This week we bring you a new work of short fiction . . . ECLIPSED
THE NEWSPAPER HAD predicted a partial eclipse of the moon for the Sunday night before Labour Day. Though his parents sometimes had reservations about allowing their children to have too much fun on Sundays, Nigel Mawson surmounted such half-baked scruples with surprising ease by stressing the educational value of being allowed to sleep out with Little Loss and Stu on the evening of such a rare and instructive occurrence. “I’ll probably be in my twenties before there’s another one of these,” he told his mother. “And in grade seven science we’ll be studying the solar system.”
Nigel was prepared to pitch at least three more arguments when his mother suddenly gave way like a forbidding-looking door that not only isn’t locked, it isn’t even closed. “Oh, all right,” she said. “You can have them over.” Then she turned back to her cupboards where she was taking stock in preparation for their move next week.
Both his parents were so distracted nowadays, Nigel probably could have received permission to start raising chinchillas in the bathtub. Truth be told, his parents’ world was crashing about their heads. Some ‘sure thing’ investments had blown up in their faces just after Christmas and they were still scrambling to set the domestic ship back on an even keel. The upcoming move was a serious demotion in terms of status, and their anxiety and disappointment were leaking all over everything.
Nobody got after Nigel and his brothers to mow the lawn anymore and in particularly lush sections, the grass was well over one foot high. His mother could spend whole days dressed in her housecoat and Nigel sometimes heard raised voices and sobbing from his parents’ bedroom late at night. He almost hoped that one of them was having an affair – though he couldn’t imagine either – because crying over money was stupid. “Drop it,” he wanted to tell them. “Let it go. It isn’t worth it.”
This was the rich house; far and away the most expensive house the Mawsons had ever owned; the fourth house Nigel had lived in during his thirteen years. Nigel didn’t know his parents’ income, had to stop and think for a moment when people asked what his father did for a living, but like any child of the middle-class, he could feel certain financial realities in his bones. And from the very first day of their arrival in suburbia - hearing Telstar by The Tornadoes always brought back the fresh paint smell and the cavernous acoustics of moving day - he’d felt the uneasiness and strain which this house had imposed on his family.
While previous houses had featured graduated stages of opulence and grandeur, this one represented a far greater leap; a sort of reckless daring he found hard to associate with his parents. It didn’t feel right to be suddenly surrounded by such typical suburban trappings as a sliding glass door to a patio, a finished rec room, a whole separate room for laundry, a fireplace with a brick façade that extended all the way up to the ceiling, wallpaper printed with a breezy, two-tone mural of Paris and a dining room chandelier that looked like it belonged in the lobby of the Loews Theatre.
What were they doing in such a dining room eating reheated chili out of Melmac bowls which his mother had excavated from giant-sized boxes of Duz detergent? Rugs and curtains brought over from the last house couldn’t quite cover the floors and windows. Though all three brothers now had their very own bedrooms and desks, they still congregated with homework at the kitchen table where they could listen to the radio, give each other answers and fight. Every room in the house felt harsh and bare and bigger than it needed to be. If they’d closed off one floor and shoved everything together in one half of the space, that might achieve the comforting clutter and ambience that Nigel recognized as home.
When word came down that they’d be moving in the fall, Nigel was happy for his family. He thought it might restore a little balance and sanity to his parents’ bitchy relationship and get all of them back in touch with a way of life more natural and rewarding than this struggle to maintain a household they couldn't really afford. As a Mawson, he was relieved. But as Nigel, he was deeply worried. Perhaps because the home had always felt so wrong, Nigel had spent his two years in suburbia exploring and coming to love the neighbourhood outside.
His older brothers were more impervious to its charms because it never represented their whole world. They had broader horizons to explore. Their high school was a couple of miles away. They were always borrowing the family car to drive further and further afield. When school let out for summer, Nigel could go for an entire season and never set foot on anything but these serpentine, sidewalk-free avenues which always doubled back upon themselves and never really took you anywhere.
