No Good Reason

Boots’s Pick
Michele M. Feeney


It just happened they were visiting Stonewall when the construction started, the Monday morning after Thanksgiving. A yellow backhoe maneuvered to and fro, deftly lifting heavy loads of dirt. Linda found the rhythm of the movement and the roar of the machine, punctuated by moments of silence while the driver planned his next assault, hypnotic.

Linda didn’t visit her folks much; she liked to think she’d left Mississippi in almost every way many years ago. But now, with a grandchild in the picture and her folks older, she and Scott and Trevor drove down every Thanksgiving.

Linda was always ready to head back to New York by Saturday, but Scott didn’t like to drive on holiday weekends. They usually stayed until mid-day Monday, then drove through the night, nursing coffee from a thermos while Trevor slept, arriving at work and school bleary-eyed early Tuesday morning.

Linda glanced over at Scott, who appeared enthralled by the equipment. His forehead showed pink under beads of moisture; he should have worn a hat. Trevor gazed at the equipment, also transfixed. He had precious little chance to see heavy equipment in the city. Just a few more minutes.

A biker, sweating and winded from his workout, paused next to Linda.

“What’re they digging for?” she asked. She couldn’t imagine; there was little new construction in Stonewall. The sorry little town weighed on her.

“They’re digging up the old swimming pool,” he answered. “I heard it’s in perfect shape. Hope to have it open by next summer.”

The swimming pool. Linda cannonballed back to 1974, when she was just eight years old, a year older than Trevor was now. The September the pool closed for good.

*

“Why are they sucking the water out of the pool?” Linda asked her father, tall in steel-toed work boots and pressed jeans.

Linda could barely see the lip of the pool across the two lanes of traffic, and couldn’t see the surface of the water at all. Small brown birds pecked at the rivulets running from a big hose down the gutter of Hamilton Street.

“Looks like they’re draining it, sweetheart.”

It was mid-September, still over a hundred degrees in the afternoons.

“It’s still so hot.”

“Maybe it’s broken. Maybe something got in it and died.”

“Maybe they’re cleaning it,” Linda said, imagining the pool like a big bathtub, a sponge the size of her mattress spreading Clorox all around its slimy sides.

Her father took her hand and pulled her along faster. He needed to be back to work at the grain elevator by the time the four o’clock train passed through.

*

“I didn’t know there was a swimming pool here,” Trevor said. “Why don’t we come here in the summer?”

“There hasn’t been a swimming pool here for many years,” Linda answered. “Not since I was a little girl.”

Scott looked at her quizzically, but she didn’t elaborate.

*

Linda asked her father to walk down the other side of Hamilton Street the following morning, wanting to pass a little closer to the pool.

“Sure, baby,” her father agreed. “There’s a good chance you’ll be learning to swim in that pool next summer. Have a look.”

“I’m going to learn to swim?”

“Why not?” Her father smiled.

Linda imagined herself a dolphin, arching up, sparkling in the sun, then deep into the dark water. She giggled, making her father grin.

When they got up close, she stepped off the sidewalk, dropped her book bag, and put her nose right up to the chain-link fence. The pool was a bone-dry cavern, white as chalk.

“Bet you it’ll look a whole lot better by this afternoon,” said her father, who was tall enough to look over the fence. “Best be moving along.”

It was hot that day, almost as hot and sticky as the middle of the summer. Linda thought about the pool on the dusty playground playing kickball, and again at her desk in the close afternoon. The vision brought her sweaty self comfort. She imagined the baking rectangle full of sparkling cobalt blue water, cool like her grandma’s well water. She drew the pool during free time, from above like a bird flying over Stonewall would see. She filled the pool with water, using the silver crayon to add sparkle. That’s what she expected to see on her way home, when she and her father crossed Hamilton Street to get a better look.

Where was it? Were they on the wrong street? Where the pool had been was a flat, level, dusty lot, just like all the other flat, level, dusty lots in town.

