Holding Down the Fort

Dave sat on her towel, and Jessica sat on Nicole’s. They gazed at the stream and not each other. It was the bicentennial year, 1976, and Dave wore a red, white, and blue terrycloth headband. When he asked if she could make a stone skip seven times, Jessica reminded herself to say eighteen if he asked her age. She would be eighteen in November, close enough.

Dave’s voice was pitched very low; in a choir, he would sing bass. Every so often he glanced up at the sky. She sneaked glances at his bare, deeply suntanned abdomen. He was in his twenties, maybe even late twenties, and not just older but bigger than the guys at school. A dog tag and cross pendant lay on his chest. She noticed his chipped and blackened fingernails, the grease stains on his pants. Could he be an auto mechanic? She pictured coveralls with “Dave” in red stitching. He had long hair, but his vibe was more redneck than hippy. He was from the valley, she guessed. Or the foothills. Somewhere rural. She liked his outdoorsy, un-showered smell. She kept looking at his arms, especially the forearms. What did people do with arms like that? When her foot accidentally brushed against his, Dave responded with a slight but sustained pressure. Flesh on flesh.

What a feeling. She closed her eyes. She opened her eyes and stared at the willows on the opposite bank. The long leaves went on peacefully fluttering in the breeze. A Steller’s jay flew down from a tree and she watched it hop around on the beach. The sunlit water sparkled, the glare becoming more intense as the shadowed area of the swimming hole increased in size. The jeweled light on the water was doing some kind of crazy leaping dance. And now shadows consumed the beach. Jessica fingered the strings of her bikini, still damp from swimming. She missed the sun’s warmth. Her throat was dry. She raked her fingers through the sand.

“Think they went back without us? To your camp?” Dave asked.

It took Jessica a moment to realize he meant Nicole and Monty. Of course, Nicole. The friend she’d known since grade school. Jumped into piles of leaves with, dropped out of Girl Scouts with; Nicole who was loyal and sat beside her at lunch when other girls turned mean, her best friend, Nicole. And Monty.

“Yeah, they must have gone back,” said Jessica.

Dave pointed to rings on the water’s surface. “The fish are rising. Looks like catchin’ time.”

“What do you use for bait?” Jessica asked with pretend-innocence.

“Fishing mostly takes patience.”

“I’m patient.” Scooping sand onto her thigh. “I’d like to catch a trout.”

“Right on.”

A smile in his voice. Maybe they would kiss. She felt like laughing.

“So, you ready?” It still sounded as if Dave were smiling, but now he was on his feet, reaching his big hand down to her.

Jessica and Nicole had been swimming in the river when Dave and his friend first showed up earlier that afternoon. Wearing jeans and unbuttoned collared shirts, posing on the bank like beautiful domesticated animals, they whistled at the girls. One of the guys cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled over the noise of rushing water, “Would we be crowding you if …”

A strange sight overhead cut his speech short. Flying so low that the canyon walls were visible above their wings, three airplanes came and went as silently as a needle through cloth. The boom followed. Jessica and Nicole screamed. They swam for shore. Shouting, they stumbled through shallow water onto the beach.

“Far out! Huge! Wow!” they shouted.

“F-4 Phantoms,” said the man who would turn out to be Dave.

“Heading down canyon at about five-hundred miles an hour,” said the other man, introducing himself as Monty.

Not teenagers, thought Jessica.

It didn’t take long to pair up. Monty and Nicole said they were going for a walk. After they left, Jessica took the towels from the fern-shaded rocks where she and Nicole had eaten lunch and spread them on the beach. Dave joked about “holding down the fort.” His eyes periodically scanned the sky as if he thought the planes were bound to return.

~

Darkness filled the woods; above the treetops, stars gleamed in an indigo sky. Thanks to Monty, who’d pumped up the Coleman stove in a manner that seemed calculated to show off his strength, they’d had a hot dinner, which was nice, but Jessica wished Nicole hadn’t talked and laughed quite so much about their failure to get the stove to light the night before. And now friends had arrived for a campfire: Watermelon Man, the other man, and the thin girl. They came from the cottages up by the bridge, where a guy was killed the previous summer.

“Some gangsters pumped him full of bullets,” said Watermelon Man. He put the big, green-and-white-striped fruit on the picnic table and chopped it in half. He cut thick, vodka-spiked slices. The thin girl handed them around.

Jessica, already drunk on beer, wanted to know if people could taste the vodka in the melon. “I can’t,” she announced. Everybody spit seeds into the fire. Then Nicole and Monty staggered toward the tent. Jessica sat close to Dave on a log. She closed her eyes and listened to the sound of Dave’s deep voice. She liked him, but when she opened her eyes and saw the hair on the back of his wrist, she felt queasy. Nervous flutters, she thought, and blamed herself for sabotaging her own fun.

Watermelon Man asked, “Hey, do ducks … do they ever … poop on your head?”

The thin girl held the joint Dave had just passed to her, not attempting to take a drag off it for almost a minute, while her shoulders shook with silent laughter. Explosive laughter. And then, a nudge? A whisper? Somehow, Jessica and Dave were walking away from the fire, the hilarity receding behind their backs. They went slowly past the picnic table, the first trees. Taking her hand, he said he’d like to give her a back massage. So it was real, the pressure of his foot against hers when they were by the river. Real for him too.