No churches or schools, no parks or businesses bigger than a variety store; just house after house after house, all of them conforming to one of six residential designs featured in the subdivision. The houses were as interchangeable as lightbulbs and the landscape was positively desolate. In the winter it reminded Nigel of an Arctic frontier outpost five hundred miles north of the tree line. At night he’d stare out his bedroom window at absolutely nothing and imagine he heard the howling of wolves or the distant thunder of a caribou herd swarming across the tundra. In the summer it felt like the blistered surface of some dead planet situated too close to the sun; baking acres of nakedness pitted with manmade craters which soon would be filled with cement and become the basements, or sockets, for another block of interchangeable lightbulb houses.
But what the neighbourhood did have in plenitude was kids; the highest kid-per-block ratio which Nigel had encountered in all the years of his parents’ upward mobility. And they seemed to be a different sort of kid too; precocious and daring, competitive and shrewd, acquisitive and pushy; kids who knew all about appearances and clothes and the impressions they could make; who shifted images and allegiances with mercurial ease. Most intriguing of all – and, it must be admitted, most daunting – he and his best mates were starting to erratically engage in romantic pursuits with girls even if their hormones weren’t really primed for such activities just yet.
After a day of messing around on a raft with the lads (an activity which employed every muscle in his body and every cell in his brain), girls might come out in the evening to join them and kisses and cuddles could become part of their twilit games of hide and seek. Nigel knew his prime motivator in this gentle contact sport wasn’t love or even lust. It was mostly a contrived and almost morbid curiosity to discover what was being alluded to in the lyrics of nearly every song he listened to. The girls seemed to sense this and usually rebuffed his halfhearted overtures, leaving him feeling simultaneously relieved to be out of this stupid game and shattered because he knew that – unlike his friends – he played it so badly.
Nigel thought they were the most exciting friends he’d ever had and was worried sick that he’d lose them all when the family moved next week. He was only moving ten blocks and knew the physical distance could be easily bridged but wasn’t so confident about the social gulf which the move would open up. Did exciting friends see you through that sort of demotion or were they exciting because you rather suspected they wouldn’t? Did creatures as wonderful as these only ever give you the time of day because you were lucky enough to live within their immediate range? And now that you were moving beyond their zone of convenience, would you move beyond their consciousness as well? Nigel had known about the upcoming move for at least three months but still hadn’t dared to whisper a word about it to any of his friends. He might release the news tonight if the auspices were promising; if he felt it wouldn’t be used against him or cause him to be thrown out of the charmed circle of their company one week ahead of schedule.
'WHY DON'T YOU CUT YOUR GRASS?" asked Little Loss as Nigel led his overnight guests through a particularly lush section of lawn at dusk, flattening down a path to the southwestern corner of the yard where Nigel had pitched the Mawsons’ king-sized tourist tent with the decomposing canvas floor and mushroom cultures growing in two of the corners. Nigel chose to ignore Loss’ question and instead pointed out a section of potentially dangerous lawn. “You gotta watch it a little around here,” he said. "We played croquet for my Mom’s birthday and I don’t think we got all the hoops up.”
“Old man Yarret must hate your guts,” said Loss, eying the contrast between the Mawsons’ yard and the Garden of Versailles next door.
Nigel had thought about mowing the lawn that day, even pulled the Taylor-Forbes Turf Glider out of the garage and budged it along for a few miserable strokes until it got so clogged, he couldn’t extract it from the grass. “There’s the mower if you want to have a go, Little Loss. I’ll let my mom know you’re interested in the job.”
“I don’t want the job but you guys have gotta do something. My dad says your house is wrecking the tone for the entire neighbourhood.”
“Yeh, your dad knows all about tone,” snorted Stu, and Nigel couldn’t help laughing out loud.
“What’s so funny?” asked Loss.
“You know,” said Stu.
“What? He fell asleep smoking.”
“There was more to it than that,” said Nigel.
“Okay, so the mattress caught fire.”
“And . . . and . . .” urged Nigel. “That’s not the best part.”
“And they put it out.”
“Come on, Loss,” said Stu. “They threw the mattress out your parents’ bedroom window at three o’clock in the morning. And this black thing sat there smoking away on your front lawn, burning down to the coils, until noon on Sunday.”
“I know. So? What else are you supposed to do when your bed’s on fire? It was the smart thing to do. And those mattresses are heavy.”
“We know that, Loss,” said Nigel. “But it’s got no tone.”
“Yeh, okay,” said Loss. “But I still think you ought to mow your fucking grass.”
