie these days? Cupcake. The table.”
I pulled open a drawer and counted out four knives and four forks. I set them down in a pile on the kitchen table. Grampa Frank hung the picture frame back upon the second try. He made his way into the kitchen. “Say, did you hear about the two colored boys caught swimming over at the Camelot last night?”
A large, batter-streaked mixing bowl sat on the stove. Dad tipped it. He licked his finger clean. “Trespassing?”
“That’s the question everybody’s asking,” Grampa Frank said. “Byron saw them on his way home from work. He was driving by as they were heading across South Slappery with a shoe in each hand and Stanley’s front office lit up like a Christmas tree. And when Byron sped up to get a better look they high-tailed it on out of there, so scared the one didn’t bother coming back for the tennis shoe he’d dropped. Byron pulled over. And you know damned well that Byron being Byron he got out of his car and fetched it. Then went straight to the police and handed it over along with the story of what he’d seen.”
The oven timer rattled, then stopped. “What kind of sneaker was it?” Mom asked.
Grampa Frank took a seat. He lifted both hands from the table as I dealt him a plate. “Hell if I know,” he said. “But the police are wondering if Stanley ain’t been letting coloreds in after hours for a small fee.
Mom twisted around from the oven with my birthday cake in hand. “You’re kidding.”
I set out a bottle of ketchup, then the mustard and relish. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside Grampa Frank. “Oscar Mayer has a way with B-O-L-O-G-N-A!”
Grampa Frank smiled, then continued. “Serious as a heart attack,” he said. “They got every white man in Albany complaining about how they’re being made to take a bath with those colored boys. They got no choice but to close the pool. Supposedly it’ll be re-opened just as soon as Stanley has it drained and scrubbed.”
Mom pulled up a chair to the table with a bowl of potato chips in hand. “Stanley’s not going to do that,” she said.
– II –
Shortly after lunch the next day Dad ushered me into our 1957 Corvair. I rolled down the window and angled my hand toward the bright, halo-ringed sky. I dozed off before feeling the bump bump of the railroad crossing at Oglethorpe.
Half an hour later my eyes popped open to the sight of Dad pulling the key from the ignition. He got out and pulled my towel from the back seat. He pointed towards a densely vaulted wood and smiled. “Not bad, huh?”
Dad told me to leave my window cracked. He took me by the hand and led me into a clearing. I made my way over a damp bed of pine needles with a rolled up towel in hand and Dad at my side. “Now most people, they don’t believe there was much fighting down this far,” he said.
“During the war?”
“There was fighting down this far?”
“Minor skirmishes mostly,” he said. “But it wasn’t the kind of fighting we should be proud of. So it don’t get talked about much. But you and me, we got the story handed down to us straight from your Great Grampa. So we know better.”
“Missus Mayapple says no way in heck was there any fighting down this far.”
Dad swiped at the tall grass with his inner arch and rambled on about the time the Flint River rose so high that anyone wading within a quarter mile of it quickly found himself in over his head. That was exactly what had happened to my Great Grampa Francis Fairchild Senior, who’d been out with his regiment when one of the recruits had suddenly disappeared underwater at a blind drop off. According to Dad, Great Grampa Fairchild had looked after his men like they were his own children. Sadly, there was nothing that he could do but watch as the young man slipped underwater, never to be seen or heard from again. Great Grampa Fairchild couldn’t swim.
I looked up at the shirttail spilling from Dad’s pants. I grinned. “One time on flag day Missus Mayapple lined us up out front and walked us all the way down to Riverside Cemetery. You remember that, Daddy?”
“For goodness sake, Huey. I’m trying to explain to you how it took real courage to do what your Great Grampa did.”
We emerged from the dense canopy of pine trees. Dad stopped to marvel at a flowering dogwood arched over the riverbank. I stopped beside him. The swampy plain before us extended like a ledge all the way to the water’s edge. I swatted at a swarm of flies and ran after Dad.
Dad knelt down to the river. “This is what I wanted to show you,” he said.
“This is where your great Grampa did the most difficult thing that he ever had to do in his whole life.”
“What happened to that soldier?”
Dad kicked off his shoes and socks and rolled up his khakis and waded in. I looked out over the water in awe. “If you ask me he should’ve tried to save him,” I said. “Because the Lone Ranger is always telling Tonto how it’s better to die in honor than live in shame. Everyone knows that.”
The river whispered past Dad’s ankles. He waded up alongside me. “Whaddya say we work on that doggy paddle of yours?” he asked.
“Say, whatever happened to that little flag I got on Flag Day?”
Dad answered by trying to pull me in. I sprinted up the river for a full two seconds before he caught me up by the back of my trousers. I sank to the ground and sprawled out over the soft tufts of grass. Dad collapsed beside me.
“Hear that?” he asked.
I did. “I still don’t hear it,” I said.
Dad pointed to the water creeping over the flagstone-tiled shoreline. “The current is trying to tell you something,” he said. “It’s trying to tell you that it’s not as simple as always duking it out at every turn and at any cost. Sometimes you’ve got to swallow your pride. Just like your great Grampa did. He had to do it. Or else he’d have drowned and no good done. And thank God that he did. Because neither you nor me would be here if he hadn’t. That’s the wisdom of the river, Huey. It tells us to bend when there’s no other way.”