by Kristin Tenor
Our family will always remember the summer I turned fifteen as the drowning summer—first my cousin, Joey, then my brother, Danny. One accidental, one trying to be the hero. After the funeral, Nana and the aunties hover over the stove to fry kielbasas and sauerkraut, their tatted handkerchiefs tucked into the waistbands of their dark skirts. The men gather around the heavy wooden table to play Sheepshead and pass around a bottle of Jameson’s so, as Papa Frank says, they can appropriately toast their dead. Cousins steal cookies and lemon bars dusted with confectioner’s sugar from the doily-lined tray on the sideboard before escaping to the backyard to swap snippets of overheard gossip collected behind thin-papered walls and heating vents. It’s as though they all expect Joey and Danny to burst through the screen door at any moment, both of them laughing, grabbing over one another for food, sustenance. This is how they mourn.
I stand next to my mother dressed in my new black dress and the kitten heels that pinch my pinkie toes until they become raw blisters. Neighbors and guests crowd into the front hallway with roasters of German potato salad and steaming casseroles covered with aluminum foil. The women from St. John’s Ladies Auxiliary come bearing an array of pastel Jell-O salads, their tiers wobbling back and forth as they are passed from hand to hand. One woman with bright red lipstick pats my cheek as she presents my mother an oblong platter with a gelatinous lime-green fish at its center. The pears and mandarin oranges submerged within its translucent layers remind me of boys floating in the St. Croix River.
Mother, the ever-gracious host, pastes on a smile and thanks the ladies for “thinking of our family in our time of need,” although just last night I saw her slip out of the house in her nightgown to lie on the damp grass under the full moon, her arms and legs tucked tight against her chest like the baby sparrow I once found buried inside it’s brown-speckled shell even though part of it had already cracked and fallen away.
The aroma of burning cabbage and sickly-sweet pastries deep-fried in oil cause my stomach to flip over and over again. I excuse myself and hide behind the locked bathroom door. A slight breeze billows the sheer curtains covering the lower half of the window by the toilet. The fresh air still not enough to erase the heaviness clinging to every surface.
I take off my shoes and lie fully-clothed in the empty clawfoot tub. The porcelain cools my skin, the nape of my neck. Outside the window I hear my cousin, Greta, tell the others Danny was lucky he didn’t live to see the sorrow he’d caused Auntie Miriam and Uncle George, since he was the one who dared Joey to swim toward the rip current in the first place. My other cousin, Bethany, says she heard the boys were trying to impress a girl. Neither is true.
Laughter erupts from the kitchen. The card game becoming more raucous with each drink poured. I close my eyes and imagine what it must be like to have waves pound against flesh, the taste of seaweed and fish swish through your mouth as you gasp for air until the only thing left is the final echo of your pulse completing the circuit—ear, head, heart—and all goes so utterly black.
Joey, Danny, and I are on the beach. The boys run toward the water’s edge, pushing one another into the waves. They strip off their shirts and dive in, their heads bobbing up and down as they swim further and further out. I sit on a piece of forgotten driftwood, sifting through the smooth, round stones stacked at my feet. I balance one stone on top of the other building a tiny temple until it topples over and I start again. Seagulls dip and screech overhead. The sun is bright, blinding. I never hear them call my name.
Someone pounds on the bathroom door, jostling the handle. “Anyone in here?”
I stand in front of the mirror. I put on a fresh coat of lip gloss, straighten my dress, my hair. An accordion begins to play. Nana announces the cake has been cut. Heavy hands slap cards against the wooden table. More sausages hit the frying pan and my feet are stuck in sand.
Kristin Tenor lives in Wisconsin with her husband and is the flash fiction editor at CRAFT. Her work has appeared in Midwest Review, Spelk, Bending Genres, Emerge Literary Journal, and elsewhere. Emerge Literary Journal nominated Kristin’s flash fiction piece, “Pruning Season,” for Best of the Net 2020. More at www.kristintenor.com or Twitter @KristinTenor.