Joyland

The Midwest |

The Last Hot Day

by Hazel Foster

edited by Anna Prushinskaya

Spread out on the beach, Izzie presses her ear to the towel. She turns over fistfuls of sand, digging her fingers deeper into the soft granules. The sound is like elephants trumpeting beneath the earth. She's played this game since she was little. The first time she rubbed the sand with her ear to the ground, she asked her parents about the elephants below. Her father called her stupid. Her mother shrugged, said it was only her imagination. Back then, her mother still lived in Michigan, but now and for the past three months, she's lived in Tennessee, welding at a factory down there because the jobs have disappeared where they live. "It's this or starve," her mother said when arguing with Izzie's father about the move. They argued for weeks, the volume of their anger startling the swallows nesting in the trailer's gutter. They were still arguing when her mother drove away, leaving Izzie and her brother Benjamin with their father. Her mother said she would come back eventually, but she hasn't yet.

Thinking of this, Izzie begins pawing the sand like a dog burying a bone.

"Stop playing," Benjamin says. He is reading his comic book, curled like an old man, sitting in the plastic lawn chair he carried from home because he didn't want to "lie around all day." Unlike a beach chair, it does not fold. It's the same dingy plastic chair that clutters porches all over their trailer park. He carried it the six miles between their trailer and the public beach, the seat and legs bouncing against his hips and shins. Now, Izzie can see where the bruises will bloom. He has always bruised easily, unlike Izzie, who takes their father's punches invisibly.

Izzie stills her hands and turns away from her brother toward the water. Indian summer has extended beach season an extra weekend, and beachgoers frolic in the safe swim zone, some wading with their arms held out above the water, some diving and churning through the waves, others, just shy of waist-deep, carrying on conversations as if they do not stand in the great Lake Michigan with stolen sun browning their necks. Scanning the water, Izzie spots a group of boys from their high school. They play catch over the heads of other swimmers, throwing a football in tight, fast spins and falling back into the water to catch it.

"Let's go in," she says to Benjamin.

He surveys the crowd of campers and day-trippers, the children pitching into the waves, the old women in one-pieces exposing their tired veins and rippling skin. "Not yet," he says.

She's not sure if he's seen the boys playing catch, but she continues to watch them. In particular, she watches Jimmy Meltrigger, sophomore class president, as he scales one of the white posts marking the safe swim zone. Three feet above the lake's surface, he straddles the post and pops his fist into the air, and though the wind steals the sound from her, she can tell his friends are cheering.

"Dumb-ass punks," Benjamin says.

Izzie lifts her head to disagree, but he has already returned to his comic.

They will stay at the beach all day and part of the evening, until Benjamin has finished this issue of The X-Men. He will read the comic twice through, each time taking his right index finger and tracing every line on each page, memorizing Wolverine's lunging calves, Storm's whipping hair, each letter of text, each panel's lines and angles. He is not allowed to read comic books at home. If he does, their father snatches his comic, says, "Only retards read books with pictures." Benjamin hides his comics from their father, this one in the men's room at the snack shop, others wedged beneath a metal trashcan on the boardwalk, in a knotty tree behind the dunes, in the mailbox of a vacant rental cottage. On the way to the beach, he lags behind and sticks his hand into this mailbox, checking to see if the comic is still there.

The sun is cooking Izzie's back, so she rolls over. She's too skinny for her bathing suit, and the top shifts as she rolls, the point of her nipple straining against the suit's seamed edge. She's flat-chested, but she wonders if this type of exposure will attract Jimmy Meltrigger.

Down the beach, a plump mother follows her son as he runs a plastic truck up the small sand ridge that has formed at the high-water mark. The ridge collapses over the truck and the boy's legs, and he looks to his mother who frees him and the truck without utterance and stands back. Forgetting the truck, the boy rushes a clump of seagulls. They scatter, flashing their wings.

"I want to be that kind of mom," Izzie says. "I just want to let my kids be." She lets the exhalation of speech sink her chest just to feel the suit's seam grow slack over her nipple.

