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Home  >  Peer Work
Canal
By Amy Meissner
Genre: Fiction Level: College
Year: 2001 Category: UAA/ADN Creative Writing Contest

I hung over the metal railing at Lozanos Road and threw dirt clumps and yellow weeds into the water. My rubber thongs slapped my heels as I skipped back and forth across the narrow bridge to watch the grass separate and shoot out the other side. The morning air was already thick and hot and I wasn't paying attention to the road until Tom McGuire's pickup truck came squealing around the corner towards me and slammed on the brakes.

"Dumb ass kid! Get the hell out of the road!" He yelled, hanging out of his open window. "Do you want me to run you over?"

I shook my head, frozen and fumbling behind my back for the railing. I stared at his red nose, pitted like an orange rind, his sideburns and the hair on his thick forearm, wiry and curling. I stared at my own small face, reflected in his mirrored sunglasses.

"Now get the hell out of my way you little shit!"

The bridge vibrated as he tore off and I watched cardboard boxes bounce around in the back of the truck, spilling white socks and underwear and shiny golden Motor Cross trophies.

*

"Said he was 'sick of the sissies and faggots in his household,'" Irene McGuire later said while she sat crumpled on our scratchy plaid couch with a trembling wad of Kleenex. Irene cried on our couch a lot. She said this was the last time though, the "very last time". She kept rambling on about being offered that graveyard shift at Triple A dispatch. Now Kevin, her son, would need an overnight babysitter.

"Mom, I can do it," I said, leaning over the back of the reclining chair. I liked the idea of being in charge of Kevin. I'd teach him everything he needed to know about not having a dad, and it made me feel important.

"That's right, anything you need honey, we're here," my mom said, reaching over and patting Irene's bare leg.

"I don't know," Irene said, blowing her nose," I mean I just don't know how long it'll be."

"Oh, Tom's leaving is just, well, it's probably just the spring run-off," my mom said, "don't you worry." Irene forced a smile behind her soggy tissue and they laughed. I bent over the scratchy chair and laughed too, but I had no idea what they were talking about. The last time there was a spring run-off, the irrigation canal flooded with melted snow from the Sierras and mud filled the crawl space under the McGuire's house where I knew Kevin used to hide from his dad.

"Anything else for you ladies?" I asked, setting the mayonnaise on the coffee table where it left a greasy ring. I was wearing Mom's high wedge sandals and my sweaty toes kept sliding out and curling over the fronts. I pretend-tapped my pencil on a notepad and chewed big gum, just like a truck stop waitress. I stretched my spine as tall as I could, rocked my squeaking feet back up the heels of the shoes, and looked at Kevin.

I'd only seen him once or twice last summer. He looked the same now except for the brand new cast on his chubby bent arm. His pale hair was longer; he kept blowing his bangs out of his eyes. I knew I'd grown two inches since then, and I towered over him in my mom's strappy shoes. He sat on the couch arm next to his mom and stared out the window bouncing his leg against the plaid upholstery. Irene kept reaching a soft hand over to touch his ankle to stop him, but it just made him kick harder. The couch started thumping against the wall as he glared and stuck out his tongue when she wasn't looking.

"Mom it's so stupid here..." he said, "Why can't we just go home? M-o-m?"

"How about an ashtray Marley," Irene said to me, ignoring him, "We need an ashtray. Oh, and where should I leave your tip?" She smiled in a tired way and winked at my waitress game. One hand held Kevin's squirming ankle while he whined and tried to pry off her fingers, the other balanced a fork that stabbed at an unwrapped Styrofoam tray of cocktail shrimp. When she dipped into the mayonnaise, a few shrimp stayed behind, pink and curled in the jar. Kevin and Irene were allowed to do these things when they visited, things that I would've gotten smacked for.

I teetered and flopped in unbuckled heels around the kitchen, the rubber soles thudding on the hollow trailer floor. I'd hidden the green ashtray really well the last time Irene came over. My mom said she was trying to quit, but that Irene always made her want to smoke again. In my frayed cut-off shorts I looked just like the teenagers at the Quality Market checkout and in Mom's sandals I could see into the cupboards without having to put a knee on the counter.

"Mom, I can't find the ..."

I froze when I looked back into the living room. My mom was pointing and nodding as Kevin had hopped up to take my handprint plate off the wall. When I was six, I had pressed my hand into a clay plate in day care. I chose the paint color, bright orange, because I knew my mom would love it, wrote my name in the damp clay with a nail. I had given it to her as a Christmas gift — now they were flipping their ashes into it.