“Look, Loss, it just so happens my parents aren’t very concerned with keeping up appearances just now. Okay? They’re depressed. They got other things on their minds.”
That shut them up for a good fifteen seconds.
“How broke?” asked Stu.
“Broke broke. We’re moving next week. We can’t afford to stay here.”
“Where you moving?” asked Loss,
Nigel told them the address, in an older section of town they didn’t know well, five or six blocks north of their school. It was somewhere out there, about a mile beyond this gracious kingdom of buried hydro lines and tiny saplings tied to sticks with bits of rag; where every front lawn had a colonial lamp post in lieu of streetlights. If they’d all been a couple years younger, they would’ve taken a Three Musketeers oath of eternal allegiance and forgotten all about it two minutes after the Allied moving van carted the Mawsons and their shabby possessions away. A couple years later, a nearby switcheroo of address wouldn’t threaten their friendships at all. But thirteen years old – that was tricky. Nobody knew how it might go and nobody promised anything. The sudden quietness of their mood almost suggested that somebody had died and Nigel was pretty sure it was him.
Nigel threw the canvas flap up over the roof of the tent, releasing a stale waft of surprisingly warm air into their faces. “Ugh,” said Stu, covering his nose and turning away. “Sick animal farts.”
Nigel unzipped the mosquito net and started ineffectually flapping the gauzy material to stir up some circulation. “We’ll be okay in a minute,” said Nigel, stepping in and switching on the battery operated lantern hooked onto a leather latch in the peaked ceiling of the tent. Looking down from this task he found Little Loss staring at him expectantly.
“Didcha bring some?”
“Yeh, I said I would.”
“Okay,” said Loss. “No hurry. I came through with my part of the deal.” Loss undid the knot on his bedroll and then jerked back his hands with dramatic flair so the sleeping bag came unfurled in the air and released its hidden treasure. There was a many-layered shuffling noise as six copies of Cavalier magazine pinched from his dad’s collection went sliding across the floor. “And two of ‘em have still got centrefolds,” he said triumphantly, falling to his knees to dig through the pile, holding one up briefly for all to see and then clutching the magazine to his heart and falling backwards to the floor, moaning, “Linda, oh Linda, oh Linda.”
Nigel and Stu exchanged pertinent glances that had to do with Little Loss. He was an amazing fellow, really – a slightly cross-eyed little troll who was keen on sports and told interminable jokes about dopey characters with improbable names like Johnny Fuckerfaster and Piss-Eyed Pete whose body was graced with ‘forty pounds of hanging meat’. There was nothing particularly smooth about Loss at all yet he’d already necked with at least six girls and when it came time to ‘go all the way’, Stu and Nigel had no doubts who’d be the first of their trio to cross that finish line. His needs that way already seemed to be much more pronounced than theirs and his energies were so purely focused. Nigel understood that he did not share Loss’ forceful sense of purpose that way and was pretty sure that Stu wasn’t possessed by it to the same extent either though he’d certainly necked with more girls than Nigel.
“You don’t have to show me what you got. Just tell me,” said Little Loss.
“Well, I got a bit of everything,” said Nigel, trying to inject some swagger into his voice. “There’s whiskey and scotch . . . or scotch whiskey, I mean. Some vodka and gin . . . they’re the clear ones, right? And the one with the pirate on it . . . rum?”
“Holy shit,” said Loss, genuinely impressed. “Where’d you put it all?”
“It’s in there,” said Nigel, and pointed to his rolled up sleeping bag.
“You couldn’t get it all in there,” said Loss suspiciously and went rooting through the folds in the bag, eventually emerging with a jar full of dark and cloudy fluid. Loss tipped the jar to read the lid. “Gatusso olives?” he asked.
“You didn’t mix them, did you, Nigel?” asked Stu.
“With olives?” asked Loss, feverishly shaking the jar and staring into its bottom like a telescope, watching for things to settle.
“No, I cleaned out the jar and then mixed all the drinks together. I didn’t want to take too much from any one bottle.”
“But why is it green?” asked Stu.
“Oh, that’s crème de menthe. It’s not bad stuff. It sort of tastes like Scope.”
“Not when you mix it up like this,” said Stu, grabbing the jar from Loss and staring at it in disgust. “Then it tastes like horseshit.”