Benjamin looks over at the boy and his mother. The boy has isolated a seagull and chases it as if, should he only run fast enough, he will catch it. Again, Benjamin returns to his comic. "Shut up and fix your top."

Though they are both freshmen, moments like this illustrate the eleven months separating them in age. Despite Benjamin being older, and against the advice of the school, their mother started them in kindergarten the same year, saying they were basically twins. She wanted to keep them together, an impulse Izzie took as a gesture of protection, though Benjamin corrected her, said it was only because their mother wanted Izzie out of the house, so she could go back to work.

In Tennessee, their mother lives in a rented house with their aunt and three other female co-workers—a "bitch-fest" as their father calls it. On Tuesday nights, they go line dancing at the Howling Wolf Saloon, and afterwards, their mother, drunk and elated, calls home, and their father wakes them and puts her on speaker phone, even though it's usually after three a.m. when she calls.

"It's great down here," she said this past Tuesday. "There's no union, so I never get laid off."

Their father leaned against the kitchen counter, his height always impressive in their single-wide. "There's no union," he said, "so you make shit money."

"Like your unemployment check?" Her laugh whip-cracked, and Izzie's father pushed off from the counter as if Izzie's mother was in the room to take his fist. "Where's Izzie?" she said. "Where's my baby?"

"I'm here, Mom," Izzie said. She moved closer to Benjamin on the couch as their father paced the kitchen, scissor-swinging his arms.

"Meeting high school cuties?" her mother asked.

"I don't know."

"You're just being shy. That's always your problem. Just put your shoulders back and stick that little chest out." She made a trilling noise, a sound like a bird's morning call. In the kitchen, their father released a deep stomached growl and slammed his open palm down onto the counter.

Izzie jerked her arms to her sides. Benjamin remained still.

"Wayne," their mother shouted. "What are you doing?"

He slammed his hand down again, the sound like a car crash.

"Grow up," their mother said. "Just fucking grow up." Then the line went dead, leaving Izzie and Benjamin alone, once again, with their father.

Now, Izzie stands, rearranges her bathing suit top, and pulls her hair forward, over her shoulders, to hide her flat chest. "Let's go in the water now."

Benjamin doesn't respond.

She stares at him. "We need to go in. This might be the last warm day."

He keeps his eyes on his comic, running a finger over the page, and his mouth, so much like her own, turns down at the corners. On this sunny day, shadows catch on the slope of his cheeks, jaw, and brow, and she thinks how beautiful he must look to other girls. He wears a T-shirt with cut sleeves—long, looping holes baring his tanned ladder of ribs—and for bottoms, he wears his P.E. shorts. All summer, he had been using their father's swim trunks without permission, careful to put them away before their father got home from his new temp job at the chemical factory, the first job he had held in over a year, a job that could have turned into a real gig and brought their mother back. But one day, when they got home from the beach, they found their father home early, sitting in a kitchen chair he'd pulled in front of the television set, a six-pack picked clean at his feet. Later, they found out that he'd had an altercation with the foreman and been let go. When they walked in, oblivious to his truck parked out back, they paused in the square of linoleum by the door, paused long enough for their father to snap his head in their direction and notice the swim trunks cinched around Benjamin's waist. He ordered Benjamin to remove the trunks and throw them in the trash, right there, right then. Turning away from her brother's nakedness, Izzie went outside where the thuds sounded like someone rocking in a rocking chair. She waited until sunset and silence before going back in. Benjamin had locked himself in the bathroom. Their father watched a baseball game.

Now, she walks away without Benjamin, toward the lake, winding between groups of people relaxing in circles of towels and blankets, umbrellas and camp chairs. It's not as crowded as it was on the Fourth of July, when Benjamin laid a towel on top of one of the highest dunes and would not even go out to the pier with her. Without him, she walked to the end of the pier, jumped off, then climbed up the ladder and walked home. Later, Benjamin came home with twin ticks embedded in his ankle, and Izzie dug them out with tweezers and a hot needle.