"You just look so grown up Marley, how old are you now?" Irene asked, leaning towards me. Her cheeks were gray, holding in the cigarette smoke. Her lipstick bled onto the filter and into the small cracks around her lips. She pinched a smile that didn't hide her pink swollen eyes.

"Ten -- I mean, I'll be eleven in September." I stared at my name filling with ashes on the orange plate, and at Kevin who narrowed his eyes and kicked now between the couch and the coffee table leg. The mayonnaise jar wobbled and rocked.

"Oh that's right." She stabbed my bouncing handprint with her cigarette and limply pointed at me. "I think that makes you, what, three years older than Kevin?"

"Marley's gonna be a big help, aren't you sweetheart?" My mom said, crushing her cigarette and reaching a limp arm for me without looking. She was nodding at Irene with her creased brows and that turned-down smile that said, You poor, poor thing. I sat on the edge of the couch, nodding. I could smell her musky deodorant and her cocoa butter hand lotion, her shrimpy mouth. I sat up very straight and crossed my legs, pointed my toes in her sandals.

"Marley, sweetheart," my mom said, pushing my dark hair from my eyes, "honey, don't you think it'll be fun if Kevin comes to stay with us for a while? You think you could help out with...are those my shoes? Are you wearing my shoes? You're wearing my shoes."

I stared at my feet. I was a teenager at the Quality Market. I was a babysitter.

"Get your smelly kid feet out of my new wedgies! Off, right now. Off!" She rolled me from the couch onto the floor. I landed on my rear, and my foot slid down and out the front of the shoe. My moist heel made a long gassy sucking sound on the plastic insole.

"Oh for Christ's sake Marley." Mom fanned her nose and pointed to the door. Kevin snorted and bent over his cast laughing at me. Irene smacked him on the leg and he smacked her back. She grabbed his fat wrist and scolded him with her pink-stained cigarette bobbing up and down.

"Mom, I didn't. It was the shoe."

"Yes Marley, the shoe passed gas. I can't believe you're acting this way in front of guests. Get outside until you can act like a lady."

"Kevin, you go with her. And stay away from that water," Irene said, steering him towards me.

"Marlene, you keep him away from that canal," my mom called after us.

My face was burning as I stomped barefoot across the bouncy floor and slammed the door to the trailer. Nothing was worse than being embarrassed in front of my mom and Irene. I just knew they were leaning into one another and laughing in front of the swamp cooler that hung like a big crooked backside onto the porch.

Kevin followed me like a puppy down the hill towards the water, laughing and yipping, calling me "Marley Fartley, shoe farter". It was everything I could do to keep from whirling to smack him, I told myself I wasn't going to. Told myself that I was the babysitter. But as soon as I dropped down the hill and saw the water, he stopped his teasing. His eyes widened, and he ran screaming for the tangled bushes and the trapped garbage swirling in the current below.

The Placer County irrigation canal that wound along the bottom of the hill where our rented trailer sat always carried drowning limp or spinning stiff things. Most nights, when I lay in my bed, I felt the trailer slipping off of its blocks and rolling towards it. The splintering echoed through the empty papered walls, bounced off the kitchen table, rolled across the linoleum in my bedroom. My mom and I papered over every single ugly part to keep the place taped together. Sometimes if my fingers pushed too hard on the thin walls at night, I was afraid the whole trailer would topple over and canal water and blackberry bushes would fill up the hollow wall between our bedrooms and drown us both.

Kevin's house was two miles away, on the other side of the water where the blackberry bushes wouldn't grow. Something in the dirt there. The water flowed faster, gray, and empty instead of slow and brown with sour floating things, like here. The metal bridge at Lozanos Road trapped the garbage underneath it on its way to his low brown house. Bits of once-alive things circled and ducked under the foam and then were popped up and sucked in and under again.

Kevin leaned over the cement banks with his cast balancing behind him and waved a long branch to fish for soggy field mice and the black garbage bags that bubbled with water and trapped air. Roots crawled underneath the canal, looking for water and cracking the banks. The edges of the cement crumbled together with the dust and thorns and yellow weeds beside our trailer where the water flowed in and out of the bushes. Old wires from a clipped fence coiled around the rocks and small footprints of thirsty animals that tried to get close enough to drink.

"You know," I said, "my dad had some dogs that fell into the canal once."

Kevin clucked his teeth, "How do you know?" He turned to glare at me, but took a step back from the edge anyway.