“Are we on the wrong street, Daddy?” Linda asked. “Did we go a different way?” She pivoted around. The same houses as yesterday, the same signs. Just the pool was gone; in its place, an empty lot. How could a whole pool be gone?

“No, sugar. It’s the right street. The same street as yesterday.” He shook his head, lips pursed, eyes half-closed.

“Where’s the pool?” She looked again just to make sure she wasn’t imagining the raked-clean surface of the empty lot.

“I don’t know, sugar.” He took up her hand again. “Let’s go.”

He pulled her along toward home, even faster than usual, his jaw tight. He didn’t ask about her day, what grades she got on her papers, nothing.

*

Trevor was the one to ask, “Why was it filled in?”

Scott, a country boy from Vermont, waited for her answer with the same curious look as Trevor. He would be incredulous that what she was about to tell him could happen in the United States in the mid-1970s. She readied herself for an afternoon of well-meaning, but ultimately tedious, support.

“It was filled in because they didn’t want the black children using it. The law said it had to be open to everyone. So rather than follow the law, they got rid of the swimming pool.”

“So then nobody could swim?” Trevor asked.

“That’s right. It was closed.”

“Nobody could use it?” Scott’s eyes were as wide as Trevor’s.

“Nobody.”

Scott and Trevor stood silent, seeming to consider the irony of closing a pool to everyone just to keep the black children out.

Finally, Trevor asked, “Isn’t it really hot here in the summer?”

“Yes. Really hot.” Linda remembered in a rush: round fans on the windowsills with grates she mustn’t put her fingers near, moldy towels in the bathroom cupboard, a freezer not cold enough to keep the ice cream hard. “Humid, too,” she added, thinking of rice in the salt shaker.

“Could you ever swim in the pool?”

“No. I never could.”

*

Folks met at the Crossroads Bible Church the night they filled in the pool. Linda was usually glad for a meeting instead of prayer services. A meeting meant the children would all go down into the basement and play, giving the grown-ups their privacy. This night, Linda huddled on the stairs rather than playing, barely aware of the racket from below, straining to overhear what the grown-ups said.

“The children I mind,” one woman said. “They were crying today about how they can’t swim this weekend. Crying to me.”

“You can’t blame children, Donna,” someone answered. “They only know what they’ve been taught.”

“I know, I know,” the first voice interrupted. “But my own children have never, ever been swimming. I don’t let them go into the branches. My brother drowned down there, down past the fork. I know I can’t expect children to hear themselves, to understand, to see my place, but still…”

Linda thought about the pool. It was just a pretty pool. None of her friends swam there or even anybody she knew. It wasn’t until the very last day her father suggested she might ever swim there. She hadn’t even really gotten used to the idea before the pool was gone.

*

“Mommy,” Trevor asked, “could I have gone to that pool back then?”

“No, baby,” Linda answered, looking at Trevor’s creamy brown skin, black curly hair, and deep brown eyes.

“Could Daddy?”

Scott’s face reddened to match his forehead. Who knew when a painful topic would come up with a child? Still, Linda owed Trevor an honest answer.

“Yes. Daddy could have gone swimming there. Back then, when I was a girl and he was a little boy, he would have been welcome. Today, if there was a pool, or if we come back next summer, we can all go together.”

“That wasn’t fair,” Trevor said quietly. “You must have been mad.”

“It wasn’t fair,” Scott started, and Linda made a tamping-down gesture with her hand, silencing him. He meant well, but that man could talk the paint off the wall. This was something she and Trevor shared; it was her voice Trevor needed to hear.

“I was just a little girl, sweetheart. I wanted to go swimming, but…” she hesitated. “Adults get mad about things like that. Your grandfather was angry. I didn’t know any different.”

There were a few seconds of silence. Linda tried to imagine what Trevor’s next question might be.

“How did you meet Daddy?” Trevor finally asked. “I mean, if you couldn’t even go swimming together?”