At the water's edge, she pauses. Lake Michigan is cool even on this nearly-ninety degree day, even after a summer of tar-melting heat, and as she ventures in past her knees, past her hips, her skin tightens. The boys from school are still playing catch, and she keeps them in her line of sight. She feels an itch in her ear that must be Benjamin watching her. She does not turn around. Instead, thinking of her mother's comment about meeting high school guys, she swims between the widely spread boys, and though other swimmers are unintentionally caught in the boy's playing area, Izzie positions herself in the middle, ready should a pass fall short. She imagines catching the ball and sailing it back to Jimmy Meltrigger. Of the bunch, he throws truest, something her father would value.

When they were younger, their father tried to teach Benjamin how to play football. As children, they never had many toys. They played with bottle caps or rocks or living things like fishflies or crickets or, one time, two baby birds that had been pushed from their nest. One bird had been picked apart by other animals, but the second was alive, so she brought it to Benjamin. Though it was only a featherless newborn with black, mucus-covered eyes, she thought they might be able to save it. But Benjamin wrapped it in a towel and buried it. "You touched it. Its mother won't take it back now."

"But it's still alive," she said.

"She won't take it back."

So when their father brought home a new football, Izzie knew something special was happening. Their mother just rolled her eyes. "What are you thinking?" she said.

He took Benjamin outside, but Benjamin couldn't catch, and he couldn't throw, and he couldn't hike the ball, or run it, or kick it, and he couldn't push their father back, couldn't hold the line, not even when their father pushed back, pushed harder, knocked him down. Their mother went inside to watch game shows, but Izzie watched from the steps of the trailer, plucking at dandelion heads, listening to the dings and bings of her mother's show, the sound of the audience like a storm on the lake.

Now, Izzie drags her arms in slow arcs through the water. Because of the boys, she tries to keep her movements in the realm of alluring, but the boys are busy diving and laughing and grinning like chimps. They call each other bitch and fag, and the other swimmers migrate away.

After a while, Jimmy Meltrigger shouts to one of his friends and inclines his head toward Izzie. She tries to look unaffected, floating on her back, staring at the blazing blue sky. The current and waves push her toward Jimmy, and the closer she gets, the deeper she breathes.

She drifts like this for some time. For too long, she realizes. She kicks, stands up. She senses a loneliness and sees that the boys are returning to shore. None look back at her. This is not something she will tell her mother on the phone.

Eyes closed, she sinks back into the lake and lets it take her. Eventually, the waves nudge her into the shoreline, near two children dipping pails in the surf, collecting water for their sandcastle's moat. They pretend not to notice her, and she feels even more pathetic. They carry the first load of water back to the moat and pour it in. The definition of the moat dissolves, and the castle walls slump, and the water sucks back into the ground, but the children shriek with delight and hurry back to the lake for more water.

Izzie gets on hands and knees and drags herself upright. She's drifted many yards down the beach and walks back along the shore to where Benjamin still sits. She spots the boys farther down the beach, drinking sports drinks, poking at girls who are facedown with their bikini tops unhooked—girls from her high school.

She knows Benjamin is watching her watch them. She spreads out on her towel, buries her face, and digs her hands through the sand to hear the elephants trumpet.

"Grow up," Benjamin says.

*

The sun begins its dip into the lake, bringing a new influx of visitors. The day has been filled with families, but the evening brings adults, couples, and college students who sneak in alcohol.

Despite the incident with the boys earlier, Izzie has made her rounds. She's visited the snack shop and the souvenir shop, she's climbed the dunes and stumbled back down, she's walked to the pier and jumped off over and over, and she's lain on the cement hump at the pier's end, searching for the ghost-white fish that have invaded the waters. She's done all this with only the crowd for company. Benjamin has only left his chair to use the bathroom and to rinse his feet in the lake.

He closes his comic. "Time to go home," he says.

"I haven't walked the boardwalk yet."

"You've been there every day this summer."

"But this is the last day," she says.

"Fine," he says.