"My mom told me. When nobody was there to watch them, they fell into the water and couldn't climb out."

Kevin chewed on chapped lips, wiping sweat from the pointed wet hair around his ears. Drops of murky canal water settled into the white plaster of his cast. "Were they dead?" He asked, letting go of the branch.

The water was slowly sucking at a garbage bag. I dragged it away from the edge and let it drain in the dust at my feet before he could reach for it. "Yeah. The helicopter men found them when they flew over. They had to pull the dogs out from under the bridge with a chain and a big hook. My mom told me their toenails were all bloody and scraped off from trying to climb out. Told me that's what happens. Said their bodies were all fat and swelled up. Said that's what happens to everything that falls in."

"It's probably from swallowing water, huh?" Kevin asked.

"Probably."

Kevin tried to clean his glasses on his shorts. They sat crooked on his face where the plastic bridge hadn't been glued together well the last time. His head looked tipped, like he was really listening. His eyes were small; squinting like a mole that was going to pay attention, ask me questions.

"You know, my dad doesn't live with us because he's a helicopter man, and he lives in his helicopter," I said.

"Nuh uh. My mom told me you don't have a dad, Marley."

"Yes I do, and he flies over the house just to check on me."

"Yeah? Well my dad's at the Motor Cross championships and he's winning trophies right now, and when he gets back he's probably gonna buy me a motorbike."

Later that night, I tucked blankets around the scratchy cushions for Kevin to sleep on and my mom hung her yellow bed sheet as a curtain in the living room above the couch. When the light came through it just right in the morning, I knew I would see her curled-up body's shape in the thinnest patches.

"Kevin is this your pillow?" She asked, popping it into the air and fluffing it. He shrugged and stared out the window. Irene had dropped him off with a brown paper grocery bag full of play clothes, pajamas, two packages of string cheese, and a packet of bologna for lunches.

I lay under my cool sheets, feeling pills forming in the fabric from where my own body rubbed its curled-up shape. When I pushed on the wall that separated my bedroom from my mom's, the cardboard paneling bent like a trampoline, the nails squeaked in their holes, and the layers of paper peeled and stretched. Mom papered with flowers or leaves or stripes to cover the fake wood grain and the flimsy seamed walls again and again. I kept pushing with my fingertips; I wanted to touch her shiny veined eyelids, her dark hair while she slept wound in sheets on the other side of the space in my wall.

"Marley, God damn it. I can hear you in there. Quit pushing on the wall." Her raspy voice came from deep inside her damp pillow and her knuckles scraped the paneling. I could still see Kevin behind my red eyelids — asleep, curled and drooling on the rug underneath the coffee table where he had crawled. I knew he was there because I had checked, twice.

Every morning, Kevin sat bouncing at the kitchen table with his cast tipping his cereal bowl and milk crusting in the corners of his mouth. Mom just drank her coffee, watched the TV, and smoked those cigarettes I knew Irene was making her smoke again. The yellow smell tugged at my nightgown, clammy and swirling from the swamp cooler's early hum. It hummed all day every day. And I was with Kevin, all day, every day, running out of things to do and getting tired of trying to keep him away from the water. His arms and legs were crisscrossed with scratches from the blackberry bushes. I was afraid my mom would see us and yell at me, but we kept going there. It seemed like the only place that he didn't hate.

Drying plastic bags and bits of cardboard lined the banks in the sun. And he kept collecting. I had finally convinced him to kick his pile of dead things back into the water after they began to rot in the heat. Three mice and a crow, and something else I thought looked like half a rabbit. His cast had turned gray, cracking in places from the moisture seeping into the stiff gauze. The soft fabric around the edges of his upper arm and his fingers was brown from dusty sweat and he had drawn a picture of a motorcycle on his forearm with the word "Dad" next to it. He was starting to smell like the bottom of the clothes hamper, musty and sharp.

When I'd wanted to write "Marley" on his cast, he said, "No, your name's stupid."

"You're going to have to be nicer to me Kevin. I'm gonna leave you here, and if you fall into the canal then nobody will know," I got up and started walking to the trailer.

"Marley, where are you going? Hey, wait! Wait a minute." He trailed behind me, his bulky bent cast bumping against his T-shirt and shorts. I crawled under my bed to lie on the cool gritty linoleum. With my ear pressed to the floor, I made sure I could still hear him talking to my mom in the kitchen. She used a different voice for Kevin, and her Marley voice was different now too. I didn't like either one.