“I didn’t know you guys were such conna-sewers,” Nigel said. “I mean, even on their own . . . except for the crème de menthe maybe . . . don’t you kind of hate the taste? Don’t they kind of burn your throat going down?”
They wouldn’t answer Nigel’s stupid questions because that would let him off the hook and this was a mistake for which he must pay the maximum penalty. Having parents who went broke and let their lawns grow wild was an insignificant trifle but mixing one’s drinks like different tints of paint – that was a damnable blunder.
It was Little Loss who eventually broke the incriminating silence in a voice that was drenched in emotion. “I mean, come on. It’s the last night of holidays. Tomorrow night I’m going to be in my pajamas by nine o’clock listening to Big Loss pounding his pork and wondering where the summer went. This is the last stand and I intend to get drunk and look at big tits. I want it all and I want it tonight cuz tomorrow’s going to be too late. All right?”
When the spirit moved him, Little Loss could be a surprisingly powerful orator. Nigel felt duly ashamed and Stu was impelled to make a spontaneous offering that might save their sad predicament. “All right. I’ll swipe a case of my old man’s beer.”
“Two four?” asked Loss with a swiftness that seemed to suggest he’d willed Stu to make the offer in the first place.
“Nope. He only has twelves. If I took two I’m sure he’d notice. I can get us twelve bottles of warm India Pale Ale.”
“That’s only four each.”
“Well, if Nigel here drinks his swamp-water, that’ll be six each for you and me.”
Nigel caught a glance between Stu and Loss like the one he’d shared earlier with Stu and remembered that a trio of friends also comprises three pairs.
“Excellent,” agreed Loss and, in a way, so did Nigel, silently admitting that he’d blown it pretty bad and probably deserved this.
“And that’s not all,” said Stu with a menacing glint in his voice. “I know where two other people are sleeping out in a tent tonight.”
“People?” asked Little Loss, cupping his hands under imaginary breasts and swiveling his hips.
“Sharon and Linda,” said Stu and Little Loss immediately fell in swoon, scooping up the magazines and rolling onto his back to address the roof of the tent with slow and steady deliberation. “All right. We go and get the beer. And we’ll have to remember an opener. Bring ‘em back here and drink ‘em up fast so we can hit the girls’ tent by 11:30. That’ll give Linda’s parents time to watch the news and go to bed.”
“Linda’s parents aren’t there,” said Stu. “They’re in Detroit. Linda’s sister’s in charge and she doesn’t care what we do.”
“Then what’re we hanging around here for?” asked Loss. “Let’s go.”
And with that, the two of them slipped away, leaving Nigel in his putrid tent with a jar of swamp-water and six heavily mauled issues of Cavalier.
NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME, it seemed to Nigel that the girls were more aggravation than they were worth. And who was Loss kidding with his wiggly dance depicting breasts and hips? The girls didn’t have any; were still waiting for them to arrive via the puberty express. Their leader was Linda and not only was she arguably the least attractive of the lot, she was a social tyrant. Whenever the girls got together, or whenever the boys got to see the girls, it always happened on Linda’s turf and on Linda’s terms. Occasionally there was a third girl, Nancy, who was Nigel’s favourite but she was only ever pulled in as a spoiler when Linda wanted to test Loss’ make-believe love for her or shake things up between Stu and Sharon who weren’t really as much of a couple as Linda liked to pretend they were.
Nigel took a slug of his swamp-water, grimacing as he swallowed and shuddering in the after-burn. It wasn’t very good. It wasn’t that much worse than beer but it was pretty dreadful. He tried another. And another. And another – just to see if he could develop a taste for the stuff – but he didn’t think he could. After he’d consumed about a quarter of his jar, his lips started to feel kind of numb and he felt an anxious flurry of heat playing at the top of his spine. 'That should do the trick,' he thought, screwed the lid back on the jar and stashed it in his sleeping bag. “I think I’d better go for a walk,” he said out loud, not quite in control of his lips, like when he’d leave the dentist’s office ninety minutes before the Novocain wore off. He easily scrambled up onto his feet but the sudden shift in altitude required him to stand still for a second, as if his head were a jug full of water that was sloshing from side to side.