They wrap the comic in her towel and leave it on the chair. As they walk, the muscles above her shoulders release.

"This is my favorite thing," she says.

"I know."

With the tourists enjoying the sunset on the beach, the boardwalk is empty. Along the far shore, across the harbor that opens into adjacent Lake Macatawa, they can see the multi-million dollar cottages. They used to sneak up to the cottages at night and peek at families eating dinner, or watching television, or, one time, dancing to wild drum music with big, dumb smiles on their faces, the children hopping and wriggling, the parents swinging each other around in an oblong loop. After that night, Benjamin decided it was time to stop.

"I want that one," she says, pointing to a house.

"I know."

"No," she says. "Look, that one." She points again to a butter-cream cottage built into the dunes.

"What about the mansion?" he asks, referring to a three-story cottage with spires and towers, built at the highest point along the shore.

"I don't want that one anymore."

"Okay. I want the mansion then."

"What?" She looks at it.

"If you don't want it anymore, I do."

She snaps her head back. He's smiling. "Oh, shut up," she says, smiles too.

They walk past the end of the boardwalk, past the sand shore to cut-grass lawns, and continue onto the cement break wall that keeps cottages from eroding into the water. Soon, they pass the vacant cottage where Benjamin stores his comic in the mailbox. The windows are lit, raucous music beats through the windows, and teenagers sit against the house, tipping back cans of cheap beer.

They both pause, first Izzie, then Benjamin. She waits for Benjamin to mutter his disapproval, but he seems more interested than condemning. When one of the boys from the group zigzags toward them, Benjamin takes a step away from her.

"Do you know him?" she whispers, but Benjamin raises an arm, and the kid responds, "Hey, Ben-sauce."

Izzie recognizes the boy, Tyler, from her biology class. His hack-sawed hair, bleached and spiked, catches the last light. He glances at Izzie, dismisses her, turns to Benjamin. "Come party with us," he says.

Benjamin doesn't look at Izzie. She wants to say no, that this is the worst idea, but a girl wearing a bright bikini wanders out of the cottage into the yard, and Benjamin twists in the girl's direction. The girl stumbles around with her elbow at an exaggerated angle, pushing a beer to her face, giggling, bumping into a tree. Izzie doesn't know her name, but with her tan skin, pug nose, and lemon hair, she looks like someone who would play tennis.

Tyler has started talking about skateboarding, mimicking some trick, knocking into Izzie who moves away, but Benjamin ignores them both and watches the girl.

Someone by the cottage swings a six-pack out of a cooler and chucks a few beers at the girl and at them. Tyler laughs and gets down on his knees to fish one from the long grass. The girl, not noticing, goes back inside. Benjamin scoops up a beer and tosses it between his hands, staring at the door through which the girl has just disappeared.

"What are you doing?" Izzie says. "Dad will murder you."

But Benjamin doesn't even look at her as he starts off across the yard and follows the girl inside. Izzie has never known him to be so stupid.

She takes a step toward home, stops, then stares at the cottage and the group of teenagers, wishing she recognized anyone besides Tyler. Still wearing her bathing suit, she is more aware than ever of how the suit sags between her legs and around her chest.

Tyler lies down, pops the tab on his beer. Noticing her again, he flaps his hand as if to bring her closer, but she doesn't move, not even when he throws one of the orphaned beers her way, saying, "Take a chill." She nudges it aside with her foot.

How long should she wait? How long will it take Benjamin to realize his mistake, to realize he has left her?

When Tyler finishes his beer—half washed down his face in foaming streams—he rejoins the group by the cottage. He looks her way a few times and waves an arm, and then the rest of the kids look her way, too, but each time she feels like she has moved even farther away, and that the idea of joining them is even more impossible.

She sits down on the break wall and hugs her knees and watches a party on the opposite shore of Lake Macatawa, perhaps a celebration of summer's farewell. In the sky, a few green and gold fireworks boom and flower, illegal and brief.