"Marlene!" I could hear her calling out the screen door. It squealed on its aluminum hinges and snapped closed. "Marlene, you have a responsibility here! Where are you?" I kept lying on the floor, blowing dust and long dark hairs into the corners under my bed. She was going to have to use a different voice with me.

After seven weeks, the doctor took the cast off of Kevin's arm. Irene dropped him off with a cellophane package of salami for lunch before she went back home to sleep. Kevin and I sat on the hill watching a red-brown Jersey cow float in the canal. Its hoof scraped the concrete below the crusty waterline and its body spun to face us. Kevin bit into his salami and chewed with his mouth open, smacking the insides of his cheeks, circling around and around with his tongue while he stared.

"Do you see it?" Kevin asked, "Look at its eye; it's all gray."

"That's because it's dead," I said.

"Duh, I know. It's dead from swallowing water. Probably nobody was watching it."

We crouched in the bent grass eating slippery red-pink meat while the trickling hose churned mud that ran between our toes and in veins down the hill towards the canal. Kevin wiped greasy hands on his shorts and a little growl crept from his throat when he swallowed. He was squinting into the sky, a smeared yellow reflection in his glasses.

"What if it plugs the hole under the bridge to my house?" he said.

"Then the helicopter men'll have to pull it out." I wrinkled my nose at his spicy breath and leaned away. I didn't want to listen to his red-pink smacking mouth anymore. I didn't feel like answering dumb baby questions.

"What if the helicopter doesn't see it? I'm gonna go tell your mom there's a cow." He stood in the weeds and felt around for his muddy thongs with his toe.

I picked up his shoe and threw it into the blackberry bushes. "No dummy, if you tell her about the cow, then she'll know where we've been."

Kevin's glasses reflected the outline of the cow's belly, blurry from the hovering blue-black flies. It wouldn't ever stare at the McGuire's house, at the dry backyard and silver chain link fence. Its slow-twirl body was about to slip around the corner past the bushes and clog the bridge drain until the helicopter men could come with their radios and big metal hooks. I peeled a greasy slice of salami from the plastic and rolled it into a rubbery tube. I squinted through it and watched the red-brown Jersey cow stare at me with a milky eye.

"I'm glad the doctor finally cut your cast off," I said, feeling bad and looking at him through my salami telescope. His arm was skinnier and white, like a split branch hanging from a peeling tree. It reminded me of the plastic arms I pulled off a doll and switched with another whose body wasn't the same pink color, whose joints didn't quite fit.

"Yeah, me too." White fat stuck between his teeth and I could see my freckles in his glasses.

"It looks like somebody else's arm now." I said. The hairs had grown long and dark without the sun on them.

"Nuh uh," Kevin said and then was quiet for a long time. "My dad's coming today."

The early sun was burning his forearm; the skin glowed pink on top with a bright white fish underbelly. He made a fist and twisted it back and forth, staring after the red-brown cow that floated in and out of the blackberry bushes. The brambles hanging in the water scraped at its hide and snapped when their thorns wound around its drifting legs.

"Well, it's about time, I guess." I said it, but I didn't mean it. I didn't want to be the only one whose dad never came back.

Kevin held the hose over his head and it splattered mud onto the plastic salami wrapper, shiny with the last curling slices. We were still listening for the helicopter and searching the haze for its black fly shape, when Tom McGuire's pickup truck spun gravel and dust into the tall grass by our heads. He cranked the emergency brake and parked on the sprinkler hose that we had stretched across the driveway, pinching off the water.

I watched Kevin stare at his dad's long pant leg slung out the door, his boot heel grinding the gravel driveway. Still holding the empty hose, he flattened his body in the grass and let his glasses tip off into the mud. He lay very still. Cicadas buzzed by our heads and I threw rocks to shut them up.
*

Tom McGuire clamped his thick hands on Kevin's shoulders and popped and tousled his head before tucking him under a bent red forearm. Kevin's stiff pale hair stood straight up afterwards as he sat in the truck staring straight ahead, holding his paper bag full of pajamas and clothes on his lap.

The truck door slammed shut, and Tom McGuire hung out of the open window.

"Hey kid," he said nodding and waving me towards him, "Irene told me to give this to you. Said you were helping or something." He pushed a sweaty twenty-dollar bill into my hand.

"I was babysitting."

Tom McGuire laughed out loud, his back teeth capped with silver and his hand banging the doorframe. In his mirrored glasses, I saw two of me with two brown canals behind. I watched myself put the money in my pocket before I turned and walked back to the water.



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