How to explain to a child the atmosphere of New York University back in 1982, when she met Scott? An interracial couple was still a novelty, but the only pointed response was outspoken endorsement. And Trevor’s New York City, a generation removed from she and Scott’s courtship and a continent away from Stonewall, Mississippi in 1974, offered no context for the buried swimming pool.

“We met in college, sweetie,” she said. It was as good an answer as any.

*

The meeting lasted a long time, so long Linda fell asleep on the stair, leaning against the wall. Linda’s daddy carried her home, her head on his shoulder. Names and ideas and plans volleyed back and forth between her parents as they walked home that night, but, as it turned out, her father’s anger and the meeting came to absolutely nothing. It was just one more thing that didn’t change according to plan. By then, people were scared. Linda knew her father was scared, by the careful way he talked and acted around white people, so different from his jokey self around home and his friends. Her mother was scared a little, not so much, but Linda couldn’t imagine her feisty momma scared anyway. What changed that summer, when she was eight, is that her daddy started telling her, whenever he got the chance, that she wouldn’t be living in Mississippi when she grew up. That scared Linda.

*

“Why are they opening it now?” Trevor asked.

“Nobody remembered there was a pool,” the biker answered. “A dog was digging on the lot one day and exposed the edge of the pool. Somebody put two and two together and realized that was where the old pool was.”

Linda had forgotten the young man, who was still winded, standing off to her left, so startled a bit when she heard his voice. She felt irritated he’d stood by during their whole conversation, then reached over and squeezed Scott’s hand, hoping he’d take the hint. It was time to go.

They all watched in silence a few minutes more. The construction equipment was making quick work of the dirt in the modest-sized swimming pool; the bulk of it would be out by noon.

The biker continued, “The machine work’s going to be done in a couple of hours. What’s left has to be hand dug. That’s an old-fashioned plaster surface. Volunteers are coming down here around five this afternoon to finish the job. I’ll be down here myself.”

Linda regretted her irritation of a moment ago. Wasn’t she the interloper here? This young man had every right to stand by and watch the progress of the project.

“When are you going to fill it back up?” Trevor asked.

“Tomorrow, we hope. We’re installing new filters and equipment first thing in the morning. Equipment’s waiting up at the train station right now. We hope to start filling late morning. Gonna have a dry run, so to speak,” he chuckled, “then shut it down again. Open it up on Memorial Day with a big party. Like in the old days.”

Linda looked sidelong at the young man. He had no more concept of the old days than Trevor. As far as he was concerned, finding the pool was a happy accident, and its restoration a gift. A fine excuse for a town party, skin tones reflecting a wide palette.

Forty-eight hours, Linda thought. That’s all it took to reverse thirty years of mean-spirited retirement of the main source of summer entertainment for white children in Stonewall. Then she pictured the easy way other women crossed the pool at her health club, and contrasted her own awkward stroke. Not quite reversed, she thought. Swimming is one of those things you have to learn in childhood to be truly graceful.

*

Even though she knew her daddy didn’t want to talk about the pool, Linda had to ask. “Why? Why, Daddy?”

“Why what, sweetie?”

“Why don’t they want me to swim?”

“It’s not you in particular, honey, it’s all of us. You can’t take it personal.”

“Why, though?”

Her daddy thought for a few minutes, pulled some of the mints she liked out of his pocket, offered her one, took one himself, sucked on it a minute, and finally said, “I don’t know, sweetie. No good reason I can think of. No good reason.”

*

“Why didn’t they want you to swim there?” Trevor asked.

“It wasn’t just me, honey. It was anybody with brown skin. I didn’t take it personally.”

“Why didn’t they want anybody with brown skin to swim there?”

Of what benefit to Trevor was it to understand hatred? Sure, history was somewhere in the curriculum of his life, but why today, at seven? Then again, who knew when kids would ask the tough questions. Linda debated. Finally she answered.