With the onset of darkness, mosquitoes arrive, and the group of teenagers wanders inside. Once she is alone, Izzie goes to the cottage and stands on her tip-toes to peer through a window. Inside, the cottage is messy with drunk teenagers and unmatched wicker furniture. Someone has gotten into a crate of beach toys, and the room is punctuated by plastic shovels, buckets, and foam noodles. Tyler wears orange floaties on his wrists, and a heavy brunette girl holds an inflatable, crab-shaped inner tube around her waist.

On a crooked wicker couch, Benjamin sits beside the girl in the bikini. The girl rests her head on the cushion, her hair partway over her face, partway over Benjamin's arm. She's grinning through half-lidded eyes, and Izzie returns to the break wall to wait.

*

Earlier in the summer, they threw a going away party for her aunt and her mother. Her mother wore a dress she'd found at the Goodwill, a red and black strapless number bleached out at the armpits. She'd borrowed heels from Izzie's aunt and applied makeup over the kitchen sink, but she didn't offer to blush Izzie's cheeks as she normally did.

Izzie's father set up a keg on their picnic table along with plastic cups and bowls of chips and pretzels, and Izzie and Benjamin hung streamers and balloons from a tree and the table. By the end of the night, the food was on the ground, the keg was empty, the balloons had lost their air, and the few remaining adults had gone inside, leaving Benjamin and Izzie lying on the picnic table, watching the cropped moon.

At one point, Izzie stood on the table to look inside. The adults were taking shots from the little paper cups they kept next to their toothbrushes for rinsing. Their parents, standing on the couch, slow-danced, while Izzie's aunt sat on the floor, waving her empty cup. For a moment, Izzie considered that her parents were acting out some kind of tragic fairy tale, dancing on their last night together, but when she shared this with Benjamin, he ripped a streamer down and told her to shut up.

In the morning, her father raged about the mess: booze stains on the carpet and furniture, throw-up on a pile of dishes in the sink. Her mother lay on the living room floor, hung over and laughing at his disgust. He knocked over a kitchen chair in response and then horse-kicked over it and went for Izzie's mother, but she was already running outside, where Izzie's aunt was packing the car. Izzie's mother got in, and they drove away. She left for Tennessee without her shoes, without food or maps, without even looking at Izzie and Benjamin, who had been loading trash into a bag.

*

Each time Izzie returns to the cottage window, the party is more disordered. The wicker furniture shifts, the beach toys transfer from person to person, the clutter of empty beer bottles on the tables and ledges grows. The girl in the bikini vanishes, maybe gone home, maybe passed out, and Benjamin disappears and reappears, drinking a different kind of beer each time, pondering his steps like a toddler.

When the cops arrive, Izzie is on the break wall again, stretching her toes down to the lake's water. Several hours have passed since Benjamin entered the cottage, and he startles her with his sudden re-appearance at her side.

Plastered teenagers bolt from the cottage. One jumps in the water and swims beneath a dock. Another tries to climb a tree but can't grip the bark without shoes. Most just sprint down the shoreline. Inside, someone has shut off the lights to aid the mass escape, and the cops are shouting and waving flashlights.

Benjamin drops down and leans against Izzie's back, smelling like a garbage pit of alcohol. As if she will be able to pull him along, he hooks his arm in hers and tells her to run.

"Get off me," Izzie says. She stands and shoves Benjamin into the grass, where he slumps and then pops half up again, head pivoting like a weather vane. She kicks him. She kicks him in his side, in the leg; she kicks him until her neck feels stretched. Benjamin crumples onto his side, one arm shielding his head, one eye watching her.

A cop comes out of the cottage, the beam of his flashlight like a knife across the lawn. He grabs the kid who has tried and failed to climb a dozen trees and then points his flashlight at Izzie and Benjamin. He says, "Stay where you are." But Izzie hoists Benjamin under his arms, and his legs spring up beneath him, and they run. They run through yards and then parking lots, past the all-night diner and laundromat, past the cheesy souvenir shops lit by security lights, past the dance hall, where two men outside with their smokes heckle them with "Run, boy." They run past an empty football field ticking and hissing with night-run sprinklers. They run over railroad tracks, past the ice cream shop, onto a back street with roached-out shacks and trucks parked in the ditch, a street that will eventually lead back home. Above, the trees slap branches in the breeze, and ahead, Benjamin wheels his legs, working his way across the pavement. She stops. She's running from the police toward her father, and halfway seems like the best place to be.