His equilibrium restored, he switched off the lamp and stepped out of the tent and at least three of his senses were simultaneously ravished by the fresh night air. If he didn’t have any particular destination in mind before, there was no question now – the image of Nancy called him like a magnet. He wouldn’t have the nerve to knock on her door or anything but he thought it might cheer him up just to stare at the house of the only one of his so-called friends who wasn’t a complete louse. And who knows? Maybe she’d be walking past a window and would happen to see him in the street; would throw on that blue pullover of hers that he always liked and then gingerly slip outside to suggest that they should run away together.
Interestingly enough, he hopped all the way there; both feet aligned together and swinging his arms at his side. He didn’t remember actually choosing this form of locomotion but enjoyed it so much that he vowed to feature it more often in his day to day existence. There seemed to be some kind of party or reception going on in Nancy’s backyard; a lot of adults sitting around in lawn chairs, spilling around to the side as well.
Nancy saw Nigel hopping indecisively at the foot of her laneway and set down the tray of snacky things on crackers that she was serving to her parents’ guests. “Is that Nigel?” asked her mother. “What’s he doing?”
“I’m not sure, Mom. I’ll go and see.”
'Wow. Here she comes,' thought Nigel. 'She isn’t wearing that sweater but how great is this?'
“Nigel, I can’t see you. My parents are having a party and I’ve got to help out.”
“Yeh, I could kind of see that,” he said and then, realizing he was still hopping, stopped.
“I thought Loss and Stu were . . .” she said and then stopped. “Oh . . . wait a minute . . . Are they all over at Linda’s?”
Nigel nodded his head. “They were supposed to be sleeping over at my place.”
Nancy shook her head in grim admiration. “That’s really ignorant,” she said.
“It is, isn’t it?” agreed Nigel.
“Yeh. I’d say that’s worth some kind of trophy.”
Nigel laughed and thought about all the times they’d been thrown together like this; usually the leftover bits from Linda’s overbearing schemes, though this time Nigel was just as ticked off at Little Loss and Stu. Sometimes Nigel and Nancy just embarrassed one another as living confirmation of their own social ineptitude. Other times they did quite all right by themselves, almost forgot what they weren’t a part of and started to recognize that other kinds of friendship might be possible. The best time of them all was a summer afternoon when they just sort of happened upon one another with nobody else around. It didn’t occur to either one of them to moon or sigh or make some sort of move and they sat down together on a curb to bang off a roll of caps with a rock and talked about swimming and movies and nightmares and records.
Nancy twitched her nose as if something in the vapours of the night had been subtly altered with Nigel’s exhalation of laughter at her comment about a trophy. “Hey, are you drunk or something?”
“Yeh, I think I am.”
“Then you’ve definitely got to go. If my mother sees you like . . .”
“Okay, okay,” said Nigel. “But do you know what, Nancy?”
“You’re the best.”
Nancy looked around to see if either of her parents was approaching. “That’s good to hear, Nigel, but you’ve really got to go.”
There was so much more Nigel wanted to say. He wanted to tell her that his family was moving and he was going to miss her but he could see that she’d never really hear any of it like this and might even get angry if he tried to hang around any longer. “Will you meet me at the Variety tomorrow after lunch?”
“Yes,” she agreed and then turned to go back to her parents’ party. Nigel watched her go, wondering if she’d really show up or if she’d just said ‘yes’ to get rid of him. If she did show up, he’d tell her about the move and see if she’d be interested in getting together some time even if he did live more than a mile away. It might put their relationship on a whole new footing, entirely unmitigated by other people’s scheming and gamesmanship. He didn’t dare count on it but it was a possibility and he needed one of those just now.
NIGEL TURNED AND HOPPED EAST, bouncing unseen past his parents’ living room window. He seemed to be heading towards Linda’s house though he couldn’t imagine why. Maybe he’d see if his friends wanted to stop necking and come out to play? Or pull up all the stakes on their tent and hop all over their entangled forms? Whatever he did when he got there, he felt pretty sure that it wouldn't redound to his social advantage. He knew the laws of etiquette required that he should retreat to his own whiffy and otherwise deserted tent and sit out the evening in solitary confinement leafing through Cavalier magazines and feeling like the lonesomest creature on God’s green earth. Well, phooey on that. Nigel had other plans for this evening, even if he didn't have a clue what they were.