“No good reason, honey. No good reason.”

That answer felt inadequate.

“It wasn’t fair,” she added, realizing she’d used Trevor’s exact words. And Scott’s, she then thought, regretting her earlier impatience. She searched for more words, then appreciated it was one of those times more words wouldn’t help a bit.

“Can we come back tomorrow, Momma? See it all filled up?”

They’d planned to leave shortly, and get back to the city early tomorrow. Linda secretly loved seeing the New York Skyline at dawn; it was the moment she felt the holidays began. Seeing the pool filled with clear, blue water would mean staying an extra day, missing more school and work. Linda looked over Trevor’s head to Scott, a question in her eyes. He nodded, and she smiled.

“Sure, honey, I’d like that,” she answered, tied for a moment to the little girl disappointed by the dusty lot. “We’ll bring your grandpa.”
pencil

“I am the mother of four, living in Phoenix, Arizona. I work part-time as a lawyer and write whenever I can.” E-mail: mfeeney7[at]cox.net

Perfect Order

Fiction
Michele M. Feeney


My little sister Kelly once told me a ballerina will fix on an object so she won’t spin out of control. I fix on the smoke alarm in the middle of the ceiling. Then, the call button for the nurse. Then, the plastic glove container right next to the bathroom door. Finally, I fix on the tiers of drawers on the ledge behind Lyssa’s head. Those drawers promise order for small objects. Make me feel everything would be okay if I owned those drawers and sorted my small stuff. Those drawers invite planning. Nothing like my life right now.

Lyssa called me five hours ago. “Mike,” she said. “Baby’s coming. Aubrey’s coming. You’d better get here.”

I hadn’t spoken to Lyssa for a couple of months and hoped not to for a few more. I hadn’t known how we’d handle the delivery but figured I didn’t need to know since it wouldn’t be until Thanksgiving. Now I’m in this room seeing more of Lyssa’s privates than I ever saw before, given that we were only together a time or two for what I’d kindly call a grope in the dark.

She’s outside her head, swearing and sweating. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she grunts. “What did I do to deserve this? Why is God punishing me?”

Glory be, I think, hearing my grandmother’s voice in my head. Then I think of that old movie, Glory, my dad likes so much, and the feeling anything bad could happen next from the beginning to the very end. The minute to minute feeling. Then I think I’m thinking too much and go back to naming objects around the room, one after the other, spelling their names frontwards and then backwards. I’ve circled the room a time or two before I have a real thought again.

Aubrey, which is what Lyssa wanted to name the baby, might already be dead by the looks of things.

“Way too soon,” the doctor said when he popped in a few minutes ago. “Little chance.”

I watch the strip. Its tracings are mostly a mystery to me, but any boy scout who reads Morse code knows an almost flat line means the message is all but finished. The phrase “dodged a bullet” pops into my head, then I curse my shameful self.

“Mike,” Lyssa moans, and holds out her hand from across the room. At least six feet separate me from that hand. “Come here, help me.”

I do not want to cross that room, but will do so because I was raised right. But I do try to find a pleasant thought to hold myself out of the scene. A man isn’t responsible for what he thinks about. Again, I choose Kelly, my little sister, the ballerina. My tiny dancer back in Florida. I see Kelly pirouetting down the sidewalk, then lift her clumsily, next to my mother’s best hydrangea. Then, I start a pretend video of her last dance recital in my head. Interminable, light, and distracting.

After a few minutes of holding Lyssa’s hand, her grip limp then brutal, the decent but clueless nurse who’s been getting on my last nerve all night with her pretend-Valium calm, says, “Dad, would you like to see the baby? Hold her for a minute? She’s still breathing.”

“What baby?” I say, not aware that the few seconds of respite from Lyssa’s grip meant something had passed.