When he dropped her hand and moved away from her she didn’t understand why until she heard the splash of his urine. She smelled campfire smoke along with the resinous scent of pine needles. Was that the wind or the river she heard? She moved closer to a tree. She held onto the trunk. She wondered if Dave could hear the difference between the sound of wind in the pines and that of the river. Watermelon Man said Dave flew F-4s back in ‘Nam, a story Jessica tended to believe because of the way Dave had quickly changed the subject to hunting. She had never before met anyone even remotely like Dave. She was okay with him being different from her. She liked the difference. And now they were walking hand in hand to the tent.

“Your tent is the size of a small house,” Dave said.

Yesterday evening, before trying to light the stove, Jessica and Nicole had pitched the tent. The variously sized aluminum tent poles fit into canvas sheaths. As they got some of the poles into sheaths, an orange canvas wall and roof began to tilt skyward. But these signs of shelter soon collapsed in a formless mass. At first it was funny. They threw themselves onto the pillowy piled-up fabric and rolled around, laughing, making trapped air go whoosh. Then not so funny.

“It’s incredibly hard to set up,” Jessica told Dave.

He laughed and unzipped the insect mesh from the doorway. “Coming in.”

“Cowabunga,” said Monty.

Nicole and Monty laughed. Darkness kept Jessica from seeing anything. She groped her way forward, staying on her side of the tent, tripped and landed on her flannel-lined sleeping bag. She rolled onto her back. If what she smelled now was the smell of sex, then Nicole had gone through with it. Which was kind of amazing. Maybe they were doing it right now. Jessica stared wide-eyed into darkness.

When Dave asked her to turn over so he could massage her back, she sat up, pulled her sweatshirt over her head, and lay down again. It felt good to have her legs nestled inside the sleeping bag. But the bag’s zipper was icy cold, and she’d scratched her thigh on tree bark earlier that day. The scratch hurt. Dave put his knees on either side of her butt. Her heart pounded. From the other side of the tent—just three or four feet away—came sounds made by moving bodies, more movement than she’d imagined was involved in the act.

“Do you mind if I unhook this?” Dave asked, pulling gently on the strap of her bikini top.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead.”

She was pretty sure he hadn’t taken off any of his clothes. His calloused palms glided up her back.

“That feels good,” she whispered.

“I asked Monty to bring my massage oil when he went back to the cottage for the can opener,” Dave whispered back.

After a while she forgot about Nicole and Monty. Bird-like, she took flight. Nothing but Dave’s thumbs now, fingers softly trailing. When she felt him move off her, she moved her hand onto his thigh. He was covering her shoulders with the unzipped sleeping bag when she wiggled a finger through a hole in his jeans and touched skin. Two fingers. Soft, dry, hairy, skin.

“Baby,” he said, sighing. “When you think of your sweet little pussy, what do you think of?”

The word was scarier than if he’d touched her there.

From outside the tent a voice called, “Nighty-night, boys and girls.” Then hoots of laughter and car doors slamming.

She saw Dave in outline, a large dark shape. “I think of the dark,” she said. “Like being in a club where it’s dark and people are dancing.” She moved her hand closer to his groin.

He twined his fingers through hers. “There’s a story I want you to hear. I could tell you where I first heard it, but let’s just say a good buddy of mine used to tell Bible stories to pass the time.”

“In Vietnam?” she whispered.

Silence like a stuck zipper.

“There’s a woman,” Dave said, “who sneaks into a house where Jesus is having dinner. She brings with her an alabaster jar of ointment. In the story, she breaks open the jar and pours the ointment over Jesus’ head. And Jesus thanks her and tells the whiners—see, the people around him are saying she should have spent the money on the poor—that the woman did the right thing. He tells them the ointment is for his burial. That she’d lovingly anointed his body for burial.”

Jessica lay there asking herself where she’d made her mistake, where things had gone off the rails.

“Jessica, you’re just a kid now …”

He went on talking about what pouring ointment out of a jar meant to him and what it could mean to her someday, but she had stopped listening. His dismissal of her as “just a kid” was the only true thing. Under her closed lids she saw the river, the swiftly flowing water scalloped light and dark.

When Dave finally left, saying he was going to wait in the truck for Monty, she found solace in fantasy. She was a horse galloping through the tunnel-like streets of an underground city, with a tyrannical rider on her back. Lanterns placed at regular intervals shone down from earthen walls. Her hooves pounded the floor. She felt the pressure of the reins against her neck and the bit in her mouth.

She fell asleep, and when she awoke the moon had risen.

 

by Karen Laws

 

Karen Laws.jpg

Stories by Karen Laws have appeared in Gravel, The Cimarron Review, The Antioch Review, The Georgia Review, Confrontation, and Zyzzyva. Karen lives in Berkeley. Her novel-in-progress is about a young woman on the run from love.

 

 

 

 

About the Artwork

The accompanying artwork is by contributor Stefan Hengst.

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