Hopping along the narrow sidewalk between Linda’s house and her garage, Nigel caught the cuff of his pants in a nest of bicycles and fell sideways, slamming his head into the aluminum panel in the base of the kitchen screen door. The noise was incredible and Linda’s sister came running to see who was shooting cannonballs into the side of their house. Nigel was stooped over, still picking himself up, when Suzanne threw open the very same door which banged into his head again and sent him sprawling backwards into a tangled up pile of hose.
“Nigel – is that you? Are you hurt?”
Nigel looked up at her and smiled weakly in the glow of light pouring through from the kitchen doorway. “No,” he said, feeling his head for tender spots and not finding any. “It’s a good noise but it doesn’t hurt much.”
“I’m so sorry. Come in for a minute,” she said. “We’d better take a look at your head in the light.” Suzanne helped Nigel extricate himself from his elaborate hosey snare and guided him up the three cement stairs to the kitchen, pulling out a chair for him which she positioned just underneath the glowing white globe in the middle of the ceiling. Placing a hand on either side of his face, she tilted his head from side to side and back and forth. Gently startled by how utterly blissful this medical examination felt, Nigel pressed his cheeks against the warmth of her hands and almost started purring like a cat.
“I think you’ll be able to play soccer with it again,” she said, her mouth carrying the trace of a smile which let Nigel know that she was amused and maybe even a little flattered by how much he was enjoying her attention.
“That was wonderful,” Nigel said with such depth of emotion that his voice was a little shredded.
“My God,” said Suzanne. “What have you been drinking?”
“Oh,” said Nigel, trying to recall what all he’d poured into that olive jar but only came up with, “some kind of really wicked mouthwash.”
“It wasn’t just beer, was it?”
Nigel shook his head ‘no’.
“Was it a mickey of some kind?”
“Not really. It was like a mixture.”
“Was there whiskey?”
“Yes. And vodka and gin and crème de menthe.”
“What are you doing drinking hard stuff like that? I never even had beer until I was sixteen.”
“Did you like the taste?” asked Nigel.
“I hated it.”
“Then why’d you drink it?” he asked, winning his second trace of a smile from Suzanne in less than a minute.
“I drank the beer because I was miserable and I thought it would make me feel better. You too?”
Nigel nodded his head up and down.
“It doesn’t work, does it?”
Nigel wanted to say ‘no’ but instead kept quiet for fear he couldn’t get the word out.
“Oh, you poor stooge,” said Suzanne and then turned away to plug in a steam kettle. “I could kill that little sister of mine. I could kill the whole bunch of you. I’m not even sure she’s got all her second teeth yet and there’s the four of them out there necking and drinking beer. Go upstairs to her bedroom and what do you find? Barbie and Ken gear, wall to wall . . . my old dollhouse . . . Winnie the Pooh books and Anne of Green Gables. I’m sorry but I don’t see any way to put these two worlds together. It doesn’t add up.”
“You know Loss and Stu are out there? And the beer?”
“Of course, I know. Linda and Sharon keep coming in to use the loo every twenty minutes. The boys should too instead of sneaking out to the corner garden where they're doing a number on my mother’s zinnias.”
“And you’re not going to do anything about it?”
“No. What am I supposed to do? Chase the boys away and confiscate their beer? I won’t do it. I won’t be mother.” Then, after a pause, Suzanne added, “I suppose I might feel a little more urgency about all this if I thought anyone out there was sufficiently developed that anything could actually come of it . . . if you know what I mean.”
Nigel blushed and nodded that he did know what she meant. “Well,” he said, taking his courage into his hands to ask a question that really puzzled him, “If you don’t want to stop them from doing it . . . why does it seem to make you so angry that they’re doing it?”
Her eyebrows arched sharply and he was afraid that he was about to be sent packing.
“You really are quite incredible,” she said in a tone of voice that didn’t make it sound like a compliment. “You get loaded up on booze ten years too early and try to take out our door with your head and now you're peppering me with questions. You’re supposed to be giving the answers here, Mr. Mawson.”
“I’m sorry,” Nigel said. “I don’t think that came out right.”
Suddenly irritated with herself for barking at him, she said, “No, I take that back. Don’t be sorry. It was a really good question.”