“Here,” the nurse says, handing me a towel with a small weight inside, seemingly about the size of newborn puppy. This frees her hands to help repair Lyssa. The nurse guides me to a position where Lyssa, too spent to reach out, can see too.

I peel back the corner of the towel. I see a purplish-brown, bloated human form, which, if she’s breathing, is barely breathing. The eyes aren’t open, but the hand I can see opens and shuts, almost imperceptibly.

What am I supposed to feel right here? I remember the day I tried to talk Lyssa into an abortion, despite all my daddy’s best Baptist teachings. She refused, full of hope and desire for a healthy baby, quite willing to move forward with or without me. I take one more look at the form in the towel. I don’t really want to get to know this baby any better. It seems she’s stopped moving anyway. I cover her face with the towel and hand her back to the nurse.

“Can I see her?” Lyssa reaches out. “Before she passes?”

“I think it’s too late,” I answer, and Lyssa sobs before my words are fully spoken. The nurse takes the towel and hands the bundle to Lyssa.

I hear the rumble of thunder, muted in the hospital, but still audible, and cross to the window. I push back the curtains. The window is fixed in place, no chance for fresh air in here. I smell blood and sweat and a smell I can’t identify that I first fear is formaldehyde but then realize is strong antiseptic. Lightning cracks through the sky. I haven’t seen a storm like this since I left Florida.

My family doesn’t even know where I am right now. Probably think I’m home watching reruns. It’s three hours earlier here in Denver; they’re probably sleeping. Not thinking about me at all. Technically, my mother was a grandmother tonight, for just about ten minutes, though she’ll never know it. Why should I tell her this whole, sad chapter? I invite Kelly back into my head and she twirls from my mother’s pantry, Corn Flakes at the very end of her outstretched arm, then crosses the kitchen in a single graceful leap.

“Time of death?” the doctor asks.

“11:45 p.m.,” the nurse answers.

The doctor makes a note.

“Sweetie,” the nurse moves to Lyssa, “Are you ready to give her up?”

“A few more minutes,” Lyssa answers. She looks into the towel without flinching, then says to the nurse, “Isn’t she beautiful?”

“Sure is,” the nurse says, then looks at me expectantly.

I don’t say anything. I think I expected a hard workout, like at the gym. I expected a smooth landing, like an airplane. I expected a waxy china doll, like in the movies. I didn’t expect this.

“Would you like to take a picture?” the nurse asks Lyssa.

“Would you take it?” Lyssa answers the nurse, hopefully. “I have a camera in my bag.”

Is she kidding? The baby is dead. Lyssa looks like hell. I’ve never seen her, or any woman, for that matter, look this bad before. At least not up close. She wants a picture with the dead baby?

“Would you like to be in the picture?” the nurse asks me.

“No,” I say, already backing out of the frame. “No, thanks.”

Then, I bolt. I leave the room, the baby Aubrey, the nurse, the doctor, the room. I try to remember the way out of the hospital, down corridor after corridor, like reconnaissance. I find the parking lot and try to remember where I left my Jeep, afraid to use that little button that makes the horn honk because they might come after me and I’m way under cover now.

The Jeep’s exactly as I left it, which seems impossible. How could the same CD be in the stereo, still on track 8, when I feel like my head’s moved to track 2,000,000? I consider driving a different route home, because the route I came is sure to feel surreal.

My momma always said you only get to do your firsts once. First dance, first car, first kiss, first job, first love. “So don’t rush things,” my momma said. Well. Now I guess I’ve had my first child and I’ve got my first big secret, too.

My apartment door opens with the same old key, and my apartment, like everything else, is just like I left it. Pillows just so on the leather couch, remote on the top of the TV, artsy books positioned just so on the coffee table. Kelly, framed in silver, twirling on the table. Just the way I like it. Perfect order.

pencil

“I have taken many creative writing classes and participated in many conferences. This story was written at the Hassyampa Conference in Prescott, Arizona in July 2005.” E-mail: mfeeney7[at]cox.net.