*

The month Izzie's mother comes back, Lake Michigan's shoreline is a wintry mountain. Visitors climb the two-story spine of ice and snow and balance at the top, posing for photographs. They lean over the side and marvel at the still-lapping waters below. On the beach, the ice has formed in orbs that children try to pry from the ground. They hug their arms around the slippery spheres and yank.

A few days ago, Izzie witnessed a man carried out on a stretcher after he tried to navigate the frozen pier and fell onto the rocks below, a common enough occurrence to warrant signs about entering the pier at your own risk. When the stretcher passed her on the beach, she stared down at the sand particles suspended in the layers of ice beneath her. As in the summer sand, footprints in the snow beach are only temporary, and the ones behind her had filled back in with the constant but sparsely flaked flurries.

Today, they are throwing another party for Izzie's mother. Due to massive downsizing, she has lost her job in Tennessee. She is returning home, though Izzie's aunt has moved farther south, to Mississippi. She is returning home, though Izzie's father has lost another temp job, and the want-ads are just as thin as before.

The party is indoors this time, and they cover the living room floor in balloons. Izzie blows them up, and Benjamin and his girlfriend bat them around for a while and then go outside. They've been dating for a month now.

Izzie's father goes out for cans of beer and boxed wine and returns with the alcohol plus more decorations: a cardboard palm tree and an inflatable flamingo. He says the palm tree and flamingo will make it seem warmer. Izzie agrees.

Her mother arrives three hours early, before they have finished cleaning, and Izzie's father says she should've called, but she doesn't listen. Whooping, she walks through the living room, kicking balloons into the air, knocking loose the flamingo which Izzie had taped to the wall. Her mother doesn't greet her, just kicks and whoops.

Putting on her coat, Izzie goes outside to find Benjamin. Her breath slides away from her in white vapor as she walks around the trailer. She finds two imprints in the snow on top of the picnic table and light tracks leading there and away.

For months, the picnic table has been buried with snow. The last time she sat on it was the night of that summer party.

That night, when she and Benjamin reached the trailer, after their long run then silent walk, they could see the television light fluttering on the interior walls. Instead of going in right away, they sat on the picnic table. Benjamin's hair was blackened with sweat from running so far. He puffed his cheeks, held a fist to his stomach, and vomited into the grass. Next door, the neighbor's mutt lifted its head, and inside, the telephone rang. At that hour, it must have been their mother. They listened to their father answer the phone, his husky voice a shallow rumble, and Izzie imagined her mother's drunken sprawl on the other end. She speculated that their parents' were still awake out of concern for their missing children, and Benjamin responded by dropping his head between his knees and pressing his knees against his ears.

After a sufficient stretch of silence, she looked in through the living room window, and saw her father's body loose in sleep on the couch. She helped Benjamin to his room. She avoided turning on any lights, and because of the darkness and the alcohol, Benjamin missed his bed and thumped onto the floor. He didn't correct the mistake, but instead tugged his comforter down from the bed and covered himself.

When she reached her own room, Izzie lay on top of the covers and did not sleep. The open window brought in the dense summer air and the scent of warmed earth, and when she rubbed her heels against the bed, hoping to hear the elephants, she heard only the night bugs in the trees and the grass, their drone an urgent, crashing wave.

Now, she sits in the snowy imprint that looks to be Benjamin's shape and pulls her arms from their sleeves into the interior of her coat, where she wraps them into the bottom of her sweater. The snow melts beneath her. Above, the wind kicks up and tricks the trees into murmuring, and the sun shines behind the picked apart clouds. Summer will return, but now, in this winter wonderland, all she can do is wait.