The steam kettle clicked off and Suzanne walked over to the counter where she ladled instant coffee into two cups. “Have you ever had black coffee?” she asked, setting down both cups and joining him at the table. “You’ll probably hate it but it’s required.”
As Nigel blew and sipped at this exotic new beverage – and after the swamp-water, anything tasted okay – Suzanne grappled with his question.
“I guess I’m angry because I felt rushed along when I was a kid and I know I didn’t start in with all this pretend dating and drinking junk until I was a lot older than you lot. I mean, what’s the hurry? I get it. I know when you’re really young, you’re always trying to move yourself along to the next stage. But what they’re doing out there is like rooting through your parents’ closet in November to see what you’re going to get for Christmas. It spoils ‘now’ and it spoils ‘later’.”
After their coffee, Suzanne stood up and announced. “We need air, Nigel. And we need a swim. Let’s go up to the motel.” Suzanne got changed upstairs and procured an ancient pair of gym shorts with an elastic band for Nigel. The two of them headed out on foot to the Carousel Motel which was situated about a half mile south on the highway at the other end of the subdivision.
“Shouldn’t you stay and watch your sister?” asked Nigel, slightly amazed that he was the one making the sensible suggestion.
“I don’t see why. We won’t be long and I don’t think she’s going anywhere with Little Loss on top of her. Do you?”
STRICTLY SPEAKING, what they were doing was illegal but the motel management was willing to turn a blind eye to late night swimmers from the subdivision provided they kept it quiet and didn’t annoy the guests. They had the whole pool to themselves. Nigel was an okay splasher and treader but he was nervous about the deep end. Suzanne offered to take him across if he’d hang onto the back of her shoulders and that seemed a perfectly exquisite idea to him. He sat shivering on the smooth rim of the pool while Suzanne treaded water and situated herself just in front of him. Setting his hands on the warm and goosebumpy firmness of her shoulders, Nigel felt drunk in a better way than he had all night staring down into the shimmering blue depth of the illuminated pool.
On the count of three, Suzanne kicked off against the wall and as the two of them shot out into the centre of the pool, all the lights went out at once – both above and below the water – and Nigel felt his heart exploding in his chest.
“It’s midnight,” said Suzanne knowingly as Nigel panted in her ear. “They keep everything hooked up to an automatic timer.”
That was the official explanation but Nigel heard not a word of it as he hung on to those beautiful shoulders for life, sloshing from one side of the pool to the other like a saturated and ecstatic dishrag.
On the way back from the motel, Nigel surprised himself by talking with Suzanne about next week’s move in a steady and unfearful way. He’d still see his friends at school and if they really were his friends, then they’d find a way to carry on. After the events of this day, he found himself strangely reconciled and actually welcoming the prospect of a complete change of scene. And Suzanne bolstered this new sense of competence by telling him, "I think it'll do you a lot of good. This crummy suburb isn't big enough for you, kid."
As they headed up Suzanne’s laneway at about twelve-thirty, a distinct retching noise could be heard from the backyard and Little Loss and Stu came running up to Suzanne, reporting that Linda was feeling a little rough.
“Oh great,” said Suzanne. “I’m supposed to be babysitting and instead I’m running a drunk clinic for thirteen year olds.”
Suzanne went through to the back to tend to her spluttering sister and Loss moved in on Nigel, eyes wide in jealousy and disbelief. “You went out with Suzanne?” he asked. “You went swimming with her?”
“I most certainly did,” Nigel beamed at him. “You guys going to wait here? I’ve got to go get changed.”
“Oh shit,” said Loss, spinning away from the kitchen door in disgust as Nigel popped inside. “Did you see her in that suit?” he asked Stu. “How did he arrange that?”
Changed back into his clothes, Nigel stopped for a minute and stared out the bathroom window. He knew he’d probably never have cause to visit this house or Suzanne again and he wanted to observe a moment of reflection and gratitude. She didn’t have to be as good to him as she was and he knew he’d never forget her for it. Noticing the moon, full and white, hovering high on the southern horizon, he realized he’d somehow managed to miss the last eclipse that would come his way this decade. It was kind of funny how impossible it was just then to truly feel that he’d missed anything at all.
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